Category: "Viet Nam"
I should have known it was going to be a bad day when I stepped on the Krait.
The Krait is a short, fat, cylindrical viper endemic to central Thailand: specifically Takhli Royal Thai AFB, where I was stationed in 1973 flying the F-111A, Aardvark. At certain times of the year, Kraits are docile; so tame that Thai children play with them although their bite could be deadly to a child. I knew of no Americans, children or adults, who ever bothered to learn at what time of the year a Krait could be your buddy.
Americans called all Southeast Asia (SEA) snakes two-steppers, forty-steppers or any steps in between to alert the bitee how far he could stagger before dying a horrible writhing death. Actually no Americans died of snakebite during our 15 plus years of involvement in SEA. Available snakebite death statistics were based on small, usually undernourished peasants; not big healthy Americans.
Gary Rundle, my right seater and a young pilot who acted as a weapons system operator, navigator and co-pilot, whom I called "Goose" for Guy Operating Other Seat's Equipment, and I were scheduled for an early evening mission to Cambodia to dump 24 five-hundred pound bombs on some unsuspecting trees. The squadron operations building was about one-half mile from our quarters and we almost always walked between the two buildings. To do so, we would cut through a pasture of about five acres.
The Civil Engineers had thoughtfully laid down a sidewalk through the pasture's knee-high grass. Some of the aircrews had complained of cobras rearing up out of the grass to check their position, so the civil engineers had just that very day cut the grass. As Goose and I walked along the sidewalk, newly cut grass littered the concrete. Lying on the grass, soaking up the sun's heat, was a banded Krait, which I did not see until my left foot was actually falling towards him. I knew instantly that it was a Krait because about a week before, Goose and I had visited a snake farm in Bangkok and had the opportunity to view them, safely incased in glass cages. There was nothing I could do but watch in horror as my foot, in slow motion, descended on the Krait, striking him squarely in the middle of the back.
In a flash, time resumed normal dimensions as I levitated-screaming at the top of my lungs. I distinctly remember watching the Krait amble into the grass and Goose's quizzical bemused expression as I looked down on him from the apogee of my terror. When I returned to earth, Goose asked, "what the hell's wrong with you, Major?"
"Jeezus, Goose, didn't you see the Krait I just stepped on?" I asked in a squeaky, trembling voice.
"Gimme a break Major," Goose winked, "didum bad ol' snake bitum your po-po?"
"I'm not kidding Goose, he's right there in the grass." The grass was about ankle high, with cut grass lying on top, but I had no intention of tracking the reptile down.
"Yeah, sure Major, hadn't we better get on down to the squadron?"
On rubbery legs, I tip-toed after Goose on down to the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron, home of the "Buccaneers." While Goose gathered up our target materials, I tried to tell other squadron members of my close encounter. All but two other pilots thought I was just kidding around. One of the pilots who believed me was Larry Peters. He and another pilot had spotted a snake under a tree one day and threw a handful of gravel at it to create a reaction. The snake's reaction was to chase the pilots; it was a cobra and the only snake known that will chase a human. The two pilots easily outdistanced the pissed-off reptile.
In the flight planning room, Goose and I studied the target we were to attack. Other than being in Cambodia, absolutely nothing stands out in my mind concerning its location and importance.
When bombing in Cambodia, we always overflew Korat Royal Thai AFB and Ankor Wat, the lost city in the northwestern quadrant of Cambodia. Both locations were used to update and validate our INS (inertial navigation system) and the attack radar-our primary bombing delivery components. One end of Korat's runway and the southwestern corner of an ancient reservoir at Ankor Wat were mensurated, i.e., latitude, longitude and elevation were precisely measured. With these locations and elevations entered into the INS, the best possible calibration of the equipment was achieved. Bomb ejection force (bombs do not fall away from airplanes, they are blown away), bomb release interval, time of fall were all computed if the pilot held an accurate heading, airspeed and altitude.
