Aerial reconnaissance was a vital but hazardous operation over North Vietnam, but not all of the participants were risking life and limb. In my unit, the photoreconnaissance aircraft were pilotless jet-powered drones. Not having human crews, however, did not make their missions and the need for their safe returns any less important.
On a rainy morning in 1967, I was awakened in my hooch at Bien Hoa Air Base at 0300 hours to head over to the officers’ quarters for a ride to the flight-line and the crew briefing for the day’s mission. It was a typical routine during my tour in Vietnam. By 0500 hours, the rain had slackened and our flight crew drove by truck to the flight-line and our assigned aircraft.
Our crew was from a Strategic Air Command unit stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, the 4025th Reconnaissance Squadron, 4080th Strategic Wing, 12th Strategic Aerospace Division. All the flight crews’ rotations were for three-month temporary duty periods and our orders and mission were classified Top Secret.
We were part of a photoreconnaissance unit, using drones designed to replace the U-2 spy planes, partly in response to the Cold War shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers. The drones could fly at 400 knots and climb straight upward. Most fighter planes at that time could not keep up with the steep rate of climb of the drones.
As the flight engineer of a drone-carrying DC-130A or E model, it was my job to preflight the aircraft with the other engineer. That morning the craft was slippery from the overnight rain and difficult to walk on in combat boots, but that didn’t stop us from running through our preflight tests. The preflight took about two hours and included the time to preplan the intelligence-gathering drone’s flight path for the day.
The crewman who planned the drone’s flight and launched it from the C-130’s wing was called the “Buster.” He also gave procedure directions to the pilot for the launch flight direction. The Buster had authority to override the drone line-up while in flight, but only in some situations. On occasion, we could unlock the drone to give it other commands. The lockout was necessary to prevent the North Vietnamese from fastening onto the drone with a ground signal.
The drone-carrying C-130s had two extra 1,800-gallon Benson fuel tanks to give us longer flying time. Our takeoffs were usually without incident. This day was no different, but a few times we did catch a number of bullets in the plane’s tail section.
Carrying the extra fuel and the drone weight, the C-130s needed an ample runway for takeoff. With a small ramp space at Da Nang, we parked on the tarmac between the runways to facilitate a quick takeoff. If we took off from Da Nang over land, we climbed as noiselessly as possible to get out of groundfire range. The over-water takeoff path from Da Nang could be rather hazardous, as it ran directly over Monkey Island, a territory held by the Viet Cong.
With our preflight checks complete, on this day the pilot took off and flew out over the Gulf of Tonkin at 10,000 feet until we reached the edge of Da Nang airspace. Then the pilot dropped the airplane to 1,000 feet, just above the water. Once there, he continued flying low in the moist, heavy cloud cover that kept the North Vietnamese SAM radars from detecting our approach.
We flew 100 miles past the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi before turning back toward the harbor. The pilot then popped up to 2,000 feet and we released our surveillance drone, just before reaching the harbor. When the drone left the aircraft, the plane jumped because of the released weight. As the drone dropped off the left wing, it helped make our turnaround quicker.
The drone flew across Hanoi at 1,000 feet, taking photographs of the local terrain, and then it climbed up to where the SAM radars could see it. When a SAM radar site came up, one of the F-4 Phantoms following the drone launched a missile into the position. That was the standard mission profile, but it didn’t always work out according to plan.
That day, as the drone was released, the C-130 pilot banked left, diving back down to the top of the water so the SAMs couldn’t lock onto us. Each C-130 used in these missions was equipped with sensors to warn us if we had been “painted” by radar or if a missile was in-bound. For such situations we had preplanned evasive tactics and fighter cover.
As the pilot put the plane into a 180- degree left turn, taking us away from the drone as fast as he could, he flew the plane directly back out over the Gulf of Tonkin. There we circled, waiting for instructions to launch a second drone in the event that the first one was shot down.
With luck, some of the drones had a lifespan of 40 or more flights. Once a drone ran out of fuel, it dropped from 10,000 to 2,000 feet, deployed a parachute, and usually landed safely in a rice paddy somewhere in northern South Vietnam. From there it was retrieved by a helicopter that “snag shot” it with hooks. All too often, however, the Viet Cong were waiting at the recovery site. If we did not reach the drone within a certain time, the films self-destructed using an acid mechanism built into the camera’s film case.
Sometimes during the return flights to Bien Hoa we flew in as straight a line as possible, trying to return quickly with the recovered film for the intelligence people to analyze. On this mission, however, the drone had buried itself in a rice paddy, and we had to spend the night at Da Nang waiting for ground crews to dig it out and retrieve the camera. We finally returned it to Bien Hoa the next day.
During those missions when the helicopter recovered the drone quickly, we were able to upload it and take it back to Bien Hoa that same day, bringing both the films and the drone home within hours. The faster turnaround gave friendly forces quicker results and photographs. The information decreased in value as it aged.
When the C-130s arrived back at Bien Hoa, we were met by a vehicle from intelligence to pick up the films. We then prepared the aircraft for the next run, inspecting and refueling it and mounting new drones. At the end of the mission the entire crew underwent a debriefing. That day, as on other days, the flight crew consisting of both enlisted men and officers acted as a tight team, completing another secret mission we hoped would give our side important intelligence.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.