Plane Crazy Saturday history: Dick Rutan on the F-100, Vietnam, and chasing your dreams

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Eleven years ago, Dick Rutan kept a crowd of aviation enthusiasts riveted to every word during the December 2010 Plane Crazy Saturday event, sponsored by the Mojave Transportation Museum.

Rutan is a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and Command Pilot of the record-setting Voyager flight, with Jeana Yeager, which flew around the world non-stop and unrefueled.

As a Tactical Air Command fighter pilot during most of his two decades in the Air Force, Rutan flew 325 combat missions in Vietnam, 105 of them as a member of the Super Sabre FAC (Forward Air Controller), a high risk operation commonly known as the MISTYs.

Dick Rutan (Courtesy photograph)

While on his last strike reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam in 1968, he was hit by enemy ground fire, forced to eject from a flaming F-100 and was later rescued by the Air Force’s Jolly Green Giant helicopter team. Before retiring as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel in 1978, Rutan had been awarded the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals, and the Purple Heart.

Rutan said that he wanted to be a fighter pilot and fly F-100 Super Sabres ever since his mother took him to an air show and he got up-close looks at some pilots and an F-100.

“I looked up at the pilot, as a little kid and I thought, ‘Man, I would really like to be that, but there would be no fine way I could ever do that. Fighter pilots, they’re a different species.’”

Rutan always gave his mother credit for giving him the motivation to become a fighter pilot. “She admonished me when I said that there wasn’t any way I could become a fighter pilot,” said Rutan. “She taught my brother Burt, my sister Nell and I that if you can dream it, you can do it and the only way to fail is if you quit.”

As Dick Rutan stood in Voyager Restaurant looking out at the F-100 parked just outside the windows, he recounted numerous stories of flying the two-place F-model while serving in the U.S. Air Force at Phu Cat Air Base in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969, before and after the Tet Offensive.

Col. Bud Day, who was a major when he was shot down over Vietnam. (Air Force photograph)

Voyager — Around the world, non-stop and unrefueled
Because this date in 2010 marked the 24th anniversary of the historic flight of Voyager, Rutan took his audience back to Dec. 18, 1986, when he and Jeana Yeager were flying in the Voyager aircraft on the fifth day of their nine-day journey around the world.

Sleep deprivation, violent storms and mountains looming kept them stretched mentally beyond all limits of normal. Dick just wanted to get past the land and back over the ocean, so he didn’t have to worry about the thought of running into any mountains!

The mountain was Mount Cameroon and is one of Africa’s largest volcanoes, rising 13,255 feet above the coast of west central Africa. “We came within one mile of dead, halfway up the eastern slope,” Dick told the audience.

Each day on that historical flight presented new, life-threatening dangers. The absolute world distance records set during that flight remain unchallenged today.

Dick Rutan, in the yellow hat, in Voyager Restaurant looking out at the F-100 parked just outside the windows, and recounts numerous stories of flying the two-place F-model while serving in the U.S. Air Force at Phu Cat Air Base in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969, before and after the Tet Offensive. (Courtesy photograph)

The cramped cockpit environment was most uncomfortable and sleep deprivation was the enemy. Imagine being locked in a phone booth for nine days while flying at speeds of only 70 and 80-knots navigating around thunderstorms, near hostile countries threatening to shoot you down, worrying about whether or not you have enough fuel for the trip.

Four days following the historic flight of the Voyager, President Ronald Reagan awarded Burt Rutan, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager the Presidential Citizen’s Medal of Honor at a special ceremony. The medal has been presented only 16 times in the history of the United States.
Vietnam – Flying with the MISTYs
Rutan recounted his days serving with Maj. Bud Day, first commander of the MISTYs. Day was chosen for this mission because he had an extensive fighter pilot background — and because he volunteered. When he volunteered for duty in Vietnam and was assigned to a fighter wing in April 1967, Day had flown more than 4,500 hours in fighters.

This group of extraordinary courageous men were called MISTYs, but not because it was an acronym. Bud Day selected the unit call sign, “MISTY,” because it was his favorite song.

Day said when you add the descriptive words “difficult and dangerous” to any mission, the fighter pilots will come flocking. He said he was besieged with volunteers.

The Air Force decided to use the F-100 (sometimes referred to as “the Hun,” a shortened version of one hundred) as FAST-FACs (Fast Forward Air Controllers). They called them “Super FACs,” because the aircraft were Super Sabres.

An F-100 parked outside the Voyager Restaurant at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Courtesy photograph)

Day’s F-100 was shot down on Aug. 27, 1967, on his 26th MISTY FAC mission; Day was shot down by ground fire over North Vietnam. During the ejection, Day’s right arm was broken in three places, along with other injuries. His crewman was quickly picked up by a rescue helicopter, but Day was captured by local militia, beaten and tortured. Somehow he survived the horrendous and agonizing treatment. Day was released on March 14, 1973, having supplied only false information to his interrogators. He was promoted to colonel during his captivity, and on March 4, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford presented him with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony in which Adm. James Stockdale was also awarded the medal.

MISTY 40 — Dick Rutan described an eerie and bone chilling story, the fiery loss of Strobe 01. Rutan said that he and Capt. Donald E. Harland had just backed off a tanker, when they heard a MAYDAY call. The distress call was from Strobe 01, an RF-4C reconnaissance or recce aircraft coming out of North Vietnam, just above the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone, dividing North from South Vietnam).

After determining that they were on a head-on course to Strobe 01, Rutan and Harland requested vectors to join up with the Phantom. When they rendezvoused with Strobe 01, they were checking for holes, streaming fluids, or fire. There was a small hole in the belly near the aft part of the camera bay and a small flame was flickering in the hole.

There was something highly unusual about this flight, however. There was a general officer in the front seat and the person that they had been communicating with was a major in the back seat. Generals were prohibited from flying into North Vietnam.

Strobe acknowledged the fire and stated that they would bail out. The F-100 crew was anxious to witness a by-the-book ejection sequence with the F-4 Martin Baker seat. It was nearly two minutes before the rear seat fired, because the general had ordered him to wait.

(Courtesy photograph)

As Rutan and Harland watched the textbook ejection, they expected to see the front seat fire, but instead when they looked back they couldn’t believe the horror that was before them. The front cockpit was totally engulfed in fire. It was at that point that Rutan started yelling, “Strobe 01! BAIL OUT! BAIL OUT!” He was so engrossed in watching and yelling for Strobe 01 to bail out that he didn’t seem to realize that he was following the F-4 down.

Harland screamed at Rutan to pull up and he wrote that if it had not been for Harland’s stern direction, he would have crashed right beside Strobe 01. It was only later that he realized Gen. Bob Worley was already dead after the backseater ejected.

After telling these gripping and emotional stories over the years, Rutan has put them all into a book entitled “The Next Five Minutes.” Copies of this limited edition, numbered book can be ordered online at dickrutan.com.

Many thanks to Bob Green, F-100 owner and John Ligon of Flight Test Associates, for the use of the Super Sabre as the Aircraft of the Month for our Plane Crazy Saturday event.

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