The key to accurately expressing what goes on in a fighter squadron is to somehow figure out how there can be so much professionalism and so much trust amongst men with such varied backgrounds. The one thing that linked us all (and still does) is our love of flying and love of country. Jeanie and I went to a reunion of the 68th TFS, 8TFW and all of the guys who were there still speak of our Vietnam days as if they were only a few years back, not nearly five decades.
Discipline is the thing that makes it all work. There is a defined “peck-order” i.e. rank, that is not questioned without serious repercussions. You had better be right. Fighter pilots are trained from the beginning to realize that if something goes terribly wrong, it is on their shoulders, and theirs alone. Make it right, or perish. It sounds dramatic, I know, but it is a valid concept. There is no one to help you when you are flying and something doesn’t work correctly. So you need to know the aircraft and its systems inside and out because is the air, you are the maintenance man and crew chief combined. The systems need to be second nature as does the emergency check list. In the 60’s, the technologies involved in the F4 were pretty straight forward but not as sophisticated as modern jets, where one pretty much actuates the switch next to that feared red light when it comes on (at least in the newer Boeing products I flew). Today, many of the systems are highly automated. We had wonderful equipment, but there was still some skill involved in managing emergencies in the air. The 727, too. Thinking three-phase AC here.
A typical mission was based upon everyone’s standardization. That is to say, everyone pretty much understands and knows what’s going on and each pilot is capable of leading a multiple ship mission. This allows briefing to be somewhat standard, and as guys fly together over long periods of time through many sorties, the briefings get shorted and shorter, in fact we used to say, “everything is standard, start engines at 0845, any questions?” And that was it.
Of course there had to be individualized “mission briefings”. These consisted of weather in detail, target, and forecast recovery conditions were always covered. But the thing about combat (as opposed to flying for Delta Airlines) was that you were going to go anyway, regardless of the weather on either end or in the middle. I must admit though, if the takeoff weather was too bad, there would be a delay period or some effort would be made to suggest ways of getting out of there and getting joined up once you got on top. I can’t remember whether we took off in formation (two at a time) or not. I think that if we were loaded down with bombs for peace, we took off singly with about six second delay, not really sure of the time, joining up in a wide turn over the base, always heading north (oh, please make it a right turn). The reason for the single-ship take off is obvious. If one had to abort, and jettison the bombs and hardware, you didn’t want your wing man to have to transition to flying whilst maneuvering through ordinance, MERs, TERs, smoke and ground level flack all over the place. I didn’t see that much, but once an F105, fully loaded, had to abort and it was really messy.
If we were to go on an escort mission (Hi-Cap) where the ordinance was air-to-air only, no bombs and such, we took off in pairs with about ten second spacing between numbers one and two, and three and four. The weather wasn’t as much of a factor if you were slated for an escort mission. Numbers three and four could track you on the radar and join up on top.
We were very used to flying in horrific weather in two ship formations. One of the fondest memories I have (well not fondest maybe, but really memorable) is landing on the wing of my leader in foggy conditions and being a little surprised when we touched down, not having seen anything but his aircraft for the past thirty minutes or so because of the night weather conditions. This experience also demonstrates the trust we had in each other’s ability to maneuver the aircraft in a standard, safe manner. Standardization, again, and trust, that’s it. There were no surprises when it came to the everyday operation of the aircraft. I think I’m rambling, excuse me.