6.) We’ve been told that the F-4 is a pretty straightforward jet but things could still go wrong. What was your toughest challenge when flying the jet?
I had previously flown the F-16 for the last 9 years of my active duty career, and had one non-flying job before I retired. I had never flown the F-4 in the military, and I was the first pilot hired with no previous F-4 experience. There were concerns about that and initially I didn’t understand why. After sitting through old PowerPoint academics, reading the old publications, and then flying my first sortie without any simulator practice, procedural or emergencies, I realized why! I never worked so hard in my life…from not starting the engines correctly to trying to fly without a Heads-Up Display or GPS. Oh…I also had to use rudder during high angle of attack maneuvering now, after not using the rudder in-flight for 9 years in the F-16. I did manage to depart the QF-4 a few times during early aggressive maneuvering, but stick forward (and plenty of altitude) always saved the day. I had my first Utility Hydraulic Failure, and approach end cable arrestment (first of my life), on my fifth flight. Luckily I was dual because I had problems finding and/or activating several of the emergency systems due to no simulator training. It took me several years, and a few hundred hours, to feel comfortable flying the Phantom and to experience enough emergencies to think I had more skill than luck!
8.) Do you think there is any chance that a USAF F-4 will ever return to the skies?
Nope…no way. Too expensive to operate and maintain, and not representative of today’s fighter envelopes (altitude, Gs, radar cross section, etc.). Plus the parts train is drying up at the boneyard. It overstayed its Drone job by a year or so, but more than made up for that by bringing smiles to thousands of faces over the past year.
8.) Now that you’ve flown your last F-4 flight, you plan to retire from flying. What’s next for you?
Actually, I am staying in the same office and taking over the Controller only job of our retiring 75 year old Vietnam Veteran F-4 pilot. My heart knows I can still fly Fighters, but my 56 year old brain, and 70 year old neck and back, have no desire to pull 9 Gs again in the centrifuge and F-16 requal training. Therefore, in an attempt to keep walking when I am really 70, and to keep my chiropractor and wife happy, I decided to take over the job as the Chief Controller of the QF-16. I will still get to hang out with Fighter Pilots, and fly Fighters…remotely from the ground! It’s always tough to admit you’re getting old…but high-G fighters are a young man’s game. I will start flying and instructing in gliders again at the local airport, and continue instructing motorcycle training.
9.) What advice do you have for people who are trying to start a career in aviation?
Do fantastic work in school, get involved in leadership (sports, flying, Jr ROTC, etc) and attend the USAF Academy! The education is superb, the free flying is fantastic, and the job waiting when you graduate is amazing. The best percentage of Pilot Training slots goes to USAFA. If you can’t or won’t do the Academy, then ROTC is your next best bet, followed by OTS. Don’t get me wrong…the Academy is tough, and it sucked a lot, but it’s a GREAT PLACE TO BE FROM! The fact that I got paid to be an immature Fighter Pilot for over 30 years, and almost 6000 hours, should be illegal! Thanks Dad…and tax payers!
(Photos in story shared by LtCol Jim Harkins unless otherwise noted.)