20 November, 2023

UPDATE: Profile 170: Bell AH-1G "Cobra" as flown by Michael O'Neil, F Troop 1/9 Cav


Coming along!

I figure this will be the last post until Michael O’Neil’s AH-1G Cobra is finished (and his Distinguished Flying Cross mission told).  Until then, a few things to note.

1. Michael asked me to depict his F-Troop 1/9 Cav Cobra with "Flechettes and the 20mm gun."  Comparatively few Cobras came into the war with the 20mm, but you can immediately tell the ones that were by the characteristic bulge at the root of the helicopter's skids.  This bulge housed the cannon’s 900 rounds of ammo.

The cannon was called the "M195" and very similar to the M61 "Vulcan" that made their way into fighter aircraft at the time.  In case you aren’t aware, the Vulcan-series of guns were/are characterized by multiple barrels that were spun by electric motors to the effect of terrific rates of fire.  Today’s Vulcans can spew lead at an astounding 6,000 rounds per minute.

A Gatling Gun.  Hand cranked, machine-gun terror circa 1862.
Somehow, someway, we've managed since then...

By the Vietnam War, the technology for rotational guns had been around for over a hundred years.  In 1862, Richard Jordan Gatling created his arm-heaved “Gatling Gun.”  It was one of the first projectile weapons that could truly be called a Machine Gun.

Nevertheless, all that rotational torque and explosive recoil extracts a terrific toll from an airframe, especially a lithe, slow helicopter.  Thus, the M195 had shorter barrels (about a foot shorter) and had the rate of fire slowed as the gun’s power just too much at the faster rates of fire typically used in fixed-wing aircraft. 

Michael:  When the (20mm) would go off, it had a different sound.  It was a low, deep 'bzzzzt' and it'd shake (the Cobra) so much, (the guy in front) would hold onto the canopy to keep it from flying open!

Me:  Was there much of a drop? (In other words, was the 20mm a flat-shooting gun)

Michael:  Oh yeah!  I swear, I could put rounds in a window two clicks away.  

Me:  How was the recoil?

Michael:  Oh boy... you'd have to make sure you had a short burst! From 120kts, a three second burst would slow us to 70kts.  Then you'd stop and (the Cobra) would pick up speed again.

Me:  Muzzle blast?

Michael:  You know, I don't remember much other than a bright white streak, maybe three feet beyond the barrels.

A comparison of a 20mm round and a 1.5" flechette.

My hands are tiny.

Me:  Why did you want me to put Flechettes? (2.75" rockets so equipped with the small, nail-shaped devices)

Michael:  It's just what we used.  They were another powerful weapon, but better for getting targets under the triple-canopy (jungle foliage).  

Me:  So one was for precise targets, the other for general area targets.

Michael:  Yes.  Like an elephant.

Me:  What?!

Michael:  Yeah... I know (sighs).  It's bad to kill an elephant.  But the bad guys were riding the elephants.  This was war.  It was the job I was there for.  I'd write it down as a five-ton truck. 

Me: Because... that's what it was! (the North Vietnamese used elephants as both equipment haulers and construction equipment).

Michael:  Yes.  That's war.  The bad guys used elephants to move large trees to make bunkers in the jungle along tree lines. They made good fortifications in war. I shot 3 bad guys that were using elephants to build fortifications.

Me:  I’ve never experienced war.  But I can only imagine that once it’s under way, it’s all or nothing.

A graphic.  It might be useful.  It might not.

But I have to do graphics to get my head around things...

Michael:  Exactly.  I trained for two and a half years before I went into combat.  Two and a half years.  When I went (to Vietnam), I was ready.  We all were ready.   I didn't like the idea of killing elephants but if they're used in the fight...

Me:  ...they're a target.

Michael:  Yes. 

Enough on this for now.  More later.


2.  The markings will likely be less than accurate as F Troop 1/9 Cav Cobras were an amalgam of brand new helicopters fresh 'in-country' and others from other squadrons.  

