I flew 27 combat sorties in Iraqi Freedom and I emptied the gun on about 12 of those…
Shooting at what?
Armored vehicles, primarily. Armored vehicles and tanks in a troops-in-contact type of environment where you need the precision of the gun.
What does the airplane feel like when you’re firing the gun?
The flight characteristics don’t really change, but the airplane vibrates so much that you just let the airplane go where it was going to go anyway. You’re trying to maintain a smooth platform for aiming, but you can’t read the HUD [head-up display] any more, so basically you’re just pulling the trigger, smoke’s coming off the nose like mad. At night, sparks are coming off the nose. So as you’re shooting, you can almost close your eyes and just keep flying the airplane straight because there’s just so much going on out there on the nose, that you can’t really see anything.
So you have a stable airframe that enables you to simply let the airplane fly. Would that have been the case with the A-1?
The A-1 has some interesting aspects to the guns too. Skyraider pilots didn’t like shooting the guns that were mounted in the wings. The 20 mm rounds tended to boil up in the wing every now and then. And it would blow the gun-loading panel off the top of wing, and it’s a pretty big panel. So that wing would lose lift fairly quickly. So here you are diving at the ground, one of your wings all the sudden loses lift, so you flip upside down, and several guys were killed that way. Some of them recovered!
The fire rate on the wing guns was pretty low because it’s a larger caliber. What the Skyraider guys really liked were the little mini-guns—they were adapted from the helicopters Gatling guns—carried in pods. The fire rate was higher, so your shot density was better at the target. And if the gun malfunctioned, it was malfunctioning outside the wing. Although the malfunction rate of the miniguns was very low. They were very reliable.
Among the combat missions you flew, does one stand out from the others?
Oh, absolutely. We had a night, troops-in-contact sortie that was the most memorable sortie of the 27 I flew. I was flying with the Idaho Air National Guard, and my flight lead, call sign “Kingman,” and I were patrolling. Basically, we would go up and hold to see if anybody needed us that evening, which is kind of what they did in Vietnam as well. So on the Guard radio frequency—the emergency frequency—I hear this call, “This is Disney on Guard. I need air.” We find out where Disney is, and they’re up north on Highway 2, south of Al Kut [Iraq]. And they had gone well beyond the forward edge of the battle area, which at that time was around Nasiriyah. So this Marine platoon had pushed well north.