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Jet Fighters for Thailand

by Col. John L. Wagner, USAF (Ret.)

Perhaps the idea to bring the Thai Air Force into the jet age came from someone in the American Embassy, the Thai Government, Far East Air Forces Headquarters, or the Pentagon. In any case, the overall concept of strengthening our allies and containing Soviet expansion via mutual assistance was a chapter right out of John Foster Dulles’ book, War or Peace.

After the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, Secretary of State Dulles made a trip to Manila. The result was an attempt to establish ties and defenses among various southeast Asian countries and the United States. However, the strong words on paper about defending freedom, the treaty organization, and follow on SEATO Headquarters lacked substance until backed up with military hardware.

Undoubtedly, other U.S. Services had to divvy up their share to our new SEATO allies. But that is another story and young lieutenants in the 1950s weren’t allowed much of a peek at the “Big Picture”. Accordingly, my intent here is to cover only a portion of one relatively small activity, albeit one that started the Thai Air Force in tactical jet aviation thirty years ago.

The fellow who said it takes two years to implement any decision from Washington sure hit the nail on the head when it came to this project. This is not to denigrate the system, it merely recognizes the lead times needed to get people, jet trainers, supplies and support in place when the destination is literally at the end of a supply line ten thousand miles away.

Assuming the decision to furnish straight wing F-84s to Thailand was made in late 1954 or early 1955, it was 1956 before our outfit the 49th Fighter Bomber Group was brought into the act. At that time, one flight of the 8th Fighter Bomber Squadron – Blacksheep – was placed on alert for a classified mission. Special instructions were issued regarding flight routes, airlift, tanker and rescue support, clothing for social events, protocol, etc. The rest of us in the group were envious to say the least.

Under the dynamic leadership of Col. Gil Pritchard and 5th Air Force Commander Roger Ramey every bomb commander in the group felt a tremendous sense of esprit being a part of a top priority special weapons outfit. The group’s four F-84 squadrons were stationed throughout the Japanese Islands from northern Honshu to Okinawa. Our mobility was assured by C-119 and C-124 airlift and KB-50 tankers.

Each pilot had a classified password which insured “head of the line” base supply and maintenance support to him and his aircraft anywhere in the theatre. Some of our squadron mates had just participated in setting a world record by flying non-stop from Japan to Australia. The group was on the leading edge of air force activity in the far east. Consequently, every one of us wanted a part of any new action.

The Thai goodwill visit (or show of force depending who was writing the copy) by the 8th FBS came off without serious hitch. The Blacksheep garnered many kudos and there were some interesting additions to the stories making the rounds of various clubs during the long winter nights at Misawa AB. One upshot of the visit was that the Thais were promised Thunderjets in the near future. They probably would have received them on schedule, if it weren’t for a few unusual turns in world events.

Low time F-84Es previously given the French were earmarked for delivery to the Thais. The aircraft were to be transported by sea from France to Japan, retrofitted and then flown to Thailand. The year 1956, however, had a couple of crises in Hungary and the Suez that impacted the sea shipment. The ship was delayed in canal passage. Since the aircraft were stored on deck and not cocooned for permanent or long-term storage the sun and sand played havoc with various aircraft systems. When the fighters finally reached Japan and were put it back in flying condition at Kisarasu AB in the Tokyo area in late fall 1956.

Volunteers to deliver those fighters to Thailand were easy to come by. The challenge was getting selected. Major John Saffel, the group project officer, came up with a novel idea. He’d lead the flight and each squadron could furnish a pilot. Perhaps being single and a squadron time hog with no big plans for Christmas holidays contributed to my luck. In any case, I was delighted when I was selected.

After catching a courier flight from Misawa AB to Yokota AB, I recall meeting the other participants at the Yokota Club. It was there I learned my aircraft, unlike the others in the flight, was not at Yokota but still at Kisarasu AB. This was a mere three-hour ground trip through Tokyo and around the bay.

