"The North American Bitch"
Category: "Viet Nam"
The F-100 was a single seat, single engine jet fighter built by North American Aviation, Inc. She was a venerable, underpowered old whore, and according to some pilots, hard to fly. While she would go down hill like a hole sucking air and had a glide ratio of three degrees straighter than a rock, I never agreed that she was a difficult airplane to fly; she did however require constant attention and a delicate touch. If a pilot was unwilling to caress and cherish her, she would kill him in a New York second. I flew her at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina, Misawa AB in Japan, Luke AFB in Arizona and two combat tours at Phan Rang AB in Viet Nam.
The fussy mistress did not like to be fed aileron when she was at high angles of attack and slow airspeeds such as landing. To show her aversion to aileron under these conditions, she would yaw off in the opposite direction of the aileron input. The natural tendency of the ham-handed pilot would be to feed in even more aileron to counteract the yaw and this caused an even greater yaw in the other direction. The simple remedy was to stay off the ailerons and use the rudders to move her nose around. She loved it.
The F-100 also insisted on plenty of advanced notice that a pilot would be requiring a power increase, especially from low RPM's. Any pilot who slammed the throttle forward and expected her to respond would be consistently disappointed. Like a lady strolling in the park under her parasol on a Sunday afternoon, the F-100 powered up (or spooled up, as the pundits called it) at a leisurely pace; never to be hurried. Because she was temperamental about power demands, the pilot had to think well ahead of current requirements.
She liked for pilots and ground crewmen to check her and the ground around her carefully before flight. In fact, she wanted the attention of absolutely everyone on the flight line. Although I never considered her suicidal, she would eat any bolts, rocks, wrenches, etc., left lying around in her path. Since she was designed to eat only compressible air and the detritus left lying around seldom compressed as easily as air, it gave her a tummy ache that would cause her to blow her innards indelicately out her ass.
In her own off-beat way, she had a well developed sense of humor. It amused her when a pilot called for afterburner (AB) under high "G" scheduling. The AB was essentially a ram jet, mounted behind the J-57 turbojet engine. Its purpose was to provide high thrust for short periods-like take offs and emergencies. When a pilot selected AB, he did so by moving the throttle outboard at high engine RPM. This opened the eyelids (the aft end of he tailpipe) to accommodate the increased thrust and sprayed raw fuel into the aft part of the engine. At the same time, additional fuel was fed into one burner can of the turbojet causing a glob of flame (called hot-streak ignition) to travel rearward to the AB and ignite the raw fuel. The process took two to five seconds and the pilot would ordinarily feel a deceleration when the eyelids opened followed by a rapid acceleration as the raw fuel ignited.
However, when the old gal thought the pilot was least expecting it, she would compressor stall the turbojet when the AB was engaged. The compressor stall caused a sudden and deafening BLAM. The blam was so violent it would lift the pilot's feet from the rudder pedals, turn on various warning and caution lights and scatter dust throughout the cockpit. Inexperienced pilots would invariably, and without thinking about it, depress the mike button and hyperventilate for all to hear. As experience was gained, some pilots were able to control their emotions enough to unthinkingly depress the mike button and scream, "OH SHIT!" Since in the English speaking world, "oh shit" is the most common expression uttered by pilots just before dying, one might never be quite sure if a wingman was experiencing a compressor stall or was crashing into the ground.
Occasionally, when flying as an instructor in the back chair and knowing the pilot in the front was a good calm stick, I would rapidly stomp my feet up and down on the floor boards while cycling the hydraulic system selector switch (the F-100 had three hydraulic systems but only one gauge. The selector switch allowed one to monitor the desired system). Cycling the switch caused the opposite cockpit hydraulic gauge pressure to fluctuate wildly. My stomping coupled with gauge oscillation certainly gave the old girl the immediate attention she craved. Needless to say, I never performed this waggery in Viet Nam.
She loved to frolic and one of our games was to play "Double Immelmann." An Immelmann is a half-loop while a double Immelmann is to perform another half-loop immediately after the first; a maneuver easily accomplished by today's fighters, but not in the day of the F-100.