Now, the reader needs to know Michael accumulated nearly 1300 combat hours and could have chosen any number of more 'well-known' Cobras for me to draw.  He chose a 1/9 Cobra because the 1/9 was considered, in his words, "the tip of the spear."   1/9 was the only unit authorized to wear the Cavalry Hat.

That's the "Cav Hat."  That's also Michael O'Neil. 
I showed this to a couple buddies of mine with Army cred and they whistled,
"That's bad ass."  I take their word for it.
Photo courtesy Michael O'Neil

That being stated, the Cobra I'm drawing will not carry some of the more exiting livery that other Cobras have worn.  F Troop was organized for slightly less than six months, had a dozen or so pilots and details of helicopters attached to the unit are just not available as I’d like.  To this point, most of F-Troop's Cobras were from D 229 (the Smiling Tigers) escort gun company.  They formed the F Troop 1/9 (Provisional) from December 1970 to June of 1971.

Of course, if you have any holler... but do so quickly!

Regardless, LET IT BE KNOWN!  Once time-travel is invented, we all can go back and find out what I got right and wrong.  

3.  The next post will be Michael's Cobra, finished and ready to represent the moment of Michael's DFC mission, awarded for action in Cambodia, 1 May 1970.

Michael, with his arm on the Cobra's (somewhat) unique, 20mm cannon.

Courtesy Michael O'Neil


Of the many interviews I've had over the years, Michael is among my favorites.  For one, his personality is bright, sparkling; a man whose private life is every bit as interesting as his wartime service (you'll learn about that later).

He’s one of those men that, in a crowded room, people gravitate towards — firm handshakes, catching up on events and extending good cheer.   At an event a few years ago, I discovered that we shared the same passion for interesting automobiles.  He confided that, long ago, he wrecked an example of one of my dream wheels (a Maserati Mistral)… I was gut-punched!

Me: A MISTRAL!??! 

Michael:  Yeah, it was too bad.  But… it’s just’ah cah.  (Micheal has an east-coast accent).

Me:  But DUDE!  It’s… a MISTRAL!

Michael:  (Laughs). Yeah!  And it’s just… A CAH!

And yeah, I agree.  I'd rather meet people than a 'cah' any day... but *break break * ain't it gorgeous!? (picture below).

I digress.

The Mistral.  I'll start the fight; this is from when Maserati was cool.
After the Shamal, WTH HAPPENED?!!

If I remember right, Michael gave me one of those paternal pats on the back and I changed the subject.   A few minutes later, I took the picture below.

Micheal O'Neil at a military event; note the wings.  IMO, of all the branches, ARMY wings look the coolest.  Legit.  

For those new to this blog, a caveat is in order — indeed, I’m a history geek who has deep affection for aviation and the stories that support it.  I’m also a student of life, learning what makes people advance from birth, school, work, death… and how the next generation can pick up the story without moving backward.

So, it’s Michael's 'transparency' that I find most compelling.  He tells it like it is, like it was, warts and all and uncomplicated by a need to argue or sugar-coat something that really happened.  My generation has grown up experiencing the idea that 'reality' is as much about feelings as it is about facts.  To this end, there's a lot of truth in that alchemy; we all perceive things differently and those differences must be appreciated to get a greater understanding of anything.

Nevertheless, I get the impression most of us younger folk are more willing to accept the idea that an opinion, though real, is therefore… well… objectively irrefutable.  Which of course, it is not.  I might feel that the Vietnam War was a million years ago but it really wasn’t.  And anything to be learned from the moment is likely relevant.

Again - (if there's a drum I pound, it's this one): if you know someone or get the chance to meet someone who has participated in a critical moment  — peace, war, prosperity, poverty, whatever — take the risk and engage.  Some day, all we will have is the recorded word and record of those that have gone before.  


12 November, 2023

Profile 170: Bell AH-1G "Cobra" as flown by Michael O'Neil, F Troop 1/9 Cav




Behold — the work-in-progress of a Bell AH-1G "Cobra" attack helicopter, c. May 1970.  I'm responding to a fairly crucial Commission; this bird's pilot, Michael O'Neil, is the knowing recipient but not "the commissioner."

