Stories like this often begin with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but not this one. This is a  detailed description of the background and lead-up to and execution of a single combat mission in an F-4B, Phantom II during the Vietnam War. It is not unique, others have done the same and more, some much more, but this is one Marine’s account of a single combat flight that took place in September 1966.

My introduction to the Marine Corps was an article I read in Readers Digest in the early 1950s about Flying Leathernecks. It was a story about the rigors endured by an officer candidate in Naval Flight Training from which I remember only that the student pilot’s “lips were pressed into a thin line as he concentrated…” and that Marines were called, among other things, “Leathernecks.” Leatherneck was derived from leather collars worn by early Marines to protect their necks against cutlass slashes during the Barbary Coast War, and to hold the head erect in proper military bearing. I was impressed by both although I had no idea, nor particular desire at that moment of ever becoming a U.S. Marine.

My introduction to the F-4B

The first F-4B that I saw was on March 12th, 1962, I was twenty-two years old. It emerged from the MacDonald Aircraft production facility in Saint Louis, Missouri and I immediately realized that I was looking at an awesome airplane. I was at Lambert Field awaiting a commercial flight to Washington, D.C., thence by bus to Quantico, Va., where several hundred young men and I were about to embark on a ten-week Officer Candidate Course to become 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was early evening as I stood in the terminal watching the F-4 taxi out, completely silent from where we stood behind the observation glass and into position on runway 30R, vertical stabilizer light flashing, steady red and green lights fore and aft on its upward canted, outer wing panels.

I was transfixed and filled with an urgent desire to become a pilot who one day would fly that awesome looking aircraft. As the vision rolled around in my mind it began to move forward and I snapped back to reality just as two long tongues of flame burst out of the aircraft’s exhaust nozzles.  Embedded in the flames that extended well behind the airplane were diamond shaped shock waves as it accelerated rocket-like down the runway.  When it rotated just prior to liftoff, the flames bent at the point of impingement with the runway and the two columns of fire from its afterburners appeared to support the aircraft pedestal-like as it “rocketed” into the twilight. My imagination ran wild with the hope that one day I would be at the controls of one like it. Six days shy of two years later, on March 6th, 1964, I had my first flight in the back seat of an F-4B with Captain Jim Tebow as my instructor pilot. We traded places on March 7th, and I became a brand new, wet-behind-the-ears, F-4B Phantom II “Jedi.”

The F-4B was designed as a Carrier Battle Group high-speed point defense interceptor with operational speeds up to 2.1 Mach however, during tests, the aircraft attained speeds as high as 2.5 Mach. In the point defense mode, it carried combinations of AIM-9, Sidewinder and AIM-7, Sparrow missiles, typically four fuselage-mounted Sparrows and four pylon-mounted Sidewinders. This awesome aircraft set fifteen speed and altitude records that remained unchallenged for years.

In Vietnam, Marines used the aircraft for Helicopter and Tanker Escort, Air Superiority, Close Air Support, Interdiction, and Deep Air Support. Pilots loved it for its mean looks, brute power, high speed, ability to carry a heavy, diverse weapons load and the array of missions it performed. Naval Flight Officers with a designation as Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) were integral to the team and vital to operational success. They operated the APQ-72 radar system typically detecting co-altitude targets at thirty-five to fifty nautical miles and performed navigational and other duties that optimized the effectiveness of the airplane in combat and otherwise.

The F-4 was designed as an interceptor with little or no thought given to air combat maneuvering and the result was decreased agility due to high wing loading. However, what it lacked in agility, it made up with speed and the brute force of two after-burning, 17,000 pound thrust, J-79-8 General Electric engines and integral weapons system. Naval Air System Command configured the F-4B for air-to-ground attack missions by installing a manually dialed bomb-sight.

