F-4 WSO tells the story of when his pilot fell asleep during a ferry flight of four Phantom IIs from Kadena AB to Clark AB and their F-4 drifted out of formation

F-4 WSO tells the story of when his pilot fell asleep during a ferry flight of four Phantom IIs from Kadena AB to Clark AB and their F-4 drifted out of formation

By Dario Leone
May 8 2023
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What happens if a fighter jet pilot fell asleep while flying?

More than half of airline and commercial pilots have fallen asleep while in charge of a plane, a 2013 survey by a pilots’ union suggested.

Of the 56% who admitted sleeping, 29% told Balpa (British Airline Pilots Association) that they had woken up to find the other pilot asleep as well.

What about military pilots?

What happens if a fighter jet pilot fell asleep while flying?

‘I think I may have had that happen to me in an F-4 years and years ago,’ Jim Howard, former F-4G / EF-111A electronic warfare officer (EWO) in the US Air Force (USAF), recalls on Quora.

‘Me and another Lieutenant, who we will call …hmmm… ‘Bill’ were #4 in a flight of four to fly from Kadena AB Japan to Clark AB in The Philippines. This was a Saturday morning flight. All of us, even me the Nerd, were looking forward the delights of Angeles City.

‘I don’t think I even filled out a line up card, since this flight was about as boring as you get in a fighter. Kadena to Clark is almost exactly 1000 nautical miles, about the extreme unrefueled range for an F-4C.

‘I was a nerdy Weapon Systems Officer [WSO], a bit like ‘Bob’ in The Movie [Top Gun: Maverick]. Bill was 110% into living up to the stereo typical fighter pilot, a bit like ‘Hangman’.

‘It bothered Bill that I was rarely seen in the bar after hours, and he told me so. I explained that I had a kickass ham radio station in my base house, with a huge ‘surplus’ HF log periodic antenna (thanks to a couple of friendly NCOs) on top of a 50′ tower, and I liked playing with that. And since I didn’t drink and didn’t like the clouds of smoke in the club I just preferred to stay home and play with my toys.

‘‘You don’t drink!!’ said Bill, astonished, ‘Are you a thumper?’ he asked. A ‘thumper’ in the Air Force is a religious conservative. I told him I was not.

‘‘Well, I don’t consider a margarita on a hot afternoon to be totally unwelcome, but really alcohol really doesn’t do much for me’ I explained.

‘We both managed to stay awake during the briefing. On the way to plane Bill regaled me with stories of how drunk he gets on Friday nights, and how many senior officers he drinks with.

‘He really wanted to know if there were any other drinks I liked. ‘The ones with umbrellas’ I answered.

Robin Olds Operation Bolo F-4C print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Col. Robin Olds’ F-4C Phantom II FP/63-7680, as it appeared during Operation Bolo, January 2, 1967 – note the missing chin pod, which was not yet retrofitted at the time of Operation Bolo.

‘We got in our jet, started up and followed our flight lead out to the runway. I should note that this was in the immediate post-Vietnam period. Everyone in the squadron above the rank of Lieutenant was veteran of that unhappy war. All had ‘100 mission’ and ‘River Rat’ patches. They were great fun on the ground, but very demanding and strict in the air. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I know now they didn’t want to see us kids killed, or worse, get them killed, if we were unprepared or inattentive.

‘These guys were heroes to me then, and still are to this day.’

Howard continues;

‘Anyway, we take off, and join the formation. Bill stills wants to talk about drinking, but after we get to the cruise portion of the flight Bill becomes quiet.

‘I’m excited because we are going to fly right by Taiwan, a very exotic concept for a poor red neck kid who had never been further from Texas than Anadarko Oklahoma prior to joining the USAF.

‘I put my radar in air-to-ground mode to admire things like cardinal point error and to locate the various airports and military bases on that island.

‘As we passed Taiwan, I put the radar back into air-to-air mode. I was confused by what I saw on the radar.

‘I was confused. I wasn’t 100% focused during every minute of the briefing, but I distinctly recalled that there were a total of four airplanes in this flight. After finally taking my head out of the cockpit I looked around.

‘There were no other airplanes in sight!!!!!!!!!

‘In our cockpit the conversation went something like this:

‘WSO: Hey Bill…. pause…. Bill…pause. BILL!!!!!!!!!!


‘Our airplane quickly slides back into route formation.


‘There was silence in the cockpit. What was there to say really? I didn’t know what to say, and I guess Bill didn’t either. So embarrassed and upset were both of us we made no effort to ‘get our story straight’.

‘Remember that this flight was about the max range a Phantom could fly with 3 bags of gas unrefueled?

‘As we were approaching Clark we had to declare minimum fuel. I’m not sure if we were made to land out of a straight in or not, but we probably should have anyway.

‘I have no memory of the debrief (everyone was in a hurry to check into to the BOQ and head downtown). I do recall the flight lead pulling me aside and asking ‘what the ### really happened up there?’.

‘I recall looking at the floor, and not wanting to squeal on my pilot, I mumbled something about drifting a bit out of formation.’

Howard concludes;

‘Years later I realized that the flight lead himself screwed up by not noticing #4 drifting out into space, so that’s probably why the whole thing was forgotten.

‘The flight lead, like the Captain of a ship, is responsible for everything his flight does, even stupid lieutenant tricks.

‘The F-4 does have a very primitive autopilot. If I recall correctly the pilot selected a paddle or switch on the stick and the airplane would fly level in the direction it happened to be pointed.

‘Had Bill put the plane on autopilot and fallen asleep? Was Bill, like I was, kind of bored and was playing around with some shiny thing in the cockpit? In those old battle scared C-models there was little in the way of shiny anything’s.

‘I didn’t ask and Bill didn’t tell.

‘We both learned something about flying from that!’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

F-4 model
This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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