As the war in SEA wound down, plans were put into place for an aggressive training schedule. Now schedulers were faced with actually having to plan training, not just assume it would happen in the course of daily events. It was an odd thing to be flying combat one day and the next acting as if it had never happened.
With the end of the war there were few opportunities to see if the entire wing could go through a surge exercise. That is actually generating a combat scenario where all the F4s would be loaded and taxi as if they were being launched for a combat mission. While this had been common during the war in such large scale events as Linebacker II, it hardly happened in the new peacetime environment.
So it came to pass that one evening the entire wing was scheduled to do a surge, or as we called it the “Elephant Walk.”
Members of the 13TFS about the time of the Elephant walk (Photo courtesy of Sidney Thurston)
It got its name from the long line of F4s that were loaded with live ammunition and missiles, taxied down to the arming areas at the end of the runway, and then instead of taking off, taxied down the runway and back to the revetments. It looked like a long line of elephants on the move, large lumbering beasts.
I am not sure why this was held at night. Perhaps to make it more stressful to the crews and the loaders, but any time things occurred at night, Murphy was bound to be there. Yes, if anything could possibly go wrong, it did.
The arming areas were located at the end of the active runways. On the other end there was a location called “Mobil” where an officer was assigned to observe the takeoffs and landings and relay any problems he saw to the tower and ground control. Mobil was essentially a trailer with a generator for power and was manned all the time that flight operations were being conducted.
The night of the Elephant Walk, one of the lieutenants from our squadron was assigned to Mobil. It was his job to basically sit there and simulate the role he would have played in an actual launch. It was a pretty boring thing to do, given that the aircraft were not taking off only lumbering down the length of the runway, turning off and then going back to the revetments where the crews would put them to bed.
After about an hour of this, things took a turn in a very different direction. As the crews pulled the safety pins on the missiles on an F4, a stray voltage surge launched one of the heat seeking “Sidewinder” missiles. The missile flew off the F4 and as the Mobil officer watched it through his binoculars, made a beeline for the generator at Mobil.
Now picture this, you are sitting in Mobil, bored out of your mind, watching one after another F4 lumber down the runway, then one of the Phantoms launches a missile at you.
Needless to say the lieutenant dove out the door of Mobil — expecting the worse. Fortunately for him, the missile didn’t arm. It needed to go a longer distance. but it did guide on the generator, where it hit Mobil.
As I said earlier, not all the targets were in North Vietnam.