On a pitch-black night, I dived in my F-4 aircraft on six anti-aircraft gun positions that were shooting in my general direction. The fiery tracers were flying fast by my canopy – it was the like a Fourth of July fireworks display but it was over central Laos. My quick thought: I am going to get hit for sure.
In 1969, the Air Force developed a new way to impede the flow of combat supplies going from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Large American cargo aircraft (the venerable C-130) had been converted into gunships. These aircraft had sophiscated sensors that allowed the Spectre gunship pilot to find truck convoys driving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central Laos.
When the trucks were located, the gunship rolled into a gentle bank and started to fire its 20-millimeter Gatling guns. Once the lead truck was hit, the gunship attacked the last truck in the convoy. With the lead and rear trucks on fire, the convoy was well-defined. The other trucks could then be hit by the gunship or by fighters that carried cluster munitions.
This technique worked well, but there was a major problem. The enemy had many anti-aircraft artillery sites placed along the Laotian trails. These AAA sites were equipped with deadly, four-barreled, ZSU-23-4 guns. The Spectre gunships were in danger of being shot down. As fighter pilots, our job was to suppress the deadly fire coming from the ground.
When I arrived at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in northern Thailand in 1968, I was given strong guidance: “Never ever get in a duel with enemy guns shooting at you – you will lose.” Yet, here I was, a few months later, doing just that.
The Spectre gunships flew at 10,000 feet; the fighters orbited just above. On top of the wings and fuselage of each Spectre were rows of dim lights that allowed us to keep the gunship in sight. Each F-4 carried 11 canisters containing about 60 bomblets. We dropped these canisters one at a time. Hence, each night we made 11 bombing runs through the AAA fire.
In the Spectre a young airman was strapped in a harness. The front half of his body hung out of the back ramp of the gunship. His job was to observe the incoming AAA fire. When he saw the tracers getting close, he would radio to the pilot, who would quickly maneuver the gunship out of harm’s way.
This approach worked well when one AAA position had zeroed in on the gunship. It didn’t work as well when many AAA guns were getting close.
One night, I observed a gunship in great danger. Hundreds of tracers were streaming up and getting very close to the gunship. My call on radio, “You need to go home now – you are about to get shot down!”
The Spectre pilot agreed. The airman hanging out the back of the Spectre must have been especially happy with this decision.
As fighter pilots, our mission changed the moment the Spectre headed home. Now our job was to ignore the AAA gunfire as best we could and attack the trucks that were not yet damaged.
In July 1969, Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Ryan made separate visits to learn about this new mission. They asked to be briefed not by a senior officer but by a fighter pilot who was flying the Spectre escort mission on a regular basis.
It should be noted that in the cockpit on every combat mission, my backseater carried a cassette tape recorder that was connected to our radio and intercom systems. In our debriefings after each flight, we played back the recordings to critique our performances.
In my briefings to our visiting dignitaries, I would describe a mission that had taken place a night or two earlier. When I played back some of the more hectic moments of that flight, these senior leaders could hear radio calls from me, the Spectre pilot and my wingman. They heard the tension in our voices as we made our shrill radio transmissions.
In my briefings to Seamans and Ryan, I suggested ways these operations could be improved.
Lessons from these missions?
1. When someone is trying to hurt you, don’t be predictable. Our fighters survived by varying our patterns of attack.
2. When someone is in grave danger, don’t pull punches – be very strong with your recommendations.
3. Talk truth to power. When talking to top leaders, be willing to raise issues and to criticize policy, strategy and procedure.
The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – flew 180 combat sorties with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War. His web site is genpsmith.com.