"THE TRIP TO GUAM"
Category: "Air Force"
Most of the fighter pilots assigned to SEA [Southeast Asia], specifically South Viet Nam, during the war there, were volunteers. So one must wonder why, when arriving at their duty station, the first order of business was to start counting the number of days left on their tour of duty. To mark off on a calendar, the number of days remaining and near the end, to obtain a "short-timer's calendar," featuring a drawing of a scantly clad chorus line cutie sectioned off and numbered into l00 parts (see below). To me, to count the days remaining seemed like a slow way to spend a tour and although I had the requisite "100 day calendar," I kept it in a drawer and never colored in the parts.
The Air Force required a 12-month tour -- exactly. If one departed the ZI [Zone of Interior] on 15 June as an example, the AF had to have the member back in the States on the 14th of June of the following year. During the year in SEA, one was authorized a week or so of R & R [Rest & Relaxation], resulting in a combat tour of just over 11 months, including travel time. I personally broke my R & Rs into as many two or three day leaves as possible.
On my third in-country tour, in June of 1970, I was posted to Phan Rang Air Base, about one-halfway between the southern delta and North Viet Nam -- for a second time. On arrival, the rumors were flying that our airplane, the North American F-100 Super Sabre, a single engine, single seat jet fighter, was being phased out and returned to National Guard units in the States. In fact, the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, located up the coast of the South China Sea at Tuy Hoa, did cease operations in the fall of 1970. Some of the pilots were assigned to the three other F-l00 in-country bases and some were sent home if they had completed the majority of their tour. The term used for those returning to the States prior to their one-year tour was a "rol1back." Tuy Hoa's F-100's were either absorbed by other F-100 in-country bases as "attrition birds" or were flown back to the States.
During this tour, we used the F-100 extensively in-country and in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Our targets were potpourri of routine toothpick missions where we turned jungle trees into toothpicks, to close-in, hazardous "troops-in-contact" missions where we sometimes engaged in the modern day equivalent to the old western movie shoot outs. The bad guys on the ground with their camouflaged, platform mounted .51 caliber, 23mm and 37mm guns against our peripatetic, jinking, four 20mm cannon curvilinear attacks into the killing zone.
It pleases me to report that I have never lost a gunfight.
Underlying each and every day after dragging day was the prospect of shutting down operations and returning our airplanes to the United States.
Finally, in the spring of 1971, we received the order to cease combat operations in June and prepare the airplanes for return to the States. Again, many of our pilots would be remaining in-country to finish out their tours in staff positions. No one would be assigned to other F-100 units because all were ceasing operation. The combat role of the tired old F-100 was being relinquished to the F-4 and the new A-7 Corsair II.
Our aircraft were scheduled to leave in staggered flights of six, one flight every few days, over a one-month period. I was selected to lead a flight of six on the 20th of June. A six-day roll back for me!
Our route of flight would be from Phan Rang, non-stop eastward, the 4,200 nautical miles to Anderson Air Base, Guam, which would take not quite nine hours of flying time. Then, after a night on the ground, a non-stop flight to Hickam AFB, Honolulu, Hawaii. After two days on the ground to adjust for circadian rhythm, we would then launch for McClellan AFB, California where the flight would break up and proceed to individual destinations. My airplane was to be delivered to the Air National Guard in Terra Haute, Indiana.
As each flight would depart, all remaining pilots and many of the base personnel would gather at the end of the runway to watch. One of the irritating aspects of some of the launches was the use of "laugh boxes." A laugh box was a small, battery-operated cube that produced a raucous laugh when the switch was activated. Some of the departing pilots would let their oxygen masks dangle, turn on a laugh box, stuff it into the mask where the pilot's radio transmitter is located and key the aircraft microphone. With the microphone keyed, all who were monitoring that radio frequency could hear the noise and it was impossible for anyone else to transmit or receive. Perhaps a humorous goodbye to some, but as flight leader, I didn't want some idiot garbaging up the air gratuitously while I was trying to join up my flight, so I specifically briefed my pilots not to use them.
