Cold War Era

The F-105 pilot who glided his Thud to a safe landing with the fuel gauge reading “empty” after He directed a tanker to another F-105 dangerously low on fuel during a CSAR mission over North Vietnam

The F-105 Thunderchief

In 1951 Republic Aviation began a project to develop a supersonic tactical fighter-bomber to replace the F-84F. The result was the F-105 Thunderchief, later affectionately nicknamed the “Thud.” The prototype YF-105A first flew in October 1955, but the first F-105D did not fly until June 1959. A total of 833 Thunderchiefs of all types were built, including 610 F-105Ds.

The US Air Force sent F-105s to Southeast Asia shortly after the Tonkin Gulf incident in the summer of 1964. The USAF operated the Thud extensively in the air campaign against North Vietnam called Rolling Thunder.

As explained by James Geer in his book The Republic F-105 Thunderchief Wing and Squadron Histories, on Apr. 19, 1967, Maj. Leo K. Thorsness, a veteran 357th TFS Weasel pilot, led a flight of four F-105F Thunderchiefs on an Iron Hand mission in support of a raid against the Xuan Mai army barracks and storage supply area, roughly 37 miles south west of Hanoi. Prior to reaching the target, Thorsness’ radar warning system detected heavy SAM activity in the area. Ordering two of his Thuds to cover a different quadrant in the target area, Thorsness and his wingman stayed south, forcing the enemy missile crews to divide their attention. Upon identification of the SAM sites by his backseater, Capt Harold E. Johnson, Thorsness fired a Shrike missile at one of the sites, destroying it. He then flew through heavy flak to silence another with cluster bombs.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-105F Thunderchief “Sinister Vampire” – Wild Weasel 50th Anniversary, 2015

Providing cover for the CSAR force with just 500 rounds of ammunition left

In the second strike, Thorsness’ wingman was badly hit by the AAA fire, forcing both crewmembers of the Weasel Thud to eject.

On locating the descending parachutes and positioning himself to gain a fix on their position, a third SAM site was located and attacked with a Shrike missile. At the same time, mechanical problems and MiGs forced the two other F-105s of the flight of four to call off the attack and return to Takhli, leaving Thorsness alone in the area.

As Thorsness circled the descending parachutes, Johnson spotted a MiG off their left wing. Thorsness attacked the MiG and shot it down with his 20-mm cannon as additional MiGs attempted to gain position on his tail. Low on fuel, he broke off the engagement and rendezvoused with a KC-135 tanker over Laos.

In the meantime, two A-1E Skyraiders and two Jolly Green rescue helicopters had arrived to search for the downed crew’s location. After topping-off, Thorsness turned back to fly cover for the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) force despite having only 500 rounds of ammunition left. He spotted several MiGs and initiated an attack, damaging one MiG and eluding the remaining enemy aircraft with a supersonic dash through a mountain pass.

Leo K. Thorsness

Gliding a Thud to a safe landing with the fuel gauge reading “empty”

Although he was now out of ammunition, Thorsness again set out for the rescue scene in an attempt to lure the MiGs away from the rescue operation. Before he returned, the MiGs found success by downing one Skyraider. Upon arrival, Thorsness found that a flight of four Thuds from Takhli had shown up to engage the MiG force, freeing himself to return to the tanker to get enough fuel to return to home base.

As he neared the tanker, Thorsness received a call for help from one of the Takhli Thuds who had become lost and was dangerously low on fuel. He directed the tanker to the lost pilot to avert the possibility of losing another pilot and aircraft. Without the tanker and critically low on fuel, Thorsness was forced to head for Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, approximately 200 miles closer than Takhli. On final approach, he placed the Thud in idle and glided the aircraft to a safe landing with the fuel gauge reading “empty.”

For his extraordinary deeds of heroism on this mission Maj Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor. Eleven days later and only eight missions short of the 100 required to complete a combat tour, he was shot down over North Vietnam while flying a Wild Weasel support mission against a strike on the Hanoi thermal power plant. Following his release after being held as a POW for nearly six years, Maj. Thorsness received this highest decoration for valor from President Nixon at the White House on Oct. 15, 1973.

The Republic F-105 Thunderchief Wing and Squadron Histories is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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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