Palace Cobra A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War
By Rasimus, Ed
St. Martin's Paperbacks Copyright © 2007 Rasimus, Ed
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780312948764
Chapter One Palace Cobra Their element is to attack, to track, to hunt, and to destroy the enemy. Only in this way can the eager and skillful fighter pilot display his ability. Tie him to a narrow and confined task, rob him of his initiative, and you take away from him the best and most valuable qualities he possesses: aggressive spirit, joy of action, and the passion of the hunter. —General Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe It was time. The confluence of the moon and stars could tolerate no other action. Besides that, I was not going to go around for another year wearing a stupid Recruiting Service badge on my uniform. It had started simply enough. It was an opportunity for a conscientious junior officer. They had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’d been slogging along at Willy Air Patch,1 teaching academic classes full of student pilots the gritty details about navigation and flight planning, then holding their hands through traffic patterns, acro, spins, and instrument flight in the squealing terror of a tiny T-37. It was a fairly innocuous existence for a “smoldering boulder,” combat-proven F-105 pilot, but it was reasonably regular hours in a nice place to live, a fun job witha good bunch of guys. The joke was that flying a T-37 was like masturbating. It was fun while you were doing it, but afterward you were slightly ashamed. The Air Force had determined that there would be no involuntary second tours to Southeast Asia for pilots. I’d been around once, and didn’t have to go again until everyone else had his turn in the barrel. To ensure that no one slipped through the cracks, the personnel head-shed had created a program called Palace Cobra. Everyone was ranked by longevity on the base, and when you rose to the top of the list, the “big mutha snake” came down and bit you with an assignment to the war. If you’d already been, you got bypassed and were available for other opportunities. That’s what they called your next uprooting from normalcy: an opportunity. Or you could volunteer to go back to the war. There were a lot of factors that could compel you to volunteer for a second tour. The primary one was that it was the only route back into flying fighters. I’d been a fighter pilot once, having competed vigorously for the privilege. I’d found that I could do the job respectably well, and I knew that there was no other place I wanted to be in the Air Force. The problem was that to return to fighters from Training Command there was only one path, and that led through Southeast Asia. There simply wasn’t any fighter qualification for pilots except those en route to combat. I volunteered to go back when I’d had just over two years of stateside duty. I’d watched each month as the assignments came in and the Palace Cobra list slowly moved my name to the top ten. It had taken a while. For almost a year there was no movement at all, as there were way too many guys ahead of me with more than four years on station. Finally as I passed my third anniversary at Willy, things began to move. The real question was whether I was going to get tabbed for a fighter, or would I be funneled into some sort of forward air controller or support job. With a previous tour, it was a natural for me to be assigned to fast movers, but natural or sensible doesn’t always determine what happens in the military. I was worried about having to choose between the F-4 and the F-105 Wild Weasel, with its SAM-suppression role that I’d supported during my first tour in 1966. Nothing else could happen. I was sure. Then the phone rang. Opportunity doesn’t always knock. Sometimes it rings. Would I like to go to Air Training Command headquarters to fill a major’s slot in the personnel business? I would be running the undergraduate-rated officer assignment shop. This meant I would handle the assignment of newly commissioned officers to pilot and navigator training, then determine their assignments after they had received their wings. I would fly support aircraft, but primarily I’d be pushing a desk, working staff duties. It would be a chance to get major command-level experience and exposure to increased responsibilities. It might mean recognition by some general for quick advancement. It would mean moving to Randolph AFB outside of San Antonio. And it would mean dropping off of Palace Cobra. They wanted an answer yesterday. I argued for some time. I must have been in demand, or else they’d been turned down several times already and couldn’t fill the slot. They relented and gave me forty-eight hours to make up my mind. I thought about it for a day and a half, discussing it with my boss, coworkers, and my wife. Everyone thought it was a good deal. Eventually I managed to convince myself that it would be better than flying fighters again, in a war we didn’t appear to be very concerned with winning anyway. I accepted the job. Randolph was beautiful, and for the first year I found myself caught up in learning the ins and outs of staff work. I found out what talking papers and staff summary sheets looked like. I learned how valuable a senior NCO can be to a stumbling aviator wallowing in a paper mill. I wrote and read and briefed and explained. I traveled to the ten pilot training bases, and I even succeeded in getting a major change to the graduate assignment system for pilots just getting their wings, returning to the strict merit ranking for selection of their next aircraft. Graduate at the top of your class and you get your choice. Finish in the bottom and you take what’s left. I felt that I’d accomplished a small something, correcting the errors of a personnel weenie who didn’t know from which end of the jet the hot air came. Now the best students would get a shot at fighters. It wasn’t bad duty; the only downside was the assignment to fly T-29s for my monthly four hours of flying time. There were four aircraft types available for supporting pilots on the staff. There were the T-37s and T-38s used for pilot and instructor training on the base, and there were T-29s and T-39s for hauling generals and staff teams around the countryside. I arrived at Randolph as a qualified instructor pilot in the -37, and I had both student and pilot time in the -38. I even had thirty hours in the jet Sabreliner, the -39, which had been used as a radar and nuclear weapons trainer during my F-105 checkout. Of course, that made it natural to assign me to the twin Convair, a prop driven, forty passenger, mini-airliner, the only airplane I hadn’t flown before and possibly the furthest stretch in the Air Force inventory for a Thud pilot on forced sabbatical from fighter aviation. Checkout in the airplane was a disaster. It started with a local orientation flight. Half a dozen staff types loaded onto an airplane, and during a four-hour