Col. Rand Brandt, USAF (ret.), then a First Lieutenant, desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot. But his first unit assignment was co-piloting a 10 engine, 488 thousand pound airplane carrying seven nuclear weapons on 25 hour missions. It was during the 27 days of the Cuban missile crisis when, for the first time ever, America’s defense posture was DEFCON–2, just one small step from all–out war with the Soviet Union.
1st. Lt. Brandt was combat qualified in Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52’s just two weeks following his 21st birthday and two months before President Kennedy demanded Nikita Kruschev remove Soviet ICBMs from Cuba.
The largest airplane in the World at the time, the B-52, was powered by eight J-57 engines, and Lt. Brandt’s squadron carried two AGM-28’s, air-launched cruise missiles, better known as “Hound Dogs.” The AGM-28’s had their own jet engines and “Randy,” as his friends called him, often powered them up for max gross take-offs.
Challenging stuff, this. But Randy’s itch to be a fighter pilot just had to be scratched. He applied for fighter training again and again, all to no avail. It was said the only way to get out of SAC was through death or retirement!
He finally heard of an opening as a forward air controller (FAC). He applied immediately and,voila, he was accepted. After taking Army parachute training and three months of FAC school, he called in air strikes for a year with Korean Marines in Viet Nam. It was a harrowing assignment, all the more so because he made 13 “out of country” parachute jumps about which nothing more can be said.
Randy flew T-33’s whenever possible during this tour which helped him when he finally was assigned to Davis-Monthan AFB where he entered a replacement training unit (RTU) for transition to F-4C’s. He was ecstatic to join the fighter community.
The U.S. Navy’s requirements for fighters had historically differed from those of the Air Force due to their carrier basing, and the F-4 “Phantom” was the first exception. It had very impressive air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, so much so the Air Force broke with tradition and purchased large numbers of Phantoms. It was considered the hottest fighter in the air throughout most of the 1960’s.
The F-4 was the first Air Force airplane with the same designator as the Navy version. The similarity went beyond nomenclature: it had a tail hook! There were functional differences too. The Air Force F-4 was fully flyable from the back seat. All the back seaters, “guys in back (GIB’s)” were rated pilots. Randy’s GIB in RTU was Col. (then 1st. Lt.) Gordon “Gordie” Breault, and they flew together throughout training and, ultimately, in combat.
Transition training for Randy and Gordie was nominal with one exception: on their first solo they lost their utility hydraulic system which operated the nose wheel steering and brakes so they had to pick-up the single wire at the approach end of the runway! In any case, when Randy and Gordie graduated they were ordered to report to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base (Ubon) after a short course in jungle survival. They were further assigned to the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) known as the “Night Owls.” It was a prestige assignment. As Jerry Scutts, author of Wolf-Pack: Hunting MIGs Over Viet Nam, says: “... the Owls were the only squadron in SE Asia solely dedicated to night missions, flown by the most highly qualified and experienced crews on one of the most demanding assignments of all. It took skill, a cool head and not insubstantial courage to fly a high-speed jet fighter over jungle terrain at night, ready when the call came to plunge into a black void to deliver ordnance on a pin-point target.”
The jungles over which the Owls flew were totally dark, there were no lights on the exterior of their aircraft and almost all of the pilot’s instruments were covered by masking tape. They refueled in near total darkness and often attacked targets level at 550 knots at 100 to 300 AGL while dodging two and three thousand foot sandstone “karsts” that seldom showed up on the map mode of their radar. Enemy targets were almost always heavily defended with concentrations of sophisticated air defense weaponry – losses were extremely high.
After flying 177 sorties, Randy was selected to lead a flight of four F-4D’s against a high-value target defended by 13 camouflaged AAA sites on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Gordie had volunteered as the GIB in another squadron and was shot down and returned to the states after an extremely bloody rescue. So Randy’s new GIB was 1st Lt. Charlie Costa.
The four aircraft, with call signs “Dipper 01" through “Dipper 04,” dropped off a tanker at 1150 and took up seven mile spacing with radar lockups. The ordnance was the same on all four aircraft: four cans of un-finned napalm and four SUU7’s each filled with 19 tubes of cluster bomb units (CBU-2’s). These had to be laid down between 100 and 300 AGL in level flight with as much air speed as possible. Individual clusters were about the size of a beer can with fins that remained folded until released. When they detonated, an explosive charge in the middle propelled 250 quarter-inch ball bearings outward. Hitting the pickle button fired explosive squibs at the rear of the tubes, and air pressure pushed the CBU-2’s out of the back of the dispensers. Deviating from straight and level flight might have caused the CBU-2’s to bind in the tubes and air pressure on those further forward might have made them detonate prematurely.
