Flying the F-4

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Thud Ridge Author Jack Broughton Slips the Surly Bonds

We lost another Vietnam air war hero. Former USAF Colonel Jack Broughton died on October 24, 2014, at the age of 89. He is the author of two incredible books about flying combat missions in the most heavily defended area in the history of aerial warfare, Route Pack VI, the area around Hanoi, North Vietnam. Colonel Broughton won four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and the highest Air Force decoration, the presidentially-awarded Air Force Cross

Stars & Stripes: “In his 1988 book, ‘Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington,’ Broughton labeled Johnson and McNamara as ‘Washington weenies’ and asserted that pilots and other aviators died because they were prohibited from hitting anti-aircraft emplacements and other “sanctuary” sites in North Vietnam. The U.S. ‘lost a bunch of good people and good machinery all over Southeast Asia with their outhouse mentality on war,’ Broughton wrote. . . . ‘Thud Ridge,’ which does not have the political tone of the other two, is often assigned reading for Air Force pilots in training.”

Read “Testing the Rules of Engagement During the Vietnam War” and Colonel Broughton’s obituary in the New York Times.

Here are links to Col. Broughton’s Vietnam air war books, Thud Ridge and Going Downtown. I read both of them and highly recommend them.

Farewell Sky King

In the military section of the Treasures of Madison County Museum is a group photograph around an F-4D Phantom II. The picture was taken in May 1972 at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. About twenty members of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” are included in the photo including yours truly. In the cockpit of the jet is the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Lyle L. Beckers.

Lyle recently died at the age of 81 in Gainesville, Georgia from the effects of Alzheimer’s. Four decades ago, we knew him by his moniker “Sky King” as a fearless fighter pilot leader. Where did that name come from? Some of you might recall the children’s television adventure Sky King from the 1950s.

I served under a variety of fighter squadron commanders in Korea, Vietnam, England, and Germany as well as a couple stateside. Some were better than others, but as a whole, they were fine leaders and taught me a great deal. Lyle Beckers stands out though. He was a highly experienced fighter pilot in both the F-100 Super Sabre as well as the F-4 Phantom. He was also a graduate of the Fighter Weapons School, literally graduate school for “jet jockeys.”

I arrived at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea in mid-March 1972 for my first duty assignment out of flight training. I spent the next couple of weeks in-processing, and before I knew which way was up, my squadron was sent south to the war in Southeast Asia. What prompted this sudden change of course was the North Vietnamese had launched their Easter Offensive on March 29 with 200 thousand invading troops. The only way to halt this invasion was with air power. We were the first outside unit to respond; many more would follow.

Initially, our people and jets were split between two bases, DaNang in South Vietnam and Ubon in Thailand. We filled in to replace combat losses but before long, the squadron was reunited at DaNang under our own flag. The two lieutenant colonels in the 35th were the commander, Lyle Beckers, and operations officer Bill Mickelson. They were both experienced fighter pilots with previous combat tours and complimented each other well. Beckers was the leader while Mickelson was the ‘people person.’

Lyle Beckers led the toughest missions. In mid-May, Operation Linebacker began and we regularly flew high risk missions into the industrial heartland of North Vietnam. I can never recall a Linebacker mission where Beckers was not the flight lead of our first 4-ship. He led from the front. Frequently, I was on his wing in another jet, usually the number four aircraft. His decision making was precise and flawless.

Do you recall a couple of years ago when some official in the Obama Administration said that the United States was leading the coalition against Libya “from behind?” Lyle Beckers wouldn’t understand that; it wouldn’t compute. A leader is in front and never asks his troops to do anything he isn’t willing to do himself. That was Lyle Beckers’ style of leadership and we all looked up to him.

Most of our missions into North Vietnam were air-to-air missions meaning we were there to protect the strike flights from MiG attacks. On May 23rd, Beckers was leading our squadron when the flight was jumped by MiGs. He used an AIM-7 Sparrow missile to shoot down a MiG-19. The number 3 aircraft shot down a MiG-21 with the 20mm canon. Number 2 registered a probable kill with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. Altogether, a very successful mission.

Three months later in September, Beckers registered his second MiG kill, this time against a MiG-21 using an AIM-9 and the gun. MiG kills in the Vietnam War were infrequent and hard to come by. Only a handful of pilots registered more than one kill. Lyle Beckers was one of the few who did.

Colonel Beckers was an imposing fellow, probably taller than 6’1”, and he was possessed with all-American looks. It pains me to think of a strong leader felled by Alzheimer’s, but he is well now and at peace. Let us pray: “Father of all, we pray to you for Lyle, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

Read “The Tale of Gator 3” about an F-4 mission lead by Colonel Beckers.

RIP Lyle Beckers, Fighter Pilot

Sad news from Jeannie Beckers on September 24, 2014, about the passing of her husband Lyle C. Beckers.  Col. Beckers was the commander of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron when it went TDY from Kunsan AB, Korea, to Da Nang AB, South Vietnam and Korat AB, Thailand in 1972.  Lyle lead many 35th TFS strike escort missions into Route Pack VI and shot down two MiG-21s.

Jeannie sent a message to family and friends that said:

“It is with a very sad heart I am writing to let you know my precious Lyle passed away this morning at 5:AM EST.    He died peacefully with Lisa, Laurie, Rob and I at his side.  Patti will be here Saturday.  A private Memorial Service will be held in our home Sunday morning.  His final internment will be at a later date in Arlington Cemetery.  He was a brave Warrior to the end.  We shall miss him always.”

Joe Lee Burns sent an email message in which he said:

“Lyle was a hero to me, a role model.  I wanted to be able to fly as good as he could, and he tried to teach me that. I love him and started missing him before now. Godspeed, Sir.  Save me a seat.

I will share one Lyle Story: 81ST TFS out of Hahn AB, W Germany. We were at Wheelus AB, Libya for gunnery camp to escape bad weather in Germany in December (1968). Major Lyle Beckers was flight lead (I think I was Comet . . er . .I mean, #6 – flight lead of the last 4 jets) for the Saturday morning 9 ship departure (one jet was hard broke for parts) to Aviano AB, Italy and then back to Hahn in time for Christmas. Our Callsign was something like “Panther 21” flight.

Lyle briefed the takeoff sequence, rejoin ground track, and final flight check in before departing Wheelus airspace. Flight lead took off single ship from runway 29; flew about 2 miles, made a loose 180 degree turn for rejoin. The rest of the Phantoms took off as 2 ships and rejoined in trail. After another 180 degree turn the fight requested a flyby at 1,000 feet AGL, which was approved. Our formation was a single followed by 4 line-abreast 2 ships.

Abeam the tower, Lyle calls, “Santa Flight Check.”  As briefed, he followed with “Rudolph,” the next two ship responded “Dasher,” then “Dancer,” followed by “Prancer” and “Vixen,” then “Comet” and “Cupid,” and then “Donner” and “Blitzen.”  Tower clicked its microphone switch twice in response (probably because of the laughter in the tower). Before changing to Departure Control frequency, Lyle called, “Wheelus Tower, ‘Santa Flight’ departing your airspace, Merry Christmas, ‘Ho Ho Ho’”.!!!”

Jeannie replied: “Lyle said ‘HO HO HO!’ when he read it….said he was sorry he couldn’t add anything to your remembrance, but he knows you are right!!! Best love, Jeannie Beckers for Lyle.”

The F-4E flown by Lyle Beckers and Lt. Thomas Griffin on September 12, 1972, when Col Beckers got his second MiG-21 is now on static display at Soesterberg Air Base.

Here’s a 1972 group photo of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron taken at Da Nang with Col. Lyle Beckers, the commander of the 35th TFS, in the front seat.  See the bigger version of this picture with names of the guys.  Note: Joe Lee Burns photoshopped himself into the top row.

