After the strike aircraft had released their ordnance, Misty pilots flew over the area to see if the targets had been hit; if not, they gave corrections over the radio. “That was our specialty,” says Fogleman. “We could put a smoke down, and we liked to brag that once we put a smoke down, it was always right on the sites, and we’d just say, ‘Hit my smoke.’ But every now and then you used to have to say, ‘See my smoke? Hit 100 yards north of it.’ ” If necessary, they re-marked the targets.
The constant low-level flying was physically and mentally daunting. “We tried to maintain 400 knots and 4,500 feet while looking for targets,” says Shepperd. “We constantly jinked—changed flight direction—and pulled Gs. This was very fatiguing.”
All the jinking was a challenge for the F-100 as well. “The airspeed could not be maintained during the continuous G forces while flying the jink, so we frequently used the afterburner to regain the speed that kept us safe—or safer,” says Don Jones, who flew for the Civil Air Patrol after leaving the Air Force. “Flying the F-100 at the low altitudes meant continuous exposure to anti-aircraft gunfire and even small-arms gunfire. The feeling I felt was exhilaration brought on by the general fear of being hit.”
That fear formalized a few rules: Straight-and-level flight was forbidden, as was flying below 4,000 feet. Pilots were not to engage in second passes. If they missed a target, they let it be until a later return. In November 1968, Kelly Irving ignored that rule, which, he said, is why his military career consisted of one more takeoff than landing. Circling back over a target for a second try, his aircraft was hit. Irving recalled the incident at a 2008 Misty reunion in Oregon, outlining the procedure that pilots were to execute (if possible) after being hit: Level the wings, hit the afterburner for greater thrust, gain altitude, and head for the South China Sea (it was easier to retrieve pilots from the water than from the jungle).
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.