The following story appears in Ed Cobleigh’s book War for the Hell of It: A Fighter Pilot’s View of Vietnam. Bestselling author Ed Cobleigh has been a fighter pilot with the US Air Force, US Navy, Royal Air Force, Imperial Iranian Air Force, and the French Air Force. He also served as an Air Intelligence Officer working with the CIA, FBI, and M16 on a variety of covert projects. He knows fighter planes, fighter pilots, and air combat well. His first fighter plane was the F-104 Starfighter and the last was the F-16 Viper. He flew 375 combat missions with the same number of landings as take-offs.
I am in the pit and I’m not too damn happy about it. No pilot likes to fly in the rear cockpit. The back cockpit of the F-4 Phantom is unaffectionately called the “pit” and for good reason. Slotted between two massive air intakes for the jet engines, the canopy rails on each side of the pit are high, about chin level. The canopy itself is small, one-third the size of the Plexiglas unit covering the front cockpit. To the rear is bulkhead, behind the ejection seat. The front of the pit is filled by an instrument panel, with only a limited sight line forward. Visibility to the outside is also constrained. Standing on the left air intake and looking down into the rear cockpit gives me the definite impression I am about to descend into a confining aluminum pit lined with switches, gauges, controls, handles, dials, levers, and circuit breakers. The denizen of the Phantom’s rear cockpit is known as the GIB, or Guy In Back.
While I should be counting my blessings in the rear cockpit, I am not. Today’s mission is a radical experiment in the evolution of tactical aviation. We are out to determine if the laser-guided bomb is a good idea for combat. The bombs go by the official code name “Paveway,”but we have already started calling them “smart bombs.” Smart bombs are supposed to know where the target is and go there by guiding themselves. Dumb bombs are the kind we usually drop. They know only where the ground is and they don’t care where they hit it. We have had all the technical briefings, talked to the civilian representatives from the manufacturer, and discussed in depth the procedures and tactics to be used. We have run the mission over and over in our respective heads, trying to foresee all the likely possibilities. It is now time to see if we are going to revolutionize tactical air-to-ground warfare or not.
We are across the fence, the Mekong River, and into southern Laos, looking for our FAC. Over southern Laos, unlike up north around the Plain Des Jars, the Forward Air Controllersare real USAF serving officers, with real military haircuts and official uniforms. Their call sign is “Nail,” and they are based at Nakom Phanom, a Royal Thai Air Force base on the west bank of the Mekong. Nail FACs fly the OV-10 “Bronco” a twin turboprop craft designed for just this mission. However, they still have to fly low enough to spot the targets and the OV-10’s top speed of 220 miles per hour won’t outrun many bullets or missiles.
The Nail comes up on the radio and tells us,
“Satan Flight, your target today is an antiaircraft gun complex, six pits with thirty-seven-millimeter guns. Some reports list it as a flak trap.”
He goes on with the weather, the altimeter setting, the target elevation and such like, but Nail has already gotten our undivided attention, big-time.
The North Vietnamese have increasingly moved large caliber antiaircraft guns down the trail from the north, towing them behind trucks at night. The guns are carefully dug into pits, with high sandbag piles surrounding the installation. Each gun has a dedicated crew whose dream in life is to shoot down an American aircraft. The towable thirty-seven millimeter guns are dangerous enough for fast movers like the F-4, but they are lethal to slow aircraft such as the OV-10 and the C-130. I can understand the desire of the Nail to take out these guns before they take him out. But it gives one cause for thought attacking an installation whose sole mission is to shoot you down.
Normally, attacking a well-protected AAA gun installation with dumb bombs is nonproductive. The guns are set into pits about forty feet in diameter with six-foot walls of sandbags ringing the site on top of the ground protecting the crews from near misses. It is almost impossible to place a dumb bomb inside the sheltering pit without flying very low and diving at a very shallow angle. This gives the gun crew the edge in the engagement and allows the other guns to help protect the one under attack. Bombing from a higher altitude guarantees at best an ineffective near miss. A close miss gets the gun crews’ ears ringing, then they return to their duties with renewed vigor. This is why attacking gun sites is not anywhere on the top ten list of the most popular missions with us.
The Nail further describes the target as a chain of gun pits dug into a tree line on the border of a small field. From our altitude of 20,000 feet, all we can see are several scattered, irregularly shaped fields, each a lighter green than the darker jungle, any one of which could border the targets.
Nail tells us that he will put in a Willie Pete smoke rocket to mark the correct field. The impact of the marker rocket will also tell the gunners that an attack is imminent and to man their guns. Once he has stirred up the Bad Guys, the Nail will hold off safely several miles to the west.
Satan Lead tells the Nail on the radio;
“Roger that, Nail. We have you in sight. You can remain in the target area, as we will be well above you at all times.”
Satan Lead’s transmission tells the Nail that we won’t drop bombs on him or run into him with our planes. I can hear the biting sarcasm in the Nail’s voice as he answers; “Roger, Satan, very well.”
I can almost hear him think through the radio;
“These Phantom-driving pussies are going to drop bombs from the stratosphere, scatter their ordnance across southern Laos and then go home to the bar. Meanwhile, I’ll still be down here with some very annoyed and very motivated gunners.”
‘We drop down to 15,000 feet to illuminate with the laser. From here we can see the target better, but we remain out of easy reach of the guns. My pilot in front rolls the jet into a gentle left-hand orbit as the Nail shoots his marking rocket. Satan Two has remained at 20,000 feet and trails us as we circle.
Out the left side of the canopy, I see a white puff of smoke blossom in one of the fields. The northern tree line of that field looks scalloped, more irregular than the others.
The Nail comes back with:
“That’s a good mark, Satan; the guns are in the tree line in the north, and they’re shooting.”
Now that I have the correct field visually identified, I retract my tinted helmet visor with my left hand and put my right eye directly against the four-power scope of the laser illuminator. My leather-gloved right hand is grasping the laser joystick with two fingers and slewing my field of view through the aiming scope. After a quick search, I pick out the targeted green field with the smoke puff in the center. The laser scope has a crosshair in the middle, just like a telescopic rifle sight. I skew the image to the west and there they are!
The 4X scope shows me a line of dirt gun pits, growing like cancerous tumors on the tree line. I can pick out the brown pits, the recent earth excavations, and the tiny black crosses that are the gun themselves. As we circle, I marvel at the view. I have never seen anti-aircraft gun emplacements this clearly. Whenever I have flown low enough to see them with the naked eye, I have been too busy dodging and weaving to look.
On the hot mike intercom, I tell the guy in front of my plane to instruct Satan Two to aim at the western end of the north tree line. I don’t want to take my hand off the laser scope to push my radio mike button.
Satan Two radios back that he has the target area in sight, but he can’t see the guns from his altitude. He adds he will be rolling into his dive in ten seconds.
At the promised time, he calls;
“Satan Two is in. FAC in sight.”
I reach over and raise the red guard, pushing the toggle switch controlling the laser to the “on” position. In confirmation, I hear a pulsed tone in my earphones, a chirping electronic bell, perhaps the echoes of the sonars of the kamikaze bats of WWII. It signals the laser is firing. It is time to bear down.