Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

My Sandy Rescue Mission

by Bill Sieg

My tour in Vietnam was in A-1 Skyraiders, primarily out of Nakhom Phanom RTAFB, Thailand. My squadron, the 1st ACS did not have the Sandy mission. That was performed by the 602nd Fighter Squadron out of Udorn AB.

In January, 1968, President Johnson ordered a bombing halt over North Vietnam. I guess he figured it wasn’t a fair fight and wanted to give the North Vietnamese some time to rearm. Anyway, that meant that the pilots who regularly flew “up north” would not get their 100 missions – they were called “counters” – and would have to spend a full year in theater rather than coming home several months early. That prompted several of the 602 pilots to get very creative with a pencil and decide that “Gee, that mission was a counter, why didn’t I log it?” As a result, several 602 pilots left in January and brought the unit up short in manning.

They asked our Ops Officer if anyone from the 1st would be willing to come over to the 602nd for a few weeks to help out.

I volunteered. It was a different mission (Sandy) and a different bunch of guys.

After flying several strike missions with them and some Sandy orbits over northern Laos, I was slotted in as Sandy 2 on alert back at NKP. The 602 stood Sandy alert at NKP because it was about 45 minutes flying time closer to central and southern Laos. I thought they were crazy making me Sandy 2. I’d never been on a rescue mission and if lead aborted, was shot down, or had a heart attack (at the time I considered him an old man), then I’d be in charge of a rescue.

They said not to worry so we flew over to NKP. We had just gone to bed when the phone rang and 7th AF told us a T-28 pilot had bailed out over Laos and to go get him. As you can imagine, the Sandy mission is strictly a day, VFR mission, so lead convinced 7th AF that all we could do at night was compromise his position and to call us back at 0430. We’d take off before daybreak and pick him up as soon as we could see the ground.

When they called, they gave the pilot’s position and I knew exactly where he was. Since I normally flew out to the east of NKP, I flew over the pilot’s area every day. About 20 miles south of his position were three very odd karst formations. If you’re not familiar with the term, karst are tall, usually vertical rock formations. If you’ve seen pictures of China, with tall rocks in the background that look like fingers sticking out of the ground, that’s karst. The karst in this area looked like 3 giant razor blades stuck into the ground. And north of the karst, just south of the pilot’s position was a very unusual bend in the river (not the Mekong), to which I jokingly gave an unprintable name.

We took off at night and flew to a position near the karst to keep from giving the pilot’s position away. As soon as it started getting light I saw the karst and began to vector the flight north. As soon as we could see the ground I picked out the river and vectored us toward it. In my mind’s eye I can still see lead out in front of me, down low. I told him to turn right 10 degrees, which he did, and as he crossed the river, the pilot came up on his emergency radio and called ‘You’re over my position now”. The Jolly Green helicopter was holding to the west and said “I’ve got him, I’m in. Pop your smoke. (We all carried small smoke flares that lit off when the top was pulled off.) The Jolly hovered over him, dropped the tree penetrator, pulled him out, and we were out of there.

The Skyraider was a little faster than the helicopter, so I was on the ground, shut down, and out of my airplane when the helicopter landed. I shook the pilot’s hand as he stepped out of the chopper. If you ever wonder why guys are willing to fly into the valley of the shadow of death to rescue someone, I know. The feeling is indescribable. We were milling around the ramp, me floating about 6 inches above it, when Sandy 3, the second element lead, a major who’d been on many rescues, put his arm around me and said that I made the mission happen. I asked what he meant. He reminded me that my knowledge of the area and my vectors to lead kept us from having to criss-cross the area trying to pin down the pilot’s position, which would have risked everybody’s safety. That really did it. Whatever I felt before was compounded many time over. Despite the fact that there were no awards for the mission - it was unopposed and we didn’t expend ordinance - the rescue was the most significant mission of my tour and the most memorable event of my Air Force career.
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