Ya'know, the Deuce illustrates the old adage that, "Wars aren't finished with the same weapons that started them."
As stated before, the F-102 was a purely Cold War creation—designed to fire Falcon missiles into the butt-end of a Soviet bomber stream. Period. How it got to Vietnam is purely an exercise in Preparedness. And that's a good thing.
WWII ace Don Bryan explained to me the differences between Planning vs. Preparedness. In Planning, the process addresses a defined set of expectations and desired outcomes. In Preparedness, the process addresses a variety of expectations and diverse outcomes. One process honors focus, the other the ability to adapt. Don was a bigger fan of the later but that's a different post altogether...
That an Interceptor designed to fire missiles at a bombers ended up in the highly tactical and mobile environment of Vietnam was definitely not part of the overall plan. But it did show excellent preparedness. After all, what if the Ruskies had given the North Vietnamese a squadron of Tu-95s*?!
It doesn't matter. The NVAF never mounted a strategic bombing campaign. So, Deuce drivers like Lt. Jim Eisenmenger flew almost all of their missions escorting B-52s during the "ARC LIGHT" close-air-support strikes on targets below the DMZ.
B-52 angles away, probably back to Guam.
Courtesy: Jim Eisenmenger
Jim explained to me what a typical mission was like; two 102's would take off from their base in Udorn, Thailand and join a three-ship B-52 strike inbound from Anderson AFB in Guam. Once they met-up, the scene was straight out of WWII in that the escort would curve above the bombers in order to slow down their ground-track to meet the B-52s.
"They were about .78 Mach and though the 102 had really great slow speed handling, we had to be ready to act so we S-turned over them so we could keep our speed up."
Operations over SEA required a higher level of navigational awareness than the preceding conflicts of WWII and Korea. The faster speeds, narrow boundaries and complicated "rules of engagement," only added to the complexity of using the big Deuce in-country.
Here. Have a look at the map below. It's a general map of Vietnam that Jim had tucked away in his G-suit. It may be vintage 1969, but it provides a unique glimpse into what it was like to fly ops over there. The markings are courtesy of some unknown, unsung intelligence officer.
GCI Map of Vietnam
Courtesy: Jim Eisenmenger
The black radii and peculiar names like "Point Crab" and "Waterboy" are actually Ground Control Intercept (GCI) stations that helped interceptors like the 102 locate, track and intercept targets. The 509th was based at Udorn, about 100 miles west of the Thai/Laos border. If you locate the center of the map, move up to find the GCI station, "Invert," Udorn is where the number 70 is written. Jim & Co. were indeed, well-prepared for the attacks that would never come.
However, look at the crudely colored black solid and hashed areas. Those are areas judged to be 'more desirable' in the event of having to ditch or bail out. I asked Jim what the significance of each area meant and he laughed. "I have no idea. And I don't think (the Intel guys) had any idea either!" He did note that they looked nice on the map, however. "It's nice to know where and where not to bail out," he said with a wry smile.
Jim flew 52 combat missions and only one of those crossed the DMZ. When I asked if any particular ones were notable, he was quick to say that none really were. Of course, he could recall the tiny flashes of AAA against the black jungle during night missions but he was also quick to state the flashes were more interesting than dangerous; I got the impression that for Jim, flying the F-102 was rather routine. In 1969, the routine ended. SEA '102s were ordered home; their intended mission simply wasn't going to happen.
"When the 102s were being pulled out, I was happy to go home. But later—now—I wish I would have stayed."
Sometimes you need to bring your own table decor to coffee.
If you want one, click here.
But "spectacular" isn't the point. After so many years of listening to "c-stories," I've come to appreciate people's whole story as more important than just the exclamation points. Perhaps that's more of a function of talking to old warriors in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s—they not only remember the wars but the "peaces" in between.
Months later, over another cup, Jim was more interested in talking about the changes that have taken place since his Deuce days.
"Back then, we were graduating (thousands) of pilots a year. We were probably killing more pilots in accidents and such than there are actually flying fighters today!" he quipped. Indeed, there are less than 200 of the tech-bursting F-22 Raptors in service right now compared to the 1,000 F-102s that were built. And the Raptor not only does the job of the Deuce, it also replaces the rest of the Vietnam-era suite like the F-4 (5,000+ made), the F-105 (800+ made) and, if pin-point efficiency is worth anything, maybe even the B-52.** (700+ made). It's an imprecise statement, but in many ways, one airplane today is doing what thirty used to do.
Progress, eh? But the progress of efficiency hasn't come cheaply. In adjusted dollars, the $1 million dollar price tag of the 1963 F-102 would be more like $10 million dollars today. A lot of money, sure, but not nearly as much as the F-22's current price of $150 million. We're doing more with fewer folks but paying over ten times the price to do so.
Is it worth it? Who knows?! The next war will reveal that when it happens. In the meantime, I hope you see the irony in the pictures below. It looks like we should have kept a few '102 around.
F-102 vs Tu-95 F-22 vs Tu-95
The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? ;)
*Actually, the NVAF had a handful of Russian Il-28 "Beagle" medium bombers. But all things considered, they wouldn't have gotten much past that first dotted red line on Jim's map...
**Just checkin' if you're awake. Nothing replaces the B-52. Ever.