Thuds Over Tangier by Dennis McGee

Flying at 500 feet above the sprawling farmlands of Southern Maryland and traveling at 525 miles-per-hour, Colonel Don Masuret is well aware that the arrival and departure of his fighter-bomber acts as an exclamation point in the lives of those below him. There is a one to two second warning — a whining rumble — before the high-decibel shriek as the jet passes over. Another second or two of low throaty rumbles and the plane disappears over the tree tops. For most people it is over before they are even aware it has begun. “I can just see those people down there, now,” Masuret’s passenger says, “Shaking their fists at you and saying ‘damned jets’.”

There is a short pause, as a momentary hum in the intercom system drowns out the thundering jet engine six feet behind the cockpit, before Masuret responds, “Isn’t that the truth.” Seconds later, while passing over yet another anonymous Virginia subdivision, Masuret’s low, slow voice gently comes into the earphones, “Hey, look, there’s a nice looking house.” “Where?” his passenger asks. There is no response. Moving at nine miles per minute you don’t get a second change.

Like all Air National Guard units, the 113th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying F-105s out of Andrews Air Force Base near Washington D.C., has as its primary mission to augment the needs of the regular Air Force in times of a national emergency. If a war developed they would be sent to Germany to bomb targets in the Central Region, the most likely corridor of attack should the Soviet Union and its allies decide to turn a cold war hot. To do this effectively, the 113th pilots need to come in low and fast to avoid the enemy’s radar and antiaircraft missiles. This low-and-fast technique requires extensive training, but because of the population concentrations on the East Coast, training areas are few and far between. Therefore, compromises need to be made. And in the 1970s and 1980s that compromise meant that the 113th’s training areas were directly over Prince Frederick and Leonardtown, the county seats, respectively, of Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties in Maryland’s famed tobacco country. But in December of 1979 Calvert County residents complained of the noise to the Board of County Commissioners, demanding an explanation. Masuret appeared before the commissioners to lay out his case and later confided in a local newspaper reporter the need for the overflights. “Over (in Europe) if we went higher than 1,000 feet it would be all over,” Masuret said. “Hell, nowadays you can even be shot down by an infantryman,” he said, referring to bazooka-type shoulder-held missiles developed by both the United States and Soviet Union for their ground forces. “The low-level flights are our only chance for survival,” he added. Masuret agrees to move his flight route one mile north of its present centerline, which runs directly over the county courthouse, and to fly at 1,000 feet over populated areas inCalvert County. And to gain more positive publicity, the local newspaper reporter is invited to go on the squadron’s next training mission.

The training mission is routine, consisting of Masuret as flight leader with Brigadier General James M. Kennedy, the 113th’s commander, as his right wingman, and Captain Al Vazquez as his left wingman. Combined, the three men have more than 11,000 hours in jet fighters and hundreds of missions through the hostile skies of North Vietnam. The training route is straightforward: form up over Maryland’s Eastern Shore, cross the Chesapeake Bay to enter Calvert County around Chesapeake Beach. Continue over Calvert County, passing Prince Frederick to the north, and into St. Mary’s County and exit at Leonardtown. From there the aircraft are to follow the Potomac River back to the Chesapeake Bay and to Tangier Island for bombing practice. The flight plan is filed for 500 feet and 525 mph.

Originally designed to deliver nuclear weapons against targets in the Soviet Union, the Republic F-105 has surrendered that mission to the new generation of high-technology, high-accuracy cruise missiles. The F-105 of the 113th are old, most of them having rolled off the production line during the early 1960s. The cavernous bomb bay, once designed to hold nuclear bombs, has been converted into a fuel tank. Centerline pylons that formerly held fuel tanks for the nuclear bombing missions now hold four 25-pound practice bombs. In spite of its apparent obsolescence, the F-105 is still a formidable weapon. With a full load of bombs and fuel an F-105 will tip the scale at 50,000 pounds. At full throttle at sea level an empty and clean F-105 can still fly at over 800 mph, faster than the speed of sound. “Nothing can touch her,” Gen. Kennedy told his visitor.

