Most would assume that it occurred during one of my two combat tours in Viet Nam, but not so. It actually happened at Luke AFB, near Phoenix, AZ , two years after my last combat tour. I was an instructor pilot in the F-4 RTU (Replacement Training Unit). The mission was to take Lieutenants and check them out in the F-4. This was a 6 month very intensive flying and academic course to train these young pilots and navigators to fly the F-4 as a weapons system before reporting to an operational unit.
The particular mission was a two ship formation and aerobatic flight. I was number two in the back seat with my student pilot who was on his 4th ride. The other plane was the lead aircraft for the formation phase with a student navigator on his first flight. The two students were to be crewed together when the student pilot flew his first flight without an instructor. We were about 70nm NW of Luke when the incident happened. Now the interesting part of all of this is that I am terrified of heights. I know, it does not make a lot of sense, but it does not bother me too much in a plane. The reason that this had an impact was the instructor pilot in the other plane kept telling me to eject and I kept asking if it was on fire yet. It was a long way to the ground.
Captain Thomas M. Rourke, receieved the Tactical Air Command Aircrewman of Distinction Award for April 1974.
On 13 March 1974, Captain Rourke was flying as an instructor pilot….Shortly after initiating the maneuvers,…Captain Rourke felt a thump. He was advised that fuel was streaming heavily from the auxiliary air doors and the main gear doors. Both cockpits immediately filled with heavy fuel fumes. Suspecting a fuselage fuel cell rupture, Captain Rourke directed the student to switch to 100% oxygen and pull the cabin pressure dump valve. He then took over control of the aircraft. Rourke advised the control tower of the situation and turned the aircraft back toward the base. He flew the plane in a manner that would allow for ejection if necessary. Rourke also advised the tower that he would be making a downwind landing. He made an uneventful, no-flap, back seat landing on the downwind runway. Post flight investigation revealed that the left external wing and the center line fuel tank pressure regulators malfunctioned resulting in a massive rupture of the #3 fuselage fuel cell.
Captain Rourke’s decisive action during this critical emergency resulted in saving a valuable tactical aircraft and prevented possible loss of life.
(The information above is a summary of an article that appeared on page 13 in a 1974 edition of the TAC Attack.)
The bottom line, was that it turned out to be my 5 minutes of fame and I could do no wrong after that. The incident was written up in the TAC Attack magazine and I received the Air Force “Well Done Award”. I also got a letter from Brig Gen Chuck Yeager, who was Chief of Safety for the Air Force at the time. I did not know it at the time, but I was told later that I was the first person that had had this problem in the F-4 that had not burned or blown up. Don’t know if it was true or not, but I believe it.