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As the excited passions of hostile people are of themselves a powerful enemy, both the general and his government should use their best efforts to allay them.

-- Lieutenant General Antoine
Four Engine fighters10328 Reads  Printer-friendly page

VietnamThe nights were accompanied by the throaty drone of these lumbering killers, orbiting over their home base, boresighting their various sensors, tuning up for their moonlight symphony over the jungle trails of Laos. As a fellow pilot, I had worked these same hostile skies with the AC-130 Spectres many nights. I had seen the still smoldering evidence of their effectiveness in harnessing the flood of Communist truck traffic that ran the gauntlet of Laos each night.
I had seen the triple A light up the sky where they were working with streams of red tracers and quick, staccato bursts of yellow-white as the 37 millimeter anti-aircraft shells detonated high above the trails.

Streaking Meanies

You develop a healthy respect for guys who go out when they know the possibilities are good that one of those streaking meanies might hit their aircraft. Droning round and round -- high above the stealthy trucks of Laos, the Spectres launched repeated broadsides into the black void, firing until the inky jungle yielded up its contraband in plumes of fire and exploding ammunition.

Unorthodox as it seemed, the concept works and the Fabulous Four Engine fighters, as the guys proudly called themselves, enjoyed the sterling reputation as the best truck killers in Southeast Asia. When you're good, the world stands up and takes notice. And Spectre reveled in the priority which the Air Force gives to its best.

This promised to be a long day, an intelligence briefing at 1400 hours, crew briefing at 1530, take off at 1715, a half hour before sunset, and a long mission over the road network of the Hi Chi Minh Trail.

Knowing that the enemy paved the sky with steel, I ducked into the personal equipment shop and got fitted with a flak helmet. The weight of that bucket made one conscious of having a head on his shoulders. My own webbed survival vest was suitable for this visit on a strange airplane.

I went through the bulky pockets, checking my two survival radios, a tourniquet (God forbid) a signal mirror, whistle, and .38 caliber ball ammunition. Jungle boots, sterilized flying suit, dog tags, ID card, Geneva Convention Card, a little money and my rabbit's foot. That's about all I could need in any eventuality.

The briefing room is a preliminary to every combat mission. Held in a stuffy room in wing headquarters, the briefing features an estimate of the weather in the target and recovery areas, a rundown of what "Charlie" -- the working man's term for the enemy -- was up to. Then the scoreboard. So many trucks moved last night, so many sighted by this wing, so many destroyed and damaged. Spectre got so many, the fighters got so many, and the bombers so many. Everybody silently assessed the score.

A WAF lieutenant passes out some code words and special frequencies and advises us where to bail out if our luck runs out. 'have a good one," wishes the lieutenant, and we stumbled out of the briefing room.

Milling Crews

The squadron was full of crews milling around with bandoleers of small arms ammo sewed on their vests; 38 caliber revolvers hung conspicuously from web belts. Here and there a big knife; whatever a guy left behind, he might need if he found himself on the ground in Laos. It was considered better to hide and wait for a helicopter pickup, than to try and walk out through the midst of them.

So the old guys frequently cautioned the gunslingers that it was unhealthy to try a John Wayne shootout under such odds. But every man knows how he will fight that battle when it comes to it.

The crew briefing was business-like. Call all triple A by clock position. Call whether its accurate or inaccurate. Call "Break" if you want the pilot to change course to duck some of the enemy fireworks.

"If you hear three short rings on the alarm bell, prepare for bailout. One long ring -- exit out the aft cargo door or the ramp," the aircraft commander continued.

A quick review of search and rescue procedures served to further remind us that the stakes were high when you play for keeps.

Cutting off my plastic name tag, I "sterilized" my fire resistant olive drab flying suit, picked up my gear and went off to get my thoughts together before boarding the bus for the flight line.

The crew chief was working in the wheel well when the blue air force bus drew up beside the big, black gunship brooding in the steel and concrete revetments. He had been working feverishly to have his bird ready in time for the scheduled take off, and assured the aircraft commander that he was buttoning up the last panels.

"Starting three." Called a voice from the cockpit, and the airplane was given life. As the hydraulic pumps began their work, my ram p elevated to a thirty degree angle. A little uncomfortable, but I could still see out the opening at the back of the cargo compartment.

Taxiing past rows of warplanes, the lumbering giant whined and jolted to the end of the runway. I exchanged a hand wave with an airfield guard and wondered if he would like to be aboard. His world and mine were so vastly different, yet they came together in a smile and a hand wave. It was that way all over the world.