There were occasions when ground-based TPQ (precision radar guided) missions were flown while loaded with as many as eighteen, Mk-82 five-hundred-pound bombs. Air-to-ground weapons configurations varied widely, and in one configuration the F-4B could be loaded with fifteen Mk-83, one thousand-pound bombs. But with missiles aboard, that configuration exceeded the 54,800-pound gross take-off weight limitation.  So, the fifteen Mk-83 configuration was rarely, if ever flown in combat because the decreased fuel load significantly reduced the aircraft’s range and endurance. 

Judging from the 5000 plus F-4s in a variety of models and series built over its service life, it was highly regarded by planners and operators alike in Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and eleven Free World (including Iran under the Shah) countries.

From the U.S. to Vietnam

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, Black Knights departed Long Beach, California for Japan on September 1st, 1965 aboard the U.S.S. Valley Forge arriving at Iwakuni on October first.  Upon arrival and debarkation, Squadron crews flew training missions in preparation for eventual deployment to Vietnam.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron-323 (VMFA-323), Death Rattlers, the Squadron of which I was a member was based at Marine Corps Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, North Carolina. We had trained extensively for deployment to the Western Pacific since April 1965 and in September most members availed themselves of month long pre-deployment leave with orders to report for embarkation at MCAS El Toro, California a few days before our planned departure of October 29th, 1965.  We kissed our wives or girlfriends goodbye, boarded an Air Force KC-135 configured as a transport and flew to Iwakuni with a fuel stop at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Upon arrival at Iwakuni, the Squadron took over aircraft and equipment assets of another VMFA squadron that was rotating back to the States aboard the same aircraft from which we had only hours before, debarked.

In the fall of 1965, there were four Marine fighter/attack squadrons in the Far East. For staffing purposes, the decision was made to change from unit rotation to individual rotation. To facilitate that decision, the four squadrons were divided into quarters with one-quarter of personnel remaining as the core, and in “musical chairs” fashion the other three-quarters were assigned to one of the other Squadrons. I had the good fortune of being assigned to VMFA-314, Black Knights and immediately began training with the Squadron in preparation for deployment to Vietnam.

Finally, on January 8th, 1966, Jack and I mounted our trusty F-4 as wingman in one of six sections (two aircraft per section) and departed Iwakuni for Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam with a short stopover at Naval Air Station, Cubi Point, Philippines. Once there, the Squadron operated out of Da Nang until April then returned to Iwakuni. On June 23rd it deployed to Tainan, Taiwan for a month, then back to Iwakuni before redeploying back to Da Nang in late July.

The Mission

September 6th, 1966 was a typical day at Da Nang. Oppressive, late summer heat and humidity, the 24/7 sound of jet engines starting, aircraft taking off and landing on the dual runways were reminders that we were not there for a Southeast Asia sporting event, although some referred to the Vietnam War as the “Southeast Asia War Games.” Like most any other day, there was a constant sound of diesel and aircraft engines around the airfield, the sky was overcast and the air mixed with the oppressive smell of jet exhaust and diesel fuel was indelible. 

Two crews made up our flight: yours truly, as pilot and mission commander and Jerry McClure, Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) in the lead aircraft; and, Lieutenants Tim Klug and Jack Coleman (RIO) as wingman. We assembled in the briefing area for an intelligence and weather brief, then settled into briefing the mission, flight, tactics, safety and survival procedures.

It was late afternoon and our mission was to fly an armed reconnaissance along route 1A from Vinh, North Vietnam southeast to a point just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), attack any vehicular, other traffic or target of opportunity and absent any activity on the primary mission our secondary mission was to destroy a river ford located west of the “Finger Lakes,” just north of the DMZ. 

Each aircraft was armed with twelve, 250-pound, MK-81 fragmentation bombs equipped with instantaneous fuses mounted on the end of a three-foot tube that extended from the nose of each bomb.  Two AIM-7, Sparrow missiles were fuselage mounted on each airplane.  The bombs had parallel, evenly spaced grooves that circled the casings about two inches apart. When the bomb exploded at the instant the three-foot extension touched the ground, the casings fractured along the grooves resulting high-velocity fragments that spread laterally outward. These were lethal to vehicles or troops not dug in within a thousand-foot radius.  Bombs in the same configuration were often used to clear helicopter landing zones and, in the case of our primary mission would have been very effective against vehicles and troops but were not as well suited for cratering a river ford.

