The Cost of Recon
RA-5 Vigilante in Vietnam
RA-5 Vigilante in Vietnam
The Vigilante was doing 650 knots near the North Vietnamese port of Hon Gai when there was a huge explosion behind the tail from either heavy caliber antiaircraft fire or an SA-2 missile.
On fire and with the flight controls failed, the crew, Lt. Cdr. James Bell, pilot, and Lt. Cdr. “Duffy” Hutton, RAN, ejected and landed in the small islands off the coast. They both climbed into their survival rafts, but were picked up by fishermen in sampans and became POWs. (After repatriation
in 1973, Bell told of being tied to the sampan’s mast, which struck him as ironic as the night before he had watched the 1946 movie Two Years Before the Mast.)
By October of 1965, the air war was hot. The first SAMs had been launched that summer and their locations were a high priority. The Vigilante from squadron RVAH-1 “Smoking Tigers” off USS Independence (CVA-60) had been searching for the distinctive six-sided launching sites when it was hit.
Bell and Hutton were in the first Vigilante to be shot down over Vietnam. The last would be in December 1972. In those seven years, 26 more RA-5Cs would fall to enemy action for the highest loss rate of any U.S. Navy aircraft.
The most beautiful airplane
The North American Aviation Vigilante had started life as a nuclear bomber, but as mission priorities changed, it became a versatile reconnaissance platform with an interchangeable array of cameras (some with focal lengths up to 36 inches), SideLooking Radar (SLR), Infrared mapping, and a sophisticated electronic emission detection and location system (PECM). When the mission changed, the men who rode in the back of the Vigilante (there were no flight controls and virtually no view as the tiny windows were made with the flash of nuclear explosions in mind) had their title changed from Bombardier Navigators (B/ Ns) to Reconnaissance Attack Navigators (RANs). A special attitude and fortitude was required to ride in the back cockpit of a Vigilante during a recce run. In front of the RAN’s face were two large, round viewers. In one, the ground below, distorted by lenses, was moving past with yellow lines superimposed—the lines had be monitored to ensure the image-motioncompensation was working. The other had a TV image in surreal hues of blue of the target route moving past or orange radar images. Through the windows on either side, the horizon was glimpsed as the Vigilante maneuvered. The rolling dials of the inertial navigation were spinning out location, and the ECM gear was twinkling orange strobes of threat radars and making beeping noises. All this while the pilot was yanking and banking.
The RA-5C was the largest and fastest aircraft to operate from aircraft carriers. Capable of Mach-2, the Vigi, as the A-5 was usually called, carried no missiles, guns or external fuel tanks, so regularly outran the McDonnell F-4 Phantom that was its mission escort. Although, as was learned the hard way, speed alone does not provide safety.
Dive, dive, dive. Pull out, pull out!
Lt. Dave Sharp (later CO of RVAH-7, the last fleet squadron) was in the back of a Vigilante heading north from Dixie
Station and about to turn into Vietnam when the RA-5C did not turn the direction Sharp called for. The pilot, Lt. Cdr. Jerry Chapdelaine, would not answer Sharp’s increasingly frantic calls over the intercom. Sharp correctly guessed that his pilot was hypoxic from an oxygen system malfunction.
“That’s when I started calling him every name I could think of, along with ‘Dive, dive, dive.’ Then, when he did push over, I thought we wouldn’t pull out. My call became ‘Pull out, pull out, pull out, you SOB.’ When he finally did, we kept going slower and slower, so I started yelling, ‘Power, power, power!’ By this time, we were at 8,000 feet or so and Jerry was beginning to sound normal. Apparently, when he attached his mask on climbout, it was not tight enough. When he started losing consciousness, he slumped forward and forced his mask on enough to keep him at a semi-conscious state. He later told me that all he could remember was hearing me call him various foul names and he just wanted to catch me and kill me. I told him that I’d had a few similar thoughts about him myself.”
THE RA-5C WAS THE LARGEST AND FASTEST AIRCRAFT TO OPERATE FROM AIRCRAFT CARRIERS. CAPABLE OF MACH-2, THE VIGI, AS THE A-5 WAS USUALLY CALLED, CARRIED NO MISSILES, GUNS OR EXTERNAL FUEL TANKS
Learning … the hard way
There was as a steep learning curve for Vigilante squadrons in Vietnam, as there was for all U.S. forces in the modern world of radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), surface-to-air missiles, and electronic warfare. One of the first lessons was no matter how fast you were flying, low was bad as every peasant soldier with a rifle could shoot up to 3,000 feet. And if you were fast, a well-thrown rock could do as much damage as a bullet. For the RA-5C, another lesson was that night photography with flasher pods was unsuitable. Not because the imagery was bad, but because the pulses of bright light from the three million candle-power strobes made the Vigilante an easy target for the anti-aircraft gunners. As the number of guns in the country increased, night flasher missions became highly hazardous. All types of aircraft eventually learned to not fly the same patterns, same altitudes, same times on mission after mission.
