By Don Born
From 1953 through the 1970s, the United States Air Force
Aerospace Defense Command’s (ADC) 552nd Airborne Early Warning and
Control Wing was located at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California.
They flew the then ultra-sophisticated, electronic-laden Lockheed EC-121D
prop-driven aircraft. The EC-121D was an airborne radar and control platform
with the APS-95 search radar, APS-45 height finder, IFF/SIF (Identification
Friend or Foe - Selective Identification Feature), interrogation equipment and a
multitude of navigation and communication gear.
Their primary mission was to provide early warning of enemy
aircraft trying to penetrate the U.S. Western Coast Air Defense Identification
Zone (ADIZ). As a secondary mission they were responsible for controlling the
interception of enemy aircraft by friendly interceptors.
However, in the Spring of 1965 two F-105s were shot down
over North Vietnam by enemy MIG aircraft. These were the first two USAF aircraft
to be lost in air combat over the North in this quickly escalating war. Because
of this incident, it became clear that early detection of enemy aircraft was an
absolute necessity. Since the most northern land-based radar station at Da Nang
AB was inadequate to do the job, the USAF decided to bring in their airborne
radar and control platforms. Thus, a detachment of the 552nd’s EC-121s were
quickly deployed from McClellan AFB to South Vietnam.
The main support base was established in Tainan, Taiwan, but
their in-theater operations were flown from Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam.
Later the operations were moved to Ubon, Udorn, and finally Korat AB, Thailand.
The operations were originally code named ‘Big Eye’, but were redesignated
‘College Eye’ in 1967.
The following is a personal account by Donald E. Born (then
a USAF Captain) of a typical EC-121D radar mission flown in the Gulf of Tonkin,
40 miles off the coast of Haiphong Harbor, North Vietnam.
12 July 1968
Our mission begins with the shattering sound of an alarm
clock going off at 2 am. Seems as if we just crawled into the sack, surely it
can’t be time to get up already! But it is, and a 2 am wake-up is necessary
for a 5 am take-off. Slowly, and in some cases with a little nudging, six sets
of feet hit the wooden planked floor and begrudgingly make their way to the
head. Here the painful chore of shaving is done with the minimum amount of
effort and the maximum amount of complaining.
The six of us officers, myself as aircraft commander, my
co-pilot, two navigators and two weapons controllers bunk together in a
reasonable comfortable hootch with a window air conditioner that works only some
of the time. The rest of our crew is made up of twelve enlisted men - two flight
engineers, a radioman, two radar technicians and seven radar operators. They are
bunked in the enlisted men’s barracks with no air conditioner, on the other
side of the base.
One by one the six of us slowly begin to take shape as
aviators. We slip into our flight suits, pull on our jungle boots, strap on our
38s, sling our survival vests over our shoulders and prod off at half speed to
the officers club for breakfast.
Breakfast here at Kaboom, (Korat Air Base Officers’s Open
Mess), is usually the same everyday; powdered scrambled eggs made with powdered
milk, dry toast and bitter coffee. Or, if you like, cereal with powdered milk,
dry toast and bitter coffee. Once in awhile, we would get lucky and have the
treat of real milk and real eggs flown in from Australia. 3 am and our van is
out front to take us to College Eye Operations where we will meet the rest of
our enlisted crew for our pre-flight briefing. ‘Scarf it down,’ I said, ‘And
let’s get moving - We don’t want to hold up the war.’ With this incentive,
what’s left of the powdered eggs are dropped and we head out for the Op’s
The ride to operations is broken with some small talk, but
no one is really awake enough to take on any great philosophical conversations.
For the most part, we ride in silence.
Upon arrival we are handed today’s classified ‘canned’
mission profile folder. ‘Canned’ meaning that our 5 am take-off is ‘Standard
Operating Procedure’ (SOP); our route of flight - SOP; station assumption at
7am - SOP; and, of course, our return route - SOP. But what does make each
mission ‘un-canned’ are those variables over which we have no direct
control, such as enroute and on-station weather, early morning B-52 bomber
strikes, naval ship-to-shore artillery firings, and a host of on-station
emergencies ranging from an excited appeal from a fighter jock for a tanker
hook-up to the dreaded sound of ‘Mayday, Mayday.’
‘Will everyone please take their seats,’ I announce, ‘We’ve
got a lot to cover this morning.’ With everyone accounted for, we begin with a
general overview of our mission objectives. Today we will be flying an
elliptical orbit over the Gulf of Tonkin about 40 miles off the coast of
Haiphong Harbor. Here we will undertake a variety of duties aimed at assisting
all USAF operations over North Vietnam.
