"Gila Bend Gunnery Range"

Category: "Air Force"
Les Gar Frazier on Jan. 14, 2021

In the spring of 1963, an envelope, sent to my TDY (temporary duty) post at Song Be, Republic of Viet Nam, contained my orders for Luke AFB, AZ. Luke certainly wasn't my first choice of assignments as I wanted to go to England AFB, LA and join my fellow combat-ready fighter pilots. Luke was a training base and it would be my duty to train new pilots how to fly, mid air refuel, fly formation, hassle (Air Combat Maneuvering) and use the F-100 as an air-to-mud weapons system. Somehow, to me, the duty was not pure, to be an instructor with no alert, no deployments, no gunnery camps.

Many new instructors, arriving at Luke had to put in at least one year as an Instrument Instructor Pilot and I certainly didn't look forward to that. When my tour in Viet Nam was over, I returned to Misawa, my PCS (Permanent Change of Station) base where Big Jim Ellard rechecked me out in the F-100 and got me recurrent. This took about a week-and-a-half and I was on my way to Phoenix, AZ.


Fortunately, I did not have to do penance in the instrument squadron and after attending IP (instructor pilot) upgrade training under the tutelage of Don Hooten, an old friend from Misawa, I was assigned directly to a gun squadron as a fighter gunnery instructor pilot. My flight commander was another old friend from Misawa, John Carey.


Somehow I always seem to be one of the youngest guys around, so I was a prime candidate for shit details. Shit details were Officer of the Day, Airdrome Officer, mobile control officer, Adjutant, Snack Bar Officer (CinCSNAK: Commander in Chief of the snack bar), Ops Duty Officer, harmonization officer (a pilot had to pull the trigger when the guns on airplanes were being harmonized at the firing-in butt), and the most dreaded detail of all: range officer.


Luke used the Gila Bend Gunnery Complex. Thousands of acres located south of Luke AFB, about 15 minutes flying time away. The range was generally bounded on the east by highway 85 running from the town of Gila Bend to the town of Ajo. The northern boundary was the highway running from Gila Bend to Yuma, the southern boundary by geographical coordinates and the western boundary by the Yuma, AZ area. There was a tactical range located on the east side of the Gila Bend/Ajo road, but wasn't used extensively and an air-to-air range located above the Gila Mountains, near Yuma. The entire area was covered with small mountain ranges, undulating terrain, dry river beds, volcanic rocks, sage brush and many different types of cacti, dominated by the majestic saguaro stretching upwards to 60 feet and weighing as much as ten tons.


There were four controlled ranges: Ranges One and Two laid out east/west, west of the Gila Bend/Ajo road and ranges Three and Four orientated north/south just to the south of the highway running from Gila Bend to Yuma. All four ranges had conventional weapons targets, while only ranges One and Two had a nuclear weapons target. Gila Control, located at the Gila Bend Auxiliary Field, coordinated TOTs (time on target) and checked flights on and off ranges. A runway at the Aux served as an emergency landing field.


The conventional targets consisted of two separate target areas: left and right, located on either side of the fifty-foot tall main range tower. Both left and right ranges had six strafe targets (large canvas squares, tilted back at a 15 degree angle with oversized black aiming dots centered in the upper part of the canvas); two skip bomb targets adjacent to the main range tower (these targets were rectangular canvas, about twenty feet across and eight or so feet high). Bombing circles with concentric rings every twenty feet out to 200 feet were located well away from the main range tower. Another range tower, manned by range personnel, was located so that bombs or rockets impacting in and around the bomb circle could be triangulated with instruments in the main range tower and scored. Finally, the nuclear weapons bomb circle on ranges One and Two consisted of a circle with a 2,000 foot radius and a 40,000 foot run-in line for airplanes to follow into the target. They too had a separate range tower for scoring and the bomb circle was well away from the main range tower because of the inaccuracy of nuclear weapons delivery.


When one was picked for range duty, and God knows, I certainly pulled my share, the first missions could be as early as 15 minutes after sunrise and the last 15 minutes before sunset. In the summer, on the 33rd parallel above the equator, that could mean a long day. Range Officers were flown to Gila Bend Auxiliary Field in an L-20 Beaver, then transported by truck to the individual ranges or the Beaver would drop the Range Office at his range, landing on a dusty strip, daylight permitting.


