In September 1968, a U.S. Air Force pilot, having ejected from his damaged aircraft, took cover in a rice paddy in South Vietnam. The area in which he landed was regularly patrolled by the Viet Cong. Remaining submerged up to his neck, the pilot managed to escape detection until a U.S. military helicopter could lift him from the scene. A quarter-century later, the pilot—Ronald Fogleman—was a four-star general and Air Force Chief of Staff.
In the Vietnam War, downed U.S. pilots were premium currency. For the North Vietnamese, captured airmen were bargaining chips; for the Americans, they were fellow warriors never to be abandoned. Once, however, orders came from a U.S. general in Saigon that a badly injured pilot, lying on North Vietnamese soil, was to be left behind because the rescue effort would conflict with a larger operation. An outraged captain reached Saigon by telephone to demand that someone find out “exactly what I’m to tell the guy on the ground as to why we are pulling out and abandoning him.”
Back at base, the captain sat alone in the bar, cussing out various things, generals not least. A fellow pilot walked in, grinning, to say the downed pilot had been rescued. Apparently, “the general couldn’t figure out what words to use to tell him why we weren’t pulling him out.” The captain who had posed that difficult question was Dick Rutan, a man of varied accomplishments, including a record-setting, nonstop, unrefueled, round-the-world flight in 1986. The aircraft he flew with Jeana Yeager, Voyager, is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
At the time, Rutan was a member of an elite group of forward air controllers—which Fogleman later joined—who flew F-100 Super Sabres over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam and Laos, looking for evidence of men and materials moving south toward the fighting. Flying under the call sign “Misty,” the pilots would detect enemy targets, mark them with smoke-dispensing rockets, and guide strike aircraft—usually McDonnell Douglas F-4s and Republic F-105s—in for bombing runs.
The Mistys were a small group: Over the three-year period of the program, from June 1967 to May 1970, only 157 men served as pilots. After the war, many of them became notable achievers. When Fogleman was named the 15th Air Force Chief of Staff in 1994, he replaced Merrill “Tony” McPeak, who had also been a Misty. Two others, Lacy Veach and Roy Bridges, flew as astronauts on the space shuttle, and Bridges later headed NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Langley Research Center in Virginia. For his Voyager flight, Rutan received the National Aeronautic Association’s Collier Trophy. Misty alumni include four other generals, a spate of entrepreneurs, a pecan grower, a coffee plantation owner, a sculptor, an evangelical preacher, and 13 colonels.
What accounts for how much Misty airmen accomplished in later years? “Misty was a group of volunteers self-selected from fighter pilots,” says McPeak. “They were bound to be a bit special, so it should be no surprise that many of them turned out well when they eventually grew up.”
Fogleman believes the motivation preceded the mission. “We were fighter pilots in the United States Air Force,” he says. “But ones who wanted to go the next step beyond that. What is it that I can do? What is it that is out there? It was those kind of people—they liked responsibility. They liked hanging it out a little bit. Because somebody had to do it. And the same things that motivate people to achieve leadership positions or be exemplary performers in the military are traits that great CEOs have.”
The man who most shaped the Misty program was its first commander, Major George E. “Bud” Day. It was Day who gave the group its call sign, taken from his favorite song, “Misty,” recorded by pianist Erroll Garner. “Misty came about because it was just a great song,” says Day. “I was in Vegas, I think, in the late 1950s the night it was introduced. The guy played it on the xylophone first, then switched over to the piano. He wasn’t a very good singer, but it was such a remarkable song, it brought the house down.”
Day, a Medal of Honor recipient, spent five years as a POW in North Vietnam, where he shared a cell with future Senator John McCain. (In 2004, he appeared with other Vietnam veterans in an ad attacking presidential candidate John Kerry.) He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1977. He holds nearly 70 military decorations.
Before the Misty F-100s started flying as forward air controllers, the mission was flown by slow-moving propeller-driven aircraft (the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and the Cessna O-2 Skymaster), which were getting shot at and, as North Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons improved, hit with increasing frequency. “Neither aircraft was suitable for a dense automatic-weapons environment,” says former Air Force Historian Richard Hallion.