On Oct. 23, 1961, the commander of the Thirteenth Air Force ordered the RF-101Cs of Task Force Pipe Stem to fly a reconnaissance mission over Tchephone airfield in Laos to confirm reports of a North Vietnamese and Soviet presence. The mission provided highly detailed imagery of the airfield and surrounding area. The pictures confirmed the presence of North Vietnamese troops and caught Soviet-built Ilyushin I1-14 transport planes parachuting supplies to the troops below.
Once shown the images from the first and later missions, President John F. Kennedy ordered an expanded reconnaissance effort, but the International Control Commission assigned to monitor the 1956 Geneva Accords objected to the planes’ presence in South Vietnam and missions over Laos. The aircraft were withdrawn to their Kadena, Okinawa, home base on Nov. 21, 1961, exactly one month after their first mission.
Despite its short duration, Task Force Pipe Stem demonstrated the value of aerial reconnaissance and marked the RF-101C’s introduction to what would become a 10-year mission in Indochina.
The plane’s origins can be traced to 1946 Army Air Force requirement for a long-range jet fighter to accompany its strategic bombers. McDonnell Aircraft Corp. added more powerful engines, greater fuel capacity and an expanded airframe. A single-seat aerial reconnaissance variant became the RF-101A. All armament was removed and replaced by a camera suite derived from one developed for the Navy. The RF-101A was the only recon aircraft equipped for both drogue-and-probe and boom aerial refueling. The fighter’s radar navigation system was removed and a radar altimeter added for low-level flight operations. The Tactical Air Command had McDonnell add another UHF radio and two wing-loaded electronic countermeasure pods.
The resulting aircraft became the RF-101C in October 1956, and by 1959 it had replaced all RF-84As in the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, equipping the 14th and 45th Tactical Reconnaissance squadrons.
Although its lack of navigation radar precluded the RF-101C from becoming an all-weather aircraft, later camera upgrades enabled it to conduct night missions. Achieving many firsts as a general aerial recon platform (including discovery of North Vietnamese troops in Laos), the plane also provided electronic countermeasure support to Republic F-105D Thunderchief strikes in 1965 and conducted battle damage assessment missions throughout Operation Rolling Thunder. Ten were lost over South Vietnam and Laos and 38 over North Vietnam. The last RF-101Cs were withdrawn from Indochina in November 1970 to serve with Air National Guard units until 1982 and allied air forces until 1984.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2016 issue.