One of the best flying tales I've read in a long time. It's from the Osprey book B-57 Canberra Units of the Vietnam War. The B-57 was in high demand due to its loiter time, weapons loads and usually its accuracy. It was one of the few ac that carried the M35/M36 Funny Bomb that was a good weapon against truck targets.
THE RELUCTANT BACK-SEATER
Ed Rider was a Canberra pilot who had come up through the enlisted ranks, having done a stint as an Airborne Electronics Technician on the B-57 in the late 1950s. Ten years later he was a captain flying the Canberra out of Phan Rang. Rider was known for his aggressive flying and his own particular tactics that were more suited to a nimble fighter-bomber than the big B-57. And by Rider's own admission, 'there were only about two navigators left who would fly with me'. Before the war was all over he had completed more than 400 combat missions. The following is Rider's account of one such mission in 1968:
'The "Yellowbirds" were back at Phan Rang flying night interdiction missions in the southern part of North Vietnam and along the supply routes down through Laos . I had a patch on my party flight suit that said "Laotian Highway Patrol".
'Other than the two navigators in the squadron who would willingly fly with me, the others did not like my highly unorthodox tactics. I tried to point out to them that other pilots were getting shot up — or shot down — while I never took hits and killed more trucks than most. Those idiots were coming back with their aeroplanes full of holes and getting medals for it. Anyway, my navigator came down with a bad case of "Ho's Revenge" and the other navigator was already flying, so someone had to be volunteered. The hand of fate laid its clammy finger on Bill. After an earlier adventure that ended in a belly landing due to hydraulic failure, he had sworn never to fly with me again. We had to drag him scratching and spitting, so to speak, to the aeroplane.
'We were taking off at midnight to hit a truck park way up in Laos . I asked the crew chief if his aeroplane was ready, and when he said yes I gave him four beers to put into the rear compartment and told him to button it up (close all inspection doors). I didn't insult him by inspecting the jet. The crew chiefs liked for me to fly their aeroplanes and I never had one let me down. I went around with the armourer and checked the fuzes on the bombs for proper settings and the arming wires for proper routing. Then I spread my maps on the ramp and showed the crew chief and armourer where we were going and what we were supposed to hit.
'We were in the northeast monsoon season and had 40 knots of wind blowing down the runway. The standard night departure called for a right turn to the south after take-off until reaching the coast, then a turn to the east and then follow the coast to Cam Ranh Bay and turn on course. This was supposed to keep you out of the outgoing artillery, but it wasted about 3000 lbs of fuel, so naturally I didn't follow it. After I raised the gear I turned off all external lights so that the air traffic controllers in the tower could not see me. When I was high enough to drop a wing, I turned right 270 degrees so as to cross the west end of the runway headed northwest. I roared across the 101st Airborne encampment and shook all the grunts out of bed and then headed up the valley that led to Dalat in the mountains. The hills on either side were invisible as there were no lights on the ground, but if I maintained the proper heading I would not run into any rocks before I got high enough to clear them. Bill was somewhat unhappy with this exercise. In due course we climbed out of the valley and turned north to Pleiku, and points north.'
'We checked in with "Blind Bat", our C-130 "flare ship", and from more than 50 miles out we could see his flares and the anti-aircraft fire he was attracting. The gunners must have just gotten a fresh supply of ammo because they were even shooting at his flares. We let down and coordinated altitudes so that we would not run into each other. We made eight vertical dive-bomb passes dropping our "funny bombs" — this was the name that FACs gave to the M35 fire bomb.
'This was the same bomb used to start the firestorms in Tokyo in World War 2. It was a large cluster bomb that opened up a few thousand feet above the ground. The falling bomblets made a fiery waterfall until they hit the ground. Then they spewed out burning white and yellow phosphorus like roman candles. Really something to see at night.
