by Tech. Sgt. Steve Smith
Randolph AFB, Texas
Their 1967 rescue from Laos was not much different from any other, but the "push" that saved their lives made aviation history.
Capts. Bob Pardo and Earl Aman and their back-seaters were assigned to the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. They'd flown mission after mission in their F-4 Phantoms but with no luck.
Their elusive target, the only steel production complex in North Vietnam -- just north of Hanoi at Thai Nguyen -- had been protected by low clouds during the nine days they'd tried to reduce it to rubble. Intelligence sources reported it was protected by a half-dozen surface-to-air missile sites and more than 1,000 anti-aircraft guns.
"This is the day," they thought as March 10 brought clear skies. A strike force of F-105s and F-4s would attempt again to take out the site targeted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Joining Pardo was his back-seater, 1st Lt. Steve Wayne. Aman was teamed up with 1st Lt. Robert Houghton. Their job: protect the F-105s and other F-4s in the strike force, using their missiles against any threatening North Vietnamese MiGs. They also carried bombs for the steel mill's destruction if they didn't see any enemy aircraft.
As the strike force neared the target, the skies remained clear of clouds and MiGs, making the missiles unneeded. But their bombs would soon join the tons of ordnance to be dropped on Thai Nguyen.
Aman was in trouble even before he began his bomb run. Heavy fire from anti-aircraft batteries found their mark. "He would have been justified to jettison his bombs and head for home," Pardo said. "Going ahead with the run showed a hell of a lot of fortitude and determination."
More fire poured into the Phantoms, finding Pardo's aircraft. As both pilots pulled away from the steel mill, Pardo saw several warning lights flashing brightly in his cockpit, but the Phantom was still responding and flying normally. Aman wasn't as lucky. The barrage of anti-aircraft fire had found his fuel tanks, draining 5,000 pounds of precious fuel in less than a minute.
"We were hit hard and losing fuel," Houghton recalled. "As we set a course that would take us straight to the refueling aircraft, we understood we weren't going to make it to the Laotian border. It was a sure bet we'd have to bail out over hostile territory."
They were running out of options faster than they were running out of fuel.
In normal air operations, a crippled aircraft would be escorted by its "sister bird," and the bail-out point radioed to rescue forces. That wasn't good enough for Pardo. He was about to make history.
"We first tried to put the nose of our aircraft in his drag chute compartment," he said. "But there was too much jet wash coming off Aman's plane." Pardo then tried putting the top of his fuselage against the belly of the crippled F-4. Again, too much jet wash.
"Aman, drop your tailhook!" Pardo shouted desperately.
"What?" Aman replied.
"Your tailhook. Drop it! I'm going to try to push you along."
The tailhook-used for carrier landings by the Navy's version of the now-venerable fighter is used by Air Force crews only for emergency landings. The hook snags a barrier cable stretched across the runway to keep the aircraft from veering or sliding. What Pardo was suggesting had never been done; the aircraft wasn't designed for such a maneuver.
Controlled by hydraulics, the tailhook lowered and locked into place, swaying in the slipstream of the F-4's twin J-75 engines.
Pardo pulled in behind and below Aman's crippled F-4 and slowly came forward, hoping to lodge the elusive tailhook against the leading edge of his windshield. Flying at 250 knots (about 300 miles an hour) the tailhook kissed the front of the windshield.
"Kissed is the right word," Houghton said. "If he so much as bumped the windshield, he would have had that tailhook in his face. We're talking about glass here. It was phenomenal flying, nothing less."
Pardo, however, believed the windshield glass was strong enough to withstand mild contact. "It was more than an inch thick," he said. "I had to be careful not to let the hook hit the side panels. They were too weak to take it."
With Aman's engines running, it was impossible to make contact because of the jet blast. With barely a minute of fuel remaining, Pardo radioed Aman to shut down his engines.
Pardo inched into position and made contact. They were now flying as one-two aircraft flying on one pair of engines.
Slowly pushing his throttles forward, Pardo was able to keep the tailhook lodged for a few seconds at a time, but that tripled their glide range, decreasing their sink rate to 1,000 feet per minute. Once he saw it could work, Pardo kept fighting the wind, the sink rate and the swaying tailhook. "I can't remember how many times the tailhook slipped off the windshield, and I had to fight to get it back in place," Pardo said.
