By Ron Pickett CAPT USN Ret.
He hears the buzzing sound and looks up. He sees a CDF OV10 and two S2’s. They are headed for a fire that is a couple of miles from his home. His mind is flooded with memories from over forty years ago.
The flight schedule is posted in grease pencil on Plexiglas in the bunker. It is dark and dank and cool and people move in and out easily, doing their jobs; the aircraft are assigned and the maintenance checks are complete, the ordnance load is listed and confirmed. It’s mostly rockets, pods of 2.75 and our bread and butter, the fast, accurate and deadly 5” Zuni. The briefing is short; we’ve done this so many times before. The rendezvous is a simple port turn and a couple percent reduction in power.
We walk around checking a few parts and tugging at the rocket pods. Getting in is like putting on an uncomfortable but familiar suit. Arrange the straps, step on the seat and slip your feet into the narrow space that leads to the rudder pedals. It’s hot and humid and I’m already sweating as the coolness from the bunker fades quickly. The flight suit, g-suit, survival vest and torso harness are slightly salty and carry my scent – mixed with the odor of fire retardant and the strange fragrance that was built in when they were manufactured. The Koch fittings click into place as the torso harness connects to the ejection seat. It feels a lot like the Bronco that the airplane was named for.
I complete the check off list with the copilot in the back seat. I want to get airborne as quickly as possible and climb into the cooler air a mile above the delta. I start the engines and the familiar smell of burning jet fuel is blown into the cockpit. I move the large bag filled with WAC charts – this is a visual seat-of-the-pants business and the charts must be well cared for and easy to find. We taxi to the end of the runway and point away from the main base. The ordnance crew arms the rockets and gives me a thumbs up. We take off, the engines are small and high pitched, but smooth and reliable a little more thrust and they might have put in air-conditioning.
The join up is quick and we connect through hand signals. We climb slowly avoiding the clouds and other aircraft. The horizon is indistinct; the smoke from the burning rice paddies obscures everything.
The copilot is running through the long list of frequencies, “Blue Cat one this is Black
Pony 2, over.” After a delay, the sync sound of the radio and “Black Pony 2 this is Blue Cat 1 Good morning, over” “Good morning Blue Cat, got any work for us this morning?” “Roger Black Pony, nothing yet, but keep us in mind. Check back tonight and we may have something for you. And thanks for last week you saved our bacon!” “Any time Blue Cat, we’ll check back later.”
We are at 7000ft and turn slowly to the north. We work closely with US troops on the ground and it is very rewarding; I know that I am making a big difference to these guys – and I am glad I will enjoy a shower and sleep in an air-conditioned room tonight.”
I hear the copilot connect with a ground site. The exodus, “Vietnamization” is well underway and the troops are farther apart now. He’s got a couple of targets for us to work and our attention redirects to the task at hand. There is a slight increase in the adrenalin level and the pulse rate. I set up the ordinance panel and double check that I have selected the right station, and the correct settings and visually check the exact location of the Master Arm Switch.
The guy on the ground marks his location with a smoke and we verify that we have him in sight – the bad guys sometimes pop the same color smoke to throw a little confusion into the game. He wants us to shoot up an area about 200 meters to the west and we agree about the location, beside the canal, next to the tree line, and talk the position through with our wingman. Funny, perhaps, but I have a habit of lowering the seat as much as possible – it seems to bring me into the protection of the cockpit just a little more.
I put the target under the port wing, I’ll be making my run from the east and off set from the guy on the ground. I roll in and let the nose come up so that the pipper and the target merge and press the pickle. There is a whoosh as the rockets leave the pod and quickly track to the target; a small copse of trees, and I start a pull-up. The gees don’t stay on for long, and I look back over my left shoulder and I see the rocket hit right where I aimed. My wingman is ready to roll-in and I tell him to move his shot 25 meters north. He calls “Pony 13 in,” and I watch him shoot and pull up. There are white streaks from the Zunis and then two white contrails from the wing tips. We ask the guy on the ground for adjustments; he wants us to work the area to the east for about a 100 meters.
We make three more runs each. On the third run I see some muzzle flashes from the tree line so I adjusted my dive and aim point and put a Zuni right on top of them. Stupid thing for them to do, but if you are being shot at and you have a gun, it must be impossible to keep your head down.
We depart and repeat the process, working the new target and then joining up and heading home. The airplane is lighter now and it maneuvers easily, I lead a tail-chase around and over the clouds and we delight in the freedom of flight – there isn’t much of that any more. The planes are refueled and rearmed and we do it again.
Today was busy; sometimes there is time to think about the ten year old son and the twelve year old daughter and the busy, lonely wife back in La Mesa. Now, I’ve got to get to the mess hall and then spend a couple of hours in my office; but the work is mostly routine.
I hope this afternoon is quieter than last week. The Ops officer and I had to tell one of our young pilots that his wife had committed suicide – we helped him pack and get on a flight back to the states. Terrible, terrible thing to have to do, and it brought the plight of those we left at home back into stark focus. Or three weeks ago when one of our pilots flew an airplane into the water – sad, he was doing a fly-by for a destroyer he was going to do gunfire spotting for. He tried an aileron roll and didn’t realize the difference in performance that the fully loaded plane made.
I have to find a time to call the bureau; I’m not going to get this command, which is what I came out here for, so I’ve got to fit into another XO/CO track to manage my career. Strange, the daily deadly war here, and still the necessity to look for the longer range, highly personal aspects of being successful. They, the bureau will take care of me; they owe me.
The CDF OV-10 and S2s have finished their work. The fire is out, and a white haired old man goes back to pruning the roses – if you look closely you will see a slight smile on his weathered face.