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 in Turkey on Victor Alert

Although Arnold stayed in Greece for only three weeks, life at England AFB soon turned into a series of hectic rotations from the US to Europe, the middle East, and eventually Southeast Asia. The squadrons at England, along with other squadrons from Cannon AFB in New Mexico, deployed regularly to Incirlik, Turkey to participate as a maintenance officer in a Cold War mission known as “Victor Alert.” His first Victor Alert trip occurred in May1961, and his journey to Incirlik sounded more like  a cruise ship itinerary than a military deployment. Instead of flying an F-100 with in-flight refueling to his destination as he had at Foster, he traveled in the relative luxury of a large cargo plane, the C-124, with stops at Shaw AFB on the South Carolina coast, Kindley AFB in Bermuda, Lajes AFB in the Azores, Moron AFB in Spain, and Athens.

By the early 1960s, the Air Force had turned much of its fighter fleet into mini-bombers, the better to fight the “small wars” anticipated, and the F-100 was now capable of carrying a limited supply of nuclear weapons. At Incirlik, the Victor Alert mission consisted of four pilots and four F-100Ds laden with “tactical” Mark-28 1.1 kiloton nuclear weapons sitting on continuous alert. Another four F-100Ds were available for proficiency training. The pilots rotated shifts, pulling alert in a small trailer and sleeping in their flight gear. The routine was broken about once each week by a siren that sent the alert pilots scrambling to their jets. While the maintenance crews pulled safety pins and chocks, the pilots jumped into their cockpits, strapped in, and started the engines, not knowing until they were about to taxi that it was just for practice. Since Air Force rules did not allowed them to fly with the nuclear weapons on-board, they simply shut the engines back down again after being told it was just an exercise. The maintenance crews got a lot of practice topping of the F-100s with 20 or 30 gallons of fuel whenever an exercise occurred.

As the maintenance officer, Arnold didn’t have to sit alert, but instead flew airplanes after maintenance to make sure everything had been fixed before turning the airplane back to the alert crews. After a few weeks, the mission became a bit of a grind, and Arnold looked for some other things to do. The base at Incirlik had an aero club where non-pilots could theoretically learn to fly small airplanes. However, the club’s only working airplane was a Cessna 120 that no one knew how to fly. They also had a bush plane called a Beaver, but it was in pieces. The president of the club was an Air Force helicopter pilot in charge of the small search-and-rescue unit at Incirlik, and he decided to take advantage of Arnold’s status as a mechanic and civilian instructor to reinvigorate the dormant club. On the Fourth of July, the two would-be civilian pilots took the Cessna up to fly around the base and the neighboring countryside. The flight turned out to be the only one they took. Unhappy Turkish officials shut down the operation the next day, and Arnold and the helicopter pilot had to find something else to do in their spare time. However, there was one small side benefit for Arnold. To reward him for their brief Cessna fling, the helicopter pilot took him for his first helicopter flight on one of the unit’s Sikorsky H-19s.

Just as Arnold thought he was about to go home, the Cold War flared up. Since early June, the East German government had been stockpiling materials to build the Berlin Wall and on August 13, they shut down passage to the West. The wall began to go up and President Kennedy put the US military on high alert, including the mobilization of over 100,000 reservists. At the end of September, instead of flying back to the US, Arnold flew in a C-130 cargo aircraft to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to join other F-100s in the Cold War stare-down.

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 …

Foster Air Force Base and Jets: The T-33 and F-86

Congratulations to Bryan Stinekens for correctly answering the question about the balloon registration number N7927A! It is the same registration number used on the E-1, Arnold’s world record setting airplane. And now, back to pilot training.

After finishing primary flight training at Goodfellow in early September 1953, Arnold was assigned to Foster AFB for advanced training. Foster AFB was located near a small town named Victoria, close to the Gulf Coast. Even in September, the heat and humidity were oppressive.

The cadets were assigned to small “flights” of three students, each led by an instructor. A flight with two Belgian students and a Norwegian student was appropriately named the “Falstaff Flight,” but Arnold’s “riff raff Flight” seems to have been assigned as a whim by the pilot training leadership. Other cadets endured colorful names such as “Yo Yo,” “Odd Ball,” and “Moonshine.”

At Foster, the cadets first flew the 800-horsepower T-28A. Once they were used to flying the more powerful airplane, they switched to a jet trainer, the T-33A. Arnold’s first flight in the T-33 was on the Monday before Thanksgiving, on November 23rd.

Foster_AFB_1953

Arnold flying T-33s at pilot training, Foster AFB 1953
From Arnold Ebneter personal collection

The Air Force commissioned Arnold as a second lieutenant and awarded him his silver pilot’s wings on March 15, 1954. After graduating, Arnold took two weeks of leave before reporting for his next assignment at Nellis Air Force Base, just north of Las Vegas for additional training. With no time to spare, he made a mad dash to St Paul and married Colleen on March 18, ending her patient two-year wait as he romped around the United States flying airplanes.

After the wedding, the furious pace continued unabated; Arnold and Colleen drove west to Las Vegas, arriving in time for a short honeymoon before beginning the next phase of his training.

At Nellis, Arnold learned to fly the F-86, which was then the Air Force’s frontline fighter. After F-86 training, he returned to Foster, along with five of the other top cadets in his class for his first real assignment, this time with Colleen in tow. Although Foster had been a training base when Arnold left, by the time he returned it was an operational fighter base assigned to the Tactical Air Command, which was responsible for most of the fighter aircraft in the Air Force.

The F-86 could fly faster than the speed of sound in a dive, and the pilots started “booming” Foster AFB every afternoon at 4:30 to announce the beginning of the retreat ceremony that signaled the end of the official day. One pilot would climb to a high altitude directly over the base, and then point the nose of his airplane at the ground. As the airplane accelerated through Mach 1, a loud cracking noise shook the ground below, rattling windows and waking babies. Although the nearby Victoria residents loved the daily air show, senior Air Force officials weren’t amused and soon told the pilots to knock it off.