Sifuentes’ favorite missions were those that brought a wounded Marine out of harm’s way, and, he says, that goes for any helicopter pilot: Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marine.
F9F Panther: Attack Cat
The fifth in the series of cat-named fighters (Wildcat, Hellcat, etc.) that the Navy bought from Grumman’s Long Island “iron works,” the F9F Panther was also the company’s first production jet and the Navy’s first jet to fly in combat. It served as the Marine Corps’ primary ground attack jet during the Korean War. Designed as a fighter but used almost exclusively by the Navy and Marines as a bomber, the Panther had the same nasty traits of other jets in its generation: It gulped fuel, stalled without warning, and had a high landing speed that made it a handful to put down on a carrier deck. But called in by an Army or Marine division getting pounded by enemy guns, the Panthers, especially those with Marine squadrons based at provisional Korean airfields, could come to the aid of ground forces much faster than their piston-powered forebears. They were also more accurate and less vulnerable to ground fire, though not invulnerable. An F9F piloted by famous Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, for example, was struck by rifle fire when Williams flew as part of a 35-aircraft strike group in February 1953. Williams managed to get the airplane, on fire and leaking hydraulic fluid, back to base.
In the same squadron, VMF-311, future astronaut and senator John Glenn tangled with a North Korean anti-aircraft gun emplacement but managed to get his F9F back as well. After he landed he found an enormous hole in the Panther’s tail. (Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong also flew the F9F in Korea, as a Navy pilot.)
Marine Panthers flew every type of combat mission in Korea; in addition to strafing and napalming enemy positions, pilots bombed road and rail networks, airfields, bridges—anything to interrupt North Korean supply lines. They even shooed away the occasional MiG, though that job was better left to the Air Force’s swept-wing F-86 Sabre.
In Vietnam, Marine Panthers were the first jets to be used for airborne forward air control missions.
F-4 Phantom: FastCam
The McDonnell F-4 Phantom began its long association with the Marine Corps in 1959, when Lieutenant Colonel Robert Barbour took a production version of the Phantom for a test flight. In the Vietnam War, prior to 1965, only the Marines consistently flew the aircraft in support of its ground troops. But that mission is not what most people associate with the Phantom. Flying with three services—the Navy, which took delivery first, the Air Force, and Marines—F-4s were MiG killers: During Vietnam, the aircraft downed 164 adversaries, more than any other U.S. fighter.
The unarmed, photoreconnaissance version of the Phantom, the RF-4B was a Marine exclusive. Its lengthened nose accommodated three camera bays, and in the rear of the airplane, a 270-million candlepower photo cartridge worked as a monster flashbulb.
“The RF-4B was a good machine, and it could take a lot of punishment too,” recalled General Jack Dailey in a 2004 oral history recorded at the National Air and Space Museum. Dailey, who is the director of the Museum, had been flying an EF-10B in the “Agony Orbit” each night over Vietnam, watching for surface-to-air missiles, when he was moved up to the RF-4B.
“One thing about being a fighter pilot or an attack pilot is you come back to the bar and you say, ‘Yeah, I got the target,’ ” Dailey said. “Well, if you’re a photo pilot, they know whether you got it. It’s on the picture or it’s not.”
Vietnam’s ridges and valleys made nighttime, low-level photo missions a challenge. Because moisture in the atmosphere degraded its signal, the infrared camera wasn’t effective above 2,000 feet, yet some mountains were higher than 8,000 feet. Pilots compensated by first flying the route during the day in an EF-10.