Vietnam POW 40th Reunion

On May 24, 1973, President Richard Nixon hosted the largest dinner party ever given at the White House.  The dinner honored the 590 men who were captured by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, tortured and returned with honor after the U.S. signed the  Paris Peace Accord in January of 1973.   Over 1,200 people attended the dinner hosted by President Nixon and his wife.

Forty years later on May 24, 2013, the Richard Nixon Foundation hosted a second reunion of the former POWs.  Over 200 former POWs attended the reunion.

The video below is President Nixon’s address to the dinner guests.

On May 25, 2014, the Richard Nixon Foundation hosted a panel of former Vietnam War POWs.  The extraordinary panel consisted of Cmdr. Everett Alvarez (USN), 8-year POW; Lt. Col. Tom Hanton (USAF), President of NAM-POWs, 9-Month POW; Capt. Mike McGrath (USN), 6-year POW; Cmdr. Paul Galanti (USN), 6-year POW and Roger Shields, Nixon White House POW/MIA coordinator. Frank Luntz, President of Luntz Global, moderated.

Great Balls of Fire

by George E. Nolly

July 11, 1972

I turned off my Big Ben alarm clock at 0230, the usual wake-up time for our Linebacker mission. When the scheduling board simply indicated “Special”, we knew it would be a 0400 mass briefing at Wing Headquarters for a bombing mission over North Vietnam. We wouldn’t know our target until the mission briefing. The schedule was normally posted at the end of each day’s flying, and the previous day I had seen my name listed for the number four position in Jazz Flight for today’s Special. My Weapon Systems Officer would be Bill Woodworth.

F-4 pilots quickly become creatures of habit mixed with ritual, and I walked the short distance to the Ubon Officer’s Club to have my standard breakfast: cheese omelet, toast with butter, and coffee. I had successfully flown thirty-one Counters – missions over North Vietnam – and I wasn’t about to change anything without a pretty compelling reason. A few weeks earlier, the Thai waitress had misunderstood me when I had ordered, and brought me a plain Omelet. I politely ate it, and the mission on that day was the closest I had come – up until then – to getting shot down.

After breakfast, I walked to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Headquarters building, and performed my usual routine of stopping by the Intel desk and checking the Shoot-down Board. The Shoot-down Board was a large Plexiglas-covered board that listed the most recent friendly aircraft losses, written in grease pencil. We could tell, at a glance, if any aircraft had been shot down the previous night, the call sign, aircraft type, and survivor status. There were no friendly aircraft losses over North Vietnam to enemy action in the previous day.

That was not surprising. The Special for the previous day had been canceled when the strike leader, my Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Sharp, crashed on takeoff when his left tire exploded at 160 knots. He aborted, taking the departure end barrier, and his aircraft caught fire when pieces of the shredded tire pierced his left wing fuel tank. Brad’s emergency egress was delayed when he got hung up by his leg restraint lines. As he sat in his seat, seeing the canopy melting around him, his WSO, Mike Pomphrey, ran back to the burning aircraft and pulled him out, saving his life. As Mike dragged him to a drainage ditch 100 yards away to hunker down, the ejection seats, missiles and, eventually, bombs cooked off. Ubon’s only runway was out of commission, and the entire Linebacker mission, for all bases, was canceled. Overnight, the runway at Ubon was repaired, and our mission was on for this day.

Read more . . .

The 1972 Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam

Air & Space:  “In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track.  I had come to Hanoi to research my second book about the air war over North Vietnam: the story of the December 1972 B-52 bombing of Hanoi, known as Linebacker II. I had arrived with the standard U.S. understanding of the raids. In early December 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, faced a political defeat. The North Vietnamese had broken off negotiations in Paris. It was clear that they were waiting for an anti-war U.S. Congress to return in January, cut off funds for the war, and give them a victory.  To force the North Vietnamese to sign the agreement, Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi. After initial heavy U.S. losses, B-52s were able to attack with relative impunity and, after 11 days of raids, the North Vietnamese returned to Paris to sign the agreement they had rejected in December.”

In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track

Read more: http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/the-christmas-bombing-1813815/#PeQL2toXTk2wPmVm.99
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Operation Linebacker

If you’re a regular viewer of CBS’ reality series “Amazing Race,” you know that the current program is being filmed in Vietnam. The show raised the ire of many last week when the contestants visited a war memorial in Hanoi to look for a clue. The war memorial was the wreckage of an American B-52, shot down in December 1972 where two airmen died. Apparently, the program showed little if any regard or reverence for the sacrifice of two American patriots for their country.

The next week, the show and their parent company apologized for their cavalier approach to veterans and those of us who served in Vietnam, in particular. The incident took my memory back to an earlier time four decades ago. It was the spring of 1972 and I was flying combat missions from DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. In early May, we received the orders to “take the gloves off” and go after the North Vietnamese who had escalated the war by ignoring a cease-fire and invading South Vietnam in late March.

The air offensive was code-named Operation Linebacker and would continue unabated for the next five months. Our targets were key combat infrastructure points that the north used to move war materials to their troops in the south. This included railroads, truck parks, bridges, ferries, airfields, communications, etc. These and the north in general had been off-limits to our airpower since 1968. In that four year hiatus, the North Vietnamese had built up their defensive infrastructure of fighters, missiles, guns and radars so that flying north was much more difficult and hazardous.

My squadron (35th TFS Panthers) was permanently based in Korea and filled with very experienced pilots. Our commander only sent highly experienced crews on Linebacker missions because they were more demanding and dangerous than normal combat flying. The pilot I was crewed with was a North Carolinian named Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander; had a previous combat tour; more than 2000 hours in the Phantom; and was a Fighter Weapons School graduate. In fact, we had eight weapons school grads in the 35th, which might be a record.

Linebacker missions were complicated affairs requiring as many as a hundred or more aircraft flying from as many as five different bases. Most were fighters like the F-4 my unit flew, but there were also air refueling tankers; electronic combat aircraft; airborne weapons controllers; etc. Standing by on alert were rescue helicopters and their escorts in the case of an aircraft loss which frequently occurred.

On one missions I recall, there were 12 flights of four (48) fighters just from our base, not counting support aircraft. I’m sure there were more than 200 aircraft scheduled for that mission. At Korat (the second base we flew from), we had a single taxiway and runway. Anyone with either steering or brake problems was instructed to taxi off the taxiway into the dirt to keep the traffic flow moving.

These missions were flown over long distances and involved flying between 3 to 5 hours depending on the route. Since we couldn’t carry that much fuel, we nearly always refueled before entering North Vietnamese airspace and tapped the tanker upon exit before returning home. The tanker we used was the KC-135 (same design as the old Boeing 707) which incidentally, is still being used by the Air Force.

I have no idea how many Linebacker missions I flew that summer. Of my 121 combat missions, 43 were flown over North Vietnam, but not all of those were in support of Operation Linebacker. All the remainder were flown over South Vietnam, generally close air support (CAS) missions. In my six month tour, I didn’t fly against any targets in either Laos or Cambodia, although we often overflew those inland countries transiting to and from our base in Thailand.

In early October 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was sure he had a peace accord with all parties. The Linebacker missions were halted and my squadron deployed back to our home base in Korea. It had been more than six months since we deployed. Then the deal fell through. Two months later, Linebacker II began in mid-December, but this was much more intense. Now, B-52 bombers went north to join the fighters in taking the air war to the North Vietnamese.

The campaign lasted only 11 days but did the trick. Fifteen B-52s were shot down including the one that Amazing Race visited, but the bombers packed quite a wallop. At the end of the Linebacker II, the north was literally defenseless. They ran back to the bargaining table to beg for peace and an end to hostilities. We had to wonder – if President Johnson had done this seven years earlier in 1965, how many lives and tragedy on both sides would have been avoided?