“C’mon home, baby”
On Yankee Station, RVAH-6 was tasked with a series of runs at twilight and a 1,500 foot altitude south to north along the coast of North Vietnam, from the DMZ to Haiphong,
using SLR to look for Styx anti-ship missiles and boats before the battleship
USS Missouri came in to shell the Thanh Hoa Bridge.
Commanding officer C.C.Smith made the first try and XO Ivan Lewis the next. They were both shot at by heavy, 85mm, antiaircraft guns. Lt. Cdr. Herm Mueller with his RAN, Lt. Guthrie, flew the third mission in a repeat of the first two. Abeam Vinh, Mueller avoided a pair of SAMs. A third came at him while he was steeply banked and low. Knowing SA-2s came in twos, he pushed forward on the stick and the fourth SAM barely went over the Vigilante. Flak was heavy all through his maneuvering. Shaken, he aborted the remainder of the run and headed back to the Ranger.
The Bob Hope USO troupe with songstress
Barbara McNair was on board for a show that night. McNair was on the LSO platform and Larry DeBoxtel handed her the radio. When a tensed-up Mueller called, “Field Goal 603, Vigilante, Ball,” she replied, “C’mon home, baby, we’re waiting for you.”
Lt. Cdr. DeBoxtel was assigned the fourth try. “Box” had chosen “Tiny” Mulholland as his RAN when they were in training, “Because he was a great big guy and would be useful if we ever jumped out.” Mulholland said there was no way he was going if they repeated the previous flight path, so they pretended to be a Shrikecarrying A-4 looking for missile radars. They stayed high and flew in figure-eights just off Haiphong Harbor. The fire-control radars would lock-on when they headed away and shut down when they headed in. After several patterns, Mulholland turned off the IFF transponder, and DeBoxtel put the RA-5C into a supersonic dive to 1,500 feet and headed south. They got the coverage and the Vigilante was not fired at.
Although the RA-5C had a sophisticated navigation system, pilots always had a map with course lines for the reconnaissance route drawn on it as a visual backup in case of ASB-12 failures. A junior RAN in RVAH-7 who flew with the CO made up his skipper’s maps for him. As trips over North Vietnam became routine, the ensign RAN would simply add another set of lines and headings rather than re-drawing the entire chart with AA and SAM envelopes. During a port visit in Japan, he bought a set of 24 colored pencils. Back on the line, he used a different color for each mission, until after the tenth, he told his CO to, “Follow the mauve line today.” The commander crumpled the well-worn map, threw it over the side and demanded a fresh one.
One of the most remarkable photographs ever taken by a Vigilante happened accidentally on March 1, 1971. Field Goal 602 was assigned a reconnaissance route that crossed over itself in order to get the tasked coverage of the Song Ca and a smaller river. The entire route was easily inside the SAM envelopes around Vinh. At Vigilante speeds, Lt. Cdr. Barry Gastrock and Lt. Emerson Conrad were back over the river juncture at Hung Nghia heading south less than four minutes after crossing the same village westbound. AAA had only been sporadic and there had been no missile warnings when Conrad saw a flash in his viewfinder and yelled, “Pull up!” Gastrock yanked hard, they heard a whumpf and were thrown against the seat-straps. Speeding toward the coast, they watched and listened for possible damage to their Vigilante. There was none. At 600 knots, it did not take long to reach the waters of the Tonkin Gulf and
KNOWING SA-2S CAME IN TWOS, HE PUSHED FORWARD ON THE STICK AND THE FOURTH SAM BARELY WENT OVER THE VIGILANTE. FLAK WAS HEAVY ALL THROUGH HIS MANEUVERING
they soon went feet wet and headed back to the Kittyhawk for a routine recovery.
In the intelligence center, a photointerpreter cranked the six-inch-wide film from one massive spool to another across the lighted area of the viewing table and stopped. He called others to look. Soon that segment was cut out and positive image prints made. Perfectly framed in the vertical camera was an SA-2 missile still under boost. The crew was called to see the near miss. As best they could figure out, since there was no terrain visible in the frame, the SAM passed under the RA-5C at the last target as Gastrock had banked hard to head for home. Knowing the focal length of the camera and the size of a SA-2 warhead, the photogrammeters computed the missile had passed 104 feet from the Vigilante’s belly. No one knows why it did not detonate.
Smile for the camera
Noteworthy Vigi flights did not always involve combat.The airplane was much in demand at airshows. Besides being sleek (described as looking like it was doing Mach-2 sitting on the ramp) and beautiful while on static display, the RA-5C could dump fuel, light the left afterburner and have a 100-foot long, trailing flame, so it got to play the bad guy to simulated missile firings from F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats.
Aircraft carriers would make a cruise book for their deployment with pictures of the crew and shipboard activities. During pre-cruise training, the RA-5C would have color film loaded in oblique cameras set at a shallow angle and the word would go out to all the squadrons if a Vigi joined on you that day, tighten your formation and smile. The $14 million dollar “Kodak” took great air-toair photographs.
