Tag Archives: Thunderbirds

Remembering Three of the Fallen F-105 Thunderchief Heroes of the Vietnam Era

The Remarkable Exploits of Three Thunderchief Pilots Are a Must-Read on Memorial Day.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, part of a long three-day weekend where people in the U.S. reflect on the high cost of freedom and liberty as they remember those who sacrificed their lives for it. While it is a somber holiday it is also a celebration of heroes. Heroes who set the highest bar for selflessness, honor and sacrifice. It is a day when we recalibrate what it means to be an American.

There are a remarkable number of great American stories to be told on Memorial Day. Realistically, far too many to tell in a single day. I find these stories daily in research about military aviation history. Even after years I unearth new names and heroic exploits every week. It is a seemingly endless tablet of remarkable tales etched into the bedrock of freedom’s foundation. And as history arcs forward into the future, the foundation is expanded by more and more heroes.

There is one era that produced images that are particularly iconic to me. Images that shaped my boyhood impression of what it means to be a hero. It was the era of the early U.S. involvement in the air war over Vietnam. In particular, one group of pilots repeatedly shows up in photos of medal winners and in heroic tales. They were the “Thud drivers”, the pilots of the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

The F-105 Thunderchief itself was an ambitious aircraft. It’s journalistically and politically indelicate to write about any historical military aircraft as “bad” or “dangerous”, so we will handle the F-105 and its history over Vietnam objectively and respectfully. Early in its history, during 1961, the F-105 had the lowest rate of accidents of any jet fighter in the history of the Air Force. But by June of 1964 accidents in the F-105 Thunderchief increased remarkably. There were a reported 33.7 accidents per 100,000 flying hours in the F-105 by half way through 1964, a massive increase compared to earlier years.

Republic F-105D-30-RE Thunderchief (SN 62-4234) in flight with a full bomb load of M117 750 lb bombs. Normally drop tanks were carried on the inboard wing pylons. This aircraft was shot down on 24 December 1968 over Laos while being assigned to the Wing Headquarters, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Takhli RTAFB. Major Charles R. “Dick” Brownlee was the pilot of the lead aircraft (s/n 62-4234, call sign “Panda 01”) in a flight of four. The flight was conducting an afternoon strike mission against Route 911, between the Ban Karai Pass and the city of Ban Phaphilang, Khammouane Province, Laos. At 15:47h the aircraft attacked a truck moving along Route 911. 62-4234 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and caught fire. Major Brownlee’s aircraft exploded at roughly the same time he ejected from his aircraft. The next day a rescue attempt of heavily injured or dead Brownlee failed, but a member of the rescue team, CMS Charles D. King, was captured, too. Both men are listed as missing in action. The location was on the northern edge of a large valley and just east of Route 911, approximately 16 km southwest of Ban Thapachon (location 170600N 1055600E).

Especially during this era in the Thunderchief’s history, it was best to stick to observations that acknowledged its curvaceous, needle-nosed fuselage, artfully shaped wings that leave one with the visual impression of speed, and its remarkable performance. Even more so than the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief was what most Americans visualized when they heard the term “Jet Fighter” in the 1960’s.

The Thunderchief looked the part of a supersonic fighter. It did not, however, deliver great survivability during this era. It was not because the Thunderchief was somehow cursed. It may be fairer to suggest its mission was cursed.

It’s also best not to discuss the calamitous employment of the F-105 by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that ended in a fiery aircraft disintegration on May 9, 1964 at an airshow venue in California. That F-105 broke apart after receiving initially undetectable damage earlier in its career while midair refueling. The Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six shows before they switched back to the North American F-100D Super Sabre. The Thunderbird F-105 crash killed USAF Capt. Gene Devlin in aircraft 57-5801.

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin died in an F-105 crash on May 9, 1964. (Photo: USAF and Aerospace Museum of California)

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin’s F-105 crash on May 9, 1964 was the 15th accident in an F-105 in only five months during 1964. But it would get worse. Only four days after Devlin’s crash in California, a Nellis AFB F-105D lost its engine on takeoff and crashed into the Las Vegas suburb of Woodland North. The results were catastrophic. A mother and three children died on the ground where the aircraft crashed. The impact leveled seven houses and destroyed two cars. More homes burned near the crash scene. The pilot did not survive either. Following that horrific run of accidents that culminated in the Woodland North calamity the Air Force grounded all F-105s until a cause for the accidents was determined. A number of problems with the F-105 were subsequently discovered and corrected during inspections and the aircraft were returned to service in time for the escalation of the Vietnam War.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief attempting to dodge an SA-2 missile over North Vietnam. (USAF)

It is fair to acknowledge the Republic F-105 Thunderchief was a plane thrust into a mission that was largely misunderstood, frequently evolving, and very different from what the “Thud” was originally designed for, low-level, supersonic nuclear strike missions. As a result, the “Thud” earned its unfortunate nickname by raining out of the Southeast Asian skies with frightening regularity, often taking with it the lives of America’s finest.

