Price T. Bingham
Fulfilling My Dream
As foolish as it sounds, playing with toy soldiers may have been one of the main reasons I wanted a military career. My father had given me the lead toy Civil War soldiers that he had played with as a boy. I painted the soldiers in Union blue and still have a few of them, the rest having either deserted or gone missing in action. Father also made me two cannons, one of brass and the other of wood both of which I used for shooting marbles at the toy soldiers. Early in elementary school, probably first grade, when my class was asked what we wanted to be when we grew up I said I wanted to go to West Point. My family considered a military career a respected profession because my grandfather Price and other ancestors had served in wars beginning with the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Grandfather Price had fought in the Philippine Insurrection and in World War I had commanded the 46th Infantry Regiment, but the war ended before his regiment could deploy.
Despite my father’s avid interest in boats and sailing (he’d served in the Merchant Marine during World War II), I was fascinated by airplanes. I remember having was a small purple, plastic B-17. Once, when walking through the Five and Dime store, I saw a pressed metal airplane (I think it was supposed to be a C-47) that I wanted and my sister very generously gave me the 50 cents from her allowance to buy it. My father even made me a model of a Piper Cub (powered by a rubber band) whose balsa wood fuselage frame and wing’s ribs he covered with green paper. He even carved its propeller and we flew it in our front yard.
Although I was fascinated with flying, my poor distance eyesight seemed to be an obstacle to becoming a pilot. Mother tried to help by sending me to a local optometrist, who had me perform eye exercises. I faithfully performed these exercises, but they did not improve my vision. However, they did help the doctor pay for his boat.
Prior to my high school graduation, I applied for an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Unfortunately, although I qualified as an alternate, I did not receive an appointment. My high school principal then arranged for me to apply at West Point. After visiting there and taking the physical and academic exams, a letter from the Army arrived a few weeks later saying that I was 4F, unfit for military service. The reason for the 4F was that neither of my elbows would lock, though I could still do plenty of pushups, chin-ups, etc. It wasn’t a strength issue, the Army physical was hung up on the fact that both of my arms would not completely straighten out because neither elbow joint would lock. The news was devastating to me so my mother sent me to an orthopedic doctor who told me I could fight the Army’s ruling. Without telling my mother I even wrote former President Eisenhower asking for his help. (Looking back now, I’m very happy with how it all turned out.)
Unable to attend the Academy I entered the University of Rochester. While there, studying Chemical Engineering, I joined Air Force ROTC because I thought it would help when I reapplied for the Air Force Academy. On my Air Force Academy application that year I was less than truthful when I wrote “no” in answer to the question of whether I had ever been rejected for military service. In the spring of 1962, I learned of my acceptance to enter the Air Force Academy which would begin that June. My class was the 8th class and 777 of us entered.
Since I wore glasses to correct my 20/40 vision to 20/20 even before entering the Academy, I had little hope of ever becoming a pilot. However, soon after arriving at the Academy, I learned that the Academy had a waiver program that would allow graduates with vision like mine, correctable to 20/20 with glasses, to go to pilot training. I believe the program existed because the Air Force wanted as many graduates as possible to become pilots since Air Force culture considered pilots the most important position. The waiver program was renewed on a year by year basis so I could not be sure until I was a senior (first classman) that it would be available for me. During my time at the Academy, the war in Vietnam was beginning to heat up. Being young and foolish I was very eager to go to war and can remember lying awake at night at the Academy worrying that the war would be over before I could get there.
Graduating from the Air Force Academy on June 8, 1966, my class had been reduced to 470 and we were eager to, at last, be part of, as we cadets put it, the “real” Air Force. At the time there were 24 squadrons in the wing of cadets and 20 of us were graduating from my cadet squadron, Fighting 4th. Of the 20 all but three served in Southeast Asia. Twelve of us as pilots, five as navigators, and three were medical doctors. Three of us, Ross Detwiler (F-100), Jamie Gough (F-4), and me (F-100) would later eject from our planes in Southeast Asia and Ramsey Vincent was killed flying an A-1.
In September 1966 I drove from Owego to Texas and reported for pilot training at Reese Air Force Base just west of Lubbock, TX as part of the flying class 68B. It was a time when civil rights protests and voter registration efforts were being made in the South and as I drove through Mississippi in my car with New York license plates I noticed a state trooper car was following me. Eventually, he passed me, and soon another state trooper came up behind me and also followed me for a while. If they were doing this to me, I could only wonder what was happening to black men driving through that state.