Bombs are seldom blown from the airplane simultaneously; they are rippled off to prevent structural overloads. On my first carry of four two-thousand pound Mark 83 iron bombs, a pilot standing next to me at the ops counter suggested that I not watch the wings as the bombs rippled off. It was not my habit to watch the wings during bomb release, but I asked him why not. His answer was vague enough for me to watch the left wing as the bombs were blown away. The wing flexed so much, I though it would tear away from the fuselage; I never watched again.
As pilots, we all flew an attack as precisely as possible. We did not dive bomb because the F-111A, at $27,000,000.00 per airplane, was far too expensive to fly into the small arms envelope at this stage of the bombing campaign. We usually attacked from 15,000 feet above sea level and 350 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS). Bombing accuracy was superb and with the system operating properly, the only unknowns were the winds the bombs fell through on their way to the target.
One dark night ("dark night" is probably redundant; all tropical nights are dark and there were very few colored city or rural lights in SEA to help in orientation. An occasional white light on the ground could look like a star and it was easy to glance towards the ground, see a white light, assume it was a star and suddenly develop a serious case of spatial disorentation. Neither was there a twilight in SEA. Because there was little dust in the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays as it was hidden behind the horizon, day slammed into night and night into day without the dawn and dusk transition), inbound to a target, Goose was busy refining his radar cross hairs on the target. Looking out of the windscreen, I could see 37mm shells exploding below and directly in front of us. Knowing that the 37mm's maximum altitude was 13,000 AGL (above ground level) and since we were at least 1,500 feet above the exploding shells, they were of no concern.
Casually, I asked, "Goose, have you ever been shot at?"
Goose, who was quite busy setting up the bombing run on his radar scope snapped, "not to my knowledge."
"Are you sure you've never been shot at?" I asked again.
"Major, I'm pretty busy here, what's your point?" He continued to make adjustments on his controls with his head buried in the shroud surrounding the radar scope.
"Why don't you look out the front window and tell me what you see?" I suggested, knowing we had plenty of fuel for a reattack if we had to abort the one we were flying.
Goose climbed out of his radar scope and looked out the windscreen. It took him a few seconds to pick up the blurred red explosions ahead and below us. "Holy cow! What the hell is that?"
"That's being shot at," I smugly replied.
If the target could be identified on radar, we could bomb direct. If not, we would find a radar significant offset point, like a bend in the Mekong; lock on to it, measure the heading and distance from the offset to the target and the INS would take us to the release point and automatically drop the bombs by setting the bomb arming and navigational & release systems up properly. Targeting specialists in the Radar Strike section assisted us in finding the most easily identifiable offset points.
Indigenous controllers on the ground, especially in Laos, would carry portable "beacons." The beacons illuminated the F-111's radar system and we frequently used them for the offset aim point. In fact, until the Khmer Rouge complained to the Geneva Convention, a beacon was located on the roof of the American Embassy in Phnom Penh and Goose and I used it several time to attack the Phnom Penh environs.
During those missions, we checked the "offset" mode frequently while inbound to the target, not wishing to distress the Ambassador at some white tie function. Once, while inbound to the target, the beacon went off the air for about 15 seconds. When it came back up, we both agreed that the Ambassador had probably been on the roof changing the batteries.
Two F-111 crews on separate missions and different targets collided one night.
We flew out of Takhli single-ship and accomplished all flight planning unilaterally. With targets in both Cambodia and Laos, it seemed simply too remote to consider a mid-air collision. But two crews inbound to their separate targets clipped wings in a head-on pass. Neither saw the other; one crew successfully ejecting and recovered in good health the next morning and the other crew returning to Takhli with four feet of the right wing missing.
After finishing our flight planning, we received a briefing at the ops counter and signed out. In the Personal Equipment section, we donned our survival vests, underarm life preservers, and "G" suits. We checked our survival radios and helmets that included the oxygen masks and transmitters/receivers. Finally, we loaded our .38 police specials and strapped them on. Parachutes were not worn because the entire crew module rocketed away from the F-111's fuselage and the parachute was contained in the module.