As far as I know, I'm the only pilot who ever talked the old girl into doing a pair. Other pilots just didn't think her that nimble. All she required was a fuel load less than 3,500 pounds, 540KIAS (knots, indicated airspeed), as close to the ground as you dared get and six "G's" on her frame through the first Immelmann. Rolling out on top at about 8,000 feet AGL, one threw down half flaps, plugged in the AB and held four "G's" for as long as possible around the second one. Roll out was about 11,000 feet and 165 KIAS. If the vertical velocity indicator did not show a decent rate as I accelerated from the 165 knots, I deemed the maneuver successful.
Some aviators said it was impossible to "Split-S" within 3,000 feet if she was carrying 450 gallon drop tanks. A split-s is to roll inverted and pull her through until she's right side up again. We consistently split-sed within 2,000 feet by retarding power to idle, pulling the nose up 20 degrees at 10,000 feet AGL (above ground level) and while the airspeed decreased through 220 knots, rapidly roll inverted and throw out the speed brakes. The secret was to keep her on the burble (near stall) until her nose came back up through the horizon, then boards up as power was brought in.
So in 1970, it was my pleasure to reacquaint myself with the sly old bitch, on a war footing, after a two worthless years as a NATO staff officer. We flew 294 combat missions together during that tour. Some of the missions were as boring as flying an airliner; some harrowing; some brutal and a few humorous. The only commonalty was that we always tried to kill people and destroy things.
EXAMPLE OF A HUMOROUS MISSION: In the late afternoon, I was leading a flight of three into the northern part of South Viet Nam. Our target was a troop concentration near one of our fire support bases. In addition to four 20mm cannons, we had a 750 pound bomb on each of the wing's outboard stations and three 500 pound bombs, mounted on TER's (triple ejection racks), on each inboard station. Two 335
gallon drop tanks were carried on the middle station (see below).
The above bomb and fuel load maxed out the gal's ability to get off the ground. On hot days, air is thinner and it takes longer to get airborne. It was so hot in Viet Nam, that on night missions, we would wear jackets if the ambient temperature stood at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
When lining up for take off with the above described load, we would taxi back the 500 feet or so to the threshold of the runway, allowing the tailpipe to actually hang over the end of the runway into the overrun after swinging around for take off.
Tech order procedures called for, in order, throttle at military thrust (full engine RPM without AB), brake release, nose wheel steering check and finally selecting AB. Instead, we would run her up, check her out, plug in the AB and as the burner lit then release the brakes.
Stretched across the runway, 2,000 feet from either end were arresting cables held about five inches off the runway by stiff rubber donuts. The cables could be engaged on take off or landing by pressing a cockpit button that dropped a spring loaded hook from beneath the airplane's belly. The cable themselves were about an inch and one-half thick and when engaged, slowed the airplane quickly. With a 9,500 foot runway, Phan Rang's departure end cable was located 7,500 feet down the runway from brake release.
On several occasions, I have felt the main gear roll over the departure end cable with the load described.
When we arrived in the target area and contacted the FAC (Forward Air Controller), he told us that the target had disappeared. He had tried to find us another without success.
Since we were burning fuel at a tremendous rate, I decided to head back to Phan Rang as neither of my two wingmen were night qualified and if we arrived at home base after official sunset, they would have to jettison their ordnance at sea. A serious waste of tax payer dollars.
As we were cruise climbing home, the radar site monitoring our progress asked me to contact the DASC (Direct Air Support Center: Air Force targeting specialists stationed with the Army).
When I called the DASC, they asked if we could attack a target at a location very near to our position. I told him that we could and he sent us over to a FAC frequency.
"Tide 11, I have some Americans under heavy fire in the jungle directly beneath me, can you assist?" The pitch of his voice told us the situation was desperate.
"We're inbound at a thousand miles an hour. Set 'em up hot guys." I was telling him we would be ready to go to work immediately as we descended towards his position.
I gave him our ordnance information and he gave us the altimeter setting, target elevation, estimated winds, safe bail out area (the South China Sea), recommended attack heading and the position of the nearest friendlies, who were directly underneath him.
As we descended, we left bright sunshine for darkening skies as the Chaine Annamitique (Annamite Mountain Chain) blocked the late afternoon sun. Although my two wingmen were not allowed to drop at night, it was not official sunset--the mountain range just happened to obstruct sunlight.
