03 March, 2012

Profile 64: UPDATE "Kingfish One" as flown by Leo Thorsness

Have a look.  Not much, but it's getting there.  The shape's about right though - and man, what a shape! That thing's a knife.  And a knife that flies at Mach 2, too.  If I were on the ground and saw that slicing towards me, I'd know something serious was going to happen.

The F-105 "Thunderchief" was designed in the '50s as a fighter-bomber by the Republic Aircraft Company.  They were the same folk that created the iconic WW2 airplane of the same mission, the P-47 "Thunderbolt."  However, the F-105's load-carrying capability was easily over TEN TIMES its older brother.   And four times faster, too.  Evolution was marked by continually raised limits back then.

But while the airframe eggheads were reveling in the innovations of the jet age, there were others who were focusing and sharpening another WW2-era invention (actually 1930s). Radar. And, in Vietnam, Radar and Thunderchief would collide in terrible fashion.

For most Westerners who've learned about the North Vietnamese fighting forces, the picture comes to mind of tiny primitives dressed in black pajamas armed with sharpened sticks and stolen rifles.  And cone-shaped hats. That may have been true a time or two (more so for Hollywood types).  But make no mistake about it - the North Vietnamese fighting forces were serious, resourceful and wanting - not to meet the American tech - but to beat the American tech.  And the only really clear lead the Americans had in "Tech" was their aerial forces.

If you were a communist revolutionary tired of seeing American iron in the sky, who'd you call to make it stop?

Russia provided the North Vietnamese forces with their top-secret "Dvina" missile system.  Guided by radar, the Dvina - commonly known as a SAM; short for surface-to-air-missile - would acquire a target and launch its missile.  It was straight-forward to operate and extremely difficult to counter; exactly the kind of thing the North Vietnamese needed.

Accelerating to over Mach 3, the SAM wouldn't need a direct hit.  Instead, it would explode when it sensed proximity.  250ft would do.  Here.  I'll show you...

I made the illustration above "to-scale" so you could get an idea of the distances.  And yeah, that's an F-105 getting hit in the nose.

Bear in mind, it wasn't the first time our Generals had to scratch their chins about Dvina - one brought down a U-2 spy plane over Russia during the infamous "Gary Powers" incident in 1960.  In the five years since, the system had been improved to be even more lethal to jets flying at lower altitudes and at greater speeds, too.

SAM sites sprouted up around the critical target areas around Hanoi.

Anyway, so what to do about these SAMs?  Enter the "Wild Weasels."  Their mission was to fly ahead of the attack formation, PURPOSELY trigger a SAM launch so their own smaller Shrike missile could get a lock (again via radar) on the launch site and blow it up.  Makes total sense.  Until you wonder, "Hey.  What about the missile that's been launched?"

Leo told me, "Well.  You've got three, four seconds."

"To do exactly what, Leo?"


Simple.   Like telling someone who's going swimming with seals, "Don't get attacked by a shark."

At the next progress update, I'll describe Leo's second-most-memorable Wild Weasel mission.

OH!  A few numbers for you.*

Of the 144 F-105F/G "Wild Weasels" built, 38 were lost to combat.  A 26% loss rate.  Go ahead and whistle softly.  Would you buy a car with a 26% crash rate?

But get this - of the 833 F-105s built (including prototypes), 320 were lost to combat.  A 38% loss rate.  Go ahead and mumble whatever you mumble when you realize such awful odds.

*Combining data from my own library, the sometimes questionable Wikipedia and pilot's own words, I try to come up with my own reasonable averages.  In some cases, the numbers are spot-on. In others, they are up for conjecture.  Use these figures as a rule but don't base your Master's Thesis on them.