Debrief of Hurricane Lead

An Air/Sea Story
11 August 1966
By Richard L. Penn, USAF (Ret.)
13 April 2006
Used and Edited with Permission - All Rights Reserved


I was thinking last night how important it is that we remember that war is not, primarily, fun, funny, or glorious. But after we remember the really important aspects of war, it's appropriate to also remember the lighter sides. I thought of my very good friend, Rags, who told many funny stories about his 600 days in “Recalcitrant Camp” in Korea: he told about being court martialled and spent time in solitary for stealing the Peoples' Chicken; he told a filthy story about a prisoner moon-blind with dysentery; about Bruce Shaw being punished for a demonstration done by the prisoners in his honor. I learned a couple of months ago that he was the first black pilot to shoot down a MiG in Korea. You know about the Recalcitrant camps - the men were sent there to die, and most of them did. How can a man cling to life and country in such circumstances? How can a man tell funny stories about Recalcitrant camp?

A few days before we left for Ubon we were talking and Rags said he needed only one bullet for his .38. I reminded him that he'd had a lot of good times in the years since then, but he maintained that it hadn't been worth it, and he'd not do it again. He almost made it. I suppose I'll never forget the night Bob Frasier woke me up, “Rags got it.” He had already shipped his stuff to Davis Monthan. Rags had funny stories.

The Movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” illustrated something I believe about men in combat. After awhile they become so emotionally tired, see and cause so much death, that they get to where they just don’t care about who gets killed, or why. Indeed, they loose rational concern for their own safety. The most disturbing scene in that bloody movie was to see a man shoot a prisoner. Fortunately, I feel that, in my combat experience, I maintained respect for other human beings and for the laws of war. Although I sympathize with Lt. Calley, because he was in ‘way over his head while more intelligent and better educated men avoided their obligations, I’m certain that I would have done better. An alternative, or additional, explanation for recklessness in combat is that men come to feel invincible. That’s the way I felt. If I was fatigued, I didn’t realize it.

Of four men of that mission, the other three didn't live six more weeks.

The 497th and 433rd squadrons at Ubon Air Base, Thailand were assigned to fly nights. We were in the 497TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. One squadron from sundown to midnight, then the other. 433rd commander, Colonel Crouch, held a pilots' meeting every Wednesday and he had just instituted a briefing by an outside “expert” on some subject or another. First briefer, Captain Chick Waxman, TDY from Fighter Weapons School, finished his briefing, suited up, got hit, parachuted into a treetop. Rescue guys had told us to stay in a tree until daylight and they’d pick us up directly from the tree. Not Chick; he climbed down, fell off a cliff in the dark, broke his neck and died. Next briefer also had a bad night following his presentation - I think he arrived Hanoi Hilton via circuitous routing. My presentation was not enthusiastically embraced by the fighter pilots and the lecture series ended.

My pitch was, “You can't get shot down at night.” I was very proud of my thesis which involved all sorts of hocus-pocus about the rods and cones in the eye, AAA aiming techniques & tracers, AAA radar gun laying computers, and other stuff which I didn't understand either, but it sounded very sophisticated to me. Anyway, Crouch thought his guys hadn’t been aggressive enough and that this should help. You gotta get in close, and concentrate, to do good work, especially at night. When I returned to Ubon a couple of days later no one asked about my theory.

Notice how small a full moon looks at zenith, and how large it looks near the horizon? One illustration of my theory was to light afterburners at night. Because they lacked depth perception, visual gunners from maybe four miles away would open up. So, why couldn’t the gunners approximate our separation, but I could? To them, I was just a light in the night sky, but I saw them against terrain background. According to my exalted theory, the gunners eyes couldn’t provide accurate depth perception at night by which they could utilize the adjustments dictated by tracers. For the Soviet 37mm gun every bullet is a brilliant red tracer. Six guns in a battery two bullets per second per gun?, I forget adds up to a lot of light! The sight of those bright red tracers was a thing of great beauty. The closer they came, the more exciting, but they always missed.

Tracers are prettier at night because they’re so bright. If a pilot is down low, really in the weeds (pretty dicey at night), and 37’s are coming really close to the canopy, they seem to go straight, initially, and well in front. Then, as they pass by the canopy, they appear to curve sharply to the rear. Beautiful! Winston Churchill (perhaps quoting an earlier soldier) noted during his experience in Cuba, 1898, “There is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without effect.”

