Down Time in Vietnam

I’ve been off for a week due to the Fourth of July holiday and some other commitments. It’s now time to finish up the Vietnam chapter and move on to some airplane building. Well, sort of airplane building — we’re only 8 years into the saga, so obviously a fully formed airplane won’t emerge in the next few posts!

Here’s a photo of an event involving some cheese — not sure what that was all about, but Arnold and the other pilot in the photo were both from Wisconsin.

Arnold Tuy Hoa 1968

The Cheese Incident?
Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection

Arnold also passed the time reading airplane magazines. He mused about buying a Hawker Hurricane World War II fighter he saw for sale in one magazine and fell in love with an acrobatic Bonanza he saw in another. He also began sketching out a design to modify Charlie so he could more easily carry the entire family. The Bonanza was designed to carry four adults, so his three older daughters would normally sit in the two backseats, and Kelly would sit on Colleen’s lap. Everyone was growing up though, and that wasn’t going to work for much longer. He devised a bench seat for the baggage compartment and started working on the paperwork to get it approved by the FAA.

Squadron parties were also common occurrences since someone was always going away. Even if someone wasn’t going away, it didn’t take much to decide to have a party. The pilots bought party flight suits, also called mess dress flight suits, made by a tailor in Udorn, Thailand for the princely sum of $12. The flight suits had short sleeves and places to show off all their unit patches that they couldn’t wear during combat flights. Each squadron had their own color, so the Emerald Knights were going to wind up with bright green party suits, which made for a lot of moaning since some thought they would look silly. However, other pilots equally hated another option of powder blue suits like those worn by the Thunderbirds at the time. After much squabbling, the pilots finally settled on green.

By early July, the Tet Offensive was largely over, US marines had abandoned Khe Sahn, and US forces began chasing the North Vietnamese Army all over the country again. Most of Arnold’s missions became routine “tree-busting” missions to clear out trees and brush so that helicopters could land for ground forces. During his spare time, Arnold negotiated via letter with Colleen regarding plans for a month-long expedition she planned to take with the girls to Minnesota and Wisconsin. As the war began to wane, he also had time to start missing Charlie and thinking about the record-setting airplane. It had now been eight long years since he had designed it, and somehow the time had gotten away from him. He’d turned 40 not long after arriving in Vietnam, and the un-built airplane hung over him, taunting him as he had failed to buy a single part of even a set of tools. Soon, he would know where his next assignment would be. As much as he wanted to keep flying the F-100, he also wanted an assignment as an engineer that would provide fewer deployments and crazy hours. Then he could really get some building done and find out if the airplane would really fly.

Vietnam War Stories

The North Vietnamese Army didn’t give up easily, and they continued pressing attacks against not just ground forces but against the air bases as well. In early March, they tried to attack Tuy Hoa and the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) about five miles to the north, but the artillery shells fell short and caused only some anxious moments and frayed nerves. However, the next night as Arnold sat on alert, some Viet Cong worked their way into a village about two miles from the end of the runway at Tuy Hoa and the shootout resulted in a spectacular display of firepower that lit up the night sky and easily topped any fireworks show with all the tracers, smoke, explosions, and shrapnel flying around.

Emerald Knights Patch

308 TFS “Emerald Knights” Patch,
Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection

The Emerald Knights flew both the F-100D model and the two-seat F-100F model. Although the F-100F was used primarily for training, it was also used for combat on occasion. Since there were a limited number of pilots, the squadron schedulers would normally put one pilot in the F-100F when it was scheduled for a combat mission, and a non-pilot officer would often fly in the backseat to act as an observer. As observers, they helped spot targets and anti-aircraft artillery. It was good experience for the lawyers, supply officers, and other non-pilots and they could even receive an Air Medal if they flew enough missions. On one mission in early April, Arnold had a lawyer in his backseat for some action near Hue. Right before he rolled in to attack his target, he saw a long orange flame from the ground followed a split-second later by a barrage of sparkling blue tracers of anti-aircraft artillery streaking past the airplane.

A high-pitched squeal came from the back seat: “My God, they’re shooting at us!”

“I think we made them mad,” Arnold said as he dropped his bombs. Unnerved by the scene, the lawyer decided he didn’t covet an Air Medal enough to try flying again.

