Just Another Flight
(A sample story from "We Were Crewdogs - The Vietnam Collection")
by George Robert Dempsey
Former Captain, USAF
It was a dark and stormy night. Okay, it was dark, but that didn’t matter much in the Nav position of a Mother Buff, since it is always dark there. I was back in the war. Our crew had been rotated back home to the states just before the Linebacker II missions, when everybody in a B-52 went to Hanoi and Haiphong. We missed those. We got back to Thailand and Guam just in time for a couple of runs at Haiphong and then President Nixon halted all the bombing in North Vietnam. That dark night was special. Every Buff at U-Tapao was taking off one after another. My crew was one of those picked for this mission. Our plane was the 3rd aircraft in the 1st cell scheduled over the target that night. After takeoff we went up to the holding box and waited for the other planes to get airborne, since we were among the first group to launch. Our target that night was Vihn. It was the farthest north target still available to the planners and every plane in the night’s bombing wave was going there. Things were uneventful prior to the target, but that soon changed. Just after bomb release, the Radar Navigator on the crew, Elgie Henderson, looked down through the optical bomb sight and called out that two SAM missiles were headed toward our aircraft. About the same time, the co-pilot, Al Hutson, called two more going out in front of the aircraft and the Gunner, Karl Nedela, called two different ones going out in back. As the seconds slowly ticked by, the pilots watched the missiles turn toward us and the gunner confirmed the same thing was happening with the two SAMs he was tracking. Elgie said the circles indicating the position of the missiles were getting closer. Our Pilot, Larry Cavendar, was listening to the crew calls, but was holding the plane level and steady. He said, “They have to get closer, then I’ll maneuver.” Finally, he firewalled the eight throttles and when everyone’s voices about the positions of the missiles were getting faster and higher pitched, he rolled our Mother Buff over on the left side on her back and we went straight down! They say that in terrible times of stress, your life flashes before your eyes. This was not my case. As the plane was diving straight down and I was hanging onto the D-ring of my ejection seat, all that was going through my mind was the voice of Peggy Lee singing, “Is this all there is - to dying?” Within seconds after the maneuver, the missiles blew up above us and we listened as the gunner Karl called the explosions to the rest of the crew. We lost 9,000 feet in altitude before Larry slowly pulled back on the yoke and brought her back level. The G-forces of the roll-out pushed my butt hard into the ejection seat. That is not a feeling you’re supposed to experience in a Buff. But the excitement was not over for us that night. We slowly began climbing back up to our flight plan altitude. Just after leveling off, Elgie called out over the intercom that six more missiles were coming toward us. The pilot’s response to the new threat was about the same as before – same calls, same level and steady flight, and still full throttles. Only this time, when he started the defensive maneuver, Larry turned the yoke and flipped the buff over on the right side. Again, shortly after that, the missiles blew up above us. We only descended about 3,000 feet on that quick trip. Later, after we were on the ground and were talking over the mission, I asked Larry why he went over the left the first time and over the right the second time. His reply was that he wanted to stress her equally. When we climbed back up to altitude, we were “feet wet” meaning that we were out over the water and headed east. Just as we thought we were about out of range of the missiles, Karl’s voice came back on the intercom calling two more coming at us from the back. Larry asked me how far off shore we were. I replied “20 miles”. The SAMs kept coming. At 22 miles, Karl, in his very quiet and calm voice said, “Pilot, I think you should maneuver.” Larry knew that meant NOW. He pulled hard and just then, Karl said, “There they go, about one-fourth mile behind us.” The missiles exploded without causing any damage. We started climbing back up to 40,000 feet for the trip south. We knew we were no longer in the cell position we were in before the excitement began. We were back in the middle of the pack after all of our side trips so we went on out a little farther before turning our plane south. As we turned right and were still climbing, I heard a voice yell in my helmet’s headset and felt the throttles come back and the aircraft’s nose drop suddenly. In the dark of the night, with no exterior lights on any of the planes, Al looked out and suddenly saw the tail numbers on the vertical stabilizer of another Buff beside his co-pilot window. We dropped our Buff down a little more and moved farther out of the formation before climbing again. As we collected our senses and started thinking about getting back to U-Tapao, Al informed the crew that we didn’t have enough fuel to be this far back in the formation for a safe landing. Larry was able to get approval to cut across our route before it was our turn and that allowed us to make up distance and position, so we were able to safely land back at our beloved U-Tapao with sufficient fuel in the tanks. Later on a flight home in the back of a KC-135, I replayed my experience of the maneuvers on the Vihn mission to a Boeing Engineer that was also going home on the same flight. He sat and listened to my story and when it was over he remarked in amazement, “Wow, she is tough! The wings should have come off!” Just one night out of 335 nights.