Weasels Kerzon and McIntire didn’t know that in a few short hours they would experience the most terrifying, exciting 40 seconds of their lives
Major Warren Kerzon and his electronic warfare officer, Lt. Col. Scott “Scottie” McIntire, were well-seasoned Wild Weasels by May 1968, having flown on 22 missions together. Their 23rd mission was to take them to the area around Dong Hoi, capital of North Vietnam’s Quang Binh province, on the coast about 100 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Although most strikes into North Vietnam were in daylight, this was to be a nighttime mission that involved two F-105Fs protecting F-4s searching for any moving enemy supply traffic on the river or roads heading south. Kerzon and McIntire were tasked as the number two Weasel on the mission. Studying reports about the Dong Hoi area in preparation at their base at the Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, they learned that there were three active SAM sites there, which had been known to fire as many as six missiles in one night. Even so, Kerzon and McIntire could not know that in a few short hours, on May 19, they would experience the most intense, most terrifying, most exciting 40 seconds of their lives.
The art of aerial warfare changed drastically with each 20th-century conflict in which the United States fought—and with it, the threat American air power faced. In World War I, it was Germany’s Fokker D.VII fighter. In World War II, it was another German innovation, the Messerschmitt Me-262A jet fighter. In Korea, it was the unexpectedly high-performing MiG-15. In the late 1950s, the air-to-air missile (AAM) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) added a deadly new dimension to aerial warfare.
As the Vietnam War escalated and American planes began bombing North Vietnamese targets—MiG airfields, industrial complexes, petroleum storage sites, major bridges and railroads from China—Hanoi responded with a triad defense, combining intense anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and MiG fighters with Soviet-supplied mobile missile systems consisting of SA-2 SAMs (NATO designation “Guideline”) and radar detection. The first of these deadly missile complexes was discovered in North Vietnam in April 1965. Initially, Washington did not consider them a serious threat, doubting whether the North Vietnamese would actually use them. And, at this early stage of the war, permission to destroy the SAM sites was denied because President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers were concerned that if a Soviet technician or trainer were killed, the conflict could escalate further. This political posturing ended abruptly on July 27, 1965, however, when a U.S. Air Force F-4C Phantom was shot down by one of the SAMs. The Phantom’s navigator, Captain Roscoe Fobair, was killed, and its pilot, Captain Richard Keirn, was captured and held as a POW until 1973. (Keirn had been a POW before, in World War II after his B-17 was shot down over Germany.)
The first effort to counter the missile threat came in the form of the Wild Weasel I project. This involved using two-seat F-100Fs equipped with modified electronics to find SAM sites, but their survivability, never mind their effectiveness, soon came under question. Known as “Huns,” the F-100s were handicapped by the primitive performance of their first suite of SAM radar signal detection gear, the lack of an air-to-ground missile capable of homing in on the SAM signal, and relatively low speed and shorter time on target resulting from its frequent use of afterburner. With no missile capable of hitting the SAM’s “Fan Song” radars from a safe distance, the F-100F had to get in close, and paid for it. Despite the Hun crews’ heroic efforts, after about seven weeks of operations only one aircraft remained, and many members of the original 16 aircrews had been killed in action, were POWs or had left the program.
At about the same time, the Air Force found a replacement for the F-100F in the very plane the F-100Fs were meant to protect—the F-105 Thunderchief, or “Thud.” Republic Aviation was beginning to produce a two-seat F model, to be equipped with all the latest radar detection equipment that allowed for the Thud Weasel crew to home in on a SAM site and destroy it. It could also carry the newly developed AGM-45A Shrike missile, the first antiradiation missile with a sensitive radar seeker head in its nose to detect enemy electronic emissions, which would prove to be the weapon of choice against the SAMs. The higher-performing version of the Thunderchief extended the range of the AGM-45 and, with a successful strike that knocked the SAM site radar off the air, the F-105F could often follow up with a conventional ordnance attack—bombs or guns or both.