Most times, there's a bit of 'surprise factor' in these kinds of projects.  In this case, Michael knows all about it and is playing an important role in provenance, 'story,' and of course, the positive energy necessary to complete projects like this. 

"Projects like this..."

Yeah.  Projects that have virtually ZERO photographic reference.  Except the one below.  Gads, can you help?!?

Michael O'Neil c. 1970, South Vietnam.
He didn't get his DFC there, though.  THAT happened in Cambodia.

I'm totally serious.  If you have any photos of an F-troop 1/9 Cav Cobra, holler.  I can draw pentagons and 'letter Fs' all day long... and even get them in the right spot.  But I know full well that Vietnam War Cobras were dolled up in livery variations of all sorts.  The picture above is not terribly helpful for what the tail, nose would/should look like.

So, though the shape of the Cobra is unmistakable, the markings are (yet) somewhat of a mystery.  

But Michael's 'story' isn't a mystery and he's happy to share it.  

And I'm honored to be here in the middle.

Watch this space.  I need to be done by Christmas.

04 November, 2023

Profile 169: Ryan AQM-34L as "Flown" by John Dale, 350th/99th SRS


"Drones?  In Vietnam?!"

Maybe you're a total wing-nut and know all about this topic.  But, let's say you're just like those sitting in an audience of highly distinguished Vietnam War aviators listening to John Dale give his primer on,  "Drones.  In Vietnam."

"Huh! I had no idea!" exclaimed one Army helicopter pilot.  So too did a Marine fixed wing pilot.  The bride of another Vietnam War aviator leaned over and whispered in her husband's ear, "did you know about these things when you were over there?!"  Without breaking his focused attention on Dale's presentation, muttered (out of the corner of his mouth), "Nope."


A USAF aviator who'd served his time in Electronics Warfare clearly enjoyed the bewildered table banter and snarked, "That was the point! (Secrecy)"

Have a look above.  It's a Ryan AQM-34L, an aerial reconnaissance drone, as it operated DECADES before the idea worked its way into the common vernacular.  Of course, today's equivalent are more advanced.  But in reality, the advance is not in form but function; they're not so much aircraft as they are aerial modems; judging by the modern version's ungainly aesthetics they look like modems, too.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.  The "Xenomorph" from the movie Alien and a Beluga Whale.  Coincidence?  No idea, don't care.  The point is, aeronautical engineers crossed the rubicon of design years ago or they developed a strange sense of humor.

For me, the AQM-34L is an exemplar of the airplane-idea.  It still looks like a proper combat aircraft and thereby evokes the proper combat aircraft's romance — sleek, fierce, purposeful.  It's a warbird, for sure.  And drawing this little beastie was pure craftwork; the shark-like lines come to life with such ease, I can draw them blindfolded (irony intended). 

From my journal.  It's a "Lightning Bug" that I've - for some reason - mislabeled.
Clearly, I was distracted by the innate Coolness of the thing...

A little back-story is in order.

The idea of unmanned, controlled flight goes back to the first time anyone ever built a hand-tossed glider with changeable control surfaces.  Thus, it's no great feat to accept the idea that remotely controlled aircraft were conceived just a few years after the Wright Brothers flew their manned machine in 1903.  In fact, during WWI, the British had their (top secret, of course) version flying in 1917.  The next year, the Americans had theirs.  By the late 1930s, model airplane enthusiasts were busy buzzing the skies.  By 1944, drones were so advanced, they were flying combat missions, controlled by television.

"Television? In 1944?!"

This is the TDR-1.  Don't believe me about the "TV-thing in WWII"?  Click here

Indeed. the Interstate TDR-1 saw combat use against Japanese shipping, controlled by TV from an appropriately equipped Grumman Avenger flying nearby.  From then on the spectrum of possibilities afforded by remotely piloted vehicles was not only in-sight but within grasp.