The USAF Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six demonstrations. (Photo: USAF and Ron Rentfrow)

But also in fairness, the F-105 Thunderchief shouldered the majority of the USAF’s burden of bombing heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. In the first five years of the American involvement in the air war over Vietnam, the F-105 Thunderchief flew 70% of all attack missions. Regardless of your assessment of the Thunderchief, the odds were always stacked against it. In all, a staggering 382 Thunderchiefs were lost in Vietnam, nearly half the total number that was built.

Different from the aircraft itself the men who flew the F-105 Thunderchief, like USAF Captain Samuel E. Waters, were absolutely dependable no matter the odds or the mission. Capt. Waters was the type of a man you think of when you picture a jet fighter pilot. Chiseled features, serious countenance, heroic look, stony glare.

A USAF photo F-105D Thunderchief Pilot Capt. Samuel E. Waters. (Photo: USAF)

Unlike his outwardly attractive but structurally dubious aircraft, Capt. Waters had intrinsic mettle. He was a hero. An icon. The worthy subject of statues in town squares or the name of a new high school.

Capt. Samuel E. Waters died 51 years ago on Tuesday December 13, 1966 over the dense jungle region of Ha Tay Province, North Vietnam. It was, according to some records, the first day the U.S. launched airstrikes on the capital city of Hanoi. The 29-year old combat pilot was a member of the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing.

It is already difficult to sort through accurate records about Captain Samuel E. Waters. According to three websites and social media posts, Capt. Waters was flying Republic F-105D Thunderchief #61-0187 the day he died. His target was the Yen Vien railroad yard just ten miles south of the city center outside Hanoi. He had successfully bombed his target and was exiting the area when his aircraft was struck by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM). He managed to nurse his wounded Thunderchief for about 15 miles before it finally succumbed to damage from the missile.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief trailing fire and smoke just after interception by an SA-2 missile on February 14, 1968. The SA-2 did not actually hit an aircraft — the warhead was detonated by a command from the tracking radar or by a proximity fuse in the missle when it neared the target, throwing deadly fragments over a wide area. The pilot, Robert Malcolm Elliot (1929-1968), was killed. His body was not recovered until 1998. (USAF)

What struck me about the photo I found of Capt. Samuel E. Waters was that his image, and the similar images of men, fighter pilots, like him shaped my impression of what a real man truly was. What a hero is. In small suburbs and country towns people talked about these men. Men like Capt. Waters.

Another remarkable hero of the Thunderchief era was Lt. Karl W. Richter. Richter was an Air Force Academy graduate from 1964. He began training to fly fighter aircraft after graduation and subsequently volunteered to go to Vietnam. Richter learned to fly the F-105 Thunderchief at Nellis AFB, Nevada. He immediately volunteered to ferry an F-105 over to Thailand where he knew he would be put in the action. Once he arrived in Thailand he was assigned to the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, a hub of F-105 action over Southeast Asia.

Lt. Richter flew his first F-105 Thunderchief combat mission only four days after arriving in Southeast Asia. He eventually completed 198 combat missions over Vietnam in a number of aircraft including the F-100 Super Sabre and the O-1A Bird Dog light Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. Richter also shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17 on September 21, 1966 using the cannon on his F-105. At only 23 years old and still a First Lieutenant, Richter was the youngest USAF combat pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the Vietnam conflict at the time.

F-105 Thunderbird pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter. (Photo: USAF)

Lt. Karl W. Richter was shot down on July 28th, 1967 at the age of 24. He was leading a bombing attack on a North Vietnamese bridge when he was struck by automatic anti-aircraft fire (AAA). Richter managed to eject from his F-105 and parachuted into rocky terrain where he sustained life-threatening injuries including a broken neck. Although a rescue force was able to retrieve him quickly, Lt. Richter died in the rescue helicopter on his way back to safety.

There are several statues of Lt. Karl Richter at prominent locations around the U.S. commemorating his remarkable courage and career. Perhaps the most significant inscription is on the one displayed at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Below the chiseled figure of F-105 Thunderchief fighter pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter the Biblical inscription of Isaiah 6:8 reads:

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.”

