Chapter 8

The Rainy Season

I returned from my 10 day R&R in Hawaii fully recharged and ready to reenter the fray. If the level of activity in May and June were indicative of things to come, it was going to be a busy final three months of my tour.

The summer monsoon season for northern Laos runs from mid June through September. During this period, the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese traditionally surged west across the PDJ and occasionally got as far as Long Tieng, LS 20A. Such was the case during the dry season which had just ended. Now, it would be time for Vang Pao's loyalist forces to try and retake lost ground. The only problem was, this was the time of year that had the worst flying weather in the Barrel Roll.

This rainy weather also affected Linebacker missions against North Vietnam. Despite having a slightly different monsoon season on the east side of the Annamite Mountain range, the spine of mountains along which runs the border between Laos and Vietnam. A more detailed description of the climate and topography of Vietnam can be found here. Suffice it to say, it was seldom "socked in" throughout the entire theater, and usually there was workable weather to be found.

As I began this final phase of my tour, I had accumulated 101 combat missions and just over 300 combat flying hours. In the A-1, the tour obviously did not end at 100 missions. A pilot typically "rotated" to a stateside assignment very close to his one year anniversary in country, unless he chose to extend his tour. I had no such intentions.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 22 Jul 102 4.7

306.6 A-1H 139791

My journal entry for 22 July 1972

[Sandy 01] with Buck {Buchanan as Sandy 02]... Strike at LS 54... Must have been a good mission for being so long.

Jumped right back into the fray with both feet. Flew as Sandy lead on the morning Sandy go. My roommate Buck was one of the squadron schedulers, so he took care of his roomie.

We headed south into Steel Tiger and struck near the town of Dong Hene and the nearby LS 54. This area lay on Route 9 which connected Savannakhet, which was on the western border of Laos on the Mekong River, with Tchepone. To borrow the words of Obi-wan Kenobi, "Tchepone, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." Tchepone goes on my list of the 10 most dangerous places to fly low and slow over. We avoided it as much as possible.

Sometimes targets came looking for you, and other times you had to be resourceful. One of my least favorite things to do was return to base with all ordnance on board. It made me feel like it was a wasted mission. I felt like the ordnance was hung there for a reason, and I wasn't about to lug it all the way home if I didn't have to.

A good flight lead developed a list of "secret" frequencies that could come in handy when targets were not apparently available. These might include the frequency for Raven ops, or frequencies for ground FACs known to be active in the area. My list of frequencies grew with each mission.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 23 Jul 4
non combat

306.6 A-1E 132643


On the 23rd of July, I was off the combat flying schedule, but flew four very enjoyable local area sorties "around the flagpole" at NKP. I had the pleasure of giving rides to four deserving individuals whose job was not to fly, but to support the mission of the 1st Special Operations Wing in ways other than flying.

The aircraft mechanics were always ready and willing to fix things that broke, which was no easy task considering the age of the Spad. The engine troops were working to keep the Wright R-3350 running on all cylinders, all 18 of them. The munitions people had the unenviable task of working with bombs and fuses that had the potential to be very dangerous if handled incorrectly... all played a critical role in making the Skyraider, or any other combat aircraft for that matter, airworthy and capable of putting the ordnance on the target.

This was our day to thank those troops who had been selected by their commanders to fly in the right seat of the A-1 Skyraider. Throughout my Air Force career, I looked at these sorties as an extremely important builder of esprit de corps. Each sortie lasted about 45 minutes with as much or as little maneuvering to suit the passenger. Those who actually wanted to pilot the aircraft could do so as this particular Skyraider had full dual controls in the right seat position. It was a fun day, and I never got shot at once!






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 24 Jul 103 2.0

308.6 A-1H 139791

My journal entry for 24 July 1972

[Sandy 03] with Mike {Cahill as Sandy 04]... "M" orbit over the Fish's Mouth... No strike.

Today I was Sandy lead for the afternoon go. Short mission more than likely due to bad weather. A "Mike" orbit was a SAR alert orbit to a location which would afford us a shorter distance to any possible SAR.

The weather on this day was more than likely bad all over Vietnam. This would have canceled the Linebacker strikes, and also denied us the opportunity to strike. Nothing worse than hauling it all home again.

The terrain over this part of Laos and North Vietnam was extremely mountainous with peaks above ten thousand feet. I remember the uneasy feeling we had as we orbited above a solid undercast cloud deck with "islands" of rock jutting up through the sea of clouds.

We full well knew that if we had problems involving loss of power in the A-1, it might just as well have been water, as we would have had to extract before entering the clouds as we had no idea as to the location of additional mountains beneath the weather.





 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 25 Jul 104 1.7

310.3 A-1H 139791

My journal entry for 25 July 1972

Sandy 01 {with Buck Buchanan, Randy Jayne, and Lance Smith as Sandys 2-4]. Flew as a four ship in the afternoon... "T" orbit. More like a formation ride than a combat mission. I remember doing close trail on the way home, then follow the leader for movies.

