Charles C. Carr, F-104C pilot on deployment

Jeffrey C. Carr, former Starfighter pilot found back the hand-written memories from his father Charles C. Carr, who was also once flew the F-104.
In his memories he wrote about his experiences with the F-104C Starfighter and his combat tour at Udorn AB back in 1966 as the A-Flight Commander with 435th TFS.
Sadly Charles C. Carr passed away on March 2nd, 2006, but via this story his memories will not be forgotten.
We thank Jeffrey for sharing this with us.

CharlyCarr_F-86 1954 Top Gun
Charly Carr with his F-86 during 1954 Top Gun.

Going to George AFB

"My next adventure that day was to check in at the 435th TFS and meet my new squadron commander, Lt Col Ed Gaines.  I also met other fighter pilots flying the F-104C, and many were acquaintances of mine over the years.  So, I really felt at home.  This unit was the only one scheduled to transfer in total for a Southeast Asia combat tour, flying out of Udorn, Thailand.  That type of activity was what I was trained for, and now I had to become qualified in the F-104 in the coming weeks before the physical deployment of the entire squadron.

The F-104 Starfighter was an airplane you literally strapped on and wore it.  The jet featured a small cockpit attached to a large and powerful General Electric J-79 engine stuffed inside a fuselage sprouting very short wings and a high T-tail with tiny stabilizer.  It was classified a Mach II airplane, and it could do that in straight and level flight with nary a bobble.  After a few sorties in the 2-seat F-104s to accomplish the customary advanced handling flight characteristics of the jet, I was ready for solo missions which then led to the single-seat gunnery practice that goes with combat.

I was so excited about my solo flight, I hyperventilated something awful.  However, you learn to overcome that with controlled breathing, or you might pass out.  The solo flight began with a ceremony put on by my fellow pilots.  As I left the life support equipment room with my helmet, parachute, and C-2 ejection seat spurs, I passed through the operations door and there stood several pilots in a row, each with their hands over their hearts as if to say, “good luck, we’re praying for you.”  If they were trying to freak me out, they must have forgotten I already had a serious fighter background and their stunt did not interfere with my pre-flight process.  My solo went smoothly and gave me the opportunity to appreciate being back in the game again.

In the next few weeks before deployment of the squadron, the focus was on combat qualification in the various phases of weapons delivery.  Training was typically done on air-to-ground and air-to-air ranges, shooting or dropping various ordnance loads on scoreable targets.  That entailed low and high-angle strafing with the jet’s 20mm Gatling gun, dive and skip bombing, rocketry from all dive angles, and air-to-air gunnery practice on a large metal dart towed by another airplane.  These missions were right up my alley, as this is what I did day in and day out as a Fighter Weapons School instructor pilot flying F-80s, F-86s, and F-100s at Nellis AFB.  However, the F-104C was not just another airplane, because it required serious attention so as not to lose control.  The “Zipper,” the “Widow Maker,” the “Missile with a Man in It,” was a very unforgiving airplane, but I enjoyed it immensely for its snappy handling characteristics."

Udorn Air Base, Thailand and War

In June or July of 1966, the 435th TFS was now ready to deploy in total to Udorn, Thailand.  Remember, our government claimed we were not there!  With our families watching from the squadron building, a gaggle of F-104Cs of our squadron took off from George AFB, heading west.  The flight plan called for the entire squadron to cruise along with KC-135 tanker aircraft to our final destination, with Hawaii our first stop, then Clark AB on the Philippine Islands, then to Udorn.  The tankers flew in cells of three KC-135s, with each tanker buddy-cruising with three F-104s each on every leg of the trip.  The first leg to Hawaii was 5 ½ hours flight time from George; the next leg to Clark was the longest at 7 ½ hours; and from Clark to Udorn was another 5 ½ hours.  It’s a long way to Southeast Asia.

Before departure, we were briefed on things to eat and to avoid in preparation for the long flights across the Pacific.  We needed to pay attention to what went into our bodies so we could minimize the need to relieve ourselves. As a reminder, the F-104 is a single-seat cockpit and not too roomy, at that, so moving around much was not an option.  I also remember special food was prepared in bite-size portions for us to eat while enroute. Along the overwater leg into Hawaii, rescue vessels called “Duck Butt” were positioned at sea to recover a downed pilot if the need to bailout occurred.  It seemed all bases were covered for our deployment.

