"Out of control at or below 10,000 feet: Eject.” Of all the warnings and cautions contained in the fighter jet training packet, this was the one that alarmed me most; my civilian pilot training did not include any such scenarios. Out of control? What exactly was I in for during my 30 minutes in the rear cockpit of a restored McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom?
The plane is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, a curator of historic military aircraft. Although the foundation is headquartered in Stow, Mass., it bases the Phantom at its Collings West facility at Ellington Field, an airport near Houston. In March, Collings began training civilians to fly its supersonic jet, which might be the only privately owned, airworthy F-4 in the world. Participants must possess a valid FAA pilot’s license and a medical certificate to gain admittance to the $9,800, two-day course, which culminates in a half-hour sortie.
As an aerophile and a pilot, I am fascinated by civil aviation, but I also have a soft spot for the Phantom, an aircraft that established 25 speed and altitude records. (In my teens, I had a model F-4—the Navy version, with its arrestor hook deployed—hanging from my bedroom ceiling.) McDonnell Aircraft developed the jet in the mid-’50s for the U.S. Navy and ultimately produced more than 5,000 of them from 1958 to 1979. The U.S. Air Force and the Marines adopted it as well, and all three branches deployed it in Vietnam against the Soviet-built MiG-21. Phantoms later served with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds demonstration teams. The American military retired its last F-4 in 1996, but Germany, Japan, and a few other nations continue to fly upgraded variants. Despite its mass (more than 50,000 pounds fully loaded) and power (18,000 pounds of thrust per engine), the Phantom cuts a svelte profile. It is both beautiful and frightening, and only a brave or foolish few would come too close—which is precisely what I am about to do.
The experience begins, at 9 am on a Saturday in March, with a classroom briefing, followed by cockpit familiarization and ejection training. My instructor is Harry Daye, a 50-year-old Air Force veteran with 2,500 hours of F-4 experience. He lives in Arizona and flies 737s for Southwest Airlines when he is not volunteering at Collings. Projecting a calm and confident demeanor, Daye leaves no doubt that he knows exactly what he is doing, and I like that, because, secretly, I am scared witless. Daye presents a primer of the plane’s onboard systems and inherent quirks. “Fighters are naturally unstable. That allows them to be so maneuverable,” he says. “The ideal fighter should be as unstable as possible, while still controllable.”
Also enrolled in the program is Bill Disser, a 78-year-old retired aerospace engineer from California. When I ask Disser why he is here, he spouts an adrenaline junkie’s mantra: “Faster planes, younger women, and colder beer. I’m into speed, that’s my thing.”
Unlike Disser, I am not into speed. Possibly I am missing that gene, so common to other pilots, that allows them to savor the sensation of thundering through the air upside down at 500 knots. The F-4’s remarkable capabilities notwithstanding, I would rather be cruising in a 747. Strapping into this jet, then, is payback for my treasonous affections for the softer side of flying. Harry Daye is going to kick my romantic ass from cloud to cloud, and I had better like it.