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Confessions of an RF-4 pi­lot


I spoke to the au­thor of this is­sue’s ar­ti­cle on the Phan­tom about fly­ing photo-re­con­nais­sance mis­sions. I men­tioned that we drew a lot of fire, since photo-re­con flights re­quired a straight-and-level, pre­dictable flight path at low al­ti­tude. I may not have men­tioned that draw­ing fire like that gave me a bright idea one day, which got me into trou­ble.

The Air Force had a radar con­trol site near the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone with the call sign “Water­boy,” and ev­ery time we flew north, we were re­quired to check in. Any­body could lis­ten in on those calls, so ev­ery time I told Water­boy where I was go­ing and what time I’d get there, I got hit. My back­seater and I got pretty tired of get­ting shot at, so we some­times de­cided to for­get to check in with Water­boy.

On one mis­sion, I thought we could turn this an­noy­ance to our side’s ad­van­tage. We were tasked to get photo cov­er­age of Tiger Is­land, just off the coast of North Viet­nam. On our first pass, we drew fire from mul­ti­ple anti-air­craft guns; we could see troops at the sites, wait­ing for our next pass. We called Water­boy to see if the con­troller had any at­tack air­craft avail­able, and soon two Ma­rine A-4 Sky­hawks showed up. I told the pi­lots that if they would get in trail and above us, we would make another pass and light up the sites, which they could at­tack. The plan worked beau­ti­fully— so well that the A-4 guys put in for the Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross for tak­ing out all the AAA. Un­for­tu­nately, in de­scrib­ing the ac­tion, they said that an RF-4 had pre­ceded them as a de­coy to get the gun­ners to start shoot­ing. My squadron com­man­der was on the awards board, and he was not pleased. My mis­sion was to cap­ture im­ages, not to draw fire, so that trick got me grounded for a time. I think I could have talked my way out of it, but my back­seater’s tes­ti­mony was not help­ful.

We flew the RF-4 out of Da Nang Air Base, about 85 miles south of the DMZ. The Air Force flew Phan­toms from that base too, and we got a good look at the dif­fer­ences be­tween the Ma­rine and Air Force cul­tures. At Da Nang, the run­way was 13 inches higher at the cen­ter­line than at the edges, so rain­wa­ter would run off. Some­times it would rain so hard the wa­ter would run off and take you with it. When we landed in heavy rain, we used the tail­hook to grab the Mor­est—mo­bile ar­rest­ing gear. All the Marines did that. But the Air Force pi­lots thought the MOR­EST was for emer­gen­cies and wouldn’t use it. I saw Air Force F-4s go off the run­way back­ward, side­ways, ev­ery which way.

The Air Force op­er­ated F-4s un­til 1996; the Marines re­tired theirs four years ear­lier. If you visit us at the Steven F. Ud­var-hazy Cen­ter in north­ern Virginia, you can see a Ma­rine F-4 Phan­tom, dis­played with other air­craft of the Viet­nam War.



Wash­ing­ton, DCChan­tilly, VA

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