As if things weren't bad enough, Pardo's F-4 started to show signs of the damage it sustained during the bombing run. A fire warning light indicated a probable external fire near the left engine, so Pardo shut it down. When he restarted the engine, the warning light was off, but the internal temperature increased to more than 1,000 degrees Celsius.
"It should've read only 600," Pardo said. "That meant the flame holders or burner cans inside the engine have ruptured, and there's an uncontrolled fire, which can explode the engine and possibly the airplane."
Wayne couldn't see the engine temperature gauge from the back seat, so he didn't inform Pardo to shut it down. "I just happened to see the needle move out of the corner of my eye," Pardo said. "I didn't need any more incentive to shut it down."
With only one engine to push two aircraft, the sink rate increased to 2,000 feet per minute. Obviously, they weren't going to make it on one engine.
Pardo hit the left engine start switch. It restarted and he resumed his push, hoping everything would be okay. Less than a minute later, however, the fire warning light returned. Wayne told Pardo the engine was on fire so he shut down the engine again -- this time for good.
They flew another 10 minutes on the remaining engine. Wayne called for a couple of tankers, hoping they could link up and get a pull from the large aerial gas stations.
But time was running out. The tankers weren't going to make it in time.
Luck was still with the two aircrews. They had reached Laos, having crossed the Black River. Pardo and Wayne realized it was time to get Aman and Houghton out of their crippled aircraft. They couldn't sustain the push much longer. Their F-4 was running low on fuel, and they were only 6,000 feet above ground, giving them about two minutes of flying time, two minutes to bail out.
When the last radio call for tanker support was received, rescue helicopters and several A-1 Skyraider ground support aircraft were dispatched to where the crew was expected to bail out.
Pardo pulled back and advised Aman and Houghton to eject. As he watched their parachute canopies open beneath him, Pardo hit the throttle on his remaining engine and headed for a U.S. Special Forces camp he knew was ahead.
Two minutes later, as Aman and Houghton drifted toward the ground, Pardo and Wayne realized their fuel was gone, and they'd have to bail out. "Steve ejected, and since I'd never flown a glider before, I stayed with the F-4 a little longer, then bailed out," Pardo said.
By now, Aman had landed on the back side of a cliff and Houghton, who'd suffered a compression fracture of a vertebra during ejection, was floating directly toward a Laotian village. "They were yelling and pointing up at me as I dropped," he said. "I knew if I landed on my back, I was finished. But I floated right into a tree. My chute snagged on a limb and I stopped, barely inches from the ground.
"As I unsnapped my harness and laid down, I couldn't remember ever hurting so much," he said. The sound of gunshots from approaching villagers changed that.
"It's amazing how fast you can move when someone's shooting at you," Houghton said. "I headed out of there as fast as possible. I've never been so scared in my life!"
While Houghton was running from the villagers, Aman was having problems of his own.
"I was wearing slick-soled boots, trying to scramble up a hill. Every step forward sent me back two."
Houghton remembers laying in deep grass holding his radio and .38 pistol when he heard the unmistakable roar of Skyraiders swooping low over the mountains. "Rescue choppers were close behind. When the villagers headed for cover, the choppers found me and lowered a line," Houghton said.
Meanwhile, Wayne and Pardo were facing the same dangers from villagers, but rescue helicopters reached them first. Within hours, all four had returned to their home base at Ubon, not knowing they wouldn't see each other again for nearly 30 years.
Although "Pardo's Push" -- as the feat is now called-became another eye-popping chapter in aviation history, it took former U.S. Senator John Tower of Texas to get Pardo and Wayne the recognition they deserved. More than two decades after their heroic feat of airmanship, both received the Silver Star.
"When we got back to Ubon, they didn't know whether to court-martial me or pin a medal on my chest," Pardo said. "Some people felt I should have let Earl and Bob eject and take their chances, so I could land my aircraft safely."
The quartet was reunited at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, last March.
Pardo retired as a lieutenant colonel and now lives in Golden, Colo. Aman also retired as a lieutenant colonel and lives in San Antonio. Wayne retired as a colonel and lives in Simpsonville, S.C., and Houghton retired as a major and lives in Spanish Fork, Utah.
by Tech. Sgt. Steve Smith