By Tommy H. Thomason

Thursday, October 25, 2018

F-4 Flying Under the Golden Gate Bridge

Peter Greengrass, my go-to guy for F4H Phantom stuff, provided some additional information about this incident and another photo.

This picture of an F4H about to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge appears from time to time, rarely with the explanation. The comments usually include statements that it is a fake, imaginative explanations as to why the landing gear is down, the pilot was grounded thereafter forever, etc.

In actual fact, it is not a fake. It was not authorized per se, but also did not result in the pilot making his last flight as an officer in the U.S. Navy. It did involve cameras, often a incentive for a pilot to do something stupid although not in this case. An AirPac-approved camera crew was on board Ranger (CVA-61) to get footage for a David Wolper documentary,  "The Story of a Carrier Pilot". See

The fact that the footage of this launch is not in the documentary is easily explained by the Navy's unwillingness to appear to condone stupid stunts like flying under bridges, which in any other circumstance would have the pilot's wings removed immediately after landing, assuming that he hadn't screwed up, crashed, and died. The picture above was presumably taken by a member of the public from Vista Point or a boat.

The plan on 19 October 1962 was for XO Ken Stecker  of VF-96, The Fighting Falcons, and another pilot in a second F-4 to be launched well before reaching the bridge after the ship departed NAS Alameda. However, the launch was momentarily delayed (the launch officer was reportedly E. Inman "Hoagy" Carmichael who retired as an admiral, so obviously his career wasn't adversely affected either). When it did occur, Stecker decided that going under the bridge was a better option than trying to climb over it. That was not overly challenging because there is at least 220 feet between the bridge and the water. Stecker subsequently became CO of VF-96.

The other pilot was launched just after the carrier passed under the bridge, as documented by this photo taken from a helicopter. The splash is from the bridle used to launch the jet. It was normally retained (that's what the "plank" protruding ahead of the deck in front of each catapult track was for) and reused, but it was limited to a specific number of launches and it was often simply expended when it was one launch short of the limit if it had lasted that long without incurring visual damage.

In response to one nay-sayer that this explanation can't be true because the ship wouldn't have been going fast enough in San Francisco Bay for the first launch, note that the ship does not have much way on but clearly the wind over deck was adequate. In fact, Ranger didn't have any way on for this dockside launch of a lightly loaded Phantom in Yokosuka Harbor in 1963:

For more on aircraft carrier catapults, see


pete clayton said...

The carrier was RANGER (CVA-61).

Unknown said...

when I first read this I thought it couldn't have been an F4 from VF-96 because they couldn't have advanced to CQ stage that early, so I got out my log book.
having been the first nugget to get into what was then VF 53 and became VF143, the pukin dogs, and transitioned from F3 Demons to F4 Phantoms, under CDR Gene Merrill, we were the first to fleet carqual. VF-114 with a bunch of Pax River pilots were ahead of us in the RAG, VF121, but CAG 14 was to deploy before CAG 11 so we had priority for carquals. it was June 9, 12 & 13 of Ranger, CV61, out of Alameda. I recorded my 1st cv landing on 6/9 pretty much in the fog. then ops were scrubbed when Ltjg Cliff Martin went off #1 cat and nose-dived off the cat, only to save it at the last second and send a ton of h2o over the bow. Cliff had cq'd in T28s in flt trng where they were directed to put their elbow on their hip for cat shots! this was disaster for cat shots in the F4! right behind Cliff on #1 cat was the first usaf pilot to fly the F4. Capt Roger Nunamaker, usaf, had been at Eglin AFB in a test sqdn when someone asked if anybody wanted to go to Miramar to fly Phantoms. He signed on. when he got to Miramar, vf143, being the senior O-3 in the sqdn he was assigned to as the senior watch officer. when he read the sqdn log he noticed it said VF143, temporarily based ashore at NAS Miramar, .... he said "what's this temporarily based ashore bit (aka shit)? that's when he found out he'd be going to sea on a carrier!
anyway, as Cliff was going down the cat the flight deck director was frantically waving Roger to get on #1 cat, and having just watched Cliff disappear off the bow with this wall of water blinding him he signaled the flt deck director with a thumbs down! that's also when The CO, Ranger stopped it right there!
we didn't fly on the 10th or 11th due bad wx/fog while we made sure everyone learned how to fly the touchy F4 off the cat. before the Martin/Nunemaker debacle and finished my 10 day landings on 6/12 & 13.
one more very important event during that period was when my first boss, to be astronaut, LCdr John Young, took a few of us jos on liberty in SanFran, where he had grown up. he took us to the Condor Club and introduced us to Carol Doda (look her up!)
sadly, both Carol and John died this past year.
ed clexton

Unknown said...

Im pretty sure thats my great uncle. the dates line up

Unknown said...

After WW3 my dad was a crew member on a TBF Grumman Torpedo bomber. He claims his pilot flew under the GG bridge and when they got back to the carrier the pilot was bragging to the other pilots and one of them decided to try it and he took my dad with him. So my dad always bragged he was the only person in the world who ever flew under the GG bridge twice in one day in two different planes.

Anonymous said...

My father, Jimmy Mathews, flew his plane under the Golden Gate Bridge when he was training for the Army Air Corps in the 30's. So he was kicked out of the program. He was killed in action in WW II, in Normandy June 12, 1944. He was fearless, my mother said.

Anonymous said...

My cousin was a Navy pilot Vietnam and I was told his ashes were let out of a little like hatch on the belly of a fighter plane under the Golden Gate Bridge. My other cousin told me and said it was a rare honor.