30 November 1957 – Capt Benny Lacombe is killed when he unsuccessfully attempts to bail out of Lockheed U-2A, 56-6704, Article 371, 13 miles SE of Laughlin AFB. Ejection seats had not yet been fitted to U-2s at this point. The history of the U-2 program is fraught with fatalities and crashes. “CIA pilots Wilburn S.
Sometime in July or August 1968, my friend Crow Wilson and I were on night alert at Tuy Hoa AB, Vietnam. About 1 a.m. we were rousted from bed and told we were we being scrambled for a flight to the southern part of Laos. Out to the airplane, start, taxi, arm, and take off.
Once joined up we climbed to 25,000 feet because we had farther to go than the usual alert mission. I don’t remember exactly where the target was, but it was in the Salavan area of Laos. That takes 30 to 40 minutes flying time, which would stretch our fuel. We were told we’d meet the FAC and that a C-130 would light the target. We were also told it was a 37mm gun site actively shooting. There must have been some “not supposed to be Americans” in Laos.
Briefed by the FAC and waiting for the C-130, we continued to burn fuel. After a few minutes, the FAC informed us the C-130 had had engine problems and cancelled. Smart guy! Laos was basically off limits in the Vietnam conflict, but in reality, it was as involved in the Vietnam conflict as much as North and South Vietnam. The one thing different about Laos was that it was controlled by several tribal factions, all big in the drug trade.
The never-discussed CIA was there. They were using their DC-3s, shortfield aircraft and helicopters to manage this “Off Limits Country.” Well, we were there. I have a piece of paper stating that I had 17 missions in Laos. I guess I just was on training missions. Lol.
It was a clear night, but dark, dark, dark. The FAC wanted to continue, and said he had his small flares he could throw out the side window. The flare the C-130 would drop was 3 or 4 feet long and 10 or 12 inches around. Three would make the target area light up like daylight. The FAC’s flares were about 12 to 18 inches long, 2 or 3 inches around, like lighting a small candle in a football stadium at night. When he threw a couple of them out the window, it effectively lit up his aircraft and the 37mm started shooting at him.
By doing that, the muzzle flashes showed us the gunner’s location, but keeping track of it without defined references, which we would have had if we were working under the C-130 flares, was next to impossible. The FAC said he was going to put a Willie Pete (White Phosphorus) marking rocket in the target area. He also said it was all bad guy country, so rolling into the target from any direction was at our discretion.
His saying that it was all “bad guy country” meant there were no friendlies in the area, so we didn’t need to concern ourselves with the normal rules of engagement. He threw out a couple more flares and marked the target then pulled up and tossed out a couple of more flares. With his little flares we could see the mark and he said, “hit my mark.”
I was flying #2 and Crow was leading. He said he was rolling in from the north and dropped his bombs slightly to the left of the mark. Watching this indicated to me that the wind was out of the west. As he was delivering his ordinance, I continued so that I could come around and roll in from the west.
As he was pulling off the target, the 37 opened up on him. When the 37 stopped shooting at Crow, he started blindly shooting in my direction. I think the 37 shooter knew from past experience that the next airplane would probably come from the west.
Planning on aiming a little bit short of the mark I rolled in from the west and started down the slide. The FAC said earlier that the target elevation was about 1,500 feet (that was a WAG), so using a 45-degree dive angle and 450 IAS, I would drop at 4,500 feet plus the 1,500 target elevation, and my altimeter would read 6,000 feet when I released my bombs.
Looking back on this incident, I think one of the reasons that I got into this mess was that I didn’t take the tail wind factor into my roll-in. When you roll in with a tailwind, the wind will displace you towards the target. During the daytime, you could pick up this displacement and compensate. However, at night you do not have the air to ground visual reference so picking up the tailwind displacement was not possible.
What this did was put me closer to the target than I had planned and caused me to roll into the target and end up at a steeper angle. There were tracers all around me. The big problem with tracers is only every 4th or 5th bullet was a tracer, so there were lots more bullets around than I could see.
Then, all hell broke loose. I am not sure how I got as steep as I did, but when I looked down at the attitude indicator, it was reading 58 degrees. That number is planted deep in the memory and to this day I can still see the 6 The Saga of F-100D #884, aka “Bent Bent Four” Jon at Tuy Hoa in 1968 attitude indicator display.