Both flight and "G" suits had an oblong pocket sewn to the upper left leg. A day-glo orange MC-1 survival knife was carried in the pocket and attached to an eye in the pocket flap by a nylon lanyard. The knife had a switch blade and a "U" shaped blade called a line cutter. For pilots who wore parachutes, the line cutter was suppose to be used for cutting four of the parachute lines during decent after ejection-for better directional control. No pilot, to my knowledge, finding himself under a fully opened and functional canopy ever made the "four line cut." Of course, in the F-111, the parachute was external to the crew module and it was impossible (and unnecessary) to cut any lines-yet Higher Headquarters directed that the line cutter had to be carried in the open position in the leg pocket, known as the "fish," because of its shape.
Fighter pilots ripped the fish from their flight suits: a silent message that conveyed "we don't need the fish on the flight suit because we are fighter pilots and wear "G" suits and therefore couldn't get to it."
On another SEA tour, our squadron operations officer, a bit of an asshole, came into the hootch one day wearing a new flying suit with the fish still sewn on. A few of the younger pilots rushed over to him in order to tear off the fish. The ops officer ordered the pilots to leave his flight suit alone. Later, I overheard the young pilots plotting to steal into his room and rip off the fish. I suggested instead that they sneak into his room and sew fish on a few pairs of his civilian trousers-which they had the maid accomplish. The ops officer proudly wore the trousers and never removed the fish, acknowledging the one-ups-manship.
The crew van delivered us to our F-111. Since we seldom flew the same airplane on consecutive missions, the airplane tail number had no particular meaning to us-just another 'vark, as we called the F-111.
We checked the forms after putting our gear in the cockpit and preflighted the aircraft-starting by looking for foot prints on the spine of the crew module. On ejection, a continuous strip of primer cord exploded and separated the module from the fuselage. A single break in the primer cord, as could be caused by someone stepping on the exposed cord, would prevent separation.
Once at Mountain Home AFB, I found foot prints on the primer cord and rejected the airplane. I was assigned another aircraft in the next parking spot and as I was preflighting that airplane, I watched a crew chief climb on top of my original bird and wipe off the foot prints. I walked over to the airplane as he was signing off my write up as "inspected and found serviceable." I called his supervisor over to the airplane and excoriated the supervisor's ass loudly and profanely. As all military personnel are aware, shit flows down hill...
Goose and I made separate preflights unless time was a factor, then I took the left side and he took the right. Since we had plenty of time prior to our scheduled take off time, we inspected the area several yards in front of the airplane for anything (FOD: foreign object damage) that could be sucked into the intakes. Crew chiefs were forced to check for FOD and we believed that it got their attention when we would do it without having to be told.
Twenty-four 500 pound bombs are a lot of bombs to preflight, but we would inspect each one for security, fuse settings, arming wire integrity, bent fins, and proper alignment on the BRU (bomb release unit. Each BRU held six 500 pound bombs attached to four pylon hard-points under the wings. The BRU's pivoted, to align with the flight path, whenever the wings were moved fore or aft). On holidays, like in the movies, we would spray paint succinct messages on the bombs. Unlike the movies, the messages were neither original nor clever; the most common being "so long asshole" or "fuck-off shithead."
We also paid particular attention to the tires. Our 'vark was grossing out at about 90,000 pounds and the main gear tires, the same as those used on C-130 "Hercules" transports, did not roll over FOD; the airplane would either crush the object or drive it into the tire. It took two skilled mechanics about three hours to change a main gear tire, so occasionally, crew chiefs would try to hide a cut by towing the airplane to its parking place and stopping it with the cut near the tarmac. Goose and I would always kick the chocks away and inspect the tires on our hands and knees.
On a night take off roll with 24 500-pounders, one crew experienced a broken axle that blew the right main gear tire. As they skidded uncontrollably off the side of the runway, they hit a "runway remaining distance marker" that was suppose to be frangible. This one was not and it punched a hole in a fuel tank and the aircraft immediately caught fire and the bombs started detonating in low and high order.
As this was happening, I was walking along the previously mentioned sidewalk, on my way to the control tower for night duty as SOF (Supervisor of Flying). Hearing the explosions, and seeing the flashes, I thought sappers had attacked our ammunition dump. It was only after I climbed the stairs to the tower that I learned what had happened. We could look across the infield and see the airplane burning and exploding. There was a pickup truck parked a few feet in front of the conflagration and I asked the on-duty SOF what the pickup was doing there.