There were two railroad and highway routes from Hanoi to China. They formed a V shape from Hanoi - one to the Northwest and one to the Northeast. The mission concept was that we would run a couple of fighters up north of Hanoi as a show of force. Additionally, of course, it was a target-rich environment. Our very presence in the system would slow the truck traffic because they wouldn’t drive with their headlights on. But, for some reason, it wasn’t working out well. We lost one of the two airplanes about four nights in a row. A.J. Meyers/John Borling, two of the finest officers I ever knew, got nailed and spent seven years in jail. Our wing commander convinced General Momeyer that this idea needed work.

The tactic was that two airplanes would ingress at about a thousand feet or so, 420 knots, wing man seven miles (one minute) in trail. Looking at hills on radar from about level creates shadows behind so maps can be interpreted. Even on a fairly dark night, rivers, railroads and breaks in trees are easy to sort out visually. We used radar and visual to avoid fatal contact with the terrain and inertial navigation to find turn points. At such a low altitude, with just a few hills around, the SA-2 missile could not track us accurately enough to shoot, and visual gunners could not see well enough to be a threat. Lead fighter carried two pods of eight million-candle-power parachute flares and four 500 pound bombs. Wingman carried all bombs. Flares had an ignition delay of about 20 seconds and burned for four minutes. Over a suspected target, lead drops two flares. Simultaneously, wingman pulls up, offsets, and rolls in, sort of pointed at the target when the flares ignite. Lead is in a 360-degree turn and drops about a minute after wingman. Wingman comes around for a second pass after lead. This gives us a look at eight suspected targets under flare light. If it’s a good target, we could make three bombing passes.

Hurricane Lead - The Story

August 11, 1966, I refueled over the gulf and headed north of Haiphong to the north side of what we called “Phantom Ridge”, a ridge of low mountains running from 30 or so miles northeast of Hanoi, Northeast to northwest of Haiphong. Thud Ridge is a bit longer and has somewhat larger mountains and runs Northwest from Hanoi. The terrain North of either was harder and population was thinnner. We felt that there was a better chance of rescue north of either. On rare occasion, the Navy could get a helicopter into the Phantom Ridge area, and the Air Force, on rare occasion, could get a helicopter in the Thud Ridge area. A factor in both cases was the chance to evade capture long enough for a rescue operation to get there. These areas were slightly less-heavily defended than areas closer to Hanoi, Thai Nyugen, and areas immediately south. Phantom Ridge also shielded us from radar’s around Hanoi and Haiphong. Follow the ridge west to the northeast railroad and highway. Piece of cake. Follow the railroad/highway southwest, climb up to four or five thousand feet and turn gently back and forth (60 degrees bank) to look down for trucks or trains.

That altitude put us in easy view of all sorts of radar’s, but with the turns, there was no defensive reaction. Surface-to-Air missiles can be seen from miles away at night. We had no radar warning gear at that time, but we didn’t need it. Defensive measure for SAM’s was to turn to place the missile at 60 or 70 degrees off the nose and start a gentle pushover (maybe -2G’s). The tracking missile also noses down. When the missile, at very high speed, gets close, pull up about 4 or 6 G’s, and the missile can’t make the turn. That tactic hadn’t been invented in time for Bobby Kan. I dunno about Ed Montgomery - I guess it worked purty well, but not quite perfectly. Another thing we figured out was to never fly over an overcast because you’ll not see a missile until too late - it’ll be close and also be doing Mach 3 or more!

My GIB, Bert Finzer, was on his first mission to the far North, and was quite excited. Newest kid in the squadron and totally unafraid! I took the opportunity to illustrate my theory: I would pop up to four or five thousand feet and maintain straight and level for about a minute. It takes awhile for the radar operators to see a target, acquire it, and then six seconds for the Puatzo Six computer to determine the target’s future position and bullet impact point. As soon as I saw the muzzle flashes I'd make a little turn. Radar directed guns had time cut fuses which would explode at the place we would have been, had it not been for the little turn. Dropped a pair of flares but didn’t see anything. Bert was having the time of his life!

