Chicks in Tow

As July 1973 ended, I had been flying combat missions with the 13th TFS nearly every day for two months against the Khymer Rouge in the area around Phnom Penh and also to interdict supplies being moved down Uncle Ho’s trail to staging areas near South Vietnam.  

Which brings me to the story of a Capt who I will call “Ted.” Flying close formation off the tanker was a skill he could not seem to master. To say it was unsettling to his GIB is an understatement.

Refueling requires intense concentration in a demanding situation. You are tucked in tight below the tanker, which is a huge flying gasoline bomb carrying about 83,000 pounds of JP4 when fully loaded.  Sometimes the weather was dicey, and often as the tank began its turn on the racetrack the F4 would still be plugged in.  Any mistake would mean disaster to the crews of both aircraft. In addition to the close proximity of the two aircraft, there is significant turbulence coming off the tanker to contend with.

View from the back seat of tanker

The F4, like most modern fighters, required frequent refueling during combat missions. A fully loaded Phantom II could weigh in at more than 50, 000 pounds, with about 18,000 pounds of fuel in internal and external tanks. If the afterburner were engaged, it slurped fuel at about 1,000 pounds a minute, which meant that the gas ran out pretty quickly. Essentially there was a 15 minute “loiter” time to engage the enemy or drop bombs. Then it was time to return to the Tanker before you reached “BINGO” fuel and returned to the base, if you made it, on fumes only.

To those who did not fly combat in SEA, perhaps a short explanation of call signs is in order. Missions going over the fence north had call signs of cars, i.e. Buick, Olds, Ford, Dodge, etc. Cambodia missions got men’s names, Rick, Burt, Greg, etc. Tanker orbits carried call signs of the name of trees, Peach, Pear, Hickory, Oak etc. OV-10s were Nail FACs. Search and rescues were Sandy’s. And, Airborne Combat Control was Hillsboro (daytime) and Moonbeam (nighttime.)   If you listened to a recording of a mission you would hear many of these call signs and to the uninitiated it might be quite confusing. ( I thank a former F4 Jock Bill B  for  refreshing my memory on this information).

In a typical 4 – 6 hour mission, the Phantom might refuel three to four times. If it were a close air support mission, it might mean formation flying off the tanker for an hour or more cycling in and out taking on gas as needed, until the Forward Air Controller, FAC, called the flight in on target. For an air to air mission which involved a “dog fight,” after the engagement, the F4 would almost immediately head for a tank to get gas. Depending when you were in South East Asia, the refueling tracks changed.    

So what about Capt Ted?  His background was not in fighters, as were many of the men who flew the F4. He had previously been a C-130 pilot. During the early 1970s, as more and more men were lost in SEA, the Air Force moved pilots from one aircraft to another. It was unusual for someone to move from a C-130 transport to a fighter but not unheard of, as evidenced by Ted. When he got to SEA Ted’s difficulty with refueling became very apparent he seemed to disappear. I don’t know what happened to him in the end, but it was clear that there was no place in combat for someone who could not refuel.

Not all men were cut out to fly the F4.

__________

To see the view from the backseat  click this link which will take you a dropbox file of refueling clips I took

https://www.dropbox.com/s/i7o2ex2wnyimr16/Refuel.mpg?dl=0

 

 

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Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Day Time Stopped – We drop the Hook

During my years flying the F4 there was only one time we had to use the tailhook to stop on the runway.   It happened while I was stationed in the 13 TFS at Udorn RTAFB,  Thailand.  We blew a tire on the right main gear and as we ricocheted down the runway dropping the hook was the only option.

Dropping the hook was a routine part of landing in the Navy and, while it happened on occasion, not the normal practice for the Air Force.  The fact that there was a hook on an F4 was linked to its dual nature as both a Navy and Air Force fighter. It was necessary to use the hook on aircraft carriers to stop the Phantom on landing.

The other major differences of course were that the runway did not go up and down as it did on a carrier. Also one did not have to hunt for a runway in what seemed like a million miles of ocean.  To my mind those were major reasons that I flew in the Air Force and not the Navy. In fact I could go into a lot more, yes many more reasons, but I digress – I think you get the picture.

As early as the 1950s, the Air Force began to experiment with arresting cables to stop aircraft on the runway in an emergency. By the time I flew the Phantom in the early 1970s, the cables or barriers were a common feature of most bases.

The F4 hook was made of high strength steel and designed to stop an aircraft weighing about 44,000 pounds on landing at a speed of about 180-150 knots. Using the hook was not a guarantee that you would stop. There are many factors that come into play on landing: speed, runway conditions, cross and head winds, and the general nature of the emergency. The time we used the hook we blew a tire on landing and were erratically moving at a high speed down the runway, much like a bobsled out of control. And there was always the chance that the hook could skip the cable as it moved along the ground and you would continue to ricochet down the runway to the over run where there was a final webbed barrier to stop the aircraft.

