22 May 2016

We Were Navigators Once, and Young

Fifty-five years ago today, 22 May 1961, I achieved an ambition that I first had in grade school:  I was an officer and a navigator in the US Air Force.  In fact, I started out wanting to be a pilot, but in the end I became a navigator, however, the objective was the same:  to fly airplanes, preferably jets, and fast jets if at all possible.

Step one in achieving that objective was passing all the screening tests that would land me a slot in an Air Force pilot training class.  I was told that I could have a slot as an aviation cadet in a navigator training class, if I wanted one.  What the hell; it was a flying job.  I took it.  I received word that I had a slot in Undergraduate Navigator Training Class 61-07 and I was to report in on 7 June 1960.  Destination:  Harlingen Air Force Base, Texas.  One of my uncles, who had been a B-24 gunner in WWII, told me a bit about Harlingen:  hot, humid, and the gnats were bothersome.  He had gone through aerial gunnery training at Harlingen.

On the stifling morning of 8 June 1960, after an all night flight that took three of us from Chicago-Midway to Dallas, two other would be aviation cadets and I got off a Trans Texas DC-3 at Harlingen Air Force Base.  We were met by a Blue Bird bus and a soon-to-be-graduating aviation cadet.  Double Gold they called those guys.  Unlike all the rest of the aviation cadets, their shoulder boards were white and had two gold stripes running their length.  We were fortunate in that we got a the laid back, what me worry, Double Gold cadet.  The would change as soon as we got off the bus.

The Blue Bird trundled several brand new aviation cadets, including me, off to D for Dog Squadron.  It was there that we would start our training as officers and navigators.  Needless to say, there was much shouting in somewhat unintelligible jargon used in the universe of aviation cadets.  We were dog tired (no pun intended) having flown all night and now we were being shunted from here to there trying to get settled into Dog Squadron.  It took all day and into the night -- all to the din of shouting by upperclassmen.  When lights out came I went right to sleep, only to be awakened a minute later by some nitwit yelling something about "At Ease, At Ease, CCQ..."  It was dark and everyone was  jumping out of their bunks; I could hear the feet hitting the floor.  "They can't mean me," I thought, hoping all of this was a bad dream.  It wasn't.  So we crawled back into our civilian clothes and stumbled out into the semi-darkness toward Company Street.

The next two weeks were our break-in period.  We marched around in the sage green cotton flying suits that were the standard garb for Air Force aviators.  We lived in those green bags; literally.  The cadet jargon for this initial stage of training was Green Tux(edo).  We marched and sweated and marched some more and did things like get initial issue of clothing and equipment that we would be using for the next ten or eleven months.  Oh, those green bags did get sweaty in the south Texas sun; they became salt encrusted with sweat; day after day, they became sweatier and sweatier, saltier and saltier.  It got to the point where we didn't need to hang them on a hangar; they could stand on their own.

After two weeks, those of us who survived the first two weeks of screening as Green Tux transitioned to Fourth Class Aviation Cadets and started learning the basics of marching, saluting, and all the other basic military skills we needed to have.  Then, finally, the navigation training began.  The curriculum included all the skills that MATS and SAC wanted in a newly minted navigator.  It would take about ten months to complete.

The aircraft we would practice our new-found knowledge in was the T-29C "Flying Classroom", a version of the Convair 240.  In practicing, more of us would be weeded out by the challenges posed by the various navigation techniques we had to learn and show some semblance of proficiency in before we could be awarded our wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant.  Only after 22 May 1961 did the journey begin in earnest.

The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum is about 26 miles southwest of Omaha.  The museum has a long history of telling the story of Strategic Air Command and has an impressive number of aircraft to support the telling of that story.  One of the aircraft happens to be a nicely restored example of the T-29C.  Last Veterans Day, the museum had a tribute to all veterans; Linda and I attended.  Prior to the event I asked the new museum director, Dr. Mike McGinnis, for access to the interior of The Flying Classroom to get some pictures.  As an aside, Mike McGinnis is also a retired Army Brigadier General and probably the best thing that has happened to the museum in many years.  Mike happily obliged and after the day's events were over I went over to the T-29; a couple of museum restoration people and I went aboard.  I was amazed at the interior.

It was all there, pretty much.  And pretty much as I remember it, from a distance of 54 years.  

T-29C, tail number 0-00190 is a gem.  Nicely restored, both inside and out.  It has been restored as a walk-through display, when the situation warrants.  It is also used as a classroom, just as it was during its flying days.  It's just that it never leaves the protection of the hangar these days.  It has all the basic equipment I remember from all those years ago:  several driftmeters; three or four astrodomes (now crazed by exposure to the Sun), a periscopic sextant mount complete with Kollsman D-1 sextant.  The integrator timer works and the two averager indices aligned after the timer ran out.  I wonder if the bubble chamber still works.  Unfortunately, the sextant mount was sealed some time ago to keep water from seeping into the aircraft.

Entering the bird from the aft hatch (that bailout strap that used to be there is gone) the first things you see are a couple of driftmeters and an APN-9 Loran receiver.  In fact, there are several Loran receivers on board.  The seats and desk tops are pretty much the way I remember them, but they likely are not original equipment.  And we definitely didn't have those nifty little desk illumination lamps built into the interior wall of the bird.  Those would have been nicer than the lamps we actually had.  And check out that oxygen regulator under the right rear corner of the nav table.

I just had to go forward to check out the APS-23 Master Radar position.  It was pretty much
as I remember it.  I only sat there for a sortie one time, and that was on one last flight for the month's flight pay before we graduated.  The instructors were busy monitoring student progress on whatever it was they were practicing, day celestial, I think.  The students were officers  and a couple of them kept bugging me wanting to know where we were on that Edinburgh-to-Sweetwater route we all recall so well.  I just ignored them.  What could they do?  I noted one detail about the Master Radar position that escaped me as a student navigator:  That half a dog house looking thing sitting on top of the indicator is part of the radar scope camera mechanism.  It houses a mirror assembly that directs an image of the radar scope itself to a 35mm film canister mounted behind the dog house.  You can see the back end of the film canister just behind the yoke that suspends the radar indicator.  I learned about radar scope photography flying the EB-66C in Southeast Asia.  As an aside, in Southeast Asia they suggested to you that if you found yourself to be temporarily disoriented, you should remove the cover of the film canister and shine a flashlight inside to make sure the film was feeding properly.