By the Vietnam War, drones were so common., well look again at my artwork; the things were getting their own nose art

One of the challenges in drawing "Tom Cat" was trying to figure out what the crude line-art cat drawings mid-fuselage really looked like.   These "Sharpie Studies" are based on a number of sources from (former) Ryan Aircraft to other drone-fans around the world to photo forensics from John Dale's personal collection.  Which one is most accurate?  Dunno.

Back to the AQM-34L. 

The AQM series of drones were derived from Ryan Aircraft's "Firebee" aerial target, first flown in 1951.  If the reader is so inclined to learn more, Firebees are typically orange-ish red, a color that helped identify it in aerial targeting, testing and recovery.   The coloration is important because Firebees were largely flown over 'safe' territory - namely, the United States.  As Firebees didn't typically land at normal airports, recovering one in the wild (so to speak) was much easier with the day-glo color screaming, "Find Me!"

Nice picture of the Ryan "Firebee" courtesy of the Aviation History and Technology Center.

Ten years later though, the Firebee was ready to go to war and that necessitated new ID.  Now, as James Bond became 007, the Firebee became, "Model 147."  But from here on out, I'll call them by the code name assigned to the practical application, "Lightning Bug."

Packed with suitably upgraded cameras, navigation and control technology, the Lightning Bug drones started working, in their high altitude role, in Southeast Asia (namely China).   

Dropped from a Lockheed Hercules variant called a DC-130*, the drones were set to fly their pre-programmed paths and do their work — photo recon, electronic recon... even dropping propaganda leaflets.  Basically, the Lightning Bugs did everything except drop/deploy typical offensive weaponry like bombs or bullets (though they could). 

Over time – from 10 August 1964 to 30 April 1975** — thousands of sorties (over 3,400) were flown over just about anywhere it had the range (about 600 nautical miles for low alt, 2500 miles for high alt) and at all altitudes.  Depending on the model, the Lightning Bugs could do their work from deck (100') to deep blue (75,000').   Typical altitudes, however were 500-2,500 feet AGL for low altitude sorties and above 65,000 for highs.

A DC-130 carrying two "147H" model drones.  To the trained Drone Nerd, the longer-span wings indicate that these are high-altitude drones.  Photo: John Dale.

The first couple drones launched had Taiwanese markings.  November 1964 was the first time the Chinese shot one down!

You can probably imagine the impact these Lightning Bugs had — impersonal, robotic, the Lightning Bug missions were no mere annoyance.  Instead they were a continual rub that we (Gawd Bless America) were at least two steps above anything the 'enemy' had in return.  Of course, losses happened, and at first, the Lightning Bug program was in jeopardy.  But when the stats were analyzed, in terms of actually reaching targets, a drone could photograph far more targets than a manned jet.  A human-flown low altitude mission, in comparison, would include one, maybe several targets depending on risk and often had fighter protection.  Thus, when the risks got high (for a human flight), the drone mission could still be flown.  To this point, the drone program never turned down a target due to the risks that would have affected a human-flown mission.  

Regardless of how you feel about the increase of pilot-less aircraft, drones make sense in the economics of war.

Victorious Chinese and a crashed 147, c. early 1960s.
As this was prolly a high-altitude model, the raised rifles are purely for propaganda effect.

Fairly, sometimes the technology failed and the little beasties crashed.  Sometimes they were shot down by Surface to Air (SAM) missiles.  Sometimes small arms fire.  Sometimes, MiG fighters.  But, like anything, the more it's practiced, the better it's perfected.  By the time "The Bombing Halt" of 1968 came about, Lightning Bugs were the only American aircraft (aside from the very high altitude U-2s or SR-71s) flying over North Vietnam, bringing their treasure of photos, data or empty propaganda bins back home.

An example of propaganda leaflets dropped by the Lightning Bugs over North Vietnam.
Having spent a career in Advertising/PR, these things are laughably dumb.  But the cut-out counterfeit money gets points for "novelty"...

About that "back home."

Have another look at Tom Cat - a low altitude Lightning Bug of terrific repute; it completed 68 missions, ending its service somewhere over Cambodia (more on that later).   But, had it returned to it's recovery base, it could have deployed a parachute and drifted back to earth for either a soft landing or, even MORE spectacularly, being snatched out of the sky by a helicopter. 

