By Harry Hoffman
The strike mission began going bad for the Navy lieutenant when the plane ahead of his A-7 Corsair II came off-target with hung ordnance and he started getting "that old feeling." Sure enough, he soon found himself quietly drifting down through thick clouds into Laos.
More than 30 years after the event, some memories have become fuzzy while others remain crystal clear. The one recollection that remains vivid and foremost in my mind is the bravery and dedication of the men who risked their lives to save me. Consequently, this is their sea story as well as mine.
As a second-tour pilot with Attack Squadron (VA) 97 in the USS Constellation (CVA-64), I felt like a seasoned combat veteran—but not invincible. I can remember writing to my wife and describing the eerie beauty of flak and tracers against the sky on night missions and the paradox of doing something that had become "routine" despite the inherent danger.
Well, maybe I felt a little invincible. But any of those feelings came to an abrupt end on 3 April 1970.
I was section leader of a two-plane A-7A Corsair II mission. For the uninitiated, the A-7 was a single-seat, subsonic light attack jet, not a fighter. The vintage "A" model was underpowered but (fortunately) well armored. It could carry a reasonable bomb load. Our usual ordnance was ten 500-pound MK-82 bombs. On this particular mission, however, our task was to "seed" a supply route in Laos and the ordnance was designed not to explode on impact but rather to act as proximity mines that detonated only when vehicles passed nearby. Our radio call sign was War Ace.
I recall that it was a clear day at the target itself, but the weather had been overcast en route to the site. The threat of enemy MiG aircraft had long since been neutralized, and there were no reported SAM (surface-to-air missile) batteries in that operating area. Overall, it seemed like a fairly routine and low-threat mission. The only thing we had to worry about was the ever-present AAA (antiaircraft artillery) threat, consisting of 37- and 57-mm batteries.
During the Vietnam War, Navy and Air Force strikes were accomplished on such a routine and predictable basis we used to joke that the enemy probably knew our flight schedule better than we did. Often as we approached a target and checked in with the forward air controller (FAC), we would find ourselves queued up like commercial airliners waiting for an approach to an airport in bad weather. Such was the case on this particular mission.
As we orbited the target, I spotted the last aircraft of the preceding mission just about to roll in on his final run. The FAC had marked the road segment with smoke and told us where he wanted our first drops, in this case two mines per run. I mentally picked a point about 180 degrees opposite the last roll-in point of the preceding flight, and we set ourselves up to do our own roll-in as soon as cleared. That's when things began to go wrong.
Any naval aviator will probably tell you that timing is everything. My Corsair was perched just right to roll in at the time and place I wanted when the preceding aircraft came off-target with hung (no release) ordnance. Without skipping a beat, the FAC radioed us to make another orbit and roll in on the tail of the previous aircraft, which was beginning another run to jettison his ordnance on-target. The problem with doing this is that it gives ground gunners a better chance to zero in on targets. With yet another flight stacked up behind us, the FAC was trying to move things along. Although I was beginning to get "that old feeling," I complied.
As soon as the hung-ordnance bird jettisoned his load, I was called in "hot"-right on his tail from 12,000 feet. This is the point where things seemingly began to happen in slow motion, a phenomenon many others in similar situations have experienced. At about 8,000 feet during the run, I felt a thump, sort of like encountering another aircraft's jet wash. In retrospect, I'm amazed at how efficient the mind becomes when you know you're in trouble. I made some very quick decisions in a very short time.
Still in the run, I looked instinctively to my right. From the A-7 cockpit you can see most of the outboard wing surface. Mine had the same appearance as the back side of a tin can after target practice. Not a good sign. The adrenalin was beginning to flow, but my thought processes took on a crystal clarity that I wish to this day I could summon on demand.
I keyed the mike button and said, "I think I took a hit—aborting." Almost simultaneously, I reached out and punched the control-panel button to jettison all ordnance. I experienced another thump as the ordnance released and then a feeling of relief as I realized the aircraft was still flying and controllable. I'm sure my low pullout off-target had some of the defenders ducking for cover. I was already pointed east toward the Gulf of Tonkin. The FAC acknowledged the situation and offered stand-by assistance as needed.
Checklists were whirring around in my brain. But unlike during our squadron safety quizzes, they were now as vivid as black print in my mind. Focused on my cockpit gauges, I heard the FAC clear my wingman to drop all his ordnance, and he was quickly on his way to join up. Hydraulic pressure was beginning to fluctuate. Another checklist: ISO(lation) hydraulics selected, minimum control movements, etc. The aircraft was still flying, and I began to get a hopeful feeling. It didn't last long.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force had airborne search and rescue (SAR) assistance monitoring all strike frequencies. To my relief, only moments after heading off-target, the radio crackled with a reassuring Air Force voice offering assistance and tracking: "War Ace, what are your intentions?"
