By Don Born
On my first trip to Viet Nam in 1966 our missions were flown
at 50 feet above the water. This was for several reasons, (one) we would be
below enemy radar, (two) we would be below the SAM’s capabilities and (three)
it would give a little added protection from the high flying MIG’s.
It also had many disadvantages however, at 200 knots a
twitch of the hand, a hiccup, or a gust of wind, could dump you into the drink
before you could say ‘which way is up’. Therefore when we would set up on
station at 50 feet, both pilots would have to remain in their seats at all
times. The plane was flown on autopilot because it was more reliable and steady
and it could hold altitude better than its human pilots. It also had quicker
reaction time especially in rough air. Even though we flew on autopilot, one
pilot had to rest both hands on the control wheel with his forefinger covering
the autopilot cutoff switch in case it malfunctioned.
Another disadvantage was that the gulf was full of navy
ships and when flying at 50 feet, we literally had to climb to get over them.
Many a time I felt like we were making a broadside torpedo run on them. I would
imagine that a good many sailors had the scare of their lives seeing this
monster of an airplane coming straight for them and flying below their bridge.
It was one thing to pop-up and over a ship in clear weather,
but the gulf was always filled with rain squalls and trying to maintain 50 feet
of altitude and ‘looking-up’ for ships in pouring down rain is something
else. Not only did we fly over navy ships, but we also flew over foreign
freighters and fleets of fishing junks. I’m sure that we probably even
capsized a few junks with our prop wash at our low altitude.
Flying these missions was very strenuous because we were
confined to our seats for periods of 10-16 hours. We did not dare leave our
seats even for a restroom break and the temperature in the cockpit would climb
to over 100 degrees. By the time we pulled off station, we could literally wring
water (of one type or another) out of our flights suits.
These low altitude missions were also very hard on the
maintenance crews. The aircraft would return from a mission completely caked
with salt residue and would have to be washed down from nose to tail. The salt
spray was not only corrosive to the aircraft fuselage, but it was even worse on
the big Wright’s R3350 engines.
During the break between the morning bombing sorties and the
afternoon bombing sorties, we would fly down to Da Nang to refuel. This was
always a welcome break in the action and a chance to stretch our legs. We were
on the ground only long enough to refuel however, and then it was back up on
station to be ready for the afternoon fireworks.
I remember several times either coming into or leaving Da
Nang, that the guys at Monkey Mountain Radar Site would ask us to make a low
pass and give them a ‘Bubble Check’. Monkey Mountain was our most northern
land radar site, but its range was not sufficient to give adequate coverage to
the Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor area nor the Chinese border. This was one of the
main reasons why the EC-121D was given its particular mission.
It was after one of these refueling stops and on our way
back up to station, that we nearly landed on one of the 7th Fleet
carriers. We were cruising north up the gulf at 8,000 feet and began our descent
to station altitude. There were broken clouds that day with build-ups from our
altitude down to about 1,500 feet. As typical, the Navy and the Air Force do not
recognize the existence of one another and therefore we normally had no radio
contact with Navy ships nor did we even know where they would be on any given
day. Well, on this given day as we let down through the clouds and broke out on
the bottom–right there in front of us–right there on centerline and glide
slope, was the biggest 7th fleet carrier I had ever seen. We could
not have made a better approach if we would have tried intentionally.
We were honestly surprised and by the time we regained our
composure, we were approaching the threshold. The LSO was frantically trying to
wave us off as if he honestly thought that we were serious about trying to land
a Connie on his carrier. I really don’t know where he got that idea because I’m
sure he could see that we didn’t even carry a tail hook.
With superior skill and ability, we initiated a go-around
and managed to clear the bridge by several feet. It was shortly after this
incident, that we started to receive navy shipboard frequencies and positioning
reports during our morning briefings. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this
aborted carrier landing didn’t have something to do with the Navy and the Air
Force finally beginning to speak with one another!
Subsequent tours of duty in Viet Nam in 1967 were flown at
2,000 feet and in 1968 at 5,000 feet. Task Force was designated ‘Big Eye’
April 4, 1965, redesignated ‘College Eye’ March 1, 1967.
Note: Above article reprinted with the permission of Donald
E. Born who was a pilot in the Connies.