I heard a tale told by a Navy pilot one day in 1970. The story was from 1968 which seemed impossibly distant into the past. He had flown Scooters off the Ticonderoga when they were bombing Pack 6 regularly. The story was about an F-8E that was low on gas behind an A-4C with a buddy tank and too many miles from the carrier deck. The tanker pilot decided to give some of his own fuel to the Crusader because he could not just watch the guy go down into the sea. It was doubtful that either of them would make it but, both did. The pilot of the Scooter with the fuel got killed the next day.
Then years later, I found a story posted online written by Rear Adm. Paul Gillcrist, entitled Conjones de Bronce. In English, we day say Brass Balls. The entire text is posted here and I hope you read it. I doubt the Admiral will mind a reprint since keeping the act alive in the minds of men is the point of telling stories in Yankee Air Pirate, and these guys were Yankee Air Pirates for real.
It happened right around now 46 years ago. We tell it as 681202 Brass Balls.
You are launching beside an RF-8G off the Ticonderoga as an escort into MiG country. Your mission is to cover the recce bird who will take pictures of a bridge bombed just minutes before. He will make two runs to get the shots and that will burn up your fuel. You can strafe some guns to keep them from disrupting the photo run. After the second pass, head for the ship. Listen for Zebra or Tampa. They are the fuel.
Join on the A-4 and take on fuel.
Then find the Ticonderoga now configured for recovery and land. You can see why we teach carrier landings in Flight School now. It would be a shame to go through all that just to hit the fantail. YAP tells stories and this mission means more if you know the story behind it since refueling and landing are more important than shooting and killing.
In real life, the F-8E pilot has his butt saved by the bravery and generosity of the guy in the Scooter. Before Gilchrist could thank him, the young aviator was killed.
NOW READ THE STORY
Cojones de Bronce by Rear Adm. Paul Gillcrist, USN (Ret.)
How could I ever forget him? He did a very courageous thing, putting himself in great jeopardy – for me – and he did it with such casual grace that, contemplating it now – 31 years later – my throat still constricts.
It was a pleasant spring day – sunny skies, balmy breeze, blue sea and a bluer, cloudless heaven. What more could a VF-53 carrier pilot ask? Except, of course, for those goddamned sea snakes! As I walked forward on the flight deck toward my airplane, I looked over the starboard catwalk at the surface of the Tonkin Gulf. It almost made me sick. As far as the eye could see, hundreds of thousands of sea snakes slithered through the water in clusters of a dozen or so. They ranged in length from about two to five feet. A yellowish green color, they swam just below the surface of the water with only their heads sticking out. Our intelligence officer had briefed us on them before we arrived in the Gulf the first time; he told us they were the most poisonous reptiles on the planet. The thought of parachuting into water filled with those hideous things made my stomach churn.
Our flight headed inbound to a highly defended target near Hanoi, North Vietnam. The year was 1968; the mission was photographic reconnaissance to assess the damage done by a strike just 30 minutes earlier. Since it was such a highly defended target, I decided to go in as a photo escort armed with four vice-two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Our normal load out was two of the deadly missiles – one each mounted on a single pylon on either side of the airplane’s fuselage just aft of the cockpit. The reason for this was aircraft weight. Our tired, old F-8E Crusaders had grown in weight over the years because of structural beef-ups and the addition of electronic warfare equipment and deceptive electronic countermeasures devices. The weight had become a problem, since each additional pound of gear meant one less pound of fuel to trap aboard ship.
At first it didn’t seem to matter much; it was nothing more than a minor operational restriction that we had to abide by. But gradually, as the airplane’s empty weight increased, we began to realize that our number of landing opportunities was decreasing by one for every 200 pounds of increase in empty weight. Night-time landing attempts used three times more fuel. So, for every 600 pounds of increase in the empty weight of the airplane, one attempt to land was eliminated. (Back at the Pentagon in 1974, I did a study for my own personal interest. Using the A-4, F-8, F-4 and A-7 as examples, I found that on average, a Navy tactical carrier airplane grew in empty weight at the rate of one pound per day of operational life. The accuracy of that rule of thumb was startling.)
So it was, after careful consideration that I opted for the four-missile configuration, because, after all, we were entering MiG country. Who knew? I might need the extra two Sidewinders. As was the standard practice, the photo pilot flying an RF-8 took the flight lead. I was his escort and his protection if the North Vietnamese decided to send out their MiGs. We “coasted in” about 20 miles south of Haiphong at the “speed of heat,” as usual, and I found that because of the drag associated with the extra missiles, I was using a lot more afterburner than the photo plane.
