One Phantom was saved by its former pilot. On April 16, 1972, Dan Cherry, flying an F-4D, had scored a victory over a North Vietnamese Mig-21. Thirty-two years later, during a trip with friends to the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, Cherry encountered the aircraft he had flown that day. It was on display in the little town of Enon, outside Dayton.
“In spite of her flat tires, weeds growing up all around, bird droppings everywhere, and faded gray paint, she was beautiful,” he recalls. “Walking around her and answering my friend’s questions made me realize how much I loved her and how much I owed her for taking such good care of me. Suddenly all those things that seemed like negatives before paled in comparison to the strong bond I felt at that moment.” Cherry took on the task of relocating the aircraft to the Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where it was restored and is now displayed. Then he decided to learn about the pilot of the MiG he had shot down. (Cherry’s story about meeting his former enemy in Vietnam will appear in a future issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian.)
At Tyndall, the heat and humidity hit my face like a wet washcloth. The van driver took us from Death Row to the end of the runway, where F-4E tail number 73-1165 was positioned about 20 feet to the right of the runway centerline.
I asked if I could approach the aircraft. My unit escort, Major Kevin Brackin, obtained permission. I got out of the van and walked across the concrete. When I reached the aircraft, I placed my hand on the radome. Because of the cloud cover, the nose was warm to the touch, not the usual egg-frying hot. The Phantom felt alive.
I felt a wave of dread. Within minutes this magnificent machine might be in pieces at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
A photo was taken, and I headed back to the van to listen to the radio chatter.
Lee says it cost the Air Force $2.6 million to get the aircraft from the boneyard in Tucson to the runway at Tyndall. Is it worth it? “The F-4E has the built-in ability to launch flares and chaff and can carry an assortment of jamming pods, all of which put our latest weapon systems through their most rigorous tests,” says Lee. Had we taken the time to test our missiles properly in the early 1960s, the Vietnam air war might have turned out like the one over Baghdad: a clean sweep.
We positioned ourselves behind the drone to await the launch order. Both engines were started. The canopy was closed, and the self-destruct bomb was armed for use in case the drone went out of control. Finally, the intake screens in front of the engine inlets were removed.
Then came an ominous ground transmission: The “shooter aircraft have problems,” and a storm cell had slung cloud
layers over a wide swath of sky. We sat and waited.