We completed the brief, boarded ground transportation and headed to the east side of the airfield where Squadron aircraft were parked. Stopping by the flight equipment shop, we donned our anti- “g” suits and torso harnesses, the latter were loaded with survival gear. The most important components were two working radios that would be our lifeline in the event we were shot down. Once dressed, helmet bags in hand, we walked to Maintenance Control talking about everything but the mission.

We reviewed aircraft “yellow sheets” noting discrepancies and corresponding corrective actions, signed at the bottom of the sheet then walked to our respective aircraft, pre-flighted, and climbed aboard. Once seated we connected the two upper quick release fittings of our torso harnesses to the ejection seat parachute and inertia reel and the two lower fittings to the seat pan locked to the seat that contained a life raft and additional survival equipment. We strapped leg restraints around the calf of each leg, plugged in the “g” suit hose while the plane captain plugged the oxygen hose into a hard to reach fitting located on the left rear corner of the seat pan.

A quick thumbs up was exchanged with the Plane Captain before he climbed down and stowed the boarding ladder. An auxiliary power unit (APU) powered by a small jet engine was plugged into the aircraft provided electrical power once the generator control switches were moved to external power position. The APU was also the source of high pressure, high-velocity air that spun the engines during the initial part of the starting cycle.  

After completing the prestart checklist, I started the engines, switched to internal power, completed pre-taxi checks and Jerry checked us in on base radio frequency with our wingman, then switched to Da Nang, Ground Control for taxi instructions. Da Nang was one of the busiest airports in the world in those days and was governed by strict taxi and safety protocols. Despite the protocols, there were still accidents.

We stopped in the arming/de-arming area located on the taxiway at the departure end of the airfield, pointing the airplanes in a direction away from people, structures or equipment to avoid endangering them during the arming process; we didn’t need to be reminded that more than one rocket had been inadvertently fired during arming. So, with all ordnance switches off we placed our hands on the canopy bow for the arming crew leader to see before he would signal the arming crew to proceed. Once he gave them the go ahead, bomb and missile safety pins were removed, they scampered out from under our airplanes, stood in formation with a smart hand salute.

Finished, Jerry and I simultaneously closed the canopies, making certain that the ejection seat face curtain pins were pulled and stored in the map case. Jerry called for clearance into position on the duty runway, and we switched to “hot mic.” It was called “hot mic” because in that mode we could talk without having to press the intercom key.  We lined up each aircraft on the centerline of our respective half of the runway. Now in position and holding the brakes we conducted engine run-ups to ascertain that the engines and other systems were operating properly.  With checklists complete and a thumbs up exchanged between aircraft, Jerry called for take-off clearance.  

Taking off was an event I always anticipated for the feeling of power and acceleration imparted by the J-79s.  The aircraft’s performance instilled a sense of confidence that suppressed under-the-surface anxiety inherent in combat flying. (Some may claim not to suffer anxiety, but check the club and one would note that it was full of patrons with alcohol served in abundance. There was a good reason for that.) Given the weapons configuration of our airplanes, gross weight and outside air temperature, we had calculated that in full burner (or as some like to say, “blower”) we would use about 5000 feet of the 10,000-foot runway with main gear lift off at 172 knots.  Fifteen seconds later, Tim and Jack would follow suit.

I advanced the Power Control Levers (PCLs) to military power, released the brakes and let my heels drop to the cockpit floor. Quickly scanning engine instruments, I moved the PCLs to full burner, and the four-stage after-burners lit off smoothly providing an additional twelve thousand pounds of thrust added to the twenty two thousand available at military power.

