In February of 1966, I was lucky enough to be selected to fly the Republic F-105 Thunderchief after graduating from USAF pilot training at Williams AFB, Phoenix, Arizona. I had hoped to get selected for a fighter assignment and this was on the top of my wish list.
I reported to Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, Nevada, in April 1966, after trekking in the Sierras for a few weeks at the Air Force Survival School, and was introduced to the world of fighter pilots, fighter tactics, weapons delivery, and gunnery training. Nellis was and still is the home of Air Force Fighter Weapons School and is one of the prime fighter pilot training facilities in the world.
My class of six, five lieutenants and one captain, were all fresh pilot training graduates with 250 hours of jet time in the Cessna T-37 and Northrup T-38 Talon. We thought we were the world’s greatest fighter pilots and we worked hard to out-perform each other and show our instructors how great we were.
We had a lot to learn!
The “Thud,” as she was affectionately known, was a very complex and challenging beast. One of the largest single engine warbirds ever built, she weighed over 53,000 pounds at takeoff. Powered by the Pratt & Whitney J75 engine that produced 26,000 lbs of thrust in afterburner, it also consumed fuel at incredible rates. We calculated that we could burn all our fuel in about ten minutes if left in afterburner, so we only used it when absolutely necessary.
Designed as both a nuclear and conventional weapons delivery aircraft, she was capable of Mach 2 and could carry almost any type of missile, rocket, or bomb in the Air Force inventory. She could deliver her weapons in any weather, day or night, at any altitude and all with a single pilot in control.
She had air-to-air capabilities with the built-in 20mm cannon “Gatling gun” and Sidewinder infrared, heat-seeking missiles.
It was the only fighter that had an internal bomb bay and could carry a heavier load of bombs than the World War II era B-17—over 13,000 pounds of high explosives.
Her landing speed was a minimum of 190 knots over the fence and often higher depending on the configuration. She was unforgiving to you if you did not follow the procedures and checklists, however she was a joy to fly and once you got comfortable flying her, she was very stable, reliable, and loved to fly fast! (I don’t know why pilots refer to their airplanes as females but that might be the subject of another essay.)
We had most of Nevada for our playground during the summer of 1966 and if you have ever flown over it or driven across it, you will notice these big white flat areas all around Nevada and the desert West which are dried up former lakes.
After our initial check out and many hours of training, we were getting comfortable flying low level missions at high speeds, usually about 400-500 knots pretty close to the deck.
One day one of my classmates said he discovered a cattle watering stock tank out in the middle of a particular dry lake. He said it was cool buzzing the cows and watching them go bonkers after sneaking up on them very low at close to Mach 1, then lighting the big afterburner (which made a deafening explosion when lit) and pulling straight up to watch the mayhem.
The cockpit had little rear view mirrors mounted on the canopy so you could see behind you to check for attacking planes—not for watching cows and such! Several of us tried this little game and it was kinda dumb fun but it didn’t take much to entertain us at the time. There were no people or buildings within a few miles of the place, or so we thought, and it was all inside our restricted range area so it was technically legal for us to do what we wanted, including going supersonic at any altitude.
The kicker came several days later, when one of the crew chiefs who serviced our airplanes reported to the commander that he found a high-powered rifle slug in the vertical fin on one of our airplanes.
The commander called us in and we fessed up that we had been harassing cows out in the desert. He let us know that he was extremely unhappy with our behavior. We quit playing this game.
I know the cows were relieved.
Can you imagine the rancher, trying to keep his cows alive, who was shooting at a plane that was going about the same speed or faster than the bullet he was firing? I never met the person but he must have been an excellent marksman and thank goodness he hit the tail and not the cockpit. That would have been a very difficult accident to figure out for the investigation team. The loss of a pilot and a multi-million dollar airplane would have been catastrophic.
We got his message!
Several months later, during the spring of 1967, we were flying combat in Vietnam and we got shot at every day, with a lot more accurate and bigger, radar-guided guns. Even though we were expecting it we still lost a lot of airplanes and pilots to ground fire.
The tables had turned and now we were the targets. This game became deadly serious.