The USAF Helicopter Pilot's Association has a totally Boss page on this process.
Click here.  Photo credit unknown.

I think it's a good time to meet John Dale.  He's a drone pilot.  He's also a U-2 pilot...but he's also... a drone pilot.   Going back to the 'wing-nuts' who read this blog, I totally get the idea of, "A U-2 pilot?!  And you're writing about his flying DRONES?!?"

The answer is obviously, "Yes."

John Dale from his Vietnam War service, leaning against "Tom Cat"  c. late 1972.
Photo: John Dale.

But a little background on John - lest you think he's spent his life playing with Radio Control transmitters and computer joysticks.  John has 12,500hrs of flight time in 76 different aircraft.  He's been flying for over seventy years, currently has two vintage aircraft (Bellanca Cruisair and a Stinson 108), flew with the "The Four Horsemen" , Tactical Air Command's C-130 demonstration team and commanded the USAF's only U-2 squadron.  

Uhh... if you don't know how bad-@ss it is to have flown C-130s in aerobatic maneuvers, in formation, click here.  No idea which one of these is being flown by John Dale, but it doesn't matter. Click here and rest in awe of their skill, power and... well... more balls than I'll ever have.


Me:  What got you in the military in the first place?

JD:  You should know, during the Korean War there was the draft (back then).  When I was in high school, I wrestled at 102 pounds.  One of my friends told me that in the Army, you had to haul around a seventy five pound pack (laughs) and I thought that wasn't going to work.  But I thought that if there was a fight, I could do well if I had an airplane!

Too apply for flight school I needed two years of college. (For all the services) The Air Force said however; if I enlisted for four years I could take a two year college equivalency test and then if I passed go on to take the tests needed to enter the Aviation Cadet program.  So I said, "Sign me up!"  

Me:  You ended up pretty well...

JD:  Well, not everyone did.  

Me:  What do you mean?

JD:   Of the 60 in my barracks who tried this program, six received wings.

Me:  That's ten percent...

JD:  Yes.  But there were high standards.  You couldn't get a speeding ticket (or any other legal infraction), had to manage your personal finances — one guy wrote a bad check.  He was out.  No fighting... we all had something to live up to.  As an enlisted, I ended up having eight T-6 Texans (trainers) under my care.  I woke up at 0300 to preflight those airplanes for the day — I had real responsibility.  And we were just out of High School. 

North American T-6 "Texan" in post-WWII, state-side livery.
John was "Air Force" and not Minnesota Air Guard.  But, he's from Minnesota! So this photo sorta counts.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Air National Guard Museum.

Me:  And how did all that get into... drones?

JD:  I was a C-130 instructor pilot, in Japan, and about to transfer back stateside.  Strategic Air Command (SAC) was just starting the drone mission.  I was transferred to Davis-Monthan .AFB where the drone program was being started.  By the way, SAC and TAC (Tactical Air Command) had completely different processes and ways of doing things. I'd been in TAC and it was an adjustment for me.  SAC was far more procedural, TAC was more flexible.


* Break Break *

The C-130 series is one of the greatest aircraft ever produced.  It's right up there with the DC-3, P-51, 707, Cessna C-172, B-52... it has done, doing and can-do anything required of an aircraft including being a seaplane.


Me: So what was a drone mission like? 

JD:  Ok.  First thing, we flew alone.  We took off from Bien Hoa*** in absolute radio silence, which we kept until we were LANDING.  You remember learning about how so many people (in the military) had no idea we were there, right?   When we operated from U-Tapao, the silence wasn't an issue.

Me: Yes.  People are still a little surprised that we had drones fifty, sixty years ago.

JD:  For the longest time, we couldn't take pictures of them because the Air Force denied anything about them.  But we were over China (early 1960s +).  In fact, if we spotted someone taking pictures of us as we were taxiing , we would stop and take that film!

Me: Didn't the Chinese publish photos of drones they shot down?


