The Thud stability, unbeatable low-altitude speed and impressive size were unprecedented for a fighter.
After its long-delayed entry into USAF service, the Thunderchief, in its all-weather strike F-105D/F configuration, soon proved to be a capable weapon whose performance attracted recruits. Its stability, unbeatable low-altitude speed and impressive size were unprecedented for a fighter.
As pilot Murray Denton recalled in Peter E. Davies book USAF F-105 Thunderchief Vs VPAF MiG-17:
“My first impression of the F-105 was how large it was and how roomy the cockpit seemed. Coming from the F-106 Delta Dart, I couldn’t believe the long take-off roll. I remember the night flights with “three bags” of fuel and water injection for more thrust. We would use all 9,000ft of runway and milk the flaps up. It was a very stable platform, and the faster it flew the better it got. It operated well from sea level to 15,000ft, and in military power the jet would run faster than any other aircraft at low level — it just didn’t turn much. It also had a great gun and was a very stable bomber that could take hits and come home.”
Pilots for the F-105 squadrons came from a range of backgrounds. Many transitioned from F-100s, TAC’s previous main nuclear striker, when their units converted to the Thunderchief. Others, like Capt Wayne C. Warner, who had long wished to fly fighters, came from very different aircraft — in his case, a combat tour on the C-130 Hercules. Some had a very long history of fighter operations. Col “Jack” Broughton, who became Vice Wing Commander of the 355th TFW and flew 102 combat missions in Vietnam, started his frontline career flying P-47 Thunderbolts in 1946, saw combat in F-80C Shooting Stars during the Korean War and completed squadron service on a total of 13 fighter types including the Thud. For many of the F-105 pilots who went to war, their recent background had been in nuclear alert situations in Pacific Air Forces or US Air Forces Europe (USAFE) squadrons in the F-105D’s first few years of USAF service.
Capt Bob “Spade” Cooley was another former Korean War pilot who had flown F-86 Sabres, F-84Fs and then F-100s. Moving to the F-105 in West Germany, he found that, “it had a lot more power [than the F-100]. Its mission was essentially the same as the Super Sabre, and I didn’t have a lot of trouble going from one to the other. There was a constant flow of planes from Bitburg and Spangdahlem ABs [both in West Germany) to Wheelus AB, Libya. We just took our turn for nuclear and conventional training on the El Uotia practice bombing range, undertaking skip-bombing, dive-bombing and gunnery.”
Apart from practice gunnery against a towed dart target, air-to-air combat was notably absent from the syllabus, but, as Bob pointed out, “Nothing was a fast as a `Thud’ once it got going. It was the world’s fastest tricycle. It had no air-to-air role unless forced into it.” The transfer of USAFE F-105 pilots to the Vietnam War increased sharply in 1966 as losses at the two Thai bases mounted.
Meanwhile, Bill Hosmer was an 18th TFW pilot at Kadena AB. “Sitting alert with those two [B28] Y1 1.1 megaton bombs was an ominous situation for me. I was scheduled to strike Shanghai airport first, then another target. After that I was supposed to head east until I flamed out. Then I would eject and be picked up by a US Navy destroyer.”
Although their nuclear attack expertise would have little application in Vietnam, USAFE pilots found that their experience of persistently bad weather in Europe was good preparation for Southeast Asian monsoon visibility. Capt Ben Fuller, with the 7th TFS at Spangdahlem, recalled, “Our normal training consisted of flying radar low-level navigation and simulated bombing of targets throughout France and West Germany. The mission profile was low-level to the target and then climb out to altitude for an instrument approach and landing using GCA [ground-controlled approach] assistance. Due to European weather, almost all landings were under instrument conditions.”
The low altitude target approaches would prove particularly useful in Vietnam. One of the first major F-105 actions in Rolling Thunder, the “Spring High” attacks on SAM sites on Jul. 26, 1965, were flown by the 563rd TFS at altitudes as low as 20ft — below the detection envelope of all enemy radars.