Military power is the thrust achieved when the engines operate at one hundred percent RPM (rotations per minute), and Combat trust or power is additional thrust provided by the afterburners. Afterburner thrust is achieved in the F-4 by moving the PCls from the full military position outward to the left then moving them forward another four inches. There are four stages of afterburner in J-79 engines as the PCLs are moved forward. Afterburner fuel pressure increases in each of the four stages is sequenced to provide a smooth increase in thrust throughout the afterburner thrust range. If the PCls are moved forward rapidly to the “stop” there is a distinct pulse as each stage ignites somewhat like the pulse one feels during rapid acceleration in an automobile equipped with a multi-speed automatic transmission.

It was always hot in Vietnam and hotter in the summer, that fact caused a decrease in engine thrust.  However, even with the loss of thrust, the J-79s provided a sense of exhilaration as the airplane accelerated.  At the moment the aircraft began to roll I smoothly pulled the stick full back and within seconds the nose gear strut fully extended. As we gained airspeed and the nose began to rise off the runway, I relaxed back pressure to stop the top arc of the radar dome level with the horizon. As Jerry announced “172 knots” the aircraft became airborne. Once positively airborne I announced, “gear up,” then checked for retraction. Almost immediately, “flaps up,” and checked the flaps indicator showing “up.” At 250 knots I pulled rearward on the PCLs out of the afterburner range, checked engine gauges within the normal range, and scanned for any warning lights.  It was a routine as natural as breathing and performed in very much the same way by F-4 pilots around the world hundreds, if not thousands of times each day.

I let the airplane accelerate to 350 knots, then pulled back slightly on the power to allow Tim and Jack to catch up and join in combat cruise about one thousand feet laterally and slightly stepped up or down from our altitude, then accelerated to 400 knots for the flight northwest between three and five miles outboard from and parallel to the coast.

There was a solid overcast at 9000 feet and rain cells were visible throughout the area. We cruised northwest at 4500 feet, cloud bottoms were fairly flat which was an indication that the air would be smooth. Below, the water was dark with no white caps visible due the late hour and clouds that blocked direct sunlight. We passed Hue Phu Bai at cruise altitude and soon passed Quang Tri, Dong Ha, and the Ben Hai river.  The Ben Hai was the demarcation between North and South Vietnam and the centerline of the six-mile-wide demilitarized zone that extended from the South China Sea to the Laotian border. From the Ben Hai to Vinh was 140 nautical miles which at our speed took about eighteen minutes.

Upon arrival at Vinh we turned west, climbing slightly from cruise altitude and crossed the city at 5000 feet; once past, we descended to 2500 feet.  As we crossed overhead Vinh we noted that there was no evident activity, the city below had an eerie abandoned appearance; no smoke, no observable movement, and best, no anti-aircraft fire. We turned southeast along Route 1A, and all eyes scanned the road below as we flew a weave pattern above the road at 450 knots.

We examined every nook and cranny of what appeared to be a vacant road and did not see any activity or vehicles, a testament to North Vietnamese Army camouflage discipline.  It wasn’t long before we arrived at the end of the route and “popped up” from our 2500-foot weave altitude to just below the 9000-foot overcast.  We turned in the general direction of the secondary target and set up for the attack. At just about the time I spotted the target, Tim announced that he had it in sight and was in position to attack so as not to delay, I keyed the mic, “cleared hot.”

During his first attack, Jerry and I could see an occasional muzzle flash from the east, roughly midway between our position and the Finger Lakes. A single tracer climbed toward Tim and Jack’s aircraft and keying the mic I said, “you’re taking fire, four hundred meters east.” Tim matter-of-factly replied, “no joy” and continued the attack. As they pulled up to climb back to pattern altitude, we rolled almost inverted into a 45-degree dive, pointed the nose of the aircraft short the river ford, then focused in on the bombsight, tracking the “pipper,” (the two mil point of light in the center of the lighted 50-mil ring of the bombsight) to the arrive on the target when we were at the designated weapons release altitude.  During the dive we noted a single tracer coming toward our aircraft and kept an eye on it as we released six MK-81s. Then as we pulled up, we watched it pass below our aircraft in “slow motion.”  

