28 July, 2012

Profile 68: FINAL - F-4E Phantom as flown by the 334th TFS


I'm surprised, too as I never really wanted to jump into the Vietnam era on account of this particular airplane;  the F-4 was too complex, too big to really look good on paper and too ubiquitous - by avoiding the era, I'd avoid the problem!

But, I was certainly wrong.  Instead, the Fighting Eagle's Phantom is truly Sierra Hotel, even if I spent almost as much time figuring out the ECM pod as I did the rest of the airplane!

Anyway, 'you wanna' hear a war story?  It's a quick one...


A little boy comes home to his mom after a day of school.  Mom's waiting and notices - as moms do - that something's not quite right with her son.  Puffy eyes, a furrowed brow - all the signs of a kid who's had a terrible day.  So, she asks and the tears begin.

You can imagine the scene - mom drops to her knee, takes her kid into her arms and asks, "What's wrong, honey?"

"Dad's at war!"  The boy exclaims.  "In Vietnam!"

The mom consoles her son with a hug.  "Yes.  Yes he is.  But he'll be ok...."

"But he's dropping bombs on kids like me!  My teacher told me!"



I really wrestled with this post as two things are weighing in the balance.  The first is the legacy of the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron.  The second is the legacy of the era.

Let me explain.

The story above comes from the wife of Colonel Crawford Shockley.  He's the pilot mentioned in the artwork.  She's the mom who had to love the venom out of the school teacher's bite.  Not just for her boy, but for her husband as well.  It's a sad story; I've told it to a number of people over the past couple days including a High School teacher and the reaction has been a universal sneer of disgust at the teacher.

"How could she do that to a little kid!"

This moment became all-the-more important when I asked "Shock" if I could have a look at his Silver Star certificate.  He replied "yes" but also used the word, "reluctantly."

Over the years, I've picked up on the natural humility of highly noted warriors.  I "get" the idea that they're sensitive to misrepresentation, especially the embarrassment of misapplied heroics.  And, true to form, Shock let me know that his deed was not heroic but merely following through on what he believed to be the right course of action.*

However, I felt the need to poke a little more and got the most unexpected statement.  "Well, we weren't exactly welcomed home, you know."

Ah yes.  "Vietnam."  It's not just about the airplane but the era.

Welcome to 1972.

That was 40 years ago.

Thank gawd times have changed.


Think about this.  Regardless of our beliefs, I think all of humanity can agree that "Ignorance" has killed and harmed more people than any other force.  But Ignorance also has an antidote that is shockingly easy to apply - Knowledge.

I think back on those times and wonder how on earth such a prejudice could be applied to people who by obligation (draft or enlistment) answered a civic expectation?!

Of course you agree - hindsight is 20:20.  But do you care on betting that such a wave of silliness won't  taint the waters again?  Ha.

Would you mind having another look at my F-4?  Only this time, don't just stop at the glance.  And don't just settle on the unsettling demonstration photo.   Do your brain a favor and check out a few books on the start of the Vietnam situation.  I suggest this one (click here).

Knowledge is expensive - it requires time and energy but it's a fine bulwark against the forces of group-think and ignorant emotion.

Originally, I planned this post as an honorarium to Col. Shockley for being awarded the Silver Star.  The story is rich in personal risk, teamwork (salute to WSO "Poobah") and individual accountability - these are the virtues that create the wealth and security that (most of us) desire.

Instead, I dedicate it to Lilly Shockley - mother of boys, wife of a fighter pilot and unfortunately, the Front Line in a culture war.  Lilly, I am sooo sorry you had to bear that awful moment.

So, let's leave Lilly on a better note - the photo below is Shock's homecoming. It truly is good to be home, isn't it?

There's a silver lining to this story in that we live in a nation where dip-stick teachers can spout their swill ad lib.  Think about this - what if you - you - were so afraid of your government that you didn't dare breathe otherwise?

In that spirit, I look at the Fighting Eagles of the 334th and consider this F-4E Phantom to be among my proudest moments.

P.S.  - Crawford Shockley's Silver Star cert is below.  I hope you read it.  It's the military recognition of a Dad looking out for "his other boys."

P.S.S. - To that teacher of 1972 - wherever you are, I hope you went back to school.  To learn.

