One in a million: a chance aerial encounter in Laos

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In the heart of the Vietnam War, Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base was the home of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, “the Wolfpack.” The Wolfpack had around a hundred F-4D aircraft in four fighter squadrons; it was a 24-hour-a-day sorties machine, responsible for emplacing the sensors comprising McNamara’s electronic fence across southern Laos and part of North Vietnam. Sensor planting operations carried out by one squadron were almost exclusively conducted around sunrise, low level along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the squadrons flew almost exclusively at night, the bellies of their Phantoms painted flat black. Very important for flying at night; not so good during the day.

The other two squadrons flew about three quarters of their sorties during the day. They had the only capability in theater to drop laser guided bombs (LGB) or electro-optical guided bombs (EOGB). These weapons were game changers, especially the LGBs, usually hitting less than 20 feet from their targets. Truck drivers and AAA gunners hated the LGBs.

Ubon was thought of as a fighter base, but there was much more going on than fighter ops. The Thais had T-28s used in counter-insurgency operations. They did their own thing, certainly, since it was their country. About the only thing we knew about their ops was they took off with full rocket pods and gun magazines charged, and they came back empty. I believe their ops were focused on some of the communist overflow out of Laos and Cambodia into Thailand. The Thai pilots would also occasionally use our officer’s mess, mostly the back room where games of chance may have been played.

Ubon

Ubon was a busy place during the Vietnam war.

There were other operations at Ubon. Elements of the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) were on the airfield. They flew the Cessna O-2 Spymasters performing visual reconnaissance along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and forward air control of interdiction sorties in some pretty highly defended areas. Tchepone was one of those spots where AAA was concentrated to protect supply dumps, truck parks, and key stretches of road. It was sort of a chicken and egg thing: which came first, the AAA or the fighters? The Nails flew both night and day, using white phosphorous rockets to mark targets during the day and “logs” at night, dropped on the ground near a target providing reference for fighters to strike: “bomb 50 meters north of my smoke, during the day, and log during the night.”

The O-2s, call sign, Nail were an on-the-fly adaption of a commercial aircraft. Chock full of radios, UHF, VHF, FM, and HF, they served as eyes, ears, and voices with fighters from Thailand, as well as Air Force and Marine units in South Vietnam, called away from their primary job of providing Close Air Support (CAS) for US and South Vietnamese ground forces. CAS got priority, as it deserved, but occasionally F-4s, F-100s, and A-4 would be tasked to add to the interdiction activities “out of country.” The Nails usually flew with one pilot during the day and with a navigator on board at night, using a Starlight Scope to search along and adjacent to the trail for mostly “movers” in convoys traveling to resupply Viet Cong or North Vietnamese forces engaging friendlies in South Vietnam.

The O-2 did good work but as the threat increased, especially as the enemy introduced larger AAA guns and handheld heat seeking missiles, the Nail mission became increasingly difficult. The answer was the introduction of the OV-10 Bronco in the hot areas during the day. It was a considerable improvement, but the intensity of the threat, especially along the Laotian-North Vietnamese border, made life for the OV-10 difficult. This caused the introduction of jet FACs flying F-100s, F-4s, and in the case of the Marines, two-seat versions of the A-4 Skyhawk. AAA-mad SAMS made life hard for the Fast FACS, but speed and maneuverability were advantages; on the other hand, dwell time in the target area and the difficulty of acquiring targets under jungle canopy and camouflage were disadvantages. Tradeoffs were made to support the out of county interdiction campaigns in Laos and in North Vietnam when the Washington leadership decided to carry the war to the North, or not.

I must not forget Ubon got some other aircraft on the field, including the first AC-130 gunships in theater, a major improvement on the AC-47 and AC-119 gunships used with great effect for night CAS in South Vietnam. Spooky AC-47s and AC-119 Shadows and Singers were loved by the ground troops: long time on target, side-firing miniguns were really effective in the South; not so much where the AAA was much more intense.

So the answer was a highly modified C-130 Hercules, which was transformed to Spectre, a step up in capability with a much more robust airframe, avionics, and sensors effect at night and more muscle, including multiple 20mm gatling guns, a 40mm cannon, as well as good old (I do mean old) Army 105mm cannon. Heavyweight armament, better performance in terms of speed/altitude, and avionics allowing night ops made it more efficient than F-4s with dumb bombs and CBUs for relatively wide area coverage of AAA and soft targets like trucks. The Spectres typically flew as singles, but with one or more F-4s escorting and providing suppression of AAA, often firing on the blind side of Spectre when he was in a turn searching for targets or engaging with one or more of his side firing armament. The night escort, call sign Owl, came out of Ubon’s night sorties.

I had a full-time job in the 433rd, one of the F-4D squadrons, flying around four out of every five days. But I still had some days off and here wasn’t much to do—no TV, no internet, only one movie a day (maybe the same one for several days in a row)—it was not easy to make-up softball teams. I had time on my hands and looked for things to do. One thing was bagging rides with the Nails on their day missions in Laos. Unless they were checking out a new guy, the right seat was empty. I don’t remember the number of O-2 missions I had, but I remember two very well.

O-2 flying

The O-2 had great visibility, but not many defensive options.

