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Blue Four

Copyright © 1970 Dick Jonas. All rights reserved.
Words and music: Dick Jonas; Enchantment Music/BMI

Sad, heroic, and true a thousand times over. Blue Four is an American tradition as real as the flag. In a flight of four fighters-Blue Flight-he is the youngest, least experienced, low man on the totem pole, fourth in command. For all these reasons, in battle he is the most exposed, his position the most precarious, his life expectancy shortest of the four. I love him. He is my brother. When he went down, I wept unashamedly. The years can never heal the hurt nor dry the eye of any fighter pilot who returned home without his wingman. BLUE FOUR

The saddest thing in all the world: Keeping a lonely vigil until 4 A. M. for a guy you know in your heart is lying in little pieces in the smoking wreckage of a multi-million dollar pile of aerospace junk.

Not able to believe that he is gone, that you will never again hit a beer-soaked table together, belly first with your arms locked around each other's shoulders, doing inane formation carrier landings.

No more shooter contests in the stag bar until the tequila supply is completely gone.

No more chasing his tailpipes upside down, dragging vertical stabilizers through the whipped cream tops of 10,000-foot cumulus clouds on a bright, sunny South Georgia afternoon.

I just can't believe it. I was completely convinced we were going to live and fly jet fighters forever. It never occurred to me that it could end, especially in this way.

Must be a war on.

But it doesn't always happen in war. Sometimes it happens in the security of Uncle Sam's backyard. In a national forest. On BLM land. In some farmer's corn field. In a supermarket parking lot. At the wave tops of coastal waters.

It is springtime in southern California. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and there is just enough nip still in the air to warrant the light-weight flight jacket outside.

It's a flight of four F-4Ds on a syllabus training mission to Leach Lake Tactical Gunnery Range a few miles north of Barstow. In the lead is a highly experienced jet fighter instructor pilot, only a few months back from the war in Southeast Asia. I am in the pit of the number four ship, learning how to fly the backseat of the Phantom. Number three is deputy lead, also a combat- seasoned veteran upgrading to instructor. The number two AC is newly returned from the war, as well. He is an ex-GIB learning to command the Phantom. He is a MiG killer. His backseater is a new-bean, brown bar P-WSO (Pee Wizzo-pilot weapon system officer) like me. For the crew in number two, today is the last day of the rest of their lives. But none of us know that yet.

No tactical flight is routine. But if there could be such a thing, this one today would be it. There is a pistol strapped to the belly of each Phantom. Six 750-pound, sand-filled practice bombs are mounted to the inboard wing stations, three on a side. We will fly a low-level, high-speed, tactical navigation route to the range and practice low-threat tactics, dropping one bomb at a time until each of us has made six passes. Then we will play cowboy with the Fun, shooting the piss out of anything that even remotely resembles a target on the dry lake bed.

Routine. Almost.

We are still learning about our airplane. It is complicated. With this weapons load, the center of gravity and the center of aerodynamic pressure are dangerously close together. The guys in the front seat whose job it is to maneuver the airplane must handle the control stick very, very carefully. Too much back pressure applied too quickly will cause the son-of-a-bitch to swap ends. From there, it can gyrate into a JC (JESUS CHRIST...!!!) maneuver which will scare the living shit out of you at best, and will kill you at worst.

Leader has selected a switchback on a road in a mountain pass along the low-level route for a dry bombing run by each aircraft. We will simulate discovery of a target of opportunity which must be struck immediately. Briefing, takeoff, and departure go according to plan. Three and four fall into a staggered trail formation on the lead element to provide lookout and be in position to cover should the need arise.

Skimming the mesquite tops at eight miles a minute is absolutely exhilarating. The desert blazes with color; the mountains dominate the horizon beneath the morning sun.

Lead calls the enroute target in sight, pops up over a ridgeline and makes a smooth, uneventful pass.

There is cool morning moisture in the desert atmosphere, and vapor trails his wingtips on pull- out as the g-forces squeeze the wet from the air.

In the rear element, we have climbed rapidly to 7,000 feet above target altitude so we can visually acquire the road and cover lead and two's passes. My aircraft is in a right bank as the AC maneuvers to gain position on the element leader. I look over the canopy rail at the switchback below.

There is a long, ugly streak of flame and heavy black smoke strung out along the road. Two has made a switch error; he has actually dropped his napalm on the road. There will be hell to pay for this screw-up. As quickly, I remember that the flight is not carrying napalm. My AC sees it, too. He used to be a Phantom GIB. He is not so green as I.

"The fucker crashed!!" There is horror and exasperation in his voice.

As full realization settles upon my sluggish brain, I become nauseated and nearly puke. I have never before seen a plane crash. This is the very first time in all my life I have watched someone die.

The training mission is over. We are now doing RESCAP (Rescue Combat Air Patrol-slight misnomer in this instance, but we call it RESCAP, whether in or out of combat.) Less than half a dozen radio calls confirm no response from two, nobody has seen any 'chutes, and our worst fears are undeniably real. We have lost a wingman.