JD: The Drone Program was as secret as we could make it.  (Laughs).

Posting this picture again.  For effect.   Considering that there's no way Chairman Mao's Glorious Peasants could have possibly brought a high-alt drone down with small arms, the skyward-thrust rifles and apparently loud cheers must be aimed at the Glorious Engineers of the Soviet Union for creating the SAM-2 missile.

Me:  What was the drone mission like, then?

JD:  First, SAC's Strategic Recon Center (SRC) would send us the details of the mission, in an OPREP -1 message with the launch point, route, targets, climb, turns, airspeeds, altitudes... everything.  If we're talking about the low altitude missions when we flew out of Bien Hoa,  we'd fly over water out of enemy radar range at really low altitude (50' AGL), over the Gulf of Tonkin until we'd get to our launch point, where we'd pop up to 2,000 feet and launch the drone as we had already started it's engine and made all the prelaunch checks.  If it was a high altitude mission, we'd launch (the drones) at 15,000 feet usually either just North of Da Nang or over central Laos.

John Drew this map years later, to describe a typical "high altitude" drone mission.
There are a number of such maps on the web — compare them to this one (many others are flat out wrong). 

Me:  And there's a crew at work on your DC-130.

JD:  Of course.  We had two Launch Control Officers, one for each drone.  The LCOs would get the mission plan, then each would individually plan the route, then meet together to sort out their details, then send their plans back to SRC in an OPREP-2 (our total mission plan to include the DC-130 route ) which SRC would then check as the final authority for the mission.  The OPREP-3 from SRC would be our "GO" message and the LCOs would program the drones as directed and preflight them prior to DC-130 takeoff.  About 20 minutes prior to launch they would start the drones'' engines coordinating with the pilot who adjusted the airspeed of the DC-130 to aid the LCO with engine start, insure everything was operating normally and the drone was fully fueled then launch the drone on command of the Navigator. 

The ARCO, Airborne Reconnaissance Control Officer, oversaw the mission after launch with the help of the LCO who launched the drone and our Navigator made sure we (DC-130) were flying the route planned for drone monitor .  We had to maintain line of site for control of the drones and we needed to stay away from MiGs and anti-aircraft guns...

Me:  Wait.  Line of sight?!  

JD:  Yeah.  Don't think "range" of radio waves.  Think "line of sight" to monitor the drones progress along it's pre-programmed flight path (from the DC-130).  

Me:  So what's line-of-sight look like from 2,000 feet?!

JD:  Good question.  After we'd launch, we'd immediately climb (DC-130) to about 30,000 feet.  And from there, your line of sight is about 200 miles. 

This is a photo of Hỏa Lò Prison taken on 23 December, 1972 during the war-ending "Linebacker II" campaign.
Remember - "The Hanoi Hilton" was not a single prison but a generic term that represents a wide net of locations across North Vietnam.  But, American POWs are definitely in there.  Some where.

Me:  And so duration?  Range? 

JD:  A low altitude drone had about 600 nautical miles total range (200 low level), about 90 minutes at 450kts. 

Me:  Makes sense.

JD:  But boy, did they (North Vietnamese military) want to get us!  They'd put out sampans that were loaded with anti-aircraft guns and we'd get intel on.  Though we kept radio silence, the Navy and RC-135's had the best real-time intelligence on what was going on over North Vietnam at the time and would let us know if we had threats.

Me:  So how far out from the coast of North Vietnam were you when you launched and flew?

JD:  About 25 miles or more depending on several things.  Good radar targets for the Nav to insure accuracy of the launch point...( the drones' navigation started from the launch point) and keeping the DC-130 out of enemy radar range as long as we could.   We (DC-130) NEVER got within 20 nautical miles of a known SAM site.  The drones would get close though.  

Me:  The North Vietnamese fighter pilots I've talked to all remember drones.  

JD:  They'd give a fighter pilot credit for a drone, right?

Me:  Yes. 

JD:  You know that we took pictures of MiGs that were trying to shoot (drones) down, right?

Me:  No!  