'We stirred up a hornets' nest and the flak was thick - when it got close you could hear it popping like popcorn. We left the "flare ship" to count the burning trucks and then headed for home. Just another routine mission. But we still had our 20 mm ammo left and I hated to take it home. I called the airborne command post and asked if they had any gun targets. They told me to contact a FAC at Tchepone. He had spotted trucks on a ferry crossing the river there.
'We contacted the FAC to coordinate altitudes before we got into his area. We used a secret "base" altitude which changed every 12 hours so that the enemy could not listen in and find out our heights and then set the fuzes on his shells for that altitude. That night base altitude was 8000 ft. He said he was at base plus four, or 12,000 ft. I said. "You must mean minus four?" He said no. I asked what the hell he was doing way up there and he replied that his Cessna O-2 wouldn't climb any higher! His flares were floating so high that they did not illuminate the ground, and I had to circle until I got their reflection on the river before I could see it. Bill kept saying something about "bingo" fuel (the minimum required to get back home with 2000 lbs of fuel remaining).
'A few guns were shooting at our sound, but not coming close. I knew there were no radar-controlled guns because otherwise we would have been tracked and fired on accurately while we were circling. I finally got it worked out and caught the ferry in the flare reflection on the river and rolled in. I fired about a three-second burst in a 30-degree dive from about 1500 ft. The muzzle flashes lit us up like a Christmas tree and said, "Here I am! Shoot me!" and did they ever! Now I knew why that FAC was so high. I pulled about 5Gs to get pointed straight up.
'A small part of my mind registered a red light flashing somewhere in the cockpit but I was too busy to look at it. When I ran out of airspeed at the top and had figured out up from down and was upright again the light was out.
'The FAC was encouraging, saying he had seen lots of hits on the ferry with his night vision scope, so I got set up to go in again. Bill didn't think it was a good idea. Indeed, there were lots of guns protecting the ferry. Most of them were twin barrel 37 mm weapons. I could tell because the "red hot beer cans" streaking past the aeroplane came up in strings of eight. The 37 mm gun fired clips of four rounds, so eight meant twin barrels. I was worried about radar-controlled 57 mm twin barrel units mounted on tracked vehicles that often accompanied large truck convoys, but there was no evidence of them. The most spectacular show was provided by the many 23 mm ZSU units. These were four barrels mounted on a tracked vehicle, and they put out a string of tracers that waved around the sky like a kid playing with a high-pressure water hose.
'My normal tactic at night over a well-defended target was to get directly over it at about 8000 ft, roll inverted, and pull the nose down to the target, drop my bomb at about 5000 ft and then pull up into a vertical climb (essentially a loop beginning at the top). Just before I ran out of airspeed, I would pull the nose down to level and roll upright. This faked out the gunners because they expected me to be off to the side of the target. I was only vulnerable in the first part of my pull-up. Under very heavy fire I sometimes varied this by not pulling up immediately but by turning 90 degrees and continuing down to low altitude with low power and coasting a few miles away from the target (and the guns). When using my guns, I would dive slightly off to the side, go lower and pull up to a 30-degree dive before firing.
'Bill kept bothering me with this "bingo" fuel business but I didn't have time to discuss it with him. On my second pass, I had to use the same heading as the first run in order to see the target - not a very smart thing to do. When our muzzle flashes lit us up again, I had the feeling that if I pulled up as usual every gun would be aimed at our recovery path, so I didn't pull up. I used my alternate tactic. The sky behind and above us was filled with a spectacular display of fireworks. The FAC was figuratively jumping up and down because we had torched off some of the trucks on the ferry and on the south shore of the river, where the vessel was now resting. Now we did not have to circle around to catch the reflection of the flares to locate the target.
'We still had 600 rounds left — six seconds worth of firing. We could approach from any direction since we could see the burning target. Bill was getting a little shrill now and yelling something about "bingo minus two". I told him I would wind it up with two more passes and then go home. After each pass, when I was pulling 5-6Gs to fake out the gunners, there was that pesky red light in the cockpit. I was so busy trying not to join up with those strings of "red hot beer cans" that I didn't notice what it was. We left the FAC to add up the damage and headed home.