The target – a railroad bridge between Haiphong and the capital city of Hanoi – was heavily defended, but we already knew that. Nevertheless, the quantity of flak was startling, as it always was. They were waiting for us; they knew that it was US policy to assess bomb damage after each major raid. I was flying a loose wing on the photo plane, scanning the area for MiGs, of course, but also for flak because I knew that the photo pilot, Ed, would soon have to bury his head inside his photo-display shroud for the final few seconds of the run to be sure that the bridge span was properly framed in the camera’s field of view. Neither he nor I wanted to mess up this run and have to come back again. That would be too much! During the actual picture-taking part of the run, when the photo pilot was too occupied to observe flak, I would strafe the most likely source of flak in the vicinity of the target, since just sitting there being shot at is unpleasant and unnerving.
Just as Ed settled down for the photo portion of the mission, which took an eternity of about five seconds, I heard a low SAM warble (radar lock-on) followed immediately by a high warble (SAM launch), and my heartbeat tripled in an instant. I was on Ed’s left flank and saw the SAM lift off at about 4 o’clock, maybe only 10 miles away. There was a huge cloud of dust around the base of the missile as it lifted off; it levelled out almost instantly and accelerated toward us. There was nothing I could do but call it out, knowing that Ed would have to break off his run at the very last minute. (I think the North Vietnamese knew precisely what they were doing). There was no way Ed could stay in his run because the missile was accelerating toward his tail at an astounding rate. My mouth was dry as I keyed the microphone. “One from Two. SAM lift-off at four o’clock, ten miles. Break hard right now!” Ed broke, and I did the same, feeling the instant onset of at least nine G squeezing the G-suit bladders on my legs and abdomen. The SAM roared past us just as another high warble came on in my headset. This one I didn’t see, and that really bothered me. “No joy on the second one,” I shouted into the mike. “Keep it coming right, One.” Then I saw it; it scared me badly, since it was now off my left wing and coming at us fast. “Reverse it left and down,” I shouted hoarsely over the radio. Watching it pass to our left and explode about 200 yards away, I saw that we were skimming the treetops and called out to Ed, “One, let’s get out of here!” I heard two distinct clicks of a microphone and knew that Ed agreed with me. The water was only a few miles away by this time, and we headed straight for it. The two Crusaders thundered across the beach at perhaps 100 feet in full afterburner and travelling in excess of 600 knots.
About 10 miles off the beach, when we knew we were outside the SAM and flak envelopes, we came out of burner and commenced a climb. Ed’s voice came over the radio, sounding apologetic and sheepish. “Two, from One, I missed it!” We both felt bad. Bomb-damage assessment of the bridge from the previous strike (half an hour earlier) was important, and we both knew it. If the bridge span was still standing, another strike would be launched within the hour to go after it. As we passed to the seaward side of the northern search and rescue (SAR) destroyer, I suggested that we report in to the ship’s strike operation center and ask them what they wanted us to do; I was already fairly certain of the answer. We orbited at 15 000 feet over the Gulf as Ed checked in, reported failure and asked for directions, since the strike had seemed important to them. Panther Strike told us to wait while they checked with Task Force 77 for further directions. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, they told us – as we had suspected they would – to go back and try again. We were directed to return to the ship as fast as we could on completion of the photo run so the results could be analyzed and another strike launched, if necessary. At my urging, Ed requested that an airborne tanker be made available for us upon our going feet wet, and back we went. And they were waiting for us! Ed made a similar approach, using a different ingress route, and this time – flak and a SAM warning notwithstanding – we got the pictures. We both overflew the bridge in excess of 600 knots and made the turn toward the Gulf via a planned route that ran on a southerly heading just west of Haiphong and then almost due east to the water over a relatively unpopulated area. Just as we approached the target, I was shocked to see my low-fuel warning light illuminate. Nonetheless, we continued our egress from the target area as planned and went feet wet at a low altitude and a high speed.
I was elated because I was sure it was a successful photo run, and neither of us had been hit. This time, there hadn’t been any SAMs launched; just a radar lock-on. Ed had plenty of fuel and began his climb at full power with the intent of hurrying back to Panther. I kissed him off and, looking at a fuel gauge that read only 400 pounds, I headed for a rendezvous with the tanker that had dropped to 10 000 feet, 20 miles southwest of the northern SAR destroyer. As I began my rendezvous with the tanker, my mouth was dry. With only 400 pounds of fuel, my engine would flame out in just 15 minutes. This was, I thought ruefully, cutting it too damned close. The tanker had been refuelling some A-4s in the air wing and had been vectored to the northern SAR destroyer by the ship when we asked for a tanker, just before we had returned for our second run. Naturally, I was extremely happy to see the tanker and was equally anxious to get plugged in. When I told the tanker pilot my fuel state, his voice suddenly sounded a bit strange. He was extremely apologetic and explained to me that he had just given away all of the fuel in his buddy store. I was stunned! How could this have happened? By failing to tell him to hold at least 1500 pounds for me, somebody back at the ship had really screwed up. A cold chill crept over me. There was no way I could get even halfway back to the ship with only 400 pounds of fuel.
