Death in the Sky: The Vietnam War’s Most Hair-Raising Photo
Pilot’s 1968 selfie shows Soviet missile skimming just under his F-105 in the skies above Hanoi
Excerpted from Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press)
Available here in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.
Whenever Billy Sparks was hungover, which was often, his fellow pilots would yell out, “Hey, Sparky, let me see that aerial map of Hanoi.”
Sparks would then oblige. He had the ability to pull down on one of his lower eyelids, flex a combination of facial muscles, and force his eyeball to bulge gruesomely from its socket. Though Billy’s bulging, bloodshot eye the morning after a long night at Takhli’s Stag Bar was unnerving, pilots viewed it as something of a good-luck talisman. And its resemblance to the air force’s bombing maps of Hanoi was so uncanny as to be satirically hilarious.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson crowed, “They can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.”
Which, sadly, was true.
And it was clearly no way to run a war.
But that was the reality the pilots of Takhli found themselves in. And as good soldiers, they flew the missions they were told to fly, even though the strategy was so clearly unsound.
The F-105 pilots were all familiar with the aerial map of Hanoi. They’d all spent hours studying every statute mile, river, tributary, road, bridge, building, and landmark. Their lives depended on it. The map featured a solid red circle, five miles in diameter, encompassing the city center. No target within this circle could be engaged without direct approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And of the approved targets, most likely were handed down from President Johnson himself. The pilots were essentially left to peck at their enemy, all at the whim of politicians and bureaucrats over eight thousand miles away.
Radiating from the solid red blotch encircling downtown Hanoi were thin, red, jagged lines representing railways, roads, and supply lines, essential for keeping the North Vietnamese war machine humming. These extended to the edge of another circle, extending ten miles from Hanoi’s city center.
Viewed from a few feet back, the map, with its blood-red pupil and surrounding web of throbbing red veins, was indeed an eerie likeness of Sparky’s eye.
Further complicating the map of Hanoi and the pilots’ missions was the fact that the North Vietnamese had so readily adapted to the US playbook and highly predictable aerial intrusions. It would be akin to a football team running the exact same play over and over again and expecting success.
By 1967, downtown Hanoi bristled with the most sophisticated, jam-packed aerial defense system on the planet, courtesy of the Soviet Union. “Going downtown,” for an F-105 pilot, meant flying directly into the blood-red circle of Sparky’s eye. More than seventeen thousand Soviet missile men had been dispatched to Hanoi to operate more than 7,600 SA-2 electronically guided surface-to-air missiles. One particularly skilled Soviet SAM operator was Lt. Vadim Petrovich Shcherbakov, who by himself downed twelve American fighter jets over Hanoi. By the end of the war, some 205 US aircraft had succumbed to Soviet-made and mostly Soviet-launched guided missiles.
The missiles were typically fired in a series of three at an incoming jet. The amount of physical and mental energy required of each targeted pilot to avoid each missile was nearly overwhelming. If the pilot were able to jink away from the first missile, he then had split seconds to locate and jink away from the second. And if the second missile could somehow be avoided, the third missile almost always proved to be the deadliest. The slightest mistake, inattention, or fatigue would result in a fireball of death. If a SAM operator had successfully locked onto your plane, it was fairly similar to three pulls of the trigger in a game of Russian roulette.
Maj. Don Harten’s first encounter with a SAM came on February 22, 1968, during his sixth mission in an F-105 and on his first “downtown” run. He was tense in flight, and the sensation of fear — a sensation that clouded judgment and slowed reaction time — began to creep over him. He rarely flew while scared, but this time was different. He was flying into the maw of Sparky’s eye, and it was inevitable that he’d encounter a SAM launch.
Don’s squadron, dubbed Bison for this mission, was tasked with bombing a MiG airfield, called Hòa La.c, on Hanoi’s western outskirts. Flying in a four-plane finger formation, the Bison pilots streaked through clear skies at eighteen thousand feet as they approached Hanoi, which was shrouded beneath a thick undercast at ten thousand feet. This added to the pilots’ unease. Should any SAM be fired at them, they would have only an eight-thousand-foot buffer in which they could visually locate the missile — which by then would be flying at nearly Mach 3 — and attempt an evasive maneuver.
As the squadron prepared to dive toward their target, predictably, Don’s radio crackled: “Valid launch at one o’clock.”
It crackled again: “Valid at ten o’clock.”
And again: “Valid at twelve o’clock.”
Don hesitated. His mind froze. He could think only of incoming missiles. He checked his E-scope, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t registering the SAMs.
Don’s mind reflexively began to count.
“Seventeen seconds to die.”
“Twelve seconds to die.”
