The Misty Mystique

Over Vietnam, F-100 pilots flew fast and low. Later, they hit the heights.

The North American F-100F was the designated ride for Misty pilots. (David Tipps /
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“After the problem of the slow FACs was recognized, the decision was made by the Seventh Air Force staff to establish the fast FAC,” says Day. “Their recommendation went to the director of operations and then to General [William W.] Momyer. They issued an order establishing what was officially called Project Commando Sabre. I was interviewed by the assistant director of operations and the director of operations for the Seventh Air Force, and ordered to Phu Cat [an air base in South Vietnam] to take charge. I made one recommendation: that we get some of the slow-FAC pilots who could ride in the back and take advantage of their experience as spotters.”

Early on, Day was joined by operations officer Major William Douglass, who had been wounded while flying the O-1 during a previous tour and spent a year convalescing. The pair believed that flying fast and low—perhaps 450 mph at 4,000 feet—offered the pilot the best chance to observe what went on below and to remain safe from anything shooting at him. Officials from the Seventh Air Force decided to use the two-seat F-100F so that the second man, sitting in the rear, could be free to scan the ground, read maps, handle the radios, and take notes. Since nothing in the military long escapes becoming an acronym, the rear crewman became known as the “GIB,” guy in back. Though the term was used more commonly by Air Force F-4 pilots and their weapon systems officers, some Mistys were also familiar with the acronym. “The GIB was along for the ride,” says former Misty James Piner. “He’d call in the coordinates, hoping the dumb son of a bitch up front wouldn’t get him killed.” Pilots new to the unit were assigned to the back seat for their first five or 10 flights, as an orientation. After that, the Misty pilots alternated front- and backseat duties.

The aircraft they flew, the F-100F, was a variant of the North American Super Sabre. “The feel of the F-100 at the working altitude and speed was solid and responsive,” says former Misty Don Jones. “I liked the feel of the controls and the great visibility to see the area near the aircraft.” The F model carried two 20-mm cannon, which could be used for strafing. More commonly, though, the pilots left the ground attack up to the strike aircraft they had summoned, marking targets for them by launching up to 14 white phosphorous smoke rockets, the maximum the airplane could carry.

When the Misty program started, only 16 pilots were on hand to fly the missions. Organizationally, they were a detachment of the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, with whom they shared space at Phu Cat, half an hour’s flying time south of the border with North Vietnam. Phu Cat was a village surrounded by rice paddies. On the base, airmen lived in prefab wooden structures that offered window air conditioning and hot showers.

Douglass, who died in March 2012, picked many of the initial pilots. After that, however, most of the unit’s pilots picked themselves. Misty was high risk, and that attracted volunteers who were drawn to challenge and danger. “Pilots wanted to come to Misty so they could fly north of the border,” says Day. “We got people from various fighter wings trying to get hired long-distance. We attracted every studly young guy in Southeast Asia.” For Fogleman, the draw was the mission’s novelty. “It was a new use of a fighter airplane,” he says. “The idea that you could take a jet fighter and put it into a hostile environment and have it survive and increase the effectiveness of the entire fighter force by being there to mark targets for [strike aircraft] that would come in—the whole idea appealed to me.”

After the program got going, the pilots soon settled into a routine, flying four sorties per day (later seven). They started with a before-dawn takeoff; the last flight launched in mid-afternoon. The pilots assigned to the first sortie would rise at 3 a.m., shower, and head to the mess hall for breakfast. At 3:45 a.m., they’d get their flight and intelligence briefing, which included results of the previous day’s missions and the locations of any aircraft losses, studying new intelligence photos and suggested targets for the day, reviewing tanker call signs and radio frequencies, and weather forecasts for North Vietnam.

Once airborne, the Mistys set about looking for targets for the strike aircraft: at the top of the list were supply trucks and anti-aircraft-artillery sites. A key technique was to look for signs of man-made objects in the jungle below. “If you found a square bush, a rectangle, or a circle, that was a target,” says Fogleman, who compares the job to detective work. “And if the water was on the south side of the river crossing, you knew the trucks were moving in that direction. I can remember one particular mission where using that technique, and then flying very low and using sun angle, I was fortunate enough to get the glint off of a windshield of a truck that was camouflaged—there were a bunch of these trucks back there. So we started putting ordnance in there [via the strike aircraft], and we spent the better part of a morning just blowing up trucks.”

“The poor bastard on the ground did not know what things looked like from the air,” says Rutan. “All leaves have a slightly different shade on one side so you’d look for clusters of variegated leaves”—evidence that branches had been overturned for camouflage. Two of the most important attributes for Misty pilots were good eyesight and deductive reasoning. If treetops were covered with a layer of dust, for example, something was happening below those trees.

Misty pilots were impressed by the determination of the North Vietnamese soldiers. “They never gave up,” says Jerry Marks. “We’d take a road away from them in daylight, and they’d take it back by [the next] morning.” Says former Air Force chief of staff Tony McPeak: “We did hand out a lot of punishment, and all Mistys ended up respecting those truckers who stood up so well under heavy air attack.”

It was the Misty pilots’ familiarity with supply-line roads that the strike pilots depended upon, and the Mistys were crucial in guiding the strike aircraft in and out of enemy territory in North Vietnam. “The fighters were sent to our radio frequency for strike control,” says former Misty Don Shepperd, who retired as a major general and head of the Air National Guard and is now a military analyst for ABC radio and CNN. “While they were inbound, we briefed them on target locations, defenses, and best escape routes. When we had them in sight, we rolled in and marked the targets with smoke rockets.”


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