The first leg, especially, required each F-104 to refuel many times to keep our fuel loads full in the event a refueling attempt failed.  Our refueling method was the probe-and-drogue, with our airplane mounted with a probe (affectionately called the “dog pecker”) and the tanker reeled out the drogue (a flying basket out the back end of each KC-135).  The pilot’s job was to plug the probe into the drogue, and on occasion, the basket was known to break off through a malfunction or due to poor pilot technique.

It was for that reason our fuel load had to remain full enough in case a problem arose and we could return to our departure base, divert to an alternate, or proceed forward to our destination with no further need of the tanker.  To satisfy that safety factor, there was a midway point on the first leg, and before we got that far, we required about six refueling “top offs” about every 15-20 minutes to ensure we had enough gas in case we had to turn back to California.

While enroute to Hawaii, I ate my prepared lunch by loosening my mask in between taking a bite-size morsel or drinking the juice they packed with it, then closing the mask back on my face to breathe the oxygen mix.  Cruising along with our flying gas station was really a lot of fun.  Our forces can deploy anywhere in the world on command and be there ready for combat overnight.  Support aircraft flew separately, carrying aircraft parts and ground crews in the event of maintenance problems along the way.  Munitions for our combat missions in Southeast Asia were already pre-positioned at Udorn.

Prior to approaching Hawaii, our commander, Ed Gaines, keyed his mic and triggered a “check-in” sequence by saying, “The first Mai Tais are on me,” followed by each pilot checking in with a “roger” then their position number (“2,” “3,” “4,” etc) through the whole squadron.  By directive, we had to have a full colonel “leader” with us; one of the headquarters operations colonels out of George.  With Ed’s call, this guy had missed the opportunity to buy the first round of drinks at our first enroute destination.  My observation of him was not very impressive, as we’ll see later in this trip during the landing phase at Udorn.  As a leader, he certainly didn’t know the fighter business very well.

We partied at the Hickam AFB O’Club, and needless to say, the rum-filled Mai Tais ran freely as each pilot took his turn buying a round.  The next leg of 7 ½ hours was the longest, one that therefore made it quite probable going to the bathroom in flight could present a problem.  Especially after our night out.  We carried what was called the Piddle Pack, a plastic bag with a sponge inside and an opening to put your pecker into.  Fortunately, I never had to use one on any of the flights, and I’m glad, because it wouldn’t have been easy getting through all our flight gear we had to wear after strapping into the cockpit.  However, upon landing, a healthy whiz was in order, immediately after engine shutdown.  At Clark AFB, accommodations were much the same as Hickam, so we spent the second night getting ready for the last leg into Udorn.


The 5 ½ hour flight into Udorn went well, but now our thoughts were focused on the fact we were now entering the Southeast Asia combat arena and anything could happen.  Upon arrival over Udorn, our colonel “leader” placed a number of us in echelon formation in preparation for the landing pattern.  This is the boner he pulled.  While on the entry into what we thought would be a 350 knot initial approach for a standard 360 degree overhead landing pattern from a formation pitch-out, he announced “take spacing.”  This call was very confusing, as we were coming straight in for landing, instead of entering the initial point to set up the overhead pattern which would allow each airplane to take adequate spacing, usually a 5 second count between jets, during the break turn to downwind.  350 knots was our overhead tactical entry airspeed, but now we were told to slow down by taking spacing on the straight-in approach.

As the flight leader, the colonel was OK to slow down and make the landing, but you can see by the time the last member of the flight slowed up enough for safelanding spacing, the pilot would be dangerously close to stalling the aircraft and falling out of the sky.  Plus, this was not briefed and not normal.  So what happened was, it was impossible to take adequate spacing and we all had to go around.  This made us, the new guys coming into Udorn, look like a bunch of flunkies.  I was embarrassed and I’m sure most of us were, including our squadron commander, Ed Gaines.  However, once we all got on the ground, we taxied to our parking area.  The base had nice reception for us before they showed us where to house our air and ground crews.

I’ve taken up so much space to cover this deployment because it was an event in my fighter pilot life that made a lasting impression on me.  In all facets, our military knows what they are doing.  As in any endeavor, however, mistakes are made but our overall force is strong and it needs to be!

