Saturday, 28 April 2007
Two Birthdays
Contributed by Bill Faith

[Written by Arch Arthur, Maj., USAF (Ret) at the webmaster's request.]

Arch Arthur is a member of a small group of people who have two birthdays each year - one natural and the other miraculous.  His natural birthday was February 4th, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. That life should have ended over North Vietnam at 0645, April 28th, 1972 when a Soviet SA-2 tore through the belly of his F4E.  Here is what happened 35 years ago today.

In 1971-72, Captain Arthur was a weapon systems officer (WSO) in the 366 Tactical Fighter Wing assigned to a special unit called, “Stormy” whose job it was to locate targets and lead strike flights in heavily defended areas. Mission profile: single ship, fly to the assigned area, perform 20 minutes of armed visual reconnaissance, rendezvous with strikers, mark a target, control the strike, assess bomb damage, hit the tanker and do it over two or three times per sortie. 

In April of 1972, the situation in South Vietnam was grave.  North Vietnamese launched an offensive to coincide with the monsoon season.   They attacked Quang Tri Province from Laos and across the DMZ.  Other units followed up with attacks on Kontoum and Pleiku.  Unlike Tet, these attacks used massed armor and long-range artillery.  Weather precluded close air support.   Outnumbered and outgunned, the South Vietnamese fought courageously but fell back.  Each time they tried to mount a defense, NVA gunners smashed them. 

On the 28th, Captain Arthur was scheduled for the dawn patrol in the back seat of Stormy 01.   We’ll call the pilot, “John” (not his real name).  The US Commander of I Corps called John and told him, “You have got to find and kill those 130 MM guns.”  Everyone knew that Hue was under siege and DaNang would be next.

Weather forecast: 1000’ overcast, 3 miles with light rain.  Arch called and had special low altitude munitions loaded on their assigned strike flights.  As they suited up, John pointed to Arch’s “Stormy” patch and said, “I wouldn’t wear that today.”  The clear implication was that this may be a one-way mission.  Without speaking, they walked down the bravo ramp in a light rain to F4E 68 0308.  At 0600, Stormy 01 lifted off Runway 36R into the clouds.

Things began to unravel early.  Descending over Quang Tri City, they broke out at 15,000’.  They were a relieved to be able to work in visual conditions but, their strike flights had the wrong munitions.  What they saw below them was horrific.  QL-1, the coastal highway, resembled a stream of ants.  The road was jammed with people, vehicles, livestock, carts and bicycles.  Occasionally, they could see explosions.  Fires burned everywhere. 

Stormy 01 flew out Route 9 toward the Laotian border, looking for artillery and armor.  They flew an erratic path at 450 knots, 4 Gs and remained above 4,000’ to avoid small arms and light anti-aircraft fire. The roads were wet deeply rutted, but they could find neither 130 MM guns nor tanks.  Working toward the DMZ, there was no trace of the enemy until they surveyed the DMZ road south of the old USMC firebase at Con Thien.

Parked within its perimeter were five tracked vehicles with twin 57 MM guns firing at them.  They recognized the ZSU-57-2 by its muzzle flash – a 25’ long tongue of flame which looks more lethal than it is.  With a low cyclic rate of fire, lack of radar and visible projectiles, 57 MM was easy to avoid.  Arch marked the location on the inertial. John and Arch asked themselves same question, “What‘s up there that they don’t want us to see?”

Stormy 01 proceeded to the east and circled back for a second pass was at 50’ and 500 knots, several hundred yards south of the guns.  In the center of the battery was a dozer trench containing a van.  The third pass, right over the trench revealed a Surface to Air Missile (SAM) radar van.  The NVA were trying to set up a SAM site in the DMZ.  This new site extended coverage miles into South Vietnam. The ZSU-57-2s continued to fire.

John called the strike flight with rendezvous instructions and Arch prepared a target brief.  They discussed the threat the guns might pose to strike aircraft, deciding to drop two cluster bombs (CBU-52s) on the guns.  One problem in Stormy was task saturation.  Both crewmembers were very busy that checklists were sometimes overlooked.  One first CBU pass, John rolled into a 45° dive and tracked the target to 5,000’.  When he released he said, “Shit!”  He had forgotten to arm the weapon and the clamshell never opened, detonating low order beyond the target.  It was Arch’s responsibility to read the checklist. 