Despite the heavy ground fire, the F-100s were so speedy that the North Vietnamese rarely hit them. However, when they did get hit, the fragile airplanes often crashed. Fortunately, most pilots were able to eject, and even though Arnold’s squadron lost two airplanes while he was at Tuy Hoa, both pilots survived and were rescued by US forces. One shot-down pilot was flying a mission to support fighting at an air base near the Cambodian border and when he ejected, he landed on the runway below. Bullets and shells flying around him, the dazed pilot scrambled toward what he thought was friendly territory. As he neared a ditch, the outstretched hands of US soldiers pulled him to safety, and then handed him a rifle and told him to start shooting back. He complied.

Hitchhiking to Vietnam

As the Tet Offensive kicked off, the Air Force halted all flights to, from, and inside Vietnam not directly related to combat operations. Arnold was supposed to fly into Cam Rahn Bay once flights resumed, but the first flight available was a bright orange 707 to Tan Son Nut Air Base operated by an airliner on contract with the Air Force, so he took that instead. However, getting to Tan Son Nut was just half the battle. Tuy Hoa was in the middle of the country, and the Air Force had a regularly scheduled shuttle flight from Cam Rahn Bay to Tuy Hoa, but not from Tan Son Nut. When Arnold arrived, it was late afternoon, so he headed to the Visiting Officers Quarters to get some rest before tackling the next leg of his trek.

Anxious to get into the fight, Arnold walked back to Base Operations the next morning. He had no plan, but he figured that, given the small world of the US Air Force, he would work something out. He was right. As soon as he entered the operations building, he bumped into one of his pilot classmates from the Fairchild survival school.

“What the heck are you doing here?” asked the astonished pilot.

“I’m trying to get to Tuy Hoa.”

The other pilot was flying a C-123 “Provider” cargo airplane, but he wasn’t authorized to carry passengers. However, the C-123 pilot wasn’t about to let an ill-thought-out rule stand in the way of practicality, so he invented a reason to fly to Tuy Hoa along with a job for Arnold so he could fly on the airplane as a crewmember.

Arnold disembarked from his hitchhiking steed at Tuy Hoa a few hours later and checked in with his new squadron, the 308th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The squadron, part of the 31st Fighter Wing with motto Return with Honor,” was nicknamed the “Emerald Knights,” complete with bright green scarves and patches.

With the 308th in Vietnam

With the 308th in Vietnam, 1968
(Arnold Ebneter personal collection)

 

Heading Back to Vietnam

The Ebneter family landed in Phoenix in late July, 1967. Besides relearning to fly the F-100, Arnold’s highest priority was finding suitable housing for his family while he was gone. The obvious solution would have been to live at Luke AFB, but in those days families weren’t allowed on-base quarters if the military member was deployed. Luke was on the outskirts of Phoenix, and except for a retirement community, there wasn’t any suitable housing close to the base. Arnold found a three-bedroom rental house 30 minutes from the base in a quiet neighborhood. The house was just a few blocks away from Sajuaro Elementary School. He also took a trip to the local pound to get the family’s first dog, Princess, to act as a first line of defense while he was gone and couldn’t resist picking up a black-and-white kitten the girls dubbed Patrick.

At the end of December, Arnold received his orders to Vietnam. He was to report to Travis AFB in Northern California on January 24 and then head to the Philippines, where he would complete jungle survival school.

During the Christmas holiday, he tried to get his fill of Charlie before he left. He flew the airplane six times, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He also took the family for a ride on New Year’s Day, a family tradition. Charlie’s new home was at a tiny airport named Litchfield Park, located just south of Luke. The airport owner had a crop dusting business, and most of the airplanes on the field belonged to him. However, he must have had a soft spot for military pilots, because he allowed Arnold to hangar Charlie at the airport and even conducted a required inspection on the airplane at no cost to Arnold while he was in Vietnam. Although Colleen had her pilot’s license, she had not kept up her flying skills after the arrival of their third daughter, so Charlie was relegated to sit in a hangar for the duration, waiting patiently for his pilot to return.

Despite the flurry of flights in Charlie, the training to deploy to Vietnam was relentless and left little time for saying goodbye. After finishing his F-100 training on January 11, Arnold headed to Homestead AFB near Miami for a one-week sea survival school, which consisted largely of lounging around in a raft and trying not to drown while being dragged behind a boat.

Back in Phoenix, on January 23, Arnold and Colleen took their daughters out of school for a day. The family first headed to Litchfield Park for what would be their last flight together until October, and then to Sky Harbor airport, where Arnold boarded a commercial flight to San Francisco. He arrived at Clark AFB in the Philippines three days later.