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Cal, Thanks for that little story on the Thud. Never got to work them as a FAC, but taxied out one morning at NKP and there was one parked out at EOR. Not sure why he was there, but he was gone when I RTB’d. Boots
Stationed at Nellis from April 68 till July 69. Left the Air Force to attain a Degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Worked on the F100 next “door” to the 105’s. Was an Instrument repairman. When the F100 was sent to the Guard I went over to the 105’s. Big beast to work on. Heard a lot of stories. Respect you for flying into harms way. By the way I attaine my pilots ticket and then spent 40 years working for Raytheon that made a lot of the weapons used. Sparrow, Sidewinder, AMRAAM.
Thanks for your interest in the story and thanks for all your support in keeping all those airplanes flying! I don’t know how many hours of maintenance it took to keep one of those old fighters in the air but I bet it was tons!! Those airplanes were extremely complex and those old systems were pretty well used and abused. I think of those crew chiefs and others who worked all day and all night long in the rain and the heat to get those airplanes ready to fly!
You guys were the unsung heroes of the war!!
Heard this story from my mom growing up. Her dad was career AF as a aircraft mechanic (cargo birds but still) The way she told it was them cows weren’t the only cattle being harassed in the area and that the farmer in question called the Base more than once asking them to stop. Then called a last time to tell em to check their planes since he’d just shot one.
Did not know this story got around that much but thanks for confirming it!
Despite what the author wrote, that bullet, when fired, was traveling considerably faster than the author’s plane.
Something in the neighborhood of a .30-06 has a muzzle velocity of almost 2,000 mph – faster using a lighter bullet. A .270 or .300 magnum has a muzzle velocity well in excess of 2,000 mph.
Obviously, bullets slow down after leaving the muzzle, but the ballistic coefficient on most bullets in those cartridges is high, meaning they maintain their speed.
Thanks for educating me. I knew we could not out run a bullet but had no idea that they were that fast. Only “Superman” was “faster than a speeding bullet”.
I can definitely tell you that the North Vietnamese had bullets that were much faster than any airplanes we had plus they exploded if you got hit by one and they hit a lot of airplanes!
I flew Thuds in the USAF Reserve. Flying 500’ AGL at 450 kts was intoxicating. Once we were in close four-ship formation approaching a small lake, flying below the top of the dam. When close, we pulled up hard. I got just a glimpse of a startled fisherman as 200,000 pounds of aluminum came roaring up. Surely an impressive sight.
Regarding the afterburner, yup you knew you had done something when you lit the burner.
I was assigned to a SAC Radar Bomb Scoring site in Nebraska- among the training scenarios we provided was Wild Weasel training. We had SAM and AAA threat radars on site. When we concluded training sorties, we’d ask the pilot if he was making a ‘bubble check’ (checking the tops of our radomes for pinholes)- we’d climb on top of the radar trailers and watch the ‘thuds’ buzz the radomes- usually one ship, sometimes two- at sometimes a couple hundred feet altitude, burners on, sometimes slower with gear down- good times, a GREAT duty to have had! Thanks for your service!
Glad you enjoyed the article. While I never did a “bubble check” in Nebraska I did plenty of them at many other sites. Always good to perform a legal buzz job and it was a fun way to say thanks to all our guys who supported our mission. Thank you for giving your time and service!
ThunderPig (EA-6B) had no afterburner, but was plenty loud and for an NFO, low levels were the fun rides. As far as alarming the locals, and now as a GA pilot, I can only imagine the reaction when our four ship flew UNDER a Cessna running under typical Puget Sound ceilings during our July 4 flyby flight to multiple venues. Learned two things that day, when planning a complex flight thru Class B airspace with ATC “A-team”, the same folks aren’t going to be manning the sector during a holiday…”you want to do what?!” seems the passdown about the 350kt cruise across SEATAC arrival corridors didn’t make their turnover…and two, don’t volunteer for a goat-rope!
Thanks for that great account. Just curious if you might have known my Uncle Frank Street. I think he was in the 388th and flew The Thud in Viet Nam. At Dayton there’s a video running of Thuds on a sortie and I clearly hear his voice in that video.