Taking in some of the other details in the bird, I noticed a hand held sextant hanging in one of the astrodomes.  It wasn't the MA-2  that we used, but an older one that was being phased out when we went through UNT all those years ago.  I did find the carrying case for a MA-2 sextant, but sadly, it was empty.  However lying right next to it was the aluminum mounting arm for an astrocompass.  I asked the two restoration folks who were with me where the astrocompass was.  Turned out there was none.  I then explained what it was, how it fitted onto the mounting arm, and how the whole assembly fitted into the astrodome.  "Oh," they
said, almost in unison, "we were wondering what that was."  At that moment I decided that an astrocompass would be a worthy addition to the exhibit.  And I knew, sort of, where I might find one:  Bill Day.
Bill Day

John McKinnon
When we got back home I did a quick check of eBay and found out how much a relic like the MKII astrocompass was selling for.  And then I emailed Bill Day.  Bill told me that he used to have a MKII astrocompass (sun compass he likes to call it), but he had given it away to John McKinnon as a prize several class reunions ago.  However, as far as he knew it was still in McKinnon's possession and stashed under his bed.  In short, that piece of history was gathering dust someplace in California (correction:  he lives in Tacoma, Washington).  

Bill said that John McKinnon was a hard man to find and didn't answer his phone or emails very often.  In fact McKinnon had been out of contact for some time.  Bill recruited Gill Armenta, another classmate into this effort since Gill lived fairly close to McKinnon and looked in on him from time to time.  Armenta, too, tried to contact McKinnon with no success.  It looked like I was going to have to buy a MKII astrocompass because that T-29 in the museum needed one to complete the historical picture.  
Gill Armenta

The effort went on for several months while Bill and I shopped on eBay and even bid on two or three MKII astrocompasses -- and lost out on every bid.  The astrocompass pickings were beginning to look pretty slim and the price on the less than desirable pieces of junk astrocompasses went up as supply became tight.  Finally, Gill made contact with McKinnon by, as I recall, driving to his house and talking to him.  In any case, a deal was struck and Gill took possession of the astrocompass.  From then on the going was simple.  I waited until I had the astrocompass in hand before I contacted Mike McGinnis; he in turn, contacted his curator, Brian York, to arrange transfer of the astrocompass to the museum.  Finally, on fine day in March (I think it was in March), I drove the twenty-some miles out to the museum and found Brian York waiting for me at the front desk.  We were headed for the library when Mike McGinnis joined us.  I gave them a verbal description of what the thing was and what it did; and then I asked if we could go down the T-29 exhibit and I would demonstrate how it fit in the aircraft.  Brian and I went down to the bird and Brian rolled up a boarding ramp; we clambered aboard.  I found the mounting arm, took the astrocompass out its carrying case, and inserted it into the mounting base.  Then I slipped it into the
mounting bracket on the rim of the astrodome.  Perfect.  Almost.  You with sharp eyes will note that the astrocompass is pointed 90 degrees off of where it should be pointed.  Some day I'm going to have to go out there and correct that minor error.

Maybe Dr. McGinnis will let me show his restorers one more detail.  Better his restorers actually work on the thing than me.  They do have lots of unique skills.

02 April 2016

The Last Flight of Bat 21

I guess anyone who served in that part of the world and in that era has his own Vietnam Memorial tucked away in­side his head; I know I have mine.  I think I have seen some of those other private memorials in the faces of those who have visited the black marble slabs on The Mall in Washington DC.  It doesn't necessarily have to be someone who served there; parents and siblings have their memorials too.  Those who actually fought there, however, share a fellowship which make their memorials different from those of parents, sisters, brothers, and friends. 

In my memory are at least six people whose names are somewhere on those marble slabs.  Some of them died in separate incidents, but one event stands out clearly and is not much dimmed by the passage of time.  It is a story of courage, dedication and sacrifice: it is the story of Bat 21.

It happened April 2, 1972, some time around 1530 local time.  Easter Sunday.  I am sure that there was other fighting and dying going on at that time, so in the grand scheme of things maybe this memory is like so many others.  The North Vietnamese had begun their spring offensive across the 17th Parallel – The DMZ – three days earlier on 30 March.  The fighter jocks coming back from the morn­ing missions that Sunday were talking about the huge amount of traffic on The Trail I re­call one young fighter jock who worked The Frag Shop with me saying that Ban Karai Pass looked like the Los Angeles Free­way.

I was assigned as a navigator to the 42nd Tactical Elec­tronic Warfare Squadron (42nd TEWS).  I flew missions with the squadron, but I also converted the basic orders to con­duct electronic warfare operations into some­thing that the air crews could use to plan and carry out their assigned mis­sions.  The orders were called fragmentary orders, since they were the day to day execution of a larger plan known as an operation order.  We shortened the term fragmentary to frag, and the place where they were interpreted was a "shop," thus, it was the Frag Shop.  I was working the Frag Shop that day; it was rainy and gray at Korat Royal Thai Air Base.  I had given the usual mission briefing to the crews of Bat 21 and Bat 22.  Theirs was the usual assignment:  provide electronic coun­termeasures against the SAM threat to B-52s bombing in the area of the DMZ.  The targets were new; they had been changed that morning from the orders originally transmitted from "Blue Chip."  At noon it had already been a hectic day full of changes and then changes to changes as the full extent of the North Vietnamese invasion took shape.

Bat 22 was an EB-66E.  It was the primary jamming aircraft, and its mission was fairly simple:  turn on all the jammers at the appointed time, keep between the threat and the B-52s (as much as possible, since at the time, we electronic warfare crews were forbidden to enter North Vietnamese airspace), and stay around the target area for the specified period of time.  Bat 21 was another thing; it was an EB-66C.  Its primary mission was to ferret out enemy radars:   to electronically identify them, record their pa­rameters, and to locate them to the extent that it was pos­sible to do so.  Its secondary mission was ECM, but it was better suited to its role as an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) gatherer. Frequently, the ELINT bird would simple cruise quietly through the target area looking for threat signals while the companion ECM bird provided the required jamming support.

Bat 22 carried the usual crew of three:  pilot, navigator and electronic warfare officer (EW).  The navigator and EW sat side by side just behind the pilot and separated from the pilot by equipment racks and consoles.  The entire crew sat in the nose of the aircraft, ahead of the forward fuel tank.  Bat 21 carried six people:  pilot, navigator, and four EWs.  To this day, I can remember and recite the names of that crew as if I had just looked at the daily flight schedule.  The four EWOs (also called Ravens) sat tucked in between the forward and aft fuel tanks in what had once been the bomb bay of the aircraft.  It was their own little world, and it was effectively isolated from the pilot and navigator who sat diagonally across from one another up in the nose of the EB-66C.

It seemed routine coming into the target area near Cam Lo.  The weather was cloudy, but that didn't prevent the B-52s from performing their mission.  They were dropping under radar control and knew exactly where the bombs were going.  It wasn't good SAM avoidance weather, though.  For the most effective SAM avoidance, clear weather was preferred.  You don't always get what you want, however, and, as always, the crews end up taking things as they come. 

