May 6, 1973
No matter how many times I had strapped on the F-4, entering it never got easier. The bird stood tall. The cockpit was eight feet above the tarmac, and climbing up the ladder with my helmet bag and my map case without busting my ass was difficult even in the daytime. During the pre-dawn darkness it was a real bitch.
At least I had a ladder. At Ubon, when we had a mass launch of airplanes, we sometimes had to use the built-in drop-down steps that telescoped out of the fuselage. That was an accident waiting to happen.
I was already sweating profusely. There was no breeze at all, and my Nomex flight suit was clinging to me like it was made of Saran Wrap.
I craned my neck around to talk to Sergeant Adams, my Crew Chief, who was precariously perched on the edge of the cockpit, leaning over me and fastening my harness into the parachute quick release fasteners.
“Looks like it’s going to be a hot one again today, Sarge.”
“Yes, sir. Summer’s bad enough at Kadena, but they say it’s really going to be brutal here at CCK.”
I turned again to answer him, but he was already at the rear cockpit helping my back-seater strap in.
I checked my Rolex and set the aircraft clock. As an FNG – Fucking New Guy – in the squadron, I didn’t want to make a name for myself by being late at start-up and check-in. I was Number Two in this four-ship flight, and wanted to acquit myself well.
Captain John Clapp was Flight Lead. Naturally, his nickname was Drip. I hadn’t ever flown on his wing before, and I didn’t know him very well. He wasn’t particularly friendly with any of us who had come to the squadron recently. I got the impression he had a hard-on for anyone with combat time, since he had spent his entire time flying F-4s in peacetime. Not my problem, his loss.
I breezed through the cockpit set-up, started the engines exactly on schedule, and listened up on Ground Control frequency.
“Tiger Flight, check.”
Tiger Four didn’t answer.
“Tiger Flight, listen up,” Drip transmitted. “Tiger Four was an MND, so we’ll be launching as a three-ship.”
So, before we even got our engines started, we were one plane short. I had heard that Maintenance was really on its ass, and this Maintenance Non Delivery seemed to prove it. Coming from my previous environment, where we launched 64 airplanes at a time, and had ground running spares, this seemed incomprehensible to me.
Other than our local daytime training flights to the gunnery range, our wing only flew two four-ship missions a day, this Dawn Patrol and an evening Dusk Patrol. It sure didn’t seem like it should be that difficult.
The Dawn and Dusk Patrols were important missions. We were helping the Taiwanese Air Force patrol the Straits of Taiwan, which were protected by friendly aircraft 24 hours every day. Every day, we flew an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening with our F-4Cs, and the Taiwanese pilots patrolled in their F-104s the rest of the day. All we had to do was provide two hours of coverage each day, and we were letting them down.
We taxied out to the quick-check area and received more bad news.
“Tiger Lead, this is Three.”
“Go ahead, Three.”
“The mechanic tells me he’s found a hydraulic leak, and I’m a no-go.”
“Are you safe to taxi?”
“Roger, you’re cleared out of the formation, and you can return to the blocks.”
Great. Now our morning four-ship has turned into a two-ship. It would be just our luck the great yellow horde picks this morning to invade.
After we left the quick-check area, we taxied to the arming area. The armament guys checked our munitions, and pulled our pins. Unlike my missions at Ubon, I didn’t have any bombs. Strictly air-to-air munitions, radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrows and heat-seeking AIM-9E Sidewinders. And, unlike at Ubon, we’d be doing a formation takeoff. I hadn’t performed a formation takeoff since F-4 RTU. This was going to be fun.
We took the runway together and held in position just as the sun rose over the horizon. At exactly our scheduled takeoff time, we received our takeoff clearance, and Drip tapped his helmet. Then he jerked his head forward and we lit our afterburners in perfect synchronization. Lead carried slightly less than full burner, to give me a little room with power to stay in formation in case my engine was producing slightly less thrust than his. Then it was liftoff, gear up on Drip’s nod, flaps up the same way, and over to Departure Control.
“Tiger Flight, button two, go.”
Biff Birkman, my WSO, had our radio channelized on Channel Two in a heartbeat. It was nice having a good Weapon Systems Officer in the back seat. A weak WSO can make even the best pilot look bad, by not having the radios tuned quickly enough for check-in, or a hundred other things. Biff was making me look good. We went through the requisite frequencies as we headed west toward our patrol area, a north-south orbit about 60 miles in length, and checked in with the GCI site – Ground Control Intercept – that monitored the straits.
“PyraMaid Control, Tiger flight of two fox fours, one hour playtime.”
“Roger, Tiger Flight. Unknown rider at your one o’clock, thirty-three miles, heading east, angels unknown.”
