Great Balls of Fire
July 11, 1972
I turned off my Big Ben alarm clock at 0230, the usual wake-up time for our Linebacker mission. When the scheduling board simply indicated “Special”, we knew it would be a 0400 mass briefing at Wing Headquarters for a bombing mission over North Vietnam. We wouldn’t know our target until the mission briefing. The schedule was normally posted at the end of each day’s flying, and the previous day I had seen my name listed for the number four position in Jazz Flight for today’s Special. My Weapon Systems Officer would be Bill Woodworth.
F-4 pilots quickly become creatures of habit mixed with ritual, and I walked the short distance to the Ubon Officer’s Club to have my standard breakfast: cheese omelet, toast with butter, and coffee. I had successfully flown thirty-one Counters – missions over North Vietnam – and I wasn’t about to change anything without a pretty compelling reason. A few weeks earlier, the Thai waitress had misunderstood me when I had ordered, and brought me a plain Omelet. I politely ate it, and the mission on that day was the closest I had come – up until then – to getting shot down.
After breakfast, I walked to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Headquarters building, and performed my usual routine of stopping by the Intel desk and checking the Shoot-down Board. The Shoot-down Board was a large Plexiglas-covered board that listed the most recent friendly aircraft losses, written in grease pencil. We could tell, at a glance, if any aircraft had been shot down the previous night, the call sign, aircraft type, and survivor status. There were no friendly aircraft losses over North Vietnam to enemy action in the previous day.
That was not surprising. The Special for the previous day had been canceled when the strike leader, my Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Sharp, crashed on takeoff when his left tire exploded at 160 knots. He aborted, taking the departure end barrier, and his aircraft caught fire when pieces of the shredded tire pierced his left wing fuel tank. Brad’s emergency egress was delayed when he got hung up by his leg restraint lines. As he sat in his seat, seeing the canopy melting around him, his WSO, Mike Pomphrey, ran back to the burning aircraft and pulled him out, saving his life. As Mike dragged him to a drainage ditch 100 yards away to hunker down, the ejection seats, missiles and, eventually, bombs cooked off. Ubon’s only runway was out of commission, and the entire Linebacker mission, for all bases, was canceled. Overnight, the runway at Ubon was repaired, and our mission was on for this day.