RFT 106: Low Fuel Over North Vietnam

July 28, 2017

It was 30 July, 1972. Operation Linebacker was well under way.  Typical missions north of Hanoi would have us refueling over Laos and making “right turns” to attack targets northwest of Hanoi, or refueling feet wet and making “left turns” to attack targets northeast of Hanoi. In mid-July, some genius at Seventh Air Force figured out that we could surprise the gomers by ingressing using left turns from feet wet to attack targets to the northwest: all the SAMs (surface to air missiles) would be pointing the wrong way!

We weather cancelled on the same mission for about 10 days in a row. If there had once been an element of surprise, it was gone by the time we actually executed the mission on 30 July.  To make matters worse, COMSEC on the radios was less than perfect.  While we were on the tanker, someone from one of the escort flights asked, “Are you guys planning to ingress over Kep?” So much for theelement of surprise!

I was number Four in Walnut flight, four F-4D’s from the 8th TFW at Ubon Air Base, Thailand. Jim Badger was my back seater on his first mission to Pack 6, the area around Hanoi, at that time the most heavily defended area is history. Our new squadron commander, Sid Fulgham, was Walnut One, leading his first four-ship flight.  As we entered the target area, we dodged nine SAMs, and then attacked the target and exited to the East.

When we got feet-wet, Walnut One called for a fuel check. It was then that I realized that I was in deep trouble. I checked in with less than half the fuel of the other aircraft in the flight. There was a long pause, and then lead said, “Walnut Four, say again”. As I read my fuel again, it finally hit me how bad my situation really was. We were now somewhere over the Gulf of Tonkin and a long way from our post-strike refueling track.

Walnut Three, our deputy flight lead, was a highly experienced F-4 driver, instructor and Weapons School grad who was checking out the new flight lead. He came on the radio and said, “Walnut Lead, this is Three. Request permission to take the flight”. To his great credit, Lead knew that the mission was more important than ego, and passed the lead to Three. Walnut Three, the new flight lead, sent us over to Guard frequency, and transmitted, “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Walnut flight. We need an emergency tanker”.  Almost immediately Purple 28 responded. Walnut Three got his radial and distance from Red Crown, a TACAN located on a navy ship out in the gulf. He signaled for me to move to the lead for flying, so I wouldn’t need to jockey the throttles to stay in formation, and he assigned me a heading. He then calculated a heading for the tanker to fly to rendezvous with us. Walnut Three then told me to slow down and start ashallow descent to conserve fuel. I pulled the throttles back and started a half-nozzle descent.

At this point I was somewhere outside the airplane, about ten feet above, looking down on an F-4 being flown by someone who looked an awful lot like me. Inside the airplane, robot George wasflying.  Jim was reading the Preparation for Bailout checklist, and Robo George was answering with short, clipped responses that would have made the Apollo astronauts envious. Only I wasn’t DOING anything. I was in total negative panic. Jim read “Stow all loose objects” and I answered “Stowed”. Only later did I realize that I had left my camera strapped to my CRU-60 connector, an invitation to smash my face in during an ejection.

While robo George was flying the airplane on a steady heading and totally oblivious to everything else that was going on, Walnut Three was getting updates on Purple 28’s position relative to Red Crown and giving him headings and altitudes to fly. At one point he gave Purple 28 a 180-degree turn to our heading. Shortly after that, real George took over from robo George, looked up and saw a tanker right in front of us, doing a toboggan refueling descent. Somehow, I was in “contact” position. I opened the refueling door and had a sudden realization that a lot of people had performed extraordinary airmanship to get me to this point. What if I became more of a hamfist than usual and couldn’t refuel? As I was struggling with my sudden self-doubt, I felt a “clunk” and heard fuel rushing into my airplane. I was getting fueled! I looked down at my fuel gauges for the first time since robo George had taken over. I had 0 on the tape and 0030 on thecounter. Roughly 2-3 minutes fuel remaining at the time refueling started. While I was on the tanker I heard another F-4 bail out one mile in trail of a tanker due to lack of fuel.  We lost several aircraft that day.

After the flight, my low fuel state was chalked up to my being pretty much a hamfist, and the aircraft was released to fly again the next day. It just so happened that Jim Badger was in the back seat of that aircraft again on another Pack 6 mission. This time his pilot was Blaine Jones, one of the most experienced F-4 jocks in the wing. They came off the target with low fuel state again!  Poor Jim thought that EVERY Pack 6 mission would be like this! Finally maintenance decided to really investigate what the problem was with the airplane, and found a malfunction with the air data computer scheduling the inlet ramps improperly.

Walnut Three and Purple 28 saved my life 45 years ago. Not many pilots could have put all the pieces together to make it work out the way Walnut Three did, with no time left to spare. I know I couldn’t even today, after flying almos continuously for over 50 years.

When I look into my children’s, and my grandchildren’s eyes, I think about how this could have ended so differently. I could have been forced to bail out over shark-infested enemy waters, with death or capture equally as likely as rescue. And I owe the last 45 years to the unknown crew of Purple 28 and to James D.  “J.D.” Allen, the pilot of Walnut Three.

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