Cold War Era

The F-100 Super Sabre in Vietnam and the hazardous ‘Night Owl” CAS missions

“The usual method of becoming ‘Night Owl Qualified’ was strap an aircraft tightly to your body, takeoff with one of the ‘veterans’, and let him calmly describe what you needed to do and what to watch out for. Those that didn’t come back were generally felt to be ‘Unqualified’,” Jim Wallace, former F-100 pilot

Developed as a follow-on to the F-86 Sabre used in the Korean War, the F-100 was U.S. Air Force’s first production airplane capable of flying faster than the speed of sound in level flight (760 mph). The prototype – the YF-100A – made its first flight on May 25, 1953, at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), Calif. Of the 2,294 F-100s built before production ended in 1959, 1,274 were Ds, more than all the other series combined. The D model, which made its first flight on Jan. 24, 1956, was the most advanced production version. Its features included the first autopilot designed for a supersonic jet and a low-altitude bombing system.

The Super Sabre had its combat debut in Vietnam where it was used extensively as a fighter-bomber in ground-support missions such as attacking bridges, road junctions and troop concentrations.

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By the spring of 1966 the air war in Vietnam had assumed the general definition it was to retain throughout it’s long and bitter tenure. The “in country” air war was one of tactical air support for allied troops. The “out country” war was a campaign of aerial interdiction of troops and supplies in North Vietnam and the tributaries of the Ho Chi Mihn trail which snaked their way through Laos and Cambodia. As it was the first of the century series to see combat, the F-100 would also be the first fighter to experiment with new techniques required for the demanding missions of air support against a wily and determined enemy. One of the hairiest of these missions (from a pilot’s point of view) was the close support mission at night.

Former F-100 pilot Jim Wallace elaborates on these missions in Lou Drendel book F-100 Super Sabre In Action: “In the early stages of the war’s aerial development, the concept of low altitude night weapons delivery was in a state of experimentation. This type of employment came to be known as Night Owl. With no previous experience in this type of warfare to fall back on, commanders generally relied heavily on their most experienced combat pilots to work out the procedures and tactics which would provide the most accurate weapons delivery with the greatest safety for the aircrews involved. At it’s inception, the concept of low level, high speed night conventional weapons delivery was considered so dangerous that each sortie had to be authorized by the commander of 7th Air Force and the aircrews involved were awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for each mission that they went on. Delivering 20mm strafe, napalm, high drag bombs, and CBU under the unpredictable and shadowy light of magnesium flares, the pilots soon found that extremely accurate weapons delivery was possible. In addition, although the flying was indeed hazardous, due to poor visibility, unknown terrain, intense vertigo problems, and night vision reduction, a bonus was soon realized by the jet jockeys. By turning out their exterior aircraft lights, the enemy ground forces could not see the fighters. Therefore, any ground fire directed at the attacking aircraft was usually aimed at the sound, (considerably behind the actual aircraft) or at the shadow created by the light of the flares.

“Until a formal Night Owl training program was initiated in the United States, in 1967, the usual method of becoming ‘Night Owl Qualified’ was strap an aircraft tightly to your body, takeoff with one of the ‘veterans’, and let him calmly describe what you needed to do and what to watch out for. Those that didn’t come back were generally felt to be ‘Unqualified’. Those that refused to go (jokingly) were generally felt to be of a higher intelligence level than the rest of us.”

The sheer technical problems of accomplishing any degree of success in night ordnance delivery are staggering, and require a high degree of pilot skill and fortitude, to say nothing of a mighty good airplane. One of these problems involved the design of the F-100 cockpit. The armament control panels are situated directly behind the throttle, or roughly, under your elbow. In order to change from one mode of delivery to another, the pilot was forced to lean to his left and turn his head. At night, on instruments, this is a sure fire recipe for a panic inducing case of vertigo. Another problem was the light of the flares themselves. Since it was a very bright, white light, it generally wiped out the ground color, thereby reducing the pilot’s depth perception. Further depth perception problems were caused by the single source of light and the weird, wavering shadows it caused. And finally, the very nature of the mission indicated the urgency of getting your ordinance smack on target. The targets were usually troops in contact, sometimes in trench to trench fighting. You just couldn’t afford to be even fifty feet off, and this caused the pilots to press in even closer than normal, with the ever-present possibility that a tree or a hill might jump out of the blackness at you on your recovery. Jim Wallace had a very eventful night checkout, and a very successful one.

This is his version of that mission: “My own combat checkout occurred during the night of July 24, 1966. On that evening, Captain Bill Hayes and myself (new guys) and Captain Paul de san Martino (old head) were alerted that an ARVN platoon in the area southeast of Saigon was under attack and needed immediate assistance. Arriving at the scene armed with BLU-1B (napalm), and 20mm strafe, the flight set about analyzing the task at hand. With strong heart and meaningful verbal instructions, Captain de san Martino directed the two fledglings in their attack, while attempting to assure his own survivability. (Wallace and de san Martino were in an F-100F, while Hayes was flying a “D” model of the Hun.) After countless passes, we departed the target area with barely enough fuel to recover at home base. Outbound from the target the FAG gave us his strike report. He stated that all enemy action had been curtailed, an estimated 100 Viet Gong had been killed, (Later confirmed at 136) and that two major gun positions (Quad 50’s) had been destroyed.”

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Additional source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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