Walter O “Buck” McCants, Pilot

18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Bien Hoa, Da Nang 1972-73

I was born in Lancaster, South Carolina, in 1946. I graduated from the US Air Force Academy in June, 1968 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Undergraduate pilot training at Moody AFB, Georgia was next. After receiving my wings on 30 August, 1969, I was assigned to the 41th Military Airlift Squadron at Charleston AFB, SC, and upgraded to Aircraft Commander in the C-141 in 1971.

In December 1971 I departed Charleston to commence the first part of AC-119K gunship training at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio. This initial training was in the C-119G from January- February 1972, and was conducted by Reserve pilots. Actual AC-119K training at Hurlburt AFB, Florida followed for another two months.

After a brief stop at Clark AB, Philippines for Jungle Survival Training, I arrived at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) AB, Thailand in May, 1972. After a brief in-country copilot checkout over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I was sent TDY to Bien Hoa AB, Republic of South Vietnam. The base hadn’t been hit with rockets for quite a while, but on my first night there, the Viet Cong (VC) welcomed me in fine style. I don’t remember how many rockets impacted the base, but it was a large number and lasted a long time. I upgraded to Aircraft Commander almost immediately after arriving there; I went on to serve as Instructor Pilot and Flight Examiner before end of tour. Our main mission was supporting TICs (Troops-in-Contact) and armed interdiction of trucks and sampans in Cambodia and the Delta region of South Vietnam. Two missions at Bien Hoa stand out for me- one very scary and one very satisfying.

The scary one was having 3 SA-7 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles fired at us one night in Cambodia near the Parrot’s Beak in the space of about 5 minutes. Fortunately, we had just been briefed on proper evasive maneuvers against the SA-7, and had received upgraded flares that ignited almost immediately after leaving the launcher. Tremendous crew coordination of spotting the missile launches, firing the flares, breaking into the missiles, and throttling back the jets—three times in the space of 5 minutes—kept us from getting hit. Yours truly RTB’d immediately after the third missile and I don’t recall having any members of the crew object to that decision. We debriefed Intel back at Bien Hoa, and were told that it was the first confirmed SA-7 launch in that area of Cambodia/South Vietnam. After we changed our underwear, the crew enjoyed quite a few adult beverages in the hootch.

The satisfying mission was in support of Sundog Alpha. Sundog Alpha was a radio relay site located on the top of Nui Ba Den Mountain (The Black Virgin) near Tay Ninh City. The VC owned the base of the mountain, and USAF radio operators protected by Vietnamese Regional and Popular Forces owned the top. We were shooting sampans in Cambodia when we heard a very urgent request for help on guard frequency from our guys on top of the mountain. It didn’t take us long to arrive at the mountain, but by that time the bad guys were past the wire and our guys were in danger of being overrun. I received clearance to fire on top of their position after confirming that the good guys were bunkered and had their heads down. Due to the nature of the target (a mountaintop), I had to fire manually (only time ever) and using a combination of information from the guys on the ground, the FLIR operator and NOS operator, we were able to adjust fire to where it was needed. We stayed on orbit until we Winchester’ed (ran out of ammunition), but thankfully we were relieved by a two-ship of A-37s from Bien Hoa. It was just an unbelievable performance by the whole crew, and Air Medals followed. But the highlight was meeting some of those radio operators at Bien Hoa a few weeks later.

After a couple of months at Bien Hoa, I next went TDY to Da Nang AB. After a couple of months the TDY turned into a PCS, as the 18th stood down at NKP and a drawn-down force stood up at Da Nang. A small number of us were selected for Project Enhance Plus, whereby we trained South Vietnamese aircrews. We trained three complete crews- two before the ceasefire in January 1973, and one after- and then turned the aircraft over to the South Vietnamese Air Force and returned home in March 1973.

It was without a doubt the most challenging instructor pilot experience I had in flying almost 40 years, as I imagine it was for all of the instructor crewmembers. But it was a satisfying one, too. The first crew was highly experienced in the AC-119G, but the level of competency in the subsequent two crews fell dramatically. Daytime rocket attacks to go with the normal night-time ones, flying without any legal alternates, no base rescue helicopter capability, minimal instrument approach capability – all combined to make it “interesting”. Unfortunately, some of those factors led to a controlled bailout over the water off Da Nang by one crew, and the loss of one South Vietnamese student.

But during a combat tour a sense of humor is indispensable. On 8 January 1973 a four-ship of F-4s supposedly performing a LORAN drop quite a few miles south of Da Nang bombed the fuel dump at the base instead. I have a “ Survivor US Forces Bomb Attack Danang 8 Jan 73 RVN” patch to prove it.

Because the AF was overstaffed with pilots as the war drew down, I went to a Rated Supplement assignment as a Personnel Officer at Bolling AFB, DC when I DEROS’d. After about a year in the base CBPO, I was selected as the Aide-de-Camp to the Commander, Headquarters Commander. Next was a two-year “assignment” as an Olmsted Scholar to Geneva, Switzerland for a master’s degree equivalent in International Affairs. Tough duty, but someone had to do it!! From mid-1978- mid-1982 I was flying the C-141 again in the 14th MAS at Norton AFB, California. I stayed in the squadron the whole time as I progressed from requalifying as Aircraft Commander, to Instructor Pilot, Flight Examiner, Chief Pilot, Operations Officer, and finally Squadron Commander. Best job ever!! A year at the National War College in DC from 1982-83 was followed by two more in the Pentagon on the Air Staff, then two more as Assistant Chief of Staff at Headquarters Military Airlift Command at Scott AFB, Illinois. In 1988, I was assigned as the Vice Wing Commander of the 60th Military Airlift Wing at Travis AFB, California until I retired in March of 1990.

I was fortunate to be hired by Federal Express immediately upon USAF retirement, where I flew the B-727 and Airbus A-300/310 for almost 16 years. I mandatorily retired at age 60 as a Captain/ Line Check Airman in the Airbus. My wife, Linda, and I live in Rock Hill, SC, not far from where we grew up in Lancaster.