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.