`We knew we were now violating standing Seventh Fleet orders that no A-3 would go feet dry, yet we also knew that if this Crusader didn’t get fuel they’d have another man down in North Vietnam,’ Lt Cdr Tom Maxwell, KA-3B Skywarrior pilot.
Naval Aviation is a brotherhood, where men will do heroic things in impossible conditions for each other even when your aircraft is a large, highly vulnerable, twin-engined bomber full of fuel without the luxury of ejection seats for the crew of three.
As told by Rick Morgan in his book A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War, on the morning of Jul. 18, 1967 the carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) was sending strike aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 16 deep ‘over the beach’ to hit bridges located near Phu Ly, in North Vietnam.
Lt Cdr Tom Maxwell of VAH-4 Detachment Golf (one of the six detachments belonging to VAH-4) had been scheduled for a morning tanker hop off the `0-Boat’ in KA-3B Skywarrior AH 611 (BuNo 142655). Needless to say, the ship and air wing were busy — the day prior he had flown three flights in AH 610, logging 7.1 hours of `green ink’ (combat time). The CVW-16 aircraft had run into heavy opposition on a morning strike, with a VA-164 A-4E (BuNo 151986/AH 404) being shot down at 0913 hrs by 37 mm AAA about 65 miles inland near the targets — bridges at Phu Ly. Lt Cdr Dick Hartman was down and a Combat Search and Rescue (C-SAR) effort was initiated to recover him.
Lt Cdr Dick ‘Brown Bear’ Schaffert, flying VF-111 F-8C ‘Old Nick 101’ (BuNo 146991) came off his BARCAP over the water to help provide cover. He was headed towards Hartman’s reported position when he realized there was another Skyhawk down. The jet (BuNo 151175/AH 415) flown by Lt(jg) Larry Duthie had also been hit by 37 mm rounds while over Hartman, forcing the pilot to eject before he had made it to the coast. As `Brown Bear’ had discovered, Duthie had come down near Nam Dinh. There were now two active rescues going on, separated by about 12 miles. Schaffert took the on-scene commander role over Duthie and remained in the area, calling in support while dodging SA-2s and a considerable amount of AAA — all this while watching his fuel gauge drop.
Meanwhile, Maxwell and his crew had recovered onboard Oriskany at the end of their first sortie. They were directed to remain in the aircraft and ‘hot pump’ (refuel with engines turning) in preparation for immediate launch. The squadron intelligence officer came up the hatch and told them about the rapidly evolving SAR effort for the pair of Skyhawk pilots. Refuelling complete, they launched and took up a tanker position about 20 miles off the coast, while following efforts on the SAR radio frequency as helicopters and more aircraft were brought in.
With additional A-4s inbound to take the overhead SAR effort, Schaffert finally turned his Crusader’s nose to the east, fully realizing he might not have enough fuel to make the Gulf, let alone the boat. In their KA-3B, Maxwell and his crew had heard Schaffert’s Mayday call. ‘I looked around my cockpit and immediately received two emphatic “thumbs up” from the other men — Lt(jg) Jim Vanderhoek and ADJ1 Bill Shelton. There was no discussion about what we had to do at that point’. He immediately pushed the ‘Whale’s’ throttles up and turned for the beach.
`We knew we were now violating standing Seventh Fleet orders that no A-3 would go feet dry, yet we also knew that if this Crusader didn’t get fuel they’d have another man down in North Vietnam.’
With the help of the Red Crown (the code name for the Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone controller who provided US aircraft with radar coverage of North Vietnam via ship-mounted air search radar) ship, Maxwell flew his aircraft between 30 and 40 miles inland and started a hard right turn in front of Schaffert’s F-8, while his B/N extended the refuelling hose. While all of this was taking place, random flak bursts were going off nearby, and the crew’s radar warning gear blared in their ears, indicating SAM activity in the area.
Schaffert saw the ‘Whale’ turning in front of him and had his refuelling probe out as he made a hot approach for the basket. He plugged on the first try and looked down to see the fuel needle moving away from ’empty’ as JP-5 started replacing air in his Crusader’s tanks. The pair stayed plugged in almost all the way to the coast, the F-8 taking more than 1200 lbs of fuel on the way. Oriskany had a ready deck for them on arrival, and they both trapped successfully. The ‘Whale’ crew logged 3.1 hours of combat time for the morning’s work.
The saving of Dick Schaffert and his jet by Tom Maxwell and his VAH-4 crew were the only positive aspects of an otherwise grim day for CVW-16. Adding to the tragedy was the loss of a ‘Big Mother’ SH-3A with four crewmen whilst trying to recover Hartman on the 19th. Another A-4E would also be lost during the effort when Lt(jg) Barry Wood’s aircraft (BuNo 152034/AH 401) was hit by AAA and he was forced to eject over the water, being recovered. Hartman himself was subsequently captured and died in captivity. Duthie was eventually rescued by a USAF HH-3E Jolly Green Giant.
Ironically, Maxwell and his crew received no official recognition for their flight, since they had violated a Seventh Fleet order. They did receive the undying admiration of the other members of CVW-16, however, for their bravery and flying skills in the A-3.
KA-3B BuNo 146991 would be destroyed three months later after a failed JATO launch from Cubi Point, in the Philippines.
A-3 Skywarrior Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Jim Laurier via Osprey Publishing and U.S. Navy