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.