Change of Command
When Robin Olds arrived in Vietnam, morale soared.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, September 1997
SI Photo SI99-42649
(Page 2 of 7)
I rolled into a dive. It looked clear between patches of exploding flak, so I made one adjustment and concentrated on the bombsight, setting the bright red pipper below a small bridge. At that point, any bridge was fine with me. At 4,000 feet, Sharp yelled "Pickle!" and I pressed the bomb button and felt a rumble as the four bombs kicked clear of the rack.
Radio chatter had become an insane jumble of overlapping transmissions. I had lost sight of Fulkerson, so as I pulled the nose up through the horizon, I turned for the coast. A burst of flak rippled near my left wing. My knees were shaking so hard I took my feet off the rudder pedals and placed them flat on the floorboards. When I caught sight of Fulkerson, he was well out in front. Then I saw something closer, dead ahead--a white blur. I was doing 720 mph, but I swung left and barely missed the parachute. The F-105 pilot! He had survived flak and a SAM, and then I had nearly skewered him.
That's how it had been going, mission after mission. This one stands out because of the near-collision with a parachuting pilot, but the guns, SAMs, explosions, confusion, and airplanes being shot down were standard. Supported by China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam had armed itself against the U.S. air attacks and by this time had 4,400 anti-aircraft guns and 25 SAM battalions in place.
The mission stands out for another reason. Once we reached the safety of the sea, Fulkerson's wingman, Fitz Fitzgerald, radioed that he was down to 900 pounds of fuel, barely enough in an F-4 to fly a hundred miles, which was just about the distance to the demilitarized zone. Fulkerson had him jettison his auxiliary tanks and head south. We watched fuel spray from the open tank fittings as they slowly tumbled seaward. The tanks hadn't fed; the valves had never opened. We had a pretty good idea why: It was the same reason that Sharp and I had headed north without a wingman.
Since the beginning of August the 8th wing had been directed by the Pentagon to "investigate the desirability of increasing sortie rates per aircraft." The same airplanes that flew day missions were to be reconfigured to fly missions at night, then switched back for daylight attacks the following morning. But switching aircraft back and forth entailed heavy work for maintenance crews. Daylight bombers carried a 370-gallon fuel tank on each wing, plus missiles and bombs. The night birds used a flare dispenser where a wing tank normally went and carried a centerline, 600-gallon fuel tank. Besides up- and downloading tanks at sunup and sundown, the crews had to "refuel, rearm, and repair" aircraft that flew around the clock. The test program was called "Rapid Roger." According to wing records, between August 6, 1966, when Rapid Roger began, and September 22, the "operationally ready" rate for aircraft dropped from 73.8 to 54.3 percent. It's not that the maintenance crews weren't trying. The wing record also shows that extra men and spare parts authorized for the test were never delivered.
After midnight on September 13, an F-4C crashed just after takeoff. During daylight that same day, another crashed after an inflight fire, its cause undetermined. Of the 10 aircraft lost in combat since July, two were airplanes ordered North without wingmen. A MiG got one; a SAM the other. And now Fitzgerald: About 15 minutes after he dropped the useless external tanks--those same pesky tanks that were being disconnected and reconnected continually by overworked mechanics--he dead-sticked his airplane into a dirt strip at Dong Ha, just south of the DMZ. The F-4 went careening off the end, shedding missiles and landing gear. Both men climbed out unharmed.
"We were green beans," Dick Stultz said recently. Stultz was a Phantom backseater with the 555th, and he got to Ubon at about the same time I did. I saw him at a reunion in April, and his memory of that time pretty much matches mine. "You may be trained to be a boxer," he said, "but you don't get in the ring with only the principles of fighting in your head, with no experience in winning and surviving."
Most of the pilots shot down over the past few months had been captains and lieutenants. We had noticed that the full colonels--the guys with experience--seldom flew to Pak Six. And some squadron commanders could find any number of reasons not to fly to Hanoi.