We discussed configuration/model differences and flight planning details. Several things were worthy of note, such as cockpit switches, no inflight refueling door on the model, smooth wing tip tanks without probes, two underslung tanks as opposed to UHF, etc. The mission would involve three legs to Okinawa, the P.I., and Thailand. We’d need light winds and duckbutt (HU-16) support for the last leg.

For the first leg, rather than waste time with me flying back to Yokota AB, we’d rendezvous over Tokyo at 20,000 feet and press on to Kadena AB from there. The jet stream was strong and would slow us down on the first leg. Fully briefed, I ordered wheels and agreed to call John at base ops to coordinate take-off time after I completed preflight and signed off paperwork for the aircraft.

Everything went as planned for takeoff and rendezvous. By the time we went “feet wet” down around Kagoshima it was clear the winds were stronger than predicted and we had a long flight ahead of us. About halfway from Kyushu to Okinawa I received my first little thrill. We were cruising at about 33,000 feet in loose fingertip when the canopy on my aircraft snapped back along its rails to the full open position.

I experienced rapid decompression, loss of everything loose in the cockpit, and freezing cold all in an instant. The other members of the flight spotted what happened and quickly inquired about my status. After pushing my eyeballs back in, lowering my goggles (these were pre-visor days), and evaluating the situation, I told John that I assumed the canopy rail cockpit pressurization seal blew out.

This was not an unusual occurrence, but it was the first instance I knew of where the canopy also came open. I told John I planned to manually shut off air pressure coming into the cockpit area and attempt to close the canopy. It worked, and except for pressure breathing on oxygen the rest of the first leg was uneventful.

Our stop over at Kadena AB was brief. The canopy seal was replaced, and we were on schedule for the second leg. It started out normally until the element leader began to join up with John and called out he had a rough engine. His wingman moved in close and told him to pull up his speed brake; sure enough the problem disappeared.

This may sound trivial but the difference in flying an F-84E with two underslung tanks and slab speedbrake, and a 48th Group F-84G with its usual one underslung tank and perforated speedbrake was significant. This was especially true if the pilot was trying to analyze unusual noises and buffest with a slightly embalmed brain from the previous night at the club.

The second leg also convinced us that despite the fact none of the aircraft in the flight had over fifty hours total flying time, they were far from trouble free. My canopy continued to give trouble. Counting check flights after attempted repairs it came open in flight five times before it was fixed for good. Back in the 1950s, Navy jocks made a habit of flying around in certain jets with rail canopies open but I never did like it.

More seriously, all the aircraft seemed to have sniffle valve problems and a tendency to leak precious fuel at the most inappropriate times – like out in the middle of the ocean. “Marsh” Marshall had the most unusual problem with the main fuel tank under his seat.  Fuel shut off valves in the tank were obviously malfunctioning. The tank was expanding at times to the point it was actually causing his seat to move.

Once on the ground at Clark AB, we all agreed on the need to get these birds in top shape before we attempted the final leg. There was too much water, too few navigation aids, too much time and distance flying and too little timely weather information to include another unknown about aircraft reliability. As a result, we spent many unplanned days at Clark getting the aircraft fixed and flight checked to our satisfaction.

John decided to take Marsh’s aircraft because the tank expansion problem still existed. It was his project and he realized he was running out of time and ideas to get it completed. As it turned out, the gods smiled on him. The winds were fifteen knots on the tail instead of on the nose, the weather was pre-monsoon and good all the way and the duckbutt support on station was a big help.

When we landed at Don Muang International Airport, Thai and USAF people met us with a couple of tall cool ones that really hit the spot. As we left the flight line, I clearly recall Thai crew chiefs running with buckets to catch fuel leaking from their new hogs.

We joshed MAAG pilots Charlie House and Charlie Kapuscak all the way to Nick’s Hungarian #1. Those birds now belonged to the Thais and the USAF assistance team would have their work cut out for themselves keeping them in flying shape.

They obviously succeeded because the Royal Thai Air Force is still going strong in jets.