One morning when I was on duty at Range One, the nearer one to Ajo, an F-4 flight checked in:

"Range One, Jerk."

"Go ahead, Jerk," I answered, "Range One is open for business."

"Roger Range One, Jerk is inbound, are you ready to copy my line up?"


The line up consisted of the number of airplanes in the flight, the pilot numbers (each training squadron had numbers assigned to each pilot) and the gunnery events to be practiced.


"Go ahead, I'm ready to copy," I responded.

"Ah roger, Range One, Jerk is a flight of four Fox Fours outta DM (Davis-Monthan AFB, an F-4C training base) for skip, dive and rockets." He then read me off the pilot numbers.

I read the information back to him, gave him a current altimeter setting and the surface winds.


"You'll have right range, left traffic. No strafe today?" Since the F-4C carried no guns, my reference to strafing was a slur toward his airplane manufacturer and the political system that directed a fighter should be built without an integral gun. The lack of a gun was extremely touchy subject with some pilots, but as range officer, I was omnipotent and Jerk should know better than to piss me off. My reference to "right range, left traffic" meant that Jerk flight would be using the skip bomb and bombing circle targets to the right side (north) of my range tower and all turns to reposition for each attack would be to the left. Each pilot in Jerk flight repeated the altimeter setting and acknowledged "right range, left traffic."


While the flight was still inbound, I directed range personnel to change a huge red panel, located at the right base of my tower, from red to white, by flipping it like a giant portable blackboard.


"You have a white panel," I transmitted, indicating the flight was cleared to drop ordnance on the right hand range. Once the flight was close enough to see the white panel, they would acknowledge it. But they were still too far away when one of the flight members transmitted, "Range One Officer, say call sign." He was asking me what name I used when I flew an instructional flight."

"Call sign's 'Tom Henry,'" I replied.

"Hey, Tom Henry, this is 'Playboy' flying in the number three position."

Playboy was Sid Wright, an ex-Luke instructor and fellow pilot from my gun squadron. He had been reassigned, evidently completed his tour, and now was a student in the F-4C.


While the flight was still inbound, Sid and I chatted on the radio to the chagrin of the flight leader who finally told Sid to get off the air. I had no idea what Jerk's qualifications were, but knew that Sid's were at least as good, since he could bomb from the back seat better than most could do from the front seat, so the Jerk's comments pissed us both off even though we both knew that in a fighter flight the leader did all the transmitting--but this was a special circumstance.


The flight approached my range on a westerly heading, in right echelon (all wingmen lined up to the right of Jerk), and acknowledged "white on the right in sight." They peeled off to the left with five second intervals and Jerk rolled out after ninety degrees of turn, held the heading for a few seconds and then made another left turn heading in the direction from whence they first approached the range. This was the downwind leg for skip bombing and Jerk called, "set'em up hot for skip on the downwind." Jerk made another descending 180 degree left turn, accelerating to his drop speed of 400 knots and lining up at about 50 feet AGL (above ground level) with the skip bomb target closer to my tower.


As he released his 25-pound MK-76 bomb that hit the ground and skipped through the target, I called, "that's a foul lead, forty feet, over on the fly. I was telling him that he was below the fifty-foot minimum altitude, although he actually wasn't (and probably knew it since the F-4 had a radar altimeter and a back seater to call off altitudes), and that his bomb impacted beyond the target which it actually did not. He could not argue with me and knew if I fouled him again, he would have to join up his flight and go home in disgrace. And so it went, Jerk, afraid he would foul off the range, kept well above the minimum altitude and thus assuring that his skip bombs would impact short of the target (skip short). In the meanwhile Sid was having one of his best skip bombing days: me calling four for four skipping through the target while he threw up rooster tails from his jet exhaust from dragging across the desert. There was an enlisted man in my tower to receive the other tower's dive and rocket impact plots and to plot impacts from my tower; he did not question my scoring. The range personnel had seen too many strange activities to get involved.


In both the dive bomb and rocket patterns, one could see one's own impact in the rear view mirror and had an excellent view of the other flight member's impacts. With the concentric rings, one could also tell about how far out a bomb or rocket impacted since bombs and rockets had smoke charges that exploded on impact.


