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The fearsome Vigilante was meant to carry nuclear weapons but ended up lugging reconnaissance cameras. (R.R. Powell)

Flights & Fancy: Thai Boom

Flights & Fancy: Thai Boom

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On a dark night in 1971, while 21,000 feet over Laos, a warning light came on in the cockpit of my North American RA-5C Vigilante. A needle dropping to zero on a gauge confirmed the problem. I told my navigator, “Bull, we’ve lost our number-one hydraulic system. We can’t go back to the ship. What’s our heading to Danang?”

As the junior pilot in Navy squadron RVAH-6, I was teamed with an experienced navigator, Bob “Bull” Davis, who was not just senior, but smarter. “Danang has bedbugs and mortar attacks,” he said. “Ubon is the same distance. We’ll go there.”  Ubon Ratchathani air base in Thailand was home to the U.S. Air Force Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing, the Wolfpack, which flew F-4 Phantoms.

Next morning, as Bull and I worked to get our airplane repaired, we learned we were celebrities. Ubon was rarely visited by U.S. Navy carrier-based airplanes, and never by a Vigilante. A constant stream of gawkers came to see what, in my opinion, is the best-looking aircraft ever built. That afternoon, the transport bringing mail and personnel from ship to shore landed, delivering four mechanics from our USS Kitty Hawk squadron.

While they spent the next two days working on our aircraft, we hung with the Wolfpack F-4 Phantom drivers. We spent a lot of time in the officers club and never had to buy a drink. The Phantom pilots asked us repeatedly if we were going to do a flyby when we left. Did they ever do high-speed passes? “Oh sure, all the time.”

On the third day, the Vigilante was declared ready. Parked next to us, loaded with the latest weaponry, was an F-4 being shown to a U.S. Air Force four-star generals. We did our walk-around inspection and climbed into our cockpits. When the general had finished looking at the F-4, he walked over and called up, “Good-looking airplane.” I thanked him, and he wished us a safe flight.

I don’t remember which of us started the conversation, but it went something like this:

“Well, whaddya think?”

“Sure. Let’s go for it.”

“Ubon tower, 602, request flyby.”

“Roger 602, how low will you go?”

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