The day after everyone arrived at Udorn, we were scheduled to fly our first combat missions.  Our early missions in the F-104C were flying escort on Operation Iron Hand missions into the Hanoi area, into Route Package VIII (Rolling Thunder).  Iron Hand sorties were Wild Weasel flights of F-105s carrying the Shrike missile designed to knock out surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.  Our flights of two F-104s escorted each Wild Weasel mission, flying top cover to prevent MiG aircraft from attacking or interrupting their mission.  This entailed being tied to the F-105 by keeping close visual contact at all times, while following them as they set up their anti-radiation missile Shrike attack passes on SAM sites populated by the dreaded SA-2.

Wild Weasel missions were just as the name implied.  The nature of the mission necessitated very low, tree-top level, flight to avoid radar detection by SAM sites.  Then, when the Weasel chose a heading towards where the SAM site was presumed to be, the pilot would climb up several hundred or thousand feet to entice the SA-2 radar operator to light him up with their radar and give him a Shrike launch opportunity.  Weasel aircraft were equipped with systems to determine exact SA-2 site locations through triangulation cuts from different directions, thereby giving pinpoint references to target the site.

When the Weasel pilot determined an accurate SA-2 location, he would maneuver on the deck in that direction and pull up high enough to bait the site into locking onto his radar return.  SA-2 sites had a distinctive hexagonal pattern layout, with several missiles ready to fire from a central radar control set.  At that point, the Weasel could fire the Shrike missile which would home in on the SAM radar emission signal, and track into the unit to destroy its capability to support a radar-guided SA-2 launch.  Shrikes weigh about 400 pounds and are about 8 inches in diameter and 10 feet long.  The Shrike warhead is formidable, but even without radar, SA-2 sites were dangerous as the weapon could also be optically launched and guided.  If they could see you, they could kill you, and the SA-2 was the size of a telephone pole.

Converselyto this scenario, if a SAM site was not in the direct line of fire from the Weasel, any other SA-2 site would often come up on radar in search mode, acquire its target and fire using its tracking mode before the Weasel could maneuver to return fire with a Shrike.  In this case, the Weasel pilot would call us, the F-104 escorts, to break in the appropriate direction in an attempt to defeat the oncoming missile with a call to “take it down.”  Taking it down in a hard turn into the missile was to mask ourselves with the earth and hopefully confuse the SA-2’s guidance.  If we could disrupt tracking accuracy and cause the SA-2 to go ballistic with no radar lock-on to guide it, we could defeat the shot.  Since we were never more than a thousand feet or so above the ground, “taking it down” was a moot point, but we did drop down as far as possible. Many times, we brought our jets back with green stains on the underside and on our wings, from skimming tree tops trying to evade these lethal flying telephone poles.  Yes, this was probably one of the hairiest missions in Southeast Asia, for us as well as the Wild Weasel pilots.

When seeing an SA-2 coming at you from any direction, if the missile appeared to remain in one spot on the canopy as it grew larger, you were the target on a collision course.  Something had to be done.  That something was usually a well-timed hard break turn into the missile and out of its plane of flight to generate a rapid change in geometry and create a strong angle-off turn the SA-2 could not make.  Since missiles cannot turn as sharply as a fighter, the idea behind the tactic was the SA-2 would overshoot the generated turn, assuming of course, the break turn was timely, effective, and out of the missile’s flight path.  If you could make the SA-2 overshoot by the hard out-of-plane turn, it went ballistic and harmlessly missed you.  Exciting times, indeed.

Our squadron was assigned the Weasel escort mission until one day, two of our F-104s were shot down by SAMs.  In careful study, we determined our presence in a trail lookout position behind the Weasels served to have us acting like drones for wayward missiles or alert MiGs.  In other words, we could not feasibly be effective having to be tied to the Wild Weasel aircraft we were escorting.  So our mission changed to ground attacks over North Vietnam, working with Forward Air Controllers (FAC) or canvasing areas for suitable targets where Iron Hand missions were being conducted.

FACs flew in small Cessna or Piper Cub type aircraft, flying low to locate targets of opportunity for our F-104s and other fighter units.  Over the next few months, we flew many of this type of mission, carrying various forms of ordnance, like napalm, hard bombs, rockets, and employing the 20mm gun, depending on the type of target.  When we check in with the FAC, we told him our ordnance load and he would identify targets suitable to what we were carrying that day.  To mark the target, the FAC would fire a white phosphorous (“Willie Pete”) rocket, which left an indelible cloud of smoke on the ground, then he would use that mark as a reference point to talk us onto the target.  These unguided Willie Pete rounds came close, but were not exact.