It is not only a fitting inscription for the lives and sacrifices of F-105 Thunderchief pilots like USAF Capt. Gene Devlin, Capt. Samuel E. Waters and Lt. Karl W. Richter, but for every service person we remember on Memorial Day in the U.S. who gave their lives for freedom and security.

Top image: Crews of the F-105D and F-105G Thunderchiefs in Thailand. (USAF)

How Social Media May Drive Our Perception of Military Aviation Safety

The Luke AFB F-16 Emergency Landing, the Tragic Thunderbird Crash, The CH-53 Accident: Why (Does It Seem Like) So Many Military Aircraft Are Crashing?

Why does it seem like so many military aircraft been crashing? It’s a relevant question given the attention to military aircraft accidents around the world this year. Is there an increase in accidents in military aviation? Or, are other factors influencing our perception of how many aircraft accidents there actually are?

Pilots and aviation safety experts will tell you there is no singular cause for all military aviation accidents. In an April 25, 2018 interview in the Washington Examiner, Capt. Sarah Burns, a Marine Corps spokeswoman at the Pentagon told reporter Jamie McIntyre, “Every mishap is unique, and we have not found a causal, statically accurate link between readiness and mishaps.”

While pilot shortages and aging aircraft dominate the conversation in the U.S., pilots often say there are as many reasons for accidents as there are accidents. If you demand a singular explanation for why aviation accidents happen it’s in this famous, often paraphrased quote attributed to Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London, from the early 1930’s:

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

Capt. Lamplugh’s prescient quote summarizes three separate contributors to aviation accidents: carelessness, often sanitized as “pilot error”; incapacity, in air traffic control, pilot training and other technical contributors; and finally neglect, as in infrastructure and maintenance.

In the rush-to-judgement popular news and social media space, pundits try to focus on a single convenient narrative to explain accidents. There is no convenient single reason for military aviation accidents.

One factor that has contributed to an increase in awareness of military aviation accidents is an evolution in media. Our perception of how many accidents there are has no doubt been influenced by a factor we can refer to as “media velocity”, the speed and volume at which information reaches us in the social media age.

Reasons for recent military crashes are conflicting as depicted in internet resources as evidence by this capture of search results on information about military aviation accidents. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

After a U.S. Air Force F-16 performed an emergency landing this week in Arizona and the pilot ejected, the full details of the incident were posted on social media, including intercepted radio transmissions of first responders, with two hours. Detailed information about the incident was available through social media and blogs hours before less detailed, official information was released. In the case of this week’s F-16 accident, the sources and information have so far proved to be accurate. That is not always the case, and the online banter about causes for aviation accidents seldom waits for the official investigation to reveal its findings.

Social media has created faster, more frequent reporting of military aviation accidents but is not always accurate. (Photo: via Facebook)

With international crashes, such as the March 6, 2018 crash of a Russian Antonov An-26 with 39 fatalities in Syria, there used to be reduced awareness of military aviation accidents prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the arrival of social media. Every country lost military aircraft, but not every country reported losses with the transparency of the United States.

When pundits point to a single factor in a perceived increase in aviation accidents in the U.S. the pilot shortage inevitably comes up. While it is a mistake to make an “A leads to B” connection between pilot shortages and aircraft accidents, there is no denying the U.S. military pilot shortage is real.
We spoke to a U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. whose call sign is “Burn Clapper” at Holloman AFB in August, 2017. He had been in command of the 54th Fighter Group since May, 2017. During a media briefing he told TheAviationist.com, “I’m supposed to have 24 instructor pilots in my squadron, and I have 13 now.”

When we asked Burn Clapper about the reasons for the fighter pilot shortage he said, “A few years back, there was a time when we had as many fighter pilots as we needed. We only produced guys coming in for as many guys who were leaving – at the rate that they were leaving then. We only made fighter pilots for who was leaving then, maybe about 400 a year – that’s a guess.”

Burn Clapper went on to explain, “Our pilots graduate now with a 10-year commitment. They have been back and forth to combat over the last five years. The economy is good now. Now they have options.”

The U.S. Air Force publishes a database of aircraft accidents. The Air Force Safety Center Aviation Statistics database (http://www.safety.af.mil) contains specific information detailing USAF accidents. As with any spreadsheet analysis, you can package the data in different ways to produce a different statistical outcome.

