Happy 4th of July!
THE WHITE LIGHT
Neil Cosentino, USAF Retired –
Life Member Daedalians
North Vietnam. It was a late December night in 1972. We were headed north at 27, 000 and as the Christmas carol goes …the stars were shinning brightly… only we where headed for Bullseye – downtown Hanoi . Our mission was to be missile bait – missile magnets to protect the B-52s. The B-52 Linebacker II campaign had started a few days back and they kept coming, night after night, flight after flight - flights of B-52’s pounding the North Vietnamese into what many today seems to forget, we pounded them into surrendering which should mean we won.
It all begins at the fence check, after it’s completed, there were just a few minutes to relax and get ready – take a deep breath for what was on the horizon. All the cockpit lights were dimmed by then except one, the other panel lights and telltale lights covered with the foggy gray scotch tape to cut down the glare on the canopy. The external fuel tank switches were rechecked to the fullest tanks, all the heat and radar missiles were tuned with the best ones selected to be fired first, and the weapons select toggle switch on the inboard throttle in the 20mm gun position. Now with the helmet strap tight, clear visor down, oxygen system checked, oxygen mask tight, all lose items, checklist, flashlight secured or stowed, all navigation lights off except the dim setting of the of the green strip lights for close in formation flying. And last, a recheck that the ejection seat pins were all out and a last tug, a pulled on all the parachute harness and seat belt stapes all as tight as I could get them even if it hurt. Soon you forget the hurt when in the fight; you need them tight for a safe high-speed ejection. You will again notice the hurt only after you are out of harms way headed south or east, feet wet over the Gulf and out of the fireworks.
Everything was set; now to just take a few minutes to relax a little and enjoy the beauty of a full cockpit view a planetarium. A spectacular view of the stars on that crystal clear night at 27,000.
The one red AS light was to only one that was not dimmed – we called it the “Aaah Shit light” for when lit, you were in for visitors from below usually two or more SAMs were on their way – your way.
We were nearing show time, all 100 bombers and over 200 Air Force, Navy fighters were all converging on the Red River Valley . That short relaxed mood changes the second you hear the first sounds of their early warming radar. The game is on, from then on.
Each swipe of RF energy from their search radar antennas gives off a sound like one big angry Bullfrog on a small pond - the sound effects of modern warfare. The radio chatter increases the closer you get to Bullseye. Now the sounds of the SAM search radars, on top of the early warning radar, the crescendo builds, the giant real time deadly sound and light show begins.
The sounds of missile radars, the light flashes and rocket trails provided by exploding missiles. At times there were as many as six SAMs airborne at any time. All arching up in different directions from different locations … all out of the totally darkness below. The first one, then two, then two over there and another two and another one there. Watching the fireworks as some of them would burst in a flash at a very high altitude, some lower, some just arcing up burning out and falling back to earth. The closer to Bullseye, the brighter and the louder things got.
We were now close enough to see the AAA bursts. I did not see that one missile trail; it resulted in a bright pure white light that flooded the cockpit. The light was a strange pure white, like someone turned on a floodlight directly over and into my cockpit. It was not a flash, like a camera flash bulb. The light had a plasma like quality to it and seemed to grow in thickness and intensity. It was very bright, but came on slow enough to not cause flash blindness.
I could see what caused the bust of pure white light when my full night vision returned. There was a huge fireball out there slightly left and above at 11 o'clock high. It was that dying fireball that caused that strange white light. The fireball light by then like a dying star. It must have been the clearness of the air at 27,000 that allowed the light to have such power to light up my cockpit so far away from the blast. It was an amazing moment.
What I saw for the first time at night was a SAM making a direct hit on a B-52. The light from that explosion and that fireball that kept growing that caused that strange pure white light. I had just seen the explosion of one hundred, five hundred pound bombs and over 100,000 pounds of jet fuel exploding above and in front of me.
My immediate reaction was a voice that surprised me – I said only two words into my oxygen mask, a gut response to what I saw as the light built in intensity, those words were “ The Bastards” words then and even now seem awkward and not me.
There was a long pause and then another flash – only this time closer and below, on the ground. The second explosion was caused when the remaining parts of the bomber hitting the ground? That explosion floodlighted the vertical column of gray intertwining downward smoke columns - the smoke trails looked like the tightly twisted thin trunks of a small fichus tree; the kind you see in a well-groomed show garden or hotel lobby, they to a ghostly grey. The gray intertwining smoke trails from 35,000 feet descending out of giant now ghost like gray fireball cloud – a downward woven spiral of the large still burning pieces of that bomber as it fell to earth.
It was an unforgettable picture of a mushroom cloud, like that of the A bomb dropped on Japan to end the killing in world war two. With that fireball, a finale for all the crewmembers onboard, all disappearing in that flash of pure white light.
Death comes quick and merciful to most pilots and aircrews; there is no pain, just a merciful instantaneous death. It is not like the sweet, pain and the bleeding to death in the mud of a hot jungle waiting for a Dustoff – the medivac helicopter. For most us, in contrast it’s all over in a flash like to one I just saw.
From that moment on – that burst of white light, I could not help it; it was almost a dangerous distraction watching all those missiles slowly rise into the night. Would that one be the one? Stay focused, it’s the ones you don’t see that kills.
I saw a few more grime mushroom clouds in the nights that followed, when the sky was filled with missiles – some aimed at me. And even now, after all these years and especially during the 4th of July, when I watch the rocket trails, my thoughts flash back to all those crews who just vanished in one a moment in the skies over North Vietnam.
The 4th of July has never been the same since. [My emphasis added. But it has been the same for me whenever I see 4th of July fireworks nearly 40 years later!] The number and intensity of the missiles diminished in the days ahead until the last few nights, I could have orbited over Hanoi and not felt in danger or threatened. We simply beat them defenseless to the ropes and they threw in the towel, we won the war - proving once again that air power is the deciding factor in conflicts, using today’s single drones or those B-52s.
We won the war and Nixon and Kissinger gave it all away – gave South Vietnam back to them at the peace table.
I dedicate this story to my navigator who was in an F-111 during Line backer II – who last heard one of these nights headed east, going feet wet – meaning over the Gulf of Tonkin , never heard from them again.
So Bless ‘em All especially the MIA’s and Have a happy 4th of July....