The First Hot Intercept
by F. Riggs 'Monty' Monfort
The night was no different than any other on the alert pad at Naha in early 1955. The 25th FIS was standing down and my 16th FIS had the duty. The mission of the 51st Fighter Wing was to protect our nuclear strike force based at Kadena, and Okinawa in general. The 51st FIW had been moved from Korea where it had served with great distinction as a day fighter unit, and given the role of all weather interceptors. That means we took all the intercepts on incoming unknown aircraft during any weather conditions and at night, weather or not! It was now "A" flight's turn on alert. We were particularly proud of the "A Flight" patch, an F-86D coming through a Japanese Shinto Toni. The top of the Toni was emblazoned with Japanese characters for D O T F R. It was all innocent enough but we knew the letters stood for Defenders Of The F---king Rock.
At every opportunity we would prod the day guys when we were on a day training mission in bright sunshine. While running a practice mission out west of the Rock, we would call the GCI center to announce we had seen a cloud and did the day fighter unit want us to take over the alert? I think they got a little tired of our joking but we were faster than they were so they never caught us. At night we always had the alert. Few people realized that the Air Force mission remained hot in those days whether there was a declared war or not.
We had checked our birds with everything ready for the fastest scramble in the West. The radio was tuned to Naha's Jig Nan on 370 Kc. It wasn't lost on us that we were flying an all weather mission with no high frequency navigation available. We depended primarily on vectors from Mother and our own radar. Navigation was critical as after a few minutes into a 'Gate' climb we didn't have enough fuel to go anywhere except back to Jig Nan. On particularly stormy nights the low freq equipment was sometimes useless and we knew that GCA couldn't pick our small birds out of a rainstorm for a precision approach. A lot of our success was due to training, practice and skill. But more than once just old fashioned dumb 'luck resulted in a safe recovery.
Each piece of equipment and each strap was placed in a precise location for rapid access. It was a point of great pride that once we hit the cockpit and the throttle had been moved to 100% for an automatic start' we could be strapped in and hooked up before the engine hit 100% We had only a finite amount of time as the automatic control lit the fires then slowly accelerated to 100%. By the time we finished buckling our chute and harness, had the safety pins, APU, and chocks pulled, the engine reached 100%. More than one rookie left the pad with a shoulder harness loose or something else hooked where it shouldn't be. It took a time or two to settle in to the routine of a hot scramble regardless of how many times you practiced.
As we reached the runway we would light the burner, lock the brakes. and wait for the AB to stabilize. The tailpipe temp would give a little bounce as it hit 100% then go a little wild as the AB lit. The crew chief would pray the electronics would work and we didn't have an overtemp. A hot scramble was one of the few times we ever trusted the automatic system because the salt air environment of Naha was not conducive to reliability of any electrical devices including our radar and radios.
The alert shack was a small square hut standing on some concrete blocks and literally strapped to the ground by heavy steel cable. That made it typhoon proof which I can vouch for. Two typhoons came through during my tour and the shack always survived. Several nights, while being the back up element, I remember sleeping through the primary element scramble even when they went into afterburner a few hundred feet from the shack. The crew chief had to wake me up to take over primary alert after the primary element had been airborne ten minutes. I am still amazed at that phenomenon and how we tuned out anything that interfered with good sack time. The aircraft were outside, unprotected from the elements where they remained, rain or moonshine. Diving into a cockpit in a rainstorm wasn't one of my favorite activities.
Hot scrambles were more than a rush of adrenalin, they made you feel like you were one with the finest piece of equipment known to man and the two of you were in perfect harmony. Until this time all my scrambles ended before any airborne contact was made and they were not at the level of threat of tonight's bogey. The Chinese would regularly send out feelers to see if we were awake and just as soon as they detected our response they'd turn for home. Tonight was different.
A lone bogey had been picked up by our ground radar, coming from the general direction of Chinese mainland. It was night, with moderate heavy weather. Two of us had a smooth and uneventful scramble from the pad. GCI asked us to go Gate and gave us the numbers as we broke ground then continued to vector us into position where could split. One of us would stand off in position make a firing pass, while the other would go in an identification pass. The rules of engagement S that they had to fire first. That would mean that ID pass aircraft would likely get a snootful which would be the signal for your buddy to make a beam intercept with his 24 rockets.
I was vectored around to approach the bogey from rear and work my bird down to a speed that would give me a closure rate to synchronize with the bogey. In the final phase of the ID pass our speeds woould match perfectly, joining in what could be a deadly formation. I began closure using my own radar. This what we trained for but now it was for real. A blind joinup and ID at night while "Popeye" in heavy weather!
The speed and altitude suggested a propeller aircraft or perhaps one of their jets flying low slow to simulate an airliner? As I got close the rapidly changed altitude about 1000 feet. I advised control and my buddy that the bogey had taken evasive action. They should now be thinking about a firing pass. It would take only one airplane and one bomb to neutralize Okinawa and we were well aware of that. On the second try he changed altitude again. We were now becoming convinced we had a bandit trying to sneak through our interceptor screen.
I made the decision to try one more ID. The bogey had now given every indication of being a bad guy except he hadn't fired. Our backup 16th fighters were getting ready to scramble by now. My buddy had armed his rockets and was beginning the beam intercept that we practiced almost every day and night. He would be calling "Judy" any second. I knew I had very little time before the rings on his E-4 fire control would begin to collapse into the final stages of firing.
I was not satisfied and wanted to actually see this guy in the worst way. Why hadn't he fired on me? I insisted on one more pass and as if a higher authority willed it, we broke into a momentary clear patch. I was able to see the paint of Japan Airlines and actually get part of a number off the DC-4. He appeared to be a Friendly. I just about crushed the mike button as I called "Skip It" to abort the firing pass. The airplane was off course and schedule big time and was not reporting to the proper ground controllers.
I remember feeling cool and comfortable throughout the intercept. Now I could feel the sweat under my helmet I realized how close we had come to killing unsuspecting civilians through no fault of theirs but because of the incompetence of one pilot who I hope was grounded. We stayed as close to the airliner as safety would permit in those weather conditions for several minutes until the identity could be verified. Then we got a steer for a somewhat shaken return to Jig Nan and a penetration to Rome Plate.
I had been thoroughly trained and prepared to use this weapon of destruction but I'm glad the rules of engagement protected us from a dreadful accident. I also thank whoever gave me the instinct to make that one last pass after we were all but convinced we had a bandit.
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