We will monitor the morning and afternoon F-105 strike
forces while they are on target, warning them of enemy MIG aircraft and when
they stray too close to the Chinese border. As they come off target, we will
then serve as a relay center through which they can transmit their strike
results to the 7th Air Force Headquarters.
We will also advise the F-4 fighter escorts (MIG CAP
patrol), who will be flying protective cover for the strike forces, of any enemy
MIG aircraft in their vicinity and then vector them into an intercept position.
And, we will directly control two other F-4 fighter escorts, who will be flying
high cover for us, as well as any other unarmed support aircraft operation in
the Gulf. Lastly, when necessary we will help in arranging for in-flight
refueling, assistance to crippled aircraft, and help in locating downed crew
With the general overview behind us we move on to the
weather, where we get our briefing via closed circuit TV from the base weather
station. The weather in Vietnam is always the same, in fact, it is more ‘SOP’
than our missions - hot and humid, with scattered thunderstorms building to
30,000 feet, and rain squalls likely in the Gulf!
Following the weather, the navigator gives us today’s
station fix and our initial outbound heading. As with state-side missions, the
pilots will do all of their own navigation over land using VOR’s, VORTAC’s,
and DME’s. The navigator will control our positioning from land out-bound to
station, turns and headings on station, and then our return to landfall. Most of
this is done using LORAN, (Long Range Navigation),which
cross fixes our location off of two land-based stations.
Last, but not least, the weapons controller briefs us on his
portion of the mission. Here he announces the times of the morning and afternoon
strike forces (which vary from day to day), the number of sorties per strike,
and if there are other additional operations for which we are responsible. All
in all, it is his mission, we are only putting his radar platform in a position
where he and his crew can give the best possible assistance to all aircraft
With the briefing over, we hustle outside and into our blue
Air Force school bus for the short ride down to the flight line. By this time
everyone is awake and the conversation is more vivid than it was earlier this
morning. The talk has already turned toward ‘What are we going to do tonight
after we get back?’ Before the question gets an answer, the bus lurches to a
stop along side of our aircraft. ‘Looks like we got "Triple Nickel’
today, Sir,’ one of the flight engineers says to me.
‘Triple Nickel’ is the nickname of aircraft number
53-555 and is the only ‘Connie’ on the flight line to have a personality of
her own. In reality, she is probably no better or no worse than any of the other
aircraft we fly, but we always feel a little more at home when we fly her.
As I begin to climb up the ramp, I can’t help but take a
long look at this graceful lady called "Connie.’ She is loving,, she is
forgiving, she is truly a lady, yet she is also rugged. Rough landings are
somewhat common after 10 to 12 hour-long missions, since pilots are tired,
sweaty and bored, but never-the-less she takes all of our abuse and she never
complains. Suddenly a nudge from behind reminds me that I’m now the one who is
‘Holding up the war.’ Bringing myself back to reality, I continue the climb
up to the rear crew door.
The aircraft’s 781 log book looks clean except for a few
minor discrepancies that really won’t affect our mission. Putting the log book
aside, I head back down the ramp to do the ‘outside pre-flight’ inspection
while the co-pilot does the inside. I’ve always liked the ‘outside
pre-flight’ because it gets me outside into the fresh air, and for the fact
that we are going to be cooped-up inside for several hours anyway.
Starting at the trailing edge of the left wing, I inspect
the Fowler flaps, ailerons and the tip tank perched precariously out on the tip
of the wing. Sometimes I wonder what keeps it up there, what keeps it from,
making the wing droop? ‘Oh well,’ I sigh, as I move on to the huge 18
cylinder Curtiss-Wright R3350 Turbo-Compound engines.
Now, if the ‘Connie’ does have a draw back it would be
her engines. They have to be treated like a ladies! They have to be pampered and
nursed and flown by the charts. Yet, if you take good care of them, they will
take good care of you. Her engine-out performance is legendary. She will fly on
three engines just as easy as she will fly on four, as most ‘Connie’ pilots
will tell you.
After visually inspecting engines #1 and #2, I make my way
back to the left main landing gear where I literally climb up inside the wheel
well. Now, in the tropics the sun comes up early, but not this early; I still
need a flashlight up here to look for hydraulic oil leaks, fuel leaks and to
check two of the four bottles of BromoTri-Fluoromethane fire extinguishing
Carefully climbing down off the dual tires so as not to
break my neck or ego, I continue on toward the center of the aircraft. Hanging
down from its belly is the enormous swimming-pool-shaped fiberglass radome. In
it is housed the APS-95 search radar antenna which is the backbone and mainstay
of the EC-121's mission. Without an operational antenna, we might just as well
scrub the entire mission and go back to bed.