I still remember their names, first and last. The backseat pilot and I had gone to the Air Force Survival School together. Three days and two nights in the Priest River country of far northern Idaho up near the Canadian border. I can still see him, wearing a poncho in a cold drizzle, standing under a tree out on the survival training trek. In November. Cold as a well-digger's ass, it was. His trek partner had lost his gloves. He was tall and soft-spoken, and carried himself with an air of quiet dignity-a bit out of character for a fighter pilot. But at that time, he and I still had no clue about the fighter pilot macho mentality. Hell, we didn't even know how to swagger. Circling the wreckage a mile and a half above, I simply cannot assimilate that this vibrant, intelligent young man is no more.

The AC's father was an airline captain. He came out to California immediately, of course. He asked for and obtained permission from the military authorities to sit down and talk to the rest of us in the flight.

How could it have happened? The boy had flown in combat. He was a MiG Killer, a bona fide war hero. His heritage was aviation. The Air Force considered him skilled enough to move from the position of P-WSO to Aircraft Commander. How could it all have come to such a sudden and tragic end?

There was and is no pat, single answer. We all got a little smarter, at the expense of these two young lives, about how CG affects the F-4's maneuver characteristics. And we also added another chapter to our visceral suspicions that there is a world of difference between flying the front seat and flying the back seat of McDonnell's Phantom.

That night when I tucked in my little girls, I made an effort to explain to them that there were some other children nearby who had lost their father today. I suggested they might mention them in their bedtime prayers. I don't think I did a very good job of explaining. I'm not sure that I could do any better today.

Of course, we knew there was a difference between being a front seat pilot and a GIB. The GIB didn't live whose highest ambition in life from his first Phantom phlight was not to 'upgrade.' Our perception and use of that word meant one thing and one thing only until the day came when we made our first training flight sitting in the front cockpit.

The Air Force had patiently and carefully watched the Navy experience with the Phantom. When it became abundantly clear that McDonnell Aircraft Corporation had built a machine that was at once both a workhorse and a work of art-a supersonic one, at that-the boys in blue went out and began spending trainloads of money buying Phantoms.

For three reasons, I think, USAF decided to man the aircraft with two pilots. First, it was a complex, state of the art, high tech, combat flying machine. It would be prudent to equip it with a second pilot and another set of flight controls. Second, Vietnam had crept up over the horizon. There would be a need, down the road, for a shit-pot full of well-trained combat jet fighter pilots. The back seat position would make a shrewd apprenticeship for young men destined for duty in the war-torn skies. Moreover, congressional grasp of the purse strings dictated justification for increased pilot production. Making the Air Force Phantom a twopilot airplane made a lot of sense.

It didn't stay that way forever. While I was still in the back seat on my tour of duty with the Wolfpack in Thailand, the first combat WSO's from the navigator ranks arrived on the scene.

There are a lot of nasty, racist jokes made by pilots about navigators. We call them 'funny wingers,' because the crest in the center of their aviator badge is different from ours.

Not to be outdone, they call us 'radiator wingers,' because the crest in the middle of our badge looks like the front end of a Rolls Royce.

Navigators had been flying in high performance jet interceptors such as the F-89 and the F-101 for years as radar intercept operators. But the tactical fighter community, as opposed to the interceptor community, had never flown navigators.

Don James and Rod Cox came to the Wolfpack in 1968 and changed all that. These two men were smart, professional and fearless. And they took zero shit from the radiator wingers. They taught us how to do things with the F-4 radar and weapon systems which made an already formidable air weapon even more devastating to the enemy. These two air pioneers blazed a trail traveled today by the bold young men-navigators-who fly the back seat of another McDonnell- built fighting plane, the F-15E Strike Eagle.

I, for one, was grateful. If the troops in the head shed were willing to put nays in the back seat of the F-4, that meant I could get out and move on up to the front seat that much sooner.

It started right away. The Wolfpack initiated an in-theater upgrade program for P-WSO's. A couple of our stronger GIBs began flying combat missions in the front seat with an IP in the back seat to teach, supervise, and help them stay out of trouble The upgrade missions were flown in the lower threat areas in bad guy country, which was smart. All of us, down to the last GIB, took a number and got in line. Me too.

But, I had another ambition to fulfill while I was in the Pacific. I had always had a dream of visiting Australia. During my tour in Thailand, the list of R & R (rest and relaxation) destinations was expanded to include Sydney. I got in line for that, too. and I'm at the O'Club having a drink. I look down the bar to see John Crews standing there quaffing a brew, shooting the shit with some toot or a group of jocks. Always in zoom bags, him and me and the jocks. Bursting into tears, I rush over and throw my arms around him, sobbing,

"Oh my God, John, I thought you were dead!"

Then the dream would be over.

It's been a long time now since I dreamed that dream but I will never forget John Crews and Dean St. Pierre.

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