Col Boyd Van Horn “arrived at Bitburg AB in late 1965 and was assigned to the 53rd TFS commanded by Sandy Vandenburg. My old ops officer, Jim Kasler, was there, along with a bunch of old friends from Turner AFB, Georgia. They all volunteered to go to Southeast Asia and most went to Takhli RTAFB.” Maj Jim Kasler became operations officer for the 354th TFS at Takhli, and he organized some of Rolling Thunder’s most effective attacks before being shot down and taken prisoner on Aug. 8, 1966. Kasler was the only member of the USAF to be awarded the Air Force Cross three times. Bob Cooley, was serving with the 9th TFS at Spangdahlem when he received orders to relocate to Thailand. “We were all trained and current in all the weapons delivery techniques, so that’s why they came to the USAFE bases for crews. There was no specific theater preparation until we got there. My first mission was only the second time I flew from Takhli.” Among the transfers from USAFE F-105 bases to the two Thai-based Thunderchief wings were Col William Chairsell, who went on to command the 388th TFW at Korat in August 1966, and his successor as commander of the 49th TFW, Col John Giraudo, who took over the Takhli-based 355th TFW.
Luckily, although air-to-air combat was not considered a likely scenario for the Thud, many of the pilots who joined the first deployments to Southeast Asia had gained that experience during previous fighter tours. As Col Broughton explained, ‘Most of us ‘old heads’ in the ‘Thud’ business had a good grasp on aerial combat. I don’t think air-to-air was ever considered irrelevant in training, at least not at our level. We didn’t have many trainees join us during my time in Southeast Asia. We needed experienced guys to go North, and if we got a new guy we taught him all we could on-scene.”
For many of the newer pilots, their air-to-air practice had to be with other F-105s, often on an informal basis. Few had experience of relevant similar air combat maneuvering (ACM) with aircraft like the F-86, which was a good MiG-17 simulator, and their knowledge of the VPAF’s then primary fighter often came mainly from reading a translation of its flight manual. Joining the 24 pilots of each squadron in Thailand were the much greater numbers of personnel who comprised the bulk of any fighter unit. Whereas pilots (“drivers” to the groundcrew) often displayed their names on the canopy rail of a “Thud” but actually flew any jet that was assigned to them that day, the crew chiefs and maintainers for each Thud were dedicated to that aircraft only.
In 1965 missions tended to include a descent to around 500ft at about 50miles from the target, and at a predetermined initial point the flight would light afterburners and climb to 12,000ft to identify the target visually and roll in to attack at the planned speed and dive angle. Those parameters were determined using speed, altitude and dive angle, with depression settings on the bombsight “pipper” set manually in the additional way, rather than with the aircraft’s bombing computer.
During the Vietnam War for aircrew, the basic combat tour was a year or 100 missions, whichever came first. The mission total could be accomplished in six months during Rolling Thunder, but the end of that campaign in November 1968 prolonged most pilots’ stays in Thailand. The 100 mission total was calculated by doubling the World War II limit of 50. After Feb. 1, 1966 it did not include missions over South Vietnam or Laos, which were not considered “counters” towards the 100. Capts Don Totten and Ben Bowthorpe from the 334th TFS were the first two Thud pilots to complete their 100.
Several pilots were victims of the “99th mission” syndrome, being shot down on their penultimate operation and, in some cases, killed in action. On Apr. 23, 1966 Capt Robert Dyczkowski became one of that number. As “Oak 2” in F-105D 61-0157, nicknamed Shirley Ann, he was hit by AAA as he pulled up from the target and was not heard from again. His fellow 421st TFS pilot Maj Bernard Goss, leading a later light, was also hit near the target and ejected from F-105D 61-0048. He was presumed to have been killed after landing on a steep hillside.
In August 1966 the majority of 421st TFS pilots at Korat each completed at least 20 “counters.” Most newcomers to Korat or Takhli RTAFB during Rolling Thunder arrived from the Replacement Training Unit (RTU) at McConnell AFB, where the 23rd TFW had taken over the training of F-105 crews on Jan. 1, 1966, continuing in that role until November 1970. Previously, the 4520th CCTW had provided Thunderchief training at Nellis AFB using the 4526th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) that was established in April 1960, and it continued with this task until January 1968. The wing began F-105D training in September 1960, adding the 4523rd CCTS to the program until early 1967. The 4th TFW at Seymour Johnson AFB also acted as an F-105 RTU in 1966, producing two classes of pilots.
Many of the combat tactics used in Vietnam were devised and developed at the Thai bases, with the 469th TFS at Korat, as the first Thud unit to be assigned permanent change of station to Vietnam, being a leader in that process. Its pilots averaged 1,500 flying hours and around two years on the F-105 at the time of deployment, making them some of the most experienced and capable pilots on that aircraft. By mid-1966, however, many of the more experienced pilots had either been lost or completed their tours of duty.
USAF F-105 Thunderchief Vs VPAF MiG-17 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force