From October 1969 on, the F-105F was replaced by the “G” model, upgraded with even better electronics and radar-detection sensors, that was capable of delivering, in addition to the AGM-45, the larger AGM-78 missile. A problem with the AGM-45 was its inability to hold its lock on the target if a radar site shut down after it had been fired, essentially turning it into an unguided missile. The AGM-78, on the other hand, had some “memory” that allowed it, in the same situation, to at least strike close to its target. With fast tactical fighters now loaded with the specialized electronic equipment that could “ferret out” SAM radar and missiles, a new offensive tactic was born.
The Wild Weasel protection screen worked by having these specialized hunter-killers precede the “strike packages,” or flight of fighters, into the target area to sweep the area of SAM sites. The Weasels then remained on station until the last of the strikers had left the area. These were usually long missions that lasted at least three hours, some as long as five. The SAMs weren’t the only danger to the all-volunteer Weasel crews, who also faced MiGs and AAA, especially in and around the Hanoi-Haiphong area.
The Air Force divided North Vietnam into six geographical “route packages” starting with Route Package I, just north of the DMZ, to Packages V and VI, in the far north. Any of the targets in Route Packages V and VI were extremely dangerous since they were deep in the enemy’s heartland and sure to be surrounded by SAM sites. However, SAMs were a danger in all the route packages, and Weasel protection was used on all missions.
When Kerzon and McIntire and the other Weasel team were briefed for their night mission to Dong Hoi on the afternoon of May 19, they learned that wing intelligence estimated their flight profile would put them within range of the three active SAM sites, four active radar-controlled 85mm anti-aircraft gun positions and the usual batch of 57mm and 37mm guns. The mission would be composed of their two Weasel Thuds and a four-ship flight of F-4 Phantoms with the call sign “Cadillac,” coming out of Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. The F-4s would do armed reconnaissance between Dong Hoi and the DMZ. The Weasels’ ordnance configuration would be three external tanks of fuel and two AGM-45 Shrikes. By topping off their tanks after takeoff, they would have plenty of time on station to support the F-4s. The weather report was good, 15,000-feet overcast and very little moonlight. The two F-105Fs would use the call signs “Oakland 1” and “Oakland 2.”
Once they penetrated into Route Package I, the Weasels would separate. Oakland 1, or “Lead,” would orbit west of the recon area and Kerzon’s Oakland 2 would orbit to the east. The lead pilot would time his racetrack pattern to be inbound toward the threat on even 10-minute intervals (10, 20, 30, etc.), while Kerzon and McIntire would fly in on the odd 10-minute (05, 15, 25) intervals. Since Dong Hoi was on the coast, half of Kerzon’s pattern would be over land or “feet dry,” and the other half would be over the ocean, “feet wet.” It would put them dangerously close to the best-guess location of the deadly mobile SAM site that had been dubbed “Lead 89” or “The Vulture,” by intelligence.
The flight in was smooth, and Oakland 1 peeled off and disappeared into the blackness, while Kerzon passed navigation control to McIntire, who worked both the Doppler radar and Tacan navigation system to put them on their planned orbit. When the Weasel support was in place, the Phantoms checked in on the radio as they entered the route package. Kerzon observed some 57mm fire along the coast but nothing close to the Phantoms. Evidently, the F-4s were having some luck, because he occasionally saw a flare in the distance. The flares lit up a target and one of the Phantoms would come in and drop its ordnance.
As Oakland 2 moved around the sky at 400 knots between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, Kerzon wondered if the “Vulture would come out to play tonight.” McIntire wasn’t picking up any AAA (Fire Can) or SAM (Fan Song) radar signals on his Weasel gear, so this was looking like a very dull mission—just another “counter” toward their 100 combat missions needed to complete their tour. McIntire did mention to Kerzon from time to time that he was picking up both “Bar Lock” and “Cross Slot” signals, two different types of Soviet long-range radar systems that would feed data back to the AAA and SAM sites to alert them for possible action and to North Vietnam’s command and control centers to alert the MiGs to scramble when appropriate. This was not particularly alarming; it was a routine part of flying over enemy territory.
