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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?”

“As low as you’ll let us.”

I lit the afterburners and headed down. The mechanics later said it was spectacular. At the end of the runway I pulled up, did a couple of rolls, and headed back to the Kitty Hawk. After that, life settled into routine. For a week.

No words strike fear into a junior officer’s heart like “The skipper wants to see you in his office.” After rapping on the door and hearing a brusque “Enter,” I stood at attention. Commander Bill Belay said, “What the !%@# did you do in Ubon last week?”

It seems the Thais had stormed the base at Ubon, demanding retribution for windows broken by a sonic boom. The local commanders figured out it was not one of theirs and sent the problem up the Air Force chain of command. In Hawaii, where four-stars talk to four-stars, the Air Force and Navy exchanged information on the incident. From the Navy Commander-in-Chief Pacific, it rolled back down the Naval chain, gaining momentum. For the next eight days I did not know whether I was to be court-martialed, sued, or keelhauled.

Then an officer on the embarked admiral’s staff  let me peek at a message from a high level in the Air Force. It was mostly business but it ended with “Good-looking airplane in Ubon a couple of weeks ago. When’s it coming back?”

I was concerned about the aerial welfare of my pals back at the Wolfpack. In the Philippines I ran into an F-4 crew from Ubon and asked if my low flyby had led to restrictions on their flying. The pilot looked at me and said, “What flyby?”

I am convinced that owners of the curio shops, tailor shops, and bars heard my sonic boom and heaved Coke bottles through the nearest window, hoping for money from Uncle Sam. There was likely no damage at all.

I’ve been called Boom for over 30 years now. I haven’t given up low passes—I just keep them below Mach 1.

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