Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The F-105 Thunderchief, a legend flown by legends

The F-105 “Thunderchief” was the Air Force’s primary primary strike aircraft during the 1960s. Her pilots flew 75 percent of the USAF’s strike missions over North Vietnam during “Operation Rolling Thunder.” These pilots flew her to “Downtown,” Hanoi, even though the aircraft was not designed for that kind of mission.

Blake Morrison, a F-105 pilot, said:

“She wasn’t perfect. No real lady is. She couldn’t turn worth a damn. She didn’t always come back. She died a lot. Her corpses line Thud Ridge, Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and a lot of other places up north. She wrote the epitaph for a lot of good men. Over half the inventory was gone by the end of 1968; most lost in combat.”

Morrison added:

“She stays with us as an American classic and a real thoroughbred. She could break your back but never your heart. She is genuinely loved by all who flew her and a lot who didn't.

“She was ugly, she was strong, but she had dignity.”

If you were to study the men who flew this “Thud,” you would quickly identify with what Colonel Bill Norris, a F-105 pilot, wrote:

“I would much rather be remembered as an F-105 Thud pilot of the Rolling Thunder campaign in 1967. There could be no finer tribute to comrades who fought, died, and suffered in Hanoi's prisons. Knowing what lay ahead, the best of those men competed for a place on the toughest missions. The reason may defy layman's logic. They did it because they were fighter pilots."

In short, they were legends who flew a legend.

I’ve plucked one of these legends from the list and wish to introduce you to one.

He is Darel Dean Leetun, Captain, United States Air Force, pilot, F-105, lost in North Vietnam, repatriated in 1995, firmly identified in 2005, now buried in Arlington Cemetery, a place where valor rests.

Ken Rogers, writing for the Bismarck North Dakota Tribune, has suggested:

“All of us should take a moment and think about Darel Leetun's sacrifice, about what that means in terms of our nation, and about his family. And then look up at that blue sky and imagine an F-105 Thunderchief flying high.”

On September 17, 1966, Captain Leetun, known as “Gravel” because of his raspy voice, was flight leader for a group of F-105 Thunderchiefs from the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), Thailand. His squadron was known as “The Panther Pack.”

On that day, his flight went to the infamous, and most dangerous, "Route Package 6," (RP6), the geographical sector of North Vietnam hosting the capital, Hanoi, the country's major seaport, Haiphong, and two railroads to China crucial to the North Vietnamese logistics line.

His flight of four F-105s was targeted at rail and road bridges near Kep, about 35 miles northeast of Hanoi, in the mountainous Lang Son Province, not far from the border with China. The target area is shown roughly by the red dot on the map. If you studied this target, you would be overwhelmed with Air Force and Navy pilots who gave their lives to attack the airfield and railway complexes in its near environs. Exposure to them and their stories is numbing.

Kep was a major distribution point for transportation of weapons coming from China. It was a key hub on the North Vietnamese railroad system. Once weapons arrived at Kep, they were moved by trucks and boats to designated collection points were porters then carried them to their final destination points in the war zone.

Captain Leetun's was a daylight mission flown in the morning hours. The target was heavily defended. He and his flight came under a barrage attack. Captain Leetun's aircraft was struck by hostile fire, most likely antiaircraft artillery (AAA) as the flight approached the Cao Nung bridge 17 miles northeast of Kep.

His aircraft lit on fire and was nearly uncontrollable. Nonetheless, Leetun remained in formation, delivered his ordnance right on target, and destroyed that target. After he released his load, his aircraft spun out of control and crashed about 10 miles from the target area.

His wingman, Mike Lanning, saw Leetun's aircraft crash but saw no chute and heard no emergency beepers. Lanning had tried to call Leetun during the bomb run when Leetun's aircraft was on fire, but Leetun never responded and Lanning said he never ejected. Captain Leetun was declared missing in action (MIA). The Air Force declared him killed in action (KIA) in June 1975.



A joint US-Vietnamese search team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command conducted three investigations between 1991 and 1995 as they sought information on Leetun's crash site. During one of the investigations, local villagers led them to human remains on a hillside. The Vietnamese Communists agreed that the remains found on the hillside could be repatriated in 1995.



American forensic efforts in Hawaii positively identified these remains as those of Captain Leetun in March 2005 using DNA samples from family members. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used mitochondrial DNA as one of the forensic tools to identify his remains.

Leetun received the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism, the second highest medal for valor in combat. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on July 8, 2005. A flight of USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon jets in the “missing man formation” flew over the grounds of North Dakota's State Capitol in Bismarck to remember him on August 13, 2005.

Let’s take a brief look at the aircraft, the F-105.

The F-105 Thunderchief was the first supersonic fighter-bomber developed from scratch.


The aircraft was built around a large internal bomb bay that could carry what was in those days a large nuclear bomb. The B28IN nuclear bomb shown at the forefront of this next photo was the principal nuclear bomb to be carried by the F-105. In short, this aircraft was designed to drop nuclear bombs.

This was a bomb built for high altitude free-fall or retarded (parachute), airburst or contact, and low altitude lay-down. It is my understanding that, for most targets, the Thud intended to come in low and as fast as it could go (Mach 1-2, depending on altitude and load).

The triad of B-52 long-range strategic bombers, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), and Submarine Launched Nuclear Missiles (SLBM) formed the heart of the American nuclear combat capability. The idea of using the F-105 for this job soon lost favor. As things turned out, she was needed for the tactical job in Vietnam, a job, frankly, for which the USAF was ill-prepared.

At the beginning of the Southeast Asia (SEA) War, the US had very few fighter aircraft from which to choose, and found itself having to use whatever was in the inventory. In terms of jet fighters, the F-100 Super Sabre was the first, getting to the theater in the early 1960s. The F-105 was then chosen, arriving in 1965.

Most F-105s were transferred from Europe, Japan and South Korea to SEA for a tactical and conventional role, far different than the nuclear role for which most of its pilots had been trained. The F-105 carried the heavy load of USAF fighter operations in this war, most certainly at the outset.

I have counted ten F-105 fighter squadrons assigned permanently to the Vietnam War, mainly at two bases in Thailand, Korat RTAFB and Takhli RTAFB. I counted another 10 squadrons that went in and out temporarily.

Ed Rasimus, a former F-105 pilot, has explained what its was like to train for the nuclear mission in Europe. He contrasts this with what the aircraft was expected to do in Vietnam. Training pilots for the nuclear job was far different than training them for the Vietnam War. Indeed, for the Thud pilots who were among the first to arrive in the theater of war, their tactical training was on-the-job training.



Furthermore, many changes had to be made to the F-105D to employ it in the Vietnam War.

 Additional fuel storage was put into the large bomb bay.
cA six-barrel Vulcan 20 mm rotary cannon was installed.

The aircraft was configured to carry 12,000 lbs of external armaments on ejector racks hung from the wings. For a short-range mission, she could carry sixteen 750-lb bombs. Alternatively, she would carry two 3,000 lb bombs or three drop tanks. Typically, over North Vietnam, she would be outfitted with six 750-lb bombs or five 1,000 pounders, along with two 450 gallon drop tanks. She could also carry a Bullpop air-to-surface missile.



The F-105D ended up carrying most of the load over North Vietnam early on. It experienced a very difficult growth period. Between 1961 and 1967, the F-105D was grounded a number of times after experiencing various operational problems, including the failure of the fuselage frame, chafing and flight control deficiencies, engine failures, fuel leaks, and malfunctions of the fuel venting systems.

The aircraft went through continuous modification as a result of rapidly changing Southeast Asia combat requirements. These included equipping them with armor plates, backup flight control systems, X band beacons, new radar altimeters and gun bombsights. Their conventional bombing capability was increased. The pilot ejection seat was improved as were the refueling probes of the early F-105Ds.

While all this was true, the F-105 could take a beating. If she had a drawback, it was with her control hydraulics, easy to damage leaving the aircraft without control. Pilots frequently found it very hard or impossible to control their damaged aircraft.



SSgt Ervin Davis, has talked about the resiliency of the F-105 in very descriptive terms. A few excerpts:

"F-105s came back … blown to Hell … I’ve seen many of those battle damaged bird sights ... and it seemed most frequent that an F-105 would land blowing a tire eating half the metal wheel away while skooting blowing sparks down the runway, or sliding into the grass at 100 mph or so ....... I'll never forget that one even landed blind with oil covering its windshield after being shot in the front section and taking a direct hit in the front canopy glass.......but one of the strangest memories was when an F-105 landed with a missile stuck into its tail … this F-105 came in boiling black smoke, the rear side of the engine area with flames … and that damned missile wedged in between the engine afterburner and the skin of the bird..... normally maybe a three inch gap now swelled around seven inches in diameter."

Most targets in North Vietnam demanded the Thud pilots fly 1,250 mile round trips from Thailand, so air refueling was required on the way in and on the way out. This map displays typical flight routes for the Thud from Korat RTAFB, Thailand. You can imagine a similar route from Takhli RTAFB. Note that for practical purposes, same way in, same way out, day in and day out, for the F-105s, and the same kind of refueling orbits for the tankers, so F-105 attacks on North Vietnam seldom came as a surprise.


F-105 pilots often ran into so many hostile attacks on the way to and exiting from their targets that our refueling aircraft, normally the KC-135, a modified Boeing 707, had to take a high risk and fly over North Vietnam to feed the fuel exhausted F-105 on his way out.

When approaching Hanoi from Thailand, the F-105Ds first had to cross the Red River, then fly over to "Thud Ridge", the name given by Thunderchief pilots to a series of hills located between the Red and Black Rivers. They then turned and flew low level down Thud Ridge directly to Hanoi and its near environs, or cross over Thud Ridge and strike at targets to the northeast of Hanoi.



Once over "Thud Ridge," the F-105s would approach their targets low and fast, an environment in which the F-105D excelled. Maneuverability and stability during low-level, high-speed flight were excellent because of the aircraft's high wing loading. By fast, I'm talking in the vicinity of 500-600 knots, often at treetop level, no room for error.

I have read accounts by veteran 105 pilots that if hit over their targets in this route pack, they would first assess whether they could get to the Gulf of Tonkin to the east and bail out, knowing they would be picked up by the Navy, or second, get back to Thud Ridge where they could bail out and find some cover. Bail-out over the plains almost surely would lead to capture, and bail out over the rugged karsts to the northeast was a dangerous enterprise once their chutes hit the jagged limestone rocks. Sometimes, they could regain control and hobble to Udorn RTAFB. Some would even land at or bail out over friendly Laotian dirt strips.



To this day the mere mention of Rolling Thunder can get a veteran's dandruff up. Washington imposed stringent controls, fearing Communist China would send in its forces to fight. These fears drove many political decisions at home, and many American forces were fighting with their hands tied as a result.



In any event, the thinking in Washington was that a major air campaign against North Vietnam would force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and the war could be swiftly brought to an end. Some thought this could happen within eight weeks. They were wrong. Rolling Thunder lasted, on and off, for three years and, in response, the North Vietnamese substantially increased their operations in South Vietnam.



There were significant differences of opinion about the Rolling Thunder campaign between military, especially Air Force, leaders and political and diplomatic leaders, the latter referred to by this editor as "the suits."

The USAF bought about 600 F-105Ds. As of early 1967, there were only about 300 left. About 350 F-105s were lost to combat. Most of these, 312, were lost to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAM). In 1966 alone, the year we lost Captain Leetun, 126 Thuds were lost, 103 to AAA.

One problem was the F-105 formations flew every day at roughly the same time, using roughly the same flight routes, and the same callsigns. So the enemy was waiting for them. It was calculated that an F-105 pilot stood only a 75 percent chance of surviving 100 missions over North Vietnam.

The suits created “protected” zones around Hanoi and Haiphong. This is what drove senior Air Force leaders nuts. They wanted to take down Hanoi and Haiphong and all the major distribution points around them; the idea that they would fall in "protected" zones was unthinkable. There were many other restrictions that would roil your stomach.

I like to conclude with the thoughts of others.

The following are the thoughts of Blake Morrison, F-105 pilot and editor, USAF Weapons Review Magazine, in a “Requiem for a heavyweight:"

“From 1966 to 1968 she was the one to carry the big iron Downtown. She wasn't exactly designed for it, but Thuds hauled 75% of the smash carried down Route Pack Six. And in combat, she maintained a 90 percent in-commission rate.

“Maybe it was because she was used to taking hits from anyone and everyone, for we found out that she could take other kinds of hits, the real kind, as well, and still fly.

“But she wasn't perfect. No real lady is. She couldn't turn worth a damn. We figured even a frisbee would outturn the Thud.

“She didn't always come back. She died a lot. Her corpses line Thud Ridge, Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and a lot of other places up north. She wrote the epitaph for a lot of good men like Karl Richter. Over half the inventory was gone by the end of 1968; most lost in combat.

“She became a legend and legends flew her. Robbie Risner, Karl Richter and Leo Thorsness, to mention a few. She was flown by other greats such as Dave Waldrop, Billy Sparks, and Pete Foley. And she was handled by many unknowns like Bob Gerlach, Jim Stiles, and me.

“She stays with us as an American classic and a real thoroughbred. She could break your back but never your heart. She is genuinely loved by all who flew her and a lot who didn't.

“She was ugly, she was strong, but she had dignity.”

I'll close out with comments made by John L. Frisbee in an article entitled, "A Bridge Downtown." published by Air Force Association Magazine in January 1992. Frisbee talks to courage and valor.

"One of the Thud pilots who had gone north many times was Col. William C. Norris, who had flown 100 F-51 missions in Korea, had spent most of his career in fighters, and now commanded the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing's 333d Squadron. He remembers those days in Southeast Asia with a mixture of pride and bitterness. 'During Rolling Thunder, we lost 252 F-105s. Every day, those pilots who went to the Hanoi area went to one of the most heavily defended areas in modern warfare. Worst of all, they were forced to fight under the most ridiculous rules of engagement. Those unrealistic rules certainly contributed to our heavy loss rate and also hindered us from accomplishing our mission. To go to Hanoi day after day not only took great courage, but, more important, it took loyalty to your country'--whose leaders seemed not to understand air operations or the hazards to their own men, which they were compounding.

"There could be no finer tribute to comrades who fought, died, and suffered in Hanoi's prisons. Knowing what lay ahead, the best of those men competed for a place on the toughest missions. The reason may defy layman's logic. They did it because they were fighter pilots."

Two F-105 pilots received the Medal of Honor. By my count, 39 received the Air Force Cross, the second highest award for valor in combat. One of those received three.

I could go on forever highlighting these brave F-105 pilots, but I should stop here. There is plenty to read on the internet and ion the bookstore.

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