Sometime after Bat 22 turned on his jammers, it happened.  The EWO on Bat 22 heard the familiar "rattlesnake" of the SA-2 guidance sig­nal.  A SAM (probably more than one) was on the way and the sound of the rattlesnake was an electronic signal from the launch site which indicated that the SAM was being guided toward its target.  The Ravens on Bat 21 also saw and heard the signal.  The pilots on Bat 21 and Bat 22 also heard the warning through their RHAW equipment and saw a vi­sual estimate of the direction and proximity of the launch site.

The rattlesnake was a real attention-getter.  I can recall more than one EWO responding to that sound.  The urgency of the situation came out differently for each EWO, but there was no mistaking what was happening.  I have a mission tape from one of the more challenging sorties I flew while on that tour of duty with the 42nd TEWS.  Even now, if I listen to the part that includes the rattlesnake, the hair on the back of my neck rises.

Something was wrong.  The threat was coming from what should have been friendly territory!  "SAM coming up on the right" was the warning to Bat 21's pilot from the Ravens in the bomb bay.  Things were probably a bit confusing; there should not have been SAMs in the direction the equipment said the threat was coming from; just the day before that had been friendly territory.  We had received nothing to indicate it was not still friendly.  The pilot began a breaking right turn to avoid the SAMs, but he should have turned the opposite direction to avoid the approaching missiles.  Did he misinterpret the Ravens' warning?  As soon as the break had begun, one of the Ravens saw what was happening and told the pilot to break left.

The pilot began to reverse the break; by doing so Bat 21 would re-cross its original flight path, and doing that made it more likely that the missile would strike its target.  The maneuver probably sealed the fate of Bat 21 and its crew.  The SAM was probably moving at Mach 3.0 or more by that time.  Faster than a rifle bullet, its 450 pound high explo­sive warhead detonated into the underside of Bat 21.

The SA-2 "Guideline" missile was designed to project the ex­plosive force of its warhead in a conical pattern forward along its flight path.  When the missile warhead detonated, Bat 21 was instantly riddled with shrapnel and debris from the explosion.  The wing and fuselage fuel tanks gushed JP-4; the hydraulic system, broken in countless places, sprayed red hydraulic fluid, like blood from severed arteries, throughout the air­craft and into the sky.  Engine oil tanks ruptured during the detonation and no longer fed lubricating oil to the en­gines.  Oxygen and electrical lines were broken in countless places throughout the airframe.

The effect was immediate and catastrophic: the intercom went dead; from the actions of the pilot, the navigator knew that control of the aircraft had been stripped away as the hydraulic system bled its pressure and fluid.  The pilot gave the navigator a thumbs-up gesture to eject.  The navi­gator ejected almost immediately, but the adrenaline charged situation altered hu­man perception of time to slow motion amid the chaos aboard Bat 21.  The navigator went through the few steps necessary for a safe ejection from the stricken aircraft and then looked down to assure his feet were positioned for ejection.  He could see the ground – 25,000 feet below – between his feet; he also saw the pilot going through what appeared to be the ejection sequence.  The navigator pulled up the handles which armed his ejection seat; ejection came with a mere touch of the triggering mechanism.

Everything worked as advertised.  The butt-snapper kicked the navigator free of the seat and simultaneously armed his parachute for an automatic opening.  He was now falling, free of the ejection seat.  At some point after he ejected from the EB-66, the navigator heard a loud explosion.  He didn’t know  whether it was the aircraft exploding or another SAM detonating.

A seat pack full of survival equip­ment was tied to him by the parachute harness, he wore a nylon-mesh survival vest which carried more equipment, including a hand-held emergency radio and a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.  Even though his parachute had been armed to automatically open at 14,000 feet, the navigator was falling through clouds; he was dis­oriented and was un­able to see the ground.  Unwilling to trust the barometer in his parachute to open the parachute automatically, he reached for the T-handle on the chute and pulled.  The re­sponse was immediate and hard!  He knew from the opening force that he must still be well above 14,000 feet.

The parachute canopy was open now; and it was in one piece!  No tears in the nylon, and all the shroud lines were in good order.  The emergency procedures training he had re­ceived came in bits and pieces.  As he had been trained to do, he pulled an activating tab on his seat pack deployed a life raft and dropped his survival gear away from the re­mains of the seat pack to dangle by a lanyard.  Now he was configured for landing.

But where was he?  At about 10,000 feet he had descended be­low most of the clouds; now he could see the ground.  Well below him was a O-2A observation plane.  The little Cessna "pushmepullyou" was piloted by a US Air Force Forward Air Con­troller (FAC) who was probably out trying to find out what the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was up to.  The navigator reached for the hand-held emergency radio tucked into a pocket in his survival vest.  It was a gross violation of survival training – and good sense – to pull the radio out while he was still coming down in his parachute.  There was no lanyard attached to the radio; if he dropped it, it would be gone.  If he didn't drop it on the way down, he could lose it or damage it on landing.   Without that little ra­dio his survival and rescue would be much more difficult: he would be unable to communicate with the Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft sure to come to his aid.  Still, the sight of the FAC below him was enough to overcome training and good sense.  On UHF Guard channel he made his distress call to the FAC.  Bat 21 Bravo needed help!  In rescue parlance the navigator assumed the call sign Bat 21 Bravo, or, the second crew member on board the EB-66C.  The pilot would have been Bat 21 Alpha, and the Ravens would have had suffixes Char­lie, Delta, Echo, and Foxtrot.  Only Bat 21 Bravo would ever transmit a call for help.

The FAC responded immediately and asked Bat 21 Bravo for his position.  The navigator told him.  Standing his little O-2A on a wing, the FAC spotted Bat 21 Bravo, still several thou­sand feet above his aircraft.  For the next few minutes, an eternity seemed to pass while Bat 21 Bravo descended under his nylon canopy; the FAC circled and marked his position.  At least when he hit the ground, someone would know where he was.  Rescue should be a snap.

Bat 21 was not the only aircraft which had been fired on.   Bat 22 was also a target.  The North Vietnamese were clever; they had seen the EB-66 SAM evasive maneuver many times be­fore and now anticipated it.  At the sound of the rattlesnake and the EWO's call to break, the pilot of Bat 22 began the maneuver:  full throttles, a 90 degree roll away from the threat, a high speed turn and descent followed by a reversal of the turn and a rapid climb.  If it worked, and it usually did, the high speed missile simply would be unable to follow the aircraft through the maneuver and would pass by harmlessly.  This time, however, as Bat 22 was re­versing in the bottom of its maneuver, two SA-2s streaked by.  It was an ambush, and it almost worked.

