It was another humid day, with the smells of Thailand heavy in the morning air as I walked into the Triple Nickel Fighter Squadron building at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) in northeast Thailand. The 555th was the top MiG-killer squadron, but hunting had been scarce since I joined them earlier in the year. It was just another day of war, November 20, 1970, and time seemed to run together. I really enjoyed flying combat missions in the F-4; the adrenaline rush of being shot at without result was as exhilarating as Winston Churchill pronounced. But before fun, there was a job of making out the squadrons’ flying schedule for the next day. As a newly promoted captain, I had the responsibility as the assistant operations officer to take the air battle order (FRAG) that was broken down into missions to be flown by each squadron and assign crews to each mission.
We sent the number of aircraft needed and launch times to the maintenance crews to get the F-4s ready and sent the specified ordnance loads to munitions to be delivered to each aircraft for loading. We were flying the F-4D, aka the mighty Phantom II or “Double Ugly” with a front and rear cockpit. Each crew consisted of a pilot and navigator dubbed a Weapons Systems Operator (WSO). It was the newest and best fighter of the day: Mach 2 up high and 700+ knots on the deck was easy with two afterburner 17,000 pound thrust engines—but it really drank the fuel going flat out. Many are the F-4s left in the jungle after running out of fuel chasing a MiG.
“Just find a crew—now!”
This was in the dark ages before computers, and the schedule was a giant jigsaw puzzle to fit together. I had the joy of making sure each mission had qualified crew, everyone would be happy with their assignment, and each had crew rest. I am kidding about the happy part as no mortal could do that. (At least they would be qualified and have crew rest.) Part of the job included making sure training was done on schedule and all the non-flying duties were manned. I used a large grease board and spreadsheets to keep all the square pegs in round holes. I had volunteered for the scheduling job as it was one studiously avoided by most—too many continuous headaches. My motivation was to keep busy and out of the O club bar. I was still trying to get rid of bad habits picked up on my first combat tour. I had quit smoking three packs a day after my son was born between tours. My buddies often ribbed that decision with the comment that an “optimist was a fighter pilot who thought he would die of lung cancer.” It was a “live for today for tomorrow we die” culture. I still drank too much and cutting my time in the bar was a good thing. Those were days when you were taught as a new lieutenant that bar time was mandatory, drinking was expected, and don’t leave the officers’ club bar before the commander. How times have changed.
One of those additional pilot ground duties I alluded to was Supervisor of Flying (SOF), and that was an 8-hour shift sitting in the control tower to assist aircraft returning with emergencies. The controllers were great at their air traffic control job, but they had no flying expertise to know what the emergency aircraft might be experiencing. This included both aircraft with mechanical emergencies and battle damage. There was not a lot the SOF could do when an F-4 limped back home after being shot up. The attempt to land was up to pilot skill, luck, and God.
There was a cable barrier, à la Navy, at both ends of the runway, and the F-4 retained the Navy tail hook which was useful in getting damaged aircraft stopped after landing. I used it numerous times and was glad to have it. The SOF just made sure the crash crews were standing by the runway to pick up the pieces—if any—and give encouragement over the radio.
On a side note, my third day at Udorn I heard a deafening roar as an RF-4 (the photo-taking model) cleared my billet roof by a few feet and crashed into the building one down from mine. The sound of a huge explosion had me out the door in an instant. There was nothing left of the building or the F-4 but a ball of fire, which unfortunately killed the nurses living in that billet. War can be most uncaring and cruel. The RF-4 had the hydraulic system shot up and since the F-4 flight controls were all hydraulically actuated, that was a huge problem. The crew wobbled back to land as they did not relish the thought of having to walk back from the jungles of Laos. The hydraulics gave up the ghost on short final and the crew punched out (ejected) just as the aircraft started an uncontrollable fatal roll. That roll took it off the runway heading and straight at our line of buildings. Their parachutes opened in time to save the two crew members (thank you Martin-Baker—the ejection seat manufacturer), but one landed on top of the movie theater and I was told he broke his leg when he fell off the roof. If the F-4 had been 10, feet lower, I would have been toast. But as they say, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
I digress. Shortly after I started the scheduling process, I received a call from the 432 Wing Command Post (CP) to send them a qualified crew—now! “What qualification?” I asked. “Just not any newbies” was the response. In fighters, you were a newbie until you had 10 missions under your belt. Statistics had shown that there were more casualties in the first 10 missions than all the rest. That has been the same since World War I days; the new guys tend to die first and quickly. It took a few missions to be able to fully function under combat conditions. So much happens when folks are trying to kill you in the chaos of battle that it can take that long for an individual to be aware of the total situation. The first mission, the new guy is told to “stay on my wing, do what I do, and do not lose sight of me.” Trust me when I say I know this new guy thing is true—but that’s another story. There was no “asking” for a volunteer, I just grabbed the first crew standing by the ops desk and off they went. “What’s up, Michael?” they asked. I told them I had no idea, just go and then maybe you can tell me. Oh yes, CP also said the crew would not be available for at least 24 hours! What? More hair-pulling to find another crew for the now empty slot!