Steve Mellenthin Remembers Japan, Korea & Southeast Asia

After F-4 RTU at George AFB, several of us had our orders changed at the last moment from DaNang to Misawa.AB Japan in Jan 70. I was assigned to the 391st along with a couple others including Jeff Feinstein who was a WSO ace in 72, 555th out of Udorn. The wing was the 475th and if I recall correctly, the other two squadrons were the 392nd and 67th. For a time we also had the 16th TRS and their RFs. We pulled alert and flying out of both Taegu and Kunsan, Kunsan was nuke as well as air defense, Taegu was air defense only. Seems like we spent close to 179 days in Korea in one and two week increments.

At the time the wing was in the process of picking up the D models out of SEA, prior to that the 475th was little more than a flying club. Had an ORI which we busted mainly due to bad comm between Kunsan and Misawa. The name of the game was that we kept one squadron at Kunsan and if the red balloon went up, maintenance generated planes and we flew them to Korea to for the main event. Early in 1971 it was announced that the planes would be leaving Japan for Korea. By April the planes had left, guys who had a SEA tour were sent to Kadena with the C models out of Yokota, Those of us who hadn’t were sent to Kunsan. Initially the wing was designated the 3rd TFW. The three Misawa squadrons were designated the 35th, 36th, and 80th, the 391st becoming the 80th and the 36th going to Osan. Shortly thereafter the wing picked up the 8th TFW designation.

I was one of the initial Juvats, the name coming from a part of the rocker for the 391st patch “Fortuna Estes Juvat” which seemed to refuse to come off when the patches were ripped off flight suits.

I believe that Misawa then Kunsan were the operational test and initial deployment sites for the Combat Tree birds.which then went to Kunsan. We flew a lot there and I suspect I flew all the Tree birds at one time or another.

Those of us who had lots of Misawa TDY time had our tours curtailed and I then went to Holloman AFB in Feb 72. Was there only for two months and was enroute to a Crested Cap orientation in late April when we got recalled and were informed the wing was going to SEA TDY, destination **classified** duration unknown! We ended up ferrying the whole wing, four squadrons, to Takhli three days after announcement, a squadron per day. I was assigned to the 8th TFS Blacksheep and was in the second wave. We got designated the night squadron and routinely flew three turn missions mainly out of DaNang but a few to Bien Hoa.

DaNang was sucky but Takhli was even worse save for the rockets – saw the fireworks several times nights and spent several days there with a sick bird. A lot of us lived in tents initially because the old barracks were unfit for human habitation. The night squadron got four to a room air conditioned hootches. We stopped off at Korat once for an oil pressure problem – it was more like an R&R rather than a RON. I tried to follow what was going on with the Kunsan guys and planes. Heard one of the Tree birds was shot down shortly after arrival in April but then had some success with them hunting MiGs.

I had just gone through a divorce and elected to stay in SEA when the wing redeployed in Oct back to Holloman. For a short time I was assigned to the DaNang unit, 421st, that was sent to Takhli as DaNang was phasing down. The 421st had lost so many planes and crews that the decision was made to redistribute the planes and crews elsewhere. Most ended up at Udorn;’ I went to Korat after a 30 day leave trip to CONUS. You guys had redeployed back to Kunsan by then but left one plane with maintenance issues behind. I offered my services to fly it back to the Kun but I guess you guys wanted to send a crew so they could collect their combat pay and tax exemption.

In going through your crew lists I saw quite a few I recognized and/or flew with. Will Mincey was in the 80th when I was there and a couple others. I knew many of the 35th guys as well. One of the 80th guys who left Kunsan, went to Seymour Johnson then TDY back to SEA in 73 and was flying the last plane to be shot down, in Cambodia, in summer 73 just before the final end of the conflict on Aug 15. His name is Jack Smallwood and so far as I know is still MIA but presumed to be KIA. For a long time I thought our flight had dropped the last bombs of the war at 1150, but an A-7 flight claimed the “honor” expending at 1157. Then it was all over at 1200. My final mission count was 279 with 119 of them in NVN, probably half in RP6. thanks to all the flying out of Takhli, I logged over a thousand hours of combat time. In 73, the Fast FAC program was started up.again at Korat so I flew a lot of five hour, road recce sorties as well as Spectre escort on the trails.

Went to RAF Lakenheath after Korat and sadly my flying career came to an end as I was diagnosed with a kidney disease. Eventually I ended up at Wright-Patt as a design development engineer. Worked on the new engines for the F-15, F-16, KC-135R, and B-1. Also worked on F-22 and was a part of the initial B-2 deployment team.

Presently retired from 34 years combined civilian and military time with the USAF in Central TX NW of Austin, TX

Steve Mellenthin

Four Ship Formation Take Offs

There are many things I remember about flying the F-4.  I think that the single most enjoyable F-4 experience that I loved was four ship formation take offs.  The mission started with the briefing that typically began two hours before the scheduled take off time.  During the briefing the flight leader would describe the procedure for starting engines, radio check-in, time to remove the chocks and begin to taxi, how to line up the four airplanes to taxi to the arming area in formation and the procedures for the actual formation take off.  Mission briefings lasted 45 – 60 minutes after which the aircrews would make a pit stop then slip on G suits and parachute harnesses and board the truck to be delivered to their designated F-4.

After arriving at the airplane we went through the checklists as we inspected the outside of the airplane and then the cockpit inspections and before engine start checklist.  My recollection is that we usually started engines at 20 minutes before our scheduled take off time.  After starting engines and doing the flight control checks the flight leader would make a radio call that started with the flight’s call sign.  For example, if the call sign was “Lark” the flight leader would say “Lark check.”  Then each member of the flight would check in and we would all hear “2, 3, 4″ on our radios.  The flight leader then asked ground control for permission to taxi to the runway.  After getting approval from ground control to taxi each airplane would add power and head for the marshaling area, which was the area on the taxi way designated by the flight commander in the briefing where the four airplanes would join into taxi formation.

I always felt a great sense of pride as my powerful flying machine started to move because at that time the crew chief standing on the left side of the airplane would come to attention and salute.  I returned the salute.  I appreciated the hard work the crew chiefs performed to keep our F-4s in top flying condition.

Yes, we taxied in formation to the arming area at the end of the runway.  The flight leader would have his left or right main gear on the taxi line as we taxied in formation to the end of the runway.  Numbers 2, 3 and 4 would be in order behind the leader in staggered position.  If the leader had his right main gear on the taxi line then 2 and 4 would have their left main gears on the taxi line and 3 would have his right main gear on the taxi line.  Each pilot maintained the briefed distance behind the F-4 in front of his airplane so that the distance between each airplane would be the same.

We were professionals who took pride in the smallest thing.  We taxied to the end of the runway like we were the Thunderbirds performing before a large crowd.  I was very proud to be in formation with three other F-4s as we taxied to the end of the runway.  We always stopped in the arming area at the approach end of the runway so that ground crews could button up all the doors, check the exterior of the airplane and arm any ordinance.  All four airplanes would be parked in the arming area line abreast in order, i.e., 1, 2, 3 and 4.  When ground personnel finished arming our ordinance and doing the before take off checks it was time for the four airplanes to take the runway.

The flight leader in #1 would look at #2 who would look at #3 who would look at #4.  When #4 was ready to take the runway, the aircraft commander, i.e., the guy in the front seat, would nod his head, which caused #3 to nod his head, which caused #2 to nod his head. Three head nods meant that all three wingmen were ready to depart the arming area and move into position on the end of the active runway.

