Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

My Stories

by Bob Coburn

All of “64” will remember our trip to President Kennedy’s inauguration. The entire wing was going to march in his inauguration parade. As it turned out only seven squadrons made it into Andrews. The rest were turned away by weather and went to Ft Campbell, KY to spend the night and try it again the next day. The next day all turned back again and returned to Petersen AFB, some in aircraft that effectively moved one or two inches in their parking spots in two days. We flew in C-130As. The heating in these aircraft left a lot to be desired. In the winter weather at altitude, water was freezing on the floor and there was no heat until you got near the ceiling of the aircraft. We had our formal overcoats and low quarter shoes and were freezing. We took turns climbing up the center row of seat metal hangers to get warm. On the second day as we were returning, our Air Officer Commanding, LT Cmdr Small, sent a message down through the cadets in 17th Squadron. The message read: “Weather in Washington is too bad to land. We are returning to Petersen AFB. Anyone interested in a Naval Career see me Monday morning.”

My first tour at Ubon took a little over six months to complete. When I arrived the 497th Squadron had 19 F-4 front seaters and 13 back seaters and was putting out 24 to 28 sorties a day/night. I flew twice a day or night. Several of the front seaters were flying in the back to equalize missions. I could have completed the tour (100 missions over NVN) in about 4 months if a program named “Rapid Roger” (RR) hadn’t shown up. Before RR the 433rd and 497th Squadron were generating 48 sorties a day – 24 each. Some paper pusher came up with the idea that instead one day and one night squadron each with their own aircraft the same number of sorties could be done with half of the aircraft. One squadron would fly them during the day and the other at night. This test was to run two months. This might have worked if we were running a bus company. At the time we had limited parking space. Some of the aircraft were on taxiways and all aircraft were parked with the wing tips folded up. In theory this would help that problem. Instead, wing maintenence cleared the taxiway and kept the aircraft on the main ramp, still with wings folded. Day and night sorties used different configurations. Day used two wing tanks. Night used centerline tanks and sometimes one wing tank with the centerline. As the aircraft turn time from day to night or back was very short, the ground crews didn’t have time to take the tanks to and from the tank farm and we ended up with the tanks stored/parked between the aircraft under the wings. Also ordnance requirements were different, therefore the pylons with TERs and MERs ended up in the same place. This made an accident rich environment as the aircraft were reconfigured, fueled and uploaded with ordnance. We were tremendously lucky the North Vietnamese did not discover this and send an aircraft or sapper. The whole flight line would have been destroyed. Three weeks after RR started, both squadrons had been driven from a total of 48 sorties a day to 2 sorties a day and the program was cancelled. It took the better part of a month to get the RR aircraft back to combat ready. This did not end the pain. The squadron aircraft not being used for RR were distributed to other bases in South East Asia. It took the same month’s time to get replacement aircraft and start the war again.

Robin Olds was the wing commander before I left on the first tour and after I came back. He held a party after RR ended. Someone made a coffin and Robin drove a wooden stake into it so RR would not come back. I also seem to remember a bonfire with the coffin on top of it.

The title to tearing the knife pocket off of Robin’s flight suit has been taken, however on my first tour after Robin just got there he had a Col with him at breakfast one day – not Chappy – and he had a knife pocket on. The 497th had the bar occupied at this time. Another back seater and I relieved the Colonel of his knife pocket. Robin was amused.