I often flew with Jim, a medium senior captain who’d gotten a FAC assignment out of the C-130. He was a pro, and I learned a lot watching and listening, searching for targets, communicating with airborne control agencies (like Cricket, a C-130 configured as an Airborne Command and Control node), talking the fighters onto the target and eventually marking with one of his willie pete rockets, and then making corrections on the bombs dropped by the fighters. Later on, when I was an F-4 Wolf FAC I benefited from the very valuable O-2 OJT.

On one of my first sorties, we were in orbit near Tchepone awaiting inbound F-100s from Tuy Hoa. Even with helmets on the cockpit was hot and noisy, especially with several radios on for comm or just to monitor, so the back windows on the O-2 were open. They were the kind like you’d have in an old coupe auto: angled and hinged at the front so they would partially open into the slipstream, providing some ventilation (and noise) in an otherwise warm to hot cockpit. So, I leaned back and shut the window on my side.

Jim, my pilot, responded immediately: “get that GD window open.”

“OK,” I replied.

The he replied, “that’s my RWR gear!” Explanation—no Radar Warning Receiver on the O-2 but with the windows open you could hear the AAA popping when it went off behind you. Oh, I get it. Most gunners, especially those without radar-aided tracking (which you can hear in an RWR) would miss with their first burst, typically three or seven rounds depending on the gun. They would not pull enough lead, but quickly correct, like a hunter shooting a clay pigeon or bird. Hearing the pop, pop, pop, the pilot would jink to a new heading and change altitude. He also almost always flew in a slight crab or in a bank, to throw off the gunner’s aim. That was my first vivid memory of an O-2 ride: pop, pop, pop, then dirty smoke puffs hanging behind the twin tail booms.

The second memory was different. I was on another sortie in the Tchepone area when Jim got a call from Cricket that there was a single Navy A-6 Intruder inbound with a full load of Mk82 bombs. The Intruder had range and payload comparable to the Air Force’s F-111, which had a faster top speed, but they were comparable in many ways, both having state of the art avionics and true all-weather, night capability. Intruders seldom showed up in our part of the war, Laos being a long drive from the carriers on Yankee station off North Vietnam, so this was an unexpected resource for our mission.

The A-6 was a few minutes out and Jim had time to pick out an area suspected as a truck park off the trail, hidden under jungle canopy, all telltale tracks off the road swept clean. Jim was planning on the Intruder making two passes across the area, increasing the chance of a hit with two sticks of MK82s. The Intruder checked in on UHF, giving his call sign as Cupcake 503 (the noun was assigned to a specific squadron, the number reflected the last three digits of the aircraft’s tail number). I wasn’t familiar with Navy call signs, but Cupcake was different. Most AF call signs were autos (Buick, Rambler, Ford) or often fish (Shark, Barracuda, Skate, and so forth)—no Cupcakes.

Note: this was before Top Gun, before every pilot or weapons system operator had his one personal call sign, particularly for use in interflight communication or on the ground. Back in the day we had Leftys, Puds, Dustys, and so forth but now everyone has their own.

Cupcake checked in with his play time and ordinance. Lots of play time, but he had a time to be in the cue for landing on his carrier, and plenty of ordinance. Strangely, even in the static of UHF radios, I recognized Cupcake’s voice. I asked Jim if I could give him the brief, he OKed it, so I got on the mic and provided target type and coordinate, safe area for bail out, preferred run-in heading and threats observed—light weapons, 37mm and 57mm, no SAMs observed or thought to be in the area.

A-6 Intruder

An A-6 and an O-2 meet over the skies of Laos. What are the chances the pilots know each other?

Then I paused, and said, “You ever live on Debolt Street?” He rogerd, and I knew it was a guy who’d been my neighbor for around fifteen years of my life. He’d graduated a year before me, gone to Yale, and ended up a Navy ROTC grad and a Navy pilot. So breaking protocol I said, “well your bombs better be good, because I’m going to make a personal report to your parents.”

Short pause, and he said, “that you Steve?”

I said, “Yes, and you’re cleared in hot.”

During this short exchange Jim had put down two willie petes and directed Cupcake to hit his smoke. First pass in and off target, picking up some small arms fire and “light 37mm” optically-directed AAA, we could see the puffs as he rolled in, and the sparkle of gunfire on pull-off. He was well above the four thousand foot above ground level we stayed above, honoring the intense small arms fire on almost any bombing pass. Good bombs, “now make another pass, come in from the west this time.” He did and as he rolled in there were some secondary explosions from the target area—probably from ammo storage or a truck or two hit by frag from Cupcake’s first pass.

Another good pass, then he was off target and headed back to the carrier. I read the coordinates of the target and assessment of the attack: 100% of bombs on target, several fires and explosions, likely from stored ammo and POL. “Nice work, Navy.”

Independently we both wrote home to our parents, still neighbors in our hometown, and it made the Republican Times as “Two high school friends meet over Laos.”

A few weeks later he and his bombardier/nav came to Ubon via a Carrier on Board Delivery (COD) off the carrier, through Saigon, and C-130 rides for an overnight. I enjoyed introducing my Navy guests to my squadron as the Cupcake I had over Tchepone.

Many years later a mutual friend asked about the odds of our meeting, saying probably a million to one. I thought about that, and replied, “No, much worse than that. Me on a bag ride on a given day and time in an O-2, he on a weather divert into Southern Laos, over a place smaller than our hometown and with more AAA than we had shotguns, a place few Navy jets ever ventured into, both a half a world away from our home—no, much more than a million to one.”

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