The bad weather continued and this mission was even shorter than the last. Rather than cancel on the ground, we were almost always launched, to fly an orbit to see if there were holes in the clouds where we could work a target. No such luck today.

The Tango orbit point was further south than the November and Mike orbits which actually were located partly inside North Vietnamese airspace. For this reason, we logged these missions as "O1B" for North Vietnam rather than "O1A" for the rest of he combat zone. I ended up with 18 "O1B" missions during my tour.

It seemed that despite the bad weather, once we got airborne, we always found something to do, though it was not always productive. Not a good mission, best to just get the Skyraiders on the ground to let maintenance get them ready for the next day.

This made it three sorties in a row in A-1H 139-791. I remember this as a nice looking H that had recently been through IRAN. It was a favorite plane to use for "hero" pictures. This plane was actually assigned to me during the last part of my tour, but for some reason, I never got to put "nose art" on the engine cowl.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 27 Jul 105 1.4

311.7 A-1J 142058

My journal entry for 27 July 1972

Sandy 03 [with Maj Jim Harding as Sandy 04]... "T" Orbit north of NKP and another in a long line of no strike missions...Another 4 ship.

This bad weather was getting old, and the missions were getting shorter. But no business for the Sandys was good news in reality, since it meant no SARs. The Navy could be getting in from the east side, but as far as we were concerned, the war was at a stand still, at least the air war.

During this phase of the Vietnam war, virtually all US ground forces had been withdrawn. The only American units remaining were air units from the USAF, the USN flying off carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, and US Army. There were a small number of American military advisors who remained on the ground with South Vietnamese ground forces.

We all knew that bad weather was also bad news because it allowed the invaders from the north a chance to regroup and consolidate. They would be able to move with relative freedom 24 hours a day as long as the weather kept the fliers on the ground.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 31 Jul 106 2.4

314.1 A-1H 134526

My journal entry for 31 July 1972

[Sandy 04 with Lance Shotwell as Sandy 03]. Same with Shotwell... 2 ship

The beat goes on as the weather continued to be unworkable. I guess this is why they call it the "rainy season!"

After three days off the flying schedule, the bad weather continued, and nothing had changed. As a Sandy, we spent most of our alert tour on ground alert, then took off to keep the aircraft "exercised," and finally RTB'd after boredom overcame us.

During this part of my tour, I was given the opportunity to fly with some of the newer, less experienced Sandy leads. Lance Shotwell was an experienced fighter pilot having flown the F-4 Phantom prior to his Skyraider assignment. I rather enjoyed playing the role of "old head." It was a chance for em to watch how others went about the job of managing a flight, and also gave me a chance to suggest different ways of doing things.

As I sit here now, in 1998, I am trying to figure out why I hadn't flown for three days. More than likely, I seized the opportunity for a short hop to Bangkok for a little CTO (compensatory time off). Since the 31st of July was on a Monday in 1972, I more than likely hopped Thai Airways on Friday the 28th and returned on Sunday the 30th. Since the weather was bad, I'm sure everyone was getting edgy and that was always worse than "balls to the wall" action where you flew every day, sometimes twice. That was the kind of stretch we had back in May and June. I recall someone saying that from the early part of April until the end of June, there was at least one survivor on the ground in SEA that we were actively working. That was quite a stretch. Now it was quiet as far as the Sandys were concerned.





 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 3 Aug 107 2.5

316.6 A-1E 132528

My journal entry for 3 August 1972

Steel Tiger mission with Lance [Smith] as Hobo 27-28. Strike west of Kong Sedone. Got 30 confirmed KBA with some [enemy] leaders included. I had good bombs. Lance agreed it was"SH".

My first strike since the 22nd of July and I had to get off the Sandy schedule to do it. My first trip back to Kong Sedone since 17 June when Zeke Encinas was killed. I don't remember whether I thought about that fact at the time, but I'm sure I did.

The preferred mission in the squadron was to be on the Sandy schedule. Lately however with the bad weather, this usually meant a lot of sitting on the ground followed by a short mission with no strike. It was good to fly Hobo again, even though it meant flying a Fat Face. This was my first combat sortie in the E or G model since that same mission on 17 June, a string of 16 sorties in the H/J.

A-1E 132-528 was the oldest Skyraider in the 1st SOS. It was originally delivered to the Navy as an AD-5N shortly after the end of the Korean war in 1953. Now it was still performing faithfully clad in it's third different paint scheme. It began life in the dark blue colors of the Navy, was repainted in the early 60s to the gray colors used by all Navy aircraft from that period on, and now was sporting the Southeast Asia camouflage of the US Air Force, in mid-1972. A remarkable record for certain.

I look back at this particular period of my tour as a hazardous one. I developed an attitude that I would not return without a strike. I had a reputation of being successful at coming home clean where others had come home with all ordnance remaining. I found ways to get FACs where there were none. I had several "secret" frequencies that I had collected over time. If there were no FACs airborne, I would get on a frequency and try to see where the action was and if anybody needed air. This was one of those missions.