I was jolted from my reverie by the mounting roar of the engines on the run-up pad. The late afternoon sun flooded into the cargo compartment along with howling eddies from the huge propellers. Dust swirled away behind the airplane, erupting out of the distant ditches and seeping across the grass. The outboard engines were started as another black gunship with red lettering lumbered alongside. A camouflaged jet fighter rolled up to the quick check inspection area. I wondered if he was our escort.

A quaint skyline of trees and brown wooden bungalows and business establishments diminished behind as the plane accelerated down the runway, leaving the sun to sink into the night. Dust sweeps back down the receding runway. The glorious feel of wings grabbing air and lifting a marvelous machine gently off the ground.

Shimmering cores

"Gear up!"
Wind swirled into the open cargo compartment from behind, blowing in my face. I was still sitting on the ramp, watching lakes and dirt roads and tin-roofed houses fall away beneath us. The hot exhaust gasses from the engines formed a pair of shimmering cores behind each wing. A storage area slid into view, and a winding river flowed by a red-roofed temple. Six minutes after take-off the air was noticeably colder, making me wish I had brought along my flight jacket.

Circling over the airfield from which we had just taken off, the aircraft commander began to hone his crew and his multi-million-dollar warplane to a razor's edge of perfection. Men and equipment had to work as one to be effective in the dark and hostile skies of Laos.

There are a number of ways of seeing in the dark, and the Spectres take advantage of the best of these. Officers, trained in the interpretation of these sensors, searched their electronic scopes for activity below. They occupied a lighted booth in the darkened cargo compartment of this noisy airplane. Another officer monitored their searching and selected the sensor to be used to attack the target.


In those few minutes orbiting over home plate, the booth was a busy place as the fire control officer checked the alignment of each of his sensors. Satisfied that his operators were seeing eye-to-eye, the aircraft commander leveled his wings ad headed the gunship toward the target area.

The ground was dark as a large river slid beneath and disappeared into a red sunset.

From a dark, open scanner's port on the starboard side of the cargo compartment came an unexpected question. "Pilot, from right scanner, are we airborne yet." "Where's he been," I wondered and, then as the crew laughed, realized that there was real camaraderie aboard the aircraft as the crew could still make light of going to war.

The pilot assumed him that we were, in fact, airborne and then to answer the question he had intended, advised him that we were now in the target area.

"Do you have an escort yet?" someone asked.

"Yes sir. He's on top."

That was comforting. A Mach two fighter bomber would stay with us in the target area to attack the anti-aircraft guns that probed for us in the inky sky above their emplacements.

Men and machinery had metamorphosed into a formidable weapon droning through the night sky in search of truck traffic plying the trail of Laos with war materials bound for Cambodia, South Vietnam and Southern Laos.

The hunt was on. Charlie would be well advised to lay low and wait until this Spectre returned to its nest. But Charlie had other ideas.

"Charlie, Charlie, Charlie," drawled a sensor operator in a deep southern brogue! The first truck was sighted in the sophisticated cat eyes of the gunship.

"He's going down the road into some trees."

The other sensors slewed around to peer at the truck racing for cover.

"Hell! He's stopped in the trees," the voice groaned. "I see him again. Okay, let's shoot him right there.

The forties began their deadly work. Circling overhead, the gunship sought satisfaction. Crash after thunderous crash as the big shells were launched into the jungle.

Those hit forward and high. More correction seemed appropriate.

"Triple A at 12 o'clock," announced the right scanner who was leaning out of the airplane into the slipstream looking at the first red balls of 37mm antiaircraft shells coming up.

"Four o'clock underneath. No threat," called another scanner lying on his stomach leaning out over the edge of the cargo ramp looking straight down into the black void below. Charlie was going to fight back. Those trails bristled with guns waiting for a chance to "hose down" the gunship that preyed on the stealthy night traffic.

Nine levels

In this sector, the enemy gunners had earned the reputation of being "nine levels," the best in the game. The first rounds sped by harmlessly, lighting up the sky high above with quick, bright flashes as they were detonated by their fuses.

'How many rounds there," came a query for somewhere in the airplane. One of the crewmembers had the job of counting the rounds of triple A. The WAF lieutenant debriefer would ask for that report when we got home. You always had to think of the paperwork. The location of active Triple A sites are important to all who fly the trail of Laos.

Minutes raced by as the gunship orbited the abandoned truck, whose driver by now was probably on top of the nearest hill.

"Seven rounds underneath. Roll out, pilot!" the unseen voice warned excitedly. "whew, that was a bit close!" Charlie was firing in anger.

Back into the orbit and more broadsides from the big guns. A burst of flame signaled a hit on the trapped supply truck.

"You go him! He's burning! Cheered the southern voice. "Big fire!"