Tim positioned for another “run,” and I maneuvered so that when the guns began firing at him, we would attack the guns. The intelligence brief had not given us any information about anti-aircraft fire, so our extemporaneous attack plan was straightforward, and one that the North Vietnamese Army, or Cubans, since they were known to be in Vietnam, obviously anticipated.  Tim and Jack pressed their second attack, and the guns opened fire at them.  When that happened, I keyed, “in on the guns” and simultaneously pushed the PCLs full forward. The increase in thrust was noticeable, but not enough (ask any pilot and he would tell you that there is never enough thrust, especially in combat) as the burners smoothly lit off.

Ordinarily, a 45-degree attack tactic was commenced between 11,000 and 12,000 feet above ground level with bomb release altitude at 6000 feet. The aircraft would bottom out at 3000 feet between 500-550 knots using a four “g” pullout. “Roll-in” airspeed at an 11,000-foot altitude was typically 350-450 knots with the airplane accelerating to 450-500 knots at the point of weapons release. We were low at the start due to the 9000-foot solid overcast, and whereas our airspeed should have been 400 knots to compensate for the lower starting altitude, it was around 350 knots.

The J-79s came to the rescue, and with PCLs full forward, by now I was sweating profusely from the physical and underlying anxiety as I pulled the plane into heavy buffet simultaneously rolling into a 150-degree angle of bank and pulling the nose down and around to point at the guns. Anti-aircraft (AAA) gun crew directors were obviously watching because as we maneuvered in their direction, the occasional tracer suddenly turned into a solid barrage of bright green, laser-like streams of light that swept away from Tim and Jack’s airplane upward toward us. Muzzle flashes exploded in intensity, changing from occasional into a massive barrage that filled, then grew outside the fifty-mil, fixed gunsight reticle that I had preset to 96 mils for the 45-degree attack. 

The muzzle flashes that initially appeared as discrete, random, rapid white pulses quickly blended into a single pulsating light from which there were multiple streams of bright green “laser-like” high speed “rays” hurtling at Mach 3 closure directly toward our aircraft. At the business end of each “ray” was a 37 or 57 mm high explosive projectile, with a barrage of those projectiles “zorching” toward us.  For a fleeting moment, the thought crossed my mind that we might die but events happened so quickly that I did not contemplate an alternative, an excellent one being, getting the hell out of there. 

If I had it to do over again, I would plan it before we took off.  But no, we were committed, with sweat running down my face and drenching my flight suit. As we pressed, it was abundantly clear that the “AAA” operators were not neophytes; and a deathmatch was on. Despite the evident signs of stress both Jerry and I were focused and surprisingly relaxed. I made no high-pitched screams, like “let’s get the hell out of here,” no breathing so heavy we couldn’t talk. In fact, I said absolutely nothing after I announced, “we’re in on the guns.” Jerry was so busy and head down in the back seat, voice calm and clear and with his eyes on the gauges, he was unaware of the “light and metal show” that was flooding my senses. He calmly urged, “you’re slow, you’re slow, standby, mark.”

It took Jerry about four seconds to speak those words and as he spoke, I maneuvered the bombsight “pipper” to the middle of the muzzle flashes and on his “mark” I pressed the red bomb release button on the control stick and immediately felt the bombs being ejected from their racks for their eight second fall toward the pulsating ball of light on the ground. All the while the laser and metal show did not let up; it’s intensity was heretofore unimaginable. The naked truth was that I fully expected, without admitting it that we would be hit and die in an explosion with the airplane continuing its trimmed course directly into the area from which the anti-aircraft fire was coming.

I had listened to ready room stories that when tracers flew past, they would arc across the top and bottom of the wings and around the canopy. When I heard the stories I dismissed them with a silent, “B.S.! Impossible!” But the storytellers were right.  The tracers appeared to conform to the 450-500 plus-knot airflow like smoke in a wind tunnel conforms to but does not touch the airfoil as it passes. The flight paths of the tracer projectiles appeared to bend across the top and bottom of the wings and around the sides and top of the canopies for what seemed like minutes but was only seconds…without a scratch. Not one of the hundreds, of anti-aircraft rounds that engulfed our aircraft touched it.