One interpretation of the Air Force Safety Center Aviation Statistics database is that 2015 had a higher number of reported accidents than 2016 and 2017.
Another standout metric is the number of accidents in the single engine F-16. The statistics for Current Fiscal Year-to-Date, Previous Fiscal Year-to-Date and Previous Fiscal Year show a total number of F-16 Class A accidents higher than any other aircraft type. There are several contributing factors to F-16 accidents that include the large number of the aircraft in service with the USAF (951 F-16s in USAF service across all versions according to Wikipedia), its role as a high performance tactical combat aircraft, the age of the aircraft and that the F-16 is a single engine aircraft with no engine redundancy. By contrast however, the single engine, exclusively single-seat F-35A Lighting II has not had a single accident in flight with the USAF since its initial inclusion with the Air Force on August 2, 2016. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a program has had a remarkably incident-free development, testing and operational introduction since it began, budget concerns aside, there has not been a single crash of an F-35.

A contrasting view of military aviation accident statistics was presented by the Military Times in an April 8, 2018 analysis by journalist Tara Copp.

Copp wrote that, “Through a six-month investigation, the Military Times found that accidents involving all of the military’s manned fighter, bomber, helicopter and cargo warplanes rose nearly 40 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2017. It’s doubled for some aircraft, like the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets. At least 133 service members were killed in those fiscal year 2013-2017 mishaps, according to data obtained by Military Times.”

Military Times journalist Tara Copp arrives at an interesting conclusion in her article when it is overlaid with the USAF Safety Center Aviation Statistics database. Copp revealed that accidents with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornets were much higher than with other aircraft in Navy and Marine service. This finding aligns with the statistical survey of USAF F-16s emerging as the highest frequency accident types. Similar factors exist with the Navy and Marine F/A-18s.

The last of the older Hornets are being phased out now in favor of the newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The aircraft is mostly a single-seat combat plane often flown at low altitude and in the high-performance regime. Unlike the Air Force’s F-16 though, the F/A-18 is a twin-engine aircraft, making engine failures a less critical incident over the entire performance envelope compared to the single-engine F-16, where any engine failure is serious.

Journalists like Tara Copp have pointed to several factors in their reported increase in military aviation accident frequency. Copp wrote that, “The rise is tied, in part, to the massive congressional budget cuts of 2013. Since then, it’s been intensified by non-stop deployments of warplanes and their crews, an exodus of maintenance personnel and deep cuts to pilots’ flight-training hours.” She went on to quote retired USAF General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle as telling her, “We are reaping the benefits — or the tragedies — that we got into back in sequestration.” Retired General Hawk was referring to the 2013 defense budget cuts resulting from the U.S. government sequester, a temporary freeze on much of U.S. government spending to avert a monetary crisis. Tara Copp went on quote Ret. Gen. Herbert Carlisle as saying “The sharp increase in mishap rates is actually a lagging indicator. By the time you’re having accidents, and the accident rates are increasing, then you’ve already gone down a path.” Then-General Carlisle led USAF Air Combat Command until 2017. The retired general told her, “If we stay on the current track … there is the potential to lose lives.”

High performance combat training in single engine jet aircraft is inherently more hazardous than flying crew-operated multi-engine aircraft in a transport and support role. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

No matter which narrative you chose to explain recent military aviation accidents one truth does prevail about flying high performance aircraft that are intended for combat; tragedies are an ominous and common companion to aerial warfare, and recent events have been a stern reminder of this truth.

Thunderbird Pilot Killed in Crash at Nevada Test and Training Range

It’s the third crash in less than two years for the demo team.

The U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds, confirmed in a Tweet just before midnight last night, April 4, that one of their pilots died in the crash of an F-16 over the Nevada Test and Training Range near Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada.

The fatal crash happened during a scheduled training flight on Wednesday at approximately 10:30 AM according to news reports. Identity of the pilot killed in the accident has not been released by the Air Force. A crash investigation is also underway.

This accident from a U.S. military aircraft follows two crashes by U.S. Marine aircraft in the U.S. and in Africa over the last two days that resulted in four fatalities. A U.S. Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed in the U.S. earlier this week and a U.S. Marine AV-8B Harrier VSTOL attack aircraft crashed in Djibouti, Africa that same day. Four fatalities were reported in the CH-53E crash in the U.S. while the pilot of the AV-8B that crashed in Djibouti ejected from his aircraft and was reported to have walked to an ambulance following the accident.

Although it could be completely unrelated, the fatal Thunderbird accident from yesterday follows the late 2017 replacement of the Thunderbirds then-commanding officer. Former Thunderbird commanding officer Lt. Col. Jason Heard was relieved of command of the Air Force Flight Demonstration Team in late November of last year. The official reason cited for his removal from the position was a “loss of confidence’. Following his removal from command of the Thunderbirds Lt. Col. Heard was replaced by Thunderbirds’ operations officer, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, according to Air Combat Command at the time. Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh has remained the Commander/Flight Lead of the Thunderbirds.