The FAC saw us coming and drilled in a white phosphorus marking rocket. He conferred with the ground commander on another radio for a few seconds then came back and transmitted, "hit my smoke." We had set our bombs to come off in pairs as we did not have the fuel to drop them singly. As we passed over his smoke, it appeared as a silver bulb against a deep green, almost black, jungle backdrop.
Our 750 pounders bracketed and obscured his smoke and I thought, oh boy, we're hot tonight!
The FAC remarked the target with another smoke rocket and we either hit his smoke or put our 500 pounders exactly where he wanted them. The excitement in his voice told us that our ordnance was relieving the ground commander and before we dropped our last bombs, the enemy had broken contact and was fleeing. Low on fuel, I started a climb towards home plate and called, "safe 'em up guys; catch me if you can."
If possible, we always exchanged pleasantries with the FAC as we left the target area. As I was doing this, the FAC transmitted, "can you hold on a second? The ground commander is calling me."
"Wilco," I replied as I broke out into sunlight climbing through 12,000 feet.
"Ah, Tide, the ground commander has a message for you if you can remain on this freq for a bit longer."
This is odd, I thought, we just never heard from the guys on the ground. I watched my two wingmen come aboard, one on e
ither side, and as we were checking each other for damage or hung ordnance, the FAC came back. "Ah, Tide 11, I have the ground commander's message, do you have a pencil handy?"
"Ah, roge," I pulled out a pencil from my kneeboard, cleared a paper sheet and poised the pencil.
"OK," said the FAC, "the ground commander message follows: he wants you guys to know that if you were on the ground, he'd give you a big wet kiss. He also wants you to know he ain't queer."
EXAMPLE OF A BRUTAL MISSION: The target area again was northern South Viet Nam and again we were headed for a preplanned target when our monitoring radar unit had us contact an Army Loach helicopter, Slam Six Five."Hello, Slam 65, Tide 21, flight of three with Snakes and Napes (500 pound retarded bombs and napalm), did you need us for something?"
"Ah, roge, Tide, I got 20 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) trapped in a pit and I'd like you to take them out."
Not quite believing what I had heard, I transmitted, "you've got soldiers trapped in a hole? Are you armed?"
"Negative, Tide, no guns." The Loach pilot sounded very young and very excited. "They can't get out of the pit because I'm hovering directly over them."
"How do you know they're NVA?"
"Because they have NVA uniforms on and are carrying AK's (an assault weapon). Most of them have the pith helmet with the red star and one has a Seiko watch with a yellow crystal."
"Jesus Slam, you must be close. What's keeping them from shooting you?" I asked.
"Because I'd fall right on top of them." Army pilots who flew reconnaissance missions were known for their panache.
He had convinced me that he had a viable target and I told my numbers two and three to loiter high while I had a look.
In a fighter flight, number one was, of course, the leader; usually the most experienced. While it would be natural to assume that number two would be the next most experienced, it didn't work like that.
A flight is two or more airplane flying together. If there are three or four airplanes in the flight, number one and two and number three (or numbers three and four) were divided into two elements. The leader, while being in charge of the entire flight, was also the element lead for himself and number two while number three, the next most experienced, was the element leader for himself and number four.
We normally flew preplanned missions in flights of three rather than four because of ease of control that included keeping everyone in sight during an actual attack: when a bomb exploded, it would raise a great amount of debris into the air and with four pilots trying to keep a tight pattern (to prevent enemy reaction between bomb explosions), it was easy to fly through the debris of the previous pilot's delivery. This happened occasionally and I've known pilots to go looking for a thundershower to clean off their airplane before returning to base.
Numbers two and four were the inexperienced; sitting on the wing of a more knowledgeable pilot to learn. If the leader aborted, number three took over the flight. A common reference to the really inexperienced was "Green Sixteen." Flying formation is difficult and again, it would be natural to assume that the most experienced should be the ones having to maintain position, but the leader was responsible for the entire flight and made all the decisions--he had to be out front to make those decisions.
In a flight of four airplanes flying close formation, the formation was called "fingertip formation." Hold out your right hand, palm down and curl your thumb underneath your palm. Look at your fingertips and you'll see fingertip formation. Leader is the middle finger with two on the left. Three is next to leader on the right and the little finger represents number four. One always hopes that number three is a good formation pilot because all of his control inputs are magnified for number four. Sometimes if three is a poor formation pilot, number four will ignore his thrashing around and fly off the leader--making sure he has adequate wingtip clearance.