The rest of the day was change after change to my imploding schedule as more crews were requested—all immediately. My WSO assistant, Tony, and I finally finished the job when the last call came in around 1700—one more crew! No! I told them I did not have anyone left unless they cancelled one of the missions for the next day. The response was, “That is not happening, Captain; just find a crew—now!” I said there was no one left: everyone is flying, on duty, or crew rest for tomorrow’s go. Only my assistant and I were left, and we would be out of crew rest to fly that night. Crew rest was 8 hours of no duty, and that meant when you hit 16 hours of on-duty time, you could not fly for 8 hours after that. I then violated a sacred military tenet and volunteered to waive my crew rest if the Wing Commander approved it. They were desperate, so they quickly called back and said it was waived. Of course, there was nothing in writing, so guess who was left holding the bag if anything went wrong? But what could go wrong in war?
When we had tramped to the CP, there was a strangely quiet aura. By this time, I had experienced a lot—I was on my second F-4 combat tour and had over 300 missions—but nothing like this. The first item was an individual briefing that consisted of: You will not talk to anyone besides your WSO, and you will not discuss anything about this mission with anyone—including other crews, your crew chief, or anyone else we have not mentioned. They did not have to add “or we will kill you,” but I knew it was serious. Obviously, it was to ensure no one knew enough from his small part to compromise whatever the heck was planned. Next, we were sent to intel for a mission brief. They had a large map of North Vietnam on the table with the Surface to Air Missile (SAM) site locations and their maximum lethal range circles drawn in red. They touched each other as you would expect to allow them to launch at you anywhere over bad guy land. There was also a black line with TACAN radial azimuth and Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) mileages marked to start and end an orbit that bisected where the red circles touched. Hmmm … that looked like a fun place to fly. Just at the edge of their missile range, tempting them to take a free shot at me. The intel officers said, “Captain Kennedy, you will fly at 22,000 feet in an orbit between the DME leg’s segments starting at 0100.” “How long?” I asked. “Until you are told to come home. Refuel as necessary on Orange track and get back to the orbit as quickly as possible.” Weather briefing: rain, thunderstorms, and instrument conditions expected. Ordnance load: four air-to-air (AIM) 9s (heat seeking Sidewinders) and four AIM 7s (radar-guided Sparrows). I was astute enough to not bother asking, “What gives?” as it was obviously above my pay grade.
We made our flight plan: fly to the first tanker, top off all our tanks, and hit the orbit point on time. Then fly lazy holding patterns over North Vietnam alone, with no Wild Weasel (anti-SAM) support, in the soup on instruments, with thunderstorms all over and only our Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) scope to warn us of SAM launches in our direction. The RHAW detected the different radar signatures for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), SAM search radar, and SAM guidance radar and displayed them with azimuth, estimated range, and with a specific symbol on a round 3-inch scope in both cockpits. There was also an aural tone for each—it could be a noisy bugger over North Vietnam. But wait, the SAMs can’t get us, we’re between them at their max ranges, right? But wait, our intel on SAM site locations is at best 48 hours old, so they could have unknowingly moved closer to us. No problem: surely, we’ll see any launches. No, we’re in the weather on instruments, which means we may hardly see our wingtips—and there will be lightning all over the sky, too. At least we should be out of range of most radar-guided heavy AAA.
What could possibly go wrong? Nothing more to do now but eat the culinary delight known as a military box lunch (much better than C-rations), as no one can leave the command post except to be taken to his aircraft. Then a delightful pastime to which every military person can relate: sit around and wait.
Finally, around 2300 we get to our trusty steed. Everything checks out fine and we taxi for takeoff. Blasting off at night into the dark sky in sparsely populated South East Asia is intimidating. There are no ground lights to give you a clue of your attitude. You could dive into the ground and never see it coming. You release the brakes, light the afterburners, and get the push back into the seat, off we go, sensation. At 100 knots, rotate the nose to 10 degrees on the Attitude Indicator and hold it until you lift off the runway. Then out of burner, landing gear up, and turn to your initial heading while accelerating to 350 knots. I set the cockpit lights as dim as possible and still see all the gauges and take a few glances out the cockpit to confirm what I already know: it is dark and there is nothing to see. So back to the instruments and head for the tanker. My WSO Tony is looking for a radar scan of the tanker, and eventually we lock on and use the radar to close up to the KC-135. We are cleared in to refuel, and I slide into the refueling station, watching the closure rate as we settle into position. A light bar on the bottom of the tanker has a moving bar controlled by the refueling boom operator to direct you to the proper position—an imaginary box about 6 x 6 x 6 feet. Unfortunately, trying to chase that bar will have you constantly moving all over the place. After the first refueling during F-4 check out, you learn to find a spot on the tanker that is in the proper position and just fly tight formation on the spot. Mine was the top canopy bow at the bottom of the boom operator’s window. Then the boom operator plugs the extendable boom into the raised receptacle just behind the rear cockpit and starts the fuel transfer. Tanks full, we disconnect, exchange pleasantries, and tell the tanker we will see them again later tonight. Now it is time to check that the running lights are off (running lights or an afterburner will get everyone’s attention on the ground at night). I can’t think of a more chilling sight than a fighter with running lights still on over enemy territory. With the tracers of every AAA gun in range focused on it, the fighter looks like a star on top of a Christmas tree. Missiles armed, fuel feeding wing tanks first, gun sight reticle set dim, and RHAW scope checked again to be sure it’s on and working. Using the TACAN navigation site hidden in Laos, we set up our briefed orbit and wait on the control center frequency for any warnings or orders. It is quiet except for the sound of our breathing in the oxygen mask. It is not pleasant outside: there is lightning all around, a soup of clouds and rain and pitch black. The radio is quiet as I listen intently to see if I can pick up any chatter that might give a hint of what is transpiring. We orbited for an hour or more at a time, then off to refuel and back to the orbit. We sweat each time the RHAW scope came to life—was that a launch or just lightning static giving a bad reading? It seems there are continuous flashes going off. Was that at SAM exploding under us or just another lightning bolt? SAMs would explode either with a proximity fuse or at the end of their flight. It goes without saying we don’t feel tired because of the extended crew day as there is plenty of adrenaline to keep us alert. Just sweat and squirm in the dark cockpit and try not to let your imagination run wild.