F4 tailhook under rear of aircraft

Now try to imagine what dropping the hook is like.

As they say in Ghost Busters, it was a if you were “stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.” It was as if time stopped. I think that about sums it up. One minute you are moving at about 150 knots and then bingo you aren’t.

Now I have done amazing things in the air, so much so that going on a roller coaster really holds no fascination for me. I have flown at 50,000+ feet, gone faster than Mach 2, done maneuvers that pulled more than 7 Gs, and stopped instantaneously when dropping the hook, and I can tell you that it was the latter that is the hardest to describe and the hardest to forget.

For an Air Force guy it really made my day!

And that is no understatement, and it confirmed in my mind why I didn’t go into the Navy.

Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Tailhook, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Three Independence Days

45 years ago, in 1973, I found myself on July 4 flying combat missions over Cambodia. I wrote the following comment to my wife:   “4 July 1973: To celebrate today I am again off to Cambodia to drop some firecrackers and sparklers. I will be glad when the war ends, but it appears that they will be stepping things up now that we have to be out of Cambodia in August.”  That seems to have been the highlight of the day.   No other memories remain.  No ball games, no picnics, no time with family.

Holidays in wartime are often no different than any other day.  Something most Americans will never experience or really understand.   One day is much like another.  You  catch the crew bus,  have your crew brief, go to the intel brief, suit up and pack on your .38, pre-flight the bird, and are ready for what comes.

For the men who flew North there were no holidays – no 4th of July, no Christmas, and certainly no breaks.   For the men who flew north, there was never an assurance of how any day would end and I often thought about that as we took the crew bus to the revetments.    These were men, whose footsteps we walked in  were admired greatly.  I thought about their legacy of honor and selflessness which I  was honored to share.  That legacy is reflected in this patch,  100 missions North Vietnam.    These were men who  as a former member of the 13 TFS put it:  “… all of whom accepted and completed the mission their country asked of them at the time they served.”

Patch on the jacket of a former member of the 13 TFS — well done to him.

Yet we were not along, across the years since the founding of our nation Americans have done their duty.   If I found myself in combat on Independence Day, I was not the first one in my family to do so.

On July 3-4, 1863, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell (1827-1881) found himself on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the midst of that most terrible battle.

Freeman was for a time a professional soldier, he had been appointed a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps by President James K. Polk in 1847.  Thus, he was one of the Marines at the Halls of Montezuma. For a time he remained in the Corps, but the stress of having been in that battle took its toll and he was dismissed from the Corps for being drunk on duty in 1858.  When the Civil War began, he was eager to serve his county again.  Because of his prior military experience, Freeman became commander of the 5th Michigan Cavalry in December 1862.  But the stress became so much for him that he could not cope that he turned to alcohol and resigned his command in February 1863.    Yet, there was more to Freeman than this and he again joined the US Volunteers as a captain, and this is where he found himself on July 3, 1863 as part of Slocum’s Corps defending Culp’s Hill. The post-traumatic stress haunted him the rest of his life, and when he died The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported: “Colonel Freeman W. Norvell, a well-known Michigan officer in the War of Rebellion and the Mexican War, died this afternoon. He had been in poor health for nervous disorders for some time.” In the end, Freeman was a deeply flawed man who put his life on the line three times for his county, and did his duty as he saw it despite the personal costs.

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Freeman carried on a military tradition that began in our family with his grandfather Lt. Lipscomb Norvell –my great great great grandfather

Lipscomb was born in Hanover County, Virginia September 1756 and died in Nashville, Tennessee March 2, 1843. He entered the Continental Army on August 7, 1777 as a cadet in Captain William Mosby’s company of the 5th Virginia Regiment of Foot commanded by Colonel Josiah Parker . Lipscomb Norvell was taken prisoner at Charleston on May 12, 1780 and remained there until the end of the War, spending Independence day there in 1780, and for the next three years as a POW. His obituary in the Nashville press noted:

“Lipscomb participated in the battles of Brandywine, Trenton, and Monmouth –he was transferred to the Southern service, and as a Lieutenant of the Infantry, was taken prisoner at Charleston, where he remained till the close of the war. He subsequently (in 1787,) removed to Kentucky, and as an early pioneer to the West, encountered the dangers and endured the hardships of the then Indian frontier….”

Three independence days spent in so many different yet similar ways – in service to our country.   At Lexington and Concord,  on Culp’s Hill,  at the Bulge,  on the ground and over Vietnam, and in Afghanistan and Iraq,  different men and women  have acted in the best tradition of the American citizen solider:  They answered the call of their county, they did their duty, and they returned home to be valued members of their community.

