I flew the Stinger aircraft out of Nakhon Phanom as a navigator for 90 days. I came from AC-130 gunships out of Ubon. About a dozen of us, mostly navigators, were given the choice between a staff job in Saigon or flying out of NKP. All of us volunteered for NKP. It was quite different from Ubon.
One night we were 45-minutes late for a take-off because we could not locate our FLIR operator. When we finally found him, he was dead drunk. Our crew positions were right next to each other. I’ve been a lifelong teetotaler, but I’ve been tolerant of others drinking because it was the military. But the guy sitting next to me was utterly worthless on the mission. We ran into a little activity and he couldn’t function in his position. He talked a lot, but wouldn’t do anything. We got through the mission successfully and came back, and of course, being a “Band of Brothers,” I never thought of telling the Commander about the episode because it might get the drunk in trouble, but it would also get the pilot in trouble.
The following night I flew the same mission with the same crew. The same thing happened, except this time we were prepared and started looking for the guy. We found him in the NCO Club, dead drunk. We grabbed him, got him on the aircraft, and made an on-time take-off. During the mission I had time to think about the situation. By not reporting the prior incident I had become part of the problem and could be court martialed, along with the FLIR operator and the pilot. In combat, things like that don’t worry you, so much. Also, if you had a personality conflict, all you had to say was you didn’t like somebody and pssst, they’d take you off the crew. The Air Force long ago found out people who didn’t like each other tend to kill each other because they spend too much time looking at the problem between them. So, I talked to our young pilot and told him we needed to do something, and explained how to do it so probably no one would get in trouble. I recommended going to the Commander and telling him I had a conflict with the guy, and one of us had to come off the crew. I figured he’d fight to keep me on and get the guy off, and that’s what happened. The Major was taken off, for the conflict between us and not for being drunk.
On one mission we were in the Plain of Jars, and a MIG-21 was launched out of China, as we learned after the fact. There was a C-130, AC-130 Spectre, our aircraft, and a small observation aircraft. Lion Control gave the warning, and used the Fishes Mouth as a reference. I didn’t have a map in front of me, but Fishes Mouth was a prominent navigation point. The Mig was coming up and he was going to clean house with somebody. I thought he was after the 130 because about that time it had shut down and gone to three engines. So now they were on three engines and I thought maybe that’s why the Mig was launched. We knew it, the Mig knew it, and I figured he could possibly outrun all of us. We were all heading south, but the pilot, I think his name was Brazil, in the C-130 over boosted his engines and came screaming down under us, and the scanner in the back saw it and said, “Hey, there’s an aircraft coming up under us.” Well, I knew the Mig was about 75 to 100 miles from us. But the rest of the crew assumed it was the fighter and the guy next to me almost bailed out. Somebody had to calm him down. Anyway, it was really close, because we were trying to dive, getting as close to the ground as possible without crashing (you wanted to get kind of lost in the radar ground clutter). The Mig, for whatever reason, came very close. I can still remember the control screaming at us. They were the most excited ones in this whole activity, saying, “It’s going to get you, Stinger! Get on the deck! Get on the deck! As low as you can!” The Mig came sweeping in under us but did not fire. To this day I do not know why he didn’t fire. It was a MIG-21, and they can launch air-to-air missiles. I have not solved that mystery.
Finally, the Mig got one of our fighters, an F-4, on his tail. By this time, were close to the Thai border. It may have been that I was so busy thinking about it. I can’t say precisely when we went across the border into Thailand. The F-4 pilot said, in a very calm voice, “This is Gunsmoke. Request permission to shoot.” I don’t know why he asked. I don’t know why he just didn’t shoot him down, but maybe it was his rules of engagement. It was quiet for a nanosecond, and then we heard a bunch of guys using a lot of foul language, saying “Kill the SOB.” About 30 seconds went by, then at 45 seconds the F-4 pilot said he had broken away. He had never gotten permission to fire.
I suspect it had something to do with the Thai border. We may have been over Thailand, and could have caused an international incident. So, it was probably a smart thing in retrospect, but we were perfectly willing to shoot him down at the time.