*Shock did get his WSO's (the guy in the back seat) blessing before committing to sticking around the hot zone for the downed airmen.  In every conversation I've had with Shock, he's mentioned Larry "Poobah" Henry and remains grateful for his trust and excellent skill.   

24 July, 2012

Profile 68: UPDATE - F-4E Phantom as flown by the 334th TFS

Now it's finally starting to look like something!   And we're so close to finishing that the next post will be the final.

In the meantime, there's something I'd like you to notice. It's the "Fighting Eagle" emblem on the air intake cover just below the WSO's seat.

It's pretty cool that the logo is even there at all as it was actually designed in 1943.   See, the 334th's unit lineage traces back to the 4th Fighter Group of WW2 and one of Walt Disney's artists created the emblem as part of the studio's "war effort."  That's not so remarkable - Disney did a fair number of logos/mascots for military units fighting overseas.  What IS remarkable is the fact that it persisted for so long.  Well, at least in a fashion.

Below are images of the original sketch and the period-correct versions. I mean no offense to the guy(s) who painted the later renderings but it's pretty clear something got lost in translation.  One of the 334th guys joked about their version as, "The Puking Pigeon."

Yeah, I laughed too.

I'm not here to criticize a guy's copying skills.  Instead, this is a great opportunity to see how stuff can change over time.  Kind of like how history gets reported, interpreted and passed on.

There's a whole generation of people who's sole experience with the Vietnam War is through other people's interpretations.  Of course, this is going to happen as people don't live forever.  Last year, four WW2 fighter pilots I know took their "final flight," leaving their memories behind in the scattered minds of those who knew them.  The originals are simply gone.

I know a guy who lost his leg "over there" and I asked him how realistic the popular movies on Vietnam really were. He got a big kick out of my question - "You're going to learn about what I went through from a movie?!"

The more I learn about Vietnam, the more I realize that the broad strokes painted for me by others are no more accurate than looking at a single still-frame image from a film.  My buddy is right.  For most, however, that's all they'll get - an entertaining moment about a conflict that spanned nearly 30 years!  

You've probably figured out that I think History needs to be a greater portion of our school's curriculum than it is now.

Anyway... back to the Eagle.

So far, the hand-off of history from Disney to me has taken 70 years.  Now's a good time to have another look at the pencil sketch - can you believe how far it's come?!   And now that we're embedded into the internet cosmos, the Eagle will likely fly another 70 years.  (That'll be the year 2082 in case you're not quick with math.)

For the time being, however, the Vietnam War remains "new" to me - the equipment, the experiences...everything.  I'm especially grateful for experiences like this one as now that I know more, I realize how little I knew then. Though there's an element of The Obvious in that statement, it's important because I don't want my sole history lesson to come from Hollywood.

When I first started this F-4, and knew I had to render the Eagle, I noticed immediately the distance between its WW2 purity and cruder 1972 form - and of course, made all the ironic conclusions that you probably have, too.

But I have to state this. I no longer look at the Eagle and see a logo.  Nor do I see the changes in time and tide.  Instead, I see squadron commander Colonel Crawford Shockley and the people he lovingly calls, "His boys."

Come back for the final post, ok?  It's an image of The Vietnam War you need to read.

Disney image source:  fourthfightergroup.com.  Photographs courtesy Crawford Shockley, Chuck Coffman.

11 July, 2012

Profile 68: UPDATE - F-4E Phantom as flown by the 334th TFS

Here she is, as she was about 2 nights ago but be warned - THERE ARE TWO MAJOR FLAWS in this rendition!  They will be corrected, but since they're going away, I'll leave it to you to find them.


Every airplane I do comes to the table with its own party of people, experiences, history... I never know what to expect other than that each will be unique.  This F-4 is especially so in that it's not just one man weighing in but many.

It's like this - all the other airplanes here are short stories.  But this one is a collection.

When I wrote the prior post about the 334th's mission of "flying chaff," it touched off a chain of reactions among The Fighting Eagles (as they're called) that was remarkable.  Though all were of good cheer, I got the impression that the Chaff missions were loathed.  And if you keep reading, you'll learn why.

Dean Failor, a Weapon System Officer (WSO) on a 334th F-4, just emailed me a recollection of such a Chaff mission. It's remarkable on many levels, especially considering he was essentially riding in a violent roller coaster in the dark.