Pass number 5 was the last opportunity to suppress the defenses.  John was slightly shallow and had to press to 4500’.  Before the radar fuse armed, it was below fuse function altitude the last CBU did not open either, hitting the same hole.  A pity, either pass would have killed the AAA.  Fuel state was becoming a problem.

John called the strike flight and asked how far they were from the target.  They

Strike lead expressed confusion and John told them bluntly to get to the DMZ without delay or Stormy would be out of gas.  At that point, Stormy 01 had their first tracking indications from an SA-2 site in North Vietnam.   

The fast FAC set up to mark from the south, pulling off to the east – toward the water.  As they rolled in SA-2 site at Bat Lake lit them up. John marked the target and came off low.  In response to classic indications of an SA-2 launch, Arch employed appropriate electronic countermeasures.  At about 1500’ they descended below a temperature inversion that trapped smoke below it and severely restricted horizontal visibility.  Passing a certain altitude, SA-2 indications disappeared as they expected. The strike flight was not yet in position to attack or even see Stormy 01’s mark. 

On the 7th pass, John told the strike flight that this would be his, “Last pass,” since he was, “no shit bingo!” Stormy  received the same SA-2 indications as they had on their 6th pass, John performed the same evasive maneuver and Arch employed the same countermeasures.  Again the radar warning ceased at the expected altitude, but this time the NVA launched three SA-2s missiles  passing well above and behind the FAC.  Although the missile site was at their 4 o’clock, both Stormy crewmen were looking at 8 o’clock to see if their the strikers were the targets.   It was a clever ruse and it worked.   Those missiles were not being guided at all. 

Arch knew something was wrong with the warning indications.  There was a light on that should not have been.  As he looked at the panel there was a sudden impact that lifted the aircraft’s tail.  In his center mirror, he watched the rotating beacon disappear in the fireball.  Looking north, he saw a second SA-2 a few hundred meters away pulling lead.  The missile entered pitch oscillation and passed in front of and below the aircraft and detonated.  The NVA weren’t using radar; it had to have been a visual shot.

Startled by the second missile, John asked, “What was that?”

“An SA-2,” Arch answered and noting some 12.7 MM rounds passing his canopy added, “take it down, we’re getting hosed!”

“We’re at 50 feet,” replied the pilot, “and I’ve got a fire light on the left engine.”

“Fuck it!” Arch replied, “We’re in North Vietnam!”

Stormy 01 crossed the beach at 50’ doing 600 knots with both engines in full afterburner. As they turned south toward DaNang, they began to deal with their emergency.  John tried to retard the left throttle but it would not move.  Fire in the left engine bay had moved forward to the fuel control about 5’ behind Arch’s ejection seat, wielding the flex cable.

John switched off the Left Master Switch closing the left engine fuel valve.  Before the switch closed, the right engine fire light illuminated, followed by a “Check Hydraulic Gauges” light.  PC1 and PC2 dropped to zero, leaving Stormy 01 traveling at 600 knots (150 knots above survivable ejection airspeed) with both engines stuck in full A/B and no flight controls. When power control systems fail, the leading edge of the stabilator drives down causing the nose to pitch up.  John and Arch became cargo. 

This instant is when life one was ended.  One of two scenarios would occur:

  1. The aircraft would disintegrate - fuselage breaking into tail section, engine compartment and cockpit and the wings separating as the aerodynamic forces tore them apart. John’s parents and Arch’s wife would have seen the three officers – a chaplin, a doctor and an aviator. Or,
  1. The damaged airframe would withstand the G-forces and climb, slowing to a survivable ejection velocity and giving John and Arch a chance to jump and be rescued.  At DaNang, the drinking lamp would be lit, and they would live to fight another day.

