Flying Wild Weasel missions involved a variety of airframes but just one philosophy: Do unto SAMS before they do unto you.
- By Robert Hanson
- Air & Space magazine, September 1998
(Page 4 of 5)
The conversion of the Thunderchief was much more successful and was to result in the most storied Wild Weasel airframe, and one that would fly the most missions in Vietnam. By January 1966, the first modified F-105F, with essentially the same equipment as the F-100F, made its first flight. The big Thunderchief had come out of the shop with its 20-mm Gatling gun still in the nose and the added ability to launch a new air-to-ground missile that fed on radar beams, the AGM-45 Shrike, a weapon that was partly based on the AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile but had a Texas Instruments seeker head that locked on to ground-based radar sources. The Shrike was eventually carried by other U.S. Air Force aircraft, and was used by Navy radar suppression aircraft, including A-6 Intruders and A-4 Skyhawks; its appearance marked the beginning of more widespread SAM supression and offensive capability for a host of aircraft operating in Vietnam.
By May 1966, ten F-105Fs were on the ramp at Korat, bolstering the battered EF-100F contingent. The Thuds were flying sorties by early June, led by experienced crews in F-100Fs. When the Huns were withdrawn in July, they had proven the new system worked, pioneered a new mission, and destroyed nine SAM sites.
In mid July, the first Thud Weasels arrived at Takhli Air Base in Thailand. The air war was heating up at an incredible pace, and within six weeks, five Weasels had been lost and the sixth was too badly damaged to fly again. Operation over the north reached a long bloody plateau from late 1966 through early 1968. In 1967 alone, 26 Wild Weasel aircraft and 42 crew members--the equivalent of an entire squadron--were shot down. The losses prompted a reexamination of whether Weasel operations should be continued at all.
The surviving crews from the first deployment were sent to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to set up a Wild Weasel prep school that would provide new crews with instruction on the Vector IV equipment and 10 missions in the F-105F, some of them flown against dummy SAM radar sites. But for Wild Weasel crews, the best lessons were learned in combat. The training gave crewmen the basics of operating the equipment and included classwork on SAM radar and tactics, as well as simulated missions flown against the radar simulator. "We could learn how they operated, but actually seeing how they turn on, and seeing [a SAM] fire off and go by you [in combat] is another experience," says former F-105 backseater David Brog. "But [the school] prepared us and we were trained by guys who had been there already."
The crews experimented freely and developed their own tactics, even as their onboard equipment was continually modified. One of the more successful maneuvers against SAMs was developed by Takhli-based Weasels, who began forming teams made up of two pairs of aircraft: One tempted a SAM to fire, which revealed the site for the other pair to attack. This was a favorite trick of Leo Thorsness and his EWO Harold Johnson, a tactic they called "trolling." Thorsness also pioneered the lofted delivery--a sharp pull-up during launch of the Shrike that added as much as 20 miles to the nominal range of the missile. Thorsness and Johnson flew 92 Wild Weasel missions, one of which earned Thorsness the Medal of Honor and Johnson the Air Force Cross, but the two were shot down by a MiG in 1967 and spent the rest of the war as prisoners in Hanoi.
As tactics were developed in the air, field modifications to the Wild Weasel systems continued on the ground. A key weakness of the equipment was that if several SAM sites were displayed on the scope and the light that signaled a launch was illuminated, there was no way to know which site had fired and from which direction the SAM was coming. "I heard the crews complaining about that," says Weldon Bauman, who in 1967 was a junior enlisted technician at Takhli. "And I thought Well, if I knew more about the signal, then maybe we could do something about it." Bauman became a Wild Weasel legend for devising a system similar to Bob Klemic's but that sidestepped cumbersome and lengthy procurement procedures and could be hot-wired into the aircraft in the field immediately. But to do it, he first needed access to sensitive data about the nature of SAM site radar emissions, and after convincing an EWO to escort him into the intelligence section, he got the information he needed. "I sat down and got the real-time data--the same day then was real time," Bauman says. "I found out what they were seeing and then went back and designed a circuitand it worked." When activated, Bauman's modification cleared the scope of all information except for a blip that indicated the launching site. Tom Wilson, a former F-105 EWO, marveled at Bauman's ingenuity and his modesty. "This kid had two stripes, and he was so damn smart it was unreal," Wilson says. "When I asked him how he came up with the mod, he said, "It was real easy. Just three little parts wired into the line for the scope, and a switch, and it was done.' "
However, such advantages were sometimes short-lived. "I've been asked to describe electronic warfare to new guys coming on board in the industry, and I tell them that you've got to look at it as a giant circle," former ATI technician Bill Hickey says. "You make changes because you want to improve your equipment. Well, the instant you do that, and the guy on the ground finds out, he's going to make a change."
Often it didn't matter if the air crews knew where the SAMs were coming from--there were too many to effectively track. "Somewhere along the way, someone convinced the NVA to fire the SAMs in threes, and that is what they would do," Wilson says. "So, here comes three from one side, three from another, three from behind, and they are all pointed at you. It made for tough decisions." Some air crews witnessed a further step taken in the electronic gamesmanship: simulated SAM launches. "We used to joke about the Russian technician teaching the NVA and saying, "See that big formation right there on the scope? Well, watch this,' " says Bill Sparks, a former F-105 pilot. "He would hit the button, and the formation would look like the world's biggest bomb burst as everyone jettisoned their loads and went crazy looking for a launch. Kinda funny, really."