The crews of the two Bats were not the only ones defending the B-52 strike; two F-105G "Wild Weasels" were also  working the mission.  The job of the Wild Weasels was SAM hunter-killer.  Armed with three anti-radiation missiles and a 20-millimeter gatling gun in the nose, each of the Weasels was quite capable of dealing with a SAM site – if and when they dared to bring up their tracking and guidance radars.  The radar signals had come up, but behind the two Wild Weasels; their crews had anticipated a threat from North Vietnamese territory across the DMZ.  By the time the Weasels were in position to fire on the SAM site the North Vietnamese manning that missile site had "pulled the plug;" the radars were no longer transmitting.  Those guys operating that SAM site knew what they were doing.  The Wild Weasel flight lead looked up to check the airspace for more missiles, but all he saw the mortally wounded Bat 21 in a 60 degree dive and trailing a great white plume behind it.  Bat 21 then broke into two or three large pieces and disappeared into the clouds.

The Command Post Hot Line in the Frag Shop tinkled, and I picked it up.  The officer controller simply said, "Bat 21 has been shot down."  I ran to next door to the command post to find out what had happened.  As I got there I could hear the report still coming in.  Bat 22 had made a HF-radio phone patch with Apache Control (the local command post) through the Korat HF radio station.  The initial report said two chutes; it didn't sound good.  All around me things be­gan to happen:  two intelligence officers rushed in with personal data on the crew of Bat 21 and made AUTOSEVOCOM contact with the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC); it would help in any rescue attempt.  The Deputy Commander for Operations came in to assess the situation;  the crews had nicknamed him "Warhawk" in recognition of his aggressive style.  He listened grimly while the officer controller briefed him on what was known: one EB-66C was down; now only one chute reported seen.  SAR was in progress.  Warhawk seemed to think the Bats were flying where they weren't sup­posed to be, but after a quick look at the map it was appar­ent that the NVA had moved what was presumed to be a non-mobile SAM site into Quang Tri Province in South Vietnam and had launched several missiles from it.

Yes indeed, SAR was in progress.  When Bat 21 Bravo's parachute had opened, it triggered a small radio inside his parachute pack.  The radio was a distress beacon commonly known as a "beeper."  It sent out a distinctive distress call on UHF Guard Channel; its beeping sound implied a frantic urgency that would alert anyone in the area with a UHF radio re­ceiver.  It would also effectively block radio transmissions with rescuers, so when the navigator hit the ground, the first thing he did shut off the beeper and ditch his parachute.  At the same time, he decided to get rid of that flight crew standard issue .38 caliber revolver all crew members carried into combat.  He had decided he did not want to be tempted into a fire fight with people armed with AK-47s.  It was a personal choice.  The cloudy, rainy conditions had helped mask his descent and landing from the North Viet­namese.  They knew a US plane had been shot down, but they did not know where the crew members were or how many crew members were down.

There was now a race to see who would get to Bat 21 Bravo first.  Bravo had landed in a cultivated area – a rice paddy.  It was rainy and misty on the ground, but as he ap­proached the ground, Bravo could see NVA on the ground mov­ing around.  None were in his immediate touchdown area.  Pushing his chute and revolver into a muddy dike containing the rice paddy, Bravo made his way for the cover of a dis­tant tree line.  At the same time Army helicopters pa­trolling the area picked up Bravo's distress call and made their way to the scene.  The area was "hot."  Almost immedi­ately one of the helicopters was shot down by NVA ground fire; the other helicopters withdrew under heavy ground fire.  By the time Bravo got to the cover of the trees, the low visibility and the waning light made rescue all but im­possible.  He would have to spend the night on the ground.  The FAC looked over the area in which Bravo was hidden; it looked reasonably secure for the time being.  He contacted Bravo and assured him that he would be back with a rescue force at first light.

In the deepening gloom Bravo could see NVA regulars moving around.  He had to find a place to hide until SAR came back for him the next morning.  Keeping an eye on the NVA around him, Bravo finally found a downed tree overgrown with vines; he crawled under it and tried to make himself hard to see.  It appeared to Bravo that the NVA knew that he was somewhere in the area, but they didn't know where; they were beating the bushes for him in a random search.  As the forest dark­ened, NVA movement died down.  Just when it looked as if the danger of immediate capture had passed, Bravo saw two NVA moving directly toward his position.  "They must be coming to get me," he thought, and tried to be as inconspicuous as he could.

Like everyone else assigned to combat duty in Southeast Asia, Bravo had gone through "Snake School" at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  The idea behind the school was to refresh skills learned from the basic survival course back in Washington State and to introduce fliers to the jungle.  Introduction to the jungle meant being dropped off on a re­mote hillside that was the lower slopes of a inactive volcano called Mount Pinatubo; it was in the jungle west of Clark.  Getting to the training area involved trekking to a campsite at which an American instructor and a Negrito guide would spend two days showing the flyer/students what to do to avoid capture and how to survive until help arrived.  The ex­perience for the flyer/students included being the quarry for selected members of the local Negrito village.  The Negritos' prize for being the hunters was a one-pound bag of rice for every flyer they "captured" during the hunt.  They were very good hunters.  It turned out that Bravo was a very good evader; he was one of the few that the Negritos could not catch as the survival course unfolded.

Now, two NVA soldiers walked directly toward Bravo's hiding place as if they surely knew he was there.  As they came closer, Bravo saw that both were armed with AK-47s and one was carrying a radio pack on his back.  Closer and closer they came until they stopped by the fallen tree.  "They must be toying with me," he thought, as the two soldiers leaned against the tree for a smoke and a pee.  Happily, they didn't know he was there, and not being Negritos, they failed to notice the subtle clues which could have given away Bravo's presence.  Having smoked and rested, the two soldiers moved on, unaware that Bravo had lain within inches of their feet.

Bravo was tucked in for the night, and slowly, the adrenaline that had kept him going for the past few hours began to dissipate.  The situation was still tense, but not like the shoot-down and landing had been.  As he lay in his hiding place it began to be apparent that his physical condition was less than first-class.  Until now the adrenaline had masked an injury common to air crew who had ejected from the EB-66.  The ejection seat on the bird was old technology, and unlike the more modern rocket propelled seats, its function depended on a rather large cannon shell.  The shell provided the propulsion that drove the seat free of the aircraft if a crew member had to abandon the aircraft.  The force of its detonation was far from gentle and caused spinal injuries to anyone who was not positioned just so in the seat at the moment of ejection because the force of the ejection came in a very short time interval and was like a sharp kick rather than the firm push the modern rocket seats provide.  The injury sustained is known as a spinal compression; anyone with such a back injury finds it very difficult to move without pain.  Because of the urgency of the situation, Bravo had not been in the optimal position when the ejection came.  He hurt, but not so badly that he couldn't move.  Still, any injury in his situation was not good.  Fortunately, his location was known precisely by JRCC.  There would be a SAR at first light, and then he would be out of there and back home to Korat.

