Gut Rumbles

November 23, 2006


Originally published November 30, 2003

This is, without a doubt, the best email I ever read:

It was a dark and stormy night. No shit. We took off in a flight of two F-4c's from Cam Rahn Bay Air Base one night in '69. It was storming all around Cam Rahn. We were loaded to the gills with slicks, including a 2,000-pounder on the center station. Road reconnaisance in route pack one (southern portion of North Vietnam) was the mission. By the time this flight was over, Murphy was proven alive and well. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong. First, my flight lead disappeared into the clouds before we could join on him. Then, after multiple radar-assisted attempts to join up, I got vertigo from the reflection of his rotating beacon on the murk surrounding both craft. Each time I thought we'd be able to assume wing-tip formation, I SEEMED to be overtaking at a suddenly excessive speed and I'd back off or overshoot. Finally, FINALLY (seemed no longer than a few hours), we got in position. Pretty soon, it was time to hit the tanker. The rendezvous with the KC-135 was about the only routine occurrence of the flight. We were in and out of thunderstorm fringes somewhere around 20,000 feet. Lead went in first and took his fuel without incident. Then, it was my turn. As we approached the tanker's boom, i was blinded by a bolt of lightning that struck our plane, coming off the refueling boom. Now, it's not a real good idea to be in close proximity to another airplane if you can't see anything. So i eased forward on the stick to make sure I didn't run into the tanker, easing the throttles just a touch to make sure I didn't overtake him in my slight dive. After a short time (didn't seem like more than a few hours), my vision came back to the point that I could see my flight lead and the tanker. Incidentally, aircraft struck by lightning have been known to disintegrate on occasion. I got the F-4 back into position verrry cautiously. The question of taking fuel or not hadn't entered my mind, YET. If we didn't take fuel, we had to abort the primary mission because we were just far enough away from the target area that we needed the fuel to get back home. Besides, the head shed said no out-of-country missions without a tanker. I, a TAC-trained, mission-oriented Yankee Air Pirate, naturally wanted to accomplish the primary. Secondary targets are usually a pain in the ass anyway. Zoom around for hours hoping someone, somewhere can use your load of ordnance. No mission at all meant dumping a full load of bombs in the water. As soon as we got in position, we were struck by lightning again. Damn that stuff is bright up close!! Blinded, I managed to avoid a mid-air collision again. This time, I thought about calling off the refueling. After much cajoling by my flight leader, I was convinced that, since I hadn't exploded either of the first two times, the odds were probably in my favor. HAH! We got in and took our fuel without incident. Then, the fun started. Our inertial navigation system was kind of haywire, likely from the lightning strikes. John, in the back seat, tried to get the thing working, to no avail. Poor John, from another squadron, probably thought the 559th was a dangerous outfit by now. We tuned TACAN to channel 71, in the northern part of South Vietnam. Little did we know at the time, that the enemy had set up a channel 71 of their own at a position north and west of the good guys'. The storms are still all around us, but in many places the ceiling is high enough for us to run the road recce. One plane above 10,000 feet and one below, we started looking for targets of opportunity. Once we separated, we turned off all exterior lights. No sense giving the bad guys something to shoot at. Flight lead would call out a target and roll in on it. I'd look one way and the flash from his bombs would be nearly 180 degrees from where I expected it. No moon. No stars. Interior lights out in the front seat to aid outside and night vision. In other words, no way for me to orient myself visually and hard for John to help with the navaids, because they were A F U. Our turn came. We dropped single 500-pounders on what we thought were likely targets. We spotted a searchlight. Aha! A real target! I should explain before i get to the hairy part that the eastern part of southern North Vietnam is roughly sea-level. Anywhere from ten to twenty miles inland from the South China Sea, it rises vertically in limestone cliffs to around 2,000 feet. Remember, we were essentially lost. I rolled in on the light, planning to release the 2,000-pounder at 4,500 feet above the ground. Well, we were a little farther west than i thought. As we approached release altitude, I could suddenly see trees and boulders. Very quickly, I could see limbs and rocks, then leaves and pebbles as I jerked the stick so hard, I almost blacked myself out. F-4's don't like to be horsed around like that. The airplane was shuddering so hard, I just knew we had hit a tree and been damaged. As we got the craft pointed back skyward, John yells from the back, "I can't see!". Now i know for sure we're in deep shit, to the point where the G(uy) I(n) B(ack) has been injured. (you snap 9 G's on, a guy who weighs 150 pounds suddenly weighs 1350 pounds. Snapped vertebra immediately came to mind, although that wouldn't explain why he couldn't see.) I point us toward the water (I think i do), assuming we'll have to abandon ship. Before long, John discovers his shaded turn the interior lights up a little, scan all my instruments, and discover that there's nothing wrong with the motors or any other system. The G-meter shows 9 G's. The plane is officially stressed for 6.7. We'd had a lot of cracked wing spars on those old birds, too. Opting for discretion, I decided we would "sky spot" (imitate the B-52's) the 2,000-pounder still hanging from the center station. I leveled at high altitude, pointed us back at the light and tried to lob the bomb on the light. Didn't miss it far either! We joined with the lead for the (thank God) uneventful flight home.

As we taxied to our parking, the 6' 5" maintenance officer stood
glaring at us with his hands on his hips. As soon as we shut the
engines down, he was at the canopy rail yelling, "what the hell did you do to my airplane?" I, in typical fighter pilot fashion, replied calmly, "we brought it home, Duke, that's what we did to it."

These events are factual as i recall them. I know some of my brothers tasted that hard dirt due to enemy tricks and bad circumstances.
I know today that it was the grace of God that allowed me to bring that airplane and its precious cargo back to Cam Rahn Bay. John never had the opportunity to fly with me again, for which, I'm sure he's eternally grateful. I don't blame him if he feels that way.

Thanks to Shamus for the excellent story.

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