When we arrived in the area, I could see the Loach's flashing rotor blades and as he was casting no shadow, I knew that he was very close to the ground. He was hovering on a shallow hillside covered with scrub brush, not jungle.
"Looks to me like napalm would be the best weapon. I can give you a pair and can have my number three man come down if I miss." I was now over the Loach and in a left hand orbit, about 3,000 feet above him. While the soldiers in the hole could not hear me, they could probably see me and unless they were incredible stupid, they must have known that something very, very bad was about to happen to them.
"Sounds good to me," replied Slam 65, "can you make your pass up the hill, from west to east? I'll slide out to the south when I see you coming."
"OK Slam, I'll call your move in case you don't see me." Airplanes headed directly at a person can be very difficult to see unless the person knows exactly where to look. "Roge Tide, you can come on in any time." Slam's hover had been facing east, and as I watched, he slowly pirouetted to face my attack direction.
"Tide Lead is in hot with nape." Due to the hillside, my approach was flat and just as I was ready to transmit to get the hell out of my way, Slam picked up and sidled off to the south. I pickled off the nape and swung up and around to the north, straining to look back over my shoulder to see where the jellied gasoline had impacted.
"You got 'em Lead!" Transmitted my number three man. "The napalm hit just short and covered the entire area."
As I rejoined my flight, Slam 65 flew back over the pit and confirmed a large pile of blackened bodies in and around the pit. "Looks like they had a bad day."
On impulse, I asked the Loach driver how old he was. He replied, "I'm nineteen."
EXAMPLE OF A HARROWING MISSION: The alert bell rang just before midnight. My wingman and I were sitting around, fully dressed, reading magazines, in anticipation of a scramble order although we really did not expect one. Phan Rang was on "mandatory" which meant we would only scramble if the Wing Commander gave his permission. The reason for the mandatory status was because of an enormous thunderstorm pounding our base with high gusty winds, continuous lightning and a torrential downpour that had reduced visibility to a few yards.
We ran to our airplanes cocked and ready in the steel reinforced concrete Quonset revetments. We fired the cartridge starters that brought the old gals to life and gave a quick check of hydraulic and electrical systems and checked in with the command post (CP). The CP told us our target was "TIC (troops in contact) in Cambodia."
"OK, we're going ground control and taxi?" I phrased the statement in the form of a question as I really didn't want to fly in the downpour.
Ground Control cleared us to tower frequency and as we lined up on runway zero-three and checked our airplanes one final time, I made one final plea, "Blade flight is ready to roll..."
"Cleared for take off," came the robust voice of the safe and dry control tower operator, who, because of the deluge, couldn't even see us. "Good luck and good hunting." The asshole.
I released the brakes and plugged in the afterburner. The only outside reference I had were the white runway lights as they flashed by. My wingman would wait 30 seconds before rolling to allow the water plume created by my airplane to dissipate. As soon as I broke ground I was on complete instruments. I climbed straight ahead to 5,000 feet, shut down the burner and rolled into a 30 degree right turn that would, on roll out, take me to Cambodia. We would worry about joining up if and when we hit clear weather.
Leveling off at 16,500 feet, I began to pick up Saint Elmo's fire (a harmless static electrical phenomenon). It was if luminous green fire was being poured out of a bucket and running down the canopy and windscreen. Saint Elmo's fire wasn't particularly unusual in cloud, but I had never seen it so bright and thick; like dayglo syrup. Unsure of my young wingman's experience with it, I transmitted, "picking up some Saint Elmo's fire at sixteen point five."
He came back with, "what's Saint Elmo's fire?" So I had to explain it to him, emphasizing the harmlessness of the beautiful light display. My wingman leveled at 14,500 feet ten miles behind me. F-100s did not have radar but we had our TACANs (Tactical Air Navigation) systems set up to read each other's distance. The 2,000 feet altitude separation was additional clearance insurance.
Sixteen thousand feet is absolutely the worst altitude at which to penetrate a thunderstorm and my old gal was taking one hell of a beating, wallowing around like a pig stuck in mud. The rain beat against the airplane with such violence that it drown out the usual high cockpit background noise. Unlike commercial flights, we didn't have the luxury of changing altitudes. I was where I was at because it was as high as I could get with my ordnance load. Our target was west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia and we had a long way to go. A jet engine's efficiency increases with altitude.