JD:  Yes!  And it got comical.  The low altitude drone’s camera’s  horizon-to-horizon coverage captured two MiG-21s on a firing pass off the drones left wing.  The wingman fired an Atoll missile at the drone which veered off and hit his lead!!

The PVAF MiG-21 on this mag cover was taken by a drone.  During my interview with John, I quit count at the number of times I was astonished by what/how/when/clarity of what the drones accomplished.  Photo: John Dale.

The drone made it home.  There is also the first picture of the Mig-21D in Vietnam which had fired his missiles which failed to down the drone and the photo of him in formation looking at the drone made the cover of Aviation Week magazine.  And we have photos of SAMs exploding near the drone... all trying to get us.

The moment a SAM-2 missile explodes to down a drone.  Each one of those little spikes is a shriek of hot metal blasting forth at multiple Mach... and obviously, the drone made it back.  Photo:  John Dale.

Me:  I know of one (former NVAF) pilot that described how proud he was getting one...

JD:  They did!  We were the only USAF aircraft flying in NVN and on one mission there were 19 Migs launched trying to down it.  I think they were using us for training as they rebuilt their air force!  But we could also do things that a manned aircraft couldn't do.  We never "jinked" to avoid AAA,  Weather risks for navigation were a non-event.  We could fly low, make high-g maneuvers, pop in and out of clouds... we'd "flick-roll" they'd (Migs) have to go into afterburner to keep up with our acceleration, too... quick left, right, those little bastards (drones) were a son-of-a-bitch to stay with!  We knew we had MiGs run out of gas trying to chase us.

I know of  five MiGs lost trying to shoot down a drone.   And you have to realize, we had no fighters protecting us.  On our first low altitude missions, we didn't go below 1500 ft. altitude, they'd launch SAMs then.  But eventually, we got our altitudes down to 500'.  

You should know that there was a high altitude drone that came back with 156 holes in it (from a SAM detonation).  

You saw the photo that the drone took of flying underneath power lines?

Me:  Yes.  

JD:  And the North Vietnamese taking a leak by his anti-aircraft gun?

Me:  (laughs). Yes. 

Another drone photo.
If you want, you can find the guy urinating atop the mound of his AA gun.
"How rude! Can't a guy pee in peace?!"  Photo: John Dale.

JD:  It was vital work.  It's a fact that the only aircraft we had flying over low altitude North Vietnam during the Bombing Halt were drones.  And the vast majority of BDAs from Linebacker (I and II)were all done by drones.   For the mission over Saigon (last drone mission), it was to prep for the evacuation to look for AAA when a C-54 was scheduled to come in for the last evacuations.

Me:  But why wouldn't an RF-4C or RF-101 do the same job?

JD:  They couldn't due to low ceilings.  We flew lower.  1,500 feet or less, below the cloud decks. And we were smaller.  And, the drone navigated better than a piloted airplane as it didn't need to see where it was.  If you shoot down an RF (manned reconnaissance fighter), you could lose the airplane AND a life.  Shoot down a drone, well, it started out as a target anyway..

During Linebacker, all those BDAs (bomb damage assessments) photos were done by drones.  Drones were the only reason we knew anything about our bombing effectiveness.  Remember, those B-52 crew (Linebacker II) were bombing by radar, not by sight.  Even the SR-71 couldn't get a picture if there's a cloud deck.   We took and brought back the pictures.

Another Drone photo.
This one is of Gia Lam airfield, c. December 1972 (Linebacker II).
Photo: John Dale.

Me:  How much film would a drone carry?

JD:  2,000 feet.  Later versions could carry 4,000 feet of film.  

Me:  On recovery, how effective was the mid-air helicopter recovery?

JD:  Pretty high!  Say... 97%.  Of course, of the drones that came back. 

Me:  And how many drones were recovered using the mid-air method versus descending via parachute.

JD:  Hmmm.  I'd say 85-90%.  True story.  We had one helo pilot catch four in one day.

Me: That's a lot of sorties.  All the little parachutes (denoting a successful mission) on Tom Cat...