I noticed that down near the southwest end of the route there were quite a few radar controlled guns making noises. It didn’t occur to me why they were there, but I didn’t bother ‘em. My squadron commander, Jim McGuire, had been in trouble with the wing commander before about my, “dueling with AAA.” I don’t know how he heard about it because I never bragged or nothing like that. Dizzy Dean says that if it’s true, it ain’t braggin’. It was very exciting and I thought a 37mm gun was a valuable target. The CO had different ideas of economics and he thought that an F-4 was a substantially more valuable asset. Pilots were in even shorter supply at the time. Anyway, turn on all the lights, or light the afterburner to get those guys shooting, and it’s easy to go right down the lighted slide - especially with rockets.

I searched the dark highway for targets until my fuel guage told me it was time to go home. But I’m not going home with all the ordnance I’d carried so far up north. Ah!, there’s my excuse! I can find only one target – the AAA guns which had made their presence so obvious.

I had been keeping their location in the back of my mind, so I turned right for them. I had fuel for only one pass, so I gang-loaded all flares to drop at once. I crossed the guns at about 6,000 feet and pickled the flares.

I was in a hard right turn, setting switches to drop my bombs, when the flares lit. The radar guns had been sporatically firing, so everyone knew approximately where I was. The sudden introduction of sixteen million candlepower clarified everything for all of us.

I was over Kep airfield! That’s why there were so many guns in one place. Intelligence estimated 208 AAA guns of various descriptions. That’s a lot of guns! They really meant to defend their two airfields, even though President Johnson had made them off limits (at that time). Wow!, seemed like everybody started shooting at once.

I was hit pretty hard. The airplane porpoised severely. Maybe the artificial feel system had been shot out. The F-4 had full, irreversible, hydraulic flight controls, not hydraulic boost. Without artificial feel, a very slight force on the control stick would cause the hydraulic flight controls to deflect fully. Maybe part of the stabalator had been shot away because I had trouble holding the nose up.

I thought the airplane might blow up any second, however . . . I yelled to my GIB (Guy In Back), “don’t eject.” A calm, quiet voice came back, “I’m not.” That reminded me to be calm. Pilots are sometimes surprised, but a really superb “stick” can recover within one or two seconds. I already had a plan to head to Phantom Ridge – maybe five minutes away – if the airplane wouldn’t blow up before then.

I quickly figured that things were more or less OK. There was no apparent fire and the flight controls were functioning, although definitely not normally. Whoops, fuel seemed lower than two minutes ago.

The attraction of Phantom Ridge was that rescue was more likely from there. I carried a .38 revolver in a cowboy holster with bullets along the belt. I also carried a .380 automatic in my vest. I figured to fight like Davy Crockett at the Alamo – well, at least against a bunch of farmers. A rescue mission deep into North Viet Nam would have been a long shot, but, who knows how long I might be able to hold out in the hills. My friend, Rags, had convinced me that being a POW is really bad.

I got to Phantom Ridge and things were still pretty good. Obviously, there had not yet been an explosion, so there probably would not be one. No fire, and flight controls still functioned. I turned for the Gulf, staying low enough for the hills to shield me from SAM’s.

My GIB said, “we still have our bombs.” I hadn’t thought about them because I’d been thinking about ejection or explosion. I reached for the jettison button when he said, “Let’s look for a truck.” Just then I saw headlights ahead. Some guy driving along with his lights on! I rolled in and pickled: one, two, three. Then in the pullout I remembered the damaged flight controls and difficulty getting the nose up. Anyway, I didn’t hit the ground. Bert said, “We have one more bomb, let’s get that lighthouse.” The lighthouse, northeast of Haiphong harbor, was a bone stuck in our throats because it was off limits and always operating. Facing imminent death or capture, this kid was still fighting the war!

By this time I was thinking that rescue was a possibility just as well as death or capture. Focused on rescue, I Jettisoned external garbage, went feet wet, headed south and called the navy for refueling rendevouz. Fuel was low! I’m leaking fuel – a lot!

I had not thought about it at the time, but it was probably best that I didn’t head straight for the Gulf of Tonkin. If I had, I would have gotten to the tanker sooner and probably could have refueled. However, the terrain southeast of Hanoi is very flat, much of it covered with rice paddies and standing water. The minimum operating altitude for SAM’s is quite low, perhaps to absolute ground level because of a technique for manual target tracking and missile guidance. In any event, I was planning for immediate ejection, and I’d rather do that in the remote hill country rather than the outskirts of Hanoi.