Masuret turns the two-seat F-105 onto Andrews’ runway 19-Right, flanked by Kennedy and Vazquez. The aircraft — tail number 63-357 — uses about half of the 9,000 foot runway to get airborne, even with its afterburner blazing away. The rate of acceleration is surprising, pushing Masuret and his passenger deep into their parachutes as the jet roars to a take-off speed of 175 mph. Seconds later, cruising at 3,500 feet, the two wingmen slip into position about 25 feet off each wing tip. Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay, and the 4.5-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge slip under the aircraft on their way to the Eastern Shore, when suddenly the aircraft drop to 500 and the mission begins. Minutes later the aircraft slide into Calvert County and within seconds are just south of the local hospital. Even though the aircraft have bobbed up to 1,000 feet Masuret assumes there will still be complaints. His passenger envisions the courthouse switchboard lighting up with irate callers and how the commissioners’ receptionists will handle them. It is hard not to smile as the F-105s dip back to 500 feet. A couple of minutes later the Benedict Bridge, a local landmark over the Patuxent River that separates Calvert and St. Mary’s County, slips by in a blur. Within a minute the jets the thunder over Leonardtown at 500 feet, with everyone assuming the switchboard there also will light up with irate citizens. But then, the 113th had made no deals with the St. Mary’s commissioners. At 500 feet and 525 mph there is an unabashed sense of pure power — or is it defiance bordering on arrogance — as the jets flit across the azure skies of Virginia and Maryland. Running through the head of Masuret’s passenger is the Dave Clark Five 1967 anthem to independence, “Catch me if you can,” and a smile nearly turns to laughter. But there is also a definite vulnerability; even at only at 500 feet there is an awful lot of territory that could conceal an anti-aircraft site, or even that lowly but dreaded low-tech infantryman and his high-tech missile. Unconsciously, the passenger forces himself deeper into the seat, shrinking his profile to make himself a smaller target.

Thirty minutes into the flight the oxygen mask begins to chaff on the bridge of my nose and my mouth and throat are dry from the near-pure oxygen I’ve been breathing. The sharp, quick breaths taken at the start of the mission have settled into a more rhythmic pattern, but the pulse is still in the high 90s. It is impossible to relax because my body is literally strapped to the airplane. I have free movement of my arms, legs and head, but the body is immobile. To see movement behind the plane of my shoulders I depend on peripheral vision. At Tangier Island the three F-105s line up for practice on a 40-year-old rusting hulk laying in the island’s marshes. The ship — no one remembers her name — has been hit by practice bombs so many times she is nearly sawed in half.

Masuret’s first attack is a “pop up” maneuver where he approaches the target at low altitude, pops up, and then dives on the target. On his first pass a mis-positioned switch results in releasing all four bombs at once, rather than just one. Puffy blue smoke mark the bombs’ contact with the water, stitching a billowy path behind the stern of the ship. Masuret make three more runs. Starting at 1,000 feet, he climbs rapidly to 7,000 feet keeping the target off the right wing tip. At 7,000 feet he rolls nearly inverted and turns toward the target, then rolls upright and puts the jet into a 30 degree dive. The release point is 3,000 feet above the water, immediately after which Masuret slams the big jet into afterburner and hauls back on the stick to recover from the dive and exit the target area. Another 2,200 feet is lost before the engine responds and the aircraft rapidly accelerates into a climbing left turn. In the 12 attacks by the three pilots there are no direct hits, but there are a lot of near misses.

Later the general jokes that all of his bombs must have gone down the ship’s funnel, that’s why no one saw his smoke markers. A half hour later, Masuret nudges 357 off the runway and taxis back to the squadron area, ticking off the costs of the day’s three-plane training mission. “We probably burned about 2,000 gallons each of fuel . . .it probably cost $5,000 per plane per mission,” Masuret estimated. The cost of freedom, he is anxious to point out, is never cheap.

Dennis McGee is an aviation writer living in Annapolis, Maryland.

Dennis McGee
Aviation Writer