“Drop your tail-hook!” Pardo cried. The steel tail-hook, designed to halt the aircraft after landing on an aircraft carrier, was nothing if not strong — seriously strong.
The following article contains excerpts from the story titled Stars And Stripes appeared in Richard Pike’s book Phantom Boys Volume 2.
Some thirty miles north of Hanoi at a place called Thai Nguyen, an area in Vietnam renowned for the quality of its tea, a North Vietnamese steel mill was used for the production of essential war materiel. In March 1967 units of United States F-4s and F-105s were briefed to attack this heavily defended mill, and as part of the plan Captain Bob Pardo with his back-seater, First Lieutenant Steve Wayne, were to fly their F-4 leading another Phantom flown by Captain Earl Arran with First Lieutenant Robert Houghton as his back-seater. Their task was to defend other US aircraft against enemy MiG action but if no MiGs appeared, these two F-4s were to join their colleagues in attacking the steel mill.
Powerful monsoons and extensive low cloud had delayed this mission for nine days until, on Friday 10 March 1967, skies cleared. An air of nervous anticipation was apparent when crews walked out to their aircraft lined up at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force base; the men all knew that a hazardous mission was in prospect with the high possibility of casualties. Before long, with engines started and weapons and other checks completed, the aircraft took off to head north towards the target area. The initial part of the flight may have felt surreal as crews flew above the rich and diverse vegetation and the tropical forests that spread like an intricate tapestry across Vietnam. Reality struck, however, when the aircraft were still some distance from the target and ground defences began to open fire. Suddenly, Aman and Houghton’s aircraft was hit by flak and their F-4 started to shake violently. They discussed whether to turn back but, despite the problems, decided to proceed.
No MiG fighters appeared but anti-aircraft fire persisted as the F-4s and F-105s continued towards the target. Aman and Houghton managed to drop their bombs, as did others, although several of the US aircraft were shot down near the steel mill. Then Aman and Houghton felt their aircraft take two more hits. Aman radioed Pardo: “We’re losing fuel fast!”
“Okay,” said Pardo, “we’ll head for the tanker.” He wanted to lead his wingman to a pre-briefed rendezvous point with an in-flight refuelling tanker, however it soon became clear that Aman and Houghton’s aircraft was losing fuel too rapidly to reach the tanker in time.
“We’ll have to eject!” cried Aman on the aircraft radio.
“Standby,” said Pardo, conscious that an ejection at that point would mean a descent by parachute into enemy territory. In his mind were bleak thoughts of communist treatment of US forces, especially aircrew, which was known to be barbaric.
By this stage, as Pardo and Wayne’s Phantom had also been hit by flak, warning lights flashed in Pardo’s cockpit when his F-4 lost electrical power and started to lose fuel — fortunately, though, the aircraft’s handling remained normal.
“We’ll climb,” radioed Pardo to his wingman while he eased the Phantom’s throttles forward, “follow me up!” He wanted to gain height so that the aircraft could glide as far as possible if the fuel ran out. As the two Phantoms climbed towards 30,000 feet Pardo radioed his wingman again: “Earl, you’ve been hit bad. I can see you losing fuel.”
“Yuh…okay…we’re preparing to bail out, Bob.”
“Don’t jump yet! We’ll do our damnedest to help you out of here!” cried Bob Pardo. After a pause he went on: “Jettison your drag ‘chute, Earl.” Following this action Pardo planned to position the nose of his F-4 into the empty drag ‘chute receptacle; this, he hoped, would allow him to ‘push’ his wingman along. The attempt, though, was foiled by jet wash from Earl Aman’s aircraft. “Standby, Earl,” Pardo warned, “I’m gonna try something else.” At that, he manoeuvred very carefully to attempt to position the top of his Phantom’s fuselage directly beneath the other’s ‘belly’ but this, too, failed. Pardo, though, had not run out of ideas yet. “Drop your tail-hook!” he cried.
The steel tail-hook, designed to halt the aircraft after landing on an aircraft carrier, was nothing if not strong — seriously strong. Slickly, if warily, Pardo manoeuvred his F-4 towards the tail-hook, now locked down. Closer and closer he moved, his task hardly helped when the hook began to sway from side to side. Still he persevered, easing forward bit by bit until the one-inch-thick armoured section at the base of his windshield touched the hook. He eased forward a little more. Intense concentration no doubt crowded out dark thoughts that might have occupied his mind – feelings, perhaps, of anger, of fearfulness, of determination that his superb flying skills should not let them down at this crucial point.
