I entered Air Force OTS in January of 1966 and finished flight school at Williams AFB, Arizona in March 1967. My first assignment was flying C-141s at Travis AFB, California after 141 training at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma for three months. I logged 1800 hours of flying time in 18 months at Travis and became an aircraft commander pilot in 1968. In spite of many round-trips to Southeast Asia, in February 1969, I was involuntarily reassigned from the C-141 to the AC-119 gunship program through Palace Cobra.
I reported to the Air Force Reserve unit at Clinton County AFB, Wilmington, Ohio for training in the C-119. The training was really quite good in spite of feeling that I was taking an antique course in ancient aircraft. Throughout the course I was asking myself how they could make a gunship out of such an old flying relic. I learned the answer at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, as part of the newly formed 18th Special Operations Squadron.
At Lockbourne, I roomed at the Wyandotte Apartments in Columbus with my new buddy from Clinton County, Jim Caughey. In addition to combat crew training, we received the newly modified aircraft, tested the aircraft and its systems, practiced tactics, and eventually ferried the AC- 119K to Vietnam.
I flew combat in both the AC-119K and the AC-119G. I spent the first five months with the 18th Special Operations Squadron FOL A at Da Nang, flying Stingers over Laos, shooting trucks and dodging triple A. Being a junior Captain, I was assigned to copilot duties. After five months, I was sent to the 17th SOS, C Flight at Tan Son Nhut at Saigon where I upgraded to aircraft commander and later to instructor pilot. I flew only two missions in Vietnam (RVN). All my other missions were in Cambodia, mostly assisting Cambodian troops that were under attack. I received the Air Medal with five Oak Leaf clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross for my work in Southeast Asia.
Upon returning stateside, I was assigned to the 44th MAS at Travis Air Force Base with only six months left on my service commitment. I separated from USAF active duty in May 1971 and promptly joined the Air Force Reserve unit where I continued flying the C-141. Flying as a Reservist I was able to complete my Master’s degree in Finance at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. In August 1972, I was hired as a pilot for Western Airlines and spent a wonderful 30 years with Western and, in 1987, Delta Airlines.
Deploying the AC-119K to Vietnam
At Lockbourne we trained and tested new AC-119K aircraft until December 1969 when it was time to begin ferrying them to Phan Rang AB, Vietnam. I ferried one of six aircraft in the third wave to deploy. We were supposed to depart Lockbourne on Christmas Eve. However, several crewmembers and I reported we were too ill to fly and we were able to leave on December 26th.
Our first stop was Malmstrom AFB, Montana where we encountered a minimum visibility approach. My attitude indicator was rolling over in its case, so I had to fly the instrument approach using the co-pilot attitude indicator. There were no avionics maintenance or parts available at Malmstrom so we kept quiet about the faulty indicator and flew the aircraft to our next stop, McChord AFB, Washington.
The trip to McChord AFB was uneventful, but I told my flight engineer, CMSgt. Bill Ables, that we had to get the attitude indicator fixed before we left for Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. We needed to leave CONUS by December 31, 1969 (the next day) in order to remain eligible to return from Vietnam the following December, rather than January. Chief Ables assured me I need not worry about it; he would take care of it. The next morning, the attitude indicator was rock solid; it worked perfectly. During climb-out, I overheard a transmission from a crewmember of another AC-119K reporting his attitude indicator had rolled over in its case. I looked at Chief Ables and he just looked up at the ceiling.
We stayed at Elmendorf for seven days, getting things fixed on the aircraft. That gave us a chance to go skiing and relax. Then we flew to Adak in the Aleutian chain. When we left Adak, it was so icy that we couldn’t run the engines up because the aircraft would move even with the brakes locked. Once we started rolling, we had to get airborne or we would be in the ocean.
On the leg to Midway Island our radar was out causing us to inadvertently fly head-on into a severe thunderstorm. The aircraft bounced and banked 80 degrees left and right and twice the aircraft was stuck by lightening. When we finally flew out of the storm, I looked at the crew and discovered the aircraft mechanic was fully dressed in his survival suit and ready for bailout. During a five-day stay at Midway Island, some artistic Navy men painted nose art on our aircraft. My bird (ducks) was christened “Fly United” with “Captain Twaddle, AC” and “CMSgt. Ables, FE” stenciled under the pilot’s windows.
Our next stop was Wake Island where I had made many landings in the C-141. From Wake, we flew to Guam. While there, we met some of the B-52 pilots who were flying Arc Light missions in SEA. Months later, I was flying an AC-119 gunship near the tri-border area when an Arc Light got under way sixty minutes before the scheduled time. The first warning we had was when bombs started exploding below our aircraft. I rolled the aircraft into a steep turn and got the hell out of there. That was scary!
From Wake we stopped at Clark AB, Philippine Islands, then on to Phan Rang AB, RVN (Republic of Vietnam). The commander greeted us, shook my hand and said, “Captain, welcome to Vietnam and get those damn ducks off my airplane.” Those ducks stayed on that airplane for almost a year. That first night VC rockets hit the base. I spent several hours under my bunk in the Visiting Officers Quarters with my flak jacket and helmet on. Not far from the VOQ was the Officers Club, which sustained considerable damage from a rocket hit. I began thinking it was going to be a mighty long year.
