Bombs, B-52s and a Blackbird Spying in the Dead of Night

Dean Chavers discusses his 138 missions flown during Vietnam, none of them in the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the hottest plane of its time.

I flew 138 missions in the B-52 in Vietnam. It took me four tours and almost three years to do it. I was there 17 months in 1966, 1967, and 1968. We supported the Marine Troops at Khe Sanh, up by the DMZ, when they were getting shelled day and night by the VC. The VC shot 12 surface to air missiles (SAM) at us that day, and, unbelievably, none of them hit us. What a miracle! I’m so happy to be here.

We dropped tons of bombs on the Mu Gia Pass on Easter Sunday, 1966, trying to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The VC would use trucks, carriers on foot, and carriers on bicycles to move tens of thousands of pounds of supplies from Hanoi to South Vietnam.

We flew north that night, dropped our bombs on a heading of 350 degrees, and made a left turn of 180 degrees and headed south. As soon as we rolled out of the turn, Bill Grissom, our tail gunner, called out over the intercom “Pilot, we have a fighter at six o’clock!”

Everybody tensed up. We immediately made sure our parachute harness was in position and fit snugly. No use losing the family jewels if we had to punch out. We had been warned about that numerous times.

“How far back is he, Gun?” Dale Christian, the pilot, asked.

“He’s about a hundred yards, sir,” Bill responded.

“Hang on, crew,” Dale said. “Tighten up your lap belts and seat harnesses.”

Dale pushed to the engines the firewall, nosed over and made a sharp left turn. The old B-52 screamed as it went from Mach .77 to about Mach .88—the fastest that airplane had ever been, I bet. We dropped from 35,000 feet to 33,000 in a matter of a few seconds.

Dale asked Bill, “Where is he, Gun?”

Bill said, “He’s sticking right with us. He’s still in the same position.”

Dale then went into a climbing right turn, still with the throttles to the firewall. He topped out at 37,000 feet. The fighter stayed right with us.

A fighter is very nimble compared to the B-52. A B-52 needs 18 miles to turn around and go back the other way. That is, the point where the aircraft rolls out of a turn of 180 degrees will be offset 18 miles from the point where the turn started. It takes a lot of sky to fly a B-52.

A fighter, on the other hand, can turn around in less than six miles. In a maneuverability contest between a bomber and a fighter, the fighter wins without even trying.

It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and pitch black outside. Bill could not see a thing except stars, planets, the moon, and the exhaust of the fighter. Dale did three maneuvers trying to get away from the fighter, turning, diving, and climbing. At the end of the third maneuver, he asked Bill, “Where is he now, Gun?”

“He’s right in the same position, sir,” Bill answered. I was ready to bail out.

We thought the fighter was a MIG-21 or a MIG-23, the latest Russian fighters. The MIG 21 was awesome, and we knew the North Vietnamese had them.

We also knew they had some MIG-23s as well. The MIG-23 was even more awesome than the MIG 21. It could out-climb, outmaneuver, and outrun almost anything the United States had. Its top speed was Mach 2.0 or higher—over 1,500 miles an hour. We were really scared of it.

“Fire a warning burst at him, Gun,” Dale finally said.

“Yes, sir,” Bill answered. He pointed his four 50-caliber machine guns toward the ground and fired them for a few seconds. They lit up the sky like a spotlight.

There was no danger of hitting the fighter. The fighter banked, dived, and backed away, and we lost sight of him. He never fired at us. But we learned when we got back to Guam that he climbed into the next cell and played with them for a while. He never shot at us. We figured later that his guns jammed. How lucky is that?

When we got back to the base, the two-star general in charge, General William J. Crumm, was going to give Dale a court martial. The General was livid. It turned out that one of the special instructions they gave us said that only the third aircraft in a cell could fire if under attack. It was buried at the bottom of page 14 in our briefing papers. But nobody on our crew remembered that obscure directive when the fighter caught us.

We hit truck parks, ammo dumps, gasoline dumps, troop concentrations, and other strategic things. Most of the time, we hit the target between 2 and 4 in the morning, when most people are sleeping. That meant our sleeping was continually messed up. We normally slept from late morning until evening, and always woke up groggy. At midnight we would go have breakfast.

We were on a low level mission over South Vietnam the third time we got shot at. We were carrying anti-personnel bombs that day. They were quite possibly the tiniest bombs ever made. They were barely bigger than baseballs, and smaller than softballs. But each one was filled with tiny pellets like BB shots that blew out in all directions when they hit the ground and exploded. We carried 10,000 of them in each of two huge boxes in the bomb bay. On this particular day we learned just a little of what the bomber crews experienced over Germany in 1944 and 1945.


An SR-71 Blackbird on display in a museum

Those guys in World War II were flying into death everyday. Some of the squadrons flying into Germany lost over half their airplanes and crews before WWII was over. The only squadron not to lose any of their own planes or any of the bombers they were protecting was the Tuskegee Airmen. They were the only Air Force squadron made up entirely of black men. Colonel Benjamin Davis, later General Davis, the first black cadet to go through West Point, was their commander. Gen. Davis was shunned the whole four years he was at the Point. No one talked to him. They flew out of Italy, and escorted bombers all over Germany. They only gained their much-deserved fame four decades later, unfortunately.

We were at 10,000 feet, and all of a sudden there was flak coming up to meet us. The copilot was the first to see it, and he screamed over the intercom, “Flak, flak, at two o’clock.” That meant it was coming from between straight ahead and our right side. None of it hit us, but it gave us a scare.

The most amazing thing that happened to us occurred one night between the Philippines and Vietnam. We were headed southwest when Bill Grissom called out, “Pilot, I have a target on my screen!”

“What does it look like, Gun?” Dale asked.

“It’s going very fast, sir, from right to left.” That meant it was headed north by northwest, straight for China.

“How many sweeps was it on your radar, Gun?” Dale asked.

“Four, sir,” Bill answered. “Nav, compute the speed of that aircraft, will you?” Dale asked.

I quickly computed it was going about 2,380 miles an hour. That was a rough guess, which could have been off by a few hundred mph. And those are nautical miles, which are 6,080 feet, compared to a statute mile, which is 5,280 feet. We knew there was only one airplane it could have been—an SR-71 Blackbird. It was on its way to China to do spy work. It could fly 2,180 miles an hour—faster than a bullet.

It was the hottest airplane in the world during its whole flying time. The crew had to wear pressure suits and be on oxygen the whole time. Two of my friends, Ronnie Rice and a guy in our Turner squadron named Duane, later got transferred into that airplane. I flew with Ronnie one whole tour with a Glasgow, Montana crew. Ronnie was one of the few guys I saw after I got out. Somehow we kept in touch. He got into intelligence and was at the Pentagon when we got together for dinner in the middle of the 1970s. He was a Major when we flew together, but he got promoted to full Colonel before he retired.

I still love that airplane, what it did, and what it meant. It could outrun everything sent up against it, and did. It could map 100,000 square miles of area in one flight. It could see jeeps, cars, airplanes, and even people on the ground from its lofty perch of 85,000 feet.

The U-2 designed and built by Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works at Lockheed in only eight months was unbelievable. But the Blackbird, also designed and built by Kelly, was simply amazing. It was no doubt the most amazing airplane ever built. But I’m glad I never got a chance to fly it. I would probably be dead now.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement organization in Albuquerque. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. Upcoming high school seniors should contact him immediately for information on scholarships.