It is worth spending a few moments to explain fuel and what it means to a carrier pilot. In any fleet squadron, standard operating procedure dictates landing back aboard ship with a reasonable fuel reserve to take care of emergencies such as an on-deck crash, bad weather, malfunctioning recovery systems, or a recovery delay for any of a dozen other reasons. For example, the low-level fuel warning light comes on in the cockpit of an F-8 Crusader with 1100 pounds remaining. No carrier pilot who wants a long, safe career should ever be caught airborne with that light illuminated. A similar light in the A-4 comes on at about 1100 pounds. So, to find yourself 125 nautical miles from the ship in a Crusader with 400 pounds of fuel is not just critical; it is the stuff of which nightmares are made! The thought of it still makes me awaken from a sound sleep drenched with sweat.
By now, the tanker plane and I had joined up and were climbing to cruise altitude for our return to the ship – but I was not going to make it. It was a strange feeling – one of finality. It was unreal. And again, I thought of those sea snakes. We levelled off at 20 000 feet and, with my fuel gauge now reading 100 pounds, I began to prepare myself for ejection. We were flying close together. The lower my fuel reading, the closer I flew to him. Perhaps proximity to a friendly face comforted me.
The A-4 tanker pilot throttled way back to match a maximum endurance profile for the Crusader. Since reaching the ship was out of the question, we were buying me some time before I flamed out – just a few more minutes – but every minute now seemed very precious. The tanker pilot’s head, which was only 50 feet away from mine, turned toward me for what seemed like a long time but was probably only 20 seconds. Then I saw him look down in the cockpit. A moment later, the propeller on the nose of his tanker’s buddy store began to windmill in the airstream. This was the driving mechanism that reeled the refuelling basket in and out. The buddy store consisted of a fuel tank, a refuelling hose, a take-up reel and an air-driven propeller to deploy and retract the basket. When full, the fuel tank contained 300 gallons (2000 pounds) of fuel. The tanker pilot also had the capability of transferring fuel into and out of the tank from his own internal tanks. It was the tanker pilot’s responsibility to always retain enough internal fuel to get back safely to the ship. I found it curious that the propeller was turning, then was startled to see the refuelling basket reel out to its full extension. The pilot looked at me and transmitted over the radio. “Firefighter Two Zero Four, I have just transferred five hundred pounds of fuel into the buddy store. Go get it.” I couldn’t believe my ears!
“What about you?” I was almost afraid to ask.
“You’d better take it while you can,” he warned ominously, as though he were already having second thoughts. I slid back into position and prepared to tank. Never was my tanking skill so necessary as at this moment. There could be no missed attempts. My last glance at the fuel gauge showed 100 pounds. I resolved not to look at it again. The sight made me physically ill.
The in-flight refuelling probe on a Crusader is high on the port side of the fuselage, just aft of the pilot. In actual measurements, the tip of the probe is exactly 31 inches to the left of the pilot’s eye. Therefore, the inner rim of the refuelling basket when the probe is centred in it is only about a foot away from the canopy. The basket seems to float around like some wayward, feathery entity whenever you try to engage it with the probe. In fact, the probe, for all its airy movements, is in the tight grasp of a 250-knot gale. The airstream grips it like a vice. Therefore, it has all the resilience of a steel rail. If it so much as touches the canopy of a Crusader, the result is an instant and violent implosion and a fragmentation of the Plexiglas into a thousand tiny shards that end up everywhere inside the cockpit. To say that tanking is a touchy operation is the understatement of the year.
My technique on this particular tanking attempt, however, was flawless. The tip of the probe hit the basket dead center with a “clunk” that resulted in a small sine wave travelling up the hose to the end of the buddy store. It is a comforting sound and a sensation that can be felt in one’s pants and right hand. It is the next best thing to sex!