In the nose of the aircraft is yet another radar antenna. It
is the pilot’s weather radar, which comes in handy for picking our way through
those towering late afternoon thunderstorms that are so common to this part of
Moving down the right side and around to the rear, I inspect
the horizontal stabilizer and the three large vertical fins. The ‘Connie’
has many trade marks which make her unique and the three large vertical fins are
one of them. They give the pilot good control ability on landings, especially
during those late afternoon thunderstorms or engine-out approaches. They might
take a lot of leg power, but I always feel like I’m in control.
During the same time, the other crew members are also doing
their own ‘pre-flight’ inspections. From the flight engineers to the radar
technicians, they all have a role to play in making sure that the aircraft and
its equipment are ready and capable of performing its mission. When all of these
inspections are completed, the rear crew door is closed, the ramp taken away and
the ‘Before Starting Engines’ checklist is begun.
‘Turning Number 3,’ Calls the Flight Engineer.
In order to clear the lower cylinders of overnight oil
seepage, we count six turns of the prop before the overhead mag switch is turned
‘On.’ With contact now being made, the mighty Wright groans for a few more
turns and then belches a cloud of smoke which engulfs the entire wing as the
engine finally catches. After repeating the same procedure on the other three
engines and receiving basically the same response, we have all four engines
With four in the green and taxi clearance, we venture slowly
forward, weaving our 140,000 pounds of aircraft around the other ‘Connies’
parked on the apron. Once clear, we proceed down the taxiway and notice that we
are not the only ones who are up at this early morning hour. The F-105s armament
people are up loading bombs on their birds, preparing them for the morning
strike force. They give us the universal ‘Thumbs-Up’ as we roll on past them
toward the run-up area.
Pulling into the run-up area, we slowly apply the brakes and
smoothly advance the power in order to let the aircraft pivot forward on the
landing gear till it is ‘up on the step.’ This is yet another trademark of
the ‘Connie’ - its main gear actually pivots during landing, thereby
absorbing some of the initial touchdown shock. The reason we put her ‘up on
the step’ during engine run-up is because, if we don’t she will suddenly ‘lurch’
up on the step by herself as power is applied for the mag checks.
With the mag check completed, we pull back the throttles,
ease the ‘Connie’ down off the step and continue with the ‘Before Take-off’
‘Trim Tabs —? ‘Checked and set for take off.’
‘Flight controls —? "Free and clear.’
And on through the checklist with the co-pilot calling out
each item by item from the scroll mounted to the top of the instrument panel.
‘Mixture —? ‘Full Rich.’
Before Take-off checklist completed, sir.’
With the checklist completed, the panel clock at 4:55 am and
the crew in their seats, we are now ready for take-off.
‘Korat Tower, this is College Eye 53-555 ready for take
‘Roger, College Eye 555, you are cleared for an immediate
take off. Have a good day,’ replies the tower.
With a short PA announcement to the crew that we are
rolling, all four throttles are moved simultaneously forward to their stops. The
four engines slowly begin to roll. We are now asking these engines to put forth
every ounce of horsepower that they have in their 18 cylinders. They strain hard
as they pull us forward, faster and faster down the runway, spewing blue fire
back over the wings.
‘85 . . . 95 . . .105 . . .’ the co-pilot calls out,‘Vee-One!’
Silence is uttered by the flight engineer on the console,
indicating all systems are ‘GO.’ We continue to accelerate.
We are now past the point of no return – ‘V-One,’ that
point at which we can still stop in the remaining runway should we have trouble–we
are committed to a take-off.
‘115 . . . 120 . . . , Lift Off,’ the co-pilot
With this proclamation, I instinctively begin to pull the
yoke back to physically fly the aircraft off the ground, but before I have a
chance, ‘Connie’ gracefully lifts herself off the runway as if she had a
mind of her own. Taken back somewhat, I finally call for ‘Gear Up’ and the
co-pilot, who has been waiting for the call, sharply moves the gear handle to
the ‘Up’ position.
‘Gear Up and Locked,’ he returns.
With the end of the runway passing beneath us and the
airspeed climbing to 130 knots, the call for METO (Max. Continuous Except for
Take Off) signals to the flight engineer that the throttles and engines are now
his. It is now up to him to make all power settings and to take total charge of
those four Curtiss-Wrights until we once again entered the landing pattern.
After reaching 500 feet, we retract the flaps, allow the aircraft to accelerate
to 165 knots and then set climb power.
