Class Of 1964 USAF Academy


During December 1969, I was flying the RF-4C (reconnaissance version of the F-4 Phantom) with the 14th TRS out of Udorn RTAB Thailand. At the time, there was a halt to the bombing in North Vietnam and all the strikes were concentrated on interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail as it crossed thru Laos into South Vietnam. In an effort to pair experienced---meaning in theatre longer than six months---fighter and recce crews to find, report, strike and assess strike effectiveness, the 432nd TFW created Visual Reconnaissance (VR) teams whose unofficial motto was “snap ‘em and zapp ‘em” and whose call signs were Falcon (F-4D FAC ) and Atlanta. (RF-4C pre and post strike recce)

At the same time, the Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis AFB was testing a Navy cluster bomb called Rockeye for use by the Air Force and they wanted to operationally test it in combat against hard targets to assess its kill capability compared to standard cluster bombs which were designed for use as primarily an anti-personnel weapon. Because of the bombing halt, there were not a lot of hard targets except in Laos and then it was mostly trucks and bulldozers used to keep the trail open and operating. Then some genius got the idea that there were fixed anti-aircraft (AAA) emplacements in Laos and that they would make a great hard target to test Rockeye effectiveness. And that is where this story begins.

Our ’64 classmate Jerry Bolt was assigned as the project officer for the operational test/evaluation and accompanied the team to Udorn. Jerry had already had a tour in SEA, flown in Route Packs 5&6 and was current in the F-4D. For the first mission, Jerry was going to fly as “two” in a two ship which would carry and drop the Rockeye munitions. For the target, the planners had selected a multi-position 57mm AAA site near Mugia Pass in Laos which was known to be active and occupied since the wet season had ended and truck traffic was again flowing down the Laos trail system. If this sounds like a bad idea, in practice it was even worse.

The plan was for me to fly over the site at low altitude (meaning 100 feet or so) with all six cameras going to take prestrike photos. I would then hold high over the plateau north and west of Mugia while Ron Gillengham, the F-4D FAC, would mark the target with Willy Pete before going high to watch the Rockeye loaded F-4D’s strike the site. After both F-4D’s had each made two passes, I was to return to get post strike photos of the damage. Yep, it was not a smart plan and the eight of us flying those airplanes were too young and dumb to say anything about it.

When our four airplane package arrived at the site just after sunrise, I dropped off while the other three jets held high until I called off target. My low altitude pass just served as a wakeup call to the gunners, so when Ron Gillengham rolled in the mark the target, black balls of flak started to appear. Ron pulled off and told the strike package, “hit my smoke and fifty meters either side east and west of the smoke”. The first strike bird rolled in and the flak started to intensify and we could see the lead airplane jinking like crazy.

He called “off target” and Ron radioed “two, you are cleared in hot”. Jerry Bolt in his best deep fighter pilot radio transmission voice radioed back, “two is in…” The flak then started up in earnest like they now had the range and all the gunners had finished their morning tea and it was time to get to work. Suddenly we heard Jerry’s voice over the radio scream “they’re shooting down there!” in a voice two octaves higher than his earlier transmissions. Ron Gillengham calmly transmitted, “…that’s what they get paid to do Jerry just keep it coming.”

Jerry did just that. By the time they had finished their second pass and miraculously no one had been hit, the area around the site had gone from clear to overcast as a result of the flak and smoke. We made our post strike pass upwind of the smoke, but it was still too smoky to get any meaningful Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) from the photos.

That night at the bar, Jerry had to endure the retelling of that story a hundred times in front of dozens of 555th TFS and 13th TFS crews but he was a good sport about it. He then called whoever he needed to call and the targeting for the Rockeye test and it was shifted to “less active targets”. Ironically, four months later the first Paveway/Mk-84 (2000 pound bombs) laser designated weapons were used to take out a multi-position AAA site in Laos from a standoff position with one pass and no FAC.

Jerry was a great cadet leader, a hell’uva fighter pilot, a great guy and a leader’s leader. Our class and the Air Force lost one of our best three years later when Jerry was killed while he was a member of the Thunderbirds in an F-4E crash while on a Functional Test Flight out of Nellis AFB. He had a crew chief in his backseat who was also killed and the exact cause was never determined. May you rest in peace Jerry…we miss you.

Denny Montgomery, Class of 1964
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