"Uh Blade Lead, two."
"Go ahead two," I answered.
"Uh Lead, two's got an RPM fluctuation."
"Well, I'm not surprised. We're probably taking in more water than air. That might cause it." Although I really had no idea. "How much of a fluctuation?"
"About four percent," he answered. "I'm going to abort the mission and return to base."
A four percent fluctuation is significant at high engine RPM and I didn't blame him for aborting if he actually had a fluctuation. The thought occurred to me that he didn't like the weather or the Saint Elmo's fire and was using an engine fluctuation as an excuse to land. "Are you going to jettison your ordnance or land with it?" I asked.
"Let me check with Approach Control (APC) and see how much longer the thunderstorm will last." APC would be tracking the storm and could give a pretty good idea when it would be over. We had already briefed that in case of an air abort, we would, if necessary, dump our ordnance at sea and land at Cam Rahn Bay or Bein Hoa if we couldn't get back into Phan Rang.
He was off freq for a couple of minutes and I continued towards a point west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Regulations stated a flight of at least two was required to attack TIC, but if we were scrambled off with the field on mandatory, I might be of some use--especially since, as leader, I was carrying a pod containing parachute flares and three cans of napalm.
"Two's back on freq. Cam Rahn's clear and Phan Rang is expected to clear up in a few minutes. I'm going to orbit feet wet (over the South China Sea) and land with the ordnance (he was carrying four cans of napalm).
"OK two," I radioed, "I'm going on over to Kamboodja and see what's going on."
Number two acknowledged and I bumped along in the clouds until abeam Saigon when I flew out of the weather and into bright starlight.
When I arrived over the target area, the only air force unit on station was the FAC. He told me the target were troops in a tree line who were holding up the advance of an armored column. I never asked and the FAC never told me if the friendlies were American or why they were dicking around in the middle of the night.
We exchanged information and he was surprised that I had no wingman. We both knew that I was not suppose to be there alone and I told him that I would dispense all of my flares then make one pass and haul ass. He OKed my plan and said he would mark the target after I dropped my flares, which he wanted on a north-south line. He also requested I make my napalm pass from east to west.
Using his position lights as a reference, I rippled off the flares which all lit. As I turned to the east to get set up for the nape drop, I could now see a semi-circle of vehicles in a large clearing pointed towards the tree line. The illumination was bright enough to make out men standing near the APCs (armored personnel carriers). I saw the FAC roll in, fire his smoke rocket and pull off to the north. "Hit my smoke." He radioed.
Usually one descended, accelerated and turned into the target, rechecking airspeed, altitude and sight picture as the target approached; rolling wings level at the last possible second before pickling off the ordnance. But with only one pass and wanting to make sure I got it right, I flew a classical bombing range student pattern, i.e., straight towards the target like the old gal was a steam locomotive.
I pickled, aware that all three napalm cans released and pulled straight back on the stick as I exited the flare lit area into pitch black nothingless. When the attitude indicator registered 30 degrees of pitch, I released back pressure and experienced the familiar spacial disorientation associated with lying to my inner ear as a result of the pitch change.
The eyes are one's main sense of balance on a clear day. The eyes are assisted my various muscles and nerves located in the feet, ass, neck, elbows and other places. If the eyes are unable to distinguish a viable horizon or other reference point, the main sense is immediately transferred to the inner ear (working with the above described muscles and nerves). The eyes and the inner ear can get into a pissing contest about which one is sending accurate information to the brain and if the information conflicts, spacial disorientation results. If disoriented long enough, vertigo can occur.
Vertigo is a terrible whirling sensation that can convince a person, for example, that he is in a steep diving turn to the left when he is actually flying along straight and level. Corrective action could be terminal. The Air Force teaches pilots to believe their instruments; not their senses.
A sudden explosion caused me to press the mike button and scream, "OH SHIT!" It wasn't a compressor stall--I'd had enough of those to know, but it turned on most of the warning and caution lights. When my panic subsided, I realized she was still flying just fine and that I was able to reset all the lights and tell the FAC I thought I'd hit a bird.
