November 11, 2019. In the United States, we celebrate it as Veterans Day. 101 years ago, German and Allied forces signed the Armistice of Compiègne. It took effect at 11:00 am, Paris time.
At my house, we also celebrate this as “David Finster’s Birthday”, an honor I share with approximately 1/365th of the world population. But this isn’t about me. Instead, it seems like an appropriate time to learn about a particularly brave and unconventional use of technology.
As fate would have it, this is also a birthday story. It happened on Lt. Col. Bob Pardo’s birthday, March 10, 1967. This is the story of Pardo’s Push.
I recently found a photo of Bob Pardo standing in front of a commemorative painting of the event. My first thought was that he looked exactly like I’d expect a Texas jet fighter pilot to look. Silver hair cut short. A plaid button-down shirt. His glacier-blue eyes seemed to look straight through me from the photograph. In short, you can tell at a glance – he’s the real deal. A Vietnam fighter pilot.
I found this story in an excellent two-part article from Airport Journals. If you want the full story, I highly recommend reading part one and part two, along with another good article from The Eagle of Bryan, Texas. I’ve done my best here to summarize the highlights.
In March of 1967, the U.S. began attacking big industrial targets. First on the list was a steel mill in Thai Nguyen, the only one in North Vietnam. For nine days, F-105s tried and failed to bomb the mill. On March 10th, Pardo and his backseater, 1st Lt. Steve Wayne, were assigned escort duty in their F-4 as a squadron of F-105s made another bombing attempt.
The squadron had flown the same route every day, giving the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners some practice. The gunners succeeded in hitting Earl Aman and his backseater, 1st Lt. Robert Houghton, also flying an F-4 escort. They were still 50 miles out, but assessed the damage and decided to continue the run.
The squadron was unsuccessful again. As they turned back to base, Pardo’s plane was hit. While inspecting the damage, he saw Aman’s plane was lagging behind. Aman’s plane had been hit a second time. Comparing notes, they were both leaking fuel. They expected to have 7000 pounds of fuel at this point, but Pardo had 5000 pounds. Aman only had 2000. They were not going to make it back.
As Pardo described, “I was trying to figure out if there was anything I could do to help Earl. It was obvious he was going to punch out; he wasn’t even going to make it out of North Vietnam. If you bail out up there, life depends on who gets you. If the civilians get you, you’re dead immediately. If the militia or the army gets you, then you have a good chance of making it to prison. Neither of those were good choices. Suddenly, the objective became, “What can we do to get him into the jungle over Laos?”
Pardo told Aman to jettison his drag chute.
“The drag chute compartment on the F-4 was the aft most thing on the airplane,” Pardo explained. “It’s a large drag chute and compartment, and I thought with the door fully open and the drag chute gone, we might be able to put the nose of the radome right in the drag chute compartment and push it. But so much turbulence was coming off the top of the airplane, that wasn’t possible.”
Pardo decided to try again with a new approach; get up under the belly of the aircraft. Aman had flamed out, and was gliding with no power.
“I thought if we put the top of our fuselage against his belly we might be able to support him,’” he said. “We’d get within about a foot of his belly, and I could feel a vacuum trying to pull us into him,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s probably not a very good idea, because if we bump, it could jam our canopies.’ We knew we were going to punch out; we were running out of gas faster than we were burning it. We figured we had fuel leaks from the battle damage that we had taken.”
Pardo backed away then noticed the tail hook.
“The whole thing is big and strong, just like the airplane. I said, ‘That thing comes down four or five feet below the airplane, so let’s try that,’” Pardo said. He told Aman to put the hook down.
“We eased in, put the hook on our windshield and started pushing,” he said. “Instead of gliding at 3,000 feet a minute vertical speed, we were able to slow down to about 1,500 feet a minute, which effectively, if you could keep it going, doubles the glide distance.”
Every 30 seconds or so, the tailhook would slip out of position.
“It swivels to the side, but once it’s down, it’s held down hydraulically,” he explained. “It does swivel, so that when you take the barrier on an aircraft carrier or on a runway, it immediately straightens the airplane out, if you’re in a crosswind or what have you.”
The windshield began to crack, so he repositioned further into the turbulence to find a secure push point.
“I was trying to stay as far below his airplane as I could to stay out of the turbulence,” Pardo said. “I didn’t want to go any higher, but we had to, so I eased up just enough to put the hook just below the windshield on the metal. It still worked pretty good, so we continued.”
And then after a few minutes, Pardo’s left engine caught fire.
“We had to shut it down,” he said. “We’d go back in and try it on one engine. It didn’t work as well. The vertical speed, about the best we could do, was 2,000 feet a minute. We backed up and restarted the engine, hoping it wasn’t going to blow up. We went back in again, but within 30 to 45 seconds, it caught fire, and we shut it down again. We went about the last 10 minutes on one engine.”
Finally, they made it to Laos. They were down to 6,000 feet and it was time to eject.
“We told Earl to eject, and shortly thereafter we saw both of them punch out and both chutes open, so we knew they got out of the airplane alive,” he said. Pardo ejected and survived, but “I found out later that I’d broken two vertebrae in my neck,” he said.
All four airmen were rescued. Pardo was back in the air, flying to that same steel mill 48 hours later. You might think he would be awarded a medal for quick thinking and saving the aircrews, but instead “we got seven days of ass-chewings,” he said. “They were between maybe giving us a medal or giving us a court martial. We got Earl and Bob back; that’s all we wanted.”
Years later, a friend and assistant to U.S. Senator John Tower appealed Pardo’s case. “John Tower was the Texan who went through confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Defense,” said Pardo. “Tommy told me he’d never asked him for a single favor, and it was about time he did.”
Tower approved the Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. However, “the Air Force got the last laugh,” Pardo said. Two weeks later, Pardo and Wayne were informed they were receiving the Silver Star.