We were heading south. That meant the unidentified aircraft had originated from the west, in Mainland China. This was starting to get interesting.
I checked with my WSO on interphone. “Biff, are you painting him on your radar?”
“Negative, Hamfist, but I’m seeing an area that looks like chaff.”
Distance to target was 24 miles now, and it was obvious the ingressing aircraft didn’t want us to pick him up on radar. I’d used chaff many times, and it only had one purpose – to confuse enemy radar. Back when I was flying up over Hanoi, during Operation Linebacker, and again during Linebacker II, it was routine for us to stuff chaff packets in the speed brakes.
Each packet was a cardboard box about ten inches long, about five inches wide, and about an inch thick. It was crammed with thousands of thin strands of aluminum foil, looking just like the tinsel I used to put on our Christmas tree when I was a kid. When we were over the target area, if SAM sites were painting us, we would momentarily deploy our speed brakes and the chaff would fall out into the slipstream. At over 400 knots, the chaff packets would instantly rip open and saturate the air with tinsel. The SAM site’s radar would be temporarily blind.
Whoever this was, he didn’t want us to get a lock on him.
“Tiger Lead, this is Two. We’re painting an area of chaff at one o’clock 22 miles.”
“Roger, Two. Be advised my radar is bent.”
Shit. Fucking Maintenance can only deliver two flyable airplanes out of four, and the radar doesn’t work on one of them. Great, just fucking great. At least my radar was working. For now.
Lead wagged the tail of his aircraft, signaling for me to move from close-in “fingertip” position to “fighting wing” position. As we closed to about ten miles, we could see the sunlight glinting off an aircraft, down low, at about 500 feet altitude, headed east at a high rate of speed. We visually performed a left closing stern conversion, rolling out about three miles in trail. As we were abeam the aircraft during the conversion, we got a positive ID on him. It was a Badger. To be more accurate, it was a Xian H-6, a variation of the Russian TU-16 Badger bomber.
Because we had been up-sun from the H-6, he probably hadn’t seen us.
“Tiger Flight, arm ‘em up.”
Our Rules of Engagement were very specific. With the Straits of Taiwan only a little over 100 miles wide, there was no room for error. We were to fire on any aircraft headed from China to Taiwan. There simply wouldn’t be time to go through any involved clearance process. Bad guy comes in, we shoot him down. It was as simple as that.
We were now only about a mile in trail with the bomber. I had been expecting Drip to pass the flight lead over to me, since my radar was still operational and his wasn’t. That meant he couldn’t fire his AIM-7 and I could still try to fire mine. But he didn’t pass the lead to me. That meant he was going to close in for a Fox-2 attack, using his AIM-9E heat-seeking missiles. I instantly knew Drip had shitty flight discipline.
I thought back of the story that Colonel West, our DO at Homestead, had told us, when I was going through F-4 training.
“During Operation Rolling Thunder, an F-105 flight lead was in an extended engagement with a MiG. He was performing repeated high-speed yoyos, gaining on the MiG with each yoyo. One more yoyo and he would be in a firing position.”
The Colonel paused and looked around the room. We were all transfixed in rapt attention.
“Just as he was about to get a firing solution, his wingman called Bingo.”
Bingo meant that the fuel had reached the predetermined quantity where the flight must Return To Base.
“What do you think Lead did?”
Colonel West made eye contact with each of us. I was hoping he wasn’t expecting any of us to answer.
“Lead did what he was supposed to do,” he continued, “he disengaged by doing a quarter roll and zoom, and he RTB’d. And I’ll tell you why he did it. He did it because he had flight discipline. And he had trust. He trusted that his wingman wouldn’t call Bingo unless he was really at Bingo fuel. And he, the Flight Lead, had established that Bingo. He gave up his MiG because he had discipline. If he had taken one more slice, done one more yoyo, he could have had that MiG. But he would have put his wingman in jeopardy. He did the right thing. He had discipline.”
If Drip had passed the lead to me, I could have performed a Fox-1 attack with my Sparrows, and had a better chance of scoring a kill from a distance. Then I could have followed up with an AIM-9E attack if needed. Now we were too close to engage with the AIM-7s. More important, the AIM-9E only had a 20-pound warhead, one fourth the size of the warhead on the AIM-7.
The aural tone of my Sidewinder was growling in my headset. That meant it was seeing a heat signature. My missile was ready to go, like a race horse straining at the bit.
Then, finally, Drip did what he had to do. He passed me the lead.
“Tiger Two, Lead. I have no tone.” He sounded totally spent. “You have the lead. Cleared to fire.”
Maintenance had scored a perfect trifecta: broken airplanes, broken radar, broken missiles.
I took the lead position, put the H-6 in my gun site, waited for a solid tone, and fired my first Sidewinder.