Valor: Triumph at Thai Nguyen

July 1, 1988

Reconnaissance has been a key element in warfare since men began fighting with clubs and stones. During the long years of the Vietnam War, special requirements were laid on the pilots who flew photo recce missions in the heavily defended areas of North Vietnam. The decision-makers in Washington wanted volumes of target and poststrike photos almost before the smoke of battle had settled.

Until late 1967, most of the photo recce work in the North was done by venerable RF-101 Voodoos, flying alone, in pairs, or leading a formation that included F-4 MiG CAP fighters. Enemy defenses and recce tactics–photo runs were flown at low to medium altitude–took a heavier toll of the unarmed RF-101s than of strike fighters. Photo recce pilots were in a technically sophisticated, extremely dangerous, and rarely lauded business.

Into this sweaty and demanding environment came Lt. Col. James R. Brickel on Nov. 30, 1966, assigned to the 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Udorn Royal Thai AFB. A 1952 graduate of the Naval Academy, Brickel transferred to the Air Force and cut his teeth as an F-86 pilot. Later earning two advanced degrees in engineering, he spent seven years in nuclear weapons R&D and with the Apollo lunar landing program before volunteering for RF-101 combat crew training.

Three months after reporting at Udorn, he was named squadron operations officer. By that time, it was apparent that RF-101s could not continue flying over the North much longer. Losses to ground fire and to MiGs had run as high as seven in one month. Plans were afoot to replace them with newer and higher-performance RF4s, but never mind that. The insatiable demand for photo coverage had to be satisfied, regardless of risk.

March 10, 1967, was a landmark day in the SEA war, as it was for Brickel. After months of hesitation, Washington had released the iron and steel plant at Thai Nguyen, some 30 miles from Hanoi, for attack. (See “Valor,” August ’86 issue.) Seventh Air Force Commander Gen. William Momyer called it “the most important target of the war.” It was also one of the most heavily defended. Brickel, now a veteran of 50 sorties in the North, volunteered for this hazardous photo mission, which meant flying through a 60-mile circle of thoroughly alerted SAMs and guns, with MiG-21s lurking in the wings.

As Brickel and his escort of four F4s from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing under Lt. Col. Thomas McGuire swung south over Thud Ridge toward the smoke and flame rising from Thai Nguyen, the defenses opened up, first with 37-mm and 57-mm guns, then with an estimated 90 radar-controlled 85s. According to McGuire, flak was the heaviest he had seen, “except in World War II movies.” As Brickel rolled into his photo run, there may never have been so much flak thrown at a single flight of aircraft.

Then, about 10 miles short of the target, an 85-mm shell exploded directly under the RF-101’s left engine. Oil pressure on that engine dropped to zero, the left aileron was torn up, a hydraulic pump that provided power for the flight controls failed, and the cockpit filled with smoke. With the damaged engine retarded, airspeed dropped off by 50 knots, making the Voodoo even more vulnerable. Fire and an explosion seemed imminent, but Brickel regained control of the aircraft and resumed his run just as the cameras began to roll. He knew there could be no abort on this mission so long as he could keep his crippled bird in the air.

Fighting on through barrage after barrage of flak, Jim Brickel came through with complete photo coverage and nursed his stricken Voodoo back to Udorn. Momyer, who presented the Air Force Cross to Brickel, termed his performance over Thai Nguyen “a superb display of guts.” Momyer never was one to bestow compliments lightly.

Brickel flew another 56 missions over North Vietnam as squadron commander and was awarded a Silver Star and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry before returning to the States and a distinguished career in command and research assignments. He retired as a lieutenant general in September 1984, and now is a vice president of United Technologies Corp.’s Defense and Space Systems Group in Washington.

Today General Brickel has the highest praise for “the career tac recce pilots who flew those demanding missions throughout the war. They set an exceptional standard of courage, dedication, and professionalism,” he says. “Flying with them was one of the most rewarding experiences of my Air Force years.”

Published July 1988. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.