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.   Every flight required a minimum of two aerial refuelings on the Tank.

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+  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; then he seemed to disappear from the squadron.

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



About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was 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 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Chicks in Tow

  1. JL Mutolo says:

    Thanks for more first-hand insights into The Experience! Loved the film and audio.

    Sandie and I have been out of Florida’s heat for the last month, touring the Upper Left part of this big, beautiful country. Right now in the San Juan Islands bordering Canada.

    Hope all is well with you and yours,



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