Expect the Unexpected

This is a fighter pilot story with little to do with Offset.

So, there I was … payback time for three days on ‘the beach’ when I had a hydraulics failure off the Philippines. Yes, sitting Alert Alpha in a hot cockpit in the middle of a South China Sea day on the deck of the USS Midway (CV-41, and yes, I know it is now a museum.)

The joke was on the schedules officer, as we got launched! A free flight! Thank God for the Soviet Union, who decided that day to practice attacking a US carrier with some Badgers (Tupolev Tu-16, officially). That is, by the way, why a bi-polar world split was so convenient – we practiced against them, they practiced against us … think of all the tax payer dollars and rubbles saved!

Anyway, back to the story. Off we went. Four Phantoms stuck out in front of the carrier as it transited to Thailand. Just a routine day in the US Navy Foreign Legion. Now, Soviet aircraft have to be ‘escorted’ when within a certain range of US assets (bases, carriers, etc.) That means a fighter or sufficiently aggressive aircraft on their wing at all times. They peeled back one of the Phantoms to fly that wing … but not me. I am many miles out in front of the carrier, and my closest ‘wingman’ is back escorting the Badgers – which means I am totally alone, as the other two Phantoms are many miles times two to the south. How boring is that? It is so boring we decide to try to ‘wash’ the aircraft by flying through some local cumulonimbus clouds in the hope that there were some liquid drops inside. Because of my ‘station,’ I also happened to be the closest aircraft to Vietnam’s territorial waters – that really didn’t mean anything, we thought. But we had to keep scrupulous observance on that boundary to avoid an international incident.

Which is what exactly occurred.

We were being ‘close controlled’ (yeah, the quotes are there for a reason) by a surface ship – cruiser as I recall. They were reporting … nothing. Maybe some MiGs over Phnom Penh. Now, as a Navy Fighter Pilot, MiGs would be very interesting. But since they were airborne over a place hundreds of miles away … less so. So, chase a cloud. Or two. Or more.

Then …

“Switchbox 202, we have a contact off your starboard side about five miles.” OK. Great. Give me a vector. No help. My RIO (Radar Intercept Office, aka back-seater) was working the radar vigorously. The RIO then said, look a bit low and to your left. Bingo! Two aircraft. They initially looked like some errant Navy A-7s on a surface search patrol … but as we closed, they were MiG-23s! My RIO and I were rendezvousing on two Soviet Floggers!

Hot Damn! We said, “Roger, contact two Floggers.” The voice on the radio, previously a somewhat young and hesitant sounding voice, changed immediately. “Confirm two Floggers?!?” growled an older, firmer voice. For the next eight minutes, I had the absolutely best close control I had ever had in my life! Oops – they just jettisoned their drop tanks! That may mean they meant business. So, we started Hi and Lo Yo-Yos (up and down energy saving moves) while chasing them around! It was the best eight minutes of my short military career. They eventually stopped maneuvering and started flying back towards Vietnam. At the international border line, we did a reverse Immelmann and exited with a low-altitude, high-speed fly-by over the cruiser to clear our tail. We later learned they had been launched to check out one of our surveillance aircraft and on maneuvering against me for several minutes had run almost out of gas. On landing (a ‘fair’ 3 wire), I was given a gratuitous upgrade to an ‘OK’ due to the excitement of contacting the enemy!

Moral: Always expect the unexpected. When you approach a country, be prepared to adjust to the circumstances! Do what is necessary to conclude the deal given what you have in hand, without starting WW3!

The best part: some months prior, a single F-14 Tomcat had a similar engagement during transit with a single Flogger – and had not maneuvered to a position of advantage before it, too, ran low on fuel. This Phantom had gotten to the Commanding Heights on two Floggers 🙂