Excerpt from Volume 1, Chapter 8: The Luckiest Man You Ever Met, by Robert Tieken, USMC
A-4C, A-4E, TA-4F, 1965-1968
Date of hire by Western Airlines: 9/3/1968
Strafing is fun! Everyone likes to strafe. There is something in it for everyone. First of all you get to do it at high speed and relatively low altitude. Next is the joy you feel when you can hear the guns firing, feel the vibration, and best of all, see your hits. Strafing is fun!
The A-4 Skyhawk had two internal Mk 12 20mm guns, mounted one in each wing root. The two ammo cans were internal, in the front “Hell Hole” just below the engine, and they carried linked 20mm ammo. If my memory serves me, they held 100 rounds each. The 20mm cannon is a very effective weapon against soft, not armored targets, such as trucks, boats, and personnel on the ground, and therefore, is ideal for CAS (Close Air Support) and Res-Cap operations (holding over a downed pilot, trying to keep the enemy away while the SAR – search and rescue – people come in to perform the rescue).
At some point in my Vietnam flying career, an ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) package was retrofitted in the A-4. It was called “Shoehorn,” and was designed to protect us from radar controlled guns (AAA) and missiles. The A-4 was a very small aircraft with no room to spare, so in order to fit the “Shoehorn” gear into the airframe, the two ammo cans were removed and replaced with serpentine ammo belts wrapped around the engine. It was a good idea but not an effective fix. The installation did not feed well and resulted in jammed guns most of the time. As an aside, we felt “bullet proof” with our new ECM package, but only months later we discovered that the “Black Boxes” were not hooked up. No brains, no headache!
Eventually, it was recognized that we needed reliable guns for strafing. Enter the Hughes MK-4 gun pod. It could be mounted on the A-4 centerline or inboard wing stations. The pod itself weighed 1350 pounds, held 750 rounds of 20mm and could fire 4200 rounds per minute. Routinely we would fire 1-1.5 second bursts and it was a joy to shoot! No rata-tat-tat, just a purring noise, “WOOOOH!”
As I mentioned in one of my other stories, I was assigned to write the squadron flight schedule. That was a great job because you would schedule the “Skipper” (Squadron Commander) for whatever he wanted, give the next good deal to yourself, and then take care of the other schedule writer. Sometimes this approach caused hard feelings among the other squadron pilots so you would have to schedule yourself on a night radar controlled mission to even the score. But I digress.
I was drinking beer at the club when the message came from Air Group Operations that our missions for the next day were available. I walked up to the S-3 and picked up the assignment, then went to the squadron to write the schedule. The “Skipper” got his and I scheduled myself for a CAS hop carrying two MK-4 gun pods, a real plum.
The Operations Briefing Officer gave us the mission information, weather and intelligence. We were to fly a CAS/CAP in support of our fellow Marines operating in an area call “Arizona,” south and west of the air base at Chu Lai. The CAS/CAP designation meant we were to orbit and wait until needed. The ordnance load was 2 MK-4 gun pods and 4 nineteen shot 2.75 inch FFAR (Folding Fin Aircraft Rocket) rocket pods for my wingman. The 2.75 inch rockets could be fired singly, ripple, or salvo, but the pods were quite bulky and created a lot of drag, like flying with the speedbrakes extended.
We went down to the squadron for the flight briefing and preflight. Engine start, radio checks, taxi, ordnance arming and takeoff were normal. We were operating off the expeditionary runway, which was 8000 feet of aluminum planking, while the fighter group next door was operating off a 10,000 foot concrete runway, Chu Lai West.
