VIETNAM PHANTOM - A REQUIEM FOR MAC
The finest tribute I can wish to my departed friend Mac is one last story of his Vietnam days.
As I described in earlier tales Mac flew the F4, the Phantom, out of Thailand, mainly on Mig CAP, covering bombing raids. But Phantoms are true multi-role aircraft, so there were occasions when they were asked to do other things, including from time to time reconnaisance, there was a camera pod for just that reason.
It wasn't a common assignment, a mix of RF101's, the Voodoo recon version, and the superb RF-5 Vigilante, plus from time to time SR-71 Blackbirds out of Kadena, handled most of that work, but sometimes it would come up, the other guys busy or the Blackbirds unable to get a good view through weather. So they'd strap some cameras on a pair of Phantoms and go be photographers. In particular that was likely to happpen during the monsoon season, when bases in South Vietnam might be weathered in and the clouds too thick for Blackbird runs of any value.
That was what led to this hairy little mission.
There were a number of bridges along the Ho Chi Min trail that were hit repeatedly to try to disrupt the flow of materiel south. All the pilots hated bridge raids, the NVA protected them well, mostly with flak, some SAMS. They were always hard to get at and no sooner was one downed than the Vietnamese just rebuilt it, over and over again.
One particular bridge had managed to survive repeated attacks, and cost a number of aircraft. A night raid by some A-6 Intruders using some of the early PGMs, Precision Guided Munitions, seemed to have downed it, but the only way to know was go see, and the weather was appalling, low cloud, heavy rain and high winds.
A mixed blessing, you can use weather to hide, but flying in bad weather, especially low, which this type of a mission would call for, is always tricky.
Mac was one of the best rough weather pilots I have ever known, and his boss knew that as well, so he was asked if he'd go take a look.
I don't think Mac ever backed down from a challenge in his life, so he said sure, went off to organise with his crew chief the pod fitting and picked himself a wingman. The usual way the Phantom guys did it was one camera ship and one escort, to draw flak, whereas the other full time recon squadrons usually flew solo.
He launched out of Nakom Phanom in nasty but flyable weather, and got over it as fast as possible to transit to the target, deep inside North Vietnam.
Again, a mixed blessing, he had a smooth ride and better endurance, but NVA radar was pretty damned good, they'd see the flight coming.
Mac's view on that was a pragmatic one - after a raid a recon ship always turned up to gather BDA, Bomb Damage Assessment, data, so the gun crews were going to be alert anyway.
Ok...scene set.... now, if you can bear with me I want to write the rest of this from first person point of view, I heard it enough from Mac to feel like I was there......
"Damned bumpy on the way up, good to be relatively light, all we're carrying is the camera pod, gun and fuel, but going to need a tanker, its a reasonable haul to the target, there's a -135 waiting on top, just gotta find it.
Ok, slipping in behind the Strato, using the probe, its nice and smooth up here, easy tank, but the clouds down below are ugly. Met says they are thinner over the bridge, hope so.
With both of us full of kero we fall off and away, a last quick chat with the tanker, they're there for us, be waiting when we come out.
Dead reckoning nav, my REO, "Leo the REO" is good at that. My wing, Tucker, "Skull" for obvious reasons, and his back seat, dunno who that is, are hanging out there a little high and left, both of us cruising, not going to be any Migs up here today, and the route is keeping us away from any known SAM sites. Good, having those shits come at you out of cloud is like crossing a hell circle, big pucker factor.
Well, met got it wrong. When Leo says "we're there" we are, and its not only thick down there,it's swirly, looks like momma nature is squeezing out some twisters, or if its a biggie then what I'll always call a hurricane. What the hell makes them hurricanes one place and cyclones another I'm never going to figure out.......
About then I made a BAD call:
"Skull, stay up here, I'm going down for a look, doubt its going to be picture of the year in Life, but if we can get it in one pass we can go get a beer."
I guess it wasn't THAT bad a call. The regular recon guys wouldn't have a wing anyway, but they didn't do this shit high. We'd been being painted by NV radar for quite a time, hadn't thought through what they might do about that.....
Roll and pull, lets get through it quick, ugh, what a damned whirlpool that was, black as satan's ass and bumpy as the road to nowhere.
Leo was not really a rough weather man, about half way down I heard him throwing up, hope he took his mask off first, me I was not enjoying it but it was ok......
