From Mission Set 6:
700428 – Photo Recon
While there was a Bombing Halt declared on October 31st, 1968 over all of North Vietnam, periodic reconnaissance flights were conducted. Activity had been increasing for reasons as yet unknown to strike fighter air crews. Usually, a recon escort over NVN was a relatively safe endeavor. Aircraft were fired upon, but the promise of quick and violent retaliation made the act of firing on a recon bird a low-yield/high cost operation.
But, looking back, something was clearly in the works.
Story Behind the Story
by John “zerocinco” Shelton
The Cambodian Invasion suite of missions starts with a photo recon mission I escorted. They shot a SAM at us just to remind us they were down there. The Bombing Halt had been in effect for two years and the only missions over the North were this kind. Something was up. Anyone but a dumb kid would have seen the signs. I am now amazed at just how little the participants know about the wars they are fighting.
It was not a sign of impending action that we were on a photo run up Mu Gia Pass, down south across Route Pack One and out Ban Karai Pass back over Ban Laboy and then home. The clue was that there were a dozen such flights in the air at that very moment. Had I known that I might have imagined that some large-scale raid was in the last stages of preparation. And even more important, had I know that we were all over the very same frequency I would have been more careful about my radio etiquette.
You see, we were Gunfighter 92. Gunfighter 91 was the flight lead but he had problems before we hit the tanker so he went home. Thinking this just a routine photo op, he imagined it would be okay for us to escort Falcon 71 alone… that’s the RF-4C from Udorn in the mission.
The RF had to fly about 8000 feet for some reason. That’s not good over mountainous terrain because it precluded any opportunity to “take it down”, the violent and uncomfortable maneuver used to get the SAM started downward after you so you could pull up into it and escape. Over 5000 foot mountains, there were few options.
And that’s when it happened. The RHAW panel lit up. C SAM LO came on… with the tone… and with the strobe line pointing somewhere in the direction of it’s source. C SAM LO meant that a SAM in the C-band was on low search. In other words, the Fansong radar was searching in a 360-degree arc. No big deal. But one should inform the RF.
“Falcon 71, Gunfighter 91 (assuming Lead’s call sign). We’ve got a C SAM LO light at 2.”
In moments… C SAM HI. C SAM HI meant that the Fansong was now searching in a 90-degree arc and you were in that arc. Again, not necessarily anything of importance. But, again… etiquette.
“Falcon 71, Gunfighter 91. C-SAM has gone to HI. Still at 2 o’clock.”
The next thing that would happen in a launch sequence was an Activity light. That meant that the Fansong was now concentrating on a 10-degree arc and you are in that arc and it has, in effect, locked onto something in that arc… you.
Crap! They’ve got a lock and we cannot take it down if they shoot. I start looking at 2 to 3 o’clock for a launch but that won’t come for about 30 seconds and would be when the radar beam was carrying guidance to the missile.
“Falcon, Gunfighter. Activity Light.”
Note the abbreviated format?
Wait! Where’s my thirty seconds? Is that red dirt? Or is that red booster smoke? It’s awful hazy and is that a SAM?
Right here, I need to interject what the proper call would be. It would be…
“Falcon 71. This is Gunfighter 91. We have a SAM launch light from 3 o’clock. No Joy.”
What I said was…
“Goddamn! SAM! Break left!”
All-in-all, an efficient decisive call. In the temporal disproportion of moments laced with adrenaline I witnessed in slow motion an RF-4C punching off it’s fuel tanks and its wings turning white from condensation in the humid jungle air as it started pulling a huge amount of G in a hard rudder roll to the left.
All-in-all, efficient and decisive. But there were specifics about that radio call that were problematical. As I stated, there were a dozen such flights perusing the same airspace on the same UHF frequency. All of them were intensely interested in our conversation but all bets were off on the last call.
I often wonder if the North Vietnamese appreciated the grace and precision of nearly 40 supersonic jet fighters making identically tight left turns at the same instant in their airspace on their radar scopes. After all this time, I have hoped that the operators were Russian. A Russian would appreciate a group pirouette deserving of the Bolshoi Ballet.
The other Air Force crews apparently did not. I have always been grateful that when I say something in a girlish falsetto squeal, it does not sound at all like my speaking voice.
Four days later, the US Army crossed into Cambodia and hundreds of Air Force fighters were sent North to bomb for the first time in years. That mission is Bat Lake.
by Chuck “PFunk” Bellows
You guys have any idea what one of those pickups sells for NOW?
Let me make this clear, I would have been one of the dumb kids. You begin the mission at Udorn, inside your revetment with a Chevrolet Apache pickup in USAF Ground Vehicle Blue within spitting distance.
Like Houston, when it’s not raining, the water’s going in reverse.
Taxiing to the runway (one of these days, if TK ever grants me an interview, I’ll buy him lunch at Katz’s Deli on 6th Street if he’ll add this feature to the regular campaign) I light off the burners and notice that this is not a light aircraft. The RF-4C feels convincingly heavy and ponderous as I gently tease it off the runway and claw for altitude. I’m toting nearly 1200 gallons of external fuel and I can feel every bit of it.
Climbing through Deuces’ clouds — did he sacrifice a goat to make them look this good? — I get above the moisture and humidity at about 16,000 feet and I can hear Gunfighter talking to the ATC, my escort for the afternoon’s festivities. Taking a quick look at him, he’s plowing along with 500-pound crowd-pleasers and The Airborne Slingshot, the Sparrow missile. I remember someone telling me (I think it was one of Dad’s officers) that Vietnamese pilots didn’t really fear the Sparrow, but it was often disconcerting to see that large hunk of metal go steaming past you, a plume of smoke behind it. Finding Zebra, I tank up for the rest of the mission.
“Knock, knock, mother.”
It’s not long after that happens, hear the RWR start telling me that someone’s taken an interest in my presence. I hate that sound, it gives me nightmares whenever I hear it and on the missions made by the Yankee Air Pirate 2 team, I hear it… a lot. Even equipped with two jamming pods, the sound gives my guts a turn and on my first try of the mission, I hear my escort scream (that must’ve been you, John)“SAM Launch! SAM Launch!”
The runways at JFK looked busier…
I curl my bird in a tight turn, realizing the bastards have caught me way past any geographical terrain advantage I could find. This is bad for both of us. For one thing, there’s nothing hiding him, either. He’s standing out in the middle of a field broadcasting “HERE I AM AND THIS IS WHAT I’M DOING” to every hostile aircraft in the area. Something Iraqi SAM crews learned not to do after a while. For now, though, if he wants me, there’s nothing between me and his electrons but my jamming pods. Let’s hope they work.
I believe THIS was the guy John was trying to tell me about.
What’s cool about this mission is the recon camera in your radar screen. I switched my camera on and caught a nice shot of a SAM site launching one at me on my first attempt. Moving along, I get to the first of two airbases and catch a couple of MiGs on the taxiway. Up to this point, the only people that have taken an interest on me are the SAM crews.
Simonize should get product placement in one of these shots.
Hugging the ground like an expensive sports car, I pop over a hill and catch the second airbase. This time, they’ve got two of them on the tarmac. I get good shots on the parked aircraft and hear my escort tell me again that the enemy has protested our overflight with yet another SAM. Jinking hard and looking around, it doesn’t look like it’s heading for me and the RWR hasn’t lit up.
I finally get back over the ridgeline and head for home. Normally, recon kind of bores me. Not so boring when your escort keeps telling you you’re getting shot at.
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