“Holy Shit” was all I could think. The indicated airspeed was passing 500 knots. Another double “Holy Shit”. Next, the altimeter came into play. Damn! Damn! Damn! It was passing through about 5,500 feet, 500 feet too low for a 45-degree angle but 2,000 feet too low for a 60-degree dive angle. A 60-degree dive angle delivery was seldom used and would have required releasing the bombs at 6,000 feet plus the 1,500 target elevation or 7,500 ft on the altimeter. I was well below that number.
The reason for dropping your bombs at 45,00 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) for 45-degree dive angle and 6,000 feet for 60-degree dive angle was that these altitudes provided a recovery altitude of 1,800 to 2,000 feet above the ground. This altitude was needed to keep the aircraft out of the bomb blast area and provided some protection from small arms fire.
I was in big trouble! And all of this was happening at warp speed: 500 Knots is almost 850 feet-per-second. Cross checks on instruments, flight control inputs and thoughts go at warp speed. In that microsecond a million things went through my mind. Dump all the bombs was the first, three pushes on the pickle button on the stick and then think about how to recover from this mess.
Now, it seems like time stopped there in midair. My mind went back to the bar at Luke AFB, Arizona about a year before in upgrade training. After flying we would go to the stag bar at the Officers Club, BS, brag and learn. One night, one of the instructors gave me the solution to the mess I was now facing. He said that if you ever get too steep, too fast, and too low, here is the procedure: “Engine idle, speed brakes out, pull the control stick all the way aft against the seat and pray.” He said the “the g-load” will be big.
This recollection came to my mind in a nanosecond. I followed the procedure to the letter and the nose of the aircraft seemed like it took forever to start to come up. I felt the g-load build and watched the altimeter. I was fighting hard to stay conscious as I knew if I let the blood drain from my head I would pass out and then buy the farm. As the g-load increased, I strained hard to keep my head upright. The slab (aft control surface) got a hold of the airflow and the airplane nose slowly started to come up.
I can remember my head being to be pulled down and then being plastered on my chest as I lost control of my neck and back muscles. All I could see and focus on was the altimeter looking through the tops of my eyes. Slowly but surely it started coming toward the level position as my body shrank further down in the seat. My thoughts were, “Maybe I’ll make it.”
If you hit the ground at this speed, it is quick, and little is left but tiny chunks of your body and the airplane. It would be scattered for over a half mile never to be recovered. My only real thoughts were: “God save me, and I will be a good boy forever.”
The next thing I saw was a climb attitude on the attitude indicator and out of my peripheral vision I saw the trees go by on each side. To this day I think I bottomed out in a river or a small valley, because I distinctly remember the trees right beside both sides of the canopy. WOW I am still alive!!!!!! WOW, I look at the G meter; it is pegged at 10 g’s, the maximum reading.
The other thing that amazed me was that the aircraft did not sustain damage from the blast and shrapnel of the bombs. The bombs were two 1,000 lbs. and two 750 lbs. slick bombs. They had to go off close to the aircraft or possibly they did not explode because they were released too low for the fuses to arm. Pulling up on downwind, I informed lead that I have dropped all my bombs on that pass and would be holding “high and dry.” I would not be making another pass. Looking at my G meter again, it was pegged at 10g’s, it didn’t surprise me. The slab on the F-100 (the horizontal control surface on the tail), could go down almost 45 degrees. At those speeds that is one hell of a control moment.
Lead made another pass and dropped his last two bombs and called for join up. I told him “No Way.” I wasn’t getting close to anyone for a while. He told me later, that the tone of my voice told him that something serious had happened that I wasn’t talking about. I followed him back to our home base, Tuy Hoa, at about 1,500 feet in trail.
I was concerned about the operation of the gear and flaps, but they all worked as designed. Landing was uneventful, but now I had to face the crew chief and maintenance. I knew that the aircraft would have to go in for at least an “over g” inspection. I called the line chief to meet us, because I was sure there would be some damage to the aircraft. Normal g loading on pull off was 4 to 5 g’s and the max was 7 g’s.
We looked the airplane over and found popped rivets and fasteners on the bottom of the airplane between the wing and the fuselage. But the most stunning damage was that the outer tips of the horizontal slab were bent down at about a 30- to 45-degree angle. This poor airplane had just had the hell “g-ed” out of it. The line chief red-lined it and we knew it would be out of commission for a while.