The flight lead’s backseater would then tap his helmet, which caused #2′s backseater then #3′s backseater to tap their helmets.  #4 watched #3 who watched #2 who watched #1.  Next the flight leader’s backseater would put his head back, which caused #2′s backseater and#3′s backseater to put their heads back.  When #1′s backseater moved his helmet forward #2′s backseater did the same and number #3′s backseater followed #2′s head move.  The helmet forward move was the signal to put the canopies down.  The end result of all of this was that all the canopies of all four backseaters were closed at the same time.

Once the backseaters canopies were down, the frontseaters repeated the same procedure.  The flight leader could have simply said on the radio “backseaters put your canopies down on the count of three then said 1, 2, 3, which would have caused all four backseat canopies to close in unison.  However, we were professionals who took pride in little things like doing things at the same time without using the radio.

When all the canopies were closed and the tower gave us clearance to go onto the active runway the flight leader would add some power and taxi to the runway while the three wingmen followed in order.  The flight leader would stop short on the end of the runway with his right main gear on the centerline.  #2 would pull into close formation just to the left of #1.  The element leader in #3 would pull into close formation on the right side of #1 with his left main gear on the centerline.  #4 would pull into close formation with #3 on his right wing.  Once stopped in take off position all four airplanes were in close “finger tip” formation.

Each crew then went over the before takeoff checklist and prepared to make a formation take off.  When the flight leader was ready he would get a head nod from #2 and #3 after he got a head nod from #4.  Four head nods was the signal that all four airplanes were ready to begin the formation take off.

The flight leader would then put his head back, which was the pre-release brakes signal.  When the flight leader moved his helmet forward that was the signal to #2 to move the throttles forward and release brakes.  #1 and #2 would then begin their take off roll side by side.  #2′s job was to stay in fingertip formation while accelerating.  Shortly after becoming airborne the flight leader would nod his head, which was the signal to bring the landing gear up.  Shortly thereafter the flight leader would nod his head again, which was he signal to bring the flaps up.  After crossing the end of the runway the first element would climb and start a left or right turn to allow the second element to join in a four ship fingertip formation.

My favorite position was #4 in the second element.  I will never forget my excitement as I watched #1 and #2 begin their take off rolls.  I had a great view of the exhaust end of the two Phantoms and the flames from four afterburners.  I also enjoyed feeling the jet blast wash over my airplane.  The jet blast caused the airplane to jiggle and shake.

I loved rolling down the runway with my wingtip ten feet from the wingtip of the other airplane.  It is very exhilarating to go from a dead stop to 450 knots in a few seconds while maintaining close formation with the other airplane in my element.  After getting airborne and putting the flaps and gear up I could see the first element higher above me in a climbing turn.  My element leader would cut across the circle and join up with #1 and #2 and we would have four Phantoms in close finger-tip formation as we climbed and began our mission for that day.

I also loved formation landings, but that is a story for another day.

Downtown

In 1964, British pop star Petula Clark went to the top of the charts with her hit song “Downtown.” If you’re my age, then the tune is familiar but the song is a classic and various forms are trotted out periodically. There is a current commercial which uses “Downtown” as its background musical theme.

About the same time that the song was first released, Operation Rolling Thunder was initiated in the skies over North Vietnam. For three years, the Johnson Administration sent Air Force and Navy fighters over North Vietnam to bomb selected targets. The theory behind Rolling Thunder was that we would send a message to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists that we were really serious and if they would stop their aggression against South Vietnam, we would stop the bombing. Rolling Thunder lasted for three years until early 1968 and was unsuccessful in its political objective.

The Pacific Command (PACOM) air planners divided North Vietnam into six regions which they named Route Packages. They were numbered sequentially from south to north. Route Pack VI was the large industrial heartland of North Vietnam, bisected by the Red River Valley. This route package was divided into two sub regions: Route Pack VI Bravo included the port city of Haiphong and was the primary responsibility of the Navy and their 7th Fleet air wings.

Route Pack VI Alpha included the capital of Hanoi and was the primary responsibility of the Air Force wings operating from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. The fighter pilots who flew into VI Alpha to attack targets around Hanoi referred to this as “Downtown.” It had the reputation as the most heavily defended air space in the history of warfare, protected by a layered system of interceptors, surface to air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery.

After three years, LBJ halted Rolling Thunder in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Over the next four years, we stayed out of North Vietnamese airspace, however when the Communists launched their Spring Offensive with 200,000 troops in 1972, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower.

At the time, I was a lieutenant newly assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” at Kunsan AB, South Korea. On April Fools Day, our 18 F-4D Phantoms deployed to Southeast Asia, the first of many Air Force, Navy and Marine squadrons to join the fray.

Our supposedly “quick” period of temporary duty lasted 196 days. We flew first from DaNang AB, South Vietnam until mid-June and then moved to Korat AB, Thailand. During that period of time, I flew 121 combat missions, 78 of which were flown over South Vietnam primarily in close air support of ground units in contact with the enemy. I flew 43 missions over North Vietnam including 16 “Downtown.” Without exception, these Linebacker missions over Hanoi were the most hazardous I faced.

Generally we flew at about 15 thousand feet and kept our speed above 480 knots where our energy gave us good maneuverability to defeat the SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles. If we carried a centerline fuel tank, we drained that first and jettisoned the sluggish tank. As a result, our jet was cleaner, lighter and more maneuverable.

Most of my missions “Downtown” were escort missions for the bombers, so we were light and maneuverable, ready to tangle with any MiGs that might interfere. On the few occasions where we carried bombs, we were quite heavy until the ordnance was cleaned off the aircraft. We would ripple all twelve 500-pound bombs on a single attack; our motto was “one pass and haul a**.”

My closest encounter with the enemy came during a late summer mission. We escorted Oak Flight from Ubon that dropped seven laser-guided 2000 pound bombs on Gia Lam just east of Hanoi. We made a wide sweeping turn north of Hanoi over the lake where John McCain went swimming five years earlier. The gun positions on the south side of the lake put up a lot of flak, but no one in our flight was hit. Exiting the target area to the southwest, my radar warning receiver lit up indicating a SAM was headed our way. The cumulous clouds below us made picking up the missile difficult. At the last possible moment our lead aircraft saw the streaking SAM and called for Finch 4 (my aircraft) to break right. Our 5-G barrel roll was successful in dodging the missile. Close but no cigar!

So go downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown – don’t wait a minute for Downtown – everything’s waiting for you.

Petula Clark

Red River Valley

This video is a tribute to Air Force and Navy pilots who flew north of the Red River in the northern most part of North Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  People who flew north of the Red River were eligible to join an exclusive club called the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association and called River Rats.  The north Vietnamese propaganda machine and Jane Fonda called them Yankee Air Pirates.  See the River Rats Facebook page.

Jeep Super Bowl Commerical Honors U.S. Military

We wait.  We hope. For You to Return. My favorite commercial aired during the 2013 Super Bowl was the one that paid tribute to our brave military personnel.  Oprah Winfrey narrated the commercial.

Air War Over North Vietnam on May 10, 1972

On May 10, 1972, the USAF and Navy shot down 11 North Vietnam MiGs in the skies over North Vietnam at a cost of two USAF and two Navy F-4s shot down.  Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price wrote a great book about this day called “One Day in a Long War, May 10, 1972, Air War, North Vietnam” that describes in detail events of that day.  I recommend this book.  It’s in my collection of books written about the Vietnam air war.  A lot of people I know are mentioned in the book or the appendix that contains the names of all USAF and Navy F-4 air crews who flew north that day.  F-4 drivers of the Vietnam war era will probably recognize a lot of names.

 

“One Day in a Long War recounts firsthand accounts of almost one hundred eye witnesses, analyzes cockpit voice recordings and draws from official documents, many declassified for the first time, to tell its story.  During May 10 an elite corps of American fighter pilots – many of them first-generation Top Gun graduates – flew more than 330 sorties against major transportation centers around Hanoi and Haiphong.  But the Vietnamese fought back with 03 ground to air missiles and 40 MiG fighters.