Just before sunup, we finally get a call to head back to the tanker and then home. Now I was tired. I really started to wonder, what the heck had we been doing? There was too much going on during the mission to contemplate on why we were trolling the sky to get missiles launched at us. On the way home, I wondered if maybe we were decoys for a B-52 strike around Hanoi or some other big strike mission. A mantra kept coming to mind from my cadet days at the Air Force Academy: “Warriors never question why; they just do or die.” I still did not like the thought of being used as SAM bait. I much more enjoyed the challenge of “you keep trying to kill me and I will keep trying kill you” with a load of bombs and cluster bombs units.
As the sun was rising, we entered the pattern and landed at Udorn RTAFB. Taxiing in, I noticed a C-130 with its ramp down parked in the transit aircraft area. Coming down the ramp were a large group of “snake eaters,” which is what fighter pilots called the SEALs, long-range reconnaissance patrols, and other special-ops ground types. They were very grim faced, which I found strange as most others I met in Vietnam were stoic, never showing emotion. We fighter pilots, on the other hand, always had happy, carefree faces; if you might die tomorrow, why worry today?
I shut down the engines and again faced the ground crew questions and again gave the same answers as the night before, “Sorry; secret; can’t say.” After taking off our helmets, parachute harness, survival vests, and anti-G suits, we were taken directly to the CP for debriefing. It looked like we were about the last aircraft of the missions to land. Debrief was quick, “Did not see anything, cannot confirm if any SAMs launched at us or how many, and it was very dark and rainy with lightning all around.” In the CP, the mood was very somber, and I finally had to ask, “What is going on?”
We were told about the Son Tay raid to rescue our POWs and that it had failed as they found the POWs had been moved. I said I hoped at least they killed all the bad guys they found, but it was an enormous disappointment, and I was dejected to hear it. At least I now felt that my trolling for SAMs was worth the risk, even if it was just a small part of a major mission. And I was certain we were not the only F-4 crew doing diversionary tactics that night. Some were probably fighter cover, some were probably in a MiG patrol to shoot down any intercepting aircraft, and others I don’t even know about. I was incredibly proud at that moment to be an American fighting man. Looking back now, many years later, taking part in the Son Tay raid is something that will always be a prized memory. Even as SAM bait, it was an awesome experience.
During my three combat tours, I was always impressed when one of our aircraft went down, the air war would be stopped to commit the resources to find and recover the downed airman. The Son Tay raid reinforced my belief that my service to the United States of America was appreciated over the misguided roar of anti-war, anti-military sentiment. Above all, leave no one behind.
When the SA-2 appeared in Southeast Asia, it was a new and unexpected threat to fighter pilots. Until then, anti-aircraft missiles were viewed as strategic weapons for use against bombers. Fighter pilots had to learn how to defend themselves from the SAMS. We did get RHAW scopes in the cockpit that would tell you if you were being tracked by AAA or missile radar and if there was a missile guidance radar directing an SA-2 at you. These warning would be shown on the scope with different audio outputs—the SA-2 warning was a rattlesnake tone. Our only defense was to visually spot the incoming missile and try to outfly it. It could not do square corners or pull many Gs.The SAM operators soon figured out we could see their radar outputs, so they would try to trick us by locking on without launching a missile on one side of the aircraft; then, while we were searching for the missile on that side, they would launch a missile on the opposite side and wait until the last seconds to turn on the tracking radar, hoping to catch us unaware. The only defense was to keep your head on a swivel.We never had the missile defense pods modern fighters carry, but during my third tour we would put chaff packs (radar fouling metallic strips) in our speed brake wing wells. We could put the speed brakes out momentarily to dump the packs to try to spoil the radar lock on. Of course, if you forgot and used your speed brakes on join up with the KC-135 tankers, our ground radar stations were not happy.
By Lt. Col. Michael P. Kennedy (USAF Ret.)