Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bringing a Thud Back to Life

An F-105 Thunderchief with full bomb load. The Air Force is opposing efforts of a private foundation to restore--and fly--one of these vintage warbirds (Wikipedia photo).

Aviation enthusiasts looking for a charitable cause should consider The Collings Foundation. For more than 30 years, the organization has supported "living history," allowing Americans to learn about their heritage through direct participation.

Beginning with transportation-related events like antique car rallies and hill climbs, the foundation quickly expanded its focus to include aviation projects, such as air shows, barnstorming and the restoration of classic military aircraft. Since 1985, the organization and its supporters have restored more than 20 vintage warbirds, including a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator that are are still airworthy.

More recently, the Collings Foundation has introduced a "Vietnam War Heritage Flight" featuring an F-4 Phantom and an A-4 Skyhawk. These aircraft, along with other aircraft in the foundation's collection, routinely appear at airshows across the country, providing a vivid reminder of air wars past. The organization also offers flights on some of its aircraft, to help defray the high cost of maintaining and operating their warbirds (flight expenses for the F-4 run $9,000 an hour, and replacing a single engine on the B-24 costs $60,000).

Relying on contributions from corporate sponsors, private donors and receipts from passenger flights, The Collings Foundation has managed to keep its fleet in the air, without a dime of taxpayer money, or logistical support from the U.S. military.

While thousands thrill to the sights (and sounds) of the organization's warbirds every year, few are aware that the foundation is currently battling expand its collection of Vietnam-era aircraft. To complement the Phantom and the Skyhawk, The Collings Foundation would like to add an F-105 Thunderchief, the legendary aircraft that bore the brunt of our bombing campaigns against North Vietnam.

But so far, the Air Force has been resistant. A few weeks back, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz discussed the matter with the foundation's director, Dr. Bob Collings, and retired Colonel Leo Thorsness, the legendary "Thud" pilot who won the Medal for Honor for his actions over North Vietnam, and spent more than five years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. After the meeting, Colonel Thorsness sent out an e-mail to other Thud veterans, including Ed Rasimus, who frequently comments on this site. We're reprinting most of the e-mail, with Ed's permission.

Dr Collings and I met with the USAF Chief of Staff, General Schwartz, Friday, May 14th. I spoke as the "face" of the Thud, representing officially the Wild Weasels, and for many River Rats, POWs and MOH recipients.

Gen Schwartz was straight forward and said the AF was not in favor of giving a Thud away because of three reasons: Availability, Sustainability and Liability.

I opened our rebuttal citing the emotional side mentioning most or all members of the organizations (above) are in favor of seeing a Thud airborne again. I said that a flying Thud would be a phenomenal memorial to all living and dead Thud aviators, maintainers and want to be "Thuders" - to all Vietnam Veterans. I cited Thud numbers: just over 800 built, just under 400 lost in combat, just over 100 Thud aviators killed in actions and right at 100 POW Thud Aviators.

Next Dr Collings professionally and methodically rebutted the three issues mentioned by General Schwartz:

Availability: there are just over 100 Thuds available - about 23 F & G. Dr Collings had pictures of several sitting on ramps as pigeon poop collectors with panels falling off etc. He also told the Chief that there are Museums who have offered "their" Thud to the Collings Foundation.

Sustainability: Dr Collings said the Collings Foundation would ask for the eight thuds, which will succumb to corrosion, sitting on the ramp at Lackland AFB as "spare parts" and did not feel sustainability would ever be a problem. He noted a Thud flying nowadays would be much easier to maintain than a Wartime Thud. Example: the air ducts would be in permanent sub-sonic position as FAA does not allow the Thud to fly supersonic. Dr Collings did a good job refuting the sustainability issue. Also they have maintained a F-4 & A-4. And have received no support from the USAF. That 2-engine beast requires a lot more attention.