I left the false security of the warm, lighted fire control room and groped out into the dark cargo compartment. The acrid smoke of the big cannons was in my nose and could be seen in the glow of the red combat lighting on the gun deck.

Two gunners seized this lull in the fighting to gather up the hot, smoking shell cases that had missed the 55-gallon drums under their breech ejectors. One opened a metal container and pulled out a fresh clip of four shells and pressed it in the magazine atop the cannon.

The gunners were busy, and besides, there was no practicable way to talk to them, so I moved toward the tail of the airplane and stretched out alongside the scanner.

Looking straight down I could see fires scattered around the area. On the horizon were large orange fires where someone else had brought the war to another clearing in the jungle.

Over head, the stars glistened in their familiar patterns. Orion was high in the eastern sky, and Sirius was well above the horizon. Those winking space travelers were old friends by now after years of sharing the night skies of the northern hemisphere with them. A final chaser of goof balls arced up beneath us to remind us that we were not welcome here.

"Six rounds, at five o'clock. No threat," dutifully announced the scanner beside me. Stars winked from below, and I realized that my eyes had so well adapted to the darkness that they were seeing reflections of tine stars in water in the jungle below.

There was no moon tonight, to everyone's relief. Crews watched the moon rise every night. They knew well that it appeared low in the western sky at dusk when it was but a sliver of a new moon. But as it waxed fuller, it appeared higher in the sky each evening, until in its perfidious fullness, it rose in the east at sunset and arced across the night sky, setting in the west only with the first glow of dawn. Coming out of the base movie theater once, I heard a Spectre gunner think out loud as he looked up at the full moon, "I never thought I'd come to hate the moon, but I do."

Gunner's Moon

The term "gunner's moon" expressed a gunship crewman's assessment of the worth of that ancient celestial light My crew had silently breathed a sigh when the weatherman had informed them that the moon would not be up to betray them tonight.

Already this evening I had seen more Triple A thrown at us than I had seen in months of fighter combat missions. I could only wonder what it would be like illuminated under a gunner's moon.

Another sting of tracers sprang up from the ground, catching the attention of the fighter pilot high overhead. Rolling inverted, he swooped his charge down the black funnel of night to loose some bombs on the harassing gunner. A ripple of lights indicated trouble on the ground as the cluster bombs chewed up the jungle ad its unfriendly inhabitants.

The gunship pilot caught the action and commented, " Escort two just made a pass. Looked pretty good." It was nice to have some tough little friends around to encourage Charlie to keep his head down. A few warm words over the radio attested to the friendship and mutual admiration between the gunships and the fighters.

Other targets found themselves on the all-seeing scopes of the gunship as the night wore on. River boats, trucks waiting at loading docks, small convoys snaking their way along the dangerous winding dirt trails -- each in turn discovering the meaning of air power.

Golden Hose

Charlie made his feeling known with his 23mm guns -- the "golden hose." The scanners were kept busy calling out the lethal stuff as it streaked by. But Charlie was shooting blind tonight, and his aim was wide of the mark.

"Let's safe the guns and go home," called the pilot. Hours in the target area had passed quickly. But suddenly everyone felt the weight of the heavy flak helmets and the dull pain of ears long pressed under sweaty earphones and the eye strain of trying to see electronic blobs as trucks, and the weariness of feeding heavy ammunition into the hungry guns.

The pilot stretched himself after the long spell of intense concentration to fly the bank angle and altitude and airspeed required to match the ballistics of his guns.

After all, he was really the gunner, and the other members of the crew did their thing to put this complex meld of men and equipment and firepower at the beck of his trigger finger.

Heading into friendly territory again, the crew began the physical and emotional let down that follows the heavy demands of air combat. Off came the flak helmets. The pilot joined the gunners in shoveling the brass 20mm shell cases from a wooden bin on the forward cargo deck into canvas bags.

This ritual, traditionally performed by the ranking officer, was a way in which the pilot could say to all the gunners that made this ship a dreadnought, "Thanks for playing on our team," and in turn, the gunners would nominate me, the "visiting fireman" an honorary gunner.

The exchange of smiles as the shovels full of brass filled the sacks was testimony to the bond of comradeship that unites men who have walked together in the nightmare of war.

As we left the still airplane in the peaceful night, the fire control officer handed me a slip of paper showing his tally of the Triple A thrown at us tonight -- 672 rounds! I picked up a spent clip of 40's as a souvenir and thanked my crew for an impressive look at a unique and courageous application of modern air power.

Back in my own squadron, I found there is no way to adequately describe such an experience.

"How did your 'Spectre flight go, Jim?" someone asked. "Very interesting," I answered, but they knew what I meant.
Note: by Lt. Col. James F. Humphries, Jr.


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