Unfriendly Skies

By Kim Ponders,
a major in the U.S. Air Force reserves and former AWACS flier who is the author of the novel "The Art of Uncontrolled Flight"
Thursday, May 18, 2006


The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail

By Rick Newman and Don Shepperd

Presidio. 480 pp. $29.95


A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War

By Ed Rasimus

St. Martin's. 248 pp. $24.95

"What's the difference between a fighter pilot and God?" goes the old joke. "God doesn't think he's a fighter pilot." Wars change, but fighter pilots stay the same -- young, bold, aggressive, crafty, funny, oversexed. Their stories manage to sound both daring and self-deprecating. Today's matchless Air Force, with its combination of hyper-high-tech planes and unmanned drones, is an awesome spectacle, but the heart yearns for the stories of legend -- fighters turning and jinking through torrents of antiaircraft artillery to drop their bombs while fending off Soviet MiGs, in the days before the skies were ours.

That brings us back to Vietnam, largely remembered as a quagmire on the ground but also a gritty air war, where pilots struggled with outdated tactics, bureaucratic ineptitude and a nearly invisible enemy. The aces in the cockpits have long taken their credit, but some of the greatest flying heroes of the war carried neither bombs nor missiles. They were "fast FACs" -- forward air controllers -- flying F-100 fighter jets instead of old propeller-driven aircraft, buzzing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, searching for ways to stem the constant flow of North Vietnamese resources to the anticommunist south.

It was hard enough avoiding ground fire on bombing runs, but the F-100 pilots went looking for it. They flew just above the weeds, deliberately drawing out gunfire in order to mark North Vietnamese targets with smoke rockets for the fighters to bomb from safer altitudes. It wasn't a risky mission; it was insane.

In 1967, Don Shepperd flew 58 missions with the top secret Operation Commando Sabre, dubbed "Misty" after its first commander's favorite song. The Misty pilots were a brazen, hard-flying lot who read the jungle by dust on the treetops and trails that vanished into mountainsides. They developed a sixth sense for hidden targets and a strange affinity with the ground shooters. The North Vietnamese, who were experts with camouflage, moved at night or under the incessant cloud cover. The Mistys took staggering risks to flush them out, often returning to base with bullet holes in their fuselages -- or not returning at all.

The stories in "Bury Us Upside Down" are vivid and timeless: the North Vietnamese gunner who was so inept that the Mistys had a standing order not to shoot him; the pilot who dissuaded his new commander from launching night Misty missions by taking him on a night flight and surreptitiously switching on the outboard lights over heavy ground fire; the Misty custom of igniting their afterburners over POW sites, sending out a familiar booming noise that told the downed airmen they were not forgotten. In this gripping narrative, Shepperd (now a CNN military analyst) and co-author Rick Newman (a U.S. News & World Report writer) follow the Mistys' short, tumultuous course through the war and the long, dispiriting wait of the families at home after some of the men were captured or missing in action. Too often, a combat pilot's story hinges upon glorified personal experiences, with little insight into the complexity of the war. But "Bury Us Upside Down" unfolds in crisp vignettes and remarkable detail, from the 1968 Tet Offensive to the peace negotiations that left so many MIA families dejected. It's a fabulous read.

In 1972, two years after the Mistys were disbanded, their mission adopted by better-equipped F-4 Phantom fighters, Ed Rasimus returned to Vietnam for his second tour of duty, this time flying F-4s out of Korat, Thailand. "Palace Cobra" picks up where his first book, "When Thunder Rolled" (a memoir about flying F-105s), left off. The result may be the best comparison of F-4 and F-105 performance and tactics ever written, but laymen not versed in Air Force jargon may find themselves overwhelmed.

In Vietnam, Rasimus makes clear, there were no precision-guided weapons, no night-vision goggles, none of the gadgets indispensable to air combat today -- but they all began there. Vietnam was a sort of tooth-cutting for the modern Air Force. The prestigious USAF Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada was busy developing aggressive tactics that stateside fighter-training wings refused to adopt. Their generals feared increased accidents; after all, accidents cost promotions. So staff officers in Vietnam were still advocating conservative, tight-turn tactics against Soviet-built MiGs long after the USAF Weapons School had discredited them. This had a Darwinian effect; often, it was the most wily, rule-breaking pilots who survived.

Rasimus's story reads as though it happened yesterday, with all the fear, bravado and frustration of combat but none of the reflection one might have expected after 30 years. That's too bad. Rasimus's passion for the cockpit comes through, but his memoir lacks the resonance of an earlier generation of pilot-writers. (Ernest K. Gann's "Fate Is the Hunter" and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "Flight to Arras" come to mind.) Alas, with Vietnam, we'll have to be satisfied for now with hair-raising tactics and swooning binges at the officers' club bar.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company