Hold on...

Chaff Mission

This is a story of a night, three ship chaff mission laying a corridor for B-52s during Linebacker I in 1972.  Three SA-2s were shot at us and all three should have hit us.  The mission had an eerie feeling about it from the very beginning of the briefing.  Problems included target location, aircraft problems, altitude of mission execution, and differing opinions on tactics. 

The target was in the vicinity of Vinh, North Vietnam.  Vinh was a heavily defended transshipment point on the coast about half way between the DMZ and Hanoi to the north.  The main threat was SA-2 surface to air missiles (SAMS).  SAMs were always a threat, but the enemy had been employing tactics such as dummy radars and multiple sites firing at one aircraft.  I figured the chance of outmaneuvering one missile was 90%, two missiles 50% and three 10%.  That is if we saw them.  If you were maneuvering against missiles from one site, they could launch one at you from another site and you might not see it.  As you maneuvered against one missile, your energy or what we called smash would be bled off.  This would make it very hard to maneuver against other missiles.  The idea was that most missiles were defeated by out turning them.  If you were lucky it would stall out and tumble.  I never saw one do this, but that was the theory.  All of the ones I saw miss, seemed to explode above one’s altitude.  I figured our jammers were doing that.
The aircraft assigned to us was one that had a bad jamming pod the night before.  Maintenance couldn’t duplicate the malfunction so we were to fly it again.  It was loaded on our left side, which would be the left side of the formation where we were to fly.  We requested to be put on the right side of the formation away from the threat, but did not get permission.  In addition, it was decided to make a hard, 45 degree bank turn to the east when past the target area to egress quickly over the water.  Discussions included making several 15 degree bank check turns instead of the 45 degree bank turn, the theory was that the jamming would stay more effective and that we could better check below us for missile launches.  In a hard right turn, it was impossible to see below to the left where the threat would be from.  The decision was made to make the faster, 45 degree bank turn.  Better to get out of the threat area as fast as possible.
 Start up, taxi and take-off was uneventful.  As a crew, neither of us said anything extra except what was needed to get aircraft airborne.  This was a bit unusual.  We were good friends and both of us had over 300 missions by this point in time.  I wasn’t even asking to fly the aircraft like I usually did.  After the pre-strike tanker rendezvous and refueling we proceeded to the east to below the DMZ and then turned north on our heading to Vinh.  Cockpit lighting was adjusted and tape put over bright lights that would detract night vision.  The Radar Warning Receiver (RHAW) was turned on and adjusted to compensate for jamming noise from jammer.  The AC concentrated on keeping the three lights and dim strip lights in sight to maintain the pod formation.  I concentrated on threats and navigation.  The wild ride into bad guy country was about to begin.  I figured they had about 4 minutes to kill us.  They knew where we were heading and that we were on the leading edge of our chaff spewing out the back.
We were now at approximately 30,000 feet at 310 IAS (Indicated Airspeed) and about Mach 1.1.    Our chaff dispenser was turned on spewing the chaff out behind us.  As soon as we turned north our warning receivers started to talk to us.  Strobes and noise were the order of the day.  Early warning radars picked us up and then the closer in radars started their steady and chirping sounds and finally the rattlesnake tones of launches.  There was so much noise in the headset I actually turned the volume down so I could hear radio transmissions from wingmen.  I knew that if a missile was launched I would get the Azimuth Sector (AS) light on bright and steady with a loud, piercing tone.  We called this the Awe Shit light.  If that came on, a missile was being aimed at you, or it could also be from a dummy radar site to make you maneuver against a phantom missile and cause you to not fly the required altitude and flight path.  In addition, in maneuvering one might bleed off enough energy and airspeed to make one vulnerable to actual missiles being sent one’s way. 
At 30,000 feet and 310 IAS, the aircraft was on the edge of a stall.  Any abrupt maneuvers could well put us out of control.  The B-52s were behind us, this altitude was good for them. The AS light had been on several times, but no missiles yet. We started our 45 degree bank turn.  I knew this was the most dangerous part of the mission, this was our most vulnerable time.  If they were going to launch, it was now.  I was in the back seat and had a feeling a missile was to be launched, but my Aircraft Commander (AC) wouldn't roll out of the turn. He was trying to stay in pod formation with lead. I could understand his reasoning.  If we strayed out any further, our aircraft would appear as one on outside of formation.  (Remember the possible bad jamming pod on the left?) 
We had just started our turn to the right.  I knew we had to roll out to check below.  Hair stood out on the back of my neck, and a silent voice was telling me to do something or die.  I told the AC to roll out again, but he wouldn't/couldn’t. I had never done this before and never did again, but I grabbed the stick and rolled out.  The first of three missiles was on the way.  I saw it over the left intake at 10 o'clock, made the SAM call to the rest of the flight to roll out and gave the aircraft back to the AC.  He went to negative Gs and went to full afterburner to pick up enough speed to maneuver.  
The first missile was tracking us.  The reddish orange glow of the boost phase that had lit up the world below the undercast was gone and now the missile was a silver-white death dot coming at us at Mach 2 plus.  The silver color was the tracking phase rocket motor. No matter what we did it stayed on the same spot on the canopy.  If it didn’t track us we would ignore it and let it fly close by through our flight.  The AC pushed the nose over and the missile would follow us, if we pulled up it would follow us up.  That meant it was tracking us. We barrel rolled around it and it just missed us and blew up about 300 feet above us. I don't know how it missed. The second missile from the same site was on us now.  Low on airspeed and altitude, I asked the AC what he was going to do and he said “I don't have a F...ing clue.” Gave me a lot of confidence!!??, but I didn't have any ideas either. We were "out of airspeed and ideas" as they say. He unloaded even more and then tried another roll around missile. Must have worked since I saw the missile up close and it too just missed us. Probably the jamming helped, couldn't read our altitude correctly maybe.  It also blew up over and behind us.  One second earlier and the night would not have ended well.  I swear I saw the rivets on the missile as it passed by.
I put my head down in the radar scope to work the radar tilt and gain to pick up the rest of the flight so we could get back into formation. I found them and told pilot to come right and climb, flight was to right of us 45 degrees and high. By this time we were heading basically east. Just as we were getting back in position a third SAM blew up just behind and above flight. It illuminated all three aircraft. It evidently came from another SA-2 site at our six. We never saw it coming.
Luckily, none of us were hit.  Thanks to superb flying by my AC and what I believed was a helping hand from God, we all made it home safely that night.    Praise the Lord and give me some more airspeed and altitude! 