The latest deadly crash comes less than one year after an incident involving a U.S. Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon that flipped over after landing at Dayton International Airport in Ohio during a single-ship familiarization flight on Friday June 23, 2017. The pilot sustained injuries and the crewmember was uninjured.

According to the accident investigation report, “Excess airspeed and insufficient stopping distance on a wet runway” caused the aircraft to depart the runway and overturn in the grass.

Previously, on Jun. 2, 2016 a Thunderbirds F-16 crashed shortly after the demo team had performed a flyover at the annual Air Force graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs. The pilot managed to eject before the aircraft crash landed in a field not far from Peterson AFB, Colorado. The cause of the F-16CM #6 crash was found in “a throttle trigger malfunction and inadvertent throttle rotation.”

The Thunderbirds have cancelled their appearance this weekend at the March Field Air and Space Expo in Riverside County, California. No official announcement about the remainder of the team’s 2018 show schedule has been made.

Did You Know That Thunderbird 9 Uses Mirror To Mark Show Center For Thunderbird 1 During Airshows?

The U.S. Air Force demo team rely on a signal mirror that provides a fixed reference point to the formation during the display.

The video below is particularly interesting. It was filmed in 2016 and shows the then current and future USAF Thunderbird 9 pilots using their signal mirrors to signal Thunderbird 1 and mark the show center to the team.

The footage was filmed at Huntington Beach, CA, on Oct. 20, 2016, during the practice session for the weekend airshow.

Thunderbird 9 is the flight surgeon for the USAF Thunderbird air demonstration team. On the right hand side is Maj. (Dr.) Christopher Scheibler, Thunderbird 9 for 2015-2016; on the left is Capt. (Dr.) William Goncharow, who would be Thunderbird 9 for 2017-2018.

Obviously, TB1 can’t see the very small mirror itself, whose size is that of a business card. What TB1 sees is the concentrated ray of sunlight reflected by the mirror – 4,000,000+ candlepower of it – more than 20 times brighter than an air traffic control signal light gun.

This signal mirror is a USAF issue 2″x3″ glass MIL-M-18371E Mark 3 Type 1 emergency signaling mirror with a retroreflective mesh aimer. The MIL-M-18371E is standard USAF pilot survival gear, also used for ground-to-air communication. On a clear day, with the sun overhead, this mirror can reflect a beam that is naked-eye visible at 20+ miles – see the video here.

Maj. (Dr.) Chris Scheibler, Thunderbird 9, holds the signal mirror he used to mark show center for Thunderbird 1 during the USAF Thunderbirds’ aerial performance at the “Thunder over the Empire” airshow at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, CA on April 17, 2016. (Image credit: Signal Mirror)

Even though to the eyes of a spectator a demo team’s display overhead an airport does not change much from the one which takes place over another airfield or the coastline of a beach resort or a lake, the way the team flies may differ significantly depending on the “environment” in which the aerobatic display is executed. The different topographic features of the place where the air show takes place, and the surrounding landscape may, in fact, require the adoption of specific solutions in order to maintain standard distances and for the correct evaluation of terrain separation under peculiar light conditions.

Familiarisation with the landscape and evaluating the display arena are the purposes of the preparation flight which precedes every airshow display. In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and water courses. Over the water, however, it is necessary to utilise buoys or small boats which, besides delineating the display area in respect to a crowd line which is frequently extremely extended, allows the accurate determination of the display line. This line constitutes the reference for the pilots for the safe execution of all the manoeuvres. Whereever the display takes place, the show center is one of the most important reference points for the team.

By the way, the Blue Angels demo team use the same mirror.

Top image: right screenshot from rafowell video

Watch the video of the F-35 flying in formation (at high AOA) with the Thunderbirds

Short but interesting clip.

A couple of days ago we have commented an image that had appeared on Facebook showing a U.S. Air Force F-35A forming up with the Thunderbirds for a photo session in the skies over Ft. Lauderdale.

Even though it did not say anything special about the controversial stealth plane, some people bashed the F-35 over the cool image just because it showed the 5th generation fighter jet flying with a high AOA (Angle of Attack) close to the Thunderbirds.
The following video provides a different point of view over the same scene: taken from inside the cockpit of the F-16 #1 of the U.S. Air Force demo team, it show the F-35 keeping a “high alpha” on the Viper’s right wing, leveraging its well-known (or alleged, depending on the “party”) high AOA capabilities.Needless to say, this post is not pro or against the F-35, it’s just about an interesting footage showing two jets belonging to different generations flying together.



H/T Miguelm Mendoza for the heads-up