Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Buzz Job

By Mark W. Danielson

They say one photo is worth a thousand words. This one can stir many or be limited to a couple. (As in Holy Sh . .!) My buddy recently sent me this photo of an F-4 doing a low pass over a Canadian lake. F-4 Phantoms are long gone from the US inventory, but they were sure fun to fly. It was very interesting to see how this F-4 looked from the boat’s perspective. You see, I made a similar pass over a guy standing in his tiny boat, and when I looked in my mirrors, the boat was empty. After sharing a laugh, my back-seater and I focused on our next turn point. Oh, come on -- it was funny! It was also unplanned. Too many years have passed since that buzz job, so I guess it’s safe to tell my side of the story. (Sure wish I could hear the Filipino’s.)

At the time, I was stationed with the 80th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Kunsan Air Base, Korea, and was operating out of Clark Air Force Base in Luzon, Philippines, for the Cope Thunder “war games”. To understand how this happened, I always flew as if I was going to war, and saw no reason to operate any other way. On this particular day I was the “ground spare”, armed with six inert five-hundred pound bombs and a live 20 mm cannon. The “war” went on without me, but then they decided to let me take off, fly the low level, and drop my bombs on the target airfield -- solo. Very cool.

The sky was overcast with embedded rain showers; typical for the monsoon season. And since wars don’t care about the weather, I flew under the clouds, which got lower the further north I flew. I was comfortable flying at 520 miles per hour at treetop level under a seventy-five foot overcast until the mountainous terrain forced me up to my minimum safe altitude. The interesting thing about flying low and fast is you can see monkeys sitting in trees directly in front of you, but everything to the sides is a blur. That phenomenon is called tunnel vision.

I flew in the clouds navigating by an inertial computer until a hole appeared in front of me. Now over water, I dove for the deck, leveling at fifteen feet on my radar altimeter when directly in front of me was this fisherman standing up in his boat. If you notice in the above photo, the water below the F-4 is disturbed by the air pressure. I’m sure this was the also case with my fly-by. Most likely, the fisherman never heard me coming and was probably blown overboard by this air pressure, or if he heard and saw me, he may have dived overboard. Either way, he got wet. Too bad, so sad. Like I said, it wasn’t planned. Sorry, dude.

The rest of my low level was uneventful. When I arrived at my predetermined point, I pulled the nose up, climbed for a few seconds, then rolled over and pulled the nose around to the target airfield. After checking my dive angle and nose position, I released my bombs, pulled up, and egressed without knowing where the bombs hit. When I got back to base, I heard my bombs cut a nice diagonal through the targeted runway. (Remember, these were cement bombs dropped in a practice area. No one got hurt.) The best part was a peer in my sister squadron witnessed my “glorious” attack. It was truly one of my most memorable flights in the Phantom. Seeing this photo brought it all back.

Now, before you criticize, think about this – do you want fighter pilots who are trained to deliver ordnance in wartime, or pilots that fly at unrealistic altitudes and get shot down when they have to face their opponent? I thought so.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Reminds me of Tom Cruise buzzing the towers in "Top Gun." :)Talk about flying by the seat of one's pants. Did you ever worry about hitting a mountain while flying in the clouds? Or is a pilot warned electronically in time to avoid a barrier or other plane?

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, I've known too many pilots who died flying low-levels into mountains. Jokingly, we call them "cumulo-granite" clouds. Far Side creator Gary Larsen did a cartoon about that with the pilots saying, "Hey, what's that goat doing up here in the clouds?" Dean Martin's son was among those who died flying an F-4 into a mountain. This aircraft had no warning devices -- just position knowledge and Mark I, Mod I Eyeball calibration kept you safe. The MD-11 I now fly has terrain warnings as well as warnings about other aircraft. We call them noise abatement warnings because if you hit either, it gets real loud for a brief moment:)

I'd still love to hear the Filipino's side of my story.

Jaden Terrell said...

Mark, I remember that cartoon.

You have to be on your toes to do that kind of flying. I knew about the mountains, but I didn't know about the concrete bombs.

I bet the Filipino fisherman had some choice words for you that day:)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Given a choice, most people on the ground prefer to see falling concrete bombs over explosive ones:) Twenty-five pound practice bombs are normally used to simulate a five-hundred pound bomb. These tiny bombs include a smoke charge for better spotting/plotting of where the bomb(s) hit.