Tuesday, February 10, 2015

More Night Flying

Just for the fun of it… (you pick out the parts that are true)

It wasn’t very hot that very early morning in September of 1965, a gentle breeze kept the humidity so low it was noticed by Nguyễn Van Chu and Nguyễn Van Tông. The two middle brothers of the Nguyễn family had just returned home from working most of the night. The job was the same as it always was. The same as it had been for months - even when their oldest brother was home. He was gone now, a proud member of the NVA. He was liberating land stolen after the first Indo Chinese War. Their part of the liberation was done for this day. The sun would rise in three hours or so. It would spoil the pleasant coolness of the moment. One more cigarette and time to get to bed.

Tran Lao Bao was a minor city located near the DMZ just north of the Xe Pon River, which is 3 feet deep and 100 yards wide. The river formed an impressive obstacle to the flow of materiel eastward along route nine. The valley that had been cut by the river over time was fairly steep and most of the land along the slopes was covered by bamboo and teak. The ancient groves had never been harvested. The indigenous peoples just worked around the monster trees which had seen war since they were saplings.

Chu and Tông were tasked, along with the other youth of the town, to repair the maze of bridges which spanned the river. Wooden bridges, built a foot or more under the surface, were difficult to see from the air. The bridges were built with a complex plan, resembling the Nile Delta as it works its way to the Great Sea. Bridges that couldn’t be destroyed with just one bomb, nor two. It would take ten direct hits spaced over a hundred yards along the rivers flow, to stop the trail of rice and guns so needed down south, where the eldest was serving to bring honor to the family.

That night would prove to be different from all the other nights when the brothers had slept in the family house, under the trees in the safety of the canopy.

The sound of the Phantom was not unknown to the brothers. Almost daily airstrikes had been impeding movement along the trail across the bridge at Tran Lao Bao. A lone aircraft flying over was unusual though. The straight and level path seemed odd and the pop, pop, popping noise which accompanied the whine of the jet overhead had never been heard before.

When the first flare illuminated with all its brilliance, the brothers couldn’t believe that they could suddenly see all the way down to their village. When the other five flares lit up, it was high noon in Xe Pon river valley.

Fifteen thousand feet above the river, traveling along at three hundred and fifty knots, Fuzz lead could see the flares’ light in the two rear view mirrors attached to the canopy bow. 

(ed note: OK, OK, so my callsign was/is “Fuzz”. I was given the name by my drinking instructor Major Jesse Locke. Not only was I the lowest ranking front-seater in the 68th TFS, I was also one of the few, if not only, USAF 1LT flying the AC position in SEA at the time. An administrative error probably. I checked out because my AFSC in the Deuce was 1115 and someone assumed that I was, in fact, an AC. For the record, in the recounting of this fictitious mission, I have put myself in the lead and I used my very own call sign. So there! I was more often found flying two or four.)

 Usually the mirrors weren’t good for much except for admiring ones’ self attired in fighter pilot garb. Tonight, however, they reflected the brilliance of the flares just released. I had to begin a climbing turn, maneuvering and accelerating to get to a perch somewhere north or south of the river below. While turning, Bill, in the back seat, was straining to see whether he could pick up the target that had been fragged for the evening. We both had to admit that this was pretty exciting. We had never done this before, either in a training environment or over hostile territory. What was new to us, was new to every flight crew member that had gone out that night.

Fuzz two was about five miles in trail a little higher than we were. They were surprised by the flares’ intensity as well. Once they figured out that they could see the valley floor and the river as if it were daylight, the search for the target began.

(Another ed. note:You may have guessed that I, now old and creepy looking, have had no long romance with those whose intellect fragged bamboo bridges. The daylight bombing of these river crossings, out in the hinterlands, was sometimes hairy enough (see “Milk Run”, same blog). Night interdiction well, you figure out what I think).

Only five hours before, we had all been sitting in the briefing room.

Part Three, getting there is some of the fun.

There were twenty or so of us in the briefing room that evening. Normally, the flight assignments went up the day before and one could slightly plan for the day’s activities. Volleyball, etc., salty dogs (need the salt for balanced, good health) and sleep. This was the first time we had briefed at 2200 hours for a midnight take-off. There was only so much one could say about what we were about to try. Night interdiction of the trail. Bombing under flare illumination.  Approaching the target in trail. Two ship flights over the target instead of four. Night flying in itself was nothing new for most of us in the squadron. We had flown the deuce as a part of PACAF’s Air Defense plan at Itazuke AB, in Fukuoka Kyushu Japan. The 68 F.I.S. had a long history going all the way back to WWII. And as I have said before, the motto was “we get ours at night.” Night flying was a constant part of that PACAF routine. Now everyone was beginning to get comfortable in this new airplane, even though we had only been flying in the North for less than a month.

There was a perceptible air of excitement as the C.O. began the talk about what was to become the major portion of my tour in SEA. In fact, I wound up flying 80% of my “counters” after dark. Everything had been pretty well thought out and we were a standardized bunch of flyers. This new twist on the job didn’t seem that hard. It turns out it wasn’t. It would have, however, a few things that were definitely different. Weather, intel, weapons, specifics and a brief. Flight leaders gave a start-up time, pretty much as any mission. I was glad that my flight commander had flown the P-80 in Korea (as had our Squadron C.O.). He had flown at night, as well, and had a few great ideas about this new category of missions for us.

