In early 1971, I was a co-pilot in a global air refueling squadron that rotated crews in and out of Eastern Thailand and Fairbanks, Alaska from our home base in Michigan. I had been in the squadron a few months when my crew received orders to go to Thailand. We flew our own aircraft, a modified Boeing 707 called a KC-135, to Thailand. We planned to be there for 4 months.
Our combat air refueling mission was to fly to one of several designated orbits that wrapped around the southwest, west, and northwest edges of North Vietnam. Once orbiting, we were joined in formation by our “chicks”.
Chicks were our receivers, combat aircraft that were flying missions deep into North Vietnam. Each receiver was refueled with a specified amount of fuel using a 20-foot long hard refueling boom.
We also flew the RC-135 on several totally different missions. The RC-135 was a reconnaissance plane and we had Vietnamese riding in the back using very sensitive listening devices to monitor radio conversation between Hanoi and Haiphong. Each mission was a 10-hour orbit between those two cities, with heavy fighter cover under us. The RC was a Boeing 707 with big domes and antennae sticking out.
We had reasonably good air superiority, allowing for a variety of recon, jamming, and fighter bomber aircraft to operate up north. Each needed to refuel going up and coming back. Aircraft joined us in formation to top off with fuel and get ready to complete their missions or head home. Sometimes there was damage to returning aircraft resulting in loss of fuel. We would go further into North Vietnam to get them. On some occasions we went further in to loiter and support aircraft attempting to recover downed pilots. It was a bad day or night if recovery was not successful.
I have a strong recollection of how hollow I felt each time I crossed deep into North Vietnam. No one wanted to end up in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Another strong emotion hit whenever I flew in a southwest anchor at night and could see the illumination flares and explosions on the ground. I would always say a prayer for my Classmates who were down there living that hell.
It was uncomfortable trying to link-up at night when the weather was bad. No visibility and unstable air made it tough and we would fly all over the place trying to get these heavily armed or sometimes heavily damaged jets the fuel they needed.
One day an enemy Mig-21 managed to pop-up and get within firing range of our KC-135. I will bet that few people have ever put a 200,000-pound Boeing 707 into a 90-degree, 4 G turn. Our plane creaked and groaned but we remained in one piece with no new holes. It was very eerie as the AWACS (airborne command post) radioed the closing distances between us and the Mig-21. I thought I was done for on that day.
I had over 30 combat missions in or on the edge of North Vietnam in KC-135’s and RC-135’s when my crew was pulled out a few weeks early to go to Okinawa. I thought it was a good trade-off until I found out what unfriendly country we were encroaching upon this time (North Korea). Kim Il Sung was in power and already creating big trouble in the area. Lots of concern about weapons he already had.
By early 1973 I was in the left seat and had my own crew. It was our turn to go to Thailand, but we were sent to Alaska instead. That also struck me as a good trade-off until I realized that we were going to be flying directly over the North Pole and into Siberia to check on Soviet nuclear testing.
This was the heart of the Cold War. Do you know how many tall pine trees there are in Siberia? Billions.
I got out of the Air Force when the Vietnam War ended. Air Force pilots were encouraged to get out or take a desk job. I was hired by a company in Kansas City. My first day at work I was sitting at my new desk on the 3rd floor, by the windows. The cafeteria was directly below me and it developed a fire. Flames and smoke were coming up the outer wall right by me. I could not resist seeing the irony of it all.