Airman Down

Rescue aircraft are different today, but “surrender” is still a dirty word.

Over Vietnam in 1966, a Douglas A-1 flies cover on a rescue mission. (USAF)
Air & Space Magazine

“It’s an ugly, nasty business when airplanes get shot down,” says Lieutenant Colonel Doug Baker. He is the commander of the Operations Support Flight of the U.S. Air Force 104th Fighter Squadron, which has deployed five times since September 11, 2001. At his post outside Baltimore, Maryland, the whine of an A-10C Thunderbolt spooling up saturates the morning air. Baker and his fellow A-10 “Sandy” pilots keep their skills sharp at this Air National Guard base, in view of the flapping flags at Chesapeake Bay marinas, for a hazardous mission: protecting the rescuers of U.S. aviators downed in enemy territory. “I don’t know if Sandy missions are more or less dangerous than some of the other things we do in A-10s,” says Baker, who has flown in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “But they’re done with the understanding that, if it does become more dangerous, we’re still going in anyway. Because it’s worthy of doing.”

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The Air Force commitment to locate and extract downed pilots dates to World War II. “A good example would be the First Air Commando group in Burma, operating with light aircraft and covered by friendly fighter forces,” says former Air Force historian Richard Hallion. “The rescue crew, flying a lightplane, would attempt to land at a rough strip of some sort and pull the person out.” The 1944 Burma operation, Hallion points out, also marked the first use of helicopters for search-and-rescue.

The establishment of formal, standardized combat search-and-rescue coincided with the Vietnam War, when U.S. pilots were shot down by the thousands.

Col. Randy Brandt, U.S. Air Force (ret.), Jan. 9, 2012: On April 6, 1969, I was Dipper One, leading a mission of four F-4Ds against 13 anti-aircraft sites on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. At 300 feet above ground level and 550 knots [about 630 mph], I started dispersing [cluster bomb units]. As I pulled up, a Golden BB took off one of my stabilators. The aircraft started to tumble. My backseater and I had a brief conversation like “We gotta get out of here.” The last thing I remember is seeing the blue flame from my ejection rocket taking me out of the cockpit. Unfortunately, the aircraft was inverted when I ejected. There are 65 minutes of my life I can’t recall.

Vietnam also proved the unsuitability of conventional jet fighters for combat search-and-rescue, a mission that requires slow-flying aircraft that can stay aloft for hours. Fast-moving and thin-skinned, jets can loiter over an area for only minutes, take miles to execute a turn, and are vulnerable to ground fire. The answer belonged to another era. Designed near the end of World War II for the U.S. Navy, the Douglas A-1 Skyraider was a prop-driven attack aircraft. Powered by a massive 2,800-horsepower Wright R-3350 engine, the Skyraider had extra armor around the cockpit to protect the pilot and carried 5,400 pounds of fuel to sustain eight-hour loiters above rescues.

If enemy soldiers were closing in on survivors on the ground, A-1 pilots could hold them off with four 20-mm cannon and anti-personnel ordnance carried on 15 weapons stations. “We carried enough stuff to make a hundred passes if we had to,” says John Dyer, who flew 230 A-1 missions in Vietnam, including 42 Sandy flights. (The designation originated with an Air Force rescue pilot based in Thailand whose call sign was Sandy, the name of his dog. Over time, Sandy became a generic term for all A-1 search-and-rescue flights.) Low and slow was part of the job description, “but as long as it was just small arms or 50-caliber type stuff we were getting, the A-1 would survive,” says Dyer.

In 1966, the Air Force began exploring close air support designs that offered greater altitude and speed, as well as deadlier ordnance. The result was the A-10 Thunderbolt. Because the A-10 did not enter service until the late 1970s, “we tend to think of it as a Warsaw Pact tank-killer,” says Hallion, “but the A-10 was actually designed as a replacement for light attack aircraft in Vietnam, specifically the A-1.” Respectfully nicknamed “Warthog,” the single-seat, twin-engine fanjet was designed around a fearsome gun and built to take insult and injury.

Pilots of supersonic aircraft like the General Dynamics F-16 operate with the expectation that they’ll never get hit. “We operate under the assumption we probably will,” says Baker. To survive against the ground fire, both primitive and advanced, that it often encounters in search-and-rescue mode, the A-10 has an industrial-strength superstructure carrying 1,200 pounds of titanium armor plate. The protection “doesn’t make us sexy or fast,” admits Baker, but it gives rescue pilots a degree of confidence. Even more comforting is the Warthog’s most notable feature: its nose-mounted, seven-barrel Gatling gun, with a firing rate of more than sixty 30-mm rounds per second. Should unfriendlies threaten a downed pilot, “that gun solves a lot of your problems,” says Baker.

Capt. Don Dunaway, USAF (ret.), Jan. 10, 2012: I was Sandy Lead at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, that night. I got my crew to bed early just on the odd chance something might happen. We were called out before dawn. We had an F-4 down. The thing that registered in my mind at the time was that there were some guns out there that managed to bring down an F-4 on his first pass. So they’re either radar-guided or extremely lucky, but they’re big and they’re good.

The 104th comprises six to eight A-10s designated Sandys. You don’t join—you’re selected. In the squadron conference room with Baker (in civilian life, a Southwest Airlines pilot) and Major Paul Kanning, the squadron’s chief of weapons and tactics, you understand why. “Basically, we’re going to throw at you the most difficult problem to solve,” explains Kanning, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan missions. “A guy’s on the ground and people are trying to get to him before you can. It’s the ultimate tactical problem for an A-10 pilot. As a result, our Sandy Ones are the best pilots in the squadron, the best problem-solvers, the best critical thinkers.”

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