I figured that if I had a severe fuel leak, I might as well run it through the engines. I stroked the afterburner to speed the rendevouz, but then decided that wasn’t a good idea (it certainly wasn’t). The shipboard sailors were not practiced in rendevouz techniques, and it wasn’t going well. I spotted the tanker on my radar and took over the rendevouz. My turn point was perfect. I kept my speed up until the final short distance, because of the fuel leak. I pulled the throttles to idle and slid right in behind the tanker. A rather spectacular join-up!

I looked at the digital fuel gage – 0000. I looked at the boom operator. His white helmet and face glowed in the red lights around him. He said, “Forward four (feet).” As I advanced the throttles from idle, one engine quit, then the other.

In just a few seconds, the tanker could have locked the refueling boom into the receptacle and towed me while pumping fuel. That’s not too easy because since the boom locking mechanism isn’t strong enough to provide a full tow the airplanes have to be in a slight dive. Time was up.

Emotions were alternating pretty fast now. Earlier some high stakes combat. Then only a half hour ago I thought my time had come. A couple of minutes later I was planing how best not to become a POW. Exhiliration on making it to the water. Then I’m underneath the tanker. So finally, I’ll have to punch out. Before, this was what I was hoping for. Now, it didn’t look like such a hot prospect. With no thrust to my lead sled, the tanker distanced quickly ahead. So close! I felt so lonely. What a disappointment!

Ejection isn’t so difficult a decision if it’s to be done immediately. But now there’s a minute to think. So many things could go wrong. It’s really dark outside. I’m far out to sea. This airplane glides better than a brick, but it ain’t forever.

At this time I remembered my parachute training with the Army at Ft. Benning. We always had a reserve ‘chute. If the main ‘chute “cigarette rolls,” or “Mae Wests,” or whatever malfunction, the trooper simply jettisons it and pulls the reserve. Very important to jettison the main before pulling the reserve. I focus: this time I don’t have a reserve. Not the proper mind-set, of course. I should not have been thinking of failure. I should have rationalized that I’ve already had my share of failures tonight, but by this time I’m expecting everything to go wrong.

OK Bert, let’s go

Bert’s canopy blew. Wind noise is pretty loud. 350 miles an hour is a lot of wind. That’s what will hit me in the face in a few seconds. No hurry for that. Bert’s seat fired. That’s a loud bang! I wonder if it hurts. I pulled the face curtain. The canopy blew and the curtain came to a mechanical stop. I pulled down with my arms, head and shoulders, bending forward. Not supposed to do that. Supposed to keep back straight so it doesn’t break. Thirty years later it hurts sometimes – is there a connection?

Yes, it does hurt. That’s a pretty hard slap on the butt. But I don’t remember that now. I had other things on my mind. Lot of things on my mind – things to do, and decisions to make. “Things to do” is easy, but I have things to analyze and decisions to make.

I’ve lost about two seconds there. It must have been a fun ride couple hundred feet up, but there’s short blank space.

As programmed, I’m out of the airplane and into the dark night. But I’m tumbling in a fast forward roll. Not supposed to happen. I’m really spinning!

My story almost ended here

I had ejected into total darkness at about 15,000 feet. Now, I’m spinning forward. How can that be if the stabalizing parachute is out? It can’t! The chute didn’t deploy, or it tangled in the seat. Either way, the sequence stops.

The darkness and spinning cloud clear thinking a bit, but the conclusion is inescapable – the seat has failed! I’m going to spin right into the ocean with this aluminum chair strapped to my back!

Although, based on the information available to me and my analysis had been correct, I was about to make one mistake: Rube Goldberg had an option in case the seat sequence fails. The pilot can pull a small handle in the seat which releases the straps and the pilot kicks the seat away and pulls the parachute rip cord manually. I forgot that. Well, I was in a bit of a rush because it’s not far from 10,000 feet to the water (about one minute).

O.K., so I’ve forgotten the manual parachute option, what am I to do? I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight this all the way to the end! The conclusion to this life is rushing to me!

