Around this time, an RF-8 pilot carried out a very low-altitude high-speed run over northern Vietnam and took photos of clothes on clotheslines as he flew over the outskirts of Hanoi.
During the long years of the Vietnam War, the Vought RF-8 Crusader assumed the role of the US Navy’s primary illuminated photographic platform throughout the nine-year conflict.
Forty-nine aircraft carriers deployed between October 1963 and January 1974, with 20 RF-8s lost in action.
On August 17, 1966, Lieutenant Andre Coltrin (who had already witnessed considerable action with Det G of Oriskany, Dick Schaffert of VF-111 recalled that as an escort pilot he had “chased Andre at across Thanh Hoa Bridge and downtown Haiphong more times than I would like to remember ”) VFP-63 Det G flew an extremely dangerous photographic reconnaissance mission to Bac Giang on the Thuong River just 100 feet and 675 knots. As explained by Peter Mersky in his book RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam, later in the war there would be restrictions against flying photographic missions below 3500 feet within the range of most small arms fire, but not now. Coltrin hoped to escape enemy radar at this altitude. His RF-8G (BuNo 146871 AH 601) was actually getting too hot to hit.
Coltrin’s mission was to photograph the POL (petroleum, petroleum and lubricants) installations near Kep airfield, northeast of Hanoi. Air Force exchange pilot Capt Wil Abbott of VF-111 escorted an F-8C. Abbott was then shot down in September, his plane becoming one of three F-8s confirmed lost to the North Vietnamese MiGs. He spent the next six and a half years as a prisoner of war, before being repatriated in 1973.
After taking his photos, Coltrin turned north to Bac Giang with Abbott up close. The photo pilot saw the 1,200-foot peak that he would use as a checkpoint. Suddenly, the RF-8 shuddered as it received fire from the flak. The sky was thick with white and black shards with red centers. At that height, it wouldn’t take much to knock it over. It flew so low that later, while watching his mission movie, he was able to see clothes on clotheslines as he flew over the outskirts of Hanoi.
“The snow capped mountains that I thought I saw from a distance turned out to be 37mm flak shards. I felt like every weapon and missile site in Vietnam had us in their sights.
Fighting for control, Coltrin watched the large circular sight on his main panel dissolve and his hydraulic and fuel gauges began to drop steadily. He called Abbott.
“Hey, I’m taking hits. We better get out. My hydraulic system and fuel are starting to relax.
Abbott has returned. “Can you tell if it’s just the dials?” ”
“We’ll find out in a few seconds,” Coltrin replied.
As he climbed to a safer altitude, he monitored the gauges, but the affected aircraft continued to fly. Breathing a little easier, the two pilots made their way to a small island north of Cam Pha – the mission exit point. But, Coltrin wondered, did he have enough fuel to get back to Oriskany?
An orbiting A-4 tanker pilot listened to the two Crusader pilots and called to tell them if they could meet up, he would give them fuel. After a few anxious moments, Lt Coltrin spotted the A-4, a bag of buddies hanging below. It took him a few tries, with his adrenaline rush as it was, but Coltrin eventually had to touch the tanker’s pod and get enough fuel to get back on board. His problems were exacerbated by the fact that he did not have a speedometer to help him match the speed of the A-4. He must have relied on calls from the tanker pilot.
A post-flight check showed several bulletproof shell fragments in his RF-8 – a large piece had struck a few inches from the main fuel manifold. Coltrin received one of his three DFCs for the mission.
RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam is published by Osprey Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: US Navy