Since the flight to Guam was over eight hours, we would use KC-135 tankers to mid-air refuel. The flight was opposite the sun's path across the sky, so an early morning take off was scheduled to permit a daylight landing once we reached Guam.
On the day of departure, we were required to eat a "low residue" breakfast consisting of steak and scrambled eggs, then stow our bags aboard our airplanes. Jet fighters are not designed to carry baggage, so we were limited to a couple of small bags and a hang up bag or two. The small bags would fit, one each, into the link bays [when firing the F-100's guns, the brass casings were ejected overboard while the links, holding the shells together, were collected in link bays]. Hang up bags were stored next to the M-39 cannons by dropping one of the two gun bay doors, laying the bag on the inside of the long door and buckling it back in place. With our bags packed, we returned to the squadron for the mission briefing. Higher Headquarters planners presented us with all the necessary data to navigate the entire route while the meteorologists gave us a complete weather briefing. We worked out our take off rolls, discussed emergency and refueling procedures, suited up and returned to our airplanes about the same time the sun was rising over the South China Sea.
We said goodbye to our maintenance crews and bomb humpers, climbed aboard and fired up our airplanes, checked them out and taxied out with all the ground personnel saluting, giving us the thumbs up, okay signals and waving good by.
My six airplanes lined up on the runway under a cloudless sky and when I saw number six brake into his position, I gave the run up signal to my number two man by rotating the forefinger of my left hand. The signal was passed down, in turn, to number six. The airplanes squatted down on their struts as full power minus afterburner was reached and I could hear the overpowering shriek of all six airplanes trembling in anticipation of brake release. I knew that numbers four, five and six were taking a beating from the exhausts of the first three airplanes and had briefed the flight to check their instruments quickly to decrease the time the wingmen would spend in the heat and turbulence of jet engine exhausts. As each pilot, starting with number six, verified his airplane was operating properly and after he checked the other aircraft for exterior abnormalities, he would nod his head, indicating he was ready to go. When number two man nodded his head to me, it meant the entire flight was ready to go [two spares, waiting at the runway threshold would replace any airplane with problems].
With number two's head nod, I punched the sweep second hand on the aircraft clock, waved good by to the troops lining the runway, released the brakes and selected afterburner [AB, essentially a ram jet mounted in tandem with the aircraft's turbo jet engine to provide extra thrust during take offs and other times when high thrust was required]. Each aircraft would follow in 15 second intervals. I lifted off at 170 knots, pulled up the gear, allowing airspeed to increase to 220 knots. I increased pitch and held 220 knots until 2,000 feet above ground level [AGL] raised the flaps and let the airspeed build up to 300 knots indicated before deselecting AB and easing back on the throttle for join up. The 220 knot climb out speed was designed to get the airplane out of the small arms envelope as quickly as possible. While the war was over for my flight, the Viet Cong were under no obligation not to shoot at us.
My turn to on-course required a left turn of approximately l00 degrees. At 30 degrees of bank, I had a panoramic view of my flight taking off and coming aboard. As number four reached 2,000 feet, someone actuated a laugh box. I reasoned it had to be number four as two and three were in the process of joining on me and five and six were still in the take off phase. Additionally, number four was the only member of my flight who was not from my squadron and the only member who I did not know personally. His name, as I recall, was Costello and he called himself "Captain America." Although I didn't know him, I did know of him. He had a reputation of being a smart ass, cocky young pilot whose actual performance was much lower than his ability to advertise his own aerial uniqueness [he was killed on a subsequent tour, over Angkor Wat, Cambodia when his A-7 Corsair II was hit in the liquid oxygen tank and exploded. He was down low, sightseeing when hit]. When the laugh box terminated, I immediately called for a check in. By this time, number two was tucked in on my left wing and number three was coming aboard on the right.
