The most hazardous operation in the war in Southeast Asia was reconnaissance. Recce pilots flew alone or sometimes with a wingman against high-value, heavily defended targets, generally deep in enemy territory. Their loss rate was far higher than that of strike fighters. Only exceptional pilots with the experience to make on-the-spot tactical decisions were used as recce pilots.
In the early months of the SEA war, the photorecce workhorse was the McDonnell RF-101, a supersonic aircraft derived from an early 1950s-developed penetration fighter. It had neither electronic jamming equipment nor side-looking radar as did the RF-4C that, in 1965, was to succeed it for deep penetration missions.
The scope and danger of photorecce work expanded in early 1965 when North Vietnam began deploying Soviet-made and -operated SA-2 Surface-to-Air Missiles around Hanoi. At that time, Allied aircraft were not permitted to destroy the SAM sites, but it was essential that their location be known. Eventually 200 SAM sites were established north of the demilitarized zone. The first USAF aircraft to be shot down by a SAM was an F-4 on July 24, 1965. More aircraft were downed by the anti-aircraft guns protecting the sites than by the missiles themselves.
At the time, two of the most experienced photorecce pilots were Maj. Jerry Lents and Capt. Jack W. Weatherby, based at Tan Son Nhut near Saigon. Lents had flown 48 missions, and Weatherby, who was considered one of the best recce pilots, flew the first mission against a SAM complex.
As they were returning from an in-country mission on July 29, 1965, they picked up a radio message from higher headquarters concerning a run against a SAM site northwest of Hanoi. Weatherby immediately volunteered to lead the mission and Lents asked to go as his wingman. Weatherby’s unique experience in reconnoitering a SAM site should help them on this one. His earlier experience convinced Weatherby that no pilot could expect to survive many SAM photo missions, but never mind that.
This particular mission would be not only harrowing but long. The site they were to photograph was 700 miles from Tan Son Nhut and more than 300 miles north of the DMZ. After take off, Weatherby lost his UHF transmitter and Lents took the lead. Near the DMZ they rendezvoused with a tanker and took on a load of fuel. Although his transmitter was out, Weatherby’s receiver still worked. The two pilots were able to establish somewhat shaky communications by Lents asking questions and Weatherby responding with clicks of his microphone button. Weatherby made it known that he wanted to resume the lead.
The weather was deteriorating rapidly, with severe thunderstorms in the area. For a time it looked as though the mission could not be completed, but finally they broke out of the clouds a short distance south of the target area. Weatherby let down to their approach altitude of 200 feet, and they began their run about 40 miles out and at 600 knots. Ground fire became increasingly heavy as they neared the SAM complex.
Weatherby had turned on his cameras when he was hit by an anti-aircraft shell that passed through the fuselage without exploding. Fuel began leaking from both sides of the plane, and within seconds small flames appeared under the fuselage. Without knowing if Weatherby’s receiver was still working, Lents screamed at him to get out before the aircraft exploded. Ignoring the damage to his aircraft and the likelihood of a fatal crash, Weatherby continued his photo run. He believed there was a remote possibility that the flames would blow out and that he might be able to reach a friendly airfield. If he bailed out, the film would be lost and almost certainly he would become a POW.
Leaving the SAM complex, they flew on the deck up a valley so narrow that evasive action was not possible. Gunfire was coming from both sides, but with each passing second the possibility of escape improved. It was not to be. Weatherby’s aircraft exploded and crashed to the ground in a ball of flame. Lents flew through the flames, cleared the hills, and made it back to a tanker and to Tan Son Nhut. Though the film was gone, he was able to pinpoint the location of the SAM complex. He continued to fly recce missions until his return to the States.
On Nov. 23, 1965, at Carswell AFB, Texas, Capt. Jack Weatherby was awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously for his heroism that July day. He was the 12th man to be awarded the AFC in the Vietnam War. He laid his life on the line to complete a mission of vital importance to USAF. His selfless valor was an inspiration to those who followed him.
Published April 1998. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.