My class standing was not high enough to get an assignment to one of the few single-seat fighters (F-100 and F-102) that were available for my class. Since I did not want to be in the back seat on an F-4, I chose an EC-47 at England AFB in Louisiana as that would quickly get me to Vietnam. After jungle survival training at Clark AFB in the Philippines, I caught a flight to Vietnam in early January 1968 landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the north edge of Saigon, where I was assigned to fly the EC-47 with the 360th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (TEWS), part of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Besides three EC-47 squadrons, the wing had RF-101 Voodoo jets and RF-4C Phantoms. This would be my first trip to Vietnam. I finished my first tour on December 19, 1968, with a total of 679.2 hours in the EC-47.
Like several of my fellow Academy classmates and EC-47 pilots, I volunteered to fly a second tour with the goal of flying a fighter or an attack aircraft like the A-1. Since I had been flying the conventional gear, prop-driven EC-47, I asked for an assignment to the conventional gear, propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft. The Air Force agreed to give me a second flying tour but changed my orders at the last minute to fly the F-100, with training at Luke Air Force Base on the west side of Phoenix, AZ.
On March 11, 1969, I began F-100 training. My class, 70-A, consisted of twelve students and we were assigned to the 4511th Combat Crew Training Squadron which wore a Charlie Brown Snoopy shoulder patch. We greatly enjoyed flying the F-100 Super Sabre. Just climbing the ladder up to the cockpit and strapping into the seat was a thrill. Compared to the EC-47 and even the T-33 and T-38 the F-100 had very sensitive flight controls. As a result, like all new F-100 pilots, on my first couple take-offs, it was difficult to hold the stick gently enough to keep the wings from rocking slightly.
Being at Luke flying fighters was a major step in the fulfillment of my dream. In the years after my last flight as a pilot, my nighttime dreams have often been of flying. I still look up at the weather thinking about its suitability for flying. I also often remember the thrills of flying: the bumpy ride on a low level, coming up initial and pitching out for landing, rolling in on a target, and the hard maneuvering against another plane in simulated air to air combat.
After training at Luke and flying with the 308th at Tuy Hoa my next and last F-100 assignment was with the 494th at RAF Lakenheath. Following that assignment, I went back to Vietnam, not in the F-4 which I had requested following check out at Luke, but as fighter and tanker controller in MACV HQ. This was a fascinating assignment as I saw air operations from a different perspective than the squadron level and the view wasn’t always pretty, but that is another story.
- 1966-1967 Reese AFB, TX Pilot Training (Class 68B)
- 1967-1968 360 TEWS, Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN (EC-47)
- 1968 361 TEWS, Nha Trang AB RVN (EC-47)
- 1969 4511 CCTS, Luke AFB, AZ (F-100)
- 1969-1970 308 TFS, Tuy Hoa AB, RVN (F-100)
- 1970-1972 494 TFS, RAF Lakenheath, England (F-100, F-4)
- 1972-1973 MACV, Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN (TACC)
- 1973 USSAG, Nakhon Phanom, Thailand (TACC)
- 1973-1977 356 TFS/353 TFS, Myrtle Beach AFB, SC (A-7D)
- 1977-1980 434 TFTS/435 TFTS, Holloman AFB, NM (AT-38)
- 1980-1984 HQ USAF, XOXIC (War Mobilization Planning Division), XOXID (Doctrine and Concepts Division)
- 1984-1992 Center for Aerospace, Doctrine, Research and Education, Maxwell AFB
- 1993-2004 Northrop Grumman, Business Development, Melbourne, FL
- 2004 Retired USAF
Awards & Decorations
Distinguished Flying Cross (2)
Meritorious Service Medal (2)
Air Medal (16)
Joint Service Commendation Medal
Air Force Commendation Medal
Air force Achievement Medal
Military & Civilian Education
- 1966 BS/Military History, US Air Force Academy
- 1990 MA/Military History, University of Alabama
Great Ball of Fire…by Price Bingham
Among the many missions I flew in Vietnam, several were much more memorable than others. One was a training flight on 9 January 1970. One reason it was noteworthy was that I was scheduled to fly my own aircraft, 55-3569, for the first time. I was number two in a flight led by Ernie Dammier. Our mission was to act as interception targets for F-4s flying out of Da Nang so we weren’t carrying any bombs, just drop tanks and pylons.