The unstrap proceedure is the same as I do at the end of every mission: leg restraints, seat belt, shoulder harness. Also,.perhaps our frequent practice in emergency ground escape had influenced my imminent mistake. In case of fire, the proceedure was to unstrap and clammor out over the windshield, slide down the nose cone, and run. With the practice I’d had, I could unstrap and be on the ground in about three seconds. So I’m thinking, “unstrap” and get away from this seat. If I hit the water in this seat, it’ll kill me sure.

Time flies. I started at about 15,000 feet. Can’t see anything. The spinning is disorienting. Very. Don’t know how close to the water.

I’ll not go easy! I’ll unstrap, jettison this seat, and dive into the water like Tarzan. From 10,000 feet – or 2,000. Dive into the ocean when I don’t know which way is up!

I started the two-second unstrap: leg restraints, SNAP! The main chute opened! The seat fell away. I’m hanging in the ‘chute. My arms hang limply at my side. That was close! One more second and I would have killed myself! I had almost jettisoned a perfectly good parachute, still in the bag.

It’s quiet up here. Exhale. Take a deep breath.

The rest will be easy. I’ll bob around in the water awhile, get a little rest, then the Navy will pick me up.

This has been an emotional roller-coaster. Before the mission I experienced appropriate apprehension and intense concentration; this increased markedly in the target area; being vigorously shot at confirmed exactly what is going on; getting hit transforms a serious situation to an emergency. This may be it!

Low point: - eject immediately? - airplane may explode?

Good news: - the airplane still flies!

Terror: - POW?

Decisive action: - Head for Phantom Ridge - I have two pistols, 100 bullets, a knife, signal flares and a signal mirror)

Grim reality: - leaking fuel, fast!

Bought time: - made it to Phantom Ridge! - fuel leak seems slower! - feet wet!!

Not over yet: - ten minutes fuel ain’t enough?

Welcome: - Red Crown on radio! - Red Anchor heads North for refueling rendezvous!

Massive disappointment: - Four feet short - “just in case” last words - don’t want to do it.

Trust Martin-Baker: - punch out.

Cotastrophe: - chute failure - fight to the end!

All’s well: - chute opens!

End Roller Coaster .

The amazement at being alive has left me exhausted. I ponder that for a half minute, then decide I’d better get busy. O.K., let’s get started on the things to do next. Total darkness. Moon rise supposed to be at 00:44. But it’s only a wanning crescent and the sky is solid overcast. No stars. Take off my boots, throw away my helment, still can’t see. Deploy life preserver. Deploy life raft and survival kit. I’m in great shape. I’m ready!

I’m concerned if Bert is all right. Red Crown was the permanent radio call sign of a USN ship on station far north in the Gulf of Tonkin, who provided threat warning, flight following, tanker rendesvouz, and rescue. We felt secure hearing their voice. Red Crown was on the radio, I wonder how far away they are. Are they coming to get me? Do they know where I am? Ah! I’ll take out my survival radio and call them. I’ll call Bert. Again, irrational, of course Red Crown is coming to get me. Bert? He’s five or six miles away, In whichever direction. If he’s not O.K., there’s nothing I can do.

Taking out my survival radio was a bad idea. Just then I hit the water, and my radio hit me in the face, then disappeared.

I’m so happy to be in the water I feel like I could swim to shore! Routine: survival kit and life raft are attatched by a long nylon line. Pull ’em in, and climb aboard the life raft.

Climb aboard the raft. Easy. Face the raft, grab with both hands, pull it under my chest, and down. Roll over, and I’m aboard. Pull kit in, too. Raft is sort of small – I’m in from my knees to my neck. I’m comfortable. Time to rest, again. Sharks? Poisionous Sea Snakes? No concern. Five second break is over.

How to contact Red Crown? My radio is on the sea bottom by now. There is a signal radio in the survival kit, but it’s CW only – I can’t talk on it, or recieve. There is a safety plug in the switch attatched by a string. Pull string. Oh, but now, is the radio packed with the switch on (and plug in), or off? Not a problem I can’t figure out – I’ll turn the switch one way for a half minute, then the other way.

This unorthodox signaling caused some concern on deck of USS King DLG-10. “Here he is!” Then, “He’s gone.” Did he drown? Drop his radio? “He’s back! Get a bearing.” “Too late.”

USS King was headed toward the erratic radio signal at flank speed. Wait – we could run over him. Send the helo.