What words are spoken in the cockpit of a Phantom as the crew prepares to engage MiGs closing in at nearly 1,000 miles per hour? What thoughts go through the mind of a pilot struggling to hold his crippled plane in the air for one minute longer, to get clear of enemy territory so he and his crewmen can parachute into the sea? How does it feel to be in a Phantom running in to attack the notorious Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi with laser guided bombs as missile after missile streaks through the formation?  And what tactics would enable a force of 16 of these fighter bombers to carry out such an attack without the loss of a single plane?

One Day in a Long War is a definitive reconstruction of the most intensive air combat day of the Vietnam conflict.”

Sgt. Joey Hill, the Crew Chief of F-4D 650784 & His 2 Fabulous Videos of Robert Lodge & Roger Locher

Sgt. Joey Hill was the crew chief of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron‘s F-4D tail number 650784 on February 21, 1972, when Major Robert Lodge & Capt. Roger Locher got their first of three MiG kills.  Watch these two videos Joey made with his pictures and the two mission audio tapes given to him by Roger Locher and Bob Lodge.  The audio tapes are the actual cockpit voice recordings of the two missions during which Lodge & Locher shot down their first and second of three MiGs.

They got their third MiG on May 10, 1972, but were immediately shot down by an unseen MiG.  Major Lodge elected not to eject because on that day Intel briefed the aircrews that their mission would take them deep into North Vietnam into an area where helicopter rescue was not possible.  Major Lodge had told people that he would never become a prisoner of war.  Roger Locher ejected safely and escaped and evaded on the ground for 22 days before getting on his radio and calling for help.  Roger knew he had to walk west far enough to an area where the helicopters could get to him.  For more about Locher’s incredible story in his own words and Brig. Gen. Steve Richie’s story of the rescue read “Roger Locher Describes Shooting Down a MiG, Getting Shot Down by a MiG-19, Ejecting & Evading Capture on the Ground in North Vietnam for 23 Days.”

On May 11, 1972, General Vogt, Commander of the 7th Air Force, cancelled all strike missions into North Vietnam and dedicated over 150 aircraft and USAF resources to rescuing one American.  Although many risked their lives that day the USAF did not suffer a single loss.  Contrast the importance the U.S. gave to saving American lives in 1972 to the dishonorable mindset and abandonment of the four Americans who died in the Benghazi, Libya, consulate on September 11, 2012, when President Obama refused the doomed American’s cries for help.  General Vogt spared no resource to save Roger Locher, but President Obama chose to ignore Ambassador Steven’s pleas because the President had to go to Las Vegas.

The following video contains the audio of the February 21, 1972, MiG kill mission.

On May 8, 1972, Major Robert Lodge, gave another combat mission audio tape to Sgt. Hill.  On this day Bob Lodge and Capt. Locher shot down their second MiG 21 while flying F4_D 650784.

Listen to the actual combat missions to hear Bob and Roger talking intra-cockpit and the radio transmissions made by other aircrews in the strike force and Red Crown, the Navy airborne warning ship in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Here is a translation of some of the jargon used by the aircrews and Red Crown:

  • Falcon 62 = Lodge & Locher’s call sign on the February 21, 1972 mission.
  • Oyster 01 = Lodge & Licher’s call sign on the May 8, 1972, mission
  • triple A or AAA = antiaircraft artillery = guns on the ground shooting at F-4s
  • mach = airspeed in relation to the speed of sound where mach 1 = the speed of sound, which is 700+ miles per hour depending on the altitude and other factors
  • beeping noises = various types of radar energy hitting Falcon 62 and picked up and decoded by the radar homing and warning aka RHAW gear
  • on the nose = at the airplane’s 12 o’clock position
  • Red Crown = Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin that could detect all airplanes airborne over North Vietnam and identify them as friend or foe.  Red Crown warned US aircraft of approaching MiGs and vectored US airplanes to MiGs to shoot down the MiGs.
  • Disco = USAF equivalent of Red Crown, but it was an EC-121 radar airplane airborne over Laos.
  • Bandit = enemy MiG airplane
  • Blue Bandit = enemy MiG-21 airplane
  • Bulls-eye = Hanoi, North Vietnam aka “downtown.”
  • 067/22 = location of a Bandit where the first number “067” is the radial (bearing off of downtown Hanoi and the second number “22” is the number of nautical miles the Bandit is from downtown Hanoi.
  • Guard = UHF radio frequency 243.0, a radio frequency monitored most of the time by airborne F-4s and used in emergencies such as when somebody got shot down and was calling for help on the personal radio all aircrew men carried.
  • pecker head = enemy MiG airplane
  • SAM = surface to air missile, a 32 foot long Soviet made SA-2 radar guided flying telephone pole missile
  • shit hot = shit hot
  • overtake = knots at which your airplane is approaching another airplane – two airplanes heading directly at each other at 500 knots each have an overtake of 1,000 knots.
  • RTB = return to base

Night Mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

F-4 fighter pilot and author Mark Berent writes about one of his close air support missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail.  His mission that night was to escort an AC-130 gunship as it destroyed targets on the main supply line between North and South Vietnam.  Here is a part I especially like:

“Steadily we climb, turning a few degrees, easing stick forward some, trimming, climbing, climbing, then suddenly—on top! On top where the moonlight is so damn marvelously bright and the undercast appears a gently rolling snow-covered field. It’s just so clear and good up here, I could fly forever. This is part of what flying is all about. I surge and strain against my harness, taking a few seconds to stretch and enjoy this privileged sight.”

One of the things I loved about flying the Phantom was the incredible views from the air of the earth, sky, stars, the moon, clouds and storms.

Thank You Martin Baker

The F-4 Phantom is a supersonic jet fighter loved by people like  me who were lucky to have flown it.  It was a great airplane to fly, but it was also a very dangerous machine.  Whenever you throw an airplane at the ground at high dive angles and high descent rates, fly in formation with other fighters or jink back and forth in real or simulated aerial combat, bad things can happen.  It was always a comfort to me knowing that when I flew the Phantom I was sitting on a wonderful life-saving device known as the Martin Baker MK-H7 ejection seat.

The F-4 ejection seat saved many lives.  When activated a rocket motor fired and blasted the seat and its occupant out of the cockpit and away from the speeding F-4.  The Martin Baker seat had a zero zero capability meaning that in theory if a person was sitting in the cockpit while the airplane was parked and stationary on the ground and fired the seat (zero altitude and zero airspeed) the person would be launched 300 feet in the air, the chute would open and the person would safely float back to earth.

Here is some pertinent information about the MK-H7 ejection seat taken from the F-4 owner’s manual aka the TO-1F-4E-1:

The MK-H7 ejection seat system can provide the crew with a safe and efficient escape from the aircraft. The seat is propelled from the aircraft by an ejection gun on the back of the seat which is assisted by a rocket motor on the bottom of the seat. . . . If necessary, ejection can be accomplished at ground level between zero and 550 knots airspeed with wings level and no sink rate providing the crewmember does not exceed a maximum boarding weight of 247 pounds. . . .

During dual automatic ejection initiated from either cockpit, the rear seat fires . . . approximately 0.54 seconds after initiation. Front canopy jettison is initiated after approximately 0.75 seconds and the front sequence actuator will fire the front seat automatically approximately 1.39 seconds after initiation. This ensures adequate clearance between the two ejection seats and the aircraft canopies.

The last paragraph above says that the difference in time from when the back seat fires until the front seat fires is .85 seconds.