'Relieved of all ordnance and most of its fuel, the B-57 climbed like a homesick angel. In short order we were passing 35,000 ft and I had Bill tighten his oxygen mask and check his system for pressure breathing. As we passed 45,000 ft, we had to forcefully breathe out and just relax and let the pressure blow up our lungs to breathe in. At 53,000 ft we were above over 95 percent of the atmosphere. At that altitude the engines used very little fuel. When we arrived over Pleiku we were 150 nautical miles from home and had just 800 lbs of fuel! Normally, when you land with 2000 lbs that is considered an emergency, but I had been through this many times before, and was only concerned with having enough fuel to taxi to the ramp.
'At that altitude, when you reduce power to idle, it only reduces slightly because the engines cannot reduce fuel consumption very much without flaming out. So, in order to reduce power and expedite our decent, I had to shut off one engine. I shut down the right engine because we would be flying a left hand traffic pattern. Bill was somewhat unhappy. I maintained a 0.84 Mach descent, which meant that the descent got progressively steeper as you got into the denser air at low altitude. This let us down inside the hole of the artillery doughnut at 12,000 ft, keeping us out of the arc of outgoing artillery fire. We were approaching from the north and had to land to the east. Once inside the hole, I extended speed brakes and pushed the nose over to maintain speed. Extending speed brakes at 500 knots is like running into a brick wall, and we were thrown forward hard enough to lock our automatic shoulder harnesses. That is when that pesky red light in the cockpit came on again. This time I determined what it was. It was the low fuel pressure light. This was confirmed by the unwinding of the left engine.
'I was at a critical point in my traffic pattern and had no time to deal with a double engine flameout, so I shut off the left throttle, banked 90 degrees right and pulled the nose around to a heading 180 degrees from the landing heading. Then I rolled inverted, and with about 5Gs pulled the nose down the line of approach lights to the end of the runway and then up the centre-of the runway lights, varying the Gs to complete my split-ess at about 1500 ft and at about 400-450 knots.
'While I was busy doing this I asked Bill to inform the tower that we had a double engine flameout and might need a tug to tow us in. Bill had lost his voice and never did make the call. When I leveled off from my split-ess I hit both air-start ignition switches and advanced both throttles to idle. After a 4G break to downwind, I lowered gear and flaps and both engines were making the low moaning sound they made when running at idle. After touchdown I raised the flaps and added power so I could hold the nose up. With 40 knots of headwind it was a long taxi to the far end of the runway. I tried to get Bill interested in betting on whether I could make it all the way into the de-arming area without lowering the nose wheel to the ground. For some reason he was not interested. Anyway, I did make it with the nose wheel in the air, and scared the bejesus out of the de-arming troops.
'While they were de-arming my guns I figured it out. It had to be an inoperative forward boost pump in the main fuel tank. When I went to full power and pulled lots of Gs at Tchepone, one fuel pump could not handle the load and the pressure dropped — not enough, thank God, to flame out the engines. When I extended the speed brakes in my descent to Phan Rang, what little fuel we had left splashed against the forward wall of the tank, uncovering the rear fuel pump and resulting in a flameout. There is an old saying, "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots". Not so, but we bold pilots need more luck than most.
'We had enough fuel to make it back to the ramp. After we had parked and deplaned, I made an inspection tour with the crew chief, armed with powerful electric torches. Not a scratch on her! Again, skill and cunning triumphs over ignorance and stupidity. The crew chief brought out the four beers from the tail compartment, ice cold from their sojourn at 50,000 ft, and I spread my maps on the ramp, giving a blow-by-blow description of the mission for my crew chief and armourer. I had an additional audience of most of the crew chiefs and armourers on the ramp who were not otherwise busy. Bill did not want his beer so I drank it too. Needless to say, Bill never got into an aeroplane with me again.'