I was fortunate to have been able to fly the F-4 Phantom II supersonic (mach 2+) fighter bomber for five years from 1971 – 1976. Although I joined to United States Air Force to avoid being drafted into the U.S. Army and going to Vietnam, fate ultimately sent me to Vietnam.
During the summer and fall of 1972, I was a member of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron flying combat missions over South Vietnam, North Vietnam and Laos. The 35th TFS was based at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, but was on temporary duty (TDY) from Kunsan Air Base, Korea. We brought our F-4D models from Korea, but we also flew the F-4E models based at Korat. The primary difference between the D and E models was that the D model did not have a 20mm canon and the E model had a 20mm canon built into the nose.
During the summer and fall of 1972, the 35th TFS had two primary missions:
Strike escort missions as part of operation Linebacker I into Route Pack VI, the most heavily defended area in the history of aerial warfare. Each strike escort mission consisted of four 35th TFS F-4s flying in “fluid four” formation on the perimeter of the strike force (the Phantoms carrying bombs) as the strike force ingressed and egressed the target in the Route Pack VI area of North Vietnam. The strike escort F-4s were the second line of defense if enemy MiGs got past the MiG CAP (combat air patrol) F-4s. The job of the strike escort was to engage and destroy MiGs that threatened the strike force. If the MiGs got too close to the F-4 bombers, the bombers would be forced to jettison their bombs and take evasive action to avoid being shot down.
- Close air support missions primarily in the northern part (Military Region 1) of South Vietnam. These missions consisted of dropping bombs (usually Mark 82 500 pound general purpose bombs – slick, with fuse extenders and snake eye, but sometimes cluster bomb units “CBUs”) under the direction and control of a forward air controller. These missions were in defense of the good guys who were being attacked by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese army men.
When I arrived at Korat in the summer of 1972, the 35th TFS was divided into two groups. One group, the older and more experienced guys, flew daily Operation Linebacker I missions into Route Pack VI and the other group flew close air support missions. Because I was a young, inexperienced and very green 1st Lt., I was assigned to the close air support missions. I did not mind too much because the Route Pack VI missions were much more dangerous.
Although I did get to fly combat missions into Route Pack VI, most of the combat missions I flew were close air support missions at night in the northern part of South Vietnam or Laos. I usually flew two missions a night. After dropping all my bombs on the first target, my flight of two F-4s landed at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam, to rearm and refuel. I then rendezvoused with another Forward Air Controller and dropped another load of bombs on the bad guys and returned to Korat.
My typical bomb load was twelve Mark 82 500 pound general purpose bombs. It was common for six of the bombs to have fuse extenders. Every bomb had at least one fuse, which was the device that caused the bomb to detonate. A fuse extender was a three foot metal tube that screwed into the nose of the bomb with the fuse on the tip of the tube. The purpose of a fuse extender was to cause the bomb to detonate three feet above the ground for maximum blast effect against troops in the open. Each bomb had a nose and a tail fuse that was selected by the pilot before dropping the bomb. If a building or a structure was the target, the tail fuse was preferred because it would cause the bomb to detonate after the bomb first penetrated the structure so that the full force of the blast would occur inside the structure.
A Normal Day at the Aerial Office
My normal work day consisted of waking in the late afternoon then showering, shaving and getting dressed in my nomex green fire retardant flight suit. I then rode the shuttle bus or hitched a ride to the Korat Air Base Officer’s Club for breakfast just before dark. After eating, I went to Fort Apache (scroll to the bottom of the page for two pictures of Fort Apache taken by Col. Grady Morris), the intelligence building on the flight line, to plan and brief my mission for the night.
Mission briefings usually started two hours before take off. First, an intelligence officer briefed all the crews on recent events in the ground and air war and specific information about my target area. We also got a weather briefing. Next, the flight leader of each flight of two or four F-4s conducted individual briefings for his flight. Most of the night missions involved flights of two F-4s.
During the briefing, we talked about the types of weapons delivery to be used to drop our ordnance, emergency air fields, search and rescue procedures, missing wingman procedures, rendezvousing with the forward air controller, and return to base (“RTB”) procedures. I usually had 10 – 30 minutes after the briefing to prepare to go to the airplane.
This 10 – 30 minutes of inactive time was when I was most afraid because the idleness allowed me to think about what I was preparing to do — use a multi-million dollar supersonic flying machine to drop bombs on fellow human beings who were trying to kill me at the same time I was trying to kill them. It was during this time I always went to the bathroom at the insistence of my nervous bowels.
My Flying Gear
About fifteen minutes before station time (the time designated to depart Fort Apache for the flight line and my airplane) I dressed for aerial combat. I put my wallet, money and all personal affects in my locker. The only identification I carried when I flew combat missions was my Geneva convention card and my US Department of Defense military ID card.
