Beep! Beep! Beep! The audio warning blared in my helmet. I looked at the ALQ- 156, or whatever it was called, and saw a red ‘Launch” button flashing and a long needle pointing to the source of the launch signal.
For the past 30 to 45 days, I had flown this mission from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) 70 or 80 miles along the shores of North Vietnam to the North Cape. The route took us through the surface-to-air zone of Dang Ha and it was pretty common for our warning system to signal a low-power alarm.
The warning system I remember as an ALQ-156 consisted of a round screen about three inches in diameter on top of a series of buttons that would light up when a SAM signal was detected. The “SAM-Lo” light routinely came on which indicated we were being tracked on the SAM radar, but was still on low power.
I have to admit the first couple of times I got that signal, I got out of there. I rolled inverted and dove for the ocean.
I felt safer at 300 knots 200 feet above the ocean heading south toward home base.
This happened a couple times before I began visualizing a Vietnamese radar operator telling his buddies, “Hold my beer and watch this!” as he turned on the power and laughed as I ran for home.
So the next time I got a Sam-Lo warning, I didn’t react. I was tired of being the brunt of their joke. Or, that was my thinking at the time. This time, it took less than 15 seconds before the Sam-HI warning sounded. As you can imagine, the sound and the lights were more intense.
I rolled over and dove to the ocean.
The other pilot in our unit flying this mission was enjoying similar experiences. We learned from our intelligence briefing that the SAMs being used by North Vietnam were the Russian SA-2s. Not sure how they knew that, but we were relieved to learn that although the SAMS flew at two and one-half times the speed of sound or 2.5 MACH (1500 -1800 mph), they were limited to 4Gs.
To take advantage of the 4G limitation we were advised to turn toward the SAM launch site as indicated on our ALQ 156. The SAM, once fired climbs to a high altitude and then down on its target, so the closer to the SAMs original launch site we were the tighter turn the SAM would have to make.
The theory was the SA-2 SAMS could not reverse course and would self-detonate.
Boy, were we relieved!
Now we had a plan. Developed by our best in military intelligence.
Just fly toward the launch site.
Further, we were told the SA-2s were in limited supply and it was highly unlikely one would be used to shoot down a surveillance aircraft.
This was about the time I was scheduled for R&R (Rest and Relaxation), so I headed back to the states to see my family. While there the college campus protest of the day was kids complaining about President Nixon’s plans to mine the Haiphong Harbor in Hanoi, North Vietnam.
I dismissed the protesters as being uninformed because I felt confident they would be in favor of mining the harbor if they or one of their loved ones were exposed to weapons that arrived everyday from the Soviet Union via the Haiphong Harbor.
Back in country, I was once again assigned to the mission flying from Tiger Island, just off shore of the DMZ to the North Cape and back to Tiger Island.
A lot happened in the two weeks after returning. My former VR/Photo wingman, John Johnson was shot down on a low-level photo mission and I had a SAM fired at me.
John didn’t make it and my cloak of invisibility was becoming a bit threadbare.
When the SAM was fired, I didn’t get the usual warning. This time the system didn’t slowly advance from SAM-Lo to SAM-HI to LAUNCH. It flew through the lower settings to LAUNCH... which startled me. The flashing red lights and blaring alarm were designed to get attention and they did!
The intelligence briefing we had received on SAMs popped in my thoughts and I quickly ran through the advised avoidance procedures.
Turn toward the launch site and then…aww, screw it! I’m getting out of here!
I inverted the airplane and dove for the ocean.
Evidently I got lost in ground clutter. I don’t know, but I made it back to base unscathed.
Many times since I have wondered if the SAM was actually launched or if I was actually the target as my warning system had indicated.
I am not sure. I don’t care.
Two months later I was offered the chance to come back to the United States where I could put those experiences behind me.
All’s well that end’s well.
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