About 90 minutes into the mission, Oakland 2 called in to alert Cadillac flight that they had just enough fuel for one more pass before returning to base. It was at that moment, as Kerzon was 45 degrees into a right turn, that McIntire called out “There he is!”
A SAM site in tracking mode had locked on to Oakland 2. A 3 1⁄2-ring strobe instantly appeared on Kerzon’s and McIntire’s APR-25s, three-inch instruments mounted in each cockpit that indicated the relative bearing from the aircraft to the SAM site tracking radar. A site was deemed within range for missile launch when the strobe was stronger—approximately two-rings in length—and Kerzon had never before seen a 3 1⁄2-ring Fan Song signal, so he knew he was in trouble and had to react fast. He had to do two things at once: point his aircraft directly at the site to aim the AGM-45, and build his airspeed to be able to maneuver away from the anticipated SAM launch. Rolling left toward the tracking signal emanating from the SAM site, he pushed the throttle into afterburner for maximum power. Simultaneously he radioed Cadillac Flight to alert the Phantoms to the danger. Halfway through his turn, pulling Gs, descending and checking his attitude indicator, Kerzon heard McIntire yelling, “Get ’em! Get ’em!” Just as the strobe approached his 12 o’clock, indicating the SAM radar site was right in front of them, McIntire announced, “We have a valid launch!” Kerzon warned Cadillac Flight that SAMs were in the air and the Phantoms should be on the lookout.
From this point on, an almost automatic integration of training, experience, seat-of-the-pants flying and the survival instinct overtook Kerzon. The SAM signal—now a four ringer!—was dead on Oakland 2’s nose. Doppler showed it was seven miles out. Kerzon mashed down on the “pickle button” and his port-side Shrike blasted off the wing, straight as a string for about one second, then dipped sharply earthward, homing in on a strong SAM radar signal. As Kerzon’s first missile disappeared, he rippled off his second Shrike. Still in afterburner, Kerzon yanked over to the left, and then rolled right to get a good look down over his right canopy bow. At that moment, he spotted two separate yellow-orange dots far below—two SAMs that had just been launched, kicking up red North Vietnamese dirt. Within seconds, the two dots turned bright white. Kerzon called to McIntire, “There they are…two of ’em!” Again, he transmitted, this time to anyone listening because he was too busy to use a call sign: “SAMs airborne! Lead 89!”
Kerzon was now in a life-or-death duel with two SA-2 missiles barreling toward his Thud. He pushed down and turned a bit to fly more on his side but the SAMs remained locked on a spot inside his right windscreen just forward of the canopy bow. They were closing fast, their “angular size,” the circle of light emanating from their engine flames, growing rapidly. He only took his eyes off of them long enough to check his altitude, attitude and airspeed. He was descending; his altitude was fine with a roll angle about 135 degrees (partially inverted), airspeed approaching the speed of sound. With only seconds to react, Kerzon had to calculate when to make the hard pull-up. Because of the close range of their launch, the SAMs were still in their acceleration phase and approaching at about 3,000 feet per second. The darkness added yet another degree of difficulty in judging how close the missiles actually were. If he made his move too soon, the SAM controllers could correct the missiles’ flight. If he moved too late, he and McIntire would be toast.
Kerzon later recalled thinking: “If I don’t make the right move at the right time, Scottie is dead!” It didn’t dawn on him until the next day that he was sitting a mere 30 inches in front of Scottie and would also have been dead.
Kerzon suddenly detected a distinct divergence of the two SAMs, with forward movement by the SAM closest to his nose. Just as he made a rolling left pull-up, both SAMs disappeared below his nose. As the first SAM flashed by his left side, the glow of its sustainer engine was blinding, illuminating the cockpits.
