28 February, 2018

"Got'm..." - Fred Sheffler, 336th TFS. Flown West

Have a look at the F-4E Phantom above.  Specifically, the cockpit.  It's empty of course—I never put 'heads' in there because (I believe) it somehow spoils the viewer's chance to use their imagination.  The hope is that the empty space forces the questions of, "Who sat there?"  "What was it like?"  "What would I have done?"

I digress.

So anyway, got the cockpit in your mind?  Ok.  Get ready to close your eyes and go back in time to a moment in the cold sky over the sweltering jungle of an angry land...

The video-link below is actually not a video at all.  It's an audio file with a photo that only makes sense at the end.  Just click and listen.

That was the audio chatter on August 15, 1972 when Fred Sheffler and Mark Massen, 336th TFS (The Rocketeers!) bagged a MiG-21 flown by Nguyen Hung Thong over North Vietnam.

Curious - when you were listening, where did your mind's-eye take you?  Did you look up through the thick plexiglass and notice the faded greens and blues of North Vietnam's jungle forest far below?   Did you see the spastically pulsing exhaust of the AIM-7 missile streaking away?   Or, maybe you identified with the triumphant calls of, "Shit Hot!..."


In the Fall of 2016,  I got to work with Fred in recreating his old mount, "235."  The project culminated in a quiet corner of a very loud party with Fred and "back seater" Mark Massen, discussing everything from computer programing to marriage to...and of course, MiGs.

And what was that like?  Well, Mark's a talker.  I get the impression he has a hundred ideas and plans to fulfill each one.  His energy level is high, his gestures large and the conversation moves fast.   Fred, on the other hand, was more pragmatic.  When I spoke, his eyes were locked on the conversation, ears attuned...and answers and observations were offered thoughtfully, deliberately.

Mark Massen (Left) Goofball (Middle) Fred Sheffler (Right)

"Fred, that Powerpoint presentation you gave me, describing your MiG kill.  Do you mind if I re-did that?  Added some animation and made it more of a stand-alone piece? (instead of one that required his narration).

"I'd like that.  I'll need to see it all, make sure it's correct.  But I'd like that."

"Great!  This will be a great project!"

And I great it would be - Fred had drawn out maps describing the times, spaces, photos of the moment and of course, that awesome audio you just listened to.  It worked so perfectly—animated maps, a moveable timeline, maybe some commentary from my ex-NVAF contacts; and best of all, I could imagine the discussion that would follow as people all over the world learned anew of Fred and Mark's aerial victory.

And it wasn't going to be just about killing MiGs!

I THINK this is from the Base Newsletter (Ubon, Thailand)  My favorite part is the photo of Fred and Mark with the red star stencil.  Sierra Hotel x 1000!
I had real intentions of tying the abstract world of combat together with the personal face of an "Old Guy" who's life was so much more than a tick of glory a generation past.  Fred Sheffler was proud of his aerial action but quick to remind that life was more than war—after Vietnam, he was a commercial pilot, dad, husband...Fred liked my holistic approach that learning from warfare was less about destroying and more about building something better.

Unfortunately, it will never happen.

On February 11, Fred Sheffler died. Or, as they say, "Flew West."  And I'm sitting here, kicking myself while holding onto a (metaphorical) box of memories that will never be blessed by the man who made them...

There are a hundred excuses why I never got around to getting the project done and most of them are legit. But it doesn't help the loss of realizing that the shadowy image of a hoped-for idea is all that it will be.

Sigh.  And this happens every day.  Every where.  To every one.

And "this" is why the phrase, "When an old man dies, a library burns" is so damnably painful.

So...(another sigh).

I hope that somehow the chaos and command of the recording crystalized, somehow, in your minds-eye.  Where it leads you is your business...but I sure hope it ends up with something more concrete than a fleeting memory.

Godspeed, Fred - I imagined getting to know you better...


TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO RECORDING (Fred would have insisted on this)

Callsign "Date 1":  Hey Pistol... you with us?  

Callsign "Pistol 1":  That's affirm.. and... uh.. somebody's got a single bandit coming down from high six o’clock.. the flight on the right, the flight on the right.

Pistol 1:  Check your ops   (i.e. check opposite side of formation)

Palm 3:  We’ve got him insight 

Unknown:  Shut f****ng Guard off!

Pistol 1:  break right
Palm 3:  Take it to the right Date.. take it to the right.

Unknown:  There he is.

Unknown:  Tallyho.. tallyho.

Fred Sheffler:  Okay got him

Palm 3:  Come on Date.. come on .. he overshot

Mark Massen:  Okay   

Palm 3:  Come back to the right. They are right in front of you Major Vest

Mark Massen:  I’ve got…

Fred Sheffler:  Okay

Mark Massen:  Check your auto-acq (i.e. missile targeting computer)

Fred Sheffler:  Auto-acq

Palm 3:  Comeback, right down, you’ve got him right in front of you...


Fred launches AIM-7 missile at MiG - 11.5 seconds of silence as everyone watches...

Fred Sheffler:  Got him...  

Palm 3:  Shit hot! Shit hot! Shit Hot!  Shit Hot!  (i.e. Great job!)

Fred Sheffler:  Okay, keep looking around, keep your eyes peeled

Mark Massen:  Alright...

Pistol 1:  Pistol’s coming back up on your left and I’ve got the other one in sight

Unknown:  He’s burning...

Fred Sheffler:  'Got a MiG…           

"235" survived the Vietnam War to end up as a Target Drone.  This picture is taken on her last flight.
Notice there's no one in the cockpit...