One Second – the Difference Between Life and Death

When I was in F-4 RTU (replacement training unit) in 1971 – 1972 at Luke AFB, Arizona, learning how to fly the Phantom there was a tragic F-4 accident on the Gila Bend bombing range.  Two students were in the F-4 doing practice dive bombing (probably 30% dive angle, but it could have been 45%, both of which were common dive angles).  The pilot rolled in to drop his practice bomb, but he was too steep.  Both the flight leader and the range control officer warned the pilot on the radio that he was too steep.

The time between roll in and pull up is between 5 – 10 seconds depending on the dive angle, the roll in altitude and the release altitude of the particular bomb.  There is little margin for error when the airplane is screaming toward the earth at 450 knots in a 30% dive bomb.  At some point in the dive the altitude needed to recover the airplane without hitting the ground becomes more than the airplanes altitude over the ground.  When that happens the crew will either die or eject with the possibility of death or serious injury.

Either or both the flight leader or the range office recognized the F-4 could not avoid hitting the ground and yelled over the radio for the crew to eject.  It was obvious to those watching the diving airplane that it was going to crash.  I don’t recall who initiated the ejection, but both ejection seats fired.  The backseater lived and the frontseater died when he hit the ground before his parachute opened.  Had the ejection seat been started ONE SECOND EARLIER, the frontseater would have lived.

Flying Fighters Was/Is Dangerous

I knew many guys who flew the Phantom who ejected and lived.  I knew some who died in the F-4.  When I was in flying the F-4 it was not possible to get life insurance other than one $35,000 military life insurance policy.  Commercial life insurance companies did not sell life insurance to fighter pilots because they had too high of a risk of dying.

I saw three fighters crash.  The first crash I witnessed occurred the day I arrived in Korea at Osan Air Base in May or June of 1972 (can’t remember when I actually arrived there).  I was waiting on the flight line for an passenger plane to take me to Kunsan AB, Korea, where my squadron was stationed.  I noticed several fire engines racing out to the runway.  This was a frequent event because whenever an airplane declared an emergency the fire engines were routinely deployed to the runway in case they were needed.

Since I was bored waiting I decided to watch and see what the emergency was all about.  I could see an F-4 making a landing approach with a lot of black smoke trailing behind it.  As I watched the airplane suddenly plunged to the ground and blew up.  The crew ejected safely.  I found out later that the airplane had an engine fire.  The pilot shut down what he thought was the engine that was on fire, but he actually shut down the good engine.  The accident report said that the maintenance people had mistakenly reversed the fire warning lights.  The pilot’s instruments told him exactly the opposite as far as which engine was on fire.

The second airplane crash I witnessed was an F-4 from my squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, during the winter of 1973.  I describe that accident in my story called “The Gibb LADD.”  The third crash I saw was a T-38 trainer that had some problem with its landing gear that resulted in the aircrew ejecting and abandoning the airplane rather than trying to land it.  I never did learn what happened in that crash.

The Martin Baker MK-H7 Ejection Seat

I loved my ejection seat, but it scared the daylights out of me.  People died because of ejection seat accidents.  If the seat fired when it was  not supposed to somebody could die.  There were maintenance men who died while working in the cockpit of the F-4 because they did something that inadvertently caused the seat to fire.

The first thing the F-4 pilot was supposed to do when he got to the F-4 before a flight was a Before Exterior Inspection (Front Cockpit) check. The first three items in the F-4 checklist relate to the ejection seat and are:

1.  Face curtain and seat mounted initiator safety pins – INSTALLED

2.  Canopy interlock cable & interdictor link safety pin assembly – INSTALLED CORRECTLY & ATTACHED TO CANOPY

3.  Lower ejection handle guard – UP

The following is the beginning parts of the Front Cockpit Interior Check checklist that involved the ejection seat:

2.  Leg restraint lines – BUCKLED & SECURED

3.  Harness and personal equipment leads – FASTEN

4.  Ejection seat height – ADJUST

5.  Face curtain & seat mounted initiator safety pins – REMOVED

The ejection seat had 7 safety pins all of which had to be removed for the seat to fire.  When the F-4 was not actually occupied by a crew before, during and after a flight, the ground crew always inserted all seven safety pins into their insertion points in the seat.  All seven pins were tied together with a nylon line.  The purpose of these pins was to prevent the accidental firing of the seat.

When a crew member arrived at the airplane for a flight, the crew chief normally would have already removed six of the seven safety pins and put the six pins and the nylon line that attached the pins into a pouch and laid pouch on the top of the seat.  Before I sat in the ejection seat I always made sure that all six of the pins that were supposed to be removed were in fact removed.  I did not remove the last safety pin (the face curtain  pin) until I was completely strapped into the seat.  To get strapped in I had to do the following:

1.  Connected the two D rings on my parachute harness to the two snap connectors on the seat survival kit to connect the the kit to me. The survival kit had a radio, water, food and other survival items in case of ejection in the boonies.

2.  Connected my lap belt to strap me into the seat.

3.  Connected both of my leg restraints.  Each leg had two garters – one that went around the calf just above the boot and the other that went around the thigh just above the knee. These four garters were connected to two nylon lines that went into the bottom of the ejection seat.  During an ejection the seat pulled the nylon lines tight which caused both legs to be locked close to the seat to prevent the legs from flailing in the wind stream at high speeds, which could severely injure legs.

4.  Connected both parachute risers (lines connected to the parachute) to my parachute harness.  The F-4’s parachute was built into the top of the ejection seat, which required that pilots attach their parachute harness to the parachute risers.  It was very nice not to have to lug a heavy parachute around like the F-105 drivers had to do.

After completing the four steps listed above I pulled the seventh pin out of the face curtain and inserted it in the pouch with the other six pins and counted to make sure all seven pins were in the pouch.  I then stowed the pouch until I landed and replaced the seventh pen into the top of the seat.

The F-4 ejection seat system was designed to prevent the seat from firing if the canopy was attached to the air-frame.  There was a steel cable that had one end permanently attached to the back of the canopy and the other end was attached to a safety pin that went into the banana links on the top of the seat.  The seat would not fire unless that safety pin was removed.  Normally when an ejection was initiated the first thing that happened was the canopy thrusters on the bulkhead just below the canopy pushed up and caused the canopy to begin to open.  As soon at the front of the canopy opened enough to allow the air-stream to go underneath the front of the canopy the massive amount of air caused the canopy to rapidly open and depart the air-frame taking the steel cable and the safety pin with it.

Fortunately I never had to eject from a Phantom.  Nor did I ever come close to ejecting.  I did have one very bad emergency where on landing I was ready to eject if the slightest thing went wrong, but the landing was smooth even though it was 200+ knots without normal brakes and no nose gear steering.  That’s a story for another day.

Watch Phil Describe His Martin Baker MK-H7 Ejection Seat

A Video about the Martin Baker Company & Its Ejection Seats

Joe Boyles Remembers

We welcome our latest F-4 veteran and author Joe Boyles, Colonel, USAF (retired).  Joe wrote the following newly added articles:

1.  The Tale of Gator 3 –  Joe and Charlie Cox dropped 12 Mark 82 500  pound bombs on Korat Royal Thai Air Base,  Thailand.  We should have given Joe and Charlie a 1 Mission Over Korat patch!

2.  Rocket City – DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam, was frequently the target of rocket attacks.

3.  Gone, but Not Forgotten – Joe remembers his nine USAFA classmates killed in Southeast Asia.

4.  Rockin’ Robin – Robin Olds was the commandant of cadets the last three years of Joe’s four years at the Air Force Academy.

The Tale of Gator 3

This is a war story from my service in Vietnam. Although the incident happened 40 years ago, the details are still fresh in my mind. It was June 1972. My fighter squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, had just transferred from flying combat at DaNang to Korat Air Base in Thailand. On this day, I was assigned to fly in the rear cockpit of the third aircraft in Gator Flight piloted by my flight commander, Captain Charlie Cox. Our Linebacker target for the day was significant – the Thai Nguyen steel factory located about 30 miles north of Hanoi.

