27 September 1968 – Kuldar “Koot” Visnapuu was serving with the 174th TFS Phu Cat “Bats” in Vietnam. Lt. Kuldar Visnapuu’s had just taken off from a base in South Vietnam when his Supersabre was hit by enemy fire. He turned the plane toward the South China Sea and ejected safely, watching as his jet
Brian R. Williams
My Most Memorable Misty FAC/Life Changing Event
I was flying a Misty FAC mission over the southern sector of North Vietnam in early 1968 looking to find weather conditions that would allow me and my fellow pilot, Lanny Lancaster to find suitable targets – troops, weapons, supplies, etc., – moving into South Vietnam over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As usual, at this time of year, the weather was not cooperating and we spent half an hour roaming between Route Pack One1, closest to South Vietnam and Laos to the West.
Initially, it seemed to be another boring, frustrating mission without much success like many of them had been. In desperation, I turned towards a “sucker hole”2 that had appeared to the North and saw that we could accomplish some work if we found anything in the area. After a few minutes of reconnoitering the area, we figured we were in a valley just north of Mu Gia Pass3 – a place where I hadn’t previously seen much action.
Amazingly, soon enough a tantalizing target emerged right in front of us; trucks, heavily loaded trucks, moving toward the pass. We got a quick response from the ABCCC4 and the promise of 2 or 3 flights inbound. Since we didn’t anticipate much enemy anti-aircraft artillery in the area, we went back down and proceeded to strafe the lead trucks in an effort to stop their convoy movement. After a couple of strafe passes, the strike flights arrived, and with Lanny’s assistance, I marked targets for multiple strikes on the now stalled convoy.
We soon observed some large, secondary explosions from the target trucks – likely ordnance they’d been carrying. I was enthralled! Finally, in the midst of a memorable mission for the cause – it was exhilarating, to say the least. Lanny and I soon reached our “bingo” fuel5 and made contact with the other Misty flight out that morning, which was just coming into the area. We directed them to the target area and briefed them on the ongoing activity. We then headed east over the Gulf to get some gas from an airborne tanker on orbit there. I was in a hurry and extremely anxious to get back to “our” target and resume our efforts to destroy it all. We hooked up quickly, got our gas, and proceeded back towards the fray. As we concluded a re-brief by the other Misty, I picked up the next strike flight, slightly above us, and told the flight lead to follow me down the chute as I marked the best target I could make out in the very low-visibility area.
STOP! ALERT! SITUATION ANALYSIS! This is what I should have said to myself just then, but I didn’t. In that moment, I did something that I have regretted to this day – I DIDN’T TAKE TIME TO THINK OUT THE SITUATION! I was a seasoned fighter pilot and experiences in the mission, but I neglected to think about something that had changed since Lanny and
I had left the area 30 minutes prior.
When we had directed the strike flights, we had been low on fuel, light and quite maneuverable – the 375-gallon drop tanks on our wings were empty and the aircraft was then capable of high G-loads. We had dove, jinked and turned with ease as we had maneuvered for our attacks. When we rejoined the battle, our drop tanks were nearly full; we were heavy and G-limited. Additionally, during the earlier strikes, I had planned the attack headings to line up northwest/southeast down the valley to avoid the high terrain on the pullout. I was now approaching from the southeast and when I rolled into my “marking dive” I was turning directly west – almost perpendicular to the mountain range. I soon realized, this had not been a good idea.
Since visibility was low, I had to make some targeting adjustments. I wanted to give a good mark to the strikers behind me, so I pressed a bit lower than I should have. I pickled6 off the rocket and began my pullout, my situation became apparent. As the G’s increased I could feel the sluggishness of my jet, and the mountain range loomed like an insurmountable barrier in front of me. My immediate impression at that point was that “we wouldn’t make it”. I knew that if I didn’t make the smoothest, non-burbling pullout of my life, we were toast. As I started the pullout, Lanny, helpless in the back seat, remarkably said nothing, no yelling, hard-breathing or any other normal response that might detract me from my efforts to safely pull us out. I’m sure he realized the situation and helped the only way he could – by being deathly silent. As I pulled back on the stick, I held my breath and somehow reached that optimum G-load, which if exceeded, would cause a burble, loss of energy or more altitude. Or even worse, pull the wings off.
It seemed like that pullout took forever. As we neared the horizontal and nose approached the gray sky, in contrast to the dark mountain, I distinctly remember the scene – like a window shade rapidly lowering from the top in my sphere of vision as the mountains disappeared and the gray sky replaced them. As we cleared the rocks – by 100 feet – 50 feet – 20 feet, somewhere in that range I’m absolutely sure, I felt the supreme elation of the moment – we had made it. I could breathe again. I don’t remember what Lanny said after he regained the ability to speak, but I do know what I would have thought I had been him. I had been careless and we almost paid for it with our lives.
I don’t remember the rest of the mission – I think I have blocked it out of my mind. I think we put in a few more strikes and finally departed and returned to home base knowing that it had been a highly successful mission. In fact, we were credited many trucks and ordnance supplies destroyed and awarded a DFC for our efforts that day. Of course, that’s satisfying, but nowhere near the importance of fact that we had lived through the dilemma that I had put us into, and returned to fight another day. I believe that flight changed my approach to flying and life in a meaningful way. I realized that maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was – a little more humility was called for. I had a huge mistake that could have cost Lanny and I our lives and have felt humbled ever since. For the rest of my flying career, I made a concerted effort to think about everything and anything that could conceivably go wrong and take the extra few minutes to plan accordingly.
Traditionally, fighter pilots have been known for their cockiness, bravado and devil-may-care attitudes. Many of us, only somewhat jokingly, has claimed the title of “World’s Greatest Fighter Pilot”. But not me anymore. I had been humbled and I had to admit any claim as to the greatest now seemed attainable. (Possibly, I was not even second). I was, in fact, not nearly as good as I thought I was – I still had many things to learn. I stayed in the Air Force, finished a 26-year career and life went on. And, thankfully, I never made another mistake in judgment on the on the scale of that day. But I’ve lived the recurring vision of the “window shade” rolling down from the top in front of my eyes – and it isn’t a good remembrance.
Over the past years, my wife and I have seen Lanny Lancaster numerous times at reunions. When I inevitably bring up the subject of our near “near miss”, he always downplays the severity of our situation that day – no comments as to my ineptness, poor planning or danger to our longevity. “It wasn’t that close” or “I wasn’t really concerned” are his usual comments. Well, either he is either the coolest customer the world has ever seen, just trying to make me feel better about it or he is in the late stage Alzheimer’s territory, I’m not sure which. It was bad – and I know that, but he continues to mollify me. Of course, it has occurred to me that the bad situation that day only occurred because evil spirits or bad juju and I actually am the WGFP. Yeah, that’s the ticket! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
(Note: Read Pat Williams story ‘From the Wife’s Perspective’ in the Fall 2017 edition of the Intake)
Route Pack One – Route Pack 1 was in the southernmost extremes of the country, on the border with South Vietnam
- “Sucker Hole” – breaks in cloud cover
- Mu Gia Pass – The Mụ Giạ Pass(Đèo Mụ Giạ, Quảng Bình) is a mountain pass in the Annamite Range between northern Vietnam and Laos, located 90 km northwest of Đồng Hới, Vietnam.
- ABCCC – Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center
- “Bingo fuel” – the minimum amount of fuel needed to safely return to base
- “pickled” – pressing the trigger to release bombs or missiles