Archive for January, 2016


January 16, 2016

F-100F reborn

How old must you be if your airplane has outlived even the US Air Force’s massive “boneyard” of antique airplanes in the desert near Tucson, AZ? At the risk of being accused of spending my codgerhood focused on the rearview mirror, I find this story compelling enough to preserve for my posterity, if no one else.  I am sure my grandchildren will never read of it in any public school history book, for two sound reasons: 1) it is not politically correct and 2) they are, by God’s grace, homeschooled, for which I am forever grateful.  The following article with the picture above appeared January 12, 2015, in the Daily Air Force Magazine :

The last F-100 Super Sabre stored at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., recently left the boneyard for refurbishment and display outside the National Guard Bureau at JB Andrews, Md. The airframe was refurbished by the Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing, which actually flew serial number 63-3880 in combat during Vietnam. The two-seat F-100F was repainted in honor of the “Misty” fast-forward air controller (FAC) who directed strikes on some of the most heavily defended targets during the Vietnam War. After retiring from the 185th TFW, the jet was converted into a QF-100F full-scale aerial target, but managed to survive to retirement, unscathed. The 185th ARW’s base at Sioux Gateway Airport is named in honor of Misty FAC pilot and Medal of Honor recipient Col. George “Bud” Day who began his career in the Iowa ANG. The F-100 is slated to arrive at Andrews for display in late January, according to a release. (See F-100 Airpower Classics.)

My life intersects with this story in a number of ways. I flew 268 combat missions in Vietnam in an F-100 (mostly the F-100D, the one seat version, though I flew the two-seat F-100F model across both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean and on a few  combat missions). A fictional version of that experience appears in my first book, Son of Thunder. (A novel, but the air combat scenes bear varying degrees of association with reality.) During my Vietnam tour of duty, the “Misty” fast forward air controller (FAC) program, mentioned in the article, was created to try to stem the losses from using slower-moving light planes as FACs. The guy in the back seat of the F-100F would do the looking and control the airstrikes while the guy in front would fire the smoke rockets to mark the targets while jinking—twisting and turning erratically—at very high speeds and low altitudes to keep them alive. The article says their mission was to “direct strikes on some of the most heavily defended targets during the Vietnam War.” The precise truth is their targets were along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in adjacent Laos and Cambodia, which were officially “neutral territory” by UN declaration. But any fighter pilot who found himself jinking in the crosshairs of brutal enemy AAA along that vital-to-the-enemy supply route would snicker and snort at such an outrageous fiction. Both sides officially denied their presence there.

When the call went out to F-100 pilots for volunteers for this most dangerous mission, I was stationed at Tuy Hoa Air Base and already flying half my missions “out-country,” that is over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, unlike half the F-100 wings located  further south in South Vietnam.  I chose not to volunteer because, in my young adrenalin-addicted, immortal ego I did not want to “direct” other F-100s’ strikes along The Trail. I was already living my fighter pilot dream, killing the bad guys and breaking their stuff on The Trail, and I much preferred to continue, not just locate targets for some other fighter pilot to ravage. I worked hard to get the “good missions,” that is, night patrol on The Trail, when the southbound supply truck traffic was heaviest. As Butch and Sundance justified robbing banks because that was where the money was, I justified the high-risk night missions because that was where the best targets were. It was relatively easy to talk the flight scheduler into assigning me those missions because I was eager to fly them, quickly became the most experienced at them and was smashing a lot of stuff. Besides, most of the other eligible pilots, older guys with families in my squadron, all knew that if God had wanted man to fly at night, he would have been born with a rotating red beacon mounted at the base of his tailbone. To this melancholy day I have vivid memories of dead friends, one whose spectacular demise I witnessed and some who just went out and never came back from those out-country missions, including some Misty friends, and have never been found. My roommate on the beach of the South China Sea, Lacy Veach, USAF Academy grad, future Thunderbird Team member and astronaut, did volunteer to be a Misty. A few months later, as I was coming off the target on a daytime mission in that neutral territory, I heard his voice over the emergency radio frequency, a few octaves higher than normal, swinging under his parachute hung up in one of the jungle’s taller trees, with his unrecognizable F-100F in a smoldering hole not far away. I flew “cap” for him, strafing the enemy soldiers trying to get to him as he anxiously awaited the Jolly Green helicopter’s  arrival (another group of incredibly brave pilots) to perform a daring, successful rescue. In my invincible mindset that was confirmation that I had made the right decision.