Gator Flight’s responsibility was to bomb the rail marshal yards adjacent to the factory. Each of our four F-4D Phantoms were armed with twelve 500-pound bombs carried on MERs (multiple ejector racks) located on the outboard stations.

Our Phantoms were grossed out at the maximum takeoff weight of 58,000. That meant that our takeoff roll would be longer than usual and because our center of gravity was shifted forward by the bombs on stations 1 and 9, our nose wheel liftoff speed and takeoff speed would be nearly identical and quite fast.

Everything was fairly uneventful through preflight, engine start and taxi. When tower gave us our clearance, we wheeled four aircraft on the runway, checked engines, and released brakes. With combat loads, we took 20 second spacing between aircraft so 40 seconds after our leader released brakes, Gator 3 began to rumble down Korat’s 10,000 foot runway. Even with 34,000 pounds of thrust from our two J-79 engines, it took a while for our speed to build.

As advertised at 185 knots, the nose wheel lifted off the runway. A few seconds later the aircraft began to fly and the main landing gear struts extended. What happened next was not as advertised – stray voltage was sent to the jettison circuits on stations 1 and 9 and both loaded MERs departed the aircraft.

Fighter aircraft have jettison circuits to release external stores in case of an emergency; however these circuits are disabled when the aircraft is on the ground. A squat switch runs through the main landing gear; when the struts extend the jettison circuit is armed.

In the cockpit, we had no idea what was happening behind and underneath the aircraft because the underside of the wing is not visible. But since we had just jettisoned about 15 percent of our gross weight, the aircraft accelerated like a banshee!

There were a lot of puffy cumulous clouds that day, and when we joined formation on our leader’s left wing, no one gave us a look as they navigated around the clouds. A minute or so later, we heard from the fourth aircraft as he joined the flight: “Gator 3, this is 4; you lost all your bombs on takeoff.”

Well, to say that came as a shock would be an understatement. Our leader was squadron commander Lyle “Sky King” Beckers and he immediately snapped his head in our direction and confirmed that we were missing both MERs and their bombs.

About a minute later when Cox and I had sorted out all that we knew and our pulse was under control, we called back to lead, “Boss, there’s not much point in us going with you.” Now that was an understatement – there’s little to be gained by taking a bomber to the target if he can’t do anything more than sight-see.

We got a chuckle out of that logic and Beckers cleared us to leave the formation. I dialed-in the frequency for Fort Apache (Korat’s command post) and we heard quite a commotion in the background. At this point, the incident caused by our takeoff was only about 5 minutes old.

When the noise died down, we called in and requested permission to RTB – return to base. An excited controller called back, “Negative, negative Gator 3, we’ve been bombed. The runway is closed. Divert to another base!”

We patiently explained that we had more than an hour of fuel remaining, that our aircraft would be impounded upon landing and it would be a much better plan to land the jet at our home base rather than another airfield. After some consultation, Korat agreed and about an hour later, they announced that the runway was reopened. We received clearance to land and did so uneventfully.

Of our 12 bombs, three exploded in a low-order detonation which damaged a couple of aircraft on the field but fortunately, no one was hurt. Poor old Gator 4 had been lumbering down the runway at about 60 knots when this entire conflagration occurred in front of his aircraft. He swore that when he took off with his right wheel in the dirt, but we later determined that his tire, although off the runway, was still on asphalt.

Initially, maintenance could not duplicate the stray voltage problem which energized the outboard jettison circuits, and the wing commander ordered the jet sent back to our home base in Korea. About two months after our little incident, the same aircraft jettisoned two 370-gallon wing fuel tanks from stations 1 and 9. Because stray voltage is here one moment and gone the next, it is very difficult to trace.

In retrospect, our saving grace was that the two bomb racks released simultaneously. Had they come off asymmetrically, we would not have been able to stop the roll into the heavy wing at barely 200 knots and … well I wouldn’t be writing this column right now.

So ends the saga of Gator 3 and the day I bombed my own airfield.

II Corps Close Air Support May 1972

Not sure of the exact date, but late in the DaNang AB (366th TFW “Gunfighters”) part of the TDY by the 35th TFS (F-4Ds) from Kunsan AB, South Korea. (DaNang became a “turn” base in July of 1972; 35th moved to Korat RTAFB (388th TFW.))

The approximate date would be May 22nd or 23rd 1972. The mission was what we called a “Bien Hoa double turn”.

Launch from DaNang, work with assigned airborne FAC (O-2/OV-10) for Close Air Support (CAS) mission (usually helping US or SVN Army units engaged with enemy ground forces) or a fixed target identified by the FAC (usually a Viet Cong truck park, troop formation, small AAA activity, etc.). Land at Bien Hoa for gas and rearm; launch again and recover at Bien Hoa; then launch and recover at DaNang. Armament load was normally 10 MK 82 HiDrag 500# bombs (called Snake Eye, Snake or Shake) and 6 Napalm canisters (called Napalm or Bake). (Usually called ‘Shake and Bake’.)

This mission was the first mission of the day for our 4 ship, call sign “Bullet”, I believe. Capt Will Mincey was the scheduled flight lead. We were briefed a “standard” FAC mission with a couple of other options depending on where we were sent after takeoff. The procedures applied for all 3 scheduled sorties. As you might imagine, some in-flight procedure revisions (audibles) were often required. Normal items covered: bingo fuel to Bien Hoa by drop region (Corp area); bomb pattern (altitude, dive angles, right hand wagon wheel, FAC called roll-in headings, only 2 passes with any ground fire, bombs ripple, then napalm ripple, etc.); visual overhead pattern recovery, weather permitting; weather drop options, diverts, airborne emergencies, etc.

An unknown (unremembered) Lt was #2. Jim Beatty was #3 and I was #4 (As a SEFE, I may have been giving a tactical or instrument check to someone in the flight.)

After 0730 takeoff, contact was made with Hillsboro (?) control who passed the flight off to a Covey (?) FAC in II (two) Corps. Covey briefed a TIC (troops in contact) situation; mixed USA and ARVN forces under fire from Viet Cong holding a line of 10 to 15 huts/hutches along a north-south segment of road WSW of Qui Nhon. Covey is in contact with ground FAC, who states they are in trouble and are receiving heavy automatic gunfire from 50 to 100 Viet Cong. Due to location of friendly forces, our run-in is restricted from the east to west (good, since sun will be behind us; but, bad because the road and line of low buildings run north/south) and between 260 to 300° release heading. As we arrive in the target area, Covey marks (2.75” FFAR white smoke rocket) the northern most hut.

Lead calls ‘tally smoke’; echoed by 2, 3, 4. Given the friendlies’ situation and the perpendicular attack heading to the line of huts, Will, the flight lead, calls “pairs”.

The Lt missed the “pairs” call, apparently, and holds high and dry after his pre-briefed 2 passes. His strings of 10 Snake and 6 Nape ran a ‘little’ long to the west of the road and made the friendlies hunker down.

The 3 remaining of us (all target arms) give a text book demonstration of FWS Grad accuracy low angle weapon employment. The Covey FAC would occasionally move our aim point up and down the road based on the ground FAC’s info on where the automatic gunfire was coming from. Our 15 MK82 High Drag releases decimate the huts along the road with some surprisingly large secondary explosions. The Covey FAC is pretty cool, telling us the ground guys are jumping up and down in glee as we wipe out the enemy. A couple of times we could hear the ground FAC’s excited voice over Covey’s radio.