With the rate of descent of the linked-up F-4s at around 3,000 feet per minute, Pardo began to push his aircraft a little harder against the tail-hook. It was a courageous thing to do; if his windshield gave way, the steel hook would smash into his face. But his plan was starting to work: as he persisted, the rate of descent was gradually reducing. Suddenly, though, he had to pull back when zigzag cracks began to form at the base of his windshield. He needed to think of something else. Pardo, therefore, repositioned slightly to place the tail-hook against a square of metal at the junction of his windshield and the radome. That led to a moment of ‘eureka’ for by pushing hard for a few seconds at a time he discovered that the rate of descent was halved to some 1,500 feet per minute.
But now Aman radioed: “We’re out of fuel! Both our engines have just flamed out!”
Undaunted, Pardo continued to push and push – to such effect that the rate of descent was still kept under control. His situation, though, took a dramatic turn for the worse when, suddenly, a red fire warning light began to shine in his cockpit: the left engine was on fire. “Standby!” cried Pardo to his back-seater, “I’ll have to close down the port engine.” This action, however, meant that with just one engine to propel two aircraft the rate of descent increased drastically. Pardo therefore re-lit the engine only to close it down again a minute later when the light reappeared.
Despite the perils, Pardo carried on pushing for another ten or so minutes, the catalogue of complex thoughts within his head facilitated, no doubt, by that most mysterious yet beneficial compound – adrenalin. Eventually, he managed to push his wingman a total distance of nearly ninety miles. The two F-4s were down to an altitude of some 10,000 feet when Laos loomed. In sight was the border between Vietnam and northern Laos, marked by the Black River known locally as the Song Da. Pardo radioed his position to US search and rescue crews which resulted in the scrambling from Thailand of several Douglas A-1 Skyraiders (single-seat propeller-driven ground-attack aircraft with the call sign ‘Sandy’) and two HH-43 Jolly Green Giant helicopters. With this ‘posse’ underway what followed became a race against time.
By this juncture, with the Phantoms’ rate of descent starting to accelerate, even the resourceful Pardo was devoid of further ideas. They had made it, though. Pardo had pushed his colleagues beyond the Black River and into Laos and now, finally, Aman and Houghton were forced to abandon their aircraft. At an altitude of approximately 6,000 feet the two men pulled their ejection seat handles to escape immediate dangers even though further hazards faced them very shortly — dangling in his parachute, Houghton could spot a band of armed guerrillas with dogs running towards him. The guerrillas shouted and fired weapons at the parachute. Houghton landed in a small tree but despite back pain after his high-speed ejection he managed to extricate himself and to stagger, revolver in hand, through elephant grass towards a small stream. There, he radioed the rescue posse to report his situation as well as the armed guerrillas’ position and that of Aman who had ended up below a slippery cliff. Aman, luckily, had not been spotted by the guerrillas.
Meantime, Pardo and Wayne flew south for another minute or two before Pardo turned towards a United States Special Forces camp in Laos. With their Phantom nearly out of fuel, he ordered Wayne to eject first. Following a successful ejection, Wayne landed by parachute to the north-west of Houghton and Aman. Wayne hid in nearby bushes until the A-1 ‘Sandys’ came in very low and drove off the guerrillas without having to fire a shot. A Jolly Green Giant’ helicopter then flew in to winch up Houghton and Aman before rescuing Wayne.
Pardo, meanwhile, had ejected but was knocked unconscious in the process. He sustained two fractured vertebrae in his neck and when he came to after his parachute landing he heard shouting and gunfire in the vicinity. At once, he radioed the “Sandys’ to strafe the hillside near his position before, in considerable pain, he stumbled, revolver in hand, a distance of about half-a-mile up a hill where he waited for some forty-five minutes until a jolly Green Giant’ helicopter finally located him and winched him to safety.
Despite his remarkable courage and tenacity, the United States Air Force leadership, sensitive to high combat losses at the time, far from commending Pardo reprimanded him for the loss of his F-4. It was over two decades later, following a re-examination of the case, that the injustice was at last acknowledged. At a ceremony in 1989, Major Bob Pardo and his colleagues were awarded Silver Star medals given in recognition of gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States of America.
Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Ashley J. Thum / U.S. Air Force