interesting VN story
I have never heard of this mission. Interesting reading.
The North American T-28 began life in 1946 as the XSN2J-1, which was designed to replace the SNJ trainer for the Navy. Looking like a tailwheel T-28, the design was not accepted by the Navy, but in 1947 the Air Force issued a specification for a new trainer to replace the T-6. It was to use the Wright R-1300 radial engine of 800 h.p. (The engine was an R-2600 cut in half), and should have tricycle landing gear to emulate the performance of a jet-powered aircraft. North American took up their failed Navy design and modified it to meet the Air Force requirements. In May 1948, the Air Force announced the selection of the BT-28, and North American proceeded to create two flying prototypes, which first flew on September 26, 1949. After completing flight tests, the Air Force ordered 266 T-28A Trojans in late 1949 and the first T-28As entered service in April 1950. The only complaint was that the airplane was somewhat underpowered with the R-1300 engine; this had been done deliberately to give the T-28 the feel of an early jet aircraft. The last T-28A rolled off the production line in 1953. The T-28 began leaving service in 1958. Cadet Norm Crocker remembered “When I was graduating flight school in 1959, I saw the T‑28As being taken to the boneyard.”
In 1960, the Tactical Air Command was directed to form a counter-insurgency force which could train allied and friendly air forces to fight limited wars against guerilla forces, which came to be known as the Air Commandos. TAC began looking for an aircraft that could fill the bill, and finally settled on the T-28As that were at the Davis-Monthan boneyard; it was felt a modified T-28 would make an ideal aircraft to train and equip small air forces with a fighter bomber that was simple to fly and maintain.
The T-28As were all fairly “weary” from their years in training command. The first thing that had to be done was to give them a bigger engine; Wright R-1820s were taken from recently-retired SA-16 Albatross aircraft, and installed in the T-28s, which received a new cowling similar to that used by the Navy’s T-28B and T-28C trainers which were powered by this engine. The wings of the newly-designated T-28D were strengthened to allow the aircraft to carry up to 4,000 pounds in underwing stores. The 50-caliber gun pods that had been developed for gunnery training in the T-28 were used; two different pods were used, one with 100 rpg which kept the spent shells inside the pod, and a larger pod with 500 rpg. When the definitive AT-28D was developed, the gun pod was changed to a more aerodynamically-clean one that had ammo bays in the wing. As the T-28D, the aircraft had two underwing pylons on each wing in addition to the self-contained gun pods, while the AT-28D had three pylons under each wing. Top speed was 345 mph, with a rate of climb of 3,780 fpm. Between 1961 to 1969, North American received 13 production contracts to convert 371 T-28As to T-28Ds. Additionally, Fairchild Aircraft converted 72 T-28As to AT-28D-5s; many of these were later equipped with the Yankee extraction seat similar to that used in the A-1 Skyraider.
The first armed T-28s to see action were flown by the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron at Eglin AFB. In 1961, President Kennedy authorized the deployment of a detachment from the 4400th CCTS to South Vietnam under the code name “Farm Gate,” While the primary mission was to train South Vietnamese Air Force pilots, the Air Force pilots were authorized to fly combat missions so long as a South Vietnamese pilot was aboard. “Farm Gate” also brought along a group of B-26B Invaders for evaluation. By 1962, the VNAF 2nd Fighter Squadron was operational. In 1963, the 4400th CCTS detachment was renamed the 1st Air Commando Squadron (Composite) and continued to operate T-28D and B-26B aircraft. In 1964, it was decided that the VNAF would upgrade to the A-1 Skyraider and the Air Force “officially” left the T-28 business.
The Laotian, Thai and Cambodian Air Forces were also equipped with the T-28D, with the Laotian aircraft becoming involved in what was known as “the secret war” which would eventually involve combat with North Vietnamese forces in Laos, northern Thailand and Cambodia.
