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 3 of 4)
Once airborne, the Mistys set about looking for targets for the strike aircraft: at the top of the list were supply trucks and anti-aircraft-artillery sites. A key technique was to look for signs of man-made objects in the jungle below. “If you found a square bush, a rectangle, or a circle, that was a target,” says Fogleman, who compares the job to detective work. “And if the water was on the south side of the river crossing, you knew the trucks were moving in that direction. I can remember one particular mission where using that technique, and then flying very low and using sun angle, I was fortunate enough to get the glint off of a windshield of a truck that was camouflaged—there were a bunch of these trucks back there. So we started putting ordnance in there [via the strike aircraft], and we spent the better part of a morning just blowing up trucks.”
“The poor bastard on the ground did not know what things looked like from the air,” says Rutan. “All leaves have a slightly different shade on one side so you’d look for clusters of variegated leaves”—evidence that branches had been overturned for camouflage. Two of the most important attributes for Misty pilots were good eyesight and deductive reasoning. If treetops were covered with a layer of dust, for example, something was happening below those trees.
Misty pilots were impressed by the determination of the North Vietnamese soldiers. “They never gave up,” says Jerry Marks. “We’d take a road away from them in daylight, and they’d take it back by [the next] morning.” Says former Air Force chief of staff Tony McPeak: “We did hand out a lot of punishment, and all Mistys ended up respecting those truckers who stood up so well under heavy air attack.”
It was the Misty pilots’ familiarity with supply-line roads that the strike pilots depended upon, and the Mistys were crucial in guiding the strike aircraft in and out of enemy territory in North Vietnam. “The fighters were sent to our radio frequency for strike control,” says former Misty Don Shepperd, who retired as a major general and head of the Air National Guard and is now a military analyst for ABC radio and CNN. “While they were inbound, we briefed them on target locations, defenses, and best escape routes. When we had them in sight, we rolled in and marked the targets with smoke rockets.”
After the strike aircraft had released their ordnance, Misty pilots flew over the area to see if the targets had been hit; if not, they gave corrections over the radio. “That was our specialty,” says Fogleman. “We could put a smoke down, and we liked to brag that once we put a smoke down, it was always right on the sites, and we’d just say, ‘Hit my smoke.’ But every now and then you used to have to say, ‘See my smoke? Hit 100 yards north of it.’ ” If necessary, they re-marked the targets.
The constant low-level flying was physically and mentally daunting. “We tried to maintain 400 knots and 4,500 feet while looking for targets,” says Shepperd. “We constantly jinked—changed flight direction—and pulled Gs. This was very fatiguing.”
All the jinking was a challenge for the F-100 as well. “The airspeed could not be maintained during the continuous G forces while flying the jink, so we frequently used the afterburner to regain the speed that kept us safe—or safer,” says Don Jones, who flew for the Civil Air Patrol after leaving the Air Force. “Flying the F-100 at the low altitudes meant continuous exposure to anti-aircraft gunfire and even small-arms gunfire. The feeling I felt was exhilaration brought on by the general fear of being hit.”
That fear formalized a few rules: Straight-and-level flight was forbidden, as was flying below 4,000 feet. Pilots were not to engage in second passes. If they missed a target, they let it be until a later return. In November 1968, Kelly Irving ignored that rule, which, he said, is why his military career consisted of one more takeoff than landing. Circling back over a target for a second try, his aircraft was hit. Irving recalled the incident at a 2008 Misty reunion in Oregon, outlining the procedure that pilots were to execute (if possible) after being hit: Level the wings, hit the afterburner for greater thrust, gain altitude, and head for the South China Sea (it was easier to retrieve pilots from the water than from the jungle).