McIntire saw a flash as the first SAM, likely triggered by a Doppler-mode proximity fuzing system inside the missile, detonated high and off to the left, just as Kerzon rolled back to the right and pushed his nose down. Still in burner, he picked up the second SAM, which by now was much closer. As he continued to push over to get a better view, he suddenly saw a third SAM coming up fast to the right of the second one.
This was a basic SAM commander’s tactic: fire multiple missiles at the same aircraft, which would have to expend energy to avoid the first and second, then, low on energy, be hard pressed to maneuver away from the third.
Kerzon later recalled, he “pushed a healthy negative G…two, maybe three. It just felt like the thing to do under the circumstances.” Both SAMs zipped over the canopy in tight formation. McIntire thought he heard or felt a “whumping” as they passed.
Seconds later, McIntire yelled: “The signal’s down! No sweat!” The SAM radar-tracking signal had gone “off the air.” Kerzon’s altitude was now 5,000 feet and airspeed down to 250 knots.
Cadillac Flight radioed as the Phantoms exited the target area and thanked Oakland 2, giving no indication that they were aware of Oakland 2’s harrowing encounter. The Weasels made their way to the awaiting tanker, took on fuel and headed home, not knowing if their Shrikes had hit “The Vulture” SAM site.
It was 10 p.m. when they taxied in at Takhli. As McIntire and Kerzon went through their cockpit cleanup, a staff car pulled up below the ladder and out stepped the wing commander. He had received word that Oakland 2 had engaged some SAMs. As they were walking away from their aircraft, one of the mechanics called out, “Major Kerzon, you’ll want to take a look at this!” He turned on his flashlight and lifted it toward a point about midway up and forward of the afterburner section. A jagged one-inch hole had been drilled through the aircraft’s skin, through the afterburner liner, with an exit hole six inches aft of the horizontal tail leading edge. They had had a “midair” with one—just one! —of the thousands of steel pellets that had blanketed the explosive charge of the SAM they had dodged. Kerzon later recalled thinking of the old adage: “Sometimes luck trumps skill and cunning.”
The debrief was far from routine. They went into the wing commander’s office where he offered them a stiff drink as they described the mission in minute detail. Still wound up, McIntire and Kerzon headed to the officers club for a few more drinks.
Weeks of intelligence gathering, electronic surveillance and photographic observation confirmed that the SAM site that Kerzon and McIntire had engaged was no longer active.
Most important to Kerzon and McIntire was knowing that they had protected the F-4 Phantoms from a serious threat that would surely have gotten at least one of them. They both earned their third Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission.
In early 1969, Kerzon was reassigned to the staff of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base. McIntire then decided to go through Wild Weasel training again and volunteered for a second tour. But his luck ran out when he was shot down and killed in action while flying a Wild Weasel mission over Laos on Dec. 10, 1971.
It was evident after the first shoot-down of a U.S. aircraft by an SA-2 in Vietnam that the SAM was a serious challenge to American domination of the airspace over North Vietnam. Unlike contending with anti-aircraft artillery and MiG fighters, there was no “book” for aircrews to learn from. The first Weasel crews had a very high loss rate, but the survivors had learned to thrive in chaos and passed their experience on to the crews that followed.
The Wild Weasel mission evolved rapidly over an incredibly short period of time, from the first primitive detection set of avionics, basic ordnance of rockets and guns and near suicidal tactics to state-of-the-art electronics and powerful SAM-killing missiles and, above all, a set of death-defying skills and tactics executed with precision. While technological advances were stunning, it was the grit, dedication and courage of the few hundred men who crewed the Wild Weasel aircraft, such as Kerzon and McIntire, willingly flying into some of the most dangerous airspace on earth, that made the difference.
Warren E. Thompson writes extensively about military aviation and is a frequent contributor to Vietnam and Aviation History.