A day without sunshine is like, you know, night. (Steve Martin)
Steve Martin has it right. The night brings on a whole new set of rules that don’t apply in the daylight.
It all goes back to 1963 and the build-up of the notion that we could make a difference in South-East Asia and save the world from the Asian hoard. There had been some secret stuff going on down South, way South, of Itazuke. Not everyone was selected for this mission and those who came back from it were so tight-lipped that they didn’t even talk about it on Friday nights at the Club. Some of the information began to come out years later and that’s why I can write about it now (plus, it’s on Wikipedia). This is an introduction to what I’m really going to write about later. Back then, there were some folks who wanted Viet-Nam to be reunited as one nation. They busied themselves all night long, moving supplies and ammunition, weapons and people down from the North to aid and assist the guerrilla style conflict that was just getting started.
Along with the special forces advisors, enter the mighty TF-102 Delta Dagger, side-by-side, luxury seating and quick as “bob’s your uncle” over the tree tops in South Viet-Nam. It seemed to someone, way back East, that flying along the tree tops at rapid speeds, one guy looking for bad folks, conflict materiel and stuff, using the ground mapping radar, the other guy looking for tree tops and then calling in “Spooky”(aka “Puff, the Magic Dragon”) to fatally deal with said findings, (inhale) would be a good idea. Anyone see anything wrong with that premise? No, OK. Well that’s what they did for a while way back in the days of the Kennedy presidency when we were everyone’s friend and we were willing kill anyone who called us on it. Did I mention that this was at night? But I digress. So here are the fearless PACAF aviators whizzing along the jungle’s canopy-top hoping to get a return on something that looked suspicious. I suspect that the guys inwardly hoped the “Puff” wouldn’t be available so they could use the 24 2.75” FFARs in the fuselage bay doors. Oh, “Folding Fin Aerial Rocket”. What a night it could have been! If only to perch, arm, turn in and squeeze ‘em off! Here’s a picture of the widened front end/cockpit of the TF-102…
Now let’s fast forward to 1965 (can I say that?), and many of the same guys, in the same Squadron, (more or less, now a TFS, instead of an FIS), same wing 8TFW, nicer, newer airplane (factory fresh F-4Cs). We had recently flown our new Phantoms over the pond from George AFB to Thailand.
Someone out East thinks that this time the Asian hoard can REALLY be stopped at night. So here comes a frag saying kill that bamboo bridge, again, the one in package five or somewhere up there, in the North. Only this time guys, do it at night so that the materiel will be tossed into the river by your bodacious bombing skills. We were just learning about daytime bombing at the time. We were just learning about the bridges that had five or more, underwater, approaches to one span. We were just learning about how the first two guys piss ‘em off and the last two better not use the same approach to the target. We had learned that jinking was good and flipping the switch to make the inertial nav point to Ubon was even better.
I have to admit though, the Squadron’s motto was “We get ours at night”, and it had been that since the Korean war.
Several O-4s and 5s got together and came up with a scenario for approaching the targets and illuminating them at night. It seemed like a reasonable way to do it, so they decided to try it. (ed. note, my memory has completely failed me on whether these sorties were in four ship or three, or two. Nevertheless, disregarding the facts, I will continue)
The idea was to take-off, so far so good, with lead armed with a mixed load of flares and bombs. Number two would have the normal load of bombs for peace. We would hit the tanker, that’s another story, and then proceed to the target area. Some distance out, must have been fifty miles or so, number two would slip back into a trail position keeping the formation via radar (or, in the early days by looking at the AB igniters, but that’s another story as well). I don’t remember how far back we’d go (see above for excuse), but it must have been quite a way. So, lead finds the area of interest via the inertial nav (+ or - 50 feet!) let’s down to a briefed altitude in some G-d forsaken valley (watch out for the granite and karst) that has a stream running down the middle, over which has been built a wooden bridge which supports the nightly transportation of materiel and troops and stuff for the NVA operating down south. This was not as scary as it might seem to the uninitiated. Primarily because having flown for so long a time to get to the target area and since one had the cockpit lights all taped over with electrical tape, beacon and wing lights off for the last hundred miles, you could see by moonlight and even sometimes starlight on a good clear night.
Over the North, in the dark of night, in a valley, looking for a wooden bridge - what could possibly go wrong?