As we level off at our cruise altitude, the sun is beginning
to emerge in the eastern sky and we can just begin to make out the countryside
below. One of the several ironies of this war is the awesome beauty of the
countryside below. The mountains and valleys are lush with greenery and give the
appearance that all is at peace. But one has only to look ahead and see the
stark contrast of the massive destruction laid down by the B-52 bombing strikes.
Wherever they have been there is absolutely nothing left but a few spindly
sticks of what was once this same beautiful countryside.
Another irony is the enticing white sandy beaches that now
stretch beneath our aircraft as far as the eye can see. White beaches with warm
waves gently rolling up and touching the sand, as if asking for someone to come
out and play. Yet, there is no one, no one in sight – no one has the time to
play in war and no one can trust in war to play!
‘Navigator to Pilot — Navigator to Pilot, we are passing
the coastline outbound, turn left to a heading of 350 and descend to 5000 feet.’
‘Roger, left to 350 and descending.’
The sun has been up for almost an hour now and is quickly
bringing the new day alive. The radios are also coming alive as more and more
traffic starts to fill the sky. We are not the only aircraft heading up into the
Gulf this morning. On any given morning there maybe several reconnaissance
aircraft going into North Vietnam for a pre-strike photo run, ECM aircraft, or
swarms of Navy helicopters hopping from one ship to another, like grasshoppers.
The radar crew has also been monitoring this air and voice
traffic for sometime now, even though we aren’t officially on station yet. As
we get closer, however, they will come up to full strength and officially sign
Another heading change from the navigator and further
descent. The radar crew will be signing ‘on’ shortly, so we will continue
our slow descent all the way down to our station altitude of 50 feet above the
water. 50 feet above the water may seem dangerously low, but it is for good
reasons; (one) we are below the North Vietnamese radar, just some 40 miles away;
(two) we are below the SAM’s (Surface-to-Air-Missile) flight capabilities; and
(three) it gives us a little added protection from the high flying enemy MIGs.
It does have its drawbacks, however, the gulf was always
full of Navy ships and we literally had to climb to get over them. At times I
feel like we are making a broadside torpedo run on them, and I would imagine
that a good many sailors have the same feeling too. It is also one thing to
pop-up and over them in clear weather, but quite a different story during a rain
squall. And there are always rain squalls in the Gulf!
Not only have we flown over Navy ships, but from time to
time we come upon foreign freighters heading for Haiphong Harbor as well as
fleets of North Vietnamese fishing junks. I’m sure that there are times that
we have probably come close to capsizing a few of those junks with our prop
While flying at this low altitude both pilots remain in
their seats at all times. We do not even leave our seats for a restroom break,
and by the time we pull off station, we can literally wring water (one type or
another) out of our flight suits. We also use the autopilot while on station,
because it is more reliable and can hold altitude more accurately than we human
pilots. It also has quicker reaction time, especially in rough air. Even though
we do use the auto-pilot, we still rest both hands on the control wheel with our
forefinger covering the cutoff switch in case of a malfunction.
These missions are also very hard on the maintenance crews.
The aircraft returns from a mission caked with salt water residue and has to be
completely washed down from nose to tail. The salt spray is not only corrosive
to the aircraft fuselage, but it is even worse on the engines.
Because of this low altitude we burn an abnormal amount of
fuel per hour. Therefore, in order to remain on station through the afternoon
strike, we have to fly back down to Dan Nang AB to refuel after the morning
strike. This is always a welcome break in the action and a chance for everyone
to stretch their legs. We are only on the ground long enough to refuel, however,
and then it’s back up on station to be ready for the afternoon fireworks.
Unfortunately, the flight engineers do not get to share in this enjoyment, as it
is their lot to supervise the refueling and to make a final hand-dip of all the
Several weeks ago, as we were making an approach to Da Nang
from the south, we took several rounds of small arms fire in the starboard wing,
tip tank and rear tail section. Fortunately no one was hit and no major damage
was done. The Huey helicopters immediately came out and scoured the area, but
could find nothing, the Viet Cong had already disappeared. We had to abort the
afternoon mission, however, and return home somewhat crippled.
This afternoon’s mission hasn’t been aborted, though,
and having been refueled, we have been back up on station for several hours now,
flying round and round, boring endless holes in the sky. The strike force is
already in on target and should be returning soon. As soon as they are all out
and accounted for, we can then turn south and head for home.
‘Weapons Controller to Pilot-----Weapons Controller to
Pilot, would you come up on our frequency? We have a lot of action going on and
I think you should listen in!’
‘Roger, we’re switching now,’ I respond as I reach up
and twirl the knobs overhead.
Almost immediately the cockpit is filled with tense, rapid
fire radio chatter.
‘Break hard right, there’s a MIG on your tail.’
