Close encounters of the worst kind

No Comments

Aviators should always be on the look-out for other aircraft in their vicinity so they won’t experience a close encounter with one of them. The Mark-1 eyeball is the primary tool in preventing midair collisions, but technology (e.g., eyeglasses, ATC, TCAS, etc.) have helped reduce such occurrences.

Every aviator has had, or at some time will have, a near mid-air, which is why we all strive to keep our eyes outside the cockpit and our heads on a constant swivel to the extent that we can. We also listen to others on the radio when they talk about where they are, e.g. “Cessna 123, Right Base for 17L,” and communicate with ATC.

I am aware that I have had four very near mid-airs during my flying days—there could be more! Here’s the story two such events.

My first close encounter was when I was a Forward Air Controller (FAC) flying an OV-10 Bronco in Vietnam. On New Year’s Day of 1973, I was over Laos seeking to interdict any movement of enemy troops and supplies to be used against US and Allied forces in Vietnam. The weather that day was very nice for flying, but not for spotting targets on the ground. Below me was a cloud deck covering all but the peaks of the few mountains tall enough to rise above it. The threat from the enemy gunners as well as the possibility of cumulo-granite “clouds” prevented me from checking what the bottom of the deck was; from the safety of 5-6,000 feet above that deck, I wasn’t going any lower!

1228px NASA OV 10 300x176 - Close encounters of the worst kind

Mid-air collisions are a threat for military pilots, in addition to bad guys.

While scanning for a break in the weather, I was tuning my HF radio to try and get some good music to listen to as I bored holes in the sky. I managed to pick up a fitting tune, and no, it wasn’t James Taylor’s “I’ve Seen Fire and Rain.” Rather, it was Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” That tune was fitting because, after I had been on station for a half hour or so, the cloud deck below me began breaking up.

In a hole that opened immediately below me I spotted a bulldozer sitting in the middle of the road. It was apparently broken down, as there were people working on it and they didn’t look happy that I was overhead. Several immediately left the area to either get out of Dodge (wise move) or to go man the guns, because they knew I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to target this ‘dozer.

This road was a part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT), a network of dirt roads traversing the Laotian jungle which was used by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to move troops and supplies to the battlefields of South Vietnam. That made both it and what was on it a constant target of our interdiction operations. A bulldozer would be a prime tool for the NVA to build, maintain, and repair the HCMT.

I quickly called Cricket, the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (A-B-Triple C) that coordinated our strikes, and gave them the location of the bulldozer. Cricket came back almost immediately and cleared me to strike it and informed me some fighters were on the way.

Two Air Force F-4s soon checked in and, as they flew toward me, I briefed them on the target and the threat in the area. We would likely encounter, 23, 37, and/or 57mm anti-aircraft artillery and maybe an SA-7 heat-seeking surface-to-air missile or two. I cleared them to use random attack headings, making them less predictable to enemy gunners—plus, there were no friendly forces in the area we had to consider.

They acknowledged my briefing and soon appeared overhead my position, some 8-10,000 feet above me. They were each carrying six Mark-82 general purpose bombs (500 pounds each) and planned to drop them in pairs, so I would get three passes from each fighter.

With everything ready to go, I told the fighters I would mark their target and then clear them to drop as they dived down to deliver their bombs. I also directed them to call “FAC in sight” as they began their attack; this was critical, as it would let me know that they saw me.

To shoot my marking rocket, I rolled my Bronco nearly inverted, pulled the nose below the target, rolled wings level and then let the aiming reticle (the “pipper”) drift up until it reached the bulldozer. With the pipper on the target, I fired my smoke and then climbed back up to my orbit overhead. The white phosphorous smoke from my marking rocket was close enough to the target that the lead F-4 called, “Tally the ‘dozer! I’m in hot from the west with the FAC in sight!”

I immediately cleared him, as I could see him diving down from above. I watched as he released his first two bombs and began his pullout. However, I noticed he was coming uphill directly at me and was closing fast (probably 450+ knots). I also quickly figured out he was going to run into me! I loudly asked, “Lead, you got the FAC in sight?”

He replied, “Negative!”

I hollered, “PULL HARD LEFT!

As he pulled on the stick, he grunted, “ROGER!” and I got very close-up view of the belly of an F-4.

I figured that as soon as the pilot released his bombs, both he and the guy-in-back (the GIB, AKA the navigator in the rear seat of the Phantom II) looked back over their shoulders to see where the bomb hit. It is very likely they had a standing bet on whether the pilot would hit the target. Although he didn’t strike it directly, the bulldozer was starting to smoke.

I reminded the two F-4s to keep an eye out for me as they pulled off from their bombing pass. Lead apologized and promised he would be watching for me. There was no harm and thus no foul, so we continued.