With two or three carriers operating in the Tonkin Gulf at one time, mistakes were made. One clear day, a nugget A-7 pilot from the super-carrier Kittyhawk landed by mistake on the much smaller 27C conversion Hancock. An alert Vigilante crew heard the radio conversation and headed for the Hancock with cameras firing. By the time the embarrassed Lt. JG returned to Kittyhawk, 12x16 inch, glossy prints of a lone A-7 parked amid the airplanes of the Hancock’s air wing were in all the ready rooms and on the captain’s and admiral’s bridges.
RVAH-6 was based at NAS Barbers
Point on Oahu while Enterprise was being repaired after a fire. Besides mapping the entire Hawaiian Island chain, the RA-5Cs used their unique infrared sensors to locate a steam leak in downtown Honolulu. Announcements were made on radio and television to inform the public about what the low flying Vigilantes were up to.
Sharing the airfield at the time were the replica Mitsubishi Zeroes and Aichi Vals (made-up from AT-6 Texans and Vultee BT13 trainers in the best Hollywood tradition) used in filming the movie Tora, Tora, Tora about the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Vigis took many pictures of the mock Japanese airplanes, but, surprisingly, none are available today.
The crater lake in the dormant volcano,
Mt. Soufriere, on Saint Vincent Island had turned from a benign blue to an ugly, boiling pea-green. Responding to a request from scientists of the Interior Department, twice a day a Vigilante would launch and fly down to the volcano. The old crater was irregularly shaped with one edge much higher than the other. A tropical cloud usually sat over the high ridge. The tactic the crews worked out was to fly low over the Caribbean and accelerate in afterburner to just under Mach-1, fly up the 3,000 foot mountain slope 100 feet over the lush greenery, push forward on the stick and go zero-G to level flight. While the RAN monitored cameras and infrared, the pilot stared at a wall of solid rock coming at his nose at 300 knots. When the RAN called, “On top!,” the pilot pulled up at 4Gs and went on instruments into the cloud. Once clear, they came around for another run, until after four to six such runs low fuel forced them to go back to NAS Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico. The crews said that if Soufriere had blown they’d be famous. The volcano, however, went quiet and the project was cancelled.
Fourth day of Christmas
On December 28, 1972, the RVAH-13 tactical crew of Lt. Cdr. Al Agnew, pilot, and Lt. Mike Haifley, RAN, had flown on the Enterprise’s first launch of the day and hours later went on a second mission.
The electronic warning gear had been eerily silent as they accelerated over land. Together with their F-4J Phantom escort from the VF-143 Pukin’ Dogs, they were headed for a pre-strike reconnaissance target near Hanoi. As they flew over the roads and railroads leading into the city, the MiG calls from the “Big Look” radarsurveillance aircraft came fast and furious, “Bandits, bandits. Red, blue, Bullseye and all quadrants. Bandits.”
The RA-5C, call sign Flint River 603, finished the photo run and headed for the Tonkin Gulf in full afterburner. The fighter pilot escort radioed in a conversational tone, “Flint Zero Three, you better turn right.”
As Agnew tells it, “I was already keyed up.
MiG calls were blaring and aggressive fighter guys were heading our way. I broke hard into a 90-degree turn at 700 knots. There was a loud explosion and the Vigi tumbled. I didn’t know there were that many negative Gs in the whole world. I was pressed against the straps and my helmet was against the canopy. I somehow managed to reach one of the alternate ejection handles on the side of my seat. Time warped. First, the canopy seemed to take forever to come off. Next thing I knew, I was hanging in the parachute. I was surprised that it was white and bright orange.”
Another Pukin’ Dogs crew had seen two smoke trails from Atoll missiles fired by a MiG-21 and watched what was left of the RA-5C crash. There was only one ejection. Mike Haifley was killed in either the airplane’s explosion or the crash.
“It was windless day, so I didn’t drift in the chute. A group of peasants working in a rice paddy had to move aside to let me land. They stripped me down to my Hang Ten T-shirt and red undershorts I’d gotten for Christmas a few days previous. They swiped my brandnew Seiko watch and then this Vietnamese pulls out a big machete. That scared me worse than anything. But all he did with it was cut my flight boots off.”
Agnew spent time in both the Hanoi
Hilton and the POW camp called the “Zoo.” While in the Zoo he met Gerry Coffee, who in February 1966 became the first RVAH-13 pilot to be captured. Al Agnew was released on March 29, 1973. Ironically, he was home before his squadron returned from deployment. He said, “All things considered, it wasn’t worth it.”
Flint 603 was the only Vigilante shot down by a MiG and the last lost during the Vietnam War. The Vigilante was the 90th and last U.S. aircraft shot down by a MiG. It was also the last of 26 RA-5C Vigilantes to be lost in Southeast Asia.