You can imagine the difficulty a fast-mover pilot has in trying to see targets that don’t want to be found, all the while maneuvering to an attack position.  FACs were essential to ferreting out these targets, and would also tell us of any nearby active defenses.  On several occasions, our target areas lit up with huge numbers of machine gun nests; Triple-A, as in Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and all that ground fire was aimed at us.  Every once in awhile, we would see 37mm tracer shells pass by our canopies like a red hot volley of baseballs.

One memorable mission to knock out a known SAM site found me flinching in response to rounds coming by my canopy.  The AAA 37mm volley included at least one tracer round that came so close to the canopy rail, I thought it had gone through my cockpit.  This happened on my pullout recovery, where I was doing some serious jinking to avoid being hit by aimed AAA after dropping my bombs on the SAM site.  Jinking can complicate the AAA gunner’s tracking problem, and that jinking probably saved the day for me.

Jinking in combat is a way of not flying a constant flight path for very long, by changing direction and altitude, sometimes very violently. To my way of looking at it, there are at least two major reasons for jinking.  First, it only takes a minute or so for a SAM to be launched, then track and nail you.  This is true whether or not the SAM was electronically or optically guided, and if a pilot holds a steady flight path for too long, he has just solved a major targeting problem for the missile.  Same goes for aimed AAA fire; with barrage or random AAA, just hope you don’t get hit by a “golden BB,” but unpredictable jinking certainly complicates a gunner’s aim.

The second major reason for jinking in combat is to allow the pilot a better capability to see and clear the airspace around him, particularly to often check the tail area (as in, “Check Six”).  Jinking with random turns and altitude changes lets the pilot easily clear his rear in the event an enemy airplane is approaching, or maybe a missile has been launched without previous warning.  Combat is a dangerous occupation, and seeing each event is essential for survival.


I became the squadron operations officer because our Ops O at the time, Maj Tom Finney, didn’t think we had to jink so much because we didn’t do that in Korea.  After voicing that opinion to his flight lead while on a mission the day before, he was shot down by a SAM as he led a mission the next day. Jinking in a hostile SAM environment is certainly essential to one’s survival, and North Vietnam was the most heavily defended airspace in history. Obviously, there is no guarantee heavy ground fire or a lucky bullet (the “golden BB”) won’t get you, but a jinking target is harder to intentionally hit. Also, we are most vulnerable to any SAM or AAA return fire when delivering
our ordnance.  Until smart weaponry was developed, accurate weapons delivery onto ground targets required at least a few seconds of wings’ steady tracking time (and nerves) for an effective attack.  Now predictable, they aimed and shot at us!

In the course of my tour, flying 106 combat missions in Southeast Asia, with 100 over North Vietnam, our squadron lost five pilots and recovered one other who had been shot down.  Although sad, this does not sound excessive considering the multitude of good men lost from other units striking targets in the hot areas around Hanoi and Haiphong.  By crossing into North Vietnam and over the Red River, every one of us earned membership in the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, “River Rats,” and we hope America will never again commit our people to a war we do not intend to win.

I won’t get into the politics involved with the war, but it is my belief it could have been ended in victory long before America turned its back.  Little effort was given to hitting proper targets to get the enemy’s attention, to break their will and capability to wage war.  Too many of my targets were “suspected truck parks” and “suspected” this and that, to discover nothing really there when my bombs went off.  Intelligence maps were even as much as a year old, so when arriving at the assigned target coordinates, it looked nothing like the photographs we were given because it had been pulverized on many previous attacks and severely altered the target area.

When I finished my 100th mission over North Vietnam, I had prepared everything for an immediate return to George AFB, where the Air Force had allowed my family to maintain quarters on base at 24 California Court.  I returned just before Christmas 1966, and it was a most welcome time of relief. My friend, Col Ron Wilson, was the 479th TFW Assistant Deputy for Operations, and arranged for a T-33 to pick me up at Travis AFB, the point of my Stateside arrival near San Francisco CA.


Carles C Carr.