By then my wingman had joined up and was looking me over. He confirmed my worst fears: I had holes in my wing and the fuselage underside and was streaming some vapor. I decided my best bet was to head for Da Nang. I relayed this to the airborne SAR. Within minutes they let me know Da Nang was alerted, standing by with local SAR, and could foam the runway if needed.
Things were looking better, but just west of the Laotian border and the Ashau Valley, my luck ran out. With a shudder, the engine seized, electric power (with gauges and radio) went out, and the controls began to stiffen. I popped out my ram air turbine in a vain attempt to gain backup power and controls, but nothing happened. My Corsair was still straight and level, but I knew it was going down.
We had been flying toward Da Nang at about 15,000 feet. There was an overcast with tops around 9,000 feet as far as the eye could see, obscuring the ground. And then the aircraft began a slow roll to the left.
Again I was in a slow-motion world; decision processing had vivid clarity. I decided I didn't want the situation to progress to me riding an uncontrolled aircraft into the overcast below. If I was going to eject, it seemed a better option to do it while reasonably straight and level. I had just enough time to look out to my right and give a lame wave goodbye to my wingman as my aircraft continued to roll. I learned later that he got the message and radioed to the airborne SAR, "It looks like he's going to punch out."
I pulled the face curtain, and as you can imagine, the wild ride in a McDonnell-Douglas Escapac II ejection seat is at least as spectacular as a Disneyland E-ticket ride. The seat worked as advertised. The memory is as one might expect: chaos, cold air, pain, G-forces, noise, and then zap—the reassuring but traumatic opening shock of the chute. The transition from all of this to a "peaceful" downward drift in a quiet, vast, open space is a memory that's etched in my brain. Another is the bizarre sight of the aircraft canopy spiraling slowly away from me toward the cloud tops far beneath my feet.
Then came one of those rare moments that seem almost absurd in retrospect: I distinctly remember declaring out loud to no one in particular but myself: "Jesus Christ, what the f--- am I doing here?"
I vaguely recall pulling out the PRC-90 radio from my survival vest on the descent, contacting my wingman on guard (emergency) frequency, and telling him I was okay, but I couldn't swear to this. The PRC-90 was to become my most valuable piece of survival gear in the whole subsequent adventure.
The most unnerving part of the descent was the trip through the 9,000-foot overcast. It was like drifting through a bowl of milk-total whiteout and disorientation. My main disadvantage was not knowing what was below me or when I was going to hit it. The chute oscillations from the cloud turbulence were no fun, either.
The answer to the above question came too quickly for me to react. As it turned out, the bottoms of the overcast were only about 100 to 200 feet above the ground. Still oscillating, I hit on a hillside, facing up the hill. There was only a split second between breaking out of the clouds and impact. From my perspective at the time, it seemed like I had landed vertically on level ground. Not so. I hit at an angle and immediately tumbled backward down the hill, landing on my fanny with an impact that apparently bestowed a compression fracture on my lower vertebrae (in retrospect, this might have occurred during ejection). Years later this would be worth free Purple Heart license plates from the state of Nevada and back pain on cold winter days.
Looking around, I saw that the top of the hill disappeared into the cloud bottoms. I was relieved not to find an immediate enemy presence, and the cloud cover probably helped by obscuring my descent from the bad guys. I got out of my chute and hid it beneath the dark underside of my survival raft, which had broken out of the seat pan. I decided to head for high ground, but the terrain was thick tropical brush that made movement agonizingly slow, particularly with back pain.
The trip up the hillside was exhausting, and I probably only managed to get about 100 yards from where I hit the ground. I picked the thickest foliage I could find and settled in. It was late in the afternoon and dusk was approaching. With the volume as low as possible, I contacted my wingman on the PRC-90. He let me know that SAR was on its way and he had to depart. That was a very lonely time.
Soon after dusk, the radio crackled. Captain David Wray, USAF, flying "Covey 251" (presumably an OV-10) announced his presence as the on-scene SAR coordinator. He had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that he was there and had a fix on my position. The bad news was that HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters would not be flying my SAR mission because the area I was in was considered "too hot." That did not help my paranoia at all.
Covey 251 assured me he would be overhead for several hours and was working on "Plan B." Meanwhile, he advised radio silence. By this time it was getting very dark.
