One of Those Moments of Stark Terror

by Lt.Col. (then Captain) John Larrison, USAF (Ret.)

A-1E Skyraider making a napalm run in Vietnam

Sometimes flying has been described as “hours and hours of boredom separated by moments of stark terror.”  I guess I have had very few of those moments but one of them has remained in my memory now for 50 years. I think it will remain there.

I was on a combat mission during my year in Vietnam in the A-1E.  I was flying number three in a four-ship strike and was loaded with napalm.  A normal flight of four had aircraft one and two loaded with bombs and aircraft three and four loaded with napalm.  Today’s target was a village which was occupied with Viet Cong. As always, we were under the direction of a Forward Air Controller (FAC) who carried a South Vietnamese Army Observer with him to ensure target identification and communications with troops on the ground.

For targets of this type, our normal strike tactics were for the two aircraft with bombs to drop first while the two aircraft with napalm circled the target area.  This is the period of time that I would study the target area, select targets, and determine the best path for my low-level (100’) napalm run.

As a good target for a ground gunner during a low-level pass, I would get low (tree top level) about a mile out on a heading toward the target.  Just short of the napalm release, I would pull up to about 100’ to 300’ to permit the napalm fuse to arm. Then, I would drop back down to tree top level and turn about 30°. Once clear of the target area (a mile or two), climb back up to orbiting altitude of about 3000’.

My problem on this mission was that I failed to perform the pre-strike checks. One of the items on the checklist was to ensure you had selected the main fuel tank. During the flight to a target area, it was normal to run on the 150-gallon external drop tank.  Running a tank dry always presented the problem of a “vapor lock” caused by air being drawn into the fuel lines.  This could greatly delay an engine restart and therefore, should be avoided.  At low level, a delayed engine restart could result in a forced landing.

There I was pressing in at full power, tree top level, lined up with my target buildings to lay down a line of about half my napalm load.  Because of my failure to do the pre-strike checks, I was still running on the external fuel tank.  The bombers had done their job and many buildings were on fire. I was flying through smoke and near the many fires that had been started by the bombs. 

Just as I reached the point I would have pressed the weapons release button, THE ENGINE STOPPED!  Not with a sputter; instant silence.  BIG TIME PANIC.

Training and instinct kick in. I instantly knew what had happened – I was still on my external tank and it ran dry. Normal emergency procedure was to pull the throttle back to idle, switch to the main fuel tank, turn on the boost pump, prime the engine for a start, and then advance the throttle.  There was no time for all that. 

My left hand ran up the left console. I switched to main tank, hit the boost pump switch on, and then pressed all the engine controls FULL FORWARD (throttle, prop, super-charger, mixture).  As my hand was doing that, my brain was running at three to four times normal speed. 

My first priority was to have a plan in the event that the engine did not restart or the delay in staring meant a forced land. I pulled up to swap airspeed for altitude and looked for a suitable forced landing site.  It looked like I could make a gear-up landing in a rice paddy about a mile from the target village.

The Navy had told us that the A-1 made good survivable, gear-up, water landings. The flooded rice paddy was going to be it.  As I headed for the paddy and the burning village was off my tail, it crossed my mind that once I landed and got out of the aircraft, the villagers were going to be really pissed off at me.

BANG!!!  One big backfire and the engine was running – full power!  Cancel Panic.  Climb back up into the strike pattern and set up for my second napalm pass. I had not dropped due to the “distraction” of the engine stopping on my first pass, so I still had a full load. 

There was no way I was going to make three passes.  Panic was over, engine running, airspeed and altitude. I had all I needed.  I guess that was my most memorable moment of stark terror.  Luckily for me, it lasted less than five seconds.