Heading for the Da Nang area we were in level flight at about 20,000 feet over a deck of clouds and had passed Phu Cat Air Base heading north when shortly after tuning in the next TACAN navigation station, my engine suddenly began a series of very violent compressor stalls. I noticed the engine exhaust gas temperature was way out of limits at 700 degrees so I immediately pulled the throttle back to idle. With the throttle back at idle, the compressor stalls stopped and the engine temperature went to 350 degrees, but now the aircraft was losing altitude. (Although I did not know it until later the engine was only windmilling and not giving me any thrust.) Whenever I tried to move the throttle forward past about 75 percent to maintain altitude or at least slow the descent the engine would again begin to violently compressor stall.
By this time I took the lead since it was my aircraft that had the problem. We had turned south back towards Phu Cat, which was the closest base, and declared an emergency on Guard (the emergency radio frequency), as well as squawking 3-77, the emergency Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) code. With the throttle back below 75 percent, my descent was continuing since the F-100 doesn’t glide very well. When I tuned Phu Cat’s TACAN, I was unable to get a lock on with my TACAN needle to show me the direction to the base, although the DME read 32 miles to the station. We were descending towards the tops of a layer of clouds so my concern was staying in visual conditions.
During this time, there was some confusion with the radar controlling agency which acted as if we had plenty of altitude, saying descend to 15,000 feet, when we were already approaching 8,000 feet. The radar controller then asked if I would accept a downwind landing on runway 15 at Phu Cat. I was more concerned with him telling me the heading to fly just to find the base! About this time I spotted a hole in the undercast and stretched my glide to reach it, which further reduced my airspeed.
I had punched off my drop tanks, noticing that I had 7,000 pounds of internal fuel, basically full internal tanks. At about ten miles (I think this was the last time I looked at my DME) I still did not have a TACAN bearing to the field nor had the radar approach controller given me one despite my repeated requests. Finally, he told me the field was right 30 degrees. I was now descending 1,500 feet at 230 knots airspeed with the gear still retracted and unable to add power without the engine compressor stalling violently. Realizing I could not make the field I told Ernie that I was going to eject and he pulled clear.
When I raised the ejection seat handles exposing the triggers, the canopy was jettisoned and at this point, I made the mistake of looking down to be sure that I was squeezing the triggers instead of putting my head back against the headrest as we were supposed to do before ejecting. As I squeezed the triggers, it was as if the airplane suddenly dropped away from me, but it was actually me and the seat going up, very rapidly. The seat quickly began to tumble backward and shortly afterward I separated from the seat and this was followed by the tug from the opening of my parachute. I looked at my aircraft as it glided away and could see a bright fire in the bottom of the tailpipe.
My training kicked in and I checked the chute’s canopy. It was good so I cut four lanyards to make it easier to steer the parachute and then deployed the seat kit with its life raft. If the seat kit was not deployed, its weight would break your legs when you hit the ground.
I looked up again at about 500 feet from the ground and saw the plane hit the ground in a large orange fireball. After deploying my survival kit I looked down and noticed that I was descending towards dry rice paddies where a number of Vietnamese peasants were looking up at me as I came down. I remembered a recent story about a Navy pilot who had ejected in South Vietnam and all that was found was his parachute, so I decided to steer myself as far away from the Vietnamese as I could just in case they weren’t friendly.
When I landed I performed the parachute landing fall maneuver we had learned at Army jump training even though I had so much adrenaline I felt that I could have landed standing up. Although I was slightly tangled in my chute, I got up immediately and began to pull my .38 caliber pistol from its holster for self-defense. An Army Huey was on the ground about 40 meters away but I hadn’t heard the helicopter before because the noise from the ejection had temporarily deafened me. The Huey’s door gunner came running over and with his help, I loaded my parachute (which I still have stored in the attic) and seat kit with its raft into the helicopter and we took off for the base. En route, we flew over the burning wreckage of my plane. It had hit a rice paddy dike and skidded a couple hundred yards, but seemed to have missed all the nearby Vietnamese hootches.
The Huey landed in front of the Phu Cat base operations where the Air Force’s HH-43 rescue helicopter was just starting its engine. After getting the names and unit of the Army helicopter crew so I could send them a case of whiskey, an Air Force colonel drove up in his car. He took me to the infirmary where x-rays showed no broken bones. I had a sore neck due to my bad position (looking down) when I ejected and some scratches on my face. Because of the slow airspeed when I ejected my helmet and glasses had stayed on during the ejection although my glasses had ridden high on my face. That night pilots from one of the F-4 squadrons there at Phu Cat took me to the club where I consumed my fair share of alcohol. Later in A-7Ds a member of the 356th Squadron, Buddy Sizemore, told me that he had been approaching Phu Cat in a formation of F-4s when I ejected. He said the flight lead put them into echelon formation so they could all watch my aircraft crash.
The next day I got a ride back to Tuy Hoa and was flying again three days later.