Richard “Steve” Mac Isaac, Pilot
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang, 1972
I was commissioned in 1970 upon graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy. I completed a Vietnam combat tour as an AC-119K copilot and aircraft commander. From the AC-119K, I flew the C-5A/B. During my Air Force career, I served as squadron commander, operations officer, systems program manager, flight test director, director of operations, joint command air liaison, and joint command deputy air component commander. I also completed a Master of Science in International and Acquisition Logistics through the Air Force Institute of Technology. I retired in July 2000 as a Colonel, with 30 years military service and 4,800 flying hours. My significant awards and decorations included Legion of Merit with 1 OLC, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with 1 OLC, and Air Medal with 2 Silver OLC’s.
I was assigned to the AC-119K directly from pilot training. I served with the 18th Special Operations Squadron from February 1972 – December 1972, where I flew 171 combat missions from NKP, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang. I was also the assistant squadron administration officer, assistant squadron scheduling officer, and AC-119K Stinger gunship aircraft commander.
After Major “Wild Bill” Lodge, Captain John Robert “Bobby” Dydo was the best pilot I flew with in SEA. I was Bobby’s Copilot for my first 70 combat missions. He was really good in combat and gave me every opportunity to grow as a pilot, while turning a blind eye to some of the rules. He gave me every other takeoff and landing. When the time came, he recommended me for upgrade to Aircraft Commander.
Wild Bill Lodge was the Squadron’s Chief Pilot Tact Eval. He gave me my AC check-flight. I passed the check ride with flying colors, making me the only First Lieutenant AC in our unit at that time. I flew 71 combat missions as an AC. The experiences flying Stinger gunships motivated me for the remainder of my 30-year flying career.
Stinger ‘Black Killer Duck’ Takeoff At NKP
On November 4, 1972, I was scheduled as aircraftcommander with an AC-119K crew I had not flown with. I was a first lieutenant with 156 combat missions, but the copilot was a captain who appeared to be about six to seven years older. It was a bit of an awkward situation for me.
Our aircraft that night was 53-7830, the best shooting Stinger at NKP, and known as the Black Killer Duck. The copilot performed an impressively thorough preflight. I pegged him as one of those by-the-book Flight Instructor- types from Air Training Command. He executed the checklist perfectly during engine-start and taxi. To break the ice, I suggested he make the takeoff and he acknowledged with an enthusiastic “Yes.”
Before taxiing onto the runway, I told him, “Around here we add five knots to rotate-speed for the Flight Engineer, and another five knots for my mother so I can see her again. So, when you have rotate-speed, plus 10 knots, slowly and smoothly rotate the Duck off the ground and let her gain some speed and altitude, and then call for the gear. Got it?” “I got it,” he said.
When cleared for takeoff, the copilot took the flight controls and I took the throttles, with the engineer backing me up. Off we went, roaring down the runway, with everything in the green. The Captain’s rudder inputs were good as we passed VR—the reject-speed at which it is still possible to abort the takeoff. We were committed to a takeoff for sure now, because there was not enough runway remaining to abort. At rotate-speed MINUS five knots the copilot yanked the yoke back into his stomach and the Duck leaped off the ground. The ground-effect left us hanging on the props, barely flying, and in grave danger.
Instantly, my mind shifted into emergency mode as I screamed, “PILOT’S AIRPLANE!” All the skill, experience and pilot’s instinct took over as I fought to keep the aircraft flying. I couldn’t put her back down— no runway left. I could see the 12-foot high fence at the end of the field and rows of trees 500 feet beyond. I was not climbing and the airspeed hadn’t increased one knot! I yelled for gear-up. That would get us a few knots. I called to the engineer to close the cowl flaps; closing them could overheat the engines, but the drag reduction might get us another knot or two. Slowly – ever so slowly – the airspeed began creeping up. I was squeezing the yoke, trying to feel the difference between ground effect and a positive climb. At last, I felt the pressure changing; the Duck was finally flying! But it wasn’t over.
I cleared the fence and had to zoom up to get over the trees, and then let the nose down to get back the speed I’d lost in the zoom. I headed for the river, which I knew was lower than the airfield. Cylinder head temperatures were going up as expected, but we were safely flying again with enough airspeed. I made a left turn out of traffic at normal climb speed and called for the AFTER TAKEOFF/CLIMB CHECKLIST. I think everyone onboard knew how close we had come to buying-the-farm. The crew was quiet throughout the mission and on the way back to NKP. No one on this crew was going to forget this mission.
On the bus ride from the flightline, I was trying to figure out how this First Lieutenant was going to tear the Captain a new asshole. Then, from the back of the bus, the Captain said, “Sorry guys. I’m buying the beer.” After a beer or two, he blurted out, “I choked. In training I think they only let me takeoff once or twice, and none of those birds were half as heavy as we were tonight. I was so scared and trying so hard that I subtracted, rather than added, the speed to VR.” The rest of the story was that he was a maintenance officer for five years and had just completed pilot training as a Captain; he had no flying experience. MY BAD! I was responsible. I never asked. I just assumed.
The November 4th mission was the last Stinger mission flown into Laos from NKP. That mission put the fear of God back into me! In flying my remaining 15 missions, I was probably the sharpest pilot in Southeast Asia! Remember, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over”!