Confessions of an RF-4 pilot
AS A FORMER RF-4B 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.
J.R. DAILEY IS THE DIRECTOR OF THE
NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM.
Washington, DCChantilly, VA