"He went to rescue the crew," said the SOF.
"Did he get them?" I asked.
"Afraid not. They never made it out and the pickup driver ran away. Bombs must have scared him."
What we didn't know was that as soon as the F-111 veered off the runway, the crew started unstrapping. They were out and running down the runway together as soon as the bird slid to a stop.
About the same time as we were talking in the control tower, a security policeman checking the fence line at the departure end of the runway spotted two running figures in his jeep's headlights. The crew was on the perimeter road, about two miles from their airplane, still engaged at warp speed.
When preflighting the F-111, looking at the ramp was almost as important as looking at the airplane. The bird was a real leaker, so crews always inspected the ground for fuel and hydraulic leaks. Finding none, we climbed aboard and after running through 49 separate checklist items, I called for electricity (supplied by an external unit), checked 19 additional items then placed the engine ground start switch to "cartridge" and lifted the left throttle that fired the left engine cartridge starter. Once in idle, I brought the left generator on-line, had the crew chief disconnect the electrics and cross-bled number two engine into operation. With the second generator on the line, Goose began his initialization of the INS, a fifteen minute process. The exact latitude, longitude and elevation of our revetment was painted on the tarmac to assist initialization. While Goose checked and set the INS, ordnance and navigation equipment, I checked hydraulic, electrical, wing sweep, trim and engine components. Had we a problem, an expeditor would rush a specialist and parts to us.
With the aircraft functioning normally, we taxied to the arming area at the take-off end of the runway. Specialists swarmed over the airplane removing bomb arming pins and checking the airplane one final time before we committed ourselves to the elements.
Getting a thumbs up, we closed and latched our canopies and received tower permission for take-off.
I swung onto the runway and pulled up as short as possible to give us maximum runway for the take-off roll. Running the engines up to full military power (maximum power without AB), we checked all instruments that would tell us if the bird was acceptable for take-off. They looked good to me, so I selected the first stage of the five stages of AB on the left engine and repeated the sequence on the right engine. Operating as required, I advanced both throttles to maximum afterburning and as the aircraft clock sweep second hand swept through our take-off time, I released the brakes and asked Goose what I always asked as we started to roll: "Shall we see if we can get this sonofabitch off the ground?"
He, in turn said what he always said when the instruments looked good, "let's do it."
F-111A humorists claimed that one should abort the take-off if the airplane didn't start to roll in a minute or two after selecting the fifth stage of afterburner. The F-111F would grind the rubber off the tires if the brakes were held in the AB fifth stage, but it had half again as much power in their TF-30 turbo-fan engines.
The airplane accelerated slowly in the high density altitude of hot, humid Thailand, but we had figured our take-off roll for 5,600 feet and checked the airspeed building properly as we approached lift off.
The bird came away cleanly and I raised the gear, flaps and slats. Take-off wing position was 16 degrees aft and climb wing of 26 degrees aft was to be selected at 220 Knots. Just as I reached for the wing sweep handle, the left engine fire warning light illuminated. "Goose," I said, "left engine fire light, I think it's spurious." Engine fires were usually accompanied by bumps or thumps and I had heard or felt nothing. As a precaution, I pulled the left engine out of burner and back to idle, intending to use it if needed.
"Concur, probably false...uh-oh, there goes left engine oil pressure." I had been looking for a place to dump the ordnance, if necessary, and for the very first time I noticed a village was located directly beneath our take-off route.
"OK, Goose, we got a problem here. I don't want to drop the ordnance on the people down there but I'm shutting down number one and hitting the Agent Discharge (agent discharge was the fire extinguisher)." I positioned the switch to the down position, the test position. The position I selected on every actual flight and/or simulator flight in the three different models of the F-111 I had flown.
"Uh, Major, that switch is suppose to go up."
"Huh? Oh yeah, sorry." I repositioned the switch to the up position and the fire light went out and the cockpit immediately filled with fumes. Goose checked our oxygen systems on 100% and turned off the air source selector knob-preventing bleed air from entering the cockpit and the fumes cleared up.
