Photo Missions in the Vietnam War
Updated January 31, 2013
Vietnam Operations Page
Crusader/Phantom vs MiG-21 Fishbed
(1/31/13): Fall of '66, I lead a recce flight a few miles south of Haiphong; escort is F4B, don't remember if it was VF-14 or VF-32. Headed generally westward at 4,000 ft/ about 480 Kts. Red Crown [northern-most U.S. surveillance destroyer]calls on guard and warns of 2 high speed bogies, 15 miles north and closing fast.
Our phantom pilots are very frustrated; no one has shot a MiG, not sure if anyone has even seen one. For a brief instant I want to turn into them; but then good sense takes hold. I'll be putting my escort into a one vs two situation and all I'll be able to do is cheer for him. Also not sure such a move would meet with the approval of the big boys. So I call "hang on", we turn hard port, stuff the nose down and light the burners.
As we accelerate they continue to close---Red Crown advises us---7mi, 6mi, 5mi. We go to about 690 kts at 1,500 ft, They hold at 5 miles briefly and then we start to open the range. I think we are well in excess of the speed limits on the F4's 600 gal centerline tank, but no one's complaining. We run straight south for 30 miles gradually opening to 7 miles at which time the bogies break away and turn north. I do remember being briefed that the 21's don't like very high airspeeds in a high Q environment, guess thats a fact.
Due to the extensive nav gear in the photo Crusader, I now have no idea where in the hell we are [Norm adds: This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Better wording would be "less than extensive"; most tactical jets of that era had crappy navigation capabilities with the exception of the A6A and later the A7E]. I also know that the escort will shortly be screaming for fuel, so we call it a day and head for the tanker to get him some JP. Escorting photo Crusaders was not the strong suit of the F4B.
(then Lt.) Norm Green, VFP-62 Det aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt CVA-42 (1966-67)
"One thing about doing 650 [kts] on the deck, you keep your head out of the cockpit. Set the radar altimeter to 100 feet and keep the light on. The cumulous granitous can give you a terrible headache. --Scott Ruby
- In the early days of the war, it was not unusual for us to go in as low
and as fast as possible, often below 100 feet, and above 600 knots. On
the Midway in 1965, we did have one escort hit while trying to keep up
with us, an F4 flown by Jerry Sawatsky. He was in trail, took a 37 mm
through the wing, broke the main spar, but it stayed on. Got back to the
In 1971 on my final RF-8 deployment on the Midway, the minimum flight
altitude was 3,500 feet. No more losses to small arms fire. On all
flights where there was a reasonable expectancy to run into AAA,
particularly during Blue Tree missions, we always had the escort(s)
about one mile abeam, and a little stepped up, looking through us
towards where any expected AAA was anticipated. Generally kept them out
of the line of fire that might be aimed at us.
There was a lot of sorting going on in
1965-66. VFP-63 was losing a lot of pilots in the early stages of the war -
mostly due to stupidity of how we should be used. We lost two of our
three aircraft our first line period in 1965. Same guy - shot up twice
in 10 days. The second one he more or less blew up while plugged into a
whale tanker. The tanker pilot was not a happy camper. --Scott Ruby
- VA-25 was quite a Spad squadron. On one of our earlier strikes, the air wing went after some stupid bridge up north. A pre-cursor to the Alpha strikes. Willie (Bill Wilson) - one of the other pilots in the det- provided BDA [Battle Damage Assessment]. After the strike pulled off, Willie goes in. It did not take them [North Vietnamese] long to figure out that if something got bombed, a photo pilot would soon follow. At that time we were going in below 100 feet, and as fast as the RF8 would go. Depending on the airplane, we could get 625-650 [kts] out of it. Stupid, but we had not learned our lesson yet. He pops up over the target, takes the pics, and drops down to the deck. And running like hell. Leaves the cameras running - too busy to turn them off. Looking at the film afterwards, here were these two big bomb craters in a rice paddy a couple of miles down track from the strike. From the size, they were 2,000 pounders. The only aircraft carrying 2,000 pounders were the spads. We go to the squadron and say, "OK, which one of you missed the target that far?" Nope, nobody raised there hand. After a stare-down, we said, "OK, it looks like we will have to go see CAG and show him the results. At that, one of the JO's admitted he did it. Seems the Spads were using 85 degree dive angles - hanging in their straps. Better accuracy it seems. When it came to release, he kept pickling, and the bombs don't come off. He finally realizes he is LOW, and does a high-G pullout. Still pickling. The bombs finally come off during the pullout, and he tosses them down the valley. We deleted those pictures for CAG.