Dipper 04 went in first and laid down four tanks of napalm to help neutralize enemy AAA emplacements in the target box which was 2 ½ miles long and 3/4 miles wide. Dipper 04 then returned to the trail position and Randy in Dipper 01 led the lay down of the CBU-2’s. He pickled 10 times in 1 second intervals and started to pull up. After approximately two seconds violent trans G forces threw the crew around the cockpit, and, when Randy moved the stick in a circle, there was absolutely no control response. The aircraft was tumbling longitudinally but was right side up when the rear canopy blew off and Charlie was ejected. Those who studied the situation later agreed the aircraft was inverted when Randy was ejected 0.73 seconds later.
Dipper 01 was hit at 300 feet AGL and Charlie’s ejection rocket blew him up to Martin– Baker’s design apogee of 475 feet, so he had man-seat separation at 775 feet AGL. Nevertheless, when his chute opened, he managed to get out his survival radio and call the three trailing aircraft so they would abort the mission.
Randy remembers seeing the blue flame of his seat rocket about 0020 and the next thing he remembers was looking at his watch. It was 0125. So there are 65 minutes of his life about which he has no recollection. An Air Force Pilot never loses consciousness, so he called it “combat shock.” He couldn’t grasp anything with his right hand and what he initially thought was a severe charlie horse turned out to be a deep wound in his right thigh.
Despite the triple canopy of trees above him, there was a little light from a quarter moon, and Randy’s vision had adapted to the night. He expected to see his Martin–Baker seat and chute, but they were nowhere in sight. The harness was very loose and there was no trace of the risers.
At first, it was eerily quiet. None of the crews who bailed out over Laos turned up as POW’s in North Viet Nam; they were either rescued or killed. Randy had to withstand the pain and get away from where his seat and chute should have been, so he released the coke fittings and crawled about a hundred meters or so along the jungle floor. Then, about 0300, he heard a search party but he hid under a log and the enemy abandoned the search after an hour or so.
Randy didn’t know Charlie’s status but he knew a massive combat search and rescue (CSAR) effort would be underway, and he hoped both of them would be extracted at first light. The search involved about 110 “fragged”aircraft [those in the vicinity that could have been called upon to assist with the rescue]. Pilots in charge of these rescues were “Sandys.” They typically flew A-1’s. These highly regarded “Spads,”as they were called, worked in tandem with large CSAR helicopters on hundreds of missions and their losses were staggering.
Flying a Spad, the “on-scene commander” determined Charlie was alive and made certain the guns they had targeted were shut down. Both pilots confirmed they were ready for the extraction by a huge CH-53, affectionately known as a “Super Jolly Green Giant.” Randy popped green smoke and, despite his pain, waved off the PJ. The penatrator was let down for him at 0710. It was fairly light by then, and no one involved with the rescue saw any sign of his seat or chute.
Seeing Charlie alive and the pure joy of surviving this ordeal was made even more deeply memorable when they were reminded it was Easter Sunday, 1969!
The debriefing took three days and included an Air Force flight surgeon and intelligence officer as well as representatives from McDonnell Douglas and Martin-Baker.
Hours and hours of “what if” drills resulted in the consensus the aircraft was right side up when Charlie ejected but inverted when Randy did. This would have put him just above the thick, triple–layer jungle. The chutes from the Martin-Baker ejection system did not deploy until after rocket burnout. Then a pilot chute ejected, pulled out the main canopy and, as the canopy deployed, the man-seat separator threw the occupant clear of the seat. Well, Randy wasn’t sitting in his seat and there was no sign of his chute. It pushed the limits of credulity to conclude his chute hadn’t opened and that he was there to tell the story, but geometric calculations by McDonnell Douglas and Martin-Baker reps indicated the rocket that propelled the ejection seat (with Randy in it) probably burned out at ground level.
The flight surgeon’s comment was memorable: “Randy, I don’t know what happened, but I should be doing an autopsy on you!”
Bruce Frazer, the author, was an Army Aviator. This is the first article Wings of Gold, a magazine for Naval Aviators, has carried about an Air Force Pilot.
AAA - Anti-aircraft fire
AGL - Above ground level
AGM - Air ground missile
PJ - Pararescuemen let down from helicopters to rescue downed crewmembers