I knew Frank but never flew with him. He was one of the Old Heads when was an FNG.
Cal, Thanks for writing about the F-105. My father flew them, as a pilot, as IP and in a couple combat tours. He was in the 357th TFS, out of McConnell and Takhli when deployed.
Dad thought the F-105 was great airplane and spoke of it in fond terms. He especially liked easy it would go fast next to the ground.
I like your glider experience in the notes. I fly a DG-300 and tow with a L-19. If ever in Post Mills, Vermont…..stop in.
Looking forward to Starfighter anecdotes !
Hi, Cal….flew with you as a WSO out of Holloman AFB in 1969-70 before I attended Pilot Training. We were assigned to the 7th TFS under L/C’s Encinias and Arquette and Maj Paiva, flying F-4’s. Was in charge of some of the going away parties so am sure I helped plan your Hail and Fairwell event. In fact remember your discussions of whether to go or stay. Still trade Christmas cards with Clete Simpson.
After pilot training in 1971 at Willy, flew F-4’s and OV-10. until departing active duty…then spent about 12 years at Bergstrom AFB flying F-4 D/E’s in the USAFR.
I so much enjoyed your musings of flying low and fast at the Nellis Ranges. Fly Safe..and check six…..Terry Capps
Good to hear from you and glad you had a great career. Hope you are well and having fun!
Good article with lotsa relevant lessons for today. Primary among ’em is don’t think with your testosterone, use your brain… and remember who is paying the bills. I imagine there was some risk of bullets (ranchers shoot coyotes and cougers…) why not “Thuds”?) Self defense comes in many colors and means. Maybe a bullet in the tail would be preferable to some well publicized photos and a story in the NYT. As one senator said several decades ago… A billion ($) here or there is chicken feed… How would the JCS take it if the USAF training budget was zapped by a big bag of that chicken feed? There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch is true in economics… and equally true in testosterone driven foolishness.
All that said, it would of been fun while the cloudy thinking lasted. :)
In the mid seventies, I was taking a geology field course, aka field camp, in SW Utah and Nevada. I had an Egyptian field partner one day when an F-105 flew over at low level and high speed. He asked if we sold those to Israel and I told him “no, we’re selling them newer stuff.” It was an awesome sight and experience. I love airplane noise.
Great story about Nellis and the low levels… I was right behind you 5 years in the F-111 doing the exact same stuff there. Except instead of the stock tank, for us it was the Chicken Ranch- and for the uninitiated, not real chickens- just real ‘chicks’. In the trailers out there where it was legal. The instructors at Nellis knew where they were and we frequented them at 500 kts and 200 feet going into our low level areas oftenA good time was had by all! Thx for your service in the Thuds! What a machine!!
Bill, thanks for the comment. While reading this story, I kept wondering if anyone would mention these other “ranches!” One of my first F-111 rides was in a fingertip 4-ship at 200 feet in full burner over the trailer houses.
Great story. My Dad was part of the F105 design team at Republic Aviation. He brought me to the plant on a Saturday and showed me wing and tail sections with big holes blown through them. He was VERY proud that due to the design, every one of those pilots made it back.
I was a tower controller at George AFB in the early 70’s–F-4s and 105s made for an “interesting” mix in the pattern. Loved that “sound of freedom” every day though!
Great story on the “Thud”. I’d forgotten about the early morning dawn patrols over the “Chicken Ranch”. I remember returning from Red Flag mission in the “Thud” and out running a couple of F-15s at a hundred feet AGL.
I got to fly in my old Stearman a couple of weeks ago as it is back in PA just across the river.
Hope you het to fly your bird some more if it warms up a bit. Looking forward to another Galesburg trip in ’22. Hope to see you there!
After tech school I was assigned to Moody AFB in 1968. We would stop at the flight line snack bar for a cup of coffee and see pilots with the 100 Missions patch on their flight suits. We were in awe of these brave men for what they, and you Cal, went through not only flying up north but having to tolerate the Johnson/McNamara micro-managing of the air war. Just over 800 F-105s built and we lost over 400 of them in accidents and shoot-downs in SEA I have read.