Thank you, Dean.

07 July, 2012

Profile 68: UPDATE - F-4E as flown by the 334th TFS

Ok.  You can look but don't expect to see much.  This thing is a long way from reality.   But, it's moving in the right direction.   The exhaust area was giving me fits a couple nights ago until I remembered seeing heat distress on a sharp photo of an F-100, then mimicked the effect with a light pass of purple.

If you ever see the final piece - even close-up - you won't see the purple. At least that's my hope!  I am working to make sure what we perceive is actually seared metal.  In art, "perception is reality." I have a William S. Phillips piece hanging in my #2 studio that I use for inspiration.  Far away, it looks like a silver B-29.  Up close?  It's a blue B-29.  He's definitely one of the best aviation artists ever and true master of the trickery of color.

This is a good segue to bring up one of the main tasks of the 334th, laying "Chaff."  And for that, we should brush up on the knowledge of Radar.

Radar works by sending radio waves out from a device, waiting for the waves to hit an object and then collecting the returning waves at the source.  It's actually a 19th Century discovery, but it took until the 1930s for the idea to really manifest itself for military purposes.   The Brits used radar rather well to determine where the German bombers were going to attack during the Blitz of 1940-41.  From then on, just about every combatant in WW2 used radar in some fashion or another for the obvious reasons of detection.

But, every good trick demands an even better counter.  One of those counters was a thing called, "Chaff."

Chaff is a device that, when dispersed in the air, mimics the substance of an aircraft.  When the enemy radar detects the Chaff, the signals that come back are essentially gibberish.  The results are critical - a jumbled radar scope can nullify radar-guided weapons like guns or missiles and it can also keep the enemy in-the-dark about the actual target.

For Chaff to work, a number of factors have to be right.  But most importantly, the stuff has to be in the air long enough to mess things up for the radar readers.  So, it has to be light enough to "float."  Put it up too soon and it goes away.  And don't even think about being 'too late' because by then, someone might be dead.