By 1965, as the United States formally intervened in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese began the construction of what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which extended from North Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia and then into South Vietnam, for supply of communist forces. Pilots like Norm Crocker, by then a junior Air Force Captain flying as a co-pilot in B-52Ds, flew strikes against the trail at Mu GiaPass, the northernmost pass out of South Vietnam into Laos, just below the DMZ. At the same time, C-130 pilot Captain Jack Drummond’s unit began operating out of DaNang on “Blind Bat” operations, dropping flares for B-57s as they began to attack the North Vietnamese supply lines. As Drummond recalled, “I watched the Ho Chi Minh Trail being built, from there on. When we first went up, no one was flying at night, and the North Vietnamese were driving with their lights on.”
The 56th Air Commando Wing was deployed to Thailand in 1966 as part of the “Lucky Tiger” program to work with Thai and Laotian units to develop counter-insurgency operations in northern Thailand and Laos. One of the units of the 56th ACW was the 606th Air Commando Squadron, equipped with the Fairchild-modified AT-28D; their official assignment was to train Thai and Laotian pilots for combat, and support the Laotian Army in central Laos, operating out of Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand (NKP). Unofficially, the 606th was also tasked with flying night interdiction air strikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
C-130 pilot Jack Drummond flew the first group of 606th pilots from Bangkok to NKP in October 1966. When he heard what the mission was to be, he knew he wanted to be involved. “I knew everything there was to know about the target. I went back and volunteered straight out. It would be a chance to finally shoot back at all those guys who had been shooting at me.” Drummond was immediately accepted and sent to Hurlburt Field in Florida for Air Commando training, returning to Southeast Asia in March 1967.
A Zorro mission lasted between an hour and a half to two hours, with takeoff around 0230 and return around 0430 during the dry season. Operations over the Trail at night involved a Forward Air Controller; in the early days these were Cessna O-1s, but they were soon replaced by the faster Cessna O-2A. The FAC searched for trucks, flying at anywhere from 500 feet to 1,500 feet above the trail with a second pilot searching the ground below with a starlight scope to spot movement. When the trucks were found, an AT-28D would be called in to hit the targets, aiming to stop the first and last truck in the convoy and trap the rest, at which point an A-26 “Nimrod” (the Counter-Invader remanufactured by On-Mark) would come in to hit the convoy with its 8 50-caliber machine guns and heavier bombs.
As Drummond recalled, “The command structure was such that every mission into Laos had to be approved by the American Ambassador to Laos, who would coordinate directly with the Commander of Seventh Air Force. He would sign himself ‘Sopwith Camel Company’ as reference to our old airplanes. The big thing 606th SOS had to overcome was that the Air Force wanted all jets and we weren’t. Eventually, we were so successful we were responsible for 70-75% of trucks killed on the Trail before the introduction of the AC-130. Seventh Air Force got so embarrassed by the record that they stopped differentiating between jets and props in their monthly report, and just issued one combined number.”
The 606th callsign, “Zorro,” has an interesting story behind it. Originally, 56th ACW requested the callsign “Sabre” for the AT-28Ds, but an F-100 squadron at Tuy Hoa AB in South Vietnam was already using that. When it was discovered that “Zorro” was available, it was adopted because it represented a hero who performed good deeds fighting bad guys at night. A “Zorro” squadron patch was designed: a black background with a red mask and sword, with “Zorro” over both in white, with the “Z” slashed as it was in the TV show.
The AT-28D wasn’t the ideal airplane for the mission, as Drummond recalled. “The big problem with using the T-28 in combat in our situation was you had no energy to evade with. You were diving at 250 knots, and while you could turn tight, you didn’t move through the air fast enough to evade the flak. Before there were too many guns on the Trail, we did missions into North Vietnam too.” By the time he left the 606th in April 1968 to “cross the river” and become an advisor to the Laotian Air Force, Jack Drummond had flown more than 120 missions at night over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the AT-28. “By early 1968, they were keeping us away from the ‘red areas,’ where the guns were heavy, which meant we weren’t going where the trucks were. I got bored with the mission. I volunteered to go across the river to Laos as an advisor to the Laotian Air Force and spent six months on that tour. Officially, we were advisors only, and were not supposed to fly combat, but I flew many ‘test flights’ where we took off with ordnance and returned without ordnance.”
SAC B-52 pilot Norm Coleman came to the 606th in the fall of 1967 after flying 49 combat missions in the B-52. “When I saw the requests for volunteers for T‑28s, I was told I couldn’t be accepted because I had access to the War Plan and clearance. So I volunteered again for A‑26s and was told the same thing. After I un‑volunteered, I was given orders in October 1967 for T‑28s.” When Coleman arrived at the 606th, he made his first familiarization flight over the Trail in the back seat of an AT-28D flown by Jack Drummond.
By the time Coleman was flying missions, the NVAs were running trucks on the trail in groups of 3-4, rather than the convoys of 20-30 they had been doing, making it harder to stop them. Coleman found he wasn’t a “truck killer” like Drummond, and gained a reputation for going after the defensive AAA. He had a strategy for spotting the guns: “You’d watch the guy ahead of you going in, and spot the guns when they opened up on him.” As Coleman recalled, “It was easiest to spot a gun with an untrained gunner who would fire straight up, experienced gunners didn’t do that.” Pilots called full moon
nights “the gunner’s moon.” There were multiple AAA used for defense of the trail. “The deadliest was the ZPU‑23,” Coleman remembered. “It had four 23mm cannon in a single mount, and they didn’t fire tracer. You could spot them from the
‘flower pattern’ of the muzzle blast. You could tell 50 caliber from 37mm by the color of the tracers. One 37mm hit was all it took to knock down a T‑28. The O-2As were OK, but if one of them got hit in the rear engine, he wasn’t going home.” Originally, the strategy had been for an AT-28 to drop flares over that part of the trail being attacked, and then keep the flare between the attacking airplane and the ground targets. By late 1967, “There were so many guns, it was impossible to keep a flare between you and the gunners.”
What seems incredible, looking back at these events, is the fact that the 606th never had more than ten AT-28Ds on hand at any particular time, yet was responsible for the majority of “kills” on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the major expansion of the war in 1966-68. The reliability of the T-28 was what made the operations possible, since there would be at least two aircraft over the trail any given night. Finally, in early 1968, time started catching up with the airplanes. As Coleman recalled, “They started finding major damage to the spars. Even beefed up, these were light weight spars that had originally been designed for an airplane - the T-28A - that had only about three-quarters the weight of the AT-28D. And the engines started going bad.” In a one week period in February 1968, three airplanes went down for engine failure, and two of the pilots were lost. Coleman himself experienced an engine cutting out while on a mission. “The possibility of losing an engine at night, over the Trail, would definitely get your attention.” None of the AT-28D pilots who bailed out over the Ho Chi Minh Trail ever made it into a POW camp.
With the increasing wear and tear on the airframes and engines, and with the performance of the AT-28D being insufficient to allow operations over the more heavily-defended parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where radar-directed AAA became common after November 1967, the AT-28Ds were withdrawn from operations in April 1968 and replaced by ex-Navy A-1G Skyraiders that had been modified for the ELINT mission, then further modified for strike operations.
Even more than 40 years after the secret war over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, almost nothing has been written about Air Force AT-28D or 606th Special Operations Squadron operations during the period from October 1966 through March 1968. Officially, AT-28D aircraft were not used by the Air Force on operations in Southeast Asia after 1964. AT-28D operations from Nakhon Phanom AB supporting the secret war in Laos were not officially admitted until the late 1990s, and there are still aspects of the operation that former pilots cannot speak of today. All operations in Laos were credited to Royal Laotian Air Force T-28Ds, which did indeed fight on until the end of the war in Indochina in the spring of 1975.
Re: interesting VN story
Interesting story and a lot of info- thank you
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