The very act of tanking, of course, uses fuel. I therefore expended about 100 pounds of fuel to get 500 more, and this left me with a net gain of 400 pounds. Now that my fuel gauge read a much more comfortable 500 pounds, though, I felt like I was in “hog heaven.” I disengaged and slid once more out the right side of the tanker. We looked at each other, and there was an unspoken understanding in the tilt of the tanker pilot’s head. He had bought me some time – perhaps only 15 minutes – but a very precious increment of life nonetheless. Experiencing no small degree of guilt, I felt compelled to ask him the obvious question: “Can you make it back?” There was a slight delay. “I’m not sure,” he replied, but quickly added, “There’s another tanker up here somewhere Maybe he’s got a few pounds to give.” The tanker pilot the inquired of the ship about the tanker that had been sent north to tank the barrier combat air patrol (BARCAP). We were quickly informed that he was indeed returning at maximum speed to rendezvous with us. The voice that spoke to us was more mature and sounded more senior. I suspected immediately that, recognizing their royal screw-up, they had assigned the first team to the problem. (On a carrier at sea, everyone is in training for the next notch up the ladder).
We droned along, still at maximum endurance, watching our fuel gauges and the distance measurement device on the TACAN display. It was really simple mathematics of the type naval aviators learn to do quickly in their heads. My fuel-flow gauge told me the engine was burning fuel at the rate of 2400 pounds per hour (divided by 60 equals 40 pounds per minute). My airspeed indicator told me my speed was 300 knots. Indicated airspeed decreases as altitude increases at the rate of two percent per 1000 feet. Therefore, at my altitude of 20 000 feet, my true airspeed was actually 40 percent higher than my airspeed indicator read (40 percent of 300 equals 120, which, when added to 300 equals 420 knots true airspeed. Divide 420 by 60, and it comes to seven miles per minute. If I am burning 40 pounds per minute, then each mile I travel through the air costs me six pounds of fuel). By cross-checking the distance-measuring equipment-reading on my airspeed indicator, I learn how far away the carrier is; I corroborate that my ground speed is roughly what my true airspeed is, meaning little or no wind effect to worry about.
So, no matter how often I ran the numbers through my head, they told me that my airplane would flame out before I ever got to the ship. Again, I thought of those damned sea snakes. Our only hope was that the other tanker had some fuel left to give. Seconds later, a target appeared on the left side of my radar scope, 30 miles away and converging. A few moments later, my tanker pilot, whose eyes were better than mine, called out somewhat excitedly, “Tally ho the tanker; ten o’clock, fifteen miles.” The several minutes it took for us to complete the rendezvous seemed like forever, during which we were informed that 1400 pounds of “giveaway” fuel were available. My tanker pilot said “Firefighter, you go first and take eight hundred, and I’ll take six hundred; OK?” What could I say? My fuel gauge showed 300 pounds.
Of course, the ship gave us priority in the landing sequence. We made a straight-in approach with the tanker taking interval on me at about 10 miles astern. Steaming into the wind with a ready deck, that ship is one of the most beautiful sights in my memory. The LSOs seemed to understand our sense of urgency. We both caught the number-two wire and taxied forward for shutdown. The arrestment felt great, and the feel of the ship under my wheels felt wonderful. The blast of warm air that filled my cockpit when I opened the canopy tasted like pure oxygen. Life was beautiful at that moment! As I climbed out of the cockpit, I felt a sudden and enormous exhaustion. Then I took one last look at the fuel-quantity gauge. It read 100 pounds.
On the way from the airplane to the ready room, I took a short detour to the edge of the flight deck and scanned the sea for snakes. Strangely I saw none! Five minutes later, while filling out the maintenance “yellow sheet” in my ready-room seat, I took a sip of steaming hot coffee and relished the moment. Then I got up, walked over to the duty officer’s desk and pressed the lever on the 19 MC squawk box. “Ready room four, this is ready room two, Commander Gillcrist calling. Is the pilot of Four-One-Four there?” The answer was immediate. “He’s listening,” said a voice.
“Young man,” I said. “You have cojones of brass. I owe you one.” The now familiar voice of the tanker pilot came right back. “No problem, Skipper; glad to be of help. It’s always a pleasure to pass gas to a fighter pilot. I’ll collect at the bar in Cubi.”
“You’re on,” I finished.
I never got to pay off the debt. Three days later, that fine young man was literally blown out of the sky by a direct hit from an 85mm anti-aircraft shell. The three salvos from the Marine honor guards’ rifles jolted me in much the same as the violent explosion must have done when it ended that young man’s life. For the first time in my life, as I stood at attention, saluting with the bugler playing taps, the tears coursed down my cheeks. The flight deck was heaving slowly in mute response to a gentle swell. Then the Marine honor guards tilted the catafalque up. The coffin slid out from beneath the American flag and fell into the sea.