I thought you might like to see what the WW2 variety looked like - see below.  And for extra authenticity, it's held by WW2 fighter pilot, too.

Anyway, this is what Chaff looked like back then - metal impregnated paper strips.  And when TONS of it were dumped into the air, the little pieces looked like big bombers.  Or, at the very least, a massive blob of "unknown."

25 years later over Vietnam,  Chaff was still an important trick.  In fact, it was really important because of the advent of radar-guided missiles called SAMs.  Like the airplanes, radar and the requisite counter-measures had evolved.

The CO of the 334th, Col. Crawford "Shock" Shockley described, "The chaff we had was almost invisible - almost like hair.  You couldn't see it with the eye, but it showed up on (the North Vietnamese) radar.   And our job was to be ahead of the rest and lay it down before the rest of the strike arrived."

Now think about that for a second.  I'll repeat what he said, "...and our job was to be ahead of the rest..."

*click*  It became clear.  The 334th were the first ones in.  Now, being the first on the battlefield can actually be a benefit as the 'element of surprise' is in your favor.  But once that's lost - which is instantaneous - the war is on.

"(The North Vietnamese military) would see this band of chaff (on their radar screens) and then they'd put all their effort at the head of it because now, they knew where we were!"

Don't think for a second that Chaff missions were without high value.  In air-combat, time is divided into quantum slices.   The quick tick of a clock can contain victory, defeat and an outcome that could be returning home safely, in a body bag or POW camp.

The Chaff mission was a hell of a responsibility.

And they're also a brilliant illustration of how situations are dependent upon human performance, i.e. competence.    To those of us fortunate enough to have avoided mortal combat, the analogy can be brought into our work and personal life easily.   But I can't help but thinking that the 334th TFS learned the crucial lesson of "doing one's work well for the sake of others" better than most.

Hmmm.  I think I'll look into that.  Stay tuned.  Especially because the 334th's technical expertise was to be relied upon when they were tasked with using a radical evolution of the iron bomb.

In the meantime, the photo below is all I could find of the modern Chaff.  Just think - inside that little tube is a whole bomber formation.  Or not.

And go ahead and try to find the purple in the F-4.  It's there.  Really.

Note:  The 334th were certainly not the only unit in SE Asia tasked with dispensing Chaff over the battlefield.  However, they are the only one that earned the nickname, "Chaff Masters."

Postscript:  More than a few 334th alumni have, after reading this post, expressed their feelings about the Chaff mission.  If they can be summed up in one statement, it is this:  "I've spent the last 40 years trying to put chaff completely out of my vocabulary and memory."  I think I understand why, too.

04 July, 2012

Profile 68: BEGINNING "xxx" as flown by the 334th TFS

Here it is - my newest project - an F-4E Phantom as flown by the 334th TFS.

This sketch - done with a fantastic ballpoint pen swiped from a Hyatt  -  surprised me with its ease.  Some people call the Phantom "ugly."  But to me, it's beautiful.  Hulking, big and angular, she seems crafted - not by an engineer - but by a sculptor with a wicked vision.  There is no mistaking it for anything other than what it is - a war machine.

The pressure is always on to do well.  But this project brings a new dimension to the work in that it will not represent a specific pilot but an entire squadron. And not just a Squadron but a specific TDY (military jargon for "temporary duty").  In other words, a time and a place and the team itself.

Introducing The Eagles from Ubon, Thailand, 1972.  Their 'temporary duty' is no mere corporate rotation but the assembly for an astonishing aerial campaign called "Operation Linebacker."  Though many fascinating aspects of the story that will come out later, the one you need to know now is - this is what finally put a stop to The Vietnam War.

I'm really amped for this project as I expect to learn much about such a critical time of American history.  So much so that last Sunday, while the sermon was on "Walking in the Spirit" I evidently interpreted it as "Flying in the Phantoms" as indicated by the photo (below) of my sermon notes!

No offense to my pastor but the way I see it - if God didn't value history, His book would have been a whole lot skinnier.

Anyway -  time to imagine blue skies, white clouds, green below...and a red-hot enemy.  We're going North!

Photo:  ©1972 Chuck Coffman, 334th TFS