At first light the FAC was back and so was a SAR force.  The SAR force normally consisted of a pair of Sandys and a pair of rescue helicopters, plus whatever fighters were needed to suppress ground fire prior to picking up the downed flier.  In this case, there was also a Wild Weasels SAM suppression package and some ECM support in the form of a pair of EB-66Es.  The Sandys were the rescue supervisors.  They flew Korean War vintage Navy dive bombers (A1-Hs) which had been modified to a close air support role.  They were armed with 20 millimeter cannon in the wings and smoke rockets under the wings (the smoke rockets were not intended for attack, but for marking an area as, e.g., a source of ground fire, enemy troops, the location of the downed flier, etc.  They also carried other ordinance under the wings which could be used to prevent a downed flier from being captured if the NVA were nearby.  The ordinance took two forms:  an explosive munition and a munition that rendered anyone it came in contact with incapable of acting coherently.  The second form of ordinance could be used if the downed flier was in imminent danger of capture; the explosives could be used to seal off the flier from enemy forces if the rescue attempt needed more time to succeed.  The helicopters (HH-3s or HH-53s, also known as Jolly Green Giants and Super Jollies, respectively) were armed for defense only, with M-60s or a couple of miniguns (small caliber gatling guns) to suppress ground fire if they came under attack during a pick-up attempt.  SAM suppression consisted of the Wild Weasels and a flight of F-4s armed with CBU (cluster bomb units) or Mark 82s plus the two EB-66Es to provide ECM support since there were SAMs known to be active in the area.  Finally, the FAC himself, would be there to spot targets and mark whatever he could with his own "WP" (white phosphorus) smoke rockets, commonly referred to as "Willie Pete,"  Unlike the Sandys, the FACs carried only smoke rockets under their wings.  It seemed to irritate the FACs that they could not directly take the fight to the enemy, since the smoke rockets couldn't do much damage.  However, every once in a while, a FAC would get lucky, and his smoke rocket would actually hit what he was trying to mark; if there were sufficient numbers of explosives or flammables around, the FAC would be treated to a string of secondary explosions of his own making.

On this Monday morning, the SAR force contacted Bat 21 Bravo, and the rescue attempt began.  The NVA were waiting, of course, as they almost always were in a case such as this.  We usually expended a great deal of time, effort, resources – and blood – to rescue a downed flier, and the NVA knew it was a good time to do some shooting.  This, however, was not a rescue in the ordinary sense, since there was so much AAA/SAM (anti-aircraft artillery/surface to air missile) around, as well as a large concentration of enemy troops.  The attempt began by the FAC and the Sandys patrolling the area looking for the guns and SAMs they knew were there.  Predictably, the guns would open up occasionally, giving away their positions, and the Sandys would call in the suppression fighters to knock out the shooters.  That never got all the guns, and there could be a heated exchange during the actual pick-up attempt, if the surviving guns were close enough to the downed flier to cause trouble.  The SAMs in the area were a source of danger not usually present in a rescue attempt.  This morning, they were up and active; and the prowess they had demonstrated the day before in shooting down Bat 21 was not diminished.  The unarmed EB-66s were in close to the SAMs, partly because the crews were unsure of the location of the SAMs and partly because one of their own was down there waiting to be picked up.  Again, the weather was acceptable but not good.  The SAM sites fired; the Weasels fired back, and the EB-66s executed their SAM evasion maneuvers.  It was common practice for the SAM crews to fire at the EB-66s first to force them into evasive maneuvers and thus reduce their ECM effectiveness.  This Monday morning there were a lot of SA-2s being fired.

The NVA defenses were in the immediate area of Bravo, although he did not know it the night before.  When the rescue attempt began, the world seemed to erupt in gun fire and missile launches.  The battle was hot and heavy, and Bravo joined in as best he could by spotting enemy guns and SAMs and calling their locations to the SAR forces.  The suppression fighters went "Winchester," and new suppression forces were sent in to replace them.  By the end of the day the area was still too hot to send in the rescue helicopters to attempt a pick-up.  Bravo would have to spend another night on the ground, and since he had, more or less, compromised his location by helping spot for the SAR forces, the NVA had a much better idea of where to look for him.  As a result, as night approached, he was "tucked in"  with area denial munitions by the SAR forces.  That presented a problem for the NVA, if they were intent on capturing Bravo; it also presented a problem to Bravo, since his movements were limited to the inside perimeter of where the area denial munitions had been dropped.  Once dropped, the munitions made no distinction between friend and foe; they simply exploded when disturbed.

I cannot directly appreciate the violence of the SAR's suppression efforts that first day; I have never been in their line of fire. I have had some experience with nearby detonations of Mark 82s, and I have seen the effects of CBU-52 from afar.  In either case the effect is spectacular.

One day at Korat, after the events of this story had played out, a flight of F-4s was departing on a strike mission.  As the lead F-4 broke ground the pilot raised the landing gear handle to retract the landing gear; simultaneously, all twelve of the Mark 82s he was carrying fell off the wings (no explanation as to why).  The bombs went skittering down the runway as the second F-4 rolled through them on his takeoff roll.  Fortunately, the second F-4 was able to clear the loose bombs and get airborne before any detonations took place.  One of the bombs did explode from the heat of friction as it bounced and slid down the runway; it was designated a "low order explosion," since not all the explosive in the case had detonated.  Even so, I was a quarter mile away from the detonation point, standing at a desk and talking on the phone.  The force of the explosion literally folded me over the desk, and all the light diffusers from the overhead florescent light came raining down as a result of the over pressure.  If that was a low order detonation, I would hate to see the real thing.

CBU was another animal.  It was a case with softball sized bomblets that were dispensed from their casing after release from the aircraft.  They covered a large rectangular area.  I had seen their effects at night out on The Trail when fighters and AAA got into a duel.  You would see the gun fire (bright muzzle flash), and then, several seconds later, you would see an area I would conservatively estimate as the size of a football field begin to sparkle with light.  The sparkles would go on for several seconds.  I asked one of the fighter jocks who also worked the Frag Shop about the effects of CBU.  He described it like this:  With the smaller of the two weapons they carried, if you dropped it on a truck, there was a cloud of smoke and dust.  When the smoke and dust cleared away, there was a truck with a lot of holes in it.  When the larger weapon (the one most frequently carried) was dropped on a truck, there was a huge cloud of smoke and dust.  When the smoke and dust cleared away, you could see truck parts hanging in the trees – that was all.  The latter weapons were the ones being used to suppress AAA and SAM.

