Combat Flying At Night

Posted by on Jun 1, 2017 in Perry's Blog | 0 comments

On a pitch-black night, I rolled my F4 aircraft in on an Anti-Aircraft gun position on the ground. Six positions were shooting in my general direction—I picked out just one to hit. 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.

The mission was quite a challenging one. In 1969, the Air Force developed a new way to impede the flow of combat supplies going into South Vietnam. A number of large cargo aircraft (the venerable C-130) had been converted into gunships. These aircraft had sophiscated sensors which allowed the pilot of 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 start firing 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 carrying bombs and cluster munitions.

This technique worked well but there was a major problem. The enemy had many anti-aircraft artillery sites place along the trails. These AAA sites were equipped with deadly, four-barreled, ZSU-23-4 guns. The Spectre gunships were in great danger of being shot down. As fighter pilots our job was to suppress, as best we could, the deadly fire coming from the ground.

When I arrived at Udorn airbase in Northern Thailand in 1968, I was given strong guidance: “Never get in a duel with enemy guns shooting at you—you will lose”. Yet, here I was, a few months later, doing just that. My targets were gun batteries which were trying to shoot down both the gunships and the fighters which supported them.

The Spectre gunships flew at ten thousand feet, the fighters orbited above at about fifteen thousand feet. Across the top of the Spectres were dim lights which allowed us the keep the gunship in sight even when it was not firing. Each F-4 carried eleven canisters containing about sixty bomblets. We dropped these canisters one at a time. Hence, each night we made eleven bombing runs through the AAA fire.

In the Spectre a young airman was strapped in a harness. The front half 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 harms way.

This approach worked well when one AAA position had zeroed in on the gunship. It worked much less well when many AAA guns were getting close.

One night, I observed a gunship in real danger. Hundreds of tracers were streaming up and getting very close to the gunship. I called to the pilot on the radio. “YOU NEED TO BREAKOFF AND GO HOME NOW—YOU ARE ABOUT TO GET SHOT DOWN”.

I told him that we could take care of destroying the convoy with our ordnance. He reluctantly agreed. My guess is that the airman hanging out the back of the Spectre who was witnessing the danger up close, was 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.

The Secretary of the Air Force, Robert Seamans and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Jack Ryan made separate trips to our squadron to learn about this new mission. They asked to be briefed not by the senior commanders but by a regular 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 small tape recorder. It was connected to our radio and intercom systems.

In my briefing to our visitors from Washington, I described a mission that had taken place two nights earlier. I then played back some of the more hectic moments of that flight. They could hear my radio calls, the Spectre pilot’s calls and the calls of my wingman. They could hear the tension in our voices as we made our crisp radio calls.

Comments are closed.