My biggest worry was finding the deck, without a loud last noise.....
That came too close for comfort, erupting into sodden air that was no longer vapour with a couple of hundred feet to spare. I really gotta have a word to that met man, thin cloud, good ceiling, my arse.........
Leo sucked hard in fear behind me as I hauled back, flattening out way too low, over scruffy rock and stunted trees. Something snagged me for a sec, but nothing went red so ignore it, and over on the right, the valley, just as in the better weather tourist snaps. Knife edge it, reverse, come flat, we're in, a few seconds to the bridge location, and Leo is awake and already has the pod clicking.
In a fraction of a second new clouds start puffing around us, ones with fiery hearts, flak.
One of those snatched blurry moments, we're running around 400 knots, but that bridge is gone, can see the spans sagged into the valley, its a high one, the river a few hundred feet below.
"Get it Leo?"
"Fucked if I know man, cameras were running, but you ain't doin' that again, outa here!"
"kay, Skull, comin'out."
"Roger that, Badass says he's getting some maybe traffic...."
Badass... yeah, that's Skull's REO......
Holding low for a second, and the man has it right, four dirty grey uglies up ahead coming head on.
Oh shit......Mig 17's, not the swiftest, but hell nimble, and big nasty cannon, couple of those already throwing me the wink as we converge.
Big change in the picture, two of 'em breaking high, two head on, firing.
Box trap, the high two looping, want to keep me down here, and dammit they can, enough room to the cloud deck to shred me, and two gone past, turning in, fuuuuck...
If I had Skull down here we'd fight, but four on one and me with just a gun, wouldn't draw on that in Vegas.....
"Comin' round Leo..."
A little room in the valley and a little under the cloud, less to that second pair, split the difference, can't go out and up, they'll nail me, pull around, and up, kinda semi loop, rolling around it, use the space there is, going back up the valley....
"Camera still running Leo? Getting a second pass anyway."
Just did what they didn't expect, only an idiot would go back over the guns, except the gunners weren't expecting it either.
Not a single shell as we go over the bridge, but two Migs head on again, both firing, but not really on boresight. Good, got both pairs behind me, get outa here, pull hard and light the burners.
A real scary moment, the looped pair are closer than expected, but Ol' Faithful has the bit in her teeth, near vertical and lighting it up, big G there, and whack!! into the cloud base.
Oh yeah, now THAT was intense, now its just weather, doesn't usually chuck 37mm at you....
"Kay Skull, had a little dance there, coming out now......."
Those Migs are not going to follow into this kinda cloud, sudden realisation that if they have any SAMs around then we're toast. Dunno if they did, nothing locked. Doubt Leo was in shape to have noticed, neither was I, hyperventilated tunnel vision, heart beat slamming the suit, muscles locking up in adrenaline shock, tingly fingers and toes. Just hold it going up, get the hell outa Dodge.....
Blast through on top into blazing sunlight. There's Skull, running a racetrack. As I level off he arcs over and takes up loose wing again.
"You ok guys?"
"Will be when the seat stops shaking, oh, no, that's me, you awake Leo?"
"Yeah darling, can you stop feeding coins to the shaker bed?"
Everyone cracked up as we pulled onto course and went and found the tanker.
Same easy tank and then a rumbly descent, Nakom was awash but we got in with no trouble and taxied to the revetments, keeping the hoods closed, too damned wet to want to vent the stink in the cockpit.
As I swung down my crew chief walked over, holding a leafy stick in his hand.
"Been gardening Sir?"
There was a decent sized chunk of tree wedged into the pylon of the starboard tank......
Damned if I know how that happened without busting the airplane, explained that yank as we levelled off though.
No serious damage, and for all the flak and cannon that had been hosed at us not another mark on the ship, just had to hose Leo's stomach out of the back and let her air....
Tended to not be around for recon trips after that one though........"
Now, Mac would never tell it that way, although some of the repartee I quoted as verbatim as I can recall, but if I told it his way you'd fall asleep, can't go telling you boring stories now, can I ?
Oh Mac, best damned pilot ever strapped on a ship and went punching holes in the air.
Last toast Mac, hope you're happy, wherever you are, and not looking down and snorting too much at my telling this last little coda in honor of you and your life.
Oh, the pics were pretty good, Mac had one framed on his office wall last time I was there. Bridge was back a couple of weeks later....Futile war...But aren't they all in the end ?