Wild Weasel mission teamwork

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Wild Weasel mission teamwork
Lt Col USAF (Ret) Bill Sparks
This article is Lt Col USAF (Ret) Bill Sparks' account of how he and his Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO or "Bear") Charles A. Lombardo flew F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers on the extremely hazardous Wild Weasel missions during the Vietnam War.

One Way To Weasel: Carlo and Sparkies Way[edit]

When I went through the Weasel School in early ’67 I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what a Weasel did for a living other than they were supposed to hunt down and kill SA-2 SAM sites. Chuck Horner and White Fang Hartney decided that it would be the funniest thing in the world to have Carlo Lombardo and me team up. The odds were 7 to 5 that we would kill each other in less than a week. So much for Officer Horner! The best thing that could have happened was for me to have Carlo as my Bear. We did argue just a wee bit; however, neither of us ever really wanted to kill the other.

Carlo knew enough about Fighter Types to know that they needed to be taught at least the basics of Electronic Warfare. He started me off with the equivalent of EW 101 and I never got to the 200 course. I had been in the business for over eight years in USAFE and TAC and did not really know squat about the systems that were designed to kill me other than aircraft. Carlo taught me about EW with all of the emphasis on SAMs and Gun-layers. By the time we left Nellis I at least knew that I didn’t know squat and that Carlo sure as hell did!

We got to Takhli, 357 TFS, and he really turned up the gain on the lessons. We flew our first mission on the wing in RP-6 and for the first time I heard all of that damned noise Carlo understood. We met all of the radars on Day One and even saw two SAMs in flight. It was a very sobering trip and I did realize that I sure needed to listen and understand what my Bear was saying. My second Weasel sortie was in a “D” flying number 4 in a Weasel flight. I listened to the racket from the APR-25/26 and the Shrike and even recognized some of the squeaks and squawks. Mission number three on day three was as Barracuda lead on the Dawn Patrol, a fairly quick check out for Carlo and me. We managed to get Shark in and out with no losses. Carlo and I then spent over 5 hours in Intell figuring out what we had done, just the two of us, walking the planning area and trying to decide how to do understand this god-awful mess. Carlo suggested that he build a picture of what the Radar Order of Battle looked like each time we went to the Barrel so we could use the best tactics for the situation.

I was about as uninformed about how the systems all played together as my dog and needed to really work on my ability to understand what was out there gunning for us. Carlo tried to teach me as quickly as he could. We would go down to the Operations center every time we were scheduled for a mission, either as lead or wing, and spend at least 2 to 3 hours looking at the maps and photos on the walls. We would study all of the latest intelligence we had and try to figure out how it was being orchestrated by the Hanoi Cowboys. It was a ritual and we started to be able to retain more and more of what we were looking at. Carlo would start looking at radar systems as soon as we dropped off the tanker each mission in an orderly way. He would look for BARLOCK, the big arrays that were used to track us and then send the MiGs in for intercepts. After he checked for BARLOCKS, he would look for Height-finder Radars since they were vital for direction of MiGs. He would start looking for Gun-layer Radars and count the number that were looking in our direction early since they could track the jamming noise from our pods. The more Gun-layers, the more attention we could expect when we got into the Hanoi Valley. He used all of our gear, the APR-25/26, the Shrike sounds, and his APR-142 and every possible mode. By the time we flew to the Black River, Carlo had a very good picture of how the Bad Boys were set up to shoot at us.

I flew 24 combat sorties in June ’67, our first month. We were scheduled every day and were weather canceled 7 times. Of the 24 sorties we flew, we led 18 of the 24. We flew 18 in RP-6 and led 15 of those. We were very busy and very tired. Carlo had almost set a pattern in how we conducted each sortie. He would build his picture of what was waiting for us and would suggest just how many and how ferocious the SAMs would be. He was starting to be able to predict the MiG activity with more and more accuracy. I was starting to be able to catch what he was trying to tell me and I was getting so I could hold more and more in my head.

Carlo kept up his attempt to understand what was operating each day and changed his techniques as time went by to better understand what the Bad Guys were doing. He also never stopped trying to educate the Nose Gunner, AKA Sparky, on the finer points of EW. We had become a very smooth team. We had one extremely weird day when not one signal came up. Carlo was totally confused and bitched constantly. We had 4 EWOs in the flight and all of them were nervous as long tailed cats in a room of rocking chairs. Our gear was working and nothing was being intercepted. We went into and out of the target with zero signals. Carlo and I were scared spitless and fretted like crazy. NO SIGNALS WILL SCARE YOU HALF TO DEATH!

It only happened once and I still remember being really jumpy.

As we neared the Hanoi Valley, Carlo would start to drop the non-threat radar commentary. This would normally happen as we crossed the Black River or about half way to the Northeast Railroad. By then the big picture was built and I had a very good idea about whether it would be a MiG day or a SAM day or both. Very seldom did both MiGs and SAMs come up and threaten at the same time. I saw an SA-2 lift off and head away from the Weasels and the Force once as we passed by the middle of Thud Ridge. I checked way high at my left 8 and watched the missile smack a MiG-17 right in the wing root. Bad coordination by the Bad Guys but good for us! Even Carlo could only talk so fast. The threats always take precedence over information systems. By late summer ’67, we were like a very well oiled machine and could communicate with grunts and moans. I felt totally at ease with Carlo and trusted him to give me exactly what information I needed at the exact time. I’m sure that all of the good Weasel crews have similar stories to tell about how we learned to really talk to each other.

Every Weasel crew had to be different since each crew was unique. I flew with a few other Bears after Carlo went to Saigon with Col White and we flat could not work the way Carlo and I did. I flew with all of the Instructor EWOs when I got back to Nellis and the same things occurred. I tried to work with Mike Gilroy who is as good as anyone and we were very different than Carlo and I had been. Unique abilities drive unique methods of coordination. The Weasel Mission required, and still requires, the very best coordination by the crew and between crews. If you can’t communicate, you are in deep and serious crap. I was most fortunate to have Carlo to teach me how to stay alive and then give me the best possible information to do my job. Carlo used to bitch loudly that “All of the brains are in the back seat and all of the decisions are in the front seat”! He was right and that’s the way it works best. The methodology of information transference doesn't matter as much as the ability to transfer information quickly and accurately. It ain’t how you do it that matters as long as you do it right!

Bill Sparks
Once known as Barracuda

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