flight we sat in the airline-style seats reading magazines and waiting for a chance to take the controls for periods ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour. It was sort of an airborne Club Med experience, only without the fruity rum drinks. I was eventually called to the cockpit, where I was directed into the left seat. The view was pretty good, but the big steering wheel was clearly converting flying into an unnatural act. The throttle quadrant was between the seats, requiring power control with the wrong hand, and there were a profusion of knobs and levers on the quadrant that implied the airplane had a lot more than the two engines I knew were out there on the wing. Trim wasn’t through an electrical thumb switch, but rather with a large wheel mounted vertically on the side of the throttle pedestal. My first attempt at a slight turn met with no result. It quickly became apparent that the fingertip flying of high performance jets wasn’t the mode of operation for reciprocating-engine trash-haulers. It took considerable muscling to get the airplane to move out of straight and level. Control pressures weren’t the solution, brute force manipulation of the wheel was. After the instructor pilot’s and the flight mechanic’s chuckles over my control technique subsided, we entered the traffic pattern. “We’re going to do a couple of visual touch-and-goes,” the IP said. “Call for the before-landing checklist.” It was Abbott and Costello time, checking out the infield lineup. “Okay,” I responded. Nothing happened. “Call for the before-landing checklist,” he repeated. “Right. Give it to me,” I tried again. Still nothing. “You have to say the words,” he scolded. “You have to say, ‘before-landing checklist.’ ” “You’re kidding, aren’t you? Okay, before-landing checklist,” I intoned. The flight mechanic opened his greasy yellow checklist and began reading. “Props?” I looked quizzically at the IP. He pointed to two of the knobs at the top of the throttle quadrant, then held them down for about eight seconds until the rpm of the engines magically, without movement of the throttles, moved to 2,400. “That sets the props to proper pitch,” the mech explained. “You’re supposed to do that and then say, ‘twenty-four hundred, set.’ ” “Flaps,” the flight mechanic continued, then looked expectantly at me again. I looked out the window on my side of the cockpit and determined that I couldn’t see any flaps. Without a clue about what was needed, I said, “Okay, set them.” “No,” the mech warned, “You’re supposed to say ‘fifteen degrees’.” I’m nothing if not a quick study. “That sounds right. Okay, set the flaps.” Nothing happened. The IP gives me a Jack Palance, tight-jawed glare. He hisses impatiently, “You have to say ‘fifteen degrees,’ then the copilot will set them while you fly the airplane.” Determined to play the game, I say, “fifteen degrees.” Now there’s action from the IP, who fiddles with a little lever, and Jack Palance momentarily becomes Mr. Magoo. He leans myopically forward to stare at the flap position indicator, setting it to exactly fifteen—not fourteen, not sixteen, but precisely fifteen. He’s gotten where he is today by being precise. The flight mech continues down the list. “Mixture?” I ask what the proper response is. The IP says to set the red levers to full forward or rich. I ask who is authorized to do that, and the IP motions to the flight mechanic sitting between us and hovering over the throttles. I tell him to go ahead. “Sir, I can’t do it unless you say ‘full rich,’ then I move the levers.” The enlisted mechanic is frustrated by my manifest incompetence. I’m in an airplane that barely responds to control inputs, that requires some sort of Gilbert and Sullivan duet to get something done, and that apparently is dependent upon an exaggerated Simon Says game before anything happens. Frustrated, I ask the IP, “Why, if everyone here but me knows the answer, do we have to ask the questions? If I ask for the before-landing checklist, and now you know that’s what I want, why don’t you just do it?” He shakes his head at the ignorance of this former single-seat, single-engine fighter pilot who is now adrift on his many-motored, trash-hauling turf. It begins to dawn on me that I’m dead meat in this game of aeronautical one-upmanship. I’m learning about something called crew coordination. Had someone told me that flying wouldn’t always be fun, I’d have called him a fool. Now I found myself using staff work as an excuse to avoid flying the T-29. We could bank flying time up to four months in advance, and then, if we missed our requirements, we could pick up two months’ back pay by flying more hours. I planned flights to take a trip every four to six months, then made myself unavailable in between, whenever the schedulers called, by claiming an important briefing for the general or a short suspense on a major staff project. That sort of rustiness could kill me in a fighter, but in this school bus I would always have a competent, experienced bus driver and mechanic to take care of me. I thoroughly detested the T-29 and actively sought to minimize my exposure to the beast. Worst of all, six years after receiving my wings, I now had some copilot time in my logbook. Pushing the gray, government-issue, six-drawer steel desk in my office was preferable to driving the unmaneuverable, air-thrashing, slow-moving, fifties-era people-mover. Worrying about flight lunches and baggage and passenger manifests and billeting arrangements for the sandbags in the back was not my idea of a good time. My secretary knew that if the flight schedulers called, I was always out. By the spring of 1972, the war was well along the path to being Vietnamized. President Nixon’s program of turning the fighting for their country over to the residents of Vietnam and bringing Americans home was increasingly popular. The pipeline was still pumping pilots into the war, but the numbers were decreasing, and the long-range planning for both undergraduate and operational flying training showed a definite reduction. Senior people in the headquarters were beginning to look for new missions and responsibilities to keep their empires in business. The folks at the Military Personnel Center, which was also at Randolph, began to covet my responsibilities at Air Training Command. They prepared a briefing for the generals of ATC and the Air Force suggesting the efficiencies of assuming assignment handling for pilot training graduates along with their existing job of managing the training of senior pilots. It made sense, and the function moved across the base. I, however, remained in ATC personnel. The headquarters Air Force folks over at the center wanted the positions in the bureaucracy; they didn’t want the people that occupied them.
Copyright © 2006 by Ed Rasimus. All rights reserved. Continues...
Excerpted from Palace Cobra by Rasimus, Ed Copyright © 2007 by Rasimus, Ed. Excerpted by permission.
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