The weather was still marginal. I was able to contact someone on the ground who had enemy grouped up waiting to attack. The bad weather made them careless and they paid the price. We got our briefing away from the area, then entered the area, found the "friendlies," and rolled in hot.

Working under the weather was hazardous for several reasons. First, if you were near the bases of the clouds, the enemy knew your altitude, solving part of the enemy gunners problem. Second, all maneuvering was nearly horizontal making it difficult to get any kind of reasonable airspeed. Finally, you tended to stay within the small arms envelope during the entire strike.

This mission turned out well and as I recall, the BDA we received as we left the area was not remarkable. Frequently this would change as the actual damage assessment would be passed through intelligence channels later. In this case, the friendlies made a sweep through the enemy area after our strike and were able to accurately assess enemy losses.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 5 Aug 108 2.6

319.2 A-1H 139791

My journal entry for 5 August 1972

[Sandy 03 with Gene Bardal as Sandy 04]... South [Sandy] orbit again. Bad weather continues... Determined to get a strike... Went down to Kong Sedone and got to strike under an overcast against the high ground west of the Bolovens Plateau..

This mission stands out in my mind since the target area was tucked up next to an overcast layer of clouds. We basically were maneuvering in the horizontal plane only, which meant than energy conservation was tough. We basically were flying a level pattern around the target area. I remember actually being below target elevation on the pattern since the target was in the highest terrain in the area. Not a real comfortable feeling. We got "RNO smoke and foliage" for BDA.

This was the pits. We had no business in there with the weather this bad. I can't imagine what possessed me to do things like this. People often ask me if the A-1 gave me a feeling of invincibility. I always answer, no. But, maybe I'm wrong!! The weather has to change!








 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 8 Aug 109 1.8

321.0 A-1H 139738

My journal entry for 8 August 1972

Sandy 08 to Da Nang with TM as Sandy 07... No Strike.

Back on the road again and on the Sandy schedule. This was a short flight to Da Nang to replace the two Sandys there who were no doubt anxious to get back to Thailand after a six day stay in the war zone. TM was (is) Don Morse or Tango Mike for "The Mouse." Not sure where that came from, but Tango Mike it was.

It never ceased to amaze me how guys we'd talk to in Da Nang really envied us being stationed in Thailand. In fact, some of them actually took their CTOs (compensatory time off) at NKP! You know what they always say, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail."









 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 11 Aug 110 2.7

323.7 A-1H 139738

My journal entry for 11 August 1972

[Sandy 08 on a] 'Feet Wet' orbit... No strike

We were back in the air again, after two days when we did not "turn a wheel" because of the bad weather at DaNang. But an orbit over the water is not what the doctor ordered. The chances for a strike on this mission were slim to none. The orbit was off the coast of North Vietnam, and in order to get a strike it would have to have been back south of the DMZ. Since we were the only Sandys covering this side of the Trail, we simply brought them back to DaNang and put the Skyraiders on the ground to get them ready for the next sortie.








 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 13 Aug 111 4.4

328.1 A-1H 139738

My first journal entry for 13 August 1972

[Sandy 08 on a] SAR for Atlanta 10 just north of the DMZ... SAR for Atlanta 10 just north of the DMZ. Stayed feet wet most of the time. Finally got in the SAR area. Passed head on with an F-105. Saw F-4s drop BLU-52. No strike.

This was not a successful SAR and I do not know how it was resolved. I do remember the close pass with the F-105. We Sandys usually were down low on the ridge tops and felt fairly safe from other aircraft. When you are in the weeds, you normally have a blue sky background which makes it easier to spot other air traffic. Apparently the Thud had the same idea.

During a SAR, we were normally occupied with watching the ground for ground fire. When I glanced ahead, I saw a windscreen full of Thud and before I could react, he was gone. Doubt that he saw me.

 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 13 Aug 112 2.7

330.8 A-1H 139738

My second journal entry for 13 August 1972

Led redeployment flight to NKP as Sandy 07. Strike near Kong Sedone in Steel Tiger. Bad weather on RTB. Landed during a heavy rain shower.

The end of a rather quiet and uneventful week in DaNang. The strike at Kong Sedone must have been similarly unremarkable since I have no recollection of it.

The A-1 was not a bad instrument flying aircraft. The worst part was our relative lack of proficiency at weather flying. One of the problems with the A-1 could be oil on the windscreen making forward visibility a challenge. The amount of oil the R-3350 used was remarkable. Not all of the 38.5 gallons of oil went to lubricate the engine, however. Most every picture you see of an A-1, whether in flight or on the ground, has oil streaking down the fuselage and along the external fuel tanks. Oil leaks were a good sign, it meant you still had oil left to leak out. The time to worry was when the A-1 stopped leaking oil!

Two rather unusual pieces of equipment for an attack aircraft helped cope with this problem, the degreasing system and the windshield wiper. Though not used often, both these systems could come in handy in the right situation.