But what the hell, I wondered, a bird or a bat strike wouldn't necessarily result in an explosion unless it went down the intake (then you could smell it) or came through the windscreen, which it did not.
Maybe I'd taken a hit, but the FAC hadn't said anything about taking ground fire and he would have certainly known--considering the magnitude of the explosion. All my instruments were indicating normal and there are few places on any jet fighter that are not at least semi-vital.
The Saigon complex passed off my right wing as I talked to Paris Control, the radar unit monitoring my progress. I hadn't told anyone but the FAC about the explosion because I didn't know what to say. We were taught to never to bypass a useable base if we had a problem, but the old gal was ticking and purring along just dandy although my mind was still numb and I sat on a couple inches of pucker. The weather had cleared at Phan Rang, so I decided to continue to base in a cruise climb so if there were any further developments I would have plenty of altitude for decision making. An old aviation aphorism maintained: "Nothing is as worthless as the runway behind you or the sky above you."
During this tour, all night missions were supposed to terminate with an instrument letdown coupled with a GCA (ground controlled approach). This type of approach put you over the jungle eight to ten miles from the base at low altitude and low airspeed. The local APC would vector ships onto final approach with the pilot monitoring his own navigational instruments to make sure APC was paying attention. On one occasion, neither were paying attention and an experienced pilot ran into a mountain.
On the other hand, cloud cover permitting, the base stood out at night like Las Vegas. The entire perimeter was ringed with flood lights, all facing out to illuminate anyone trying to breach the fence. Security policemen with Alsatians were on constant patrol. With such an outstanding reference, I could see no reason to needlessly put myself low and slow over the hostile jungle, so when landing at night, I would always descend visually and land. The wing commander caught me twice and reminded me of the regulation but he never pushed it and I never stopped doing it. The winds had changed and the active runway was now two-two.
Runways refer to compass points, i.e., if a runway points due (magnetic) east it is called Zero-Nine (090 degrees is due east) for airplanes taking off and landing in that direction--and is called Two-Seven (270 degrees is due west) for the opposite direction. Note the last digit is dropped. Common usage precludes calling runways oh nine, nine or twenty-seven.
Airplanes always try to take off into the wind. While this may seem counter productive to push against the wind, think of it as having free air movement across the lifting surfaces. Winds are always given from the direction from which they are blowing, never the direction in which they are going. Windsocks on airfields help pilots monitor the winds continuously. One always wants to take off and land into the small end of the wind sock and the wind socks come in various sizes, i.e., a 25 knot sock means that it will stand straight out at 25 knots or more.
Runway lights are white while taxiway lights are blue. The runway threshold is marked by green lights and there are red lights in the overrun. Many runways have flashing white strobe lights leading to the threshold, sometimes called "Eat at Joe's" lights. In the states, airdromes have a rotating beacon, usually on the control tower. In the early days of aviation the beacons helped to guide airplanes to the field. Today, it is almost impossible to pick out a beacon with all the surrounding lights. A white light on the beacon means that it is a civil field and a split white beacon means a military field. If the back side of the beacon displays a green light, it means that the field has runway lights. Since airfield beacons could provide enemy gunners with an aiming point, they were not used in Viet Nam.
At about 10,000 feet, I lowered the landing gear and the old gal told me that it went down and locked. I then lowered the flaps, half expecting to roll off uncontrollably, but a slight ballooning told me the flaps were in the correct position.
The tower told me that I was cleared to land, so I gradually slowed to final approach speed of 170 knots with everything looking good. As I touched down, the airplane pitched to the left and I could hear a slamming sound that I recognized as tire rubber peeling off and striking the flap. I deployed the drag chute and the airplane decelerated rapidly but continued to sag to the left as we drifted towards the left edge of the runway. Nose wheel steering did not correct the drift and the brakes were inoperative--until I remembered to turn off the anti-skid switch. With the switch off, I had braking to the right wheel and was able to keep the bitch on the runway.
When I heard the rubber slamming against the flap and the sag, I knew my left tire was flat. What I didn't know until later was that a bullet had struck the tire carrying 260 psi and the tire exploded.
Turned out the only damage was to the wheel, tire and a small puncture through the gear door. What damage explosion did to my own internal hydraulic and electrical systems remain to be seen.
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