Their check ins were rapid fire, there was pause, then four checked in amidst background noise, indicating a loose mask. Five and six were clear and brisk. I considered ordering number four to return to base and launching one of the spares, but the possibility existed that someone on the ground actuated the box and Costello later, on Guam, denied doing it, but I'll always think otherwise. Readers may think the incident inconsequential, but to me, it was an affront to my flight discipline; a responsibility I took very seriously.
With all the aircraft tucked in, I looked them over, gave the push up signal and yawed my airplane, indicating to the flight to take two to four ship widths spacing. Initially, we leveled off at FL [flight level] two zero zero [20,000 feet] since that was the best air refueling level and three tankers were en route from Clark AB in the Philippines to join up with us.
Our rendezvous with the tankers was uneventful and we immediately hooked up to ensure our refueling systems were operating properly. Everyone's system worked except for mine: we all had our 335 gallon drop tanks turned on and my left drop tank was not feeding. This meant approximately 2100 pounds of fuel was trapped and unusable. I knew that if all my other tanks fed properly, there wasn't a point during the flight, at our altitude, where I couldn't make it to a landing strip, so I chose to remain silent because there was a full colonel in one of the tankers. A colonel who would have ordered me and my number two man, as an escort, back to Phan Rang had I transmitted my problems.
The F-100 used the probe and drogue method of refueling. The KC-135 boom operator, lying on his stomach, looked down and aft out of a window in the KC-135's aft belly. He would lower a telescoping aluminum tube, called a boom, containing stabilizing canards to about 50 degrees below the KC-135. Attached to the end of the boom by an articulating joint was a six-foot fuel hose. On the aft end of the hose was a large wire wicker basket, called a drogue, with a receptacle and latching mechanism in the center.
The F-l00 was equipped with a refueling tube extending from under the right wing, bent upwards at a 45 degree angle, then bent again to align it with the direction of flight. The refueling nozzle, called the probe, was about even with the pilot's head, about 10 feet to the right. To hook up, the fighter pilot stabilized behind the drogue, while the boom operator tried to hold the drogue steady with canard controls. Power was applied to drive forward with a three to five knot overtake, enough airspeed to insure the probe would latch into the drogue. A somewhat tricky maneuver as the F-l00 pilot could not look at the probe or drogue, except in the periphery, as his attention was directed up and forward to make sure he didn't run into the KC-135. Adding to the difficulty were the air currents that caused the drogue to bob and weave as it passed the nose of the F-100. If a successful contact was made, the boom operator announced it [unless radio out procedures were in affect, then a light system was used] and the F-100 pilot would ease forward another three feet, looping the hose and insuring enough play space was available to preclude an unintentional disconnect. Fuel was transferred at a rate of 3,500 pounds per minute. Of course, as the F-100 acquired fuel, more throttle was required to maintain position. If the F-100 couldn't maintain position with full throttle, the pilot would transmit "Toboggan" and the tanker would initiate a 300 feet per minute rate of decent. The entire ballet was performed at a speed through the air mass in excess of 500 MPH.
The actual rendezvous with the tankers, refueling, disconnect and reformation was a very precise ritual of small and deliberate aircraft maneuvering, terse and informative radio transmissions. In the almost 25 years that I have air-to-air refueled, no boom operator has ever asked the stupid questions asked in all the movies and action novels: "wash your windows? Hi test? Check your oil?"
After we topped off, the lead KC-135 took over the navigational duties and we climbed to FL 300. It was a beautiful day with a few scattered fair weather cue below us and the silence was broken only by my asking for an occasional fuel and oxygen check and, from time to time, flight members asking permission to remove their helmets so the could stretch, eat or massage hot spots. Southern Luzon drifted by, green and remote.
