One morning during the winter of 1973 I left the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron building located adjacent to the center of the Kunsan AB, Korea, runway. Four of us were on our way to the south end of the runway to sit on air defense alert. During my time at the Kune the wing always had two F-4s on air defense alert to intercept any unidentified airplanes that approached the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). We had to be airborne within ten minutes from the time the bell rang – literally there was a very loud bell sound that when activated caused us to run to the airplane, do a cartridge start and blast off into the sky and follow the instructions from the air traffic controller who vectored our two F-4Ds to the target.
I will never forget this particular morning because the four of us watched as one of our F-4D models crashed and burned trying to make a heavy weight take off. The D model had three external tanks with full fuel plus a simulated B-43 nuke bomb (2,060 or 2,120 lbs). I don’t have the D model weight stats handy, but a block 50 E model with this configuration would have been 57,120 lbs. That is a heavy takeoff weight!
The airplane didn’t crash entirely because of its weight. The Phantom crashed primarily because it had an engine fire right after max abort speed and never got enough airspeed to stay in the air. The Phantom was on fire as it got airborne. I could see the flames coming out of the airplane as it passed me a few hundred feet off of the ground. We watched as the airplane disappeared behind a small island at the south end of the Kunsan runway. The airplane descended behind the small hill on the little island. We then saw a big orange and black fire ball, but no chutes. I remember the awful feeling I had at the time watching two of my friends die. Fortunately both guys ejected safely behind the small hill on the little island, but we could not see their chutes.
Chuck Banks, the pilot, told us later that he realized he was on fire immediately after getting airborne plus the tower told him on the radio. As Chuck was reaching for the panic button to blow everything off the airplane he was distracted when the Phantom lost all electrical power while just a few hundred feet above the runway. The loss of power got the crew’s attention. Instead of pushing the panic button anyway (it had a battery backup) Chuck put the RAT (ram air turbine) out to get electrical power. He then became distracted by the stalling airplane and never did hit the panic button. The heavy weight of the airplane and the loss of power caused by the engine fire meant that the airplane did not have much airspeed and was unable to climb. As the airplane slowed and started to descend because of no power the frontseater gave the eject order. I recall the backseater telling us later he said “I’m out of here” as he pulled the ejection handle.
The reason the airplane was configured with the tanks and two nuke bombs is because that is how it was configured when the Operational Readiness Inspection team landed at Kunsan. The airplane and crew were on nuclear alert when the ORI team arrived so during the ORI they were going to be tested by flying a low level mission in the same configuration and dropping their bombs on target +/- two minutes of their TOT.
Joe Boyles says Chuck Banks was the pilot. Ron Price was the GIB. I recall us laughing in the squadron building when the crew returned because Ron Price said they busted their ORI check ride because Chuck attempted a GIB Ladd that was 100+ (or however many miles Kunsan was from the bombing range) miles short of the target and he was not within 2 minutes of the TOT. The low angle drogue delivery (LADD) was one of two bombing profiles USAF F-4s used to drop nuclear bombs.
Click on the title above to see Chuck Banks’ comment to this story.