The F4 is a large, rugged piece of military machinery designed by some very smart engineers. It held together.  At 600 knots, it climbs rapidly, slowing the aircraft and carrying the crew away from the planet. 

While John was handling a rapid series of aircraft problems, Arch was in the rear cockpit working through his own emergencies.  When the utility hydraulics failed, the radar antenna drive died.  Arch, the consummate air-to-air radar operator, switched his radar off to avoid damage.  Training is a wonderful thing.

Passing the vertical at 450 knots, John realized that ejection was survivable and they would never be farther from the enemy.  “Eject!” he told his WSO.

“What?” replied the back seater.

“Eject, eject, eject!” John repeated. 

Arch heard the first of the three confirmations, assumed the position, closed his eyes and pulled the lower handle.  The rear canopy came off as the rear seat shoulder harness locked then the rocket motor fired.  G onset in a rocket seat is smooth compared to the ballistic seats used in training.  1.4 seconds later, his main parachute opened.  Arch recommends rolling up one’s collar to avoid rope burn from risers.

John saw the rear seat fire and reached for his lower D ring.  When he pulled it, he expected his seat to fire instantly, but nothing happened.  A 1.6 second delay on the front seat applies even if the rear seat is gone.  John moved his head to look down.  At that instant, his seat fired compressing his vertebrae and causing considerable pain.  Unlike his WSO, John had completed airborne training.  In his judgment, opening shock at 450 knots was severe. 

Arch looked up and counted his 28 risers, released the 4 rear risers to enable steering then looked down.  His toes were over the South China Sea, but heels were over the beach, a beach owned by the North Vietnamese.  When he looked at John several hundred feet above, he saw that his raft and survival kit were deployed.  He deployed his kit and inflated his life preservers.   Their aircraft had continued to climb until it ran out of airspeed and started down, passing fairly close to its former crew.  About 60’ of flames streamed from its belly, aux air doors and rear fuselage.  It hit the water at 90° in the mouth of a river.  Everything was quiet. 

Below them a pair of search and rescue aircraft - A1Es callsign, “Sandy 21” had seen the F4E impact and began a climbing circle around the crash site.  Arch prepared for his water landing, rechecking his gear and thinking through all the procedures he’d been taught and practiced. He worked clear of his canopy and slid onto his raft.  As he cut himself loose from the risers, he heard the first shell explode. John and Arch were about 1000 meters off the beach. The NVA had them in sight and were trying to kill the two wounded survivors with mortars and artillery. 

When the Jolly arrived 30 minutes later, the mortar fire increased in accuracy and intensity.  They put a PJ in the water to help John on the penetrator, then he swam over to help Arch.  Being hoisted aboard the HH53, they could hear the distinctive crack of 12.7 MM heavy machine gun fire.  The SAR forces ignored the ground fire and did their job. 

They also gave each survivor the traditional bottle of Champagne, which they drank immediately (at 0700 local).  Back at DaNang, the flight surgeon came aboard to see if he could participate in the party that was building.  To cut the “chill” of these wet aviators, he provided a bottle of cognac, which Arch and John split. 

Intelligence debrief was a bit more contentious.  The intelligence officer insisted, “Stormy 01 was hit by an unguided rocket”. 

Arch knew better.  “Unguided rockets” he noted, “do not pull lead.”  These were SA-2 Guideline missiles that both men had seen many times before.  Something was wrong.

Arch discovered the Intel problem on his way to Bangkok later that week.  At the O-Club at Tan Son Nut AB, he met a 7th AF Intel Captain who told him that they had discovered the visual tracker at the SA-2 site at Bat Lake about a week earlier.

“Why didn’t you get the word out?” Arch asked him.

“Captain, you didn’t have a need to know,” the Captain replied.

Arch’s response was swift and non-verbal.  Officers at a nearby table were able to take Arch’s crutches away from him before he killed the Intelligence puke.

Contributed by Bill Faith on April 28, 2007 at 02:26 PM in Arch Arthur, The American Warrior, US Air Force, Viet Nam | Permalink


Posted by: arch

Looks good. Thanks Bill

Posted by: arch | Apr 28, 2007 3:46:33 PM