Bert must have been doing things right, because they picked him up first.

I saw the whirleybird and fired a flare. Bright, bright orange. Beautiful. It burned out, so I dipped it in the water and threw it away across my body to the other side of the raft). Throw? Why did I throw the flare? Why not just drop it? Well, that got me some burns from hot, wet, ashes. Now fire a smoke flare so the chopper can judge wind. Unhook the raft and survival kit so they don’t get tangled in the rotor blades. The downwash blows the raft away quickly. There goes a piece of security that I’d come to love.

I’m wenched up to the welcome arms of the crewman kneeling in the door. Incredibly strong arms pull me in. I’m safe! Relax, look around. Bert is back there. His red hair glows in the dark. I made it. Exhale.

We’re quickly back to USS King. Deck is lit up. I see the white X and circle. We approach carefully. A bit of rocking and weaving. Helicopters do that (I guess). Close to the big X. Jockeying back and forth, then wave-off. Hard right turn and we’re heading off into the dark.

Another approach. Moving around, sideways, back and forth. Is the ship moving? Is it always like this? Wave-off, hard right turn, into the darkness. We’re gonna run out of gas and ditch. I don’t want to go back into that water. Blood on the deck and all around - I’m gonna bleed to death!

Third pass. That surely is a small spot! Touchdown! Several men come out to meet us. Welcome! These are the most important men in the world!

Next, I’m escorted to the medic’s operating room. I wasn’t exactly expecting the Mayo Clinic, but this place is small. The bright light with reflector dominated the scene. Chief Izquierdo gave me a miniature (1½ oz) bottle of brandy, “Drink this, Captain, and I’ll sew you up.” That’s it? “Don’t you have a bullet I can bite, or something?” Good laugh. “No. The brandy is traditional. I’ll use novacine for the stitches.” The Chief did a great job. There’s not a visible scar on my handsome mug. Captain Tesh greeted me and put me in the Commodore’s stateroom for a couple hours’ sleep.

Morning. The ship cruised silently, as the crewmen went about their normal duties. I stood at the rail for several minutes – amazed at how calm the sea was. Now that I have time, I reflect on how close I came to the end. Life has new meaning. So tenuous. Even now, as I write, I have that same feeling in my stomach.

Three or four sailors approached individually, “Congratulations, Captain! I bet ten dollars on you last night!” (The entire drama had been broadcast on the ship’s speakers.) Later, it occurs that there must have been an equal number who bet the other way. Clearly, it would have been in bad taste to own up to it.



A British company, built the ejection seat and most of us were a bit leery of it because it was so complicated. Every step bepended on the step before it. Classic Rube Goldberg! If any part failed the sequence stopped. The canopy fires, which pulls a safety pin from the seat. When stapping in the pilot straps a line to each leg just below the knee to keep the legs from flailing, or being bent backwards around the seat (double ouch!) in a high speed ejection. During ejection sequence, these lines are pulled back with great force and held tight. After the seat has separated from the airplane and has slowed to lower airspeed (it knows this my measuring deceleration to be less than four G’s), a small parachute, attatched to the top back of the seat, deploys to stabalize the seat. The pilot is still strapped in until it has descended below 3,000 meters, or about 10,000 feet. The main parachute is stowed in the seatback until this time. The shoulder harness normally attatches to the seat until separation when it detaches and becomes parachute risers. Passing 10,000 feet, the pilot’s seat belt and shoulder harness are released and a knife of some sort automatically cuts the leg restraint lines. I often wondered what would happen if the leg restraint lines were’t cut before the seat separated – would that 100 pound seat jerk my legs off at the knee (triple ouch!!) The small stablaizing parachute is attatched to the main parachute which is strapped to the pilot’s back. When the straps are released the pilot is attatched to the parachute and the seat falls clear. The small parachute pulls the main chute out of its storage space, and Martin-Baker’s work is done! If the reader doesn’t think that’s complicated, you’re missing something!

Red Anchor

Was the permanent call sign of an Air Force tanker which would be in orbit, available to whoever needed fuel. Usually Red Anchor was scheduled to refuel scheduled missions. Red Anchor had specific orders not to go north of a certain line because the KC-135’s were totally defenseless and were valuable SAC assets. This night, Captain Martinez violated that standing order.