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 4 of 4)
When Irving’s F-100 was hit, his GIB said the pair had to eject. Irving said no way. Moments later, Irving agreed it was time to eject, but this time his GIB voted no. The aircraft reached 23,000 feet, but its hydraulics had been destroyed and Irving couldn’t control it. Losing altitude quickly, the two men bailed out over land. A bit more than an hour later, they were picked up by an HH-53 Sikorsky helicopter, commonly known as the Jolly Green Giant. The helicopter pilot was making his first rescue, and instead of hovering and pulling Irving up to safety, he started flying sideways, with Irving dangling in a rescue harness and dodging tree limbs. Said Irving at the reunion: “I may be one of the few people to get a Purple Heart for having been injured by a tree.”
There were worse fates. Seven Mistys were killed. Four were captured. Thirty-four were shot down, landing either in the South China Sea or in North Vietnamese-held territory.
Do Misty pilots today think the risky missions paid off? “I did control some memorable attacks as a Misty,” says Tony McPeak. “But the fact is, neither Misty nor anybody else succeeded in stopping traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mission not accomplished.”
Historian Richard Hallion says that Mistys laid the groundwork for future air tactics: “Misty FACs were crucial to the success of strike aircraft operating in high-threat areas where SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], anti-aircraft fire, and possibly MiGs could be encountered. If the absence of the kind of sensors and precision weapons available today limited the results of such attacks, it is still fair to state that the Mistys were the direct forerunners of the F-16 killer scouts used so successfully in [Operation] Desert Storm a generation later.”
In a conflict that brought many no sense of accomplishment, most Mistys believed they were making a difference. One-time Misty commander P.J. White describes his best work as attacks he directed near Quang Tri on a North Vietnamese artillery field that was shelling U.S. Marines across the Demilitarized Zone. Jere Wallace, flying GIB with White, recalls: “We were up before dawn so we could verify the flashes of the guns,” which had a range of 25 miles.
The shelling of the Marines went on for a week, and White remembers waiting patiently for the U.S. strike aircraft to hit their targets. In general, “you couldn’t tell if it was a truck, tank, or tractor that was hit,” says White, who went on to become the first commander of Red Flag, an aerial combat training exercise. In the end it didn’t matter. “We destroyed them,” he says, referring to the artillery that had been attacking the Marines.
There was never any solid measure of how much southward-bound North Vietnamese armament Mistys helped demolish. On one successful mission during the 1968 Tet Offensive, 79 trucks were destroyed, and the pilots believed that such successes would have been more frequent had there not been technical shortcomings involving bombing accuracy and the lack of a capability to operate at night. Whatever the number of trucks or arms destroyed on a mission, the pilots knew that for at least the next day of the war, life for U.S. troops on the ground was safer.
Mark Bernstein writes on American history. His next book, John Joyce Gilligan: The Politics of Principle, a biography of Ohio’s leading postwar Democrat, will be published this fall by Kent State University Press. He wrote about the restoration of the Memphis Belle B-17 (Oct./Nov. 2008).