Liability also was well refuted. The Collings folks have been flying the F-4 for 11 years, and about five years flying the A-4. There are several legal "hold harmless" precedents that have held the government harmless after a USAF / Army Air Corp aircraft has had incidents. The Liability issues were well handled, like the Sustainability and Availability issues.

I closed the meeting mentioning that we Thud aviators did our best for the Air Force and United States - often knowing the odds for Weasels were greater than 50 percent of being shot down at the beginning of the war. I appealed saying that I hope the Air Force would go to bat for us as we Thud drivers did the Air Force in Vietnam. Also I mentioned that there are over 200 Vietnam era Soviet bloc country jets flying in the United State - we should be allow at least one Thud in the air.

To his credit, General Schwartz said they would "Double back" on the issues/concerns. After that, he will ask us to another meeting for their final decision to support or oppose the Collings Foundation getting a F-105F/G.

Sorry for the long report. But as long as we spent in Hanoi, I felt this report deserved more than one summary paragraph.

The battle is not won, but nor have we lost. The battle is ongoing to get a Thud airborne. Whatever support you are willing to give is appreciated gents. Congressional support is paramount and any calls that can be made are very helpful. We are still waiting to hear if Ike Skelton, Chairman House Armed Services Committee will support this. No response yet!

Best regards, tailwinds

Leo Thorsness

While Dr. Collings and Colonel Thorsness presented a compelling case, getting a Thud back in the skies, both the foundation and the project's supporters face an uphill battle. Recently, the Air Force released a letter, through the Vice Chief of Staff, opposing any effort to transfer an F-105 to the Collings Foundation. And, there's no mean irony in the example cited by Colonel Thorsness; virtually any wealthy aviator with the money (and inclination) can buy a vintage MiG and punch holes in the America sky. But efforts to restore--and fly--the legendary fighter that fought those MiGs over North Vietnam are being stonewalled by the same service that sent the Thuds (and their pilots) "downtown," more than 40 years ago.

If you can spare a few bucks in these challenging economic times, consider a donation to The Collings Foundation and its educational mission. And if you've got a moment, send an e-mail or make a call to Congressman Skelton's office, and ask for his support in bringing an F-105 back to life.


ADDENDUM: If you're looking for a great read this summer, grab a copy of Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, co-written by Ed Rasimus and Olds' daughter, Christina. We also recommend Ed's own memoirs of Vietnam, When Thunder Rolled and Palace Cobra: A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War. Both have been compared to the best of Saint-Exupéry and Ernest K. Gann. And rightfully so.


Corky Boyd said...

When I first laid eyes on an F-105 at Hickham around 1960, I couldn't believe my eyes. Here was a monster fighter perched on the tallest landing gef I had ever seen on a single engine plane. It towered over me. It was awesome.

In Viet Nam it was used in a role it was never deigned for. I was intended to be low altitiude/supersonic pentrator able to deliver nuclear weapons from an internal weapons bay. It was thick skinned and heavy. It didn't have a lot of wing and it didn't like to go uphill. And its monster J-75 was very thirsty.

It was never meant for air to air combat. Yet in the hands of capable pilots it did shoot down agile Migs.

Ed Rasimus said...

Corky, you reiterate a number of myths about the airplane. Yes, it was designed for an internal nuke, but it never sat alert in that configuration, it was always external bombs. It was simultaneously designed with exceptional conventional weapons capability and also had a great air/air radar and lead-computing gun-sight. It did like to go fast and was very good at it!

The J-75 wasn't remarkable for excessive fuel consumption. To the contrary I flew many missions from Korat to NVN without refueling at all. While in the F-4, I never flew a mission without at least a pre-strike tanker and usually a post-strike as well.

It did well in air-air as long as the operator kept it in the sweet zone--what Boyd would later quantify as "energy maneuverability" charting and P-sub-S (excess energy over required). People lost when they attempted to turn with MiG-17s when the proper choice was make the MiG turn where you want.