Don was unsure of what to do. Drop in elevation? Jink right? Jink left? Dive?
He was the number four plane in the formation, so he just stayed close to his wingman, Lt. Col. Larry Pickett, and continued to count.
“Ten seconds to die.”
There is no sound other than radio chatter in the cockpit of a fighter jet. It’s not like the movies with lush flourishes of audience-gratifying special effects: supersonic whooshes, thunderous explosions, and rat-a-tat machine-gun fire. If death were to come, it would come in a silent burst. The pilot would almost never live to hear it.
Don’s cockpit lit up as though someone had flashed a camera bulb in his face. The SA-2 had sliced between his wingman and him, only a few feet from taking down either of the planes, traveling at three-and-a-half times the speed of sound — over 2,600 miles per hour. The flame from its solid fuel rocket motor lit the daytime sky. A trailing squadron reported that the missile had exploded about one thousand feet above the pair of jets, its timing off by only a split second.
Anticipating the second oncoming missile, Lt. Jim Butler swooped beneath the squadron, deploying a rudimentary radar-jamming device and using his plane as a decoy. The maneuver worked. The missile curved slightly before detonating to the left of squadron leader Capt. Erik Lunde, peppering the side of his plane with shrapnel and debris.
None of the pilots had an answer for the third missile other than to hope and pray.
The missile burst from the undercast, slicing brilliant yellow against the gray backdrop, streaking laser-like from the clouds below, flying directly toward Don’s jet.
He banked hard left and braced for impact. There was another camera-bulb flash above his cockpit as he flew through debris. And then it was over. Film from an automated camera mounted near the nose of Don’s plane showed that the missile had skimmed just a few feet beneath his fuselage before detonating just beyond and above his cockpit. Don was well within the missile’s “kill zone” as it exploded, leaving mission analysts wondering how he and his aircraft had escaped unscathed.
Don’s hands shook uncontrollably as he followed his wingman into an attack dive. The Bison squadron flew into bursts of antiaircraft fire above Hòa Lac; Don strained to push his fear aside and to focus only on acquiring his target and dropping his bombs. The squadron swooped above the airfield and dropped its bombs, leaving the tarmac and MiG hangars devastated beneath the fearsome rumble of ordnance. Don pulled up and shot skyward. Though his hands still trembled from his SAM encounter, he was nearly overwhelmed with relief.
As the squadron reassembled for the flight south, Don’s radio again crackled. It was Capt. Lunde: “Bison One. Seems Three hasn’t come up with us. I’ve got him still flying north. Four, can you go get him? I think those SAMs messed with his head.”
“Uh, Roger,” replied Don, who banked hard, turned on his plane’s afterburners, and raced north in search of Lt. Col. Pickett, a highly experienced combat pilot on his second F-105 tour.
Humans, like nearly all mammals, have evolved sophisticated mental and physiological responses to life-threatening danger. In simple terms, this is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. The process, which can be entirely involuntary, begins with a huge surge of adrenaline triggered by a perceived threat. As it flushes through the body, adrenaline works almost instantly to increase heart rate and cardiac output as well as respiratory rate and blood pressure. This is designed to prepare muscles for a maximum burst of energy. Adrenaline also causes pupils to widen and the digestive system to shut down.
A person fleeing imminent danger will be primed by an adrenaline surge to run faster, jump higher, and be more cognitively attuned to the threat at hand than a person whose nervous system hasn’t been sparked by fear. In fight mode, however, an almost converse physiological reaction occurs. The body’s vascular system contracts, especially at the extremities (arms, legs, hands, feet). This is nature’s way of reducing the potential danger from cuts, bruises, or abrasions suffered from a fight. If blood vessels are constricted and an arm gets slashed, blood loss from the wound will be significantly diminished, and chances of survival will be increased. Of course, there is a tax from this process on other bodily functions. Fine motor skills will be impaired as the body places its bet on large muscle groups more useful for fighting. And subtle cognitive tasks will be difficult as the mind shoves away all sensations, sights, sounds, and thoughts that might distract from winning or surviving the battle.
Fighter pilots are trained to manage their heart and respiratory rates in an effort to maintain optimal use of their mental and physical abilities during flight. However, unlike combatants on the ground, pilots are strapped to their seats and confined to their cockpits. They can’t run, jump, box, wrestle. Their large muscle groups can’t be used to expend excess energy in order to shunt the effects of an adrenaline rush. And because of the nature of their work, pilots are required to maintain a high level of mental acuity and fine motor skill.
And for all those reasons, Don’s mind thrived in an adrenaline-soaked environment. He’d learned to carefully manage and balance the multitude of mental and physiological inputs demanded of a fighter pilot.
