The Misty Mystique
Over Vietnam, F-100 pilots flew fast and low. Later, they hit the heights.
- By Mark Bernstein
- Air & Space magazine, February 2013
David Tipps / DavidTipps.com
(Page 2 of 4)
Day, a Medal of Honor recipient, spent five years as a POW in North Vietnam, where he shared a cell with future Senator John McCain. (In 2004, he appeared with other Vietnam veterans in an ad attacking presidential candidate John Kerry.) He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1977. He holds nearly 70 military decorations.
Before the Misty F-100s started flying as forward air controllers, the mission was flown by slow-moving propeller-driven aircraft (the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and the Cessna O-2 Skymaster), which were getting shot at and, as North Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons improved, hit with increasing frequency. “Neither aircraft was suitable for a dense automatic-weapons environment,” says former Air Force Historian Richard Hallion.
“After the problem of the slow FACs was recognized, the decision was made by the Seventh Air Force staff to establish the fast FAC,” says Day. “Their recommendation went to the director of operations and then to General [William W.] Momyer. They issued an order establishing what was officially called Project Commando Sabre. I was interviewed by the assistant director of operations and the director of operations for the Seventh Air Force, and ordered to Phu Cat [an air base in South Vietnam] to take charge. I made one recommendation: that we get some of the slow-FAC pilots who could ride in the back and take advantage of their experience as spotters.”
Early on, Day was joined by operations officer Major William Douglass, who had been wounded while flying the O-1 during a previous tour and spent a year convalescing. The pair believed that flying fast and low—perhaps 450 mph at 4,000 feet—offered the pilot the best chance to observe what went on below and to remain safe from anything shooting at him. Officials from the Seventh Air Force decided to use the two-seat F-100F so that the second man, sitting in the rear, could be free to scan the ground, read maps, handle the radios, and take notes. Since nothing in the military long escapes becoming an acronym, the rear crewman became known as the “GIB,” guy in back. Though the term was used more commonly by Air Force F-4 pilots and their weapon systems officers, some Mistys were also familiar with the acronym. “The GIB was along for the ride,” says former Misty James Piner. “He’d call in the coordinates, hoping the dumb son of a bitch up front wouldn’t get him killed.” Pilots new to the unit were assigned to the back seat for their first five or 10 flights, as an orientation. After that, the Misty pilots alternated front- and backseat duties.
The aircraft they flew, the F-100F, was a variant of the North American Super Sabre. “The feel of the F-100 at the working altitude and speed was solid and responsive,” says former Misty Don Jones. “I liked the feel of the controls and the great visibility to see the area near the aircraft.” The F model carried two 20-mm cannon, which could be used for strafing. More commonly, though, the pilots left the ground attack up to the strike aircraft they had summoned, marking targets for them by launching up to 14 white phosphorous smoke rockets, the maximum the airplane could carry.
When the Misty program started, only 16 pilots were on hand to fly the missions. Organizationally, they were a detachment of the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, with whom they shared space at Phu Cat, half an hour’s flying time south of the border with North Vietnam. Phu Cat was a village surrounded by rice paddies. On the base, airmen lived in prefab wooden structures that offered window air conditioning and hot showers.
Douglass, who died in March 2012, picked many of the initial pilots. After that, however, most of the unit’s pilots picked themselves. Misty was high risk, and that attracted volunteers who were drawn to challenge and danger. “Pilots wanted to come to Misty so they could fly north of the border,” says Day. “We got people from various fighter wings trying to get hired long-distance. We attracted every studly young guy in Southeast Asia.” For Fogleman, the draw was the mission’s novelty. “It was a new use of a fighter airplane,” he says. “The idea that you could take a jet fighter and put it into a hostile environment and have it survive and increase the effectiveness of the entire fighter force by being there to mark targets for [strike aircraft] that would come in—the whole idea appealed to me.”
After the program got going, the pilots soon settled into a routine, flying four sorties per day (later seven). They started with a before-dawn takeoff; the last flight launched in mid-afternoon. The pilots assigned to the first sortie would rise at 3 a.m., shower, and head to the mess hall for breakfast. At 3:45 a.m., they’d get their flight and intelligence briefing, which included results of the previous day’s missions and the locations of any aircraft losses, studying new intelligence photos and suggested targets for the day, reviewing tanker call signs and radio frequencies, and weather forecasts for North Vietnam.