Once I pressed the bomb release button, I applied rapid and smooth back-stick increasing stress straight to six “g’s” and simultaneously pulled the PCLs out of “burner.” Gun crews were evidently manually tracking our aircraft and did not keep pace with the angular rate of change as we passed overhead their positions. The airplane arched upward out of the stream of anti-aircraft fire and for a moment we seemed to be out of the kill zone.

The time of fall for a typical free-fall “slick” bomb, from a 6000-foot release altitude in a 45-degree dive released at 450 knots to impact is about 8.5 seconds. Once the bombs separated from our aircraft, that was the time remaining for “AAA” crews to take cover or die.

I “plugged” the burners back in as we bottomed out at 3000 feet above the ground and at about the same time that the bombs exploded directly below. Just then, the airframe jolted and was accompanied by a loud bang. It was one of those events when one wonders, “What just happened?” Worse…“what’s about to happen?” The immediate thought was that our aircraft had been hit; and I saw the Master Caution light. Quickly glancing down at the emergency light panel was “Bleed Air” and I instinctually pulled the PCLs out of “burner.” That took care of the light, but I kept the engines at military power to gain altitude and separation from the target. At about 30 degrees nose up I relaxed back stick pressure simultaneously rolled left inverted at about 150 degrees angle of bank. At that moment Tim exclaimed, “you got ‘em, you got ‘em.”

Looking back over my left shoulder in the direction of our aircraft’s 8 o’clock position I could see three separate, closely grouped columns of dark brown smoke and dust billowing rapidly skyward.  Embedded in those columns were large secondary explosions and hundreds if not thousands of yellow, red, white sparkles as ammunition that had been blown skyward cooked off. The Mk-81s evidently hit the gun positions and ammunition supply and the conflagration was awesome to behold.  Any enemy troops who did not make it to “cover” in time were consumed in the chaotic inferno and ripped to shreds by the fragmentation bombs.

After watching for a few seconds, I rolled the airplane back to wings level with the nose still high and pointed in the direction of the South China Sea. Tim and Jack flew past the scene and once joined up confirmed that we did not appear to have damage, noting, “three hung bombs.” With hung bombs there was nothing more that we could do and now, beginning to get low on fuel, we rocketed toward the coast and out of the danger zone. One thing was certain, the guns were out of business because succeeding flights to the same area later in the evening had no “reception committee.”

I’ve often thought about that event and what we could or should have done differently. Many scenarios have come to mind, but they do not matter now and so, I won’t belabor the point. What does matter is what happened that fateful for them and fortunate for us, evening.

It was routine to perspire during a flight because of high ambient temperatures, but when aggressive maneuvering and stress were added to the mix, perspiration would soak our flight suits and into the nylon torso harness even with cockpit temperatures turned down to the point of emitting fog from the cockpit air ducts. In the aftermath of that day’s event, we were soaked but otherwise unscathed except for the airframe overstress and “Bleed Air” light…unlike the poor bastards on the ground below who were quite literally blown to hell.

Tim and Jack joined up, those magnificent, droop-nosed airplanes in combat spread, as we eased upward in unison for the cruise back to Da Nang.  After crossing the coastline in a matter of minutes given our 550-575 knot “departure” from the target area, we turned southeast, and Jerry selected “cold mic.”  

The calm was sudden and decreased cockpit noise incident to “cold mic” was like closing the door at home to all the outside noise of a busy roadway. A huge weight was lifted, and I quietly reflected that in less than a minute we had gone from a relatively routine mission to one of enormous intensity and stress then in almost no time quiet again. There was no time to be afraid, stressed, of course; or for the oft-stated, “…saw my whole life pass before my eyes.” However, the episode gave meaning to the adage, “hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror.” We didn’t have time to think about the “terror” part until after we landed back at Da Nang. Sitting here writing now, more than 50 years after the event, verses from Psalm 91 come to mind that perfectly fits what we experienced that day so many years ago:

“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 2  I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.. 5  Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; … 7  A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. 8  Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.”

