Republic of Vietnam 1969
Four F-100 Super Saber jet fighters, looking sleek and mean, circled the target like birds of prey impatient for the kill. Below them, the Mekong River lay steaming in the hot, humid air, surrounded by lush, green jungle, and red mud from the monsoon rains. Water-filled bomb craters gleamed dully in the late afternoon sun. Meanwhile, the forward air controller, or FAC, was scooting across the treetops in a small, propeller-driven aircraft, coordinating the final details of the strike.
The fighters had been airborne for over an hour, and Skip’s flying suit was drenched in sweat. He was hot, uncomfortable, and impatient. Come on, come on, he thought, let’s get on with it. Rain showers are moving in, and we won’t be able to see the ground much longer.
“Icon Flight, Banjo Two-One is rolling in for the marking pass,” the FAC said.
Skip saw an orange flash as the marking rocket left the FAC’s aircraft, followed by a burst of white smoke on the ground that rose in a tall, straight column.
“Icon Lead, that’s a good mark. Hit my smoke.”
“Roger, Icon Lead’s in. Got the smoke in sight,” he responded.
“Cleared to drop, Lead.”
Skip rolled the aircraft onto its back, and then pulled the nose through the horizon before rolling upright and into a steep dive. Things were happening fast, as the airspeed increased, and the altimeter unwound rapidly. When the target appeared in the windscreen, he began tracking it with his gun sight. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see bright muzzle flashes from a nearby tree line; then red tracers began streaming across the nose of his aircraft. Don’t look at them, he thought. Keep your eyes on the target. Steady now. It’ll be over in a second.
“Icon Lead, you’re taking ground fire,” the FAC said. “Over to the left.”
“Roger. I see it. No sweat.” His voice sounded cool and confident.
An instant later, two 750-pound bombs were sent hurtling toward the ground. Trying to avoid the ground fire, he rolled sharply to the left as he pulled out, and then back to the right. In the rear view mirror, he could see the two bombs explode in a boiling column of mud and debris.
“Good bombs, Icon Lead. Put yours in the same place, Icon Two.”
Suddenly, Skip’s aircraft began to vibrate and shake, and a series of warning lights came on in the cockpit, one after another.
“Lead, you’re trailing smoke,” Icon Two called out.
“Not to worry. I’ve…uh…got a problem.”
The aircraft was becoming harder to control as the vibrations increased. Now the flashing, red fire-warning light was on. Okay. Be cool. You gotta punch out. No big deal. Get more altitude…that’s the first thing. “Lead, you’re on fire. The whole ass-end of the aircraft is on fire. Bail out!” Icon Two’s voice was tense and demanding. “Roger that. I have to climb first and head toward the water.”
The cockpit was unbearingly hot and filled with smoke. He could hardly keep the wings level. It’s time to go, pal. You’ve done this before. Raise the ejection seat handles, and the canopy goes. Squeeze the trigger, and you go. It’s a piece of cake. Holding the control stick steady with one hand, he reached down and raised the ejection seat handle, bracing for the explosion and rush of air as the canopy left the aircraft.
No problem. Eject through the canopy. It’s been done before.
Carefully, he squeezed the exposed trigger in the handle, once again bracing himself for the shock.
Again, nothing happened. Starting to panic, he squeezed it again…and again…and again.
“Lead, I repeat. You are on fire. Get out of the fucking bird, now!” Icon Two shouted.
“Roger. I…uh…can’t. The ejection seat…it won’t…oh shit!”
The control stick went slack. The flight controls were gone. Slowly, the aircraft rolled inverted like a wounded beast. Suspended upside down, looking at the jungle below, he knew it was over. “Bail out! Bail out!” Icon Two shouted one last time. Seconds later, the twilight sky was lit by a bright, orange explosion that disintegrated into flaming shards of silver aluminum drifting to the ground.
“Too late…” Icon Two said, in a flat voice, filled with resignation.