‘Where the H— did he come from?’
‘Hang on, I’m coming to help.’
‘There’s three more at nine o’clock—they’re coming
‘Thud flight to MIG Cap, we’ve been jumped by a flight
of four MIGs — Where are you? — MIG Cap Patrol, do you read?’
‘Thud Flight — This is College Eye, MIG Cap Patrol is
twenty miles due south, we’re vectoring them up.’
‘Tell em to put it in afterburner, College Eye!’
‘Roger, Thud Flight — MIG Cap is five miles due south
and has you in sight — good luck.’
‘College — College Eye, this is Phantom Flight, we’re
low on fuel and number two is crippled — Can you find us a gas station?’
‘Roger, Phantom Flight, we’ll call the tankers and tell
them to head north, pronto. Can your crip make it home–?’
‘If he gets a quick hook up.’
‘Phantom Flight — Tankers two-three-zero degrees at 130
nautical miles, 17,000 feet and heading your way.’
‘Roger, College Eye, we’re on our way.’
‘Phantom Flight — Tankers now 190 degrees at 10, turning
south for a straight in hook-up.’
‘Tally-ho on the tankers, College Eye, — Thanks for the
‘College Eye — This is Helo 57, we’re heading
inland with two A-1 escorts. We’re homing in on a beeper of a downed
pilot. Any enemy traffic in the area?’
‘Roger, Helo 57 ---- We’re painting some traffic north
of you at 50 nautical miles. We’ll keep an eye on them for you.’
‘Helo 57, traffic appears to be two enemy MIGs ----
zero-one-five at 35 nautical miles, heading your way.’
‘Roger ---- College Eye, we’ll drop down into this haze
layer. I hope it’ll hide us!’
‘Traffic, zero-two-zero at 20.’
‘Traffic, zero-two-zero at 10.’
‘Traffic, zero-two-zero at 5.’
‘Helo 57, you’re all clear. Traffic has turned and
heading back north.’
‘Roger ---- College Eye, Thanks for the warning.’ ---
click, click -‘We’ve made contact with the downed pilot, we’re going in
for the hoist.’
‘College Eye, this is Helo 57 – We’ve made a clean
pick-up, he’s in good shape and we’re hightailing it to the coast.’
‘Roger, Helo 57, you’re clear all the way ---- Have a
‘And the same to you College Eye.’
As I sit here and listen to the small part that we have just
contributed to today’s effort, I fully realize that these are the times when
the early morning get-ups for the early morning take-offs, and the long hours of
going round-and-round in circles are all worth while.
‘Weapons Controller to Pilot, the last aircraft is out
---- What do you say we go home?’
‘Sounds great to me!’
With this we begin our trek back home and thoughts of a hot
shower. The flight home always seems longer than the flight out maybe it’s
because the anticipation is now gone and the fatigue is here. Or, maybe it’s
the insidious onset of darkness that the setting sun produces. In any event the
talk always slows down on the way home and we all settle back into ourselves.
The radar crew has signed off station and has closed out all
of their logs. They are now quietly relaxing, just waiting out the trip home.
The trip home has been uneventful with the exception that we
have been watching thunderstorms slowly but steadily building in front of us.
The sky is getting darker as the sun begins to set, making the intensity of the
approaching storms seem even worse.
‘Descent Checklist,’ I call out above the sound of the
‘Descent Power ----?’
On down we proceed, skirting around first one thunderstorm
cell and then another, banking first this way and then that way. Lightning
flashes light up the sky silhouetting yet more build-ups before us. Invariably,
thunderstorms always seem to locate themselves right over the approach end of
the runway, daring us to penetrate, and today is no exception. It’s a welcome
sight as we pick up the strobes between the rain drops and the windshield
wipers. They are like hands gently reaching out and guiding us home to a safe
‘Flaps full, gear down and locked,’ The co-pilot
The sun is now gone, the rain is hard, yet the touchdown is
smooth. Nose wheel held off ‘til it wants to fall, then gently set it down. I
reach for the reversing throttles and give a firm upward and rearward motion,
not necessarily looking at any particular instrument, just listening for a
sound, then forward again till the sound is gone. — ‘Triple Nickel’ has
brought us home safely one more time.
One more mission for the tally board, one more mission for
my log book and one more mission that I hope helped someone else to have ‘one
The EC-121D , 53-555 ‘Triple Nickel’ referred to in the
above story has found a home in the permanent collection of the United States
Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.
This article was reprinted with the permission of Donald E.
Born. Donald has over 4,500 hours flying EC-121Ds both stateside and in Vietnam
and the Museum’s aircraft, EC-121D 53-555 accounts for a good portion of that