By the third day, a substantial number of guns and all the SAMs had been eliminated, but because of the troops in the area, the area was still too hot for a rescue attempt.  The battle continued.  Those of us at Korat were beginning to wonder how long Bravo could hold out.  The batteries in his radio were only good for 36 hours at best, and he had been on the ground far longer than that.  There was also the problem of food and water; being confined by the area denial munitions, that could well become a problem.  He could literally be starved out if he wasn't rescued soon.

The implications of his situation were not lost on the rest of us.  We all began carrying all the spare batteries and flares we could fit into our survival vests.  Some even began carrying more ammunition, but most opted for the ability to signal rather than the ability to wage a ground war.  What none of us knew at the time was that Bravo was kept resupplied in his containment area by aerial drops of food, batteries, and other things to keep him an active player in his rescue.  We didn't know because, being crew members and subject to capture, we didn't need to know.  There are many other things crew members don't need to know – for the same reason.

After the SAMs were cleared out of Bravo's area, the SAR settled into a daily cat and mouse game with the NVA who wanted to capture Bravo – and to inflict as much damage on the rest of the force as possible.  We in the 42nd TEWS went back to doing our regular missions, and maintained a listening watch for Bravo whenever we were in his vicinity.  After the end of the war, the North Vietnamese stated that they were astounded that we would waste so much time, effort and resources on trying to recover a single downed flier.  They, on the other hand, did little, if anything, to rescue their pilots downed by US aircraft.  Of course, their fliers were down in fairly friendly territory, but if a flier was injured, either during a fight or after ejecting, he was pretty much on his own for rescue.

After nearly a week of the daily game of trying to get the AAA and small arms suppressed enough, for a recovery attempt, a flight of Super Jollys made a try for Bravo.  Ground fire was intense, and the lead Jolly was shot down.  It had taken a lot of fire going in for the pick-up and began burning.  It attempted to withdraw under the covering fire of the SAR forces, but it had been mortally wounded.  Burning fiercely as if tried to withdraw from the scene, it crashed into the jungle; all six crew members died.

With the loss of the Super Jolly and its crew, it became obvious that the usual method of rescue and recovery was not going to work.  Something new had to be tried, and, if I recall correctly, it was Bravo himself who came up with part of the scheme.  He was known to all of us in the 42nd TEWS as an avid – almost fanatic – golfer.  Now he began putting the knowledge of all the golf courses he had played in the past to work toward his rescue.  Using references to particular holes on golf courses that he had played in the past, he communicated with the FAC proposed directions and paths of movement to improve his chances of being picked by SAR forces.  It worked.  He had a virtually secure method of talking about position, direction, and distance without letting the NVA know where he was or where he was going.  It was a sure bet that the NVA were monitoring his communications with SAR forces, but it did them no good since he was using his "golf course" code.  Still, no matter how he maneuvered, the ring of NVA encircling him remained closed. 

Things were beginning to become critical for Bravo.  Even with SAR forces dropping supplies to him, his physical condition was not improving.  He said later that he was almost in a dream-like state.  He recalled awakening in the pre-dawn darkness to see a rising moon through the trees.  It became a disorienting experience, and he could not tell, for a time, whether he was actually there or whether he was looking at a painting.

The SAR was still in progress because there was still contact with Bravo.  Sometimes, when were flying in the area where he was evading, we could hear the FAC talking to him.  We could not hear his part of the conversation, since his radio did not have much range.  Still, it was heartening to know that he was still there and that there was still a chance.  The 42nd TEWS squadron commander had set up a running report of all the "sanitized" information available on Bravo and the rescue attempt.  I say sanitized because, again, as combat crew members, we had no need to know, and our capture could compromise things for Bravo or the SAR forces.  I think everyone read the reports daily, I know I did.

JRCC had been working up a plan to recover Bravo, and in the end it was an application of force by the BUFs that was the key to success.  It went something like this:  the FAC told Bravo not to change his position after he had been "tucked in" for the night.  The FAC promised to return at first light.  Bravo had read a hint in the FAC's voice that something unusual was going to happen, but he didn't have a clue as to what it might be.  Bravo slept fitfully.  Then, about 0300, he said, he heard a sound that he described to us as the sound of one hundred freight trains bearing down on him – then the ground shook violently.  Three B-52s had released their bomb loads very near by; there was no need to speculate where because the target was obvious.  Three BUFs, carrying upwards of 105 bombs each, had solved in thirty seconds what had stymied the SAR forces for, now, more than a week.  After the explosions died away, it was silent again.

The FAC returned at first light, as promised, and made contact with Bravo.  Using their golf course code, the FAC directed Bravo southward toward a river.  He was told he would meet his rescuers there.  He started walking through the area that had been bombed just three hours earlier by the B-52s; he simply described it to us later as a scene of devastation.  He gave no details.

Finally, he came to the river and stopped.  The FAC was still with him, but it was ground forces who would be his actual rescuers.  A US Navy SEAL and a South Vietnamese Petty Officer were coming up river to look for him (although he didn't know that at the time).  He began his trek down river toward the sea as darkness fell.  Staying in the river, he moved all night, and as daylight approached, he moved toward the river bank.  Someone was coming from down river.  As he lay hidden along the bank, a boat came into view; it was his two rescuers.  Since they were in enemy territory, and ready for action, Bravo did not want to reveal himself abruptly.  It would have been ironic to be shot by your own people after having survived being shot down and evading the NVA for over a week.  He reached down into the water and splashed it with his hand.  The Navy officer called his name; he responded, and the two rescuers moved to the bank to pick him up.

We were quietly jubilant when we heard that Bravo had been picked up and was on his way to the hospital at Clark AB, Philippines.  We all assumed that the rest of the crew were dead since there had been nothing but a very early report to indicate that anyone other than Bravo had managed to escape the death plunge of Bat 21.  However, there were some indications that we did not know the whole story.  For one thing, there was a telephone conversation I had with a DDO at Blue Chip soon after Bravo's rescue.  We were discussing something about the fact that the rest of the crew did not survive when he blurted out, "You mean you don't know about Alfa?"  When I pressed him for information, he shut up; it was evident that he was talking to someone who was authorized only sanitized information.  In addition, we were talking via an unsecured line.  Whatever information he had about Alfa, the pilot of Bat 21, was never revealed.

Bravo briefly "came home" to Korat to pick up his personal belongings and process out of the 42nd TEWS.  It was several weeks after his rescue, and he had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to a stateside hospital.  He was still suffering from the injuries incurred in his ordeal, but he did make a public appearance before all who were interested in him and about what had happened.