The flight joined up and we headed south along the South China Sea, checked in with the DASC (Direct Air Support Center) and were told to contact an airborne FAC who needed air support for troops in contact. We found the FAC, gave him our ordnance load, time before bingo (fuel level when we would have to return to base), and began to orbit while he described the situation. He gave us the target elevation, run-in heading and direction of pull-off, marked the target with a white phosphorous smoke rocket, and then cleared us in “HOT.”I rolled in, turned the master arm switch on and charged the gun pods. After firing a burst, “WOOOOH,” I pulled off to turn down-wind for another run. Suddenly there was a loud bang followed immediately by a violent rolling yaw. This was followed by another loud bang and rolling yaw in the other direction. My helmet bounced hard on both sides of the canopy, and my first thought was that I had been hit twice by the largest AAA in the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) inventory. I broadcast, “I’m hit! I’m hit! Going Feet Wet,” applied maximum power and turned toward the ocean. I looked in my mirrors and could see huge gaping holes in both wings, that the starboard slat was missing, and fuel was streaming out of the wet wings at an alarming rate (internal wing fuel tanks). My engine instruments looked good so I continued to climb on the way to the shore line.
By this time I had switched to Guard channel (243.0 on the UHF radio) and was squawking “Emergency” on IFF (Identification, Friend of Foe beacon used to identify the aircraft to ground radar stations). All sorts of interesting people started talking to me wanting to know what my situation was and what my intentions were. My wingman had lost sight of me and was trying to join up, but remember my airplane did not have 4 rocket pods and was “cleaner” than his. He finally caught up, came up next to me and said, “What happened to your gun pods?” I had been so fixated on getting out over the ocean, and on my bent and leaking A-4, that I failed to notice that both gun pods were missing! More encouraging words came from my wingman, “Your wings are bent and pretty ripped up.”
As we progressed north toward Chu Lai, using fuel out of the internal fuselage tank (1200 pounds), the engine instruments and hydraulic system appeared normal so we decided to try slow flight to determine if the airplane was controllable in the landing configuration. The landing gear came down and the flaps extended. At about 170 knots, right aileron was required to keep the wings level, and at 140 knots, full right aileron and some rudder were required to keep wings level. So far so good!
When we had launched the weather at Chu Lai was CAVU (VFR – ceiling more than 10,000 feet). Now there was a solid layer of clouds below. The tower said the bases of the clouds were at 3500 feet and requested my intentions. I declared an emergency and stated my intention to shoot a HPA (High Precautionary Approach). At this time in the evolution of the A-4 series, the aircraft had a “Zero – Zero” rocket ejection seat with a spreader gun to open the canopy. This meant that a pilot could safely eject with zero airspeed and zero sink rate. The HPA was designed to allow a pilot to retain enough energy and altitude to pull up and eject or shoot a flame out approach.
As the needle swung on the Chu Lai Tacan (needle swing indicates passing overhead the navigation aid, which was at the air base), I started the HPA from 9000 feet. In the clouds, estimating abeam the runway on downwind, the altitude was 4500 feet. I broke out below the clouds at 3000 feet, high and fast, passing abeam and close to the end of the runway on downwind. Throttle to idle, I turned base and crossed the runway threshholdgoing about 200 knots and tried to land. The airplane touched down about 1000 feet down the runway but it wanted to fly again so I told the tower I was shutting the engine down and would roll to the end. God bless those fighter jocks and their 10,000 foot concrete runway! Every crash truck in RVN was there with flashing red lights. Somebody brought a ladder, so I unstrapped, climbed down, and looked at my A-4. The wings and fuselage were bent, there was torn metal on top of both wings, and the starboard wing slat was missing. I hitched a ride back to the squadron, filled out the yellow sheet, debriefed at the Group, and went to the Club!
The aircraft was later classified as a “Strike” (total loss) by the Douglas representative. Maintenance salvaged everything usable and sent it to the graveyard. Post flight analysis revealed that the Ordnance Crew had failed to safety-wire the aft adjustment bolt subsequent to bore sighting the gun pods. Vibration and G forces caused the aft locking mechanism to fail, allowing the gun pod to rotate down, forward, and over the top of the right wing. This created a violent rolling/yaw event, and the gun pod on the left wing separated in a similar fashion.