"Takhli tower," I called, "Buck 81 declaring an emergency. Fire warning light. I'll be entering a left downwind as soon as I reach safe ejection altitude (2,000 feet above the ground)."
"Ah roger, Buck 81," transmitted the tower, "we're rolling the equipment and the airdrome is yours. Be advised we followed you with the binocs and everything looked normal from here." He then shut up, knowing we were busy in the cockpit.
Unknown to me, a base photographer was at the take-off end of the runway taking photographs of airplanes taking off. He saw the left burner wink out and knew that something unusual was taking place. He sent the squadron a photo (that was given to me) that he snapped; apparently about the same time the fire warning light illuminated (see attachment).
Surprisingly, the aircraft continued to climb at 200 feet per minute with the left engine shut down and I was watching a khlong (canal) ahead of us into which I could drop the ordnance. Goose had his checklist open and we were going over every possible item concerning fires and landing immediately after take off.
Of course we were concerned with our own survival, but the Wing Commander, who many of the aircrews thought was certifiably insane, had been grounding crews for minor infractions and we didn't want to give him a reason to ground us.
When the aforementioned F-111's collided, a new wing had to be ordered for the aircraft that made it back. Every day, the commander screamed at and harangued Component Repair Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Eddie Doerschlen, about the status of the wing, over which Eddie had no control. About two weeks later, we received word that the wing was inbound on a C-141. We all turned out to celebrate the event and the termination of Eddie's own public hell.
Fifty or sixty of us watched as a large crate was unloaded, broken down and the wing laid out on the tarmac for inspection. It didn't take the maintenance supervisors long to determine that the wing was for an F-111F, not an F-111A. Although they looked similar, the wing would no more fit on an F-111A than on a ford tractor.
The commander went absolutely nutso, holding Eddie totally responsible and redoubled his efforts to make Eddie Doerschlen's every waking moment a living nightmare.
Again, in about two weeks, we heard another wing was inbound. Twice as many people were on the ramp to watch the unloading. The crate was broken down and the wing laid out. The supervisors, checklists in hand, inspected the wing thoroughly and pronounced it fit and proper. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief for Eddie and started to drift away from the wing still lying on the tarmac.
The "Running Chef," a Thai National employee, in a pickup truck with food and beverages on board, spotted the crowd about this time and drove over to offer his products. Unfortunately, he also drove over the wing...
I climbed straight ahead for maximum lift and by the time we reached the khlong, we were at minimum safe ejection altitude. The khlong was now too far below us to accurately gage the trajectory of the ordnance. Additionally, I could now see shanties lined both sides of the khlong and even if I jettisoned the ordnance unarmed, several, as always, would detonate high order.
"Goose, I'm not going to jettison the ordnance. Keep your hand on the ejection handle and start dumping fuel."
"I think I read somewhere we shouldn't dump fuel if we've had engine fire indications," he replied.
"Yeah, I think you're right, but we don't have a choice. Dump down to 6,000 pounds."
Goose returned the air source selector valve to normal to provide dump pressure and he hit the fuel dump switch. The dump outlet was located between the engine exhausts and the AB flame would light off the fuel as it vaporized.
"Ah, Buck 81," called the tower, "you're trailing flame."
"Uh, roge, tower, we're dumping."
The control tower personnel were aware that dumping fuel while one or both afterburners were engaged caused the F-111 to trail flame, but they had no way of knowing that I had decided to dump fuel until I told them.
At Takhli, we had two F-111 squadrons and rotated day and night schedules: two weeks on days and two weeks on nights. On night missions, it was impossible to visually check to see if any ordnance had hung up during release. A flashlight would only reflect off the canopy glass so we would select AB on one engine and dump fuel. When the fuel ignited, we could easily see if any dark green bombs were nestled up against a black BRU.