And that is the real legacy of the 4th of July.

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Party suits, Patches, and Jewelry — the well dressed Fighter Jock

As soon as I arrived in the 13 TFS I was taken off the base to meet the Maharajah and order my work suits and a party suit. To go to the Maharajahs to be fitted was a rite of passage for all  FNGs (F’ing new guys) in the F4 squadrons at Udorn.  The Maharajah ran a tailor shop right outside the Udorn main gate.   He was not really a maharajah – his name was Amarjit Singh Vasir and his rise to fame began in 1966, when the Udorn wing commander provided him with the basic design for a fighter pilot’s party suit. Fighter pilots loved three things:  To Fly, Fight, and Party.

Amarjit never looked back and by the time I arrived at Udorn, he had provided party suits for every rank of Air Force personnel up to and including generals. It was said that he had nearly 100 seamstresses working during the peak years of the war due to the constant turnover of personnel in the F4 squadrons at Udorn. When I arrived in 1973, there were four F4 fighter (4 TFS, 13 TFS, 421TFS, 555 TFS) squadrons and one RF4 (14 TRS) reconnaissance unit. Udorn at its peak was the largest F4 wing in the world. In the squadron he was known more familiarly as “The Thief.”

Party Suit 13 TFS courtesy of
Capt Al.

I  suspect because he seemed to have a monopoly in providing these items for all the units. There was also a feeling in the squadron that somehow he passed along all the information about new arrivals to local insurgents who supported the Vietcong in Vietnam. This rumor was never proved but it fueled a sort of love hate relationship with Amarjit. The work suits were for everyday at the squadron when we were not flying, and basically were a short-sleeved light weight jumpsuit, with name, wings, rank, and squadron patches on them–think a well tailored flight suit which actually fit, not like the bags we wore flying.   The party suits were for official squadron social events and were much more elaborate with large F4 silhouettes on the back and many, many patches.

Patches were the other speciality of Brother Amarjit. If you had an idea for a patch he could make it. I designed a backseater or Guy in Back – GIB – Power Patch for my party suit which became quite popular. If you designed one for yourself, Amarjit would make extras which he added to his collection. The GIB patch showed the backseater holding a banana on a stick for the pilot to follow. The GIBs often referred to the frontseaters as FUFs, or F’ers up Front, and that was on the patch also. Other popular patches included Yankee Air Pirate, Red River Valley, SEA Olympic War Games, and the Phantom II McDonnell Douglas patch. All of them would end up on the party suit, along with many, many more. If one had flown North there would be a 100 or 200 missions North Vietnam Patch. Since we were flying over Cambodia many had a Khymer Rouge Hunting Club patch on their suits. And then of course there was the universal patch on every fighter jocks’ suit – F’ Jane Fonda. Jane was not too popular for her 1972 trip to Hanoi; even to this day a large segment of the men who served in the war consider her to have aided and abetted the enemy.

So with a new party suit covered with patches, there was only one more thing for the well dressed Fighter Jock and that was a flashy bracelet and or gold chain to wear.

Jewelry was available at several shops right outside the main gate. Many guys had solid gold three strand bracelets with their names and wings on them; mine was a more conservative sterling silver and gold. Most of the gold bracelets it was said came from Vientiane, Laos, which was only about 30 miles north of Udorn. I also had a silver pinky ring resembling my wings. One other bracelet that almost every officer and enlisted sported was a POW bracelet with the name and date of a man lost or missing in action. Many of us wore them until the end of the war in 1975 and I had mine for many years in a box on my dresser. Today I still wear my ID bracelet as a reminder of those days.

Thus outfitted we were ready to party, but that is a story for another day.

And party we did.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Who’s your Daddy?

On Fathers’ Day some thoughts on what it means to be a dad

An American Family

Home

During the last week, I had the opportunity to think about fathers and their impact upon others  in an entirely different way.  We had several men from my college ROTC unit and their wives to dinner, it was our 50th anniversary of our graduation from college last weekend.

We also had some very special guests:  the son and daughter of our ROTC instructor, a Major who died in Vietnam, June 9, 1966. During the course of the evening,  the son discussed how his father’s death affected him growing up.  He said he was often asked “who’s your daddy.”  A hard question to answer in a single family home, but he said he wasn’t in a single parent home, his dad was with him as much as his mom.

Then several of my friends spoke about the Major and how he had impacted their lives.  One man spoke movingly about learning…

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At RFK’s grave in Arlington with Jackie Kennedy – 50 years ago

 

Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968

Like many Americans in 1968, the most newsworthy events played out each day on my television. Whether it was the Vietnam war, the protests, or the presidential election, each night my TV linked me to the wider world.