With the departure excitement dwindling and the realization that an air abort would result in a landing at Clark AB, Philippines and not Phan Rang, we were able to relax. On long ferry missions, we did not wear "G-suits" [anti-gravity garments, the chap like over-garment with air bladders across the stomach and over the thighs]. G-suits reduced black out potential, under heavy G scheduling, by aircraft air being automatically pumped to the bladders through a connecting hose. The inflated bladders pressed against the stomach and thighs preventing blood, needed in the head, from pooling in the lower extremities. As G forces were lightened, the air in the suit automatically bled off. Using the heel of the left hand, one could tap out a rhythm on the anti-G suit manual inflation button and receive a stimulating ass and low back massage.
As the miles fell away and I had eaten a sandwich and a piece of chicken from my in-flight lunch box, my mind turned to the part of the mission briefing we had attended the day before. "Since there has been so much drug smuggling out of Viet Nam, you can all expect to be thoroughly searched and your airplanes taken apart on reaching Guam," said the Seventh Air Force briefing officer out of Saigon.
As far as I knew, no combat aircrews used drugs, knowing full well it would mean the end of his flying career if caught. But the unlikely possibility did exist that maintenance crewman might secrete drugs within the airframe then recover them once the airplane was safely in the States. Our aircraft maintenance specialists were already in place along our route and there were many places small items could be hidden without the knowledge of the pilot [I've heard a fifth of whisky fits nicely inside the main wing tips]. Although I had no drugs, I did have in my zippered chest pocket a chamois wrapped, borrowed Browning .380 semi-automatic pistol, smuggled into Viet Nam in my luggage. This had been the Browning's second trip to Viet Nam, having smuggled it into and out of Phan Rang on a previous tour in 1967 -- 68.
I had long since learned that the U.S. Customs just did not ever look through my luggage. I guess my face didn't fit the profile of a smuggler because no U.S. Customs agent ever opened any of my bags in twenty-six Pacific crossings and six Atlantic crossings [this was not true of agents from other countries]. But this time it appeared my kindly avuncular manner would not help me if the custom agents on Guam were going to search all of our airplanes and us.
Some of us in Viet Nam carried a "crotch gun" in addition to the issued .38 caliber revolver we all carried on combat missions. The generic crotch gun was a small automatic pistol, carried wrapped in a chamois skin, in the chest pocket. In case of ejection and imminent capture, the gun was transferred to the crotch because many of the enemy soldiers of Southeast Asia would not touch your private parts [at least that was what we were told]. Then when an opportunity presented itself, it might be possible to shoot one's way out of captivity.
I never, at any time, during any of my five combat tours in Southeast Asia thought that anyone or anything could ever shoot me down, so my crotch gun was more of an "old China hand" symbol than anything else.
Actually, neither weapon was worth a damn in a survival situation. Neither was accurate and neither would stand up to the high heat and humidity of SEA. In my opinion, a stainless steel, nine shot .22 caliber magnum revolver with a seven-inch barrel would have been more appropriate. One could carry plenty of ammunition, have adequate killing power for both man and most animals and it wouldn't turn into a bucket of rust in the jungle or mangrove swamp.
At the velocity of a .45 caliber bullet, we continued our rush towards Guam and as the Philippines faded from view, I really began to dwell on the unauthorized weapon in my chest pocket.
The cockpit of an F-l00 is tiny. One sat, tied down really, to an ejection seat. At the front is the instrument panel with two openings below it for foot access to the rudder pedals/brakes. The control stick grew out of the floor between the legs and on either side of the seat, about hipbone high was benches, called quarter panels, containing radio, navigation, oxygen, armament and a myriad of other control equipment. The quarter panels sloped down slightly, towards the center of the cockpit, for easier reading.
On the left side, aft of the UHF radio control panel, I noticed a flat plate, held down by four dzus fasteners. Evidently a redesigned piece of equipment, probably the radio, had been repositioned and the unused space covered with a plate. If the space beneath the plate was empty, the plate area appeared to be big enough in which to stuff the Browning. So I checked the cabin pressure gauge, steady on 8,000 feet, notified my other flight members I would be off the air for a while and removed my helmet and mask and placed them on the right quarter panel. After thumping the G-suit manual inflation valve a few times and working the kinks out of the upper part of my body, I removed the Browning and dug my Swiss Army knife from out of the same pocket.
