IFR Flight to Phan Thiet
Some time is 1966 I was flying East of Bao Loc. I noticed that the weather was moving toward me. The weather in Vietnam could become overcast in a very short time span. It was the monsoon season. It could be a great sunny day one minute and the next minute the clouds would be a complete overcast. Usually, you could expect a large amount of rain. No one explained to me how the weather worked in the monsoon season. One day I could see the rain coming in my direction, so I decided to head back to the Bao Loc airport. Enroute I got in the squall line. The squall line was moving in the same direction as I was flying en route to the Bao Loc airfield. I could not get out of the squall line because it was moving the same speed as my airplane was flying. The turbulence was incredible. I thought the wings were going to come off the airplane.
I had my crew chief, Specialist Gilbert Hartzog in the back seat. The day was a very uneventful day. No missions, no Vietcong activity. Just a great day to fly around the large cumulus clouds. Just a great day to fly, until the clouds closed in and the bottoms of the clouds moved lower and lower. I looked at the East and found the Bao Loc area to be inclement weather. In other words, the Bao Loc airport was closed. I could see nothing as far as forward visibility!
I decided the best survival route would be to fly to Phan Thiet. Phan Thiet was about 30 to 40 minutes away. Phan Thiet was on the coast of the South China Sea. The weather was usually better because it was at sea level. As I was flying East, the weather closed in on me---I was IFR. Instrument flight rules. The problem was that Bao Loc has NO instruments on the ground. No beacons, no flight following, no ADF equipment, etc. Even the runway had NO runway lights. No one to talk to except the radio operator in the MACV compound. He was barely able to answer the telephone.
Into the clouds I go, because I had no choice. There were mountains to the southeast and South of Bao Loc. I thought I would break out over the top of the clouds. It was usual for the cloud layer to be only 1 or 2 thousand feet. It was not. I thought I could break out into the sunshine. I was flying up at 65 knots while going around and around. The stall speed on the Birddog was 60 knots. 5,000 feet went by, 6,000 feet, 7,000 feet. I finally broke out at 11,000 feet. I noticed that the top of the clouds to the East was rising. I was fixated on the instrument panel when Hartzog called me on the intercom to tell me, that we were running out of fuel. I needed to switch tanks. We were running out of fuel on the right-wing tank. My hand flew to the fuel switch, which was on the top of the cockpit, to my right.
With no navigational equipment and no visual recognition of the ground, the only thing to do was to use time and distance. About the time I decided that we were over the coastline I was at 12,000 feet. Did I tell Hartzog to look for a hole in the clouds? We thought we saw a hole, so I began to let down. I knew the were No mountains to the East. Down and down we go. I finally broke out over the South China Sea with about a 50 feet ceiling. We were experiencing HEAVY rain.
Phan Thiet had an ADF, but it was inoperable. The Phan Thiet tower indicated that the field was IFR. Meaning that it was below the minimums to land. The only thing to do was to remember going East for a while, then South, then East again. I told Hartzog that the field must be “THAT WAY”. I did a 360-degree turn—all we could see is saltwater with white caps. Finally, we saw the coastline. I called the tower. The tower and the runway were on the top of a bluff. I remember the runway elevation to be 250 feet above sea level. The tower was surprised to hear me, asking to land to the South. I remember that I had to gain altitude to be able to land at the airfield, heading north. I had no choice but to land to the South. No pattern—just a straight landing. I could barely see the control tower. It was now or never. I had only one chance to land. We made it! We were experiencing heavy rain on the ground. HooRay was the word of the day. The Phan Thiet tower asked me, “where have you been”. I did not answer. Hartzog exited the airplane and got down on his hands and knees, and kissed the ground. This mission gave meaning to the fact that I remembered a “wise old man” had said that a pilot should always fly on the top ½ of the fuel level in the fuel tanks!
The next day we found that we had very little fuel onboard. Someone was watching over me that day!
There were NO flight instruments in Both Phan Thiet and Bao Loc. If you got caught in the weather, you were on your own. Time and distance and a map showing the terrain. The grid interval on the old French map was 300 feet. Some small mountains did not even show on the map.