High Desert Hangar Stories: Jets, missiles and motorcycles

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An F-4 Phantom at George Air Force Base, Calif. (Courtesy photograph)

Back in my Air Force days at George Air Force Base in the 1970s, plenty of days were filled with hours of boredom and the monotony of the “same old-same old.”

One day, a simple radio call sent me and some fellow airmen on a journey we could have never imagined as we made our way on to base for what we thought would be just another work day.  

One of the great things at George was the on-base motorcycle club that went by the name of the Desert Phantoms M/C. Our membership was made up of all disciplines of riders, from racers to recreational, to those who rode for transportation and the love of the open road. Uncle Sam was pretty lenient with us, and those of us who rode the open deserts and raced never got any pushback and enjoyed the camaraderie of our fellow club members. But there was that one day when Uncle Sam came calling for the skills of the on-base motorcycle club.

While I was out on a call at the GCA site at mid-runway, the two-wave radio chattered and asked that I return to dispatch ASAP. Wondering what was up (and worried I had done something wrong), the short trip back had an interesting answer when I arrived. I was requested to meet some authority at, of all places, the motorcycle clubhouse on base — so off I went. When I arrived, many of my friends were there and we were all scratching our heads as to what was up. It didn’t take long to make what was just another day into a very special day, when a mission was laid out that would best be served by some airmen on motorcycles who knew how to ride in the desert!

A newspaper clipping featuring the author, Bob Alvis, and some of his fellow Desert Phantoms from George Air Force Base, Calif., in the 1970s. (Courtesy photograph)

We were briefed that one of George’s F-4 Phantoms had lost a Maverick AGM-65B guided missile from its hard point, on its way out to Cuddeback Gunnery Range while on a training exercise. The authorities wanted to find it to ascertain why it had parted ways with the aircraft! So we were given some time to bring our motorcycles and gear to the clubhouse. We were told to wear our fatigues, so those who normally had the joy of wearing blues all day were tasked to get their pickle suits. After we had all complied and regrouped, it was about 2 p.m. when we departed George and headed up the 395 to Kramer Junction and Highway 58.

Pulling up to an impromptu command center in Air Force trucks with dirt bikes in tow, we were tasked to make a grid-type search that covered the desert north of Highway 58, south of Cuddeback Dry Lake, east of Boron Air Station and west of Harper Lake. All was put in place and we were eager to get rolling, waiting for the word to move out.  

A Maverick AGM-65B. (Courtesy photograph)

There, waiting in the desert, the anticipation was killing us and we already had a pool going that would reward the guy who found the Maverick first — but then, with the arrival of some other trucks in a cloud of dust, we were unhappy witnesses to a government-versus-government showdown. When the word got out of the Air Force’s intention, the Bureau of Land Management (prompted by calls from the Sierra Club) brought a quick end to our quest for the wayward Maverick missile. “We can’t have dirt bikes rolling across the desert, possibly destroying natural habitat” — and with that, our mission and quest came to a quick end. It was about 7:30 p.m. when we all rolled back into Kramer Junction and the Air Force picked up our tab for dinner at the Roadhouse Restaurant. That, sadly, was the extent of our excitement for the day.  

This event was pretty popular story fodder in the clubhouse for a while, but over time interest died out and we Desert Phantoms went back to our normal routines of racing and riding and serving Uncle Sam.

A Maverick AGM-65B mounted on an F-4s hard points. (Courtesy photograph)

What really should intrigue you, the reader, about this story is the fact that the Maverick was never found! As it was unarmed and did not explode when it hit the desert floor, the thought was that it had just stuck itself in the landscape like a giant lawn dart. It still sits there even today waiting for the desert wanderer; who will more than likely freak out when he or she crosses paths with what will be perceived as an unexploded bomb!

So for now, this relic of the 1970s will pass into history baking in the desert, along with memories of the day when Uncle Sam came calling and a bunch of young bucks looked forward to taking their passion and using it to help out, but were denied the opportunity.

On second thought, I sure would like to find that old motorcycle I took out there that day — that would be a piece of history I could really embrace!

Until next time, Bob Out …