On March 31, 1968, as I viewed a speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson, he suddenly said: “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of this country.” My reaction was what did he just say? Then he added, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” The thought that LBJ, probably the most political president in memory, would not run again was stunning.

With Johnson’s withdrawal from the1968 race, Senator Robert F. Kennedy became the leading democratic candidate. Then, on June 6, 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Within five years the nation had reeled from deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and now another assassination filled our TV screens. As the story unfolded on the nightly news, RFK’s body would be flown back to New York for a funeral on June 8. Then it would be taken to Washington by train for burial in Arlington, near his brother’s grave.

I went down to Union Station to be there went the train arrived. It was dark and late on a Saturday night and I climbed up on a wall near the station to see the limousines, hearse, and ever-present media move through the darkened city on the way to Arlington. I still remember the long line of dark cars moving away on Constitution Avenue toward Virginia on that warm June night. It was a very somber event, and markedly different than the reaction to the earlier death of Dr. King in April that year. Then the city exploded, now the mood was one of almost defeated sadness. Sadness that once again a life had been taken, sadness for our country and sadness for a year that seemed to be out of control.

On Sunday June 9, 1968, I decided to go to Arlington to visit the Kennedy graves. Despite all the recent events of the previous days, the area around the graves was deserted. I climbed the hill to JFK’s grave and saw the freshly-dug grave of Robert Kennedy nearby on the left of the main plaza area. After a few moments, I turned to leave. To my surprise there were Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., and Caroline. I didn’t know what to think: the Kennedy family was coming up the hill to JFK’s grave. When they reached their father’s grave, the children knelt down, and prayed.

Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s grave 1968

At Robert’s grave, Jackie placed a single white rose. She turned and passed very close to me, I stood there transfixed by something so unexpected that had happened. And then as quickly as they came, they were gone.

Yes, there were many stories in 1968, but not all of them played out on the nightly news. It was this special moment of that troubled year, I will always remember and cherish.

 

 

______________________________

Version of this story appeared in the Finger Lakes Times as an Op Ed piece on Sunday June 3,  2018.

Posted in American History, Washington DC | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Racing Back to Vietnam – A Good Read

There are few books that have really captured the world of the F4  backseater or GIB (Guy in Back)  in combat.

For Dr. John Pendergrass flying in the F-4 Phantom II in combat during the Vietnam War changed his life forever. Pendergrass’ time in the backseat, or “Pit” as we called it, occurred in 1971. Then as an Air Force Flight Surgeon he flew 54 combat missions out of Da Nang in the Pit over Vietnam. This was not something he had to do, as he states in his well written account of that time, Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace.

He simply could have added his name to a C-130 crew manifest and had a much safer way to fulfill flying time requirements. He did it in the Phantom out of a sense of duty and a personal and professional need to experience some of the most high adrenaline, demanding type of flight of the Vietnam War.

The Phantom II had entered the inventory in 1960, so in 1971, when Pendergrass flew, it was relatively new. It was not a small fighter and the bird could weigh in at nearly 60,000 lbs when fully loaded with fuel at take-off. With its two big GE J79 engines, when the afterburners were cooking, the thrust could push it out there away from an enemy or engage him in combat. Every flight challenged the men who flew her, but Pendergrass was a different kind of back seater.

Most GIBs went to Nav School and had gone through an eight-month upgrade to the Phantom’s back seat; Pendergrass gained his skills flying on the job. He learned that the back seat of the F-4  was a place of G-suits, Martin Baker ejection seats, INS, radar, RHAW gear, memorized emergency procedures, and many, many circuit breakers. It was a place where one needed to be a contortionist, while tightly strapped to a rocket hoping it would never fire. It was a place where the man in the rear cockpit was valued and every flight in combat was never routine.

Long before the movie “Top Gun,” glamorized the world of the fighter pilot, brave men were engaging others over the skies of Vietnam. The legacy of the Red Baron, Eddie Rickenbacker, and others of the First World War motivated the F4 crews. Pendergrass noted that this influenced him and this became the great adventure of his life. If flying fighters in combat were a very exciting life, the everyday world of the Air Force, Da Nang, and  Vietnam increasingly intruded. Pendergrass talks about how he waited for the daily mail, dealt with the bureaucracy of the medical corps, and learned to function in a very different world. There were two sides to his life – one exciting, the other routine and mundane. And all the time, he counted the days until he would be back in the “real world,” and home with his family.

Yet, the experience of combat and Vietnam stayed with him. 45 years later, he returned in 2016 to visit a much changed nation. There he participated in a demanding “Iron Man Triathlon” while revisiting old haunts In Vietnam and exploring new ones. Such is the engaging story of Pendergrass – it is a 45 year journey that is still on going for him, as it is for many of the men who flew combat.

And John Pendergrass’s journey is one to share.

Posted in American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment