Over the Xe Bang Fai River, Eastern Laos
September 17, 1971
The F-4 Phantom made its third pass down a steep canyon flying just one hundred feet above the river. The pilot, Air Force Captain Brick Autry, was trying to maneuver the aircraft in a risky environment while also scanning the banks of the river looking for clues that would lead him to an enemy target. His navigator, Captain James Emerson Thompson, better known in the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron as “Jet,” was also looking closely at the geography below as they cruised by at four hundred miles per hour. This was their third day of flying over the area attempting to spot boats or barges that the NVA might be using to ship supplies and war materials to the South.
As Brick shifted his eyes and looked straight ahead, he realized that they had reached a point where the river valley changed direction, and if he didn’t change course quickly, the plane would crash into the tall mountain that was now in its path. He moved the stick to the left and put pressure on the left rudder pedal, and the Phantom made a ninety-degree roll to the northwest, generating centrifugal pressure on the men equal to five times their body weight.
“Ahhhhhhhhh!” Brick could hear Jet grunting through the earphones in his helmet. “Brick, you gotta tell me when you’re gonna make those quick moves. I ate those spicy prawns at the China Gate last night, and I can’t handle those five-g turns unless I’m prepared.”
“Who are you kidding?” Brick laughed. “That sixth tequila shot is the thing that’s ruining your day. If I didn’t make that turn when I did, we were both going to be splattered on the side of that mountain. Let’s face it—if we died, Nikko’s bathhouse would go out of business. We can’t have that happen. All those ladies depend on us for their livelihood.”
“Yeah, well, right now we have to find the barge that the intelligence guys briefed us on this morning. A Fast FAC flying out of Udorn saw it last evening about thirty miles north of here, so it should be at this section of the river by now. It couldn’t have just disappeared.”
Brick pulled back on the stick and took the F-4 straight up and then over on its back before rolling it over again so it was flying level to the ground. He noticed that he was now above the peaks of the mountains on either side of the river, and his altitude was three thousand feet. He quickly put the jet into a shallow dive to bring it below the mountaintops. He knew that they were only about fifteen miles west of the North Vietnam border, and he didn’t want to end up on the radar screen of a surface-to-air-missile site located between the river and the border.
Fast FACs typically followed the “rule of fives.” That meant making five-g turns, flying at five hundred knots, and staying above five thousand feet. The constant changes in direction, the high speed, and the altitude made it very difficult for enemy small-arms fire and antiaircraft guns to be on target. The rule of fives had to be adjusted, however, in areas where there was a surface-to-air-missile threat. Russian-made SA-2s used by the NVA had a range of twenty-five miles and could reach an airspeed of three and a half times the speed of sound. They were effective against aircraft flying up to fifty thousand feet in altitude but virtually ineffective on a plane flying at a high rate of speed below three thousand feet. And in this case, Brick had no choice but to fly low anyway if he and Jet were going to spot a dock or a hiding place for the barge on the riverbank.
“If we don’t find this barge soon, we’ll have to hit a tanker for an aerial refuel. We’re getting low on gas.”
“No sweat, Brick, we’ll find it. See if you can get us a little closer to the surface of the river.”
Brick brought the plane down over the water on a heading toward the southeast. Suddenly, Jet saw what they’d been looking for.
“Bingo! I got it! Look at three o’clock. The barge is unloading stuff into a cave.”
As they screamed by, Brick could see the barge pulled up to the cave and a group of NVA soldiers frantically moving brush and parts of trees to cover the entrance and conceal the hiding place.
Brick pulled the bird up a few thousand feet and quickly got on the radio with the Airborne Command and Control (AC&C) aircraft. “Crown Two Zero, this is Wolf FAC One, over.”
“Go ahead, Wolf FAC.”
“Roger that. I got a target on the XBF River, nineteen lat, 102 long. I’m going to mark the target; I’d like some air to ground, preferably with LGBs, but I’ll take anything. Target may disappear soon.”
“Roger that. Stand by, One.”
Brick began to initiate a large circle in the air so he could come straight back at the mouth of the cave and fire a white-phosphorous targeting rocket into it. “Jet, keep an eye on the SAM warning scope to be sure the gooks aren’t painting us with their radar. Also, give me a heading so I can come in right on the cave.”
As they circled back due west, Brick would have to pop up over a mountain and then push the nose of the Phantom down toward the opposite bank of the river where the cave was located. It would be tricky given the extreme change in elevation on either side of the river.
“Brick, give me three degrees starboard,” said Jet from the backseat.
Brick made a small adjustment in the plane’s heading. “Hold on, Jet. Keep those tequila-marinated prawns down.” Brick pulled back on the stick, and the F-4 shot over the top of the mountain. At the peak, he pushed forward on the stick, and the two airmen felt the weightless effect of negative g-force. Jet’s calculation had been perfect, and Brick put his aiming device, the pipper, right on the entrance of the cave. He armed the rockets and squeezed off the first shot. The rocket left the underbelly of the Phantom trailing a white plume of exhaust. Seconds later, it crashed into the ground just twenty yards left of the cave. Brick and Jet went through the same maneuver one more time, placing a second rocket fifteen yards to the right. Now the target was marked between two plumes of smoke.
“Nice work, partner. Let’s hope the cavalry shows up soon.”
A few moments later, they got a call from the AC&C aircraft. “Wolf FAC One, this is Crown Two Zero.”
“Go ahead, Two Zero.”
“I got a three-ship from the Wolfpack heading your direction. Plenty of fifteen hundred pounders with LGB capability. ETA to you is five minutes. They just disengaged from the tanker. Call sign is Satan Six.”
“Roger that. Thanks for your help.”
“Good hunting, Wolf FAC One.”
Brick and Jet continued to fly up and down the river, watching as the mouth of the cave was gradually covered up with trees and branches. They were sure the NVA soldiers at the cave were shooting at them with carbines, but the chances of hitting a Phantom going by at four hundred miles per hour were remote. Although the entrance to the cave was now more difficult to see, the barge was out in the open, and the cave entrance was clearly defined by the two marker rockets.
A welcome call crackled over the headsets in the helmet of each flyer. “Wolf FAC One, this is Satan Six.”
Brick and Jet knew that the “Satan” call sign meant the F-4s coming in to support them were from their own squadron, the 433rd. “It took you turkeys long enough to get here. Where you been?”
“Passing gas, buddy, passing gas. Nice work on the targeting; you’re making this too easy for us.”
“Satan Six, you are cleared to the target.”
At that point, the fate of the cave, the barge, and any enemy soldiers in the area was sealed. The first of the three Phantoms flying above Brick and Jet aimed a laser beam at the mouth of the cave. The second and third jets rolled in and dropped fifteen-hundred-pound bombs with laser-seeking heads. The bombs literally flew themselves to the target. Within a matter of minutes, the barge had been sunk, and the cave was belching an avalanche of smoke and fire because the bombs had ignited a large cache of ammunition stored in the cave.
“Well, the NVA won’t be using that place for a while,” said Brick.
“Nope, but I’m sure glad I’m not down there. Jeez, look at the place blow up.”
“Yeah, that’s why we’re not in the army or the marine corps. It’s a lot more fun to be on the delivery side of a bomb than the receiving end.” Brick and Jet were joking, but in reality they had a lot of respect for the men who pursued combat on the ground. Even for the enemy. Being a grunt was tough. Flying jets was fun as long as you didn’t get shot down.
“Wolf FAC One, this is Satan Six. We’re heading home—see you guys at the O club.”
“Roger that—we’re right behind you.”
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