Frank tells us, “Many are familiar with the gunships “Spooky” and “Spectre” but few know the role “Stingers” played in Vietnam. The Stinger was an aerial direct interdiction weapons platform designed to engage enemy transports, tanks, anti-aircraft artillery emplacements, troops and waterborne craft. Even fewer have knowledge of the stressful and physical dangers associated in being a “Scanner”. It is for this reason, I along with two former gunner/scanners have compiled this essay.” The Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) as recorded on my DD-214 indicates a 46250 Weapons Mechanic. Military records should reflect a code change during our tour in Southeast Asia to A-46250, the prefix “A” representing aerial gunner which involved the additional duty of “scanning”.
Scanning required a gunner to position himself in a door opening of approximately 3’ by 5’ located on the left (port) side, aft end of the gunship. A scanner would lean out of the aircraft into the cold air stream for the purpose of obtaining a grand view of the area surrounding the gunship while visually searching for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), other aircraft, and any other abnormalities that might affect the mission.
Climbing over equipment and standing in a narrow clearing next to the doorway bulkhead, the scanner attached a 2 ½” to 3” gray-green nylon tie-down strap to his parachute harness. The opposite end was tied to a structural portion of the aircraft and knotted to the individual’s size requirement to reduce the chances of falling from the gunship during violent combat flight maneuvers. A second tie-down strap, used to lean against, was tied and knotted waist high across the door opening, allowing the best view possible. There was no protective shielding between the scanner and the outside world or a specially designed fleece-lined scanning chair to sit in as there are in today’s gunships. A parachute could not be worn like other crewmembers for fear of accidental deployment into the air stream jeopardizing the aircraft and crew, with personal injury a certainty. Therefore, the scanner hopefully had his parachute secured well enough to remain in place during evasive maneuvers yet easily retrievable in an emergency.
One hand was used to maintain balance in the doorway while keeping track of the flare gun. The other hand was “always” on the intercom transmit button ready to command the pilot to the type of evasive maneuver needed to avoid enemy fire.
It was not uncommon to be unexpectedly and rapidly boxed-in by severe weather while on a mission. At ground level, the air temperature may be in the 80 degree range, but at combat flying altitude, outside temperatures could be in the 30 degree range. Factoring in 160 knot air streams, the wind chill factor became deadly. The moisture from the clouds, combined with sweat in the wind and cold became another enemy by reducing the scanner’s ability to mentally concentrate while making physical tasks more difficult.
There was no specialized clothing or safety equipment available to fight off these elements.
Air turbulence during many missions buffeted the gunship vigorously (sometimes violently) in all directions. A channel of upward moving air would cause the aircraft to rise as though it were an express elevator. For hundreds of feet, a sinking feeling in your stomach emphasized the power of nature. A sudden downdraft and the gunship would reverse direction into a semi-freefall state, along with your stomach. Partial penetration into either of these vertical channels of air caused the aircraft wings to respond in kind. Constant corrective action was required by the pilots to maintain aircraft control while the scanner was experiencing an unpredictably terrifying ride through space.
The moist vapor of the clouds obscured the scanner’s vision by clouding his visor and caused footing to be tenuous at best. AAA in these conditions was almost impossible to call. A scanner could only see increasing glows as enemy tracers penetrated the cloud base. Determining the type of flight maneuver the gunship should take to avoid the upcoming rounds would be a guess.
There were few commands the scanner would ever give to the aircraft commander but all were important and obeyed without question. At the sight of threatening AAA such as 12.7mm, 23mm, 37mm, 57mm or heat seeking shoulder launched surface to air missiles (SAMS), a scanner would bark the evasive action needed to avoid impact. The call “Break Right, Break Right” caused the pilot to put the gunship, which was most likely in a 30-degree left banked turn for firing, into a hard and sudden 60 to 90 degree right turn. The terrifying seconds of helplessness crawled as the scanner watched the explosive armament approach the aircraft, hoping it would pass by and not hit the gunship.
The scanner, formerly facing down at the earth from a 30-degree left turn, was now in a prone position with his back against equipment and his eyes filled with sky. The aircraft would shudder and groan as the strain of combat are placed upon it. A call of “Break Left, Break Left” from the scanner, the IO, on the right side of the gunship causes the pilot to quickly increase the standard 30-degree left turn orbit into a 90-degree banked left turn for life. The standard 30-degree left orbit downward view for the gunner/scanner was now filled with nothing but hostile enemy-held territory.
There were less frequently used commands of “Rollout” and “Stall” and the most feared call was “Rocket, Rocket!” “Rocket, Rocket” was in reality an informative statement of the current combat situation. It indicated a heat-seeking missile had been fired, prompting the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer to put the aircraft into the least heat signature attitude possible while telling the scanners to launch two defensive flares. Unlike later gunships with automatic launching capabilities of 30 flares or more at one time, the scanners manually fired a single shot flare-gun and launched a modified parachute flare as heat detractors.
There was no “good” time to fly a combat mission. On a clear moonless night, the ground with its many fires and reflective rice paddies looked the same as the star-filled sky. There was no separation of horizon where the two met. Disorientation and confusion as to which way was up was literally unavoidable and at times sickening. Nights with a full or prominent moon and a thin cloud layer above made the gunship appear to enemy gunners much like a fly on a lighted lampshade.
Nothing was written of the added anxiety, fear and helplessness associated with daytime missions. Nor was there mention of the battle damaged aircraft or those lost in battle. This writing is but a brief snapshot of a portion of one crewmember’s duties and does not express the sorrow we feel for our lost comrades.
It is critical that one recognize and understand the unique perspective the scanner had of the inside and outside of the gunship and the target area below. This perspective allowed events to only be seen by a single crewmember of a warring plane. We hereby certify that the information we have given is true to the best of our knowledge and belief.