I remember it well.  The meeting place was Richter Hall, a small auditorium in which large-scale briefings could be given.  It was named after 1st Lt. Karl Richter, a Thud pilot who had been killed in 1967 on his 198th combat mission over North Vietnam.  There were a number of crew members from the 42nd TEWS as well as fighter crew members who were interested in hearing about a successful E&E first hand.  The 388th Tactical Fighter Wing Commander introduced Bravo, who was not on stage at that moment.  At his introduction, Bravo came out from behind a curtain; it was evident from the way he walked that Bravo was suffering from back injuries at the very least.  He said a few words about how glad he was to be back, that his rescuers were some of the greatest people he had ever known, and that he would be going back to States to be medically retired.  He pointed out the obvious by saying that his back needed more work and a lot of time to heal.  As I recall, he said that he would be going to Tucson, Arizona, to live out a lifetime dream:  to live next to a golf course.  Then he said that he wanted to show us something; he pulled out the survival radio he had used for over a week out there in the Vietnam jungle.  He said he wanted to prove something.  He turned on the radio and held it up to the microphone at his podium; you could hear the soft hiss of background noise coming from the radio.  His point was that we all could have done what he had done because our people cared about our well being.

He gave us a run down of what happened; the past several paragraphs contain what I remember Bravo saying during those few minutes he was on stage.  Everyone seemed to hang on his words.  He told us about his pick up by his rescuers, about an NVA patrol that had blocked him and his rescuers and as they were trying to exit enemy territory, about the FAC who had worked so long on his rescue and recovery.  He told us that the FAC had come over to Clark and had visited him in the hospital.  He left no doubt that he felt a deep gratitude for what that captain had done for him.  He concluded his comments by hinting that perhaps Alfa would be recovered also.  The hair rose on the back of my neck at the mention that Alfa might still be alive; I remembered the chat I had with the DDO from Saigon.

Not many weeks after Bravo left, my time at Korat RTAB was almost up, and I was getting ready to return to "the land of the big BX."  I was processing out of the 42nd TEWS.  There weren't many people around that afternoon; US air forces were heavily engaged in attacking strategic targets in North Vietnam and most crews were either flying, resting, or getting ready to fly.  I wandered into the administrative office that handled recommendations for awards and decorations.  The office was empty of people, but I saw, at the top of a stack of papers a recommendation for the Silver Star; Bravo was the nominee.  The citation described how he had assisted in his own rescue; there were other things that he had done as well, and it was all in the citation.  As I wandered around the squadron building, looking for a particular person to sign off on my out processing, I peeked into the crew lounge to see if anyone was there; like most other rooms in the building, it was silent.  I looked around, and then I looked up at the far wall.  Someone had a plaque made and hung it up for all to see.  It was just a simple piece of wood and a thin sheet of brass.  On it were words that simply said, "In memory of the crew of Bat 21, April 2, 1972."

Alfa would never return.  I watched the lists of names when the POWs were returned; his name was not on the list.  The names of the other missing crew members aboard Bat 21 were also absent.  A year or two later, after the POWs had been returned, I saw two pictures in one of the weekly news magazines (Time or Newsweek).  The pictures accompanied an article about MIAs.  One was a picture of an elderly balding man who looked like the stereotype Godfather.  He was carrying a sign which asked the whereabouts of Anthony Giannangali.  The other picture was of a well dressed middle aged couple; they carried a sign wanting to know were their son, Robin Gatwood, was.  I found myself wishing I could tell them what had happened.

19 March 2016

KC-135: More than Just a Tanker

Arc Light

I never looked forward to refueling B-52s in Southeast Asia -- Arc Light was the mission name.  The B-52s ultimately flew from both Guam and U-Tapao, Thailand, but the mission flown from Guam always needed refueling.  Arc Light sorties were an exercise in minimal radio conversation and some radio silent navigation that brought a flight of three tankers onto a refueling track with three B-52s two or three miles behind them at the rendezvous point.  It worked pretty well when the weather and visibility were good.  When the typhoons and tropical storm season began it became a pretty dicey operation.

The first time I deployed with the 28th Bomb Wing, we arrived in theater in March and left in September; our main operating base was Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.  That timing put us in the typhoon season for most of the deployment -- and the summer of 1966 turned out to be a very active typhoon season.  It seemed like every week or so we would be playing dodge the typhoon with an evacuation to either Guam or Clark Air Base, Philippines.  There were two air refueling tracks over the Philippines:  The North Track started at the northern tip of Luzon and headed southwest and the South Track ran pretty much westerly about 50 miles south of Manila, over central Luzon.  The weather could be bad on both tracks and it became a matter of picking the least worst weather to refuel in.  When the weather was bad, air refueling was a real challenge for both bombers and tankers.

I recall one Arc Light refueling that was our first experience with diverting an entire air refueling formation while in-flight back to Kadena.  We were the last three-ship cell of a thirty aircraft formation planned to refuel on the North Track.  There was a tropical storm/typhoon brewing between

us and the North Track; we had to pick out way through the heart of that storm to get to the North Track (which turned out to be pretty much in the clear).  Air refueling went well and we, the last cell in the formation stream, turned back for Kadena.  I was not looking forward to having to pick the way back through that typhoon to get back to Kadena.  Just north of Luzon, as we were about to once again punch into that storm, the lead cell in the stream called all aircraft and directed that we divert to Clark Air Base, Philippines.  

No one had ever done that before.  So, ten three-ship cells each did an about face and headed south for Clark.  Since we were last heading for Kadena we suddenly became the lead cell heading for Clark -- and there were twenty-seven KC-135s behind us in a worse fuel state than we were in.  I don't know if anyone warned Clark that we were coming, but Clark Approach Control learned in the doing that they had thirty big aircraft coming to land at their patch.  We pretty well saturated their capability.  We, the first to arrive at Clark, got on the ground in good time and got the hell out of the way.  The aircraft behind us started stacking up as Clark Approach Control was trying to deal with the followers and keep them separated.  One of the later cells was approaching Clark, low on fuel, and still at something like 14,000 feet altitude.  Clark Approach cleared them to land, if they were able.  The lead pilot said, "Watch me," and initiated an emergency descent:  throttles to idle, speed brakes full up, gear down, and flaps coming down.  He landed out of an emergency descent; first time that had been done as far as anyone knows.

Our diversion also saturated the base housing space; we were bussed off base to hotels, bedded down, and did another Oh-Dark-Thirty launch the next morning to refuel the next formation of B-52s headed for Vietnam.

That was a period of learning by doing.  Arc Light had been in operation for about a year, and the previous summer season had not been a busy typhoon season.  A lot of what we were doing was making it up on the fly.  Literally.