The reality that we weren’t lucky, we were blessed, has not diminished with the passage of time. Only recently have I wondered about the families of those who died that day, have their mothers and fathers died, have their siblings ceased lamenting their relative’s loss? Did they have wives, children? Where are they and how have their lives been? Have they, as we moved on with life?

From our perspective over the water we “drifted” almost dream-like past the Ben Hai river, Dong Ha, Quang Tri, then Hue Phu Bai, and switched radios from tactical control to Da Nang radar. In less than an hour since we took off, it was now approaching dusk and visibility was such that we split the flight for individual, actual instrument, radar approaches to landing.

Whenever an aircraft had “hung ordnance,” safety procedures required we make a straight in approach and landing, so the radar approach took care of that. On final we were handed off for a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA), and we completed landing checks. Once in the clear, we could see a relatively placid scene of white runway lights, blue taxiway lights laid out before us, and to one side, the split-beam beacon was nonchalantly rotating as though nothing of significance had happened. It gave one simultaneous feelings of exhilaration, insignificance, and calm. GCA handed us off to the tower, and we were cleared land. On “hot mic” I repeated the landing checklist I had spoken a thousand times before: “gear down, flaps down, hook up, harness locked, brakes firm; landing checklist complete.” The 19.2 units “on-speed” angle-of-attack was about 130 knots, and moments later we touched down on the centerline, adjacent to the mirror.

Upon touching down, I retarded the PCLs to idle, automatically reached down next to the left side of the ejection seat and pulled up on the drag chute handle which deployed the sixteen-foot diameter, slotted-ring drag chute. A moment later, we felt a discernable tug as the drag chute opened and helped slow the airplane.  Simultaneous with drag chute deployment I pulled the control stick full aft, deflecting the large dihedral stabilator into the airstream for additional drag. As airspeed decreased below 100 knots, I applied slight, then increasing pressure to the brake pedals and gradually relaxed back pressure on the stick. Jerry pulled the refueling probe circuit breaker, and I activated the refuel probe switch to ready the aircraft for refueling.  When slow, I engaged nose-gear steering, and once clear of the runway, we simultaneously opened the canopies, and I raised the flaps.

Hung bombs and missiles had to be pinned to make them safe, so we first taxied to the arm/de-arm area. Once stopped, we put our gloved hands on the canopy bow as a signal to the ordnance crew that cockpit weapons switches were off and our hands clear of any buttons or switches that could release one of the hung weapons. The arming/de-arming crew disappeared from our view beneath the aircraft and a few moments later emerged with a thumbs up signal that the hung bombs had been de-armed.

Finished, we taxied back toward the flight line and with one side of our oxygen masks unsnapped, and oxygen turned off we could once again smell burning jet fuel exhaust of other aircraft that like us, were returning from, or preparing to depart for a night mission. The sound of idling J-79s, props and other engines filled the dusk as we turned onto the squadron parking ramp. There we could see ground crews silhouetted by hangar lights, hustling about, repositioning airplanes or towing them to the hangar for maintenance. Aircraft up and down the flight line with external lights flashing were preparing to taxi for departure or like us were returning from a mission. In the dim light, we could see our plane captain’s lighted batons waving in cyclic motion above his head. We followed his signals, folded the wings, were soon parked and wheels chocked. We “swept” the cockpit, turned the radio and IFF switches off, double-checked all armament switches off, turned cockpit lights off, moved the PCLs to off, engine master switches off, and finally, generator control switches off.   

I reached behind and above my head and installed the ejection seat face curtain pin, released the torso harness quick-release fittings, unbuckled the leg restraints, disconnected oxygen and “g” suit couplings, and exited the airplane. As I stepped over the side slipping one foot into the notch in the side of the airplane then the other down onto the boarding ladder, I could hear the clinking of compressor blades as the engines continued to wind down. A quick glance down the intake revealed the slowly rotating first stage of the compressor barely visible even with new batteries in a flashlight.