On another occasion, involving VA-25, it involved PT Boats. I was looking for a ferry that was supposedly in an inlet a little north of Dong Hoi. Again, below 100 feet, and as fast as it would go. Taking fire from various sites, and happened to notice, for some reason that this rock was leaving a wake. Also firing at me. Ah Ha! PT boat! Found a couple of aircraft, and they managed to kill a few fish. This was in 1965. PT boats were instant targets. Went back to the boat, and CAG put together a full strike. Goes back up there. Goes trolling. As near as we could tell, at least 7 "rocks" got underway. They would just sit there in the middle of the inlet, wait for the A4's to release, and then move one way or the other. With 15-20 bombers dropping, we believe they managed to slow on down. Also increase the food supply with all the fish killed. Went back to the boat. CAG is really pissed now. So he sends 4 Spads late in the day loaded with napalm. One Spad would draw fire, and another Spad would make his run. Soaked down three PT boats, and left them burning hulks in the water. Willie is doing BDA on this one. Below 100 feet. We had a picture with the burning hulk of a PT boat with the shadow of an RF8 right next to it. What we didn't show was a few frames later with the same shadow with fuel streaming from the left wing. A 23 mm from another PT boat that was firing at him, goes in parallel to the wing, and blows the top and bottom of the wing off. A hole big enough for two people to crawl through. Broke the main spar, but it managed to stay together long enough for him to get to Danang. Willie was a three fifths black ace that deployment. --Scott Ruby
Photograph showing the shadow of Willie's RF-8G over the damaged Vietnamese PT boat. Courtesy of Jerry Fritze
(5/7/12 Scott adds this additional story involving VA-25: While we were in port, VA-25 came to Det ALFA, and asked if we would provide an aircraft to "attack" a division of Spads. It was my turn to fly so I became the agressor. Ed Greathouse was in the flight - I do not remember who the other ones were.
The basic rules were that I could attack from anywhere, and try to get a successful approach to them. The Spads basically were in a four-plane line abreast. We probably spent about an hour an a half out over the water.
I would make a run, and pull up into the sun and go back out 10-15 miles and come in from another angle - at various altitudes and airspeeds. I don't think I got within 2,000 feet before I was spotted. Then I was looking at four Spads - head on. I think the closest I ever got may have been within 2,000 feet - maybe. I was down to their altitude - or below - at better then 650 knots. I had set the radar altimeter to 100 feet and kept the light on. How low, I am not sure. But at 650 knots and below 100 feet, you do not put your head in the cockpit. Thet really had an excellent lookout doctrine going.
I left the det before the deployment was over. Went to PG school. My last deployment was on the Midway as OINC on the 1971 cruise. Everything worked on that cruise.--Scott Ruby
EMAIL RECEIVED ON THIS STORY: (5/6/12):I stumbled on to your site quite by accident looking for info about VA-25 in Nam especially in the run up to Khe Sanh and the Lang Vei Mission. I found this article below by Scott Ruby and would like to use it in an upcoming edition of our quarterly Fist of the Fleet Association Newletter (www.fistofthefleet.org)
of which I am the Editor.
Check out the website: Fist of the Fleet
[Webmaster's Note:] Scott Ruby approved the use of this and the July 2012 issue of the Fist Newsletter will include this story with a few new details provided by Scott. When I receive it, I'll post it here.]
(7/16/12)--Adobe(.pdf format) 1 MB copy of: VA-25 July 2012 "Fist of the Fleet" Newsletter--Scott's story is reproduced in this newsletter. Contributed by: Jerry Fritze, editor
Photo Missions and Their Fighter Escorts
..."hats off to the photo guys that few wanted to chase."
- [The following from a Flight Schedule Officer from a fighter escort squadron:] ..."The mission no one wanted..PHOTO ESCORT. I caught so much crap from my sqd mates when I scheduled this
mission! I remember the reason no one wanted it was ... the photo bird was faster, was unarmed , had more gas, mission areas were very hostile, the escort was in trail (IE the Target), and always was getting shot at.
Although an exciting mission it was dicy for the escort. I always briefed my Photo guy: "If we get jumped fly like you are armed". Never got jumped but the stories I have heard they did!! Bottom line, there is more to this sorry but hats off to the photo guys that few wanted to chase. I never was a Photo Beanie but I look back & now say, you were the best. ----Bill B.
- ...It was the photo bird that was the target. The escort was stepped up, offset, and always jinking - out of harm's way. The photo bird on the other hand was in the thick of it,
over the target, straight and level at 1000 to 3000 ft. AGL.
In VN, VFP-63 suffered more combat losses than any other squadron. I suspect that the squadron also holds the record for more pilots turning in their wings because they didn't want to fly the mission. I don't believe a fighter escort was ever hit. It was my feeling that the escort was only there to tell my OinC where I had gone down.
The photo bird did not need MIG protection. If we ever got jumped (And we never did - they weren't going to waste their assets on a photo mission.), the escort would be a liability because he was slow, and more so, because he would probably turn to tangle with the attackers.
A photo det had four pilots. Det LIMA on Hancock in 1965 & 1966 suffered one KIA, Tom Waltzer, and two shoot downs with good ejections, John Heilig and Len Eastman, both of whom survived capture and prison. Three pilots who were assigned to the det to replace Tom turned their wings in. Of the nine Naval Aviators assigned to det LIMA, only three were on Hancock when it turned east for San Fran after our last mission -- the first strike on the Haiphong oil facilities in June 1966.
[call name]Rocky Squirrel
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Vietnam Operations Page
Created on ... January 18, 2009