30 October, 2016

Profile 122: "221" as flown by The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS

So, this past summer, an interesting conversation transpired between me and a rising star of a large corporation.  We were discussing (clear throat, cop a stuffy British accent) the preeminent topic of anyone who desires Command and Control—leadership.

It sounds all-lofty and pompous... but I suspect we also sounded a bit silly, too.  After a while, one realizes that if Leadership could truly be contained within bullet points or anecdotes, society would collapse in a huge narcissistic dog pile*.

But Leadership remains a great topic for discussion.  Part art, part luck, part genetics, part practice…and mysterious as all-get-out because just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the universe shifts.

Still, the ambitious executive’s question stuck with me, “How do I know if I’m a good leader or not?”

Break Break.

Have a look above.  It's an F-4E Phantom in the livery of the 336th TFS, circa 1972, Ubon, Royal Thailand Air Force Base.

There are a few points to note, too.

Firstly, the squadron was called, The Rocketeers; probably the coolest name and logo since WWII's the 487th Fighter Squadron's "Petie."  You have to appreciate the skill and talent of those tasked with memorializing a military unit with an icon—whomever designed the Rocketeers logo designed one of the best.

The 487th FS logo (L) and the 336th TFS's logo (R).
I know "JC" Meyer thought-up the baby with the buggy whip but if you have any idea on the Rocketeer's logo, email me.

Secondly, it's a “Linebacker” bird.  Operation Linebacker was the code name for President Nixon's reaction to North Vietnamese forces that crossed into South Vietnam during January of 1972.

That year, The United States armed forces were in withdrawal from Vietnam and smack-dab in the middle of handing the war off to the South Vietnamese military (a weirdly-named process called “Vietnamization”).  The North couldn’t have picked a more clever time to move into the South as they threw their punch when the U.S. and South Vietnamese military were distracted.

Now, Nixon may have been disturbingly paranoid but he wasn’t indecisive.  He also knew that insanity (ironically) was, “…doing the same thing but expecting different results.”

So, Nixon acted powerfully against the North’s ability to make and sustain war.  You’d think this act would be a “Duh!” moment but in the scope of all-things-Vietnam-War, his decision was actually rather novel in contrast with the bureaucratic and remotely-controlled policies of Kennedy and LBJ.

I threw this map together to give some idea of the geography of it all.  It's generally accurate but I wouldn't want to write a doctoral thesis using it as sole authority.  Just sayin...

Thus, Linebacker was born.  Between May and October of 1972,  North Vietnamese power plants, bridges, air fields, supply depots—the stuff that should have been crushed in 1964—were pummeled.

Do your own research on the matter but suffice it to state, Linebacker was a full-court press on North Vietnam that the United States conducted (virtually) exclusively by air.

Ok.  Back to the F-4.

The jet’s loadout is rather atypical for the period as it reflects something called a "Chaff Mission."  If you look closely, the centerline rack contains four M129 Leaflet and Chaff containers. They look like bombs but they’re not.  Actually, you can only see bits of two as the containers are side x side.    And they’re also obscured because the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and wing-mounted 370 gallon fuel tanks block their view.

Also, there’s an AL/ALE-38 Chaff Dispenser on the other side but you’re going to have to walk around to the other side of your monitor to see that.   (joke).


Here’s how a Linebacker Chaff Mission typically worked— an "eight-ship" of F-4 Phantoms would fly straight and level, line-abreast (about 1,500 feet apart) into North Vietnam and let loose a blizzard of a small metallic strips in a 100-mile long, 5-mile wide “corridor” of radar-confusing fuzz.  Though it only lasted about 15-ish minutes, that brief time was just enough time for bomb-laden F-105s and F-4s to zip in, hit the target and zip out. 

The Chaff would not only spread out horizontally (width) it would also spread out vertically (height).
Of course, gravity takes its toll on any object no matter how light it is.  A Chaff cloud would only last
about 15 minutes, depending upon any number of variables.

Great idea!  In fact, the Brits pioneered it in WWII against the Germans.  30 years later, the basic science still proved itself, much to the delight of those tasked with hitting the targets. I’m not completely confident on this but I heard from two reliable sources that no bomber was ever lost on a mission that used a flight of “Chaffers” to cloud the way.

But.  If you ever meet an F-4 pilot that flew in Linebacker, ask them if they ever ‘flew chaff.’  You’ll get one of two responses.  “Nope!” (and a smile).  Or “Yes, gawd’ammit!” (and a scowl).  

Remember, a Chaff mission required straight, level and utterly precise (and therefore predictable) flight.   Let that sink in.  Ever see that picture of the fife and drum line marching into a Revolutionary War battle?  