My crewed front seater, Ken Thomas, and I had several adventures. One day we found a convoy in the southern end of NVN. We were assured that there was no bomb shortage, even though we were loaded wall to wall with two 500 lb bombs – count them two. Ken dropped one of them on a truck in NVN and when I looked back the truck was literally gone, no parts, just clean dusted road. A second day mission, similarly armed, we found a SA-2 site on the move in Package 1, the part of NVN north of the DMZ. Ken hit one of the missiles and it slithered around on the ground like a bad piece of fireworks. If we had some more bombs we could have done a lot more damage. When we got back, wing intelligence did not believe our report, but we did tell our squadron intelligence specialist. I think some fighters were really surprised when they were fired at the next week. Another time we were on a night mission on the coast of NVN. The clouds were very low, 2,500ft to 3,000ft, and we were flying around below and in and out of them looking at the ground for targets. While we were heading north from a river outlet, I saw a mountain range above our altitude in front of us on radar. I told Ken to turn around now. He did this. Later as the flight was being debriefed, I became pretty worried. I was the only one in the flight that knew we were at Ron. The other three members of the flight thought we were further south at Quang Khe where there were no hills.

Another time we were fragged (mission fragmentary order) for a night mission to the North East Railroad north of Hanoi. We led the mission with #2 in 3 mi trail. We went up the coast and refueled then went low level. We turned left at the turn point island per instructions and headed in. Just before we arrived, the valley containing the NE railroad lit up with all of the guns in the world. It looked like a bamboo thicket ahead. Ken quietly said, “lets go a bit north to bomb.” I thought this was prudent and agreed. We went north and Ken dropped some flares to locate the railroad. They were shot down. We ended up bombing where we thought the railroad was with light from the quarter moon with 57 and 85mm guns shooting like crazy. I was feeling pretty good about not having tracers till I realized, between that flash on the ground and the flash up above is a 57 or 85mm hole in the air. We were quite happy to coast out with our wingman following that night.

We tended to get pretty wild at the club so we were always looking for a way to decompress and pass the time in a quieter manner. One night one of my buddies noticed that the club progressive slot machine was getting close to paying off. We formed a partnership with a third back seater and spent the next 3 to 4 hours and seven dollars each to finally break the machine. I think the jackpot was $75, which we split evenly. Success and it was four hours off of the tour.

Probably one of the hairiest missions we flew was mining the red river by Hanoi by day. I would have loved to take the guy that thought this up and taken him along. Mines were 500 lb bombs with influence fuses that you had to drop high drag so as not to destroy the fuses. At that time you had to drop them low altitude to get close to where you wanted them. I think we were a 4 ship and flew down the river in elements. We started from the sea and went low level. We flew right up the river at about as low as you could get, climbing slightly to release our bombs, then right back down. The gun pits on both sides of the river went nuts, firing like crazy. I had more time than I wanted to sightsee and could see dust raised from their sand bag revetment tops. I think the revetments saved us. I am not sure a good portion of the guns could be depressed enough to hit us. Anyway we survived and made it home. I did hear that some embassy was hit about this time and they blamed us. I always wondered, as it seemed to me that a lot of what was fired at us did not have time to self-destruct before it hit the ground. Sanity had prevailed for this mission when I returned to Ubon in the front seat. We dropped the same high drag mines from altitude, 7,500ft release from a 30 degree dive or higher from 45 degrees. The wind correction was 125ft per Kt and I am not sure that was enough, but it was safer.

On return to Ubon for the second tour, things were much more organized. Everyone had a checkout of fifteen missions before going into the far north. I was a new front seater and a natural to be number two in any flight. As number two my job was to hang on, check six and defend my leader. We flew mostly escort and combat air patrol when going far north for the first half or so of my second tour. I was on Joe Moore’s wing on an escort mission for a F-105 strike force. We deflected some MIGs off of the force and in the ensuing melee Joe shot down a MIG-17.

I graduated to element lead and in the last 3 months to flight lead. One day I was #3 in a 4 ship in Laos working the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Nail FAC had found a convoy of 15 trucks on the road. Our flight lead had dropped some of the most accurate bombs that I have seen destroying the lead truck and blocking the road for the convoy. Nail directed #2 to drop his bombs on the truck at the rear of the convoy to box them in. Number two ended up dropping his bombs on a hill about a quarter of a mile west of the road. We were somewhat disappointed and Nail directed my element to bomb #2’s previous target. I was rolling in to bomb the rear of the convoy, when the top of the ridge one quarter of a mile west of me literally erupted. Number 2 had managed to hit and get his bombs into an underground munitions storage site. I came off dry and we reconsidered. The Nail FAC called up the airborne command post and requested more aircraft for both the convoy and the new target that was still blowing up. We spent the next forty minutes dropping one bomb at a time into the munitions dump and into the convoy before we left. The munitions site was still blowing up three days later with several of our wing flights continuing to relight the fuse.

