Blind Bat ...
C-130 Flareships
First Flight Up North
Load Four Flares!

by SAM MCGOWAN
(Copyright 1997)

35th TCS, 6315th Operations Group, Okinawa, Naha Air Base - 1966

 

Excitement gripped the pit of my stomach as I heard the pilot say, "Go ahead and depressurize, so the loads can put out the chute." We were nearing North Vietnamese air space on my first out-of-country combat mission with the C-130 flareships known as BLIND BAT. It was the spring of 1966; I had just arrived the day before at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base for my stint as a flare-kicker/loadmaster with the flareships. Tonight I was flying with a crew from the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron, a sister unit to my own, the 35th TCS, both of which were based on Okinawa at Naha Air Base, where we were part of the 6315th Operations Group.
      For more than a year C-130 flareships had been operating up North, as well as across the fence in Laos. That very night a pair of BLIND BATS were working over Laos while we were one of two LAMPLIGHTER missions who would be working on the other side of the Anamite Range inside North Vietnamese airspace. The crew I was with on my orientation flight that night had been assigned what was probably the most dangerous place in Vietnamese skies outside of the region right around Hanoi - we were going to dropping flares and looking for trucks around the infamous Mu Gia Pass.
      It was not my first mission, or even my first one over North Vietnam for that matter, by military standards, I was already a seasoned veteran after flying numerous airlift missions in Tactical Air Command C-130Es while on TDY from my previous base at Pope, next to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. I had even been on an airplane that took a few hits as we were landing at Đông Hà the previous November, when there was nothing there but a shack for passengers waiting to board Air Vietnam. I had flown one other mission over the north since I had reported in to my new assignment at Naha. That one had been a BS bomber missions dropping leaflets as part of Project FACT SHEET, the special mission my squadron bore sole responsibility for.
      Tonight would be different. While on previous missions we had sought to elude the enemy, tonight we were looking for him and there was almost a 100% chance we were going to find him, and the chances were he was going to let us know he was there.
      I could feel the pressure in my ears as the flight engineer opened the outflow valve and allowed pressure to escape to bring the inside of the airplane up to the 10,000 feet of elevation at which we were flying. Even though there were mountains below us that reached to within a couple of thousand of feet of where we were, it was an elevation that was high enough to keep us clear of all the small arms and .50-caliber fire that the Army helicopter crews flying in South Vietnam thought was "heavy" fire. There were big guns where we were going, dozens of 37 and 57-MM antiaircraft guns, all of which could reach us at 10,000 feet, and even a few 85's, the same guns that had made the skies over Germany so deadly for my father and uncle as they flew missions in their B-24s.
      Upon the instruction from the pilot, I signaled to the rest of the crew to go ahead and open the aft cargo door slightly to extend the aluminum flare chute. As soon as the chute had been placed into the narrow opening between the raised C-130 ramp and the partially open door, one of the other loadmasters used the hand pump to pressurize the system and force the door down on the chute to hold it in place. When it was secure, one of the other guys climbed onto the door to take his place as the flare kicker while another stood by with a flare in his hand ready to put it in the chute when the pilot called for it.
      Since I was crew loadmaster with my own crew, I was on the interphone cord which is where I would be the next evening when we went up on our own. Tonight each of the eight members of my crews was on a mission in one of the four airplanes that were flying. When the pilot's words came through my headset "load four flares" I held up four fingers. The other loadmasters put four flares in the chute, then set the fuses for an 8-second delay. We were approaching the Mu Gia Pass.

 

           "Drop four!"

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      As the words came through my headset, the guy on the door, who was also wearing a headset, let fly with the four flares he was holding in place with his feet. A few seconds later the sky behind us lit up as the four flares burst into brilliance. And just as they did, I saw brilliant white winking lights on the ground somewhere below us. I was looking out the left paratroop door at the ground. Out of the lights came cherry red balls like those fired by Roman candles. They rose slowly at first, then quickly accelerated toward us. "I want my mother!" Those are the thoughts that went through my mind as I realized for the first time in my life that someone down there was trying to kill me.
      The burst of 37MM rose to burst harmlessly in the sky about 100 feet or so above us. The pilot said they were off to our right by about the same distance, but I could have sworn they went right by my nose! It suddenly occurred to me that the next three months were going to be an exciting time.
      Now that Charlie had made his presence known, we knew what area to avoid by just the right distance to keep out of the way of his shells. A few minutes later a flight of fighters, F-4s from Đà Nẵng, arrived on station and we sent them down after the trucks that were making their way through the narrow pass.

Blind Bat is my home page. It contains a lot of C-130 history as it involved Naha AB, Okinawa, the 6315th Operations Group/374th Troop Carrier Wing and the 315th Air Division. Some interesting C-130 missions, including the Blind Bat C-130 flare mission, are described here.

 
 

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