Viewport: Fast Company
From the desk of the Director of the National Air & Space Museum
- By J. R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the February/March 2009 issue of Air & Space.
A friend recently asked how we RF-4 reconnaissance pilots defended ourselves during bomb damage assessment flights in Vietnam. Because of how those missions were scheduled, our arrival over the target was as predictable as the sunrise. I gave my friend a one-word answer: Speed. Recce crews flew alone, unarmed, and unafraid (well, two out of three ain’t bad), so those of us who flew versions of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom were plenty glad that we had a maximum speed of over 1,400 mph to draw on (see “Where Have All the Phantoms Gone?” Dec. 2008/Jan. 2009).
I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on those missions whenever I’ve walked through the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. We have eight Vietnam-era military aircraft on display there, including those featured in the magazine’s new series, “Legends of Vietnam.” Vietnam was the first supersonic war, and several of the articles in the series focus on a new generation of jets that changed the nature of air combat. This issue’s installment, on the Republic F-105 Thunderchief (p. 60), shows that speed was the savior of countless Thud crews. It was also, I’ll admit, one of the reasons a lot of us wanted to fly jets.
I got to fly the RF-4 on the first of two tours in Vietnam. Before I went overseas, I flew the Chance-Vought F-8U Crusader, an airplane I had wanted to fly since the first time I saw it. I was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California. We didn’t have a simulator for the F-8, so to get the feel of the airplane, you did an intentional aborted takeoff as your first hop. You lined up on the runway, stroked the afterburner, and at 60 knots came out of burner and tried to stop before the end of the runway. That could have been the most dangerous hop I ever made in the aircraft.
The F-8U was the first carrier-based jet fighter capable of exceeding 1,000 mph. Every F-8 pilot wanted to earn a thousand-mile-an-hour pin (awarded by the manufacturer), a feat that was not a given. In the F-4, you can get your Mach 2 pin just by sitting there and adding power. In the F-8, you had to work it, particularly in the older ones. The thing I really liked about the airplane was that there was nothing dainty about it. It was a rugged machine. Even the way you locked the canopy: You pulled a great big lever. There were no micro-mini switches in that baby.
At the Udvar-Hazy Center, all three aircraft—the F-4, F-105, and F-8—are on display. For those of us who flew them, seeing them is an emotional experience; it brings back memories of service, youth, comradeship, and probably more than a few close calls. I’m sure if you’ve ever visited the Museum with a veteran, you know the airplanes can evoke dozens of stories. For visitors who don’t have a veteran handy, we have an award-winning team of docents who can also tell you stories, as well as the history and significance of the aircraft and a good deal about their personalities as well.