JD:  Yeah, they wrapped around the other side.  Tom Cat completed 68 missions.  You know how the drones got named, right?

Me:  No.

JD:  If a drone made 25 missions, it was named.  And a face.  The crew chiefs got to name it.  And these are normal airplanes to a crew chief.  And those maintainers cared for the drones just like any manned aircraft.

Me:  What happened to Tom Cat?

JD:  Tom Cat was on a mission in Cambodia when it was lost.  The drones' programmer tells it what to do and when and Tom Cat had completed its photo run and pitched up for climb. It was supposed to pick up its climb airspeed schedule and reduce pitch to hold it… but that didn't occur and (Tom Cat) stalled and spun in.  A command of "level off" could have been given to interrupt the faulty action but the ARCO was busy with something else and wasn't watching as it was on its way home. 

"Tom Cat" just being launched from a DC-130.  Notice the little parachutes on the nose for each completed mission. Unfortunately, Tom Cat was lost on its 69th mission.  Photo: John Dale.

Me: So Tom Cat could still be in Cambodia somewhere.

JD:  (sighs). Yeah.

Me:  You know, the SAC Museum has Tom Cat.  It's in the wrong markings though.   I'm pretty happy to have an accurate drawing of the thing...

JD:  It is, at least for that moment in time.

Me: Describe your perspective on what was most important, most valuable about your service as a DC-130 pilot, U-2 pilot...

JD: Well... I got to stay in units that were operationally oriented.  Actually doing things with airplanes.  Never a dull moment.  I was always doing something with aircraft.   I got to be in on the new technology, constantly testing new aircraft, capabilities... I never had staff jobs.  I stayed with constantly evolving programs.  

Me: If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself c.1970...

JD:  Well, one of the things… if something’s worth doing, give it the best you can.  The best you can!   And realize luck over skill… General LeMay said he couldn’t tell the difference between luck and skill as long as the mission was accomplished. 

I’d also say to stay in touch with your friends!  Everyone that you know, that you meet, has something new.  And “new” can lead ANYwhere.  You’re not “the Guy” who says when you’re gonna go - the Good Lord hasn’t called me yet;  at some time you’re going to be leaving (this world), so enjoy it while you’re here!

My son says, Dad, you’re an optimist!  Some guys say that a pessimist is an optimist with experience.  Well… I don’t know about that.  I believe everyone is capable of managing their thinking and looking forward to success rather than not.  

John signing my artwork.  A few prints will be offered by the Distinguished Flying Cross Society as fundraisers for their Education Fund.  Want one?  You can either wait until the DFCS gets their shopping cart up or let me know (either way, the funds go to the DFCS).  But don't dally.  This one will go fast.

But, look closely at the print - can you see the 'hidden' U-2?

Thanks again, XEROX!

Photo: ME.


Have another look at Tom Cat.  It’s interesting to think that by 1975, "this" was still among the highest tech of the day.  And today?  It's still unknown.    But, honestly now, how many of us actually knew that our great nation was doing television-controlled missions in WWII???

Makes you wonder what the level of tech really is right now, eh?  They're (whoever "they" really are) prolly reading our minds right now from little gizmos attached to all the crappy houseflies trying to get into my house...

Bah.  The advance of technology is not the point.

The point is, today, John Dale is 90 years old and, (as the saying goes), "You'd never know it!"  What that oft-tossed phrase actually means is anyone's guess; are 90 year old people supposed be drooling in their soup?  Shuffling in a corridor amidst the sounds of beeps and medical folk?

Sadly, some are.  But, some aren't.  Just this moment, a colleague txted me in bewilderment as to how I get to know/experience so many historically significant people...


I guess it's that I like hanging around with them.

20, 30, 40, 50...year olds are boring anyways.

Selfie with John.  If I make 90, I hope to have his energy, enthusiasm, acumen and desire to contribute to the 'greater life' (however God/Fate/Force/"I AM" appoints it for you).
Photo: ME.

* USN deployed them from shipboard rocket-powered launchers.

**During the Fall of Saigon.

***Missions flown before July 10, 1970.