In the end, I think I bought the crew chief and others working to repair the airplane about 6 cases of beer. I met Lead at the alert shack, and he asked me what happened. I gave him a short brief and we left for our hooches. That night, I sat in my hooch and looked at an unopened Jim Beam bottle and decided it was the only 7 way I had to get rid of the adrenaline and stress.
But that bottle didn’t affect me. I sat there in the hooch, stared at the wall, re-lived the pull off, the trees flashing by over and over and drank the whole damn bottle. It really seemed to have no effect as it was just being used to kill the effects of the adrenaline that had been pumped into my body.
The next day my back muscles and neck hurt at an unbearable level. I went to the flight surgeon, who gave me some magic stuff and said give it a day or so. Later in 1994, I got tired of my neck still hurting and had an MRI which showed there were three spurs in C4, C5 and C6 sections of my neck. They still bother me at night and bring this whole episode back. I wake up feeling my head slam down on my chest and see the trees flash by.
A few days later, as I was delivering another case of beer to the crew chief, he informed me that this airplane was a “lead the fleet aircraft,” and had a black box in the wheel well that had logged 14 g’s, the maximum it could record for over 5 seconds. It didn’t surprise me. My 175 lbs. of weight during the pull of 14 + g’s was about 2,500 lbs. That really sinks your butt in the seat.
Making light of it all, I renamed #884 involved “Bent, Bent Four.” Several years later, when I was stationed in Spain flying the F-100, I was at the gunnery range in northern Spain as an observer. There were definite rules and procedures as far as altitudes and speeds were concerned. We were working a flight of four and a couple of the pilots were what we referred to as “REMF’s” (an impolite term for pilots whose primary duty was a desk job).
Lead, 3 and 4 were doing ok, but Number 2 seemed to be a little spooky on the radio transmissions and in his flight actions. When they got to shooting the 20mm cannon, 2 was having issues lining up on his first pass, but nothing we thought was too dangerous. On his second pass, he stopped shooting late and the range controller called a “Foul” because he was inside the 1,200-foot stop shooting line.
On the next pass, the range office called another foul, but he didn’t begin to recover from the 10-degree dive angle. Apparently, when the controller called foul, the pilot was jolted from “Target Fixation” and started to recover, but it was too late and not aggressive enough. At the last second, he jerked the nose of the aircraft up 20 degrees. The aircraft hit the ground just about level, creating a huge dust cloud. Then it came off the ground about 20 feet and disintegrated into a million pieces.
That would have been me if I had hit the ground in Laos. We stared at the wreckage for a few seconds, not believing our eyes, then called the base command post to deliver the sad news. About an hour later, the base chopper showed up with the investigation team. The Flight Surgeon was the lead man. He looked the situation over and said, “Let’s go to town and have lunch.” I’ll never forget that statement.
A couple of hours later, we returned to the wreck site and the Flight Surgeons instructions were, “Look for the flies.” More words to never forget. The biggest pieces we found were his feet still in his flight boots. My thoughts were, “but for the grace and help of God that would have been me in Laos. Sometimes luck and the upper being will save your ass.”
When I re-live this major event in my life, I‘m not certain what I just described were my only thoughts. I wake up at night, eyes wide open and heart rate out of control. I could have been scattered all over Laos. Just my feet still in my boots.
There are sad and happy notes to end this story. I couldn’t remember the name of the IP who told us about this recovery procedure in the bar, BUT in March, 2017, an SSS guy emailed me that it was Paul Philips. I had an upcoming trip, so I put it on my list to find him when I got back to relate how valuable his teaching was to my life.
I returned at the end of May and on 1 June, I learned Paul Philips had passed away. It still bothers me that I was unable to just say “Thank You.” The happy part of this story is that Jeff Dahn told me that F-100 #880 was located at Rickenbacker ANG base, Columbus, Ohio.
In the fall of 2017, I traveled to Columbus, did a photo shoot with the PIO officers, David Webb and Roger Dimick. One of the highlights of my old age. Being around, looking, touching, and thinking about the aircraft that saved my butt 50 years ago was a real emotional experience. FANTASTIC! Thank you.