28 April, 2016

Profile 116: IN-PROGRESS — "1168" as flown by Gene Smith, 333rd TFS

Have a look at the F-105 above - it's an animation showing my progress (about 70% complete).

The real thing, however, was flown by USAF pilot Gene "Smitty" Smith on October 25, 1967. He took part in a mission to sever Hanoi’s crucial "Paul Doumer Bridge" and therefore cripple the North Vietnamese's ability to supply its capitol.   Gene did his job with spectacular results - at least one of the two 3,000lb bombs his F-105 carried cracked the bridge's span.

Yet, the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners did their job, too (as will be described in this and future posts).

Gene Smith in front of his F-105 circa 1967.  Dig the Australian-style "Bush" hat.
Source:  Unknown

Though the "Thud" could bust Mach 1 at low level and carried more bombs than a WWII B-17, the war-tech of the time hadn't really changed since WWI—"bombing" was still an act of putting iron, free-fall bombs onto targets.   On paper, it's fairly uncomplicated math—a bomb dropped at x-speed, y-altitude at z-angle will impact at a particular point.  But in real life, dropping bombs is more complicated due to atmospheric conditions, human factors...even split-second delay in a circuit can throw things off.  

Gene, however, wasn't concerned with outlier variables.  Instead, he was steeling his brain to do his appointed task within the most heavily defended airspace on earth. 

A quick sketch showing Gene's Thud going in—and yes, I know I have the dive-angle too shallow.
It was drawing at the kitchen table and trying to carry on three conversations simultaneously.
Obviously I wouldn't have made it as a Thud pilot.

Do yourself a favor and imagine the scenario—a "Force" of fourteen* F-105s approach the target. Starting at 12,000 feet and scorching along at about 620mph, the Force assumes a diagonal (echelon) formation about five miles away from the target.  The Thuds are about 50' apart. The dive-angle is 40 to 45 degrees—any steeper and the pull-out will put the airplane too low (easy pickings for small arms fire). Any shallower and the accuracy is reduced due to the difficulties of oblique bombing in addition of providing the enemy with more time to fire.

About a mile from the target, the 25 October Force rolled-in to attack the PD Bridge and it sorta looked like this...

Gene and I spent about half an hour going over this little illustration I did—it's really impossible to get the scale and motion down into a workable graphic.  But, I hope it's better than nothing.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese gunners are ready.  But, put any notion of duck-hunting out of your mind as there's no sense of selecting a target, aiming and firing.  Instead, it's all about probabilities — the gunners have a sense where the airplanes are going to be coming from, what altitude and where they'll be exiting.  However, they also know they’ll be coming in too fast to deliberately pick one out.  Of course, a sense of marksmanship is needed but in reality, the practice of “anti-aircraft” is a test of mathematic probability - put up X-amount of bullets in a defined space and the probabilities of getting a hit are Y.

Two female NVA AAA gunners, location unknown.   I guess "Corbis" says they own the copyright on the image
but it looks suspiciously like posed propaganda so not quite sure if the copyright holder is actually
somewhere in Hanoi.

For the pilot, 'evasion' is not in the game plan.  As I tried to allude, it takes an extraordinary amount of focus and skill to put a free-fall bomb onto a fixed space; the brain can either occupy itself with avoiding the blizzard of invisible bullets or concentrating upon hitting the target.  It’s an either-or deal.

Of course, this mental effort is why the pilots practice - it takes time, energy, money...and this is why a military force must continually train, train and train.   I don't mean to get political but every time you hear of a politician wanting to cut money for the military, "practice" is part and parcel of what gets cut.  Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, in Gene's case, the fruit of practical experience came into play (this was his 33rd combat mission). The peppering of explosive flak ahead?  Ignore it.   The glowing finger of a supersonic SAM missile heading your way?  Ignore it.  Flinging two 3,000lb bombs onto a space about 20' wide by 20' high and 20' deep?  That.

The Paul Doumer (Long Bien) Bridge circa 1950.  Photo credits?  Dunno.  Prolly some French photog in an observation airplane.

If you have a  typical patio deck, that's about the right size of the target area. Yeah, the bridge was a lot bigger than that but again, you have to remember that hitting a bridge is different than hitting a building.  A bridge is, from altitude, more like an uncooked noodle, suspended in the air.  All it takes is a fraction of an inch to miss the target and put a crater in water.

Ok.  It’s an oft-quoted statistic that the F-105 had the highest loss rate of any fixed-wing aircraft during the Vietnam War.  Indeed, about 250 were shot down over North Vietnam due to anti-aircraft guns. Another 30 or so were lost due to missiles.  But that’s not the fault of the F-105 per-se.  With over 20,000 F-105 sorties flown, the loss rate was about 1.6%—slightly more dangerous than driving in Los Angeles.  But make no mistake about it, those numbers, though accurate, are skewed—we’re not talking about rank amateur civilians on a highway but seasoned, trained professionals working like crazy to wipe the other out.  It’s a bizarre quirk of fate that so many F-105s ‘got through’ and another that, despite the blizzard of bombs over the course of a long war, the Paul Doumer Bridge STILL EXISTS.

Still, though the big-picture sortie-stats put the Thud in its rightful place of respect, the day-to-day stats that affected the individual pilot are downright horrifying—Gene let me know that an F-105 pilot flying in 1967-68 had about a 50% chance of finishing his tour of 100 missions.  To all you ground-bound pilots of the L.A. Freeway, traffic may suck but be thankful you're not living with a Thud's odds!

F-105 Loss-rate stats.  Read'em and weep.
Source:  "A comparative Analysis of USAF Fixed-Wing Aircraft Loses in Southeast Asia Combat" - U.S. Air Force (declassified)  These numbers are disputed. 

But I digress…

Please.  Have a look at Gene's "Thud" above one more time.  Indeed, though I admit it looks pretty cool (so far), it’s really incomplete.  There are at least two parts I’ve got completely wrong and I haven’t even STARTED on figuring out what stencils it had.  Bottom line—expect a lot of change between now and later.

However, while I’m finishing this Thud, I challenge you to think about what you know about the Vietnam War.  Think about the movies you’ve watched, the books you’ve read…and the people you haven’t** (repeat) talked to about it.

Of course, I’m no expert.  Each time I’ve returned to Vietnam myself reinforces the fact that pursuing knowledge, wisdom and growth is not simple, nor easy.  In many ways, such study is like the biblical analogy of the ‘wide road versus the narrow road’—the wide road is smooth and unchallenging but leads to a form of failure.  The narrow road, though sometimes difficult and lonely, ultimately arrives at success.

Next stop, in Gene’s own words, “North Vietnamese Jail.” 

I found this old Comic at comicbookplus.com
You can read the whole story by clicking here.
It has nothing to do with Gene's story other than the comic features a pilot bailing out of an F-105 over Vietnam.

*A "Force" typically comprised four Flights of four aircraft for a total of 16 F-105s. But on 25 Oct, 1967, one F-105 had to abort due to a hydraulic problem and another had to leave the Force to accompany the aborting jet, resulting in a Force of only 14. On 25 Oct, Gene was leading the fourth Flight.

**A few weeks ago, I bumped into a Caribou pilot (who later flew B-52s from Anderson AFB) and we talked about the fact that WWII vets seem to be more eager to share their past than Vietnam-era vets (for many reasons that the average person should easily understand).

However, a challenge to the Vietnam War community—we (my generation and younger) can't learn much by relying on Hollywood or 'the Media' as our primary source of information.  Write your book, talk to your family...you'll be surprised at how important your story is to the narrative of life.