The G Suit
While flying the F-4, I wore a G suit or technically I suppose it was an “anti-G suit” because its purpose was to allow me to withstand Gs when turning hard in the F-4. The normal force of gravity we all experience is called “one G” or one gravity force. When a fighter turns hard, it can cause the airplane and its occupants to experience multiple gravity forces. During normal combat maneuvers, the F-4 frequently “pulled” 4 or 5 positive Gs. Five Gs means that the pilot’s body weights five times its weight. Moving while pulling 4 or 5 Gs is difficult, especially turning the head around to check the five or seven o’clock positions. While pulling Gs, I sometimes had to use my arm to push my head backwards so I could look behind the airplane.
The purpose of the G suit is to help fighter pilots pull more Gs before they gray out (lose peripheral vision) or black out (become unconscious). The G suit looks like an ugly weird set of pants and is worn over the flight suit. It zips on around each leg and the abdomen. The G suit has air bladders over the stomach, around the thighs and the calves of each leg. It also has a hose that plugs into an outlet in the cockpit. When the G forces increase, the airplane pumps air into the bladders in the G suit. More Gs means more air pumped into the suit. When the Gs decrease the air pressure in the G suit decreases until there is no air pressure in the G suit when the G force equals one. The G suit increases a pilot’s ability to withstand G forces because it constricts the lower half of the body and makes it more difficult for blood to flow from the upper body to the lower body. The result is that it takes more G forces to push blood from the brain thus giving the pilot the ability to withstand greater G forces before graying or blacking out.
My G suit was also a place to store items that otherwise could not be carried in the cramped cockpit of the F-4. My G suit had a pocket on the inner thigh in which I carried a USAF issued switchblade knife tied to a lanyard that was secured to the G suit. One end of the knife was always open because it was a special hook shaped blade the sole purpose of which was to cut four parachute lines to make the parachute more maneuverable. I also had a large jungle knife in a sheath with a sharpening stone attached to my G suit. I made sure I had several strips of gray USAF tape on the thigh area of my G suit. I used the tape to cover instrument lights that were too bright when I flew at night.
The Survival Vest
Next I donned my survival vest made of light-weight nylon material. It contained the following survival gear: two two-way radios, 50 rounds of .38 caliber ammunition, compass, tourniquet, first aid kit, two smoke flares (to make a lot of colored smoke) and several pen gun flares (to be fired into the sky). When I flew, I also wore a parachute harness into which the parachute straps contained in the ejection seat connected. The parachute harness had two under arm life preserver units (lpus) to be inflated if I ejected over water and three hundred feet of nylon line in a pack on the back of the harness. Because much of Southeast Asia was covered by thick jungles with trees over 200 feet high, the nylon line in the parachute harness would allow me to slowly lower myself to the ground if I ejected and my parachute got stick in the trees.
I took special care to check the two radios I carried in my survival vest. I made sure each radio worked properly and that the batteries were fully charged. I also put two extra radio batteries in my anti-G suit pocket along with two plastic bottles of ice. If I were shot down, the only way I would be rescued would have been to make contact with US forces on one of the three radios I carried (two in my survival vest and one in the survival kit in my ejection seat).
The last thing I did after putting on my survival vest, anti-G suit and parachute harness was to check out my Smith & Wesson .38 caliber Combat Masterpiece revolver from the survival gear people. I then grabbed six .38 caliber bullets from the big tin of bullets and loaded my little pea shooter and inserted it into the holster strapped to my leg. Although I had an additional 50 rounds of bullets in two bandoliers on my survival vest, the weapon was no match for an enemy soldier with an AK-47, but it might be useful for self defense against tigers and cobra snakes than inhabited the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Arriving at the Airplane
An hour before take off a USAF step van took us to the airplanes. The first thing I did was put my gear in the cockpit and do the Preflight Checks that consisted of:
- Before Exterior Inspection Check
- Exterior Inspection Check
- Before Entering Cockpit Check
- Cockpit Interior Check
- Before Electrical Power Check
- After Electrical Power Check
Checking the Ordnance
During the Exterior Inspection Check, I inspected each ordnance item. I made sure the ordnance was securely fastened to the airplane and that each fuse had a safety wire in it. The fuses had little propellers on their tips. The bombs were not armed (ready to explode) unless they had a fuse and the fuse was active. Before a fuse could become active, the propeller on the fuse had to spin in the wind fast enough to cause the fuse to become active. The purpose for the fuse, the propellers and the arming of the fuse was to prevent a bomb from colliding with another bomb when released and detonating under the airplane or from simply detonating spontaneously when released.
Before bomb release, the propellers on the fuses could not spin in the wind because they had a safety wire inserted in the propeller that prevented the propeller from spinning. When the bomb was released, the safety wire remained attached to the airplane and pulled free from the propeller. With the safety wire removed, the little propeller spun in the wind and armed the fuse. Once armed, the bomb would detonate when the fuse was “jostled.”
My airplane usually carried three AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missiles and one ALQ-119 jamming pod in the four missile bays on the bottom of the fuselage. There were no MiGs in the South Vietnam airspace so the AIM-7s were not needed. Although there were a few SA-2 Guideline surface to air missiles (“SAMs”) in the northern part of South Vietnam during the NVA’s Easter 1972 offensive, I do not recall one being fired at me outside of North Vietnam.