Some pilots, no matter how experienced or skilled, however, are susceptible to a flood of adrenaline so intense that they ultimately “freeze.” This typically occurs when the body shifts to fight mode, thus constricting vascular systems at the extremities. In the meantime, the heart begins to race, sometimes beating at over 185 beats per minute — as fast as or faster than a sprinter or distance runner at full exertion. But a fighter pilot is sitting still in the cockpit. This contrast between a racing heart and constricted blood vessels can lead to a catastrophic mental and physical breakdown. Muscles become starved for oxygen and stiffen. Cognitive abilities plunge and the ability to think rationally is lost. Respiratory rates soar, and hyperventilation occurs. Control of some bodily functions becomes impossible; bowels and bladders release. Simple tasks become exceedingly difficult. Complex tasks such as flying a plane become nearly impossible.
A SAM missile sizzling just past one’s cockpit is certainly an event that can trigger such an involuntary adrenaline surge. Which is exactly the condition Lt. Col. Pickett found himself in.
Don caught up with Pickett’s jet as it cruised at three thousand feet, now well north of Hanoi. He was nervous about MiGs, more SAM missiles, and a flight path that would soon take them dangerously close to Chinese air space. However, he put all those considerations out of his mind and focused on getting Pickett’s attention.
“Uh, Bison Three, this is Bison Four,” Don radioed to the stricken pilot. “Do you read, Bison Three?
“Uh, Three, do you read?
It was clear that radio contact wasn’t going to be sufficient to get Pickett’s attention. So Don attempted a maneuver he’d read about but had never had been required to use. He had his doubts it would even work.
Don swung wide of Pickett’s plane and began swerving back and forth in front of him like a highway patrolman running a traffic break on a freeway. On the third swerve, Don swooped so close he thought the two planes were in danger of colliding. Pickett was finally able to track Don’s plane and put his jet into a bank just off Don’s right wing. Don carefully banked east toward the ocean. He and Pickett followed the coast south, away from enemy territory, and eventually back to Takhli.
Of the incident, Don would later say, “Pickett was in such bad shape that I’m pretty sure he would’ve flown until he ran out of gas before finally crashing somewhere in central China.”
* * * * * * * *
Schlitz, according to its motto, was “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous.”
But Milwaukee’s international renown was of little concern to the pilots at Takhli, even though the US Air Force provided them with all the free Schlitz they could stomach.
Following his close encounters with the SA-2, Don, back on base, rushed through the doors of the Stag Bar like a gunslinger, striding straight to the bar, hopping on a stool, and promptly ordering a can of Schlitz, which was served to him cold, with rivulets of condensation dripping down its aluminum sides due to the perpetually thick tropical air.
He tipped the can back, took three big gulps, set the beer on the bar, and belched.
“Schlitz does taste like piss water,” he thought.
It was something every pilot agreed on. But it was free.
He sat alone, staring at the word “Schlitz,” written on the can in a white, florid script against a brick-red background.
Piss water or not, Don prayed into his beer.
He thought of all the men he’d known who’d died. Good men, smart men, most better pilots than he was right now.
Slowly and solemnly, he bowed his head and spoke to the Schlitz can: “Dear Lord, I need your help. I need to get better as a pilot. I can’t afford fear. Not now. Not ever. If you don’t help me, I’m not going to make it. Amen.”
With a few more quick swigs, he finished his beer, setting the empty can, which he began to study intently, back on the bar in front of him.
“Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.”
“Contents 12 Fluid Oz.”
The bartender walked near, nodded in assumption that Don wanted another, and reached to take away the empty. Don gripped the can with both hands, waving the bartender off with a quick shake of his head.
Don resumed his silent study. He traced with his finger the word “Schlitz,” which scrolled up at an angle across the can. He lifted the can a couple of inches off the bar to gauge its weight, swinging it back and forth like a dinner bell and detecting that there was still a half swig sloshing at its bottom. He threw his head back, drained the remnants fully into his mouth, set the can back on the bar, and proceeded to stare in vacant meditation for a full fifteen minutes. This time, the bartender knew not to come near.
Don would later explain, “I stared at that empty can and stuffed all my fear inside it. I vowed never again to be afraid when I flew. And I never was. From that point on in the war, flying was fun. I made it so. I vowed I would never again become unnerved by the death of a fellow pilot. And I never was. I simply pledged that I would save all my grief until after the war was done. Which I did. And, finally, I came to terms with all the killing I’d done and was about to do. I simply and plainly told myself that every single person I’d killed would have gladly killed me in a second, given the chance. It was my job to never give them that chance. It’s something I still believe, something I still tell myself to this day.”
Excerpted from Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press)
Available here in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.
Copyright © 2016 by Craig K. Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.