The photo-Crusader, unlike other dedicated reconnaissance aircraft (with the possible exception of the RA-5C Vigilante), created a need and product, as well as a myth, that grew, developed, matured and died within a short, but intense, 20-year career.
Although the Crusader was built first and foremost as a Navy interceptor, as has often been the tradition with US fighters, a photo-reconnaissance variant was also produced by Vought. Blessed with great speed and the traditional ‘long legs’ associated with all Navy aircraft, the Crusader was effectively converted into a recce platform by removing the four 20 mm cannon beneath the cockpit. In their place an equal number of camera positions were introduced in a broadened and flattened belly. The photo-bird’s first operational test came in the autumn of 1962 when its overflights of Cuba alerted the world to the likely presence of medium-range ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island.
The recce Crusader’s next action came during the long years of the Vietnam War, when the Vought jet assumed the mantle of the US Navy’s primary light-photographic platform throughout the nine years of conflict. Forty-nine carrier dets deployed between October 1963 and January 1974, with 20 RF-8s lost in action.
As told by Peter Mersky in his book RF-8 Crusader Units over Cuba and Vietnam, with the cease-fire of Jan. 27, 1973, American, North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese forces stopped fighting. The next several months included the long-awaited return of American PoWs, and the sweeping of mines from the various North Vietnamese waterways that had been dropped from May 1972 onwards.
The following two years saw an uneasy peace as the struggling South Vietnamese government, now devoid of much of the physical presence of American support, balanced precariously between independence and the inevitable resurgence of Communist activity. Neighbouring Cambodia and Laos were in constant turmoil, and by early 1975 the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, was lost.
The Communists pushed on into South Vietnam and drove toward Saigon. There was little America could do to prevent the take-over, and the US turned its attention to withdrawing its people and a portion of the South Vietnamese who had worked for American interests during the war.
Task Force 77 and its ships steamed off Saigon, sending helicopters into the beleaguered city. Hancock and Coral Sea — along with Enterprise and Midway — launched protective missions to monitor and CAP the Marine and Navy ‘helos’ as they swooped in and out with their human cargoes.
The smaller carriers’ VFP dets occasionally flew recce missions, but it was clear their work was done. A month later, coral Sea’s RF-8Gs covered the unexpected confrontation between Cambodian and American units during the Mayaguez Incident, but it was an anti-climactic end to the photo-bird’s stellar career.
RF-8Gs continued serving until June 1982, when VFP-63 decommissioned, leaving the Navy without a viable tactical reconnaissance aircraft for the first time in nearly 40 years. The highly touted F-14 TARPS (tactical aerial reconnaissance pod system) fell far short of expectations, especially during ultimate test in the 1991 Persian Gulf-War. And the somewhat intangibles of-pride and morale were lacking in the Tomcat crews that tried their hand at reconnaissance.
The photo-Crusader enjoyed a full career in the Naval Air Reserve from 1970 to 1987, equipping two squadrons at Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C. VFP-206 and -306 carried on the traditions of the fleet photos, initially attracting many former fleet Crusader drivers, both fighter and photo, as well as many younger aviators who were anxious to add Crusader time to their logbooks. But the Crusader, in its reconnaissance variant, retired from service in March 1987, Ieaving behind an impressive record in peace and war, made all the more so considering how few squadrons flew the RF-8.
Indeed, from 1968 onwards, only VFP-63 retained the RF-8G as its primary equipment. Of 1261 Crusaders produced, 144 were photo-Crusaders, 73 of which were remanufactured as RF-8Gs. Some 20 RF-8s were lost in combat, all in Vietnam, with another 14 lost in operational – non-combat — mishaps. No RF-8s were lost to North Vietnamese MiGs, and all losses were Navy aircraft, the Marine Corps’ VMCJ-1 failing to lose any RF-8As — the only model it flew in combat (only reserve squadron VMJ-4 flew `Golfs’ at all) — although several Marine Corps aircraft were damaged by flak. Five VFP-63 aviators were killed in combat, with one missing in action. Six more became PoWs, with one, Lt Charles Klusmann, eventually escaping after three months.
The photo-Crusader, unlike other dedicated reconnaissance aircraft (with the possible exception of the RA-5C Vigilante), created a need and product, as well as a myth, that grew, developed, matured and died within a short, but intense, 20-year career. The RF-8 enjoyed a career way out of proportion with its production numbers. In an unpopular war, the pilots (supported by their dedicated groundcrews) of the VFP and VMCJ dets flew in every condition, often when their compatriots in other squadrons were grounded for weather or politics. Neither the men or machines were found wanting, even in the most arduous times. The men who flew the RF-8 series were true heroes, and represented the best that naval aviation had to offer. They flew a machine that was right for the job that had to be done at the moment. It’s doubtful we will ever see such a righteous combination again in military aviation.
RF-8 Crusader Units over Cuba and Vietnam is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy