Ralph MacDowell Hitchens, Pilot
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, 1971-72
I was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 31, 1945. I received my commission through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at Southern Illinois University in September 1967. From October 1967 to June 1970, I was Supply Officer at Luke AFB, Arizona. During that assignment, I was promoted to First Lieutenant in 1969. My promotion to Captain came in 1970. I attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Williams AFB in Arizona from June 1970 to June 1971. Upon graduation, I was assigned to AC-119 gunships and received K model training at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio and Hurlburt Field, Florida between July and November 1971. Upon successful completion of gunship training, I headed for Vietnam.
I was assigned to the 18th Special Operations Squadron as an AC-119K Stinger gunship pilot. My one year tour of duty in Southeast Asia started November 1971 and ended November 1972. During that time, I was stationed at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand (better known as NKP) with TDYs to Da Nang, Saigon, and Bien Hoa, Republic of Vietnam. Upon returning stateside, I was assigned as a T-39 pilot at Andrews AFB, Maryland from December 1972 to May 1976 and then assigned as a T-39 pilot at Ramstein Air Base, Germany from May 1976 to November 1979. I resigned from active duty in 1979 and became a USAF Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee in 1986.
My Reserve assignment from November 1986 to June 1990 was Intelligence Reserve Detachment 56 at the National War College, Fort McNair, D.C. Then from June 1990 to October 1995, I was assigned to Long Range Plans Division, HQ USAF (Pentagon), Washington D.C. I retired from the USAF Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel on October 30, 1995.
After leaving the USAF in 1979, I worked in the Washington DC area as a corporate pilot for Omni International Jet Sales and US Jet Aviation, flying several types of business jets. In 1983, I accepted a civil service job as an intelligence analyst with the Department of the Army. I continued to fly corporate jets part-time until 1988. In 1991, I transferred to the Intelligence Office of the U.S. Department of Energy. I retired in 2004, and am now employed as a contractor – a “beltway bandit” – with Computer Sciences Corporation, working in the Office of Classification at the Department of Energy in Germantown, MD.
As a USAF pilot I logged about 450 hours in the AC-119K and over 3,000 hours in the T-39. I think I had about 4,700 total hours when I hung up my spurs.
I have a lot of vivid memories from my year in Thailand and Vietnam: the unbelievably graphic slide show on sexually-transmitted diseases upon arrival at NKP; ten guys stepping out of the crew bus and lining up at the edge of the PSP to take a collective leak before the preflight; tweaking the jet engine toggle switches and trim tabs on the yoke to maintain exact altitude and speed in the firing circle; the lazy glide of tracers reaching upward in the night; listening for the dreaded call “BREAK LEFT!” or “BREAK RIGHT!”; the awesome sight of a POL truck exploding on a Cambodian road (still visible halfway back to Bien Hoa); rockets exploding outside the barracks at Da Nang as we crouched against a wall on the ground floor in our flak vests and helmets; Rod Slagle and Roy Lefebvre teaching me how to play bridge in the Stinger Hooch at NKP (Rod was KIA a few months later, when Terry Courtney’s gunship was shot down near An Loc); earnest debates in the hooch about what the lyrics to “American Pie” meant; drinking Singha with fellow crewmembers of “Pollmann’s Pirates” on the terrace of a bar in downtown NKP overlooking the Mekong River, watching the triple-A over the Trail, far to the east; later that same night, drunk out of our minds, racing sampans through the streets beneath the famous Ho Chi Minh Clock; the nightly run to the “No Hab” snack bar at Da Nang; the horrible wreckage of the Da Nang BX the morning after it got hit by a rocket; the welcome appearance of cherry pie or chocolate cake to break the monotony of bread pudding in the Da Nang chow hall; the spectacular view of Saigon and MR-III from the rooftop restaurant at the Caravelle Hotel; my hooch maid awarding me a wreath of plastic flowers on my DEROS; our “Freedom Bird” landing unexpectedly at Oakland International instead of Travis AFB, on account of the fog; my buddy and I crossing the Bay Bridge in our rental car to join his wife and my girlfriend in San Francisco, the fog lifting suddenly just as Johnny Nash came on the radio – “I can see clearly now.”
A war story has to begin with “This is no shit” – I was flying with Dan Braun’s crew out of Da Nang early in the “Easter Offensive,” sometime in late March 1972, and the DASC asked us to fly up to within a few miles of the DMZ, several miles inside the “SAM ring,” to provide close air support to a beleaguered ARVN fire support base that had some US Army advisors. (Lord knows we wouldn’t have done it just for the ARVN’s.) The weather was solid IFR; we arrived over the firebase and began descending cautiously through the clouds. Suddenly I saw a bright three-ring strobe on the radar warning panel; seconds later we saw multiple flashes in the murk outside the cockpit windows, and my first thought was, “Oh hell, we’re flying through an artillery barrage.” But then we heard a frantic radio call: “This is DEEP SEA on Guard, multiple SAM launches DMZ!” We turned around and beat feet south, we must have pushed the old bird up to a blazing 180 knots or so. Later we found out there were at least 7 and possibly as many as 11 SAMs in the air. As I recall, the SA-2 was a “beam-riding” missile, but by 1972 the USAF and the Navy were getting a lot better at targeting SAM radars with anti-radiation missiles, so the NVA’s new tactic was to do a quick sweep with the target acquisition radar to get an approximate azimuth on a target, then salvo multiple missiles at various altitudes in hopes that one of them would hit. We were very lucky that night.
What the Lord gives with one hand He takes away with the other. I lost a lot of flying time and missed my chance to upgrade from copilot to aircraft commander because I was “volunteered” to pull a two-month detail at MACV in Saigon in May of 1972. I worked in “Blue Chip,” the Air Force command post at Tan Son Nhut. The upside was that I learned a great deal about how the USAF plans and conducts large-scale combat and support operations. A high point of that tour was ordering the Stinger detachment commander at Da Nang, Lt. Col. Teal, to release one of his aircraft from perimeter patrol around the airfield and send it off to attack actual enemy targets in Laos. Teal was pretty upset with me. When my TDY was over, I had to let him tear me a new one back at Da Nang. I tuned him out and focused on the captured VC 122mm rocket leaning against the wall in the corner of his office. It was a gift from the ARVN that later, to everyone’s great amusement, turned out to have never actually been disarmed.
Back in the saddle again, later in 1972 I had the opportunity to ferry a damaged AC-119K from Bien Hoa to NKP. This aircraft had been torn up pretty bad in a mortar attack, and a maintenance crew had done the best they could, but it still deserved its nickname, “Patches.” The 18th SOS operations officer, who seldom flew combat missions, volunteered himself and me (because I was always pestering him for more flying time) to fly this milk run. We caught a C-130 down to Bien Hoa, looked at “Patches” and decided that yes, it looked like it might actually fly. We got airborne late the next afternoon and things were going fine until, somewhere over northern Cambodia with darkness falling, the electric trim failed and both of us had to apply increasing force against the yoke to keep the airplane straight and level. Not long afterward an engine failed and we experienced a more or less total electrical failure as well.
We diverted into Ubon, with the navigator hanging out the forward door talking to the tower on his survival radio. Amazingly, they got some maintenance guys down from NKP and were able to fix “Patches” the next day, and we eventually made it home, but I don’t think “Patches” ever flew another combat mission. As I recall, I experienced no fewer than five engine failures over hostile territory in the course of my 139 missions; wonder if that’s a record?
On the personal side, I married the former Janet Smith in 1974. Janet’s father was co-pilot on the very first presidential aircrew, flying Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Janet and I adopted two girls from Russia in 1993 and 1994; Elizabeth is now 17 and Emily is 14 years old. I’m one of the older guys at PTA meetings.