"The Spirit of '76' by Archibald Willard.

Um…yeah.  Though the Chaff did terrific work in cloaking the whole Force from AAA and SAMs,  it also served as a brilliant pointer to where the chaff-laying, level-flying, sitting-duck F-4s were.  Que MiGs.   I have no idea how many Chaff Bomber F-4s were lost to MiGs but according to my sources, there were at least seven resulting in at least six POWs (with four crewman being rescued and four more KIA).

Enough said.

Now, wipe that bit of aerial dirty-work out of your mind and focus on the crisp and clear numbering on the tail—221.  

Originally, I was commissioned to do "235"—the F-4E flown by MiG-killer team of Pilot Fred Sheffler and Weapons System Officer, Mark "Gunner" Massen.   And, I complied—complete with red-star on the splitter-plate.**

Fred and Mark's F-4E.  If you squint, you can see the red-star on the Splitter Plate.

Fred tells a great story about the victory.  He even let me have the original cockpit recordings and an amazing record that pretty-much maps-out he and Mark's victorious moment on 15 August, 1972.  In fact, it's so well documented, I plan on rolling it out here on a later date.  But I put 221 on top as my representative of the Rocketeers on account of its relevance to the opening paragraph.

Ok, so...

I ‘get’ the quest for power.  There was a time when I was an avid student of anything that promised to lead me to greater power and more riches.  From these sources, I learned much. Some of it has actually been useful, too.  But, the only true test of Leadership that has consistently born itself out is impossible to teach:  the test of time.

Does that mean The End justifies the Means?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  This dilemma is why the qualities of Character and Ethics are so crucial.  Add Humility to the mix, too—I’ve met some amazing Leaders over the years and the best of them, though never-perfect, are careful not to stand in front of a mirror too long.

Ok, break break.

Have one more look at 221 because, next, I’ll be sharing an account of a conversation I had with one of the Rocketeers.  Actually, it’s really an amalgam of numerous conversations with different members.  Though I don’t like inventing reality, the utter consistency of each member’s words make it legitimate.

Pilot:  ”You're going to come to our Reunion, right?"

Me:  ”Yeah.  I will.  It'll be nice to meet all you guys."

Pilot: ”You know you're not coming to meet us, right?"

Me:  ”What do you mean?”

Pilot: ”You're coming to meet the best squadron commander we ever had.  And you ask any one of us.  We'll tell you the same.  We're all going to there for him.”

Me:  ”Hmmm.  Tell me more.”

And “they” did, taking me back to Seymour-Johnson AFB (Goldsboro, NC) when the 336th just received their orders to take part in Linebacker.   The squadron was moving and moving now—Pack your bags? Sure.  Kiss the wife?  Maybe.  Stop for lunch?  Not unless it’s in Hawaii, half-way  between North Carolina and Ubon AFB, Thailand.

Picture day.  The Rocketeers arrive in Ubon to take part in Nixon's plan.
Photo:  Unknown

He described the challenges of landing in a foreign land and being ready for combat sorties a mere three days later.  He described the differences of the various characters and the qualities that endeared and/or divided them from one another.  From an Organizational Psychology perspective, the whole process was fascinating and illustrated how a fighting Squadron is not unlike any other team tasked with a function.   Yet, woven through it all was the anecdotal but consistently reverent mention of the Squadron Commander.

"John, we were a good team back then.  And, I'm looking forward to seeing all of the guys.  But don't kid yourself we still are a good team.  And that’s because of D.C.”

That’d be the 336ths “Leader”, Lt. Col. D.C. Vest.

"John, we'll still want follow him.  You have to understand that."

Hmmm.  There’s an object lesson here but before I get to that: 

To The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS, thank you for letting me have a glimpse into your brotherhood and most of all, thank for letting me be the expression of your gratitude and honor for Squadron Commander.

But, to my buddy who was part of the discussion at the beginning of the post—in answer to your question, “How do I know if I’m a good leader or not?”

If, in 45 years, your staff can still get together and toast your name, you’re a "good leader."

Or, if you ask a Rocketeer, you're like D.C. Vest.

Col. D.C. Vest in front his F-4E.
Note the signatures on the matting; those are from "his Rocketeers."
This kind of thing makes all those years screwing around in school doodling dogfights totally worth it.
Photo: Gale McVicker

*Everybody wants to be a "leader."  But we also (in the nasal words of Bob Dylan) "...gotta serve somebody."

** The splitter-late is a thin piece of metal that is situated between the fuselage air-intake and the fuselage. Enlarge the drawing of #235 and look for the red star—that's the splitter-plate.