We walked around the airplane conducting a routine post-flight inspection and checked the three hung bombs that revealed absolutely nothing. We thanked our plane captain for his work and asked how things were going. We made that gesture a routine practice because otherwise, theirs was a hot, hard-working, thankless, low paying, but an indispensable job. By the way, not one plane would fly without those marvelous Marines!

We walked in silence to Maintenance Control to write up the overstress and other noted discrepancies. No one was thrilled that I overstressed the airplane, but the Squadron’s crack maintenance crew had it back on flying status within hours. Leaving Maintenance Control, we drove back around the north end of the field to the “Intel” Shop, debriefed what we had observed and experienced, headed to the ready tent where we debriefed the flight, congratulated one another for a successful mission (that would be, one that we survived) then headed to the chow hall.

Chow hall food was not gourmet, but there was always plenty; more importantly, there was plenty of iced tea to replenish what we lost in perspiration an hour earlier. No one in our flight was a “drinker” so, Club patrons were spared our story this night. We walked to Squadron Operations, informed Squadron Operations Officer, Major Bob Miller about what had happened; then I checked with him for guidance before sitting down to work on the next day’s flight schedule.

None of us expected to be treated as heroes, so I was not surprised when a bit later I was the recipient of a friendly “ass-chewing” from Aircraft Maintenance Officer, Jack LaVelle for the overstress. How’s the saying go, “no good deed goes unpunished?” But, the furor was soon over, and we were not hurt or grounded. Tim, who was the Squadron Awards Officer nominated us for an award and sometime later at a Squadron ceremony Jerry and I stood at attention in our Black Knight flight suits while Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel, later Brigadier General “Swede” Bjorklund congratulated us, pinned on a Single Mission Air Medal then ordered us back to work…and more combat flying.

Log book entry:

September 1966, day-6, Model-F4B, Serial Number-151016, Kind of Flight-1S1 Total Time-1.0, First Pilot-1.0, Inst time-Actual 0.1, Inst time-Simulated 0.2, Night Time-0.1, Inst approach-1 Radar Actual, 1 GCA-Simulated; Remarks: 424 TH, 9 MK81.

Closing Thoughts:

The RIO with Tim Klug, Jack Coleman and I became fast friends during the pre-deployment work up at Cherry Point, Key West, and “Roosey” Roads, Puerto Rico in 1964-5, and the first part of our Southeast Asia “vacation.”  It was cemented when we were shot down during an earlier challenging combat mission.  Jack returned to the U.S., remained in the Marine Corps Reserve where he was promoted to Major.  In his civilian occupation, he ran a successful stock brokerage for more than forty years. He lives in Southern California where he and his lovely bride, Margaret, recently retired.  Our friendship grows stronger as the years roll by.

Jerry McClure and I also developed a strong friendship during months of flying together in the second half of our tour. He left the Marine Corps, joined the Idaho National Guard not long after returning from Vietnam and as a civilian became a cracker-jack Certified Public Accountant (CPA). He moved to Alaska with a large CPA firm, but the family grew tired of living in the cold and dark, so they moved back to the lower 48 where we joined in a crop-dusting venture in Idaho while I remained on active duty. He took flying lessons, acquired his pilot license and the additional measure of learning acrobatics in preparation for the crop dusting business.  Despite his experience and preparation, on the first crop dusting job, as he lost control of the aircraft at low altitude, was unable to recover and was killed in the ensuing crash on July 7th, 1976. Jerry’s untimely demise set off a chain of events that dramatically affected the direction of my personal life.

Yours truly remained on active duty, retiring in October 1989 just as President Ronald Reagan’s earlier leadership actions came to fruition and the Soviet Union collapsed.  After retirement, we set about volunteering at Church, civic organizations, worked in State Government, engaged in politics, owned a flooring business, engaged in small-time adventures and scores of other activities and challenges that continue.

Most of all, I have the peace and contentment of life completely committed to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and enjoy the blessings of being married to an extraordinarily lovely, wonderful and patient wife.

Semper Fidelis, Robert Pappas