Jungle Survival Conclusions
Those of us who ferried the AC-119s to Phan Rang had not attended the required jungle survival-training course. So, soon after arriving in Vietnam I was on my way back to the Philippines. The high point of jungle training was the E and E (escape and evasion). We were given three metal chits to be surrendered to any Negrito tribesman who found our hiding spot during our night in the jungle. I looked at the jungle forest and then a high plain with one tree; I chose the latter. Strangely, only one Negrito found me. But it wasn’t the Negrito that kept me awake that night. At about 3 am I awoke to find a large rat on my chest trying to extract a candy bar from my survival vest pocket. Needless to say, I got no more sleep.
The survival school was useful, but the idea of bailing out of the AC-119 changed after I learned more about the emergency bailout hatch/chute on the flight deck. The emergency bailout chute was a hatch in the floor behind the pilot seat. A test was made in which a dummy was dropped through the hatch of an AC-119. The dummy was cut to ribbons by the numerous antennas attached to the underside of the AC-119. The alternate bailout procedure was to climb down the ladder to the gun deck (cargo deck) and run to the bailout door at the rear of the aircraft. As a pilot, I concluded that I would probably not be able to successfully bailout of an uncontrollable aircraft. Moreover, the prospect of parachuting into Laos at night and being successfully rescued seemed pretty slim. It seemed like a better idea to make every effort to fly the aircraft.
Flying the Stinger Mission
My initial assignment was to the 18th SOS at Da Nang. Aircraft commander positions were being assigned by date-of-rank. As a junior Captain, I was assigned to fly as a copilot. I flew with Jim Edwards for most of my five months at Da Nang. The typical Stinger mission lasted a total of four hours of which approximately two hours was spent on target. At Lockbourne we practiced missions at D altitude, but in Laos we were driven to E and E+1/2 due to the intensity and accuracy of 23mm and 37mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Flying at E altitude gave us a few extra seconds to interpret and take evasive action.
We had F-4 Gunfighters flying top cover to silence and knock out AAA sites. To aid the F-4s in keeping track of us, we illuminated the formation lights on the top of our wings. Sometimes, however, enemy gunners could see the lights and could also track us. It was a very sporting exchange of gunfire that made for many exciting nights over the trail.
The most effective weapon against the AAA sites was napalm, but napalm delivery required a shallow dive angle that the F-4 pilots could not safely perform at night in the steep mountainous terrain. So instead of napalm the F-4s carried cluster bombs (CBU). We would often see the enemy fire hosing down the F-4s right after a CBU burst.
Bill Reffner was lead gunner on our Stinger crew and it was usually Bill who we heard over the intercom warning of AAA and breakout direction. Typically, enemy gunners would fire a burst at us, followed by another burst to an area where we might be if we tried to evade the first burst. Sometimes the AAA was so close, or the AAA warning call sufficiently delayed, that we had to roll to 90 to 100 degrees of bank and pull hard to avoid being hit. Reffner did his job well, as we never got hit.
Flying the Shadow Mission
Having received transfer orders from the 18th SOS to the 17th SOS, I reported for duty with C Flight at Tan Son Nhut (TSN) Air Base, Saigon on May 28, 1970. Before I arrived at TSN, C Flight had lost two Shadow gunships due to single engine failures at or shortly after takeoff. The recommended takeoff weight had been just too high to support flight following an engine failure at low altitude and airspeed.
I was immediately checked-out as aircraft commander by Major Olsen, Squadron Stan Eval. The Major was sharp in giving me a full check ride because several months later, I was signed off as an instructor pilot due to the earlier check ride. Most of our missions involved troops-in-contact (TIC). Shadows became the lifeline both night and day for the Cambodian Army fighting the Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese troops.
Right after I arrived at TSN, one of the Shadows received a request to check out reports of 50-cal fire on an island. The flight engineer was hit by flying glass when the aircraft took a round in the cockpit. The C Flight Commander, Lt. Colonel Teal, knew I had experience flying against ground fire in Laos and asked me if I wanted to give the island a shot. I flew to the island with the same crew and with Lt. Colonel Teal onboard. Upon spotting the island, I decided to fly outside the firing circle, which was also outside the limited range of the 50-cal machine gun. Sure enough, the enemy gunner came up firing and all his rounds were low and no threat to us. I put two guns on high rate of fire and hosed him down. We saw lots of flashes on and around the gun site, but since he was located among the rocks, we couldn’t tell if they were secondary explosions or ricochets. The gunner, if alive, wisely did not fire again. Lt. Colonel Teal was impressed with the whole scenario. Maybe that was why he cut me some slack when I got stuck in Japan on my week of authorized leave and couldn’t find a single flight back to Vietnam for three days.
The only incident that really bothered me was on a daylight mission over the Mekong River near Kampong Thom. We discovered three large steamboats coming down the river and radioed the Cambodians who reported there were no friendlies on the river. I also checked with the closest FAC in the area and finally checked with Saigon. The FAC and Saigon replied there were no friendlies on the river. Reluctantly, I rolled in on the lead boat and opened up with two guns. After several bursts, I went to the last boat and shot it. Our bullets must have hit the boiler because the boat blew up and sank. The middle boat was heading for shore and we hit it enough that it sank as it reached the bank. By that time, we went back to the first boat; it had already sunk. These boats were 80 to 100 feet long. The 7.62mm miniguns had proven quite lethal from B altitude, 2500 feet AGL. I never heard another word about that strike, but I still wonder.