On January 30, as he wrapped up his jungle training, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a major ground operation that turned the well-tuned Air Force rotation schedule into chaos.

F-100s at England AFB and More Deployments!

So now that Arnold had his airplane design, he went out and built it, right? Not exactly. For starters, the Air Force had other plans for him.

After graduating from Texas A&M the summer of 1960, Arnold and his family moved to England AFB in the central part of Louisiana, arriving just after the Fourth of July weekend.

Once again performing duties as a maintenance officer, Arnold was assigned to the maintenance squadron in the 401st Fighter Wing, but he was attached to 613th Tactical Fighter Squadron, for to maintain his flying proficiency and combat-ready status. Although many pilots would have groused about being in the maintenance squadron, for Arnold it was the best of all worlds. He loved overseeing the maintenance on the F-100s and as a bonus got more flying time than most of the other pilots – in addition to the flying he did to stay combat-ready, he had his pick of the maintenance test flights that occurred and also got to regularly ferry aircraft to and from a repair base in northern California, McClellan AFB.

Like his previous unit at Foster, the 613th spent much of the time on the road, and one month after he arrived in Louisiana, he deployed with his new unit to Greece for a NATO exercise. Before he left, he had to re-qualify in the F-100, which had undergone many changes in the two years he had been away. His first flight at England was in the new training version of the F-100, the “F” model, and shortly afterwards he checked out in the new “D” model. The biggest improvement in the F-100D was a set of flaps that helped to slow the airplane down for landing. Although a normal landing speed for the “C” model was nearly 200 mph, the “D” could land at a more pedestrian 170 mph, saving much wear and tear on both the airplane and the pilots.

Doesn’t look like there’s been any time so far for building airplanes …

Finishing Up at Foster: Operation Mobile Zebra

Arnold had many adventures at Foster flying the F-100, but you’re just going to have to wait for the book for those. I don’t want to give up all my secrets! I’ll talk about one of them that occurred before he moved on to Texas A&M to finish his engineering degree.

By 1957, Arnold had paid back his three-year commitment to the Air Force for pilot training (ah, the good old days — I think the commitment is up to ten years now). Although he could return to his job at General Mills, he and Colleen were enjoying the year-round warm weather in Texas and were in no hurry to head back north. The balloon job gave him freedom to be creative and he enjoyed flying the balloons, but he really couldn’t see himself being a balloon pilot for the rest of his life. In addition, he wanted to design and fly airplanes, not balloons. Flying for the airlines was a long shot – the airlines were still feasting on the glut of pilots produced by World War II and Korea.

If he wanted to fly and make decent money doing it, the Air Force seemed like the best option. Given that, what to do next? The obvious unfinished business hanging over his head was his incomplete engineering degree. If he could finish that degree, maybe he could become an experimental test pilot, or design airplanes in the Air Force. After talking with his superiors, he decided to apply for an Air Force program that would send him back to school.

While Arnold awaited the results of his application, he took part in his last Foster adventure during an operation dubbed Mobile Zebra in the fall of 1957. Zebra was the Air Force’s first attempt at rapidly deploying a gaggle of 47 aircraft across the expansive Pacific Ocean. KB-50 tankers were to refuel the aircraft along the way. Arnold’s role in the exercise was only as a spare, which must have been a relief to Colleen, now stuck at home most of the day with two children under two-years of age (one of them was me).

mobilezebra

A Souvenir from Mobile Zebra Showing the Route
(Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection)

The first part of the exercise called for Arnold to fly to George AFB with 19 other F-100s – 16 of them primary aircraft and four spares. After spending the night at George, the pilots planned to take off and refuel 500 miles later over the Pacific, with only the 16 primary airplanes continuing to Hawaii. If one of the primary airplanes or pilots had a problem, one of the spares would replace him. Arnold was the fourth spare, so four of the primary aircraft would have to drop out before he had to continue to Hawaii. Given that, Arnold expected to turn around and head back to George for another overnight stay and then head back to Foster. He told Colleen he should be home for dinner two days after he left. However, the ambitious deployment had pushed the limits of the exercise planners, and it showed not long after the exercise began.

The flight to George was routine, and by noon the next day, the pilots had taken off again. After flying for about an hour, the 20 airplanes spotted the KB-50 tankers. As they headed towards the tankers, pandemonium broke out. The lead pilot’s radio wasn’t working and the gaggle hadn’t rehearsed what to do if that happened. Everyone started trying to talk on the radio and when more than one person talks on the radio at once, all it does is squeal, and no one can talk. This is called “stepping on each other,” and step on each other, they did. In the ensuing chaos, four of the primaries didn’t refuel, and they turned back with barely enough fuel to land at George. Arnold and the other three spares, who had all refueled, continued toward their unexpected Hawaiian vacation.

