Phantom of the operator
Below and to the left, a destroyer lay offshore pounding away with its five-inch batteries, while a flight of Navy A-7s swept in beneath us, inbound from a carrier at Yankee Station. Off to the right a cloud of debris boiled up from the edge of a rice paddy east of Hue, and a little speck clawed back to the perch for a second run. Helicopters – their rotors strobing in the brilliant sun – shuttled troops from Phu Bai to a clearing in the hills near Hai Van Pass where an Army convoy had been ambushed. A pall of black smoke from several burning vehicles rose in a flaccid column, anvilling at 10,000 feet where I punctured it just for drill. High above, a Japan Air Lines DC-8 pulled majestic contrails as it bisected the isthmus on its way to Bangkok.
Phantom over Vietnam by John Trotti, 1984, reviewed by Everard Cunion in February 2018
This book is full of action, relating the experiences of US Marine Corps pilot John Trotti flying the 20-ton two-man F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber during the Vietnam War. It also contains a great deal of technical content with clear explanations that are not oversimplified.
The first half of the book narrates a mission from the detailed pre-flight and start-up routine, climb out, manoeuvre to tactical spread, and so on, to landing. At each point, he digresses into the thinking behind the design of the F-4, how it handles in various configurations and at various speeds, and the pros and cons of its weapons systems. The book is illustrated with Trotti’s sketches. (Flipping through the pages, I count 11 such illustrations.) They embody an immediacy that complements the text. Those drawings appear only in the full book, incidentally. The abridged Eyewitness Nam edition (a photo of the cover appears farther on) is illustrated instead with widely available photographs.
The mission he describes includes in-flight refueling, the destruction of the strike’s accompanying electronic countermeasures aircraft by a surface-to-air missile, then his bombing of an anti-aircraft gun site.
In less than twelve seconds the Phantom had gone from its easterly low-level dash to its northerly 3,200-foot attack perch in a snarling arc. A dark cluster of guns slid into view just above the canopy rail, and beyond them to the left, the radar dish – my aim point.
It is a classic low-level bombing run that involves rolling the aircraft on its back during the pop-up to keep the target in view, and ‘crossed controls’ when rolling upright before releasing the bombs, again to keep the target centred in the pilot’s view. Trotti precedes that action with a description of the factors that need to be considered when planning such a bomb run, even down to minutiae such as the bomb sight setting accounting for the physical displacement of the sight axis from the bomb-rack axis.
Trotti’s wing man (a second F-4 comprising Trotti’s section) is damaged during the attack and its two crewmen, pilot and radar operator, eject over the sea. At that point he details the intricate operation of the British-made ejection seats. After his two comrades are rescued by helicopter, he lands back at Da Nang low on fuel, in poor visibility, and with the runway beset by a gusting cross-wind. To do so, he uses the ‘talk down’ Ground Controlled Approach system. For good measure, not all the runway equipment is functioning. That landing is illustrated by one of Trotti’s drawings, which depicts an F-4 with all external stores and most racks jettisoned about to touch down on the rain-slick tarmac with a backdrop of tall cumuli and angled streaks of rain. (A picture is worth 40 words…)
The action in the second half of the book continues after the mission described in the first half, but it does so differently. He describes the war as a sequence of events interspersed with action that represents each event as he experienced it. For example, a Marine ground patrol setting out from Da Nang is ambushed…
…before they had even had a chance to settle their packs. I was sitting outside the Hot Pad van enjoying an uncommon afternoon breeze tinged with the smell of salt, and noticing an unusual amount of dirt and smoke just beyond the south perimeter, when the horn went off and we found ourselves banged off the pad to make bombing runs inside the normal landing pattern.
The battle that follows includes the rescue of an injured crewman from a downed helicopter as seen by Trotti before and after making a napalm run along the inevitable tree line occupied by the enemy.
At the end of his first tour of duty in Vietnam, Trotti took a ride in an Air America light transport aircraft, flown by one of his former Marine comrades. Trotti was astonished to learn that two of the passengers were North Vietnamese Army advisors to the Vietcong – the guerrillas fighting the Americans and Army of the Republic of Vietnam in the south.
“…they’ve been riding with us for over a year, so we get on just fine. Their other buddy and I had a beer in Saigon last month when we ran into each other on the street. He speaks better English than you do and he told me a lot of things I never knew. Interesting guy.”