The Swiss Army knife, made by Victorinox or Wenger [all others are pale imitations], is unequivocally the best pocketknife a pilot can carry. The style in my pocket was known then as the "Mountaineer." In addition to two knife blades, a pair of scissors, leather punch, corkscrew [for the fine wines of Viet Nam], tweezers and a plastic toothpick, there were two screwdriver blades. The smaller screwdriver blade incorporated a can opener formed by sharpening the rounded, lower surface of the blade. The smaller screwdriver was exactly the right size to twist off the dzus fasteners.
Checking my wingmen for position and making sure the aircraft was trimmed as best as possible, I squirmed around to where I could start loosening the dzus fasteners. It wasn't an easy task because the F-100 was not an easy airplane to trim hands off. I had to divide my time between maintaining wings level and working within the cockpit.
I was blind.
The canopy seal had ruptured and the resultant explosive decompression shot the cabin pressure from 8,000 feet to 30,000 feet instantaneously. Water vapor had condensed on the lenses of my sunglasses and in the turmoil of the rapid pressure change, it took a few seconds for me to realize that the reason I couldn't see was because of foggy lenses. This wasn't my first explosive decompression and my initial instinct was to keep the aircraft straight and level, but I had also sliced open my forefinger on the can opener and only realized I was bleeding when I removed my sunglasses to wipe off the moisture. I sucked on the finger and then looked at it. When I did, I noticed my thumbnail was bright blue.
Every three years, military pilots are required to attend physiological flight school. The school was a review of the physiological changes that will occur within the body with an increase in altitude. Part of the training was a '"ride" in the altitude chamber [hyperbaric chamber] where one was able to experience, first hand, the individual symptoms of hypoxia [lack of oxygen] when chamber personnel paired two man teams up and the oxygen masks were removed at a chamber pressure of 25,000 feet. The purpose of pairing up was to have the team buddy slap on the oxygen mask as the other started to lose consciousness. Always, in the past, the drill had been called off because of my uncooperativeness [my last chamber ride, a decade later, was different in only one respect: Gene Buttyan, in the chamber too and an old friend, would not pass out either].
Seeing the blue thumbnail, I was still alert enough to realize I was hypoxic. I threw on my helmet, mask and selected 100% oxygen and it was if the entire world had returned to Technicolor. Without realizing it, the oxygen depravation at 30,000 feet was destroying my vision and in a few more seconds, I would have slipped into unconsciousness. The 100% oxygen cleared my vision and my brain.
When my brain began to function properly, it told me the cockpit had grown unbearably hot. I tried various methods of manually adjusting the temperature but none of them worked. I knew from experience that a change in altitude could affect cockpit temperature, so I began a gradual descent, finally leveling off at 14,000 feet. The cockpit was still scorchingly hot, but not unbearable. High above, my five wingmen and the three tankers proceeded along, burning much less fuel per engine than me at less than half of their fuel saving altitude.
The explosive decompression could not have happened at a worse time, about half way between Guam and the Philippines. With the increased fuel flow at low altitude, there was no way I could make landfall without much more fuel than I was programmed for, especially since my left drop tank wasn't feeding.
Whenever we flew combat, we would stick two plastic whiskey flasks of frozen water into the lower G-suit pockets. By the time we were ready for take off, they would have thawed out and I always had a drink or two before taking the active runway. My two water flasks, personally marked "Frazier, I have syphilis" in a vain attempt to keep others from using them were unopened in the leg pockets of my flying suit and I drank both down [rationing water as practiced by Beau Geste has never been viable]. I still had milk and orange juice in my lunch box. In fact, those two whiskey flasks are sitting empty in my den as I write this in 1996.