I am trying to remember which lights and warnings didn’t get dimmed with the master warning light. It doesn’t matter. Jesse (you may recall, my drinking instructor from Itazuke) told us all how to get some plastic electrician’s tape and cut it half length-wise to make some long strips. We spent some time in the cockpit masking over the lights that we knew would come on as a result of a routine flight. I can’t remember what they all were, but it seems to me there were quite a few. Once all of that got done on the airplanes, some remained on night ops and some you had to “re-mask” every night. (ed note: my G-d how those ground crews kept their airplanes running! I can’t believe how devoted they were to their airframes and power plants. I wish that we could have taken them up for rides more often. What a bunch of good guys. At Itazuke, we had our “own” plane. At least our name got on them. I understand that the concept really wasn’t practical in Ubon, but it was a bone of contention amongst the guys. Especially when you see the brown shoes flying around with their names on the canopy rails!)

Start up and taxi out were always pretty much routine (see ref to ground crews, above). The arming area near the end of the active runway was always bustling with guys pulling pins and checking stuff. Our hands out of the cockpit, of course. The lead armorer would give a thumbs up, holding a fistful of pins and red flags. Everyone or both of us, as the case might be would check in, go back to ground frequency, if we’d changed to tactical or discrete for some reason. Canopies would be shut and lead would call the tower for takeoff. Reminds me - our Squadron C.O.  (who had been a POW in Korea) used to really get aggravated if anyone’s canopy would start down before lead’s. That got to be a real thing later on and we got to lookin’ pretty sharp as the canopies would kind of do a “wave” on the way down. (IMHO)

When the Phantom was scheduled for a hi-cap mission over Hai Phong and elsewhere, it seemed like all you had to do was pull back the stick at eighty-five knots and it jumped off the ground. With bombs for peace and other stuff in a daylight mission, it came off nicely, but sometimes it seemed to take a second or two longer. At night, the same Phantom, weighed down as much as possible took another several seconds - or so it seemed. I have been trying for some time to figure out what words I should use to described the “unstick”, that is actual take-off, feeling on a grossed-out mission. The pilot would pull the stick back at eighty-five, like I said, and the airplane didn’t do much. Then, when it had decided to fly it came off with the sensation that wasn’t really ready, but everything is working fine, so here goes. Wallowing, rolling slowly from side to side, for just a moment, then picking up a cleaner response, but feeling heavy, oh so heavy! So, off we go, Bill and I into the dark. Willie and Huck, a few seconds behind. Turning North, out of traffic, on the heading for the rendezvous with the tanker, we’d look back to be sure that our wingman had got himself on a good intercept heading. Right turns out, they’d always pray. So he comes in and joins up (Oh Lord, do not overshoot!). The tanker would be an hour or less away.

Night refueling was always fun (liar!). The guys in SAC who were running the operation and those who were flying the KC’s knew what they were doing. Even at night. Over my career, I wished I could have bought a lot more rounds for the aircrews, but alas, never was able. Once you were at altitude and on a heading for the orbiting tanker, the KC guys would give headings and such that would bring the flight of four or in our story, two, airplanes together in the most expeditious way. As I recall, we would head right at each other, offset some and at a different altitude. The tanker AC would give us a turn that brought us just in trail of the big KC 135 (a Boeing 707/720 type aircraft). Once the tanker was radar acquired, you got good info on closing rates (whoa Dude!, don’t overshoot, but I repeat myself), then a visual on a couple of blinking lights. We approached slowly, mostly, and hooked up according to the briefing. Flying underneath the tanker you referenced its control lighting (forward, back, up, down). You tried to keep them green, not amber, or RED. The receptacle on the Phantom was behind the GIB, so you really didn’t have a good sense sometimes as to how close the boom was. The boomer in the tanker would fly the refueling probe to the correct position just ahead and at the proper angle, then “KA-CHUNK” you hear and sometime feel the probe connect. Then all you had to do was maintain a position relative to the tanker. You don’t go low, you’ll snap it off. You don’t go high, you’ll torque it out. Same with left and right. The worse thing you could do was go forward and down and try to bend the boom and possibly damage your receptacle.

As an aside, over the Pacific, on a sunny day of hi flying the airplanes from George AFB to Korat Thailand (with stops). I got too close and damaged the receptacle on my aircraft. It was pointing up, instead of at the forty-five degree angle it had to have to receive the probe. A combination VERY EXPERIENCED (as opposed to me) boomers were able to whack it back to the correct angle and I didn’t have to divert to Clark AB, Philippines. I had already been there anyway. I have pictures of that excitement at home somewhere. I heard the boomer got a medal. Me, a terse (being polite here Sarge) debrief many hours later. The boomers knew exactly when to disconnect and retract their boom out of harm’s way.

Back to night refueling. Well actually, this next thing happens at night and any other time we’d have a grossed out Phantom. Once hooked-up, the fuel transfer would begin and it wasn’t long until you had received what fuel there was for you. Most of the time, toward the end of the process, the aircraft would run out of throttle.  That is to say you’d be up against the stops at full military power and there was no longer enough power to stay on the boom. This, because of the increasing gross weight. You had to use afterburner on one engine. So, when you got to that weight, you would crack the throttle of the number one, left hand engine, into minimum burner and immediately pull number two way back to compensate for the overkill in thrust. We always fought the PIO (pilot induced oscillation) that generally occurred. That process gave you enough power control, with number two engine being the variable one, to fly on the boom until the off load was complete. It was always quite a sight at night to see one of the burners light up on the refueling bird.

It doesn’t take to long to get all the gas we’d need for this morning’s visit to Tran Lao Bao.