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Shooting Blanks: Top-secret Cold War recce missions

Shooting Blanks: Top-secret Cold War recce missions

Right after the war ended, I learned to fly in a Piper Cub before I went into the Air Force. I started out in Stearmans, even though they were phasing them out. They just lined us up according to height, and the shortest one-third of the guys got into Stearmans. I was happy because I wanted to fly the Stearman, and we got a lot more acrobatics than the guys in the AT-6 did. I eventually flew the P-51s at Williams Field in Phoenix, Arizona. I was 19 years old and just having a ball, and it only got better from there because they had the F-80 Shooting Stars at Williams Field. I was selected to go into a reconnaissance squadron and flew the RF-80, which was a reconnaissance version of the F-80, out at March Field in California. I actually liked recon work better than the fighters because we were flying all over the United States taking pictures. The poor fighter boys would just go to the gunnery range, shoot into the sand, and head back.

Learning to Fly a Blowtorch and Shoot a Camera

We didn’t have a T-33 dual trainer to get us ready for the F-80, so they just gave us a blindfold cockpit check. You had to know where every switch was in that F-80, then they helped you fire it up and then said, “Go.” And of course, it had a 15-to-1 boost through the hydraulic system, which we weren’t used to. Comparatively speaking, the P-51 is pretty heavy on the controls, and everybody that took off wobbled on takeoff for about five minutes and then you slowly got used to it. We flew photography missions around California, assigned to make a mosaic of a certain area. Clyde East (WW II recce P-51 ace) was a flight commander, and I was a second lieutenant when I came into the squadron. I liked him, and we called him “Hundred Percent East.” If you were on his wing on takeoff, you better not be lagging because you wouldn’t catch him. Most leads would give you a couple percent in order to play with as a wingman, but Clyde was full up on the throttle. By 1952, I had almost 400 hours of recce time flying around taking pictures. And then in 1953, I went to Korea where I received my baptism by fire.

In April of 1953, I was stationed at Kimpo, K-14, home of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, “The Cotton Pickers,” flying RF-80s and RF-86s. We shared our base with Aussies, flying Meteors, and the 4th Fighter Group, flying F-86s.

My early missions were at the controls of a RF-80, flying down railroad tracks to see if the bridges were intact or destroyed and all sorts of other targets. We usually had a wingman beside us because MiGs would come down from the north, and you had to have somebody looking out for you. Other times, when we went way up to the Yalu River, I’d have four F-86s escorting me. Our squadron call sign was “North Cape,” and I recall one mission where they called, “North Cape 14, you’re about to be bounced.” I put the RF-80 into a hard turn for home base and poured the coals to it. The wings start shaking, and all of a sudden, my wingman goes zooming right by me. He said, “Let’s get going.” I countered and said, “You get back there, and keep your eye out for MiGs!” Thankfully, they never showed up.

Read the article from the December 2018 issue of Flight Journal, Click here.

Updated: September 11, 2019 — 8:52 AM
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