Fast forward 30 years, when I was a brand new author and the Misty pilots, now well-deserved legends, condescended to invite a regular old “poge” F-100 jock to speak at their annual gathering of eagles in Colorado Springs. I was humbled and excited beyond belief. Two of those alumni, Ron Fogelman and Merrill “Tony” McPeak, became Air Force Chiefs of Staff and Don Shepperd became director of the US Air National Guard. Bud Day was the first Misty commander who gained renown and a nation’s gratitude as a Medal of Honor winner as a long-time POW and the most highly decorated fighter pilot in US history, and who spent his retirement years fighting for veterans’ causes. Dick Rutan became the first pilot to fly around the world nonstop, non-refueled, and whose plane, built by his engineering genius brother, Burt, resides in the Smithsonian Air Museum. Ron Fogelman and Dick Rutan’s book cover endorsements of Son of Thunder had a great deal to do with its success.

In my introductory remarks to that august body of stick-and-rudder souls, I opined that it was the greatest concentration of heroes ever assembled in one room in the history of America, with the possible exception of when Bud Day dined alone in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton. Afterward Bud came up and shook my hand and said, “God bless your heart,” and I’m pretty sure God is blessing his heart right now in heaven. At the reception after my talk, Don Shepperd’s charming wife, Rose, tried to convince me to write the story of the Misty’s for posterity, but I begged off, sincerely declaring that I was unqualified. Don ended up writing that book himself. Actually he edited it. He wisely let most of the pilots tell their own story. I highly recommend it: Misty. A decade later, in our fulltime RV days, at lunch with Don on a balmy winter day in a Tucson restaurant, he affirmed that I had been correct to turn the assignment down. In telling their own stories, Don had the nearly impossible task of containing their pent-up disgust put on paper at the political micro-mismanagement of that sad chapter in our nation’s history. As an insider he was able—barely—to convince them to tone down their lifetime of frustration. The F-100F in the story above is a tribute to Major General Donald Shepperd, to be placed outside Shepperd Hall, the Air National Guard Readiness Center at  JB Andrews, MD, and his name is now painted on the side.

One final intersection of my life with this story: A year-and-a-half after my tour of duty in Vietnam, while assigned to an F-100 wing in Torrejon, Spain, I was tasked, along with others, to fly an F-100F back to the States and deliver it to…wait for it…the Iowa Air National Guard at Sioux City, Iowa. I’m pretty sure it was not the exact one in the picture, though I did not keep detailed flight logs like some of my friends, and the supply of F-100F models was pretty small by then, due primarily to Misty’s loss rates, the highest of any fixed wing unit in the war.  But by luck, as John Calvin would say (not!), my flight path to Sioux City, with only some minor ad hoc rerouting on my part, passed right over my home town, a village in western Illinois. I got to fulfill another fighter pilot’s dream and buzz my hometown at an altitude approximating the village water tower, then pulled up and did victory rolls till out of sight. For years after, when I visited, townfolks and nearby farmers would be eager to tell me what they saw that day, and no two stories had it quite the same…nor quite right. Over the years the story got embellished in the retelling, and I confess I never let the truth stand in the way of the legend. When I was recently home to bury my beloved brother, so many years after that blatant proof of pride, the essence of original sin (as Augustine diagnosed it and Packer reported it), the witnesses were mostly under the grass in the local cemetery and those still topside are no longer reliable sources.  Now they ask, “Did you really do that?” As Roger Miller summed it up, ‘Kansas City Star, that’s what I are,’ but on a micro scale … and yet another one of countless reasons for repentance in my codgerhood.  Now I know that song really dates me, but I don’t mind. My dearly beloved grandkids think I am so ancient I must have flown top cover at the crucifixion. And that’s okay, too, as long as they know, by the gift of faith, that  Christ died there for their sins and mine  so we could spend eternity with Him in bliss beyond the power of words to convey. Thank you, Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9), for giving me grandchildren and great, consequential friends, and for blessing me with a long life, so undeserved, that I tried so many times to shorten.

And should you, dear reader, in your travels in the USA, come across one of these Super Sabres planted around the country, say a quick prayer of thanksgiving for the pilots, that our Creator chose to make such men for America, just one segment of a vast number who have served our country in war. I’m so grateful our Sovereign God let me hold the stick and dance the wild blue with an inanimate angel for a little while.

%d bloggers like this: