Entering Downwind at 250 Feet

Flying visual recon/photo (VR) missions out of Tuy Hoa in the fall of 1971 offered an interesting challenge.  Since VR missions were by definition “visual reconnaissance” they were conducted during the day and in the clear, meaning not in the clouds.  

The other two missions flown by our unit, the 225th MI Company otherwise known as the Phantom Hawks, were flown in all weather conditions and mostly at night.  Those missions were Infrared (IR) and Side-Looking-Airborne Radar (SLAR).

Maintenance occasionally cannibalized flight instruments from the VR aircraft if needed for an IR or SLAR bird.    We had grown accustomed to seeing a gaping hole in our instrument panel where an instrument had been the day before. The logic was since our missions were daytime VFR we could get by without the instruments used to fly in the clouds like the artificial horizon and the flight director.

It made sense.  Until monsoon season.

During monsoon season it rains and the clouds stay close to the ground constantly.  And it was called monsoon season for a reason.  The rain lasts for weeks, if not months. 

Our home base, Tuy Hoa was on the coast of South Vietnam where the rain seemed to never end during monsoon season, but our VR missions were conducted west of the mountains in Cambodia where the weather was much better. 

My partner, John Johnson and I just had to get there…and, back everyday.

Most days were no problem.  We would take off in the morning, climb through the clouds, usually breaking out in the clear between 10,000 and 15,000 feet.  Then fly west where the weather was much better and land in Pleiku for our mission briefing from an Air Force Captain.

A typical day would have us photographing an area in the morning and then returning to Pleiku to refuel…the aircraft and ourselves.  We would photograph additional areas in the afternoon before heading home with the goal of arriving before dark.

Landing back in Tuy Hoa would occasionally require an unconventional approach, depending on how well our aircraft were equipped.  If we had all our instruments we simply performed an instrument approach and landed; however, often times we had gaping holes in our instrument panel where our Flight Director or attitude indicator had been cannibalized for an IR or SLAR bird.  

When we lacked the equipment necessary to shoot an instrument approach, we would stay on top of the clouds and fly east past the low-frequency beacon on the field until we were off the coast over the South China Sea.  Once well off the coast we would descend through the clouds until breaking out in the clear, often just above the water.  Staying under the clouds we would fly back to the coast, locate our airfield and land. 

On at least one occasion I recall contacting the Tuy Hoa control tower and announcing I was downwind for landing...even though the weather was reported as 200 overcast and one mile visibility. Certainly not a procedure allowed in the states, but in Vietnam our orders were to complete the mission and get home safely.  


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