Young Tiger

The Young Tiger operation, which involved KC-135s air refueling fighters  striking mainly in North Vietnam, had been in operation longer than Arc Light and did not, usually, involve massed formations all headed for the same place.  At least not until the summer of 1966.  Operations were not trouble free since our forces were constantly coming up with ways to smooth out the existing procedures and Washington DC kept getting into the act telling the operations level (us) how to fight the war.  Classic micromanagement.  And then there was the political angle.  Everyone who was involved in flying operations in Southeast Asia (it never was just about Vietnam) received, essentially, two briefings.  There was the SECRET briefing that covered operations in Vietnam.  And then there was the TOP SECRET briefing that covered operations in Laos.  Listening to the two briefings made one thing immediately clear:  The American government did not want its citizens knowing that we were fighting a war in Laos.  Politics, again.  The people on the ground who were being hit by our strikes certainly knew who was doing it.  Their backers, i.e., the USSR and the PRC, knew what was going on.  The forces who we were allied with knew who we were hitting.  But since there was the issue of political cover at work.  We had to treat operations in Laos as if they didn't exist.  Recommended reading on this issue includes, When Thunder Rolled, by Ed Rasimus; Thud Ridge, by Jacksel Broughton; and The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos by Christopher Robbins.

As far as tanker forces were concerned, the only real bit of political constraint was that we were not to fly inside a 30 nautical mile circle around Vientiane, Laos.  Sometimes that happened anyway when weather forced us there.  Fighter air refuelings were usually short and sweet:  GCI would join a flight of four F-105s, usually, with a tanker orbiting in one of the "Anchors" (see map, below).  The tanker would give each fighter a preplanned amount of fuel, plus a top off.  The tanker would position the fighters at a drop off point, if requested.  The tanker would then wait for the next flight of four to be refueled.  When the time on station expired, or fuel state reached BINGO, the tanker was cleared to some planned recovery base, either Don Muang, near Bangkok; Takhli, northwest of Bangkok; Clark Air Base, Philippines; Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

And then someone decided that there needed to be more firepower focused on the various pieces of critical infrastructure in and around both Hanoi and Haiphong.  The first few times the strike force consisted of three or four four-ship formations of F-105s and some escorting F-4Cs to help keep the MiGs at bay while the -105s conducted their bomb runs.  Then the strike packages got bigger and more elaborate.  The Wild Weasels were introduced for the first time: F-100Fs.  And the number of strike flights grew such that three tankers each on parallel Anchors would refuel them, stacked up at fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen thousand feet altitude.  Two additional tankers each on the same parallel Anchors would refuel F-4C escorts at twenty-five thousand feet altitude.  The entire strike package, especially the F-105s, wanted to be dropped off as far north in Laos as possible, and all within sight of each other.  That took some navigation skill to bring off successfully.

And then the action would start.  We would be holding in the assigned Anchors and the flights of fighters would start checking in with GCI to be joined with their assigned tanker.  Suddenly, GCI is vectoring ten flights of fighters for their tankers; there are fifty aircraft in a relatively small space all zooming this way and that trying to get a visual on everyone else in the vicinity.  It looked like a swarm of bees and a really clear day.  Then, just as quickly as it started, all the fighter flights called TALLY-HO (tankers in sight), and things got down to the business of refueling and getting everyone to the drop off point at the same time and going in the same direction.


It was late afternoon, one summer day in Thailand.  We had just been relieved from Red Anchor and cleared RTB to Don Muang Airport; we were heading southwest at the time.  We climbed to twenty-five thousand feet to stay out of the traffic that was coming out to the Anchors to conduct air refueling.  We were in the clouds and nearing Korat when Brigham Control, at Udorn, Thailand, called us and warned of aircraft at our ten o'clock and heading westbound.  Since we were in the clouds I adjusted my radar scope to give me the first ten miles around the tanker and immediately had a radar return that looked like a flight of four F-105s.  I notified the pilot and watched and the range decreased; the other aircraft were going to pass in front of us, but it would be close.  They crossed in front of us with two or three miles to spare.  Then there was a huge thump as the aircraft hit the turbulent wake of the flight that had just passed in front of us.  I thought we had been hit by someone I hadn't seen.  Then we broke out of the clouds to see two KC-135s flying wing formation -- and at our altitude -- heading for Takhli.  They never knew how close we had come to turning three tankers into scrap metal.

Staff Pilots

Since I was on a Stan/Eval crew for some of my tanker tenure, we got our share of staff pilots who were going out for proficiency -- and combat pay when we flew in Southeast Asia.  I especially recall a brigadier general and a colonel.  The general flew strictly by the book and firmly ran the entire mission from beginning to end.  The colonel tried to do the same thing, but weather made things difficult.

We were fragged for Yellow Anchor, clear over in South Vietnam, between Danang and  Pleiku.  Mostly, we got F-100 Misty FACs who were working southern North Vietnam, and Cambodia, but nobody talked much about Cambodia back then.

Yellow Anchor was almost a guaranteed boring mission, and this one was no exception.  The FACs came and went, and finally, we reached BINGO and were cleared to Return to Base (RTB.)  I turned us for home (U-Tapao), and at that moment we got our first look at the weather that had been brewing, unnoticed, for the past hour or more while we had been hanging in Yellow Anchor.  

I may have seen worse thunderstorms in Southeast Asia, but off hand, I don't remember where.  As soon as we got on a course westbound, the colonel asked me how far out the weather was.  I did a quick look with the search radar and told him about 70 miles.  When we closed in to about 50 miles, I began taking a closer look to find some soft spots in that mess out ahead of us.  There were some weak areas where the earlier storms were mostly dissipated, so I gave the colonel a heading for, on radar at least, a clear area.  Unfortunately, the colonel's view of the situation said that we were headed directly for a big pile of white cloud, i.e., the dead thunderstorm.  The colonel said he saw some "blue" off in another direction and was going to turn for that.  I checked the radar; the colonel had us heading for a big solid thunderstorm about 50 miles out.  After a few minutes flying toward the raging monster, the "blue" turned to more of an angry purple, and the colonel told me he would take my headings again.  I had been studying the radar scope seriously by now, because as far as the radar could see, there were lots of thunderstorms – big ones.

Again, I directed the colonel toward a weak spot amongst all those giant storms.  Again, the colonel's view said that I was directing him toward a big white cloud; he didn't like that.  Again, the colonel saw a patch of "blue" and proceeded toward it, only to have the color of purple replace the "blue" after a minute or two.  This seesaw between going his own way and then asking for vectors went on for another few minutes until we were swallowed up in the clouds and the colonel no longer could see what was out there.

We zigged and zagged all the way across Laos and most of Thailand.  As we neared Korat, a line of really big thunderstorms completely cut off our approach to U-Tapao.  I told the colonel so.  With that, we started to climb.  Finally, at 40K, or so, we slipped through a saddle between some of the real biggies and made our way to U-Tapao.  

I informed the colonel that we had cleared the tops in the saddle, I heard him mutter, "I hope so."