One night, over a large lake we called Tonie Sap in central Cambodia, one of our crews was checking for hung ordnance-not realizing that a KC-135 tanker was in orbit above them. When the tanker crew saw the flame, they mistook it for a SA-2 surface to air missile (SAM) and took violent evasive maneuvers, evidently injuring some of the crew. When the KC-135 aircraft commander reported the incident, we were ordered to stop igniting the raw fuel. No one followed the order. The KC-135 crew had a legitimate reason to be alarmed. SAM's had been reported in both Laos and Cambodia and we kept our RHAW (Radar Homing and Warning) gear peaked up in case hostile radar came up and interrogated us. One night, Goose and I were flying down to southeastern Cambodia and looking out of my side canopy, I could see the lights of an airplane moving into close formation with us. I had no idea there was anyone anywhere close to us, so I called ABCCC (Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center. A C-130 with a special module on board and a crew who directed and monitored our air strikes) and asked them who was the stranger.
"That's a Wild Weasel out of Korat," replied AB triple C, "there's been some missile activity in your target area, so he's going along as an escort." F-105F Wild Weasels were missile site killers.
"No one told us about any missile activity, can you get him up this freq?" I asked.
The Wild Weasel came up on my freq and it turned out I knew the pilot, John Manning. We had flown F-111Fs at Mountain Home together and he confided that he did not expect any missile activity; he just wanted to log a combat sortie.
When we were opposite the touchdown point, we still had 12,000 pounds of fuel on board. Although I hated to do it, I made a 360 degree turn. Rolling out of the turn, with total fuel down to 6,000 pounds, Goose turned off the fuel dump switch and I put the gear down and turned left, 90 degrees to our landing direction. Another 90 degree left turn and we were on final; I selected slats and landing flaps. The increased drag required military thrust with an occasional tap of the AB to carry a final approach speed of about 160 knots. Normal final approach speed was about 135 knots.
Touchdown was normal and as the bird settled on the struts, I automatically checked the brakes. With the airspeed indicator still reading above 150 knots, I realized too late that my brakes would overheat. But we were able to slow to taxi speed just as the end of the runway came up. We cleared the active and shutdown. The firemen helped us out of the airplane just as the left brake caught fire. It was quickly extinguished and one of the firemen called us to the rear of the airplane.
Fuel was leaking out of every panel and hole in the aft fuselage. A large portion of the rear fuselage was burned away and I could look up into the interior and see that the fuel dump line, a conduit eight inches in diameter, had been burned almost completely through. I still wonder why we didn't blow up; Goose had been correct about not dumping fuel after an engine fire indication.
The Director of Operations arrived and asked us if we felt like going again. We said yes and he took us to another airplane uploaded with 24 more 500-pounders.
We went through the entire drill once again, save for the engine fire and a daylight take off and when we contacted AB triple C, they gave us a target change-still in Cambodia-but a different area. The target was a good one as several secondary explosions resulted.
When bombing from 15,000 feet or so, Goose and I had a technique for watching the ordnance explode: as soon as the last bomb left the airplane, I would pull the airplane around sharply for about 45 degrees, the direction depending on whose turn it was to look, then reverse the turn and let it float around in the other direction until all the bombs exploded. This allowed us to watch the results of our work and debrief maintenance on any holes in the bomb pattern that might indicate faulty ordnance or shoddy arming work.
Due to the extensive fire damage and repair cost, the in- flight fire was termed a major accident. A friend of mine, Lt. Col. Leon Goodson, Ph.D, was flown in from the States to convene an accident board.
Leon found that the fuel-cooled-oil-cooler had ruptured, spraying fuel over the hottest section of the engine. The oil cooler used afterburner fuel and when I shut down the AB the fire's fuel supply was terminated. The agent discharge is directed through the engine, not around it, so it had nothing to do with extinguishing the fire or the fire warning light.
F-111 engine fires had an unpredictable flame propagation. About the only thing that could be counted on was that the flame would always be sucked up into the vertical stabilizer. In the vertical stabilizer, was a rudder actuating rod. The rod would burn through in two to three seconds, and because of rudder design, cause the rudder to flop full travel. The aircraft was uncontrollable at slow airspeeds at full rudder travel.
A week or so after the accident, Goose and I were having lunch in the officers club dining room. We saw Leon enter and look around. Thinking he might be looking for us, I signaled to him. He came to our table and was carrying the rudder actuating rod which he silently handed to me.
It was scorched.
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