The story of the next passenger to board is nowhere near as amusing and it exemplifies the extraordinary nature of this bizarre war fought during the space age in jungles and rice paddies against an enemy still partly in the iron age. He rounds out that day as follows:
…I had gained far more insight into the nature of our hosts, as well as that of the enemy, than I had received from all the briefings and pamphlets provided by our intelligence experts. Finally, I was stunned by the realization that in the more than 100 night landings I had made at Da Nang, I had never once noticed the lights of the city.
That last observation accords with those of others, which indicates to me that, the faster you fly, the less you experience. (For example, Trotti’s fellow Marine F-4 pilot Mark Stucky — too young for Vietnam — wrote that his jet fighter flight log contains little in the way of observation, yet some entries in his hang gliding log stretch to several pages.) Nevertheless, Trotti brought back with him enough visual memories to provide the reader with several descriptions of the scenery, such as the following.
At set times of the year the mountains were transformed by the elements: sometimes early morning puffballs developed into gigantic thunderheads, holding court until long after the sun went down; at others a stratus mantle slipped over the brow of the mountains, spilling part way down the coastal face; then there were days on end when there was nothing but the sharp division between the deep green of the hills and the solid blue of the sky; finally there were days when the wind poured off the sea bringing torrents of rain to erase the hills completely…
Immediately following that is an account of a particularly difficult bombing mission in support of ground troops, including some seriously wounded and some dead, that succeeded in allowing the survivors to retreat to safety. That their leader was killed in action the following day raises (in my mind at least) the question of where bravery comes from. According to the theory of natural selection, it could never have evolved. We should be – in theory – a race of little grey men in suits positioning ourselves in the marketplace, and the equivalent other half of the race (women) measuring the worth of men by the number of cattle they own or how big a lie they can tell convincingly about how many cattle they own. (For what it’s worth, I believe that, somewhat like those cattle, we are ourselves the product of artificial selection, imbuing us with the attributes that not only separate us from the lower animals, but raise us above them in a way so radical that it places us in a different category.)
Eyewitness Nam was a series of large format books, like magazines but thicker, about the American war in Vietnam. An abridged and differently illustrated version of John Trotti’s Phantom Over Vietnam was the eighth in the series. It was published in 1988.
On return to the USA after his first tour of duty in Vietnam, Trotti served as a flight instructor. That part of the book describes the process of training Navy and Marine pilots up to and including landing on aircraft carriers in the two-seat Grumman TF-9 Cougar.
In 1968 Trotti returned to ‘Nam, where he found that the situation had changed both radically and subtly. Here, he indulges in a spot of Tom Wolfery:
Kerosene quickly percolated into the water table, contaminating the entire area. Whatever potability remained, the health people took care of with chlorine. It was safe enough to drink, though you felt that you ought to refrain from smoking for a while after imbibing the swill.
He makes the following observation, one of many, that pertain to the often difficult and sometimes risky endeavour of aviation, when a lieutenant-colonel returns to combat flying after ten years in an administrative role:
Proficiency flying in staff or trainer-type aircraft may put a little gloss on the basic skills, but it is no help for the fact that over a period of time, one’s priorities are bound to change. Unless you’re at it day after day, the risks begin to outweigh the rewards, and what was once part of your reason for living becomes a nightmare.
(Henry Zeybel makes the same point more graphically in The First Ace, a fictionalised account of air force F-4 crewmen flying from Thailand. In that story, the aircraft flown by the out-of-practice pilot is struck by a surface-to-air missile…) Trotti finds himself at loggerheads with one such ‘staff type’ who needs a DFC to ensure promotion and, to that end, he invents hostile fire from a village, which he then attacks.
There are many tips for the aspiring F-4 pilot in the book. This one pertaining to decelerating out of supersonic flight demonstrates Trotti’s way of describing unfamiliar experiences (unfamiliar to me anyway) by drawing analogies, and then adding a consequence you might not have considered:
The center of pressure runs quickly forward, and there is just a moment of relative instability that feels like a slowing boat being swept up in its own wake. You’re quickly through it, and the handling characteristics return to their subsonic norm. It’s a situation you have to anticipate, because if you were already pulling the plane towards its structural limits, the additional loading could cause an overstress.
(Additionally, in The First Ace, Henry Zeybel provides much info about flying the F-4 including the need to use rudder rather than ailerons for roll when flying slowly in a nose-high attitude.)
Accidents that Trotti describes include the transport aircraft that flew into a mountain side in poor visibility because its summit is higher than was shown on maps at that time. Then a freak mid-air collision killed 12 men. Another dire incident he recounts is that of a downed F-4 crewman surrounded by enemy soldiers. He shoots it out with them using his side-arm while A-4s make bombing runs ever closer as the enemy moves in on him…
From Trotti’s time as the squadron maintenance officer he describes a flight test of an F-4 in ‘clean’ configuration, that is, with no weapons, external fuel tanks, or pylons attached to the outside of the aircraft, which would slow it down. Here is an excerpt:
Even in the leaden air, our twenty-ton beast had taken less than 2,000 feet of ground roll. At the instant that the shaking stopped, I rotated the gear handle up, simultaneously lowering the nose to maintain my altitude at twenty feet above the runway to remain in ground effect.
We were two-thirds of the way down the runway – abeam our squadron area – when the airspeed needle passed 310 knots, and I pulled into a 2.5-g right climbing arc, looking to lay the airplane on its back in a 45 degree climb…
He notes that, in contrast to the rule-constrained flying back in the USA, Vietnam “…represented a cult that was becoming extinct…”:
In Vietnam we could do canopy rolls if we felt like it, jump the Air Force any time we wished, bounce the VNAV with our vortices when we caught them unawares, and rub bellies with a thunderhead returning from a raid into Laos.
Lastly, like many Vietnam veterans, he engages in a certain amount of introspection, such as when he felt that he had ‘crossed a line’ and his back-seater refused to fly with him:
…death ceases to be the enemy, merely another participant in a game you don’t wish to end. In a sense, it showed how well we’d been programmed that we were more given to dying for our country than going home to it.
I have no serious criticisms of this phantastic adventure, but for completeness, here are a couple of things that I feel might have been improved on. First, a snippet from where he describes the process of training Navy and Marine pilots:
These are subjective evaluations, and often the instructor is lost for a rational explanation for a poor (or superior) grade. It all has to do with how one lives up to some mythical standard of response that is in keeping with “the Navy way.”
No, it doesn’t. Whenever you provide anyone with the power to rate others according to their own judgement – which in subtle and complex things might not be reasonably done in any more scientific way – that individual will rate highest those who resemble (in appearance, speech, or other important characteristics) his own. Trotti’s book was first published in 1984, eight years after Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene realigned popular understanding of behaviour with Darwinism, so there is no reason for introducing fictions like “the Navy way” to account for it. I am sure that Frank Petersen, who led Trotti’s squadron at Chu Lai in 1968 and became the first black general in the US Marines, would agree. Other authors do better in that regard. For example, in Boyne and Thompson’s fictionalised history of the US Air Force The Wild Blue, a main character resigns his posting as an instructor when he recognises that his own prejudices endanger the lives of his students. Indeed, earlier in Phantom Over Vietnam, Trotti mentions ‘…half a dozen other ex-Marine aviator friends whose main fault lay in the fact that they never curried enough favour among the staff types to get promoted and were forced out.’ That sounds to me (from what I read elsewhere) more like the Navy way, the Air Force Way, the Army way, and certainly (from personal experience) the way of the civilian world.
Trotti’s explanations of highly technical aspects are strikingly clear. However, in a couple of places he leaves the reader to infer what is almost certainly to him obvious, but I feel it is a stretch too far for the non-technical reader.
The action that John Trotti relates in Phantom Over Vietnam is the jet fighter equivalent of the helicopter war so grippingly described by Robert Mason in Chickenhawk. When I arrived for my first helicopter flying lesson, I mentioned that I had read Chickenhawk and, after a couple of questions to check that I had understood it, the instructor said that we could dispense with the briefing and we proceeded straight out to the aircraft! Reading Phantom Over Vietnam imparted to me a similar feeling; that I could jump in an F-4 and (with an instructor in the back) proceed to fly it. Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk has been described as the best book to come out of the Vietnam War and, having read it many times, that sounds reasonable to me. Except that John Trotti’s Phantom Over Vietnam is at least its equal.
South Atlantic Star, my review of Hostile Skies by David Morgan, 2006 — another first-hand account of jet fighter action
Spring loaded to the freedom position—my review of Hammer from Above, Marine Air Combat over Iraq, by Jay Stout, 2007
Strange love—my review of Wings of Fire by Henry Zeybel, 1988 — cold war bomber action
Vietnam war plastic models including several F-4 Phantoms
Whisky Kilo Two Eight tells all—my review of Trailblazers, Test Pilots in Action, by Christopher Hounsfield, 2008, which includes some F-4 flight test info
McDonnell F-4 Phantom II “F-4 Flight Characteristics” ~ 1967 US Air Force Pilot Training Film on YouTube; a bizarre treatment with much forced laughter, but it covers some of the F-4’s notable handling characteristics