For years, I had carried a couple of band-aides in my wallet, so fished one out and bandaged my forefinger, found my knife on the cockpit floor, finished opening the panel and was able to stuff the Browning into the hole and button it back up. Now if the customs people found it, I would simply deny knowledge of it, knowing their fingerprints would cover the weapon before anyone thought to check for other prints.
A compatible refueling altitude was FL 200, so I decided to climb back to 20,000 feet and have a tanker descend and stay hooked up, continuously taking on fuel for as long as possible. Tankers were en route from Guam to replace the ones with us, which would return to Clark AB and await the next flight of six out of Phan Rang.
The tanker commander refueled my other five F-100s and then broke off the two tankers with the lowest fuel and they headed back to the Philippines. I met the remaining tanker, hooked up and transferred fuel. My cockpit was hotter than hell and I was aware of the very real danger of dehydration but really had no other choice. The tanker, monitoring his own fuel closely, told me he had to leave. As he did so, I descended again just as the high five received navigational lock ons with the inbound Guam KC-135s. Again, the rendezvous was uneventful, well above me and I drank the milk and orange juice.
We still had about two hours to go and the Guam tankers had plenty of fuel, but the heat was rapidly depleting my energy reserves. I wasn't sure if I possessed the skill to hook up and fly close formation with the boom and drogue. One of the tankers helped to solve the problems by dropping down to my altitude and I was able to hook up and took on fuel for about 15 minutes. By this time I was losing the ability to make the precise maneuvering required, so I dropped off, fairly sure my topped off tanks would get me to Guam. My tanker climbed 2,000 feet and invited me to follow him in.
I told my assistant flight leader to have the flight shake it loose, push it up and land before me because I was feeling pretty rocky from dehydration. I wasn't sure if I could keep the airplane on the runway, especially with an extra 2,100 pounds of fuel hanging uselessly outboard of my left main gear.
My tanker pilot declared an emergency for me and led me into a long straight-in final at Guam's Anderson AB. Anderson AB's runway was situated east - west and there was a drop of several hundred feet to the ocean at the east end of the over run. We were landing to the east and I judged it prudent not to overshoot my landing.
Surprisingly, my landing was a good one, I deployed the drag chute and several emergency vehicles swung onto the runway behind me. At 50 knots, I opened the canopy and Guam's hot steamy atmosphere swept over me, cooling me down.
Ground crewmen met me at the end of the runway; I threw them the nose safety pin and they signaled me to shut down, which I gladly did. A ladder was hooked to the cockpit and a Flight Surgeon climbed up and handed me a beer. I drained it thoroughly and he handed me another, which I treated in a like manner. When the second beer was drained, the doctor said, "Welcome to Guam."
"Glad to be here," I burped.
The doctor waited until I unloaded my bags, then gave me a lift in his ambulance to maintenance where I met my flight members and wrote up the pressurization, heat & vent and drop tank systems. As best I recall, I never shared the drop tank problem with my other flight members. They knew I was hooked up to the tanker much longer and more often than anyone else, but probably thought it was because of the lower altitude I had to maintain. My airplane was towed into a hangar for repairs and at no time did any members of my flight see customs personnel.
The next day we launched for Hawaii. Everything, except my drop tank, worked fine and there were no laugh boxes. Customs officials met us, but none opened my bags nor were our airplanes searched. We spent two days at Hickam AFB, Honolulu, Hawaii before launching for McClellan AFB, Sacramento, California.
The left drop never did feed and I flew it all the way to Terre Haute without obtaining one pound of fuel from the tank. After shutting down at Terre Haute, I popped the plate where the Browning was secreted and under the surprised eye of an Air National Guard crew chief, he watched me pull it out, undisturbed.
Years later, it occurred to me that maybe the left drop had something in it other than fuel. I did write up a complaint at each stop and there was ample opportunity to fix it by generally the same people from the same unit.
But no, no one would ever want to smuggle anything OUT of Viet Nam.
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