Unfortunately, none of that worked to Jerk's advantage; only the scores I transmitted over the radio counted. He couldn't complain to me with one foul against him and if he tried to complain to his DM supervisors, in all probability, they would say, "I hate to hear a grown man cry." Neither could he check with the inexperienced students in the flight as, if typical, they were hanging onto the stick with both hands to keep from falling out of the airplane. Actually, I don't remember what any of the scores were, all I remember is that however well Jerk did, Sid did better. Knowing Sid Wright, he probably had some money or beer riding on the scores and on that day, he won every event. Call it professional courtesy or getting even, whatever, but don't ever piss off the range officer.


In 1965, General Gabriel P. Disosway replaced General Walter C. Sweeney, Jr. as the Commander of the Tactical Air Command (TAC), of which Luke AFB was a part. This was good news to practically every fighter pilot I knew as General Sweeney was, in our opinions, thought of as a sorry sack of shit. General Disosway, on the other hand, enjoyed a admirable reputation. I personally thought highly of General Disosway as when he was Commander of Flying Training Air Force, the Command in charge of pilot training when I was an Aviation Cadet, he signed a letter offering me a regular commission because I was a Distinguished Graduate from flying school. A regular commission offered tenure in the Air Force, among other things, and I was anxious to obtain the commission but had been unsuccessful in my efforts. As soon as General Disosway became the Tactical Air Command Commander, I again requested a regular commission and it came by return mail.


As part of his tour of TAC bases, General Disosway was scheduled for a two-day tour of Luke and the gunnery complex. At this time, I was assigned to IP upgrade, instructing experienced F-100 pilots on becoming instructors. One of my upgrade duties was to check out the fledgling instructor pilots as range officers. Because of this, I was selected to man the range tower that the general was to visit.


Leaving nothing to chance, a flight of four F-4Cs were scheduled on to my range, Range Three, for the general to observe. Unknown to the general, the front seats of the F-4s would all be manned by instructor pilots. The general arrived just as the flight was checking in and I was copying the line up. He was among several older officers in the range tower and I didn't recognize him at first because the morning was chilly and the four star general had borrowed the jacket of a colonel. My wing commander, Colonel Agustus M. Hendry, introduced me to the TAC commander then, along with the rest of the entourage, left the tower so the general could have an unobstructed view of the F-4s delivering their ordnance.


The first event, as usual for F-4s, was skip bomb and as the individual airplanes would make their pass across the area to the side of my tower, I would call out a hit or miss and their altitude. Their altitude was determined by my estimation in relation to the range tower's 50 foot height and a couple of coat hangars stretched horizontally outside the tower's glass, one coat hangar wire lower and closer to the window than the other. If the attacking airplane flew right along both coat hangars, as they were superimposed, one in front of the other, the airplane was at exactly 50 feet. Other altitudes were painted onto the window and it was an accurate system having been calibrated by a helicopter hovering in front of the skip bomb targets at exactly 50, 60, 70 and 80 feet above the ground. It took a bit of dodging and weaving to position myself to check the altitude and I could tell the general was interested in how I was able to call out altitudes.

"How are you telling their altitudes, Captain?" He asked. I explained the setup, which we called a "harp" and the general asked if he could gauge the altitude of the next airplane to fly by.


I stepped back and the general positioned himself as the next airplane, who happened to be the flight leader, approached. As the airplane flew by the tower and released his bomb, the general did the little jig that was necessary to read off the altitude, turned to me and asked, "eighty feet?" I had also been able to read off the altitude and it was, indeed, eighty feet. Because the pilot released the bomb from too high an altitude, it impacted short and skipped over the target (many IPs did not use the gun sight to skip bomb; rather they used a ground reference point, which worked fine on a controlled range in a no-wind, on-altitude attack. I believe the record was 26 skip hits in a row).


To the flight leader, I transmitted, "skip short, eighty feet." Surprisingly, the flight leader wanted to argue about his height. He did so by transmitting, "my radar altimeter had me dead on at fifty feet." This annoyed me as all the flight members knew TAC's commander was in the tower and that the range officer's word was supreme.


So, I came back with "the Commander had you at 80 feet," which delighted General Disosway.


The flight leader responded immediately, "roger, 80 feet." The rest of the mission went like a well-drilled ballerina troupe and the general thanked me and took his leave as the flight departed.


