Losses and Aviation Safety

This RF-101C pilot had his Voodoo hit by ground fire during a dangerous recce mission over North Vietnam but he continued on the photo run until it exploded and crashed

On Jul. 29, 1965, RF-101C Voodoo pilot Capt. Jack Weatherby volunteered to lead an extremely dangerous photo mission against a key surface-to-air missile (SAM) site deep in North Vietnam.

McDonnell Aircraft’s Voodoo was a supersonic fighter, bomber escort, all-weather interceptor and photoreconnaissance aircraft.

To accelerate production, no prototypes were built. The first Voodoo, an F-101A fighter version, made its initial flight on Sep. 29, 1954. Development of the unarmed RF-101, the world’s first supersonic photo-reconnaissance aircraft, began in 1956. When production ended in March 1961, 807 Voodoos had been built. While 35 RF-101As and 166 RF-101Cs were produced, some single- and dual-seat Voodoos were converted to the reconnaissance configuration and redesignated RF-101Bs, RF-101Gs and RF-101Hs later in their operational lives.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis RF-101s flew 82 missions over Cuba, flying low to avoid fire from Soviet surface-to-air missiles.

On Jul. 29, 1965, Capt. Jack Weatherby volunteered to lead an extremely dangerous photo mission against a key surface-to-air missile (SAM) site deep in North Vietnam. Maj. Jerry Lents was his wingman. They were two of the most experienced photorecce pilots in the US Air Force (USAF).

Forty miles from the target, Weatherby and Lents, descended to 200 feet and accelerated to more than 600 miles an hour. Weatherby had turned on his cameras when he was hit by an anti-aircraft shell that passed through the fuselage without exploding. According to Air Force Magazine, fuel began leaking from both sides of the RF-101C, and within seconds small flames appeared under the fuselage. Without knowing if Weatherby’s receiver was still working, Lents screamed at him to get out before the aircraft exploded. Ignoring the damage to his aircraft and the likelihood of a fatal crash, Weatherby continued his photo run. He believed there was a remote possibility that the flames would blow out and that he might be able to reach a friendly airfield. If he bailed out, the film would be lost and almost certainly he would become a POW.

Capt. Jack Weatherby was one of the most experienced reconnaissance pilots in Southeast Asia, having flown PROJECT FIELD GOAL and ABLE MABLE missions earlier in the war.

Leaving the SAM complex, they flew on the deck up a valley so narrow that evasive action was not possible. Gunfire was coming from both sides, but with each passing second the possibility of escape improved. It was not to be. Weatherby’s RF-101C exploded and crashed to the ground in a ball of flame. Lents flew through the flames, cleared the hills, and made it back to a tanker and to Tan Son Nhut. Though the film was gone, he was able to pinpoint the location of the SAM complex. He continued to fly recce missions until his return to the States.

In recognition of his extraordinary heroism and sacrifice, on Nov. 23, 1965 Capt. Jack Wilton Weatherby was awarded the Air Force Cross, the USAF’s second highest honor.

In November 1965 Maj. Gen. John Meyer presented the Air Force Cross on display to Capt. Jack Weatherby’s widow, Barbara Weatherby, son Richard and daughter D’Ann.

His Air Force Cross citation reads;

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pride in presenting the Air Force Cross (Posthumously) to Captain Jack Wilton Weatherby, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force while serving as Pilot of an RF-101 aircraft of the 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, in action over North Vietnam on 29 July 1965. On that date, Captain Weatherby voluntarily flew an unarmed aircraft at extremely low altitude deep into hostile territory which was heavily defended, to photograph a target of vital significance to the United States Air Force and Republic of Vietnam Air Force. As he approached the target area, his aircraft was severely damaged by accurate ground fire. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Captain Weatherby elected to press on to the target until his badly damaged aircraft exploded and crashed. Captain Weatherby’s courage and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the American fighting man under attack by an opposing armed force. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Captain Weatherby reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RF-101C Voodoo 186th TRG, 153rd TRS, 56-0166 / 1970

Additional source: The Wall of Valor project

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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