I was ATC at Columbus AFB in the late 70s and recall hearing about a T-38 getting hit buzzing a farmer’s cows after repeated buzz jobs.
Great article Cal. I have numerous books written by the pilots who flew them (Ed Rasimus one of my favorites) and always enjoy anything I can read about them. Last 105s I saw was when I worked in Eglin tower in the early 80s from the Georgia ANG who were there for range work. He’ll of a jet!
I’m 73 and a bust CFI and happy you’re still flying too.
I arrived at Langley Air Force Base Virginia in June 1971 after flying in Southeast Asia and saw an amazing sight: parked on the Flying Club ramp were three F-105’s !!! I thought to myself, ” man, I wonder how much those things rent for per hour wet!” It turned out that, due to construction at their base in Richmond, The Weekend Warriors had to park their F-105’s elsewhere!
This message is for Cal Tax.
In 1961 through 1964 I worked for LFE (Laboratory for Electronics) in Boston MA. We were producing
the doppler radar navigator that was installed in the F-106. Would you comment on your experience with the doppler? I realize the contract with the Air Force was not renewed since the doppler was an emitter
and was easy to track. I’m curious how the system worked for the jet jocks who flew it. Your comments will be appreciated. Thanks, Dick Ferraro
My experience was with the F-105 which also had the Doppler radar navigator. I remember that it worked pretty well most of the time, except over a really flat surface like water. I am trying to go back 50 something years ago and what I remember was we had to load it with lat/long waypoints and this was kind of cumbersome so we mainly just put a few in. In my Vietnam experience we had a couple of Tacan stations close to the NVN border while I was there and that is what we used for reference for rendezvous with tankers and other aircraft.
The Doppler gave us good groundspeed reference and drift angles so we could figure out winds, etc. That is about all I remember of it right now but thanks for asking the question and reading my article.
Cal: Thanks for your impressions of the doppler navigator and thanks for your service. You have a good memory, better than mine. I misidentified the airplane our doppler was installed in, it was the F-105. Dick Ferraro
In 1960/61 I was on a crew installing a microwave relay station on Houser Peak outside Palmdale Ca. About three days a week, this jet would come up the mountain slope at a good clip flying at about 200/300 ft and just before reaching our mountain top on went the afterburner, with a deafening concussive blast. It upset us and the electronic equipment we were installing. The boss, exmilitary called the base, and advised that if it didn’t stop, there would be five deer rifles taking pot shots at the next plane. The nonsense abruptly stopped. Thanks
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Hey, Cal — You and I flew Phantoms together somewhere. 49th Wing at Holloman, perhaps. I remember once we were in the same 4-ship headed for the gunnery range, I think. I was #2, you were #3. When #4 joined up on departure, he called you up to say your boarding steps were down. You asked him if there was anybody on them. I enjoyed your yarn about the Thud, especially the cowboy part.
Great to hear from you!!! I still have your album of Fighter Pilot songs somewhere!! Yes, we flew in the 7th TFS at Holloman in ’68-69! I remember some good times when we flew to Spangdahlem, Germany.
Hope your are healthy and well!!! I need to go to the RRR Reunions again.
Check six!! (and keep your steps up!!!)
Awesome article! I remember reading an account of a Army Air Corps pilot during WWll who was part of the original Doolittle Raid on Japan and he said during the training for the mission they would be doing cross-country from Santa Ana to Florida in a B-29 and when they were winging over the Panhandle they flew sometimes 30 ft above the cows heads and got a kick out watching them run from the B-29. Then they later would get a call to the base office and get chewed out by the commander because some angry farmer from the Panhandle would complain about his cow’s milk going sour they scared them so bad!
I loved reading about your experiences in the F105. I was a crew chief at Takhli in ‘68 to’69 on an F model #0318 and D #347 prior to that I was at McConnell where I learned my trade from an experienced chief Ssgt Emery, and went TDY to Nellis twice with the squadron for the pilot training on the range.
I loved my Nickels. Went on to run a phase dock at Randolph for T-33’s (the drivers first jet) and did a test hop or two as well.
I salute all you Thud drivers for what you did. I used to love to hear the war stories and watching the film from the gun camera. Thank you for your service.