(On about our 3rd bomb pass, I was a little too close behind Beatty on his pass, so I moved my aim point to a remaining hutch toward the north end of the line. As I am lining up for my run-in, I check #3 to see if he’s taking any ground fire. What I do see is one of Beatty’s 2 MK82s come off in “slick” configuration, i.e., the fins on one bomb did not open up and cause it to decelerate – it was sailing along pretty close to Jim’s F-4. I called “Beatty, pull up, bomb went slick.” He snatches the jet up and away from the frag pattern (I don’t think there was any damage to the jet). Whew!

Not sure now if Will called singles for the napalm, but we all dropped singles, burning what was left of the structures along the road. Covey’s feedback to us during and after our drops was really heartwarming. He and the ground FAC made us feel like superheroes for ‘saving’ our US and ARVN troops from serious casualties. The BDA report (as I remember) from the ground was ~ 5 buildings, 11 structures destroyed and 79 KIAs.

This was the most personally gratifying combat mission I ever flew. I was proud to have helped out our Army brothers. (And eternally grateful to be an Air Force jock instead of an Army platoon leader on the jungle floor.)

From Jim Beatty:

I clearly remember the call to pull up as it scared the living s–t out of me. Thank God you called or I would probably have been a mort. If there had been a bitchin’ Betty in the jet she would have been a-squawkin’. I think the LT’s name was” Larry Taylor” but wouldn’t swear to it… I do know we all jumped in his chili for not paying attention to lead as to what he wanted and when, plus putting the friendlies at undue risk. It was surely a gratifying mission as we accomplished what CAS is all about and did so in a very accurate and professional manner. Considering the experience level of at least three of us, one would expect nothing less. God, it is so great to remember the good things we accomplished. It made it all worth while and I am sure we would all gladly do it all over again “no questions asked”.

Jim

The author is Joe Lee  Burns, USAF Fighter Pilot & Colonel, USAF retired

Joe Lee Burns & Friends on the 35th TFS, Its MiG Kills, Flying the F-4 in Combat & Duty, Honor & Country

Compilation of 35th TFS Stories – Kunsan / DaNang / Korat – Circa ’72

This is in response to Emails from Doyle Glass (author) and Rick Keyt (Webmaster 35th TFS F-4 site).  I plan to share this document with my kids and grandkids.

Joe Lee writes: 4/30/07 in response to an Email on several subjects

Doyle,

Do you have a framework for question topics or is it free-flowing experience??  I am a Texan and proud of it.  I’d fly on Lyle Becker’s wing anywhere, anytime. (Big fighter pilot compliment.) Come to think of it, I guess I already have flown on his wing everywhere. (81st at Hahn AB, Germany and 35th Kunsan/DaNang/Korat, SEA)

Joe Lee writes: 5/3/07 in response to interview – clarifications

If you can, let me know how Lyle sounds next week. He’s been under the weather.  I thoroughly enjoyed being in the same squadron with him at Hahn (81st TFS) and then the 35th.  If he sounds too “tight” tell him I told you what his middle name is . . . . . He always used to say his name was Lyle “f-ing” Beckers.  I have to hook you up with another 35th Panther – Jim Beatty.  He shot down a MiG-21 with the F-4E 20 mm gun.  Break, Break.

Some names of Air Force people who had a direct, strong influence on my growth as a fighter pilot in roughly chronological order:

  • Capt Jim LaChance (ex-F-100 pilot) – Emergency Procedure Officer in my T-37 pilot training squadron at Reese. ‘64
  • Capt Dave Connett – my AC at George and Ubon. Taught me lots about flying. ‘65-‘66
  • Capts Bob Hutton and Bob Ashcraft at George and Ubon. Represented what a fighter pilot should be. Smart and fun-loving. ’65-‘66
  • Majs Mike Kidder, Bob Foster, Wally Aunan, Gary Retterbush and Lyle Beckers at Davis-Monthan and Hahn. The tricks (and hard work) of being a good fighter pilot. Living through flunked ORIs. I wanted to do good, so these guys would be proud of me. ’67-‘70

DID NOT want to be like 49th Wing CC at Holloman Col “Black” Jack Bellamy. He “led” by using fear and intimidation on his troops – not very effective. Aunan & Beckers were at Holloman, too. ’70-‘71

35th TFS – Lt Col Lyle Beckers, Maj Retterbush; and contemporaries: Capts Jim Beatty, Joe Moran, Will Mincey, George Lippemeier – I was in the company of fighter pilot heroes. And my hope for the future AF, Lt Jack Overstreet who I took under my ‘wing’ at Kunsan/DaNang/Korat. ‘72.  LtCol Boots Boothby, Ted Laudise, Jerry Nabors, Maj Randy O’Neill – great leaders at Nellis 64th FWS Aggressor Squadron. ’72-‘74

Joe Lee writes: 6/27/07 Recap of Telephonic Interview

Doyle,

Sep 1971 – Oct 1972.  Personnel “toads” wanted to send me to SAC flying Bombers! after FWS graduation.  I fought it very hard. I won, BUT got sent “remote” to Korea as retribution.  Kunsan AB, Korea – 35th TFS, “Panthers” – F-4D (close to Chonju and Iksan )  Weapons Flight Commander. We sat nuke alert for a few months, then it was cancelled. (Yea!)  3rd Tac Ftr Wing Stan Eval / Flight Examiner (Standardization Evaluator/Flight Examiner).  Lyle Beckers was a friend and a damn good SQ/CC.

1 April 1972 APRIL FOOL’S DAY – recall was a disaster!!

The 35th was alerted and deployed to DaNang AB, South Viet Nam. Later moved to Korat RTAFB, Thailand. I didn’t join the squadron in-theater until about 15 April. I flew:

  • 37 missions over North Viet Nam
  • 19 of which were ‘Linebacker’ Route Package Six
  • CAP/escort/strike/CAS missions
  • 48 combat missions South Viet Nam / Laos
  • 20 July 1972, my trusty F-4 was shot down by AAA and we were (finally) rescued by Navy chopper.

Note: Counting both combat tours (assignments), I ended up with 137 total missions over North Viet Nam (18½ missions in Route Package 6) and a total of 257 combat missions.

Apr 1, 1972 – Jun 5, 1972.  Deploy to DaNang AB, South Viet Nam

The 35th was one of the most experienced F-4 squadrons in South East Asia (SEA. Although we had about 8 1Lt aircraft commanders, we had been training them for 6 months prior to deployment. The rest of the squadron averaged over 1800 hours of F-4 time and included 8 Fighter Weapons School graduates. Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Lyle Beckers, Major Walt Bohan, and Captains Charlie Cox, Jim Beatty, Joe Moran, George Lippemeier, Will Mincey, and me. Gary Retterbush was another very experienced fighter pilot with over 1000 hours of F-105 time.)

The 35th TFS was ‘scrambled’ to deploy to DaNang because of the North Vietnam Army’s Tet offensive. Recall was the early morning of Saturday, 1 April, 1972.  It was ‘slow’ at first because of hangovers from Friday Happy Hour(s), AND it WAS April Fool’s Day!  I was home on mid-tour leave at the time, but joined the squadron mid-April.

Capt Jim Beatty gave me my ‘local checkout’ ride (~16 April ’72, I think) – supposed to be a milk-run close air support mission – but, we were diverted into NVN across the DMZ to Route Pack 1 to attack two (2) SAM sites!!!!  Jim always says he snuffed out his Benson and Hedges cigarette in his palm when Hillsboro Control said “the fingers lake area” – it was a known hot spot to avoid if you weren’t going to attack it!!  They shot lots of AAA and an SA-2 at us!!! Jim (who was in my back seat) said I passed the ‘check-out’ “because we didn’t die”.

We flew 2 sometimes 3 times a day, mostly close air support missions – low threat and high satisfaction (the Forward Air Controllers passed on the kind words from the ground commanders).