That evening, in the bar, Colonel Hendry asked me how it went and I told him that it went fine. Col. Hendry said that the general enjoyed his range visit. Since I had Colonel Hendry's attention and I knew that General Disosway would be visiting our upgraders the following day to answer questions, I asked him if he would mind if I asked the general if we could wear baseball caps again. General Sweeney had forbidden their wear. Since, in those days, we had to wear an overseas cap when we preflighted an airplane, a baseball cap was handier because it wouldn't fall off into a puddle of hydraulic fluid and had the added benefit of shielding the eyes from the hot desert sunshine and reflections from our airplanes, all unpainted aluminum and titanium.


The next day General Disosway visited with us in IP upgrading and asked the upgraders several questions about getting relocated and answered housing and career questions and such. Like on the range, ballcaps would have been an inappropriate subject.


Again, that evening, in the bar, Colonel Hendry came up to me and said,

"I thought you were going to ask him about baseball caps."

"Jeez, colonel," I said, "he was wanting to know how the new guys were getting along and I couldn't very well ask about ball caps."

"Just kidding Frazier, just kidding. I know you didn't have the chance. I'll call him Monday and ask (it was Friday evening)."


Tuesday, Colonel Hendry called me at the squadron and said, "the general wasn't available, so I asked his Chief of Staff about the ball caps and he said, 'the general doesn't give a fuck about what kind of head gear you wear.'"


Range Three was the closer range to Gila Bend along the highway that led to Yuma and Range Four was down the highway several miles in the direction of Yuma. There was absolutely nothing between the two ranges except heat and turkey vultures.


My duty on Range Four had become very boring because I had a three-hour break without traffic scheduled. Sitting around, my thoughts turned to an article I had read in the Phoenix newspaper sometime previously. The article discussed a new airplane in the Air Force inventory called the YF-12 (if memory serves, the YF-12 was the single seat forerunner of the SR-71 Blackbird). The article was skimpy on details because most of the data was classified as to the airplane's performance characteristics. Even though Luke was a cross roads for fighter pilots flying from here to there, no one seemed to know anything about the new bird, probably because it belonged to SAC (Strategic Air Command) and we considered SAC crews worse than the Soviet air fleet, especially since their crews could get spot promotions and TAC pilots could not.


I checked the range schedule and saw that Range Three had no traffic and the range officer, as best as I recall, was Art O'Connell. Art had a highly developed sense of humor with an easy disposition. Switching my radio to the Range Three frequency, I called. "Ah, Range Three, Humbug Zero One."


After a few seconds, probably used in checking his schedule for a Humbug flight, Art answered, "go ahead, Humbug 01, this is Range Three."

"Aah roger, Range Three, Humbug 01 is a YF-12 out of Beale AFB. Gila Control tells me you're clear of traffic. Acknowledge."

"That's affirm, Humbug 01, I have no traffic." I could tell that the encounter with a YF-12 was stimulating Art's free radicals.

"Aaah roger, Range Three, I have Gila Control's permission for a low altitude, high speed pass across your range. Confirm your concurrence (SAC liked to use big words)."


I could really hear Art start to get excited when he answered, "you're clear all the way Humbug 01, say your position."

"Aaaah roger," I answered, "I'll be making my pass from west to east and am presently over the Salton Sea at 20,000 feet. I'm pushing it up and starting my descent." The Salton Sea was at least 170 air miles from Range Three and even at 2,000 MPH, it would take almost a full minute to fly the distance. Instead, I waited 15 seconds and transmitted, "aaaaah, thank you very much for the courtesy Range Three, I'll be seeing you another day; leaving your freq." I then dialed up Range Three on the telephone and said, "JEEZUS KECHRIST!! THAT'S THE FASTEST SOMBITCH I'VE EVER SEEN! WASN'T THAT SOMETHIN'?" Art, who of course, had seen nothing, was literally screaming at me for information. "Well, jeez Art, he passed right in front of the dive bomb circles. He was really moving out, maybe you were looking the wrong way."


Any airplane moving as fast Humbug Zero One was moving would have been trailing a sonic boom.


As best I recall, I never told Art (if it was Art) that the Humbug Zero One was a just figment of a boring day.


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