After both of the F-4s had made their second pass, the ‘dozer was smoking heavily, but still appeared intact. Then, I suddenly had to call, “Knock it off!” meaning we had to stop what we were doing. The F-4s acknowledged and then noted what I had seen.

EC 47 300x192 - Close encounters of the worst kind

Not the kind of traffic you want when F-4s are dropping bombs.

An EC-47 came trundling through, wings level, right where we were working. Although he was perhaps 1,000 feet above me—and well below the F-4s—he could easily get tangled up with us. As soon as he got out of the way, I cleared the F-4s to continue. After their last pass, what remained of the bulldozer was pieces of scrap metal scattered around a smoking hole in the ground. I thanked the fighters for their good work and cleared them home.

I then went looking for the EC-47. The “Electric Goony Bird” was a C-47 stuffed with radios, manned by perhaps a dozen linguists who were monitoring the enemy’s radios to gather intelligence. These linguists were young airmen and they would sit in the back of the Goony Bird for a 5-6 hour mission listening to the enemy.

It didn’t take me long to catch the interloper. As I closed in, I slipped into position a few feet off his left wing. Of course, all the bored young airmen in the back (more GIBs!) were fascinated to see another airplane off their wing, so they all piled to the left side of the fuselage. I waved at them and could see them waving back while some were taking my picture.

This movement of “cargo” changed the CG of the plane and I watched as the pilot put in the appropriate controls to maintain level flight and then trimmed out his inputs. Once he was stabilized, I dropped down and quickly crossed underneath the Goony Bird to take up station a few feet off his right wing. Again, the GIBs all shifted to that side and continued waving and taking pictures. Once again, the pilot had to make more inputs to level the airplane and trim out those inputs.

I knew I had gotten revenge for them disrupting my attack on the bulldozer when the co-pilot rolled back his window, stuck out his fist and shook it at me. He may have included a one-fingered salute, but I had peeled off and gone back to hunt for more targets, so I didn’t see it.

Round two

In the summer of 1973, I was over Cambodia with a good friend in my back seat while we were conducting a convoy escort mission. The capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (we called it Papa-Papa), was surrounded by the Khmer Rouge and the Mekong River was a vital supply route to keep the city fed, fueled, and defended. We FACs provided air cover for the convoy of barges and their accompanying gunboats as they sailed from the Vietnamese border to the piers of Papa-Papa to offload their supplies.

Boots ships in river 300x143 - Close encounters of the worst kind

Tug boats and gunboats shared the water around Phnom Penh.

I took the picture at right on another convoy escort mission. In it you can see some of the gunboats along with one of the tug boats minus its barge. The barge is missing because they had to cut it loose when the enemy struck the ammo on board and it began to burn and explode.

FACs coordinated with the convoy commander as his “chicks” came under fire from the enemy positions along the Mekong. We directed fighters where to drop their bombs to destroy the enemy positions and allow the convoy to safely pass. It was a difficult, dynamic, and stressful challenge as we worked around language barriers and the pressures of supporting friendly forces under enemy fires—usually from heavy machine guns and mortars.

On this particular mission, I was directing a flight of two Air Force F-4s. To prevent the fighters from possibly dropping a bomb close to one of the barges or gunboats, I directed them to make their run-ins parallel to the river so a long or a short bomb wouldn’t threaten the convoy.

Boots ground smoke 300x200 - Close encounters of the worst kind

Bomb detonating on the river bank.

In the picture at right, you can see a bomb detonating on the river bank along with the smoke from earlier bombs in the same area. The convoy is just out of view downstream (to the right of the picture beyond the prop captured in this view).

Restricting the fighter’s bombing passes would also help when looking for them as they dived down and to make certain I was out of their way. I also asked them to call “FAC in sight” as they began their passes so I knew we were deconflicted and so that I could anticipate their attack.

The first F-4 did exactly what I had asked and dropped his bombs where I had directed. As #2 rolled in for his pass, he called out, “Two’s in hot, FAC in sight.” But, with the sun overhead and a scattered deck of clouds above me, I couldn’t find him. I asked my back-seater if he saw the F-4, and he replied, “Negative!” I asked the F-4 pilot if he indeed saw me and he replied, “Affirmative!” So, I radioed, “You’re cleared hot!” meaning he could drop his bombs.

A few seconds later, as I was craning my neck while still looking for this wayward Phantom, my canopy was filled up with F-4 as he roared past us. My Bronco was rocked by his wake turbulence and I’m guessing he missed us by just a few yards.

When my back-seater and I had gathered our thoughts (and cleaned out our shorts!) we figured the guy-in-back may have been the one who saw us and assured the pilot we were not in his path. I radioed the pilot and politely asked him to not cut it so close next time.

Latest posts by Dale Hill (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: