On Aug. 17, 1966, RF-8 pilot Lt Andre Coltrin of VFP-63 Det G flew an extremely hazardous photo-reconnaissance mission at Bac Giang on the Thuong River at only 100 ft and 675 knots.
During the long years of the Vietnam War the Vought RF-8 Crusader assumed the mantle of the US Navy’s primary light-photographic platform throughout the nine years of conflict.
Forty-nine carrier lets deployed between October 1963 and January 1974, with 20 RF-8s lost in action.
On Aug. 17, 1966, Lt Andre Coltrin (who had already seen considerable action with Oriskany’s Det G, VF-111’s Dick Schaffert recalled that as an escort pilot, he had ‘chased Andre across the Thanh Hoa Bridge and uptown Haiphong more times than I care to remember’) of VFP-63 Det G flew an extremely hazardous photo-reconnaissance mission at Bac Giang on the Thuong River at only 100 ft and 675 knots. As explained by Peter Mersky in his book RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam, later in the war, there would be restrictions against flying photo missions below 3500 ft within the range of most small-arms fire, but not now. Coltrin hoped to evade enemy radar at this altitude. His RF-8G (BuNo 146871 AH 601) was actually growing too hot to touch.
Coltrin’s mission was to photograph POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) facilities near Kep airfield, north-east of Hanoi. Air Force exchange pilot Capt Wil Abbott of VF-111 flew escort in an F-8C —Abbott was later shot down in September, his aircraft becoming one of just three confirmed F-8s lost to North Vietnamese MiGs. He spent the next six-and-a-half years as a POW, being repatriated in 1973.
After taking his pictures, Coltrin turned north at Bac Giang with Abbott close behind. The photo pilot saw the 1200-foot peak he would use as a checkpoint. Suddenly, the RF-8 shuddered as it took hits from flak. The sky was thick with white and black bursts with red centres. At this height, it wouldn’t take much to knock him down. He flew so low that later, looking at his mission film, he could see clothes on wash lines as he flew through the outskirts of Hanoi.
‘The snow-covered mountains I thought I had seen from a distance turned out to be 37 mm flak bursts. I felt like every gun and missile site in Vietnam had us in their sights.’
Fighting to maintain control, Coltrin watched the big, circular viewfinder on his main panel dissolve and his hydraulic and fuel gauges begin a steady decline. He called Abbott.
`Hey, I’m taking hits. We’d better get out. My hydraulics and fuel are starting to unwind.’
Abbott came back. ‘Can you tell if it’s just the dials?’
`We’ll know in a few seconds’, Coltrin replied.
Climbing back to a safer altitude, he monitored the gauges, but the stricken aircraft kept flying. Breathing a little easier, the two pilots headed toward a tiny island north of Cam Pha — the mission’s exit point. But, Coltrin wondered, did he have enough fuel to make it back to Oriskany?
An orbiting A-4 tanker pilot was listening to the two Crusader drivers and called to say if they could rendezvous, he would give them fuel. After some anxious moments, Lt Coltrin spotted the A-4, a buddy pack slung underneath. It took a few tries, running on his adrenaline as he was, but Coltrin was finally to hit the tanker’s basket and take on enough fuel to recover back aboard. His problems were exacerbated by not having an airspeed indicator to help him match the A-4’s speed. He had to rely on the tanker pilot’s calls.
A post-flight check showed several flak-shell fragments in his RF-8 — one large piece had hit just inches from the main fuel manifold. Coltrin received one of his three DFCs for the mission.
RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy