Thursday, August 27, 2015

Profile 107: FINISHED—"Charlie's F-4" of VF-114


"It was hard.  But good."

Those are Navy Captain and ex-POW Charlie Plumb's words in regards to the trip he just took to Vietnam.  And I got it; I was—for good, bad and indifferent—there with him.

Deep breath.

Ok.  you should know that I am currently supervising the production of the next episode of my video show, "Old Guys and Their Airplanes."  This next episode features Charlie's story, hence the production title, "There. And Back."

We'll have a full Trailer ready in a few weeks but in the meantime, you can view five "Teasers" by clicking here.  But for now, I'm sitting here, late at night, wondering just how we'll capture all the details of this incredible story.

But for now...

Progress shot, about 33% complete.  
...this is my first Navy F-4; all the rest have been USAF versions.  This bit of trivia is rather strange in that the F-4 is, in its heart, a naval aircraft.  If you're like me, you think of the F-4 in its green and brown USAF "SEA" camouflage, bristling with bombs, missiles and fuel tanks.  Yet, the F-4 began as a Navy plane and that means the typical gray paint scheme. And the Navy also defined the F-4's original role as an "Interceptor" (as opposed to the aerial Swiss Army Knife that it would eventually become).

Ok, this is where learning about the nuances of history really provides leverage for elevating one's brain.  Did you ever hear the phrase, "No plan survives the first thirty seconds of combat"?  On one hand, it's an amusing rejoinder.  But on the other, it's prophetic warning.  Birth, School, Work and Death are liberally sprinkled with examples of how one thing is intended but another prevails.  Some people shrug their shoulders and accept Fate while others wonder, "Hmmm.  What can we do to make this work?"

Kind of like Charlie Plumb's morning aboard the USS Kitty Hawk on 19 May, 1967.  His plan was to fly his 75th mission, return to the carrier and go home to wife and country.  It didn't work out that way.

Charlie in front of a SAM missile.  The one in front is a real SA-2.  The one in the background is a decoy
that the North Vietnamese made out of woven bamboo/reeds in order to attract attacks.
Charlie's F-4 was hit by a decidedly "real" SA-2.
Nevertheless, think about this concept of "No plan survives..."  for a second.  Today, you're planning on going to work, the grocery store, work on the car...but tthe future' has another idea altogether.

Makes you think, eh?

Anyway, going back to the F-4...

Designed by McDonnell-Douglas, the airplane was intended to counter the Soviet threat of bombers reaching the U.S.  This is why they referred to it as an "Interceptor" —it intercepts.  It's meant to climb fast, get to the target fast and do its job fast.  Versus a commie bomber loaded with nukes, the traditional role of aerial gunfighting is a pure waste of time and energy.   So, the F-4 was designed without a typical dogfighter's weapon, the gun.  Tucked into elegant recesses under the fuselage, four ultra-high-tech Sparrow missiles were to be fired (from a distance) at whoever was stupid enough to start WWIII.

The Interceptor job was a brilliant one for the Navy, too.  Launched from carriers, F-4s could pick off any threat WAY before it reached the American continent.  

Charlie remembers "ground" training for future F-4 missions in a space suit connected to a portable air conditioner (see below).  Yep, that's real Buck Rogers stuff.  But it wasn't meant to be.  

Charlie's first F-4 flight suit looked kinda like this one.  Shown, NASA pilot Bill Dana and
the incredible X-15 rocket plane.  Source:  NASA archive
We all know what happened next, right?  Uh...yeah.  "Vietnam," and with that, previously accepted strategy, tactics and tech were rewritten to accommodate what the designers of 1955 couldn't know.  In the next ten years, the F-4 was adapted to carry a huge variety of bombs, more missiles and all kinds of electronic gizmos. Eventually, the USAF managed to stuff an actual dogfighting gun in the nose (the Navy refrained and maybe even wisely-so but that's another topic altogether).

Nevertheless, it's interesting to note here that the Navy was extraordinarily successful with the F-4.   According to one source, the USAF ended up with a 3:1 aerial victory ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force.  But the Navy managed a 6:1 ratio.  And the Navy's figures are an average between the struggles of the war's early years and the later when new, adaptive tactics showed their worth.

Go Navy, eh?

Okay...

 (pause)

Now, I've done a fair amount of jumping around even for my patented ADD writing style.  But I wanted to try establish the concept of "adaptability." The F-4 was intended for one thing and was forced to adapt to another.   Charlie Plumb signed up for one thing (life aboard a carrier, flying jets) and was forced to adapt to another, too (six years in a torturous POW camp).

This past July, right before we left for Hanoi, Charlie asked me what kind of a story I thought I'd get by following him around.  In a rare moment of wisdom, I deferred to the reality of Fate and replied, "I really don't know.  We'll see, I guess."  And off we went, tugging 300lbs of gear on an 18,000 mile journey that took us from Hanoi to Haiphong to Saigon to some hellishly hot river near the Cambodian border...



I'll leave it like this for now: the whole trip came down to single picture that I took with my iPhone.

Intrigued?   I hope so.

In the meantime, have a look at the F-4B below.  It's the airplane that  Charlie and RIO "Gary" Anderson launched from the Kitty Hawk on 19 May, 1967.  It was a day they never figured would happen and yet would forever alter the course of their lives.

Stay tuned for more information on the next episode of Old Guys and Their Airplanes, "There.  And Back."
Finished.  This is how Charlie asked for it - no tanks and with a sidewinder hung off each of the rails.
To him, it's a reminder of his past.  To me, it's a reminder of what can happen.