Cold War Era

During the Vietnam War a fully loaded USAF F-4 Phantom II went inverted on a tanker at night in a thunderstorm

The flight of three F-4 Phantom II fighter jets and the tanker continued banking around the storms while refueling when suddenly the Tanker flew them directly into a heavy storm cell.

You can listen to a dramatic first-hand account of this story on, the website that hosts ‘Hairy’ a new podcast about dangerous combat experiences.

Refueling in flight made long-distance flying operations possible in Southeast Asia. Heavily-laden aircraft like the F-105 Thunderchief, F-4 Phantom and B-52 Stratofortress needed fuel on the way to and from their targets. Getting gas from tankers allowed them to carry maximum bomb loads, and search and rescue helicopters increased their range with air refueling as well.

In-flight refueling depended on precise timing and navigation. Bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft were carefully scheduled to meet tankers at given times and places.

Refueling fighter and reconnaissance planes near combat zones was complicated. Several meeting areas called “anchors” over Thailand, Laos, South Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin were set up so fighters could select the nearest airborne gas station on the way to and from their targets. Sometimes 50 or more aircraft met and circled over a wide area as fuel changed hands. Tankers often overflew hostile territory to meet and fuel planes that otherwise would not have made it home. Many pilots owed the success of their missions — and some owed their lives — to being refueled by tankers.

On a dark and stormy night in Ubon Thailand in 1969, a flight of three F-4 Phantoms, call-sign ‘Killer’ was waiting to take off on a mission over Northern Laos.   

The flight leader was then Captain Luke Graves, a Fighter Pilot who flew 177 Combat Sorties in North Vietnam and Northern Laos between 1968 and 1969.  He flew the F-4D while serving in the Wolfpack, the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. The weather was “delta sierra” with heavy thunderstorms all around the theatre. “I’ll never forget that the water was up to my ankles on the ramp as I was trying to pre- flight my aircraft” said Graves. The mission was planned for an afternoon take off, but the TOT kept getting slipped because of the weather. Finally, at 11pm, they got the go ahead to take off.  They had expected to fly during the day, but now it was a night mission and the theatre was still full of thunderstorms.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4E Phantom II 32nd TFS, CR 68-446

They were tasked to take out an anti-aircraft site at a place called the called the ‘Birds Head’ near the border of North Vietnam and Laos. The flight plan was to fly towards the target, refuel on a tanker and then hit the target. They immediately hit a huge wall of thunderstorms and Graves put them in 3-mile radar trail to punch through the line of thunderstorms. Upon finally getting through they called up ground control to get a slot with the tanker and were told that the 3 tankers, ‘Cherry’, ‘Peach’, and ‘Lemon’, had to move back to a relatively small area because of the weather and that they were co-mingled in a relatively small area.

Killer flight of 3 then went back through the line of heavy cells and came up on the tanker channel only to hear all three of the tankers jammed up in this small area arguing about who was supposed to be at which altitude. With several other attack flights needing to refuel, it was becoming a dangerous situation with these 3 tankers bunched up in this small area. Finally, they got onto to ‘Cherry Anchor’ for refueling. The flight of three F-4s and the tanker continued banking around the storms while refueling when suddenly the Tanker flew them directly into a heavy storm cell.  Graves had just refueled and was in the pre-contact position when they hit the storm. He immediately called a ‘lost wingman’ maneuver signaling his wingmen to peel left and right respectively. With limited choices of where to go, Graves rolled upside down while under the tanker to get separation. “Flying upside down underneath a tanker while in a thunderstorm on instruments with a full fuel and bomb load was a once in a lifetime thriller” said Graves.  

No one collided and they managed to re-group and get tanked-up before heading off to the target which was “of course” surrounded by thunderstorms. They finally found a hole and dove into the target.  Because of all of the lighting, the gunners spotted them and let loose. They were committed so there was no other choice than to fly into the barrage and hit the target. “It felt like we were diving into a volcano and reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s story Descent into the Maelstrom”.  

Luckily, no one was hit, but with all the thunderstorms around them there was nowhere to go so Graves made a snap decision and took them down to the deck instead of up and out. The problem is that this area is full of mountains and karsts so flying low at night isn’t normally an option. “I was going visual because of the lightning strikes …flick, flick and I could see where I was going and avoid the karst ridge”. Finally, they found a hole and popped back up to cruising altitude.  

At this point the 3 crews were a bit rattled by this crazy mission. When they checked in with Wolfpack, they were told that Ubon was socked in and instructed to fly back through the same thunderstorms to the refuel again and await further instructions. Graves who was strung out from adrenalin hits asked his back seater to take the controls and fly them into Udorn (instead of Ubon) which was still open. “I figured we had filled our bravery square for the night so I just took us to Udorn and bought the boys a drink”.  

You can listen to a dramatic first-hand account of this story on, the website that hosts ‘Hairy’ a new podcast about dangerous combat experiences.

Photo credit: Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK, via Wikipedia, U.S. Air Force and Matt Graves

This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Matt Graves

Matt Graves is the creator and host of a podcast about dangerous combat experiences called ‘Hairy’. Matt is a journalist, musician and lover of great story-telling based in Brussels, Belgium.

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