About an hour later, Covey 251 chirped up again with more good and bad news. First the bad: I would be spending the night in the jungle. The good news was that the Army was sending in rescue helos at first light. With assurances from Covey that he or his relief would be somewhere nearby overhead for most of the night, I settled in for the duration.
One of the points made during jungle environmental survival training (JEST) was that in an evasion situation, the best bet was to stay put and be perfectly still, much like a rabbit avoiding its stalker. That turned out to be some of the best advice I ever received.
I won't recount the minute-by-minute paranoia of spending a night in Laos under the obvious circumstances, but suffice it to say it was no fun. Sounds and sensations became magnified. In the darkness, I could feel things crawling on various parts of my body, but I didn't want to know what they were. Dewdrops falling off leaves and landing on other leaves sounded like footsteps right by my head. I did a lot of thinking and bargained with God with a lot of promises if only He would get me out of there alive.
Not all of this was paranoia. Since landing, I could hear occasional distant explosions and rifle cracks. I just hoped no one knew where I was. They didn't, but they did try to find out. Several times during the night I heard the nearby sound of voices and an occasional burst of weapons fire. From JEST training I knew that the enemy didn't have the luxury of flashlights, so this was a technique designed to make the evader panic and break cover. I had no desire to become a hero or a martyr. The thought of a final shoot-out with my trusty .38 police special seemed like a poor option.
Dawn brought another crackle on the PRC-90. Covey 251 told me three Army UH-1 Huey helicopters from the 101st Airborne Division out of Hue/Phu Bai were on the way. The weather was still low overcast, and Covey told me to start making my way to a clearing about 100 yards from my position. There was no sign of enemy activity in the area. Things were beginning to look better.
Within 20 minutes or so, the first radio call from the UH-1s came over the PRC-90. The flight estimated they were five minutes out. What I didn't know at the time was that the lead helo in the flight was the only one with a working homing beacon to zero in on my PRC-90. Another problem was that his attitude gyro wasn't working. He had to fly under the 200-foot overcast using nothing but treetops for attitude reference—all the while with two trusting UH-1 wingmen tucked in close to his side. I still thank my lucky stars for the courage and determination of these guys.
I was poised at the edge of the clearing when I heard the first sounds of helo rotors. The lead UH-1 advised that his homing instruments were becoming erratic, so he requested "steers" from me using his rotor sounds. I gave him reciprocal bearings from my survival compass as best I could. I don't have to tell you the absolute joy of seeing that first helicopter come into view from the other side of the clearing. I called my visual contact and popped my orange smoke flare. In another 30 seconds they were hovering above the clearing.
A new problem quickly became apparent: The "clearing" was not totally clear. Very tall bamboo plants populated the entire area, preventing the helos from landing. The lead chopper hovered overhead, and I could clearly see the crew. Next they dropped a rope with two D rings on the end. I learned later that the usual mission of these helicopters was extracting Special Forces from operating areas by hooking them up to this rig and dangling them underneath until they reached a safe area. That's what they were expecting to do with me.
I just stood there like an idiot with a stupid look on my face, trying to figure out the rig. The helicopters had no time for this. The crew waved me off, retracted the rope, and again things began to look bleak.
Realizing they were dealing with a clueless Navy pilot, the lead Huey's crewmen exercised the next option. With blades swirling, it descended, chopping off the tops of bamboo plants. When it was low enough, out the side door came a rope ladder. This I knew what to do with, but deciding I was too dim-witted to know my next move, one crewman began to descend the ladder to assist. I met him midway up and literally crawled over him on my way into the chopper. I sprawled onto the helo bay floor, and we sped away to Hue/Phu Bai.
I learned after the fact that by the time we were exiting the scene, the helos had attracted some enemy activity on the periphery of the clearing. A Huey gunner described it as a "Mexican standoff." The bad guy raised and pointed his weapon but never opened fire. The gunner returned the courtesy, and we were gone.
After the usual flight-surgeon check at Hue/Phu Bai and a restless night's sleep in the "Q," I was returned to the Constellation via carrier onboard delivery. In my scrap heap I still have a copy of a bill made up by the 101st Airborne for $2,557,946 (one each, A-7A aircraft) and $2,343 for flight time (3 UH-1s and one OV-10).
True to my promise to these brave men whom I will never forget, I rooted for Army during the second half of the next Army-Navy game.
Dr. Hoffman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1965. After flying 225 combat missions in Vietnam, he attended medical school, graduating in 1974, and served as a flight surgeon and research test pilot. After completing his Navy service in 1982 with the rank of commander, Dr. Hoffman practiced medicine in the public sector until 1986, when he entered the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps. Three years later he retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. He later practiced occupational medicine in California before passing away on 11 May 2004