One night I was leading a night mission, road reconnaissance, in NVN. We found some trucks on the road under our flares and I asked #2 to bomb the trucks. He said where are the trucks. I couldn’t get his eyes on them and eventually asked his altitude. He said base plus 9. This was 14,000ft. I told him to come down to where the war was – base plus 3 and I set up for bombs. I got some good hits and either the trucks were carrying oil or I set off a nearby storage site. We got a tremendous column of really black smoke, similar to the ones I saw later on TV in the gulf. The smoke boiled up so fast that it swallowed the flares and it got pitch dark for about 15 seconds till one of the pair came out of the cloud. In the end we dropped everything there, got the trucks and had a very cheery fire raging.

In the second half of the tour F-4s became the primary bombers and we went on multiple (too many) day strikes near to Hanoi. I remember thinking pod formation, pod formation while having the Radar Homing and Warning gear lighting up with rattling strobes from 3 to 9 o’clock. Ingress was followed by a pod formation roll in, weapons release and evasive maneuvers; most times accompanied by flak and sometimes, white telephone poles trailing white smoke. You couldn’t start to relax till after the post strike refueling. In one strike mission from Ubon the leader of our force of 12 aircraft rolled his 4 ship in and then pulled out in the opposite to the pre-briefed direction. Our flight leader followed the plan and took the remaining 8 aircraft the briefed way for egress. What we didn’t see but learned later, was that Major Simonet, the force lead had sighted a MIG, pulling off the target and in the turn fired a Falcon at the MIG. The MIG blew up, and the Major calmly rejoined the force on egress and led to the tanker.

On the second tour, when Robin Olds left the wing, I flew slot in Robin’s goodbye flyby. We had two F-4s with me in trail and two Australian Avon Sabres on my wings. Looked real nice.

In Hawaii I was flying the T-33A, a great benefit as most staff types at that time were waived for flight pay and did not fly. One time I was returning from one of the southern islands and decided to do some acrobatics. I did about 15 minutes 20 miles south of the airway that fed Honolulu International. When I called Honolulu Center for return to Hickam AFB (same runways as Honolulu) they asked me if I was the one doing acro. I said of course and they asked me if I knew where the Airway was, which I replied in the affirmative and stated that I stayed well clear. They agreed that I had but said they had been nervous. Next flight I called them up and asked them where they wanted me to maneuver. They gave me an area just over the northern coast of Molokai. A couple of weeks later I was returning from the south and the controller on contact said, “Roger Troop 22 do you want to go to your acro area?” Yes, I was famous! I had the area for the next two and a half years.

The T-33s were maintained very well and I never had a problem with them although maintenance did surprise me once. I was walking from lunch back to PACAF HQ after lunch. I saw our maintenance guys around the T-33A static display aircraft on a pylon on the small mall there. I walked over and asked what they were doing. They already had two panels off and were working on a third. They said that they were going to put them on two of our aircraft and put the ones from ours back on display. I said isn’t that a bit risky, and heard this is the only way we can get some parts – take them off of old ones and I remembered the tail number year dates on our aircraft.

Final story: After Hawaii we went to George AFB. Just before I left, I was leading a one-v-one sortie from the back seat with three Lt students. As we were all walking out to the aircraft, one of the students mentioned that he had heard I was in Vietnam. I told him that I was at Ubon in the second half of 1966 and again in 1967 to 1968. He digested this then said “Gee sir, in 1966 I was in the 3rd grade.” Talk about feeling senior. I said, “climb in your jet sonny and lets go fly.”
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