The next day, Colleen’s concern over Arnold’s dinner no-show turned to alarm as the night dragged on. When she called the operations desk at his squadron the next morning, the duty officer answering the phone said, “Why, ma’am, your husband had to deploy.” That no one had bothered to call Colleen to let her know didn’t seem to strike him as a problem – wives and children were not an Air Force priority during the Cold War. In the meantime, Arnold was sitting in a briefing room in Hawaii, preparing for the next leg of the trip to Guam.

Colleen settled in to wait for a postcard or letter from Hawaii, or perhaps Guam or Japan, but nothing came during the two-month deployment. Arnold claimed there was no time to write a letter and a letter would take too long to reach Victoria anyway. He must have realized he was in trouble though, as he bought her a string of pearls in Japan.

Foster AFB Gets the F-100 and Some Wild Rides

In mid-1955, Arnold’s unit at Foster switched to flying the newer F-100, which was much sleeker and faster than the chubby-looking F-86. Arnold had already fallen in love with the F-100 in January, when he saw one during a visit to Eglin AFB in Florida. Much bigger than the F-86, he thought it “sort of mean and ugly-looking.” Although he couldn’t wait to fly one, the F-100 was grounded at the time to fix severe problems with the control system.

Despite the problems, however, North American had already started delivering F-100s to George AFB in California and by July 1955, the planes began appearing at Foster. Since Arnold was an assistant maintenance officer, he was one of the earliest pilots to check out in the F-100. He came close to crashing on his first flight in August 1955. Using the procedure the instructor had taught him, as soon as he took off the airplane began a pilot induced oscillation – a wild series of climbs and dives like a porpoise.

452nd_FDS_Flyby

Arnold’s squadron, the 452 Fighter Day Squadron, flies by at Foster AFB
From Arnold Ebneter personal collection

Although the term “pilot induced oscillation” makes it sound like it’s the pilot’s fault, it’s not. Instead, the control system in the airplane has a problem so that whenever the pilot tries to fly the airplane, it begins to oscillate. The only way to stop it is for the pilot to let go of the stick or freeze it in one position. Some oscillations are benign – even the Wright Flyer had a mild one – but some can tear an airplane apart and kill the pilot. An oscillation on takeoff or landing is especially dangerous because of the increased chance of slamming back into the ground.

Fortunately, after several cycles of almost crashing into the ground, Arnold realized what was happening. He relaxed the pressure he held on the stick at the top of the next cycle and the airplane smoothed out. Several other pilots had similar experiences on their first takeoffs, some of them even banging onto the runway again after lifting off. The F-100 pilots quickly reverted to using the same takeoff procedure they had used in the F-86 and the wild rides ceased.

Another distinct F-100 feature was due to the afterburning engine the airplane used to break the sound barrier in level flight. Unlike later afterburners that lit in stages, the F-100’s afterburning engine was an all-or-nothing affair that delivered a jolt to the pilots as it lit. An F-100 taking off had a distinctive sound not heard before. The engine first screeched like a banshee as it spooled up to full military power. As the pilot moved the throttle to maximum power to light the afterburner, the screeching stopped for a fraction of a second. The afterburner then kicked in with a thud followed by roar as it propelled the airplane down the runway and into the air. A flight of four F-100s taking off left anyone near the runway unable to hear for several minutes until the noise faded into a low rumble as the airplanes disappeared on the horizon.

I remember hearing this noise many times as a kid, and even though I haven’t heard an F-100 in probably 30 years, I think I would still recognize it!

F-100s in Action: Operation Mobile Baker

I know I’m getting a little ahead here, but I just spotted this video on YouTube that I wanted to pass along. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubwF-G-plMM

It’s a video of a 1956 operation that Arnold took part in while he was flying F-100s at Foster Air Force Base in Texas. Although there’s several types of aircraft in the video, the F-100s are clearly the rock stars!

The operation was called Mobile Baker, and it was part of the Nineteenth Air Force’s mission to develop a “tactical air strike force concept” that used a “self-sustaining task force” to deploy anywhere in the world on short notice. I know we do this routinely these days, but in 1956, air refueling was still a relatively new concept, and picking up a squadron and flying half way around the world was a novel idea. And I wasn’t even born yet!