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)

 

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 …

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 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.

Arnold Flies His First Air Show

After completing his first quarter at Minnesota, Arnold returned home for the summer, where he worked again as a mechanic for Forrest and Paul in Poynette. On July 4, 1948, he flew in his first air show, which received a short write up in the Portage paper. The air show was part of a carnival sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the paper reported, “Ebneter in the Cub made 30 turn spins and consecutive loops.” Forrest and Paul also flew in their BT-13s, doing slow rolls, loops, and a mock “dogfight.”

Arnold also joined the Wisconsin National Guard that summer to keep at bay the peacetime draft started in 1948, since college students weren’t eligible for draft deferments. Arnold became a private first class after two-weeks of learning to be an infantryman. However, Arnold’s time in the Wisconsin National Guard was short-lived. After he returned to Minnesota in the fall, he transferred to the Minnesota National Guard. Transferring not only made it easier to complete his training obligations, but it came with an even bigger benefit – he was able to work on airplanes and fly in them instead of toting around a rifle.

The Minnesota National Guard unit was a field artillery unit, but it had an aviation section conveniently located at the University of Minnesota airport. The aviation section included the military version of an Aeronca Champ, a small single engine airplane similar to the J-3 Cub. The unit used several of the airplanes for spotting artillery targets. In addition to working on the airplanes as a mechanic, Arnold had opportunities to fly as well, even though he was not officially a National Guard pilot. One of the pilots had flown the P-51, a fast, nimble fighter used by the Army Air Corps during World War II, but he couldn’t seem to get the hang of the slow, underpowered Champ. Rather than ground the pilot, his superiors simply asked Arnold to fly with him in the backseat on every flight. Arnold loved the opportunity, even if it was bootlegged time. Here’s a picture of the airplane:

Aeronca_L-16

Aeronca L-16
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons (USAF Image)

Although Arnold had saved some money from the summer of 1948, which he hoped to use to finish his commercial and instructor ratings, the money slipped through his fingers when he returned to Minneapolis in the fall. He did some flight training, but he also bought his first car, a Model A.

By early 1949, Arnold was out of money and ideas, frustrated once again that he had not completed his professional pilot certificates. His sorority job covered his room and board, but little else. In a letter home, he complained to his parents, “Sometimes, I think I must have rocks in my head or something, trying to make a living at flying.” Then, more optimistically, he added, “Oh, well, Swiss stubbornness being what it is, everything will probably turn out all right.”