The 15th Annual POW Dining In Missing Man Formation

On 25 Mar 1988 I had the Honor of flying as Number 3 in the 15th Annual Prisoner Of War (POW) Dining In T-38A Missing Man Formation.  This is a great honor because of the distinguished audience; former North Vietnamese POWs.  It is also a puts the aircrews under a bit of stress as there is no more critical audience for such a flyover than a collection of Fighter Pilots – no matter how old they might be!  So I knew going in, I would have to be on my “A” game.

For those not familiar with a Missing Man Formation, it is a formation we fly at special occasions to honor fallen comrades.  Typically at a critical point as the aircraft pass overhead, the ‘Number 3’ ship pulls “crisply” out of the formation – climbing into the heavens.

The annual POW Dining In has been held each year in March, since 1974.  Our POWs were released from their cells in North Vietnam in the spring of 1973.  The 560th Flying Training Squadron (FTS) was the unit that conducted their re-qualification back into the cockpit.

The day before our scheduled fly-by, we flew a ‘work-up’ for the mission; to look the ingress heading and the pull-up timing.  You just don’t want to “screw-up” something like this.  Just before I stepped (out of the building), the ADO (Assistant Director of Operations) came up to me and told me that I was not to use ‘burners,’ the afterburners, on “the pull.”  It was ‘against the rule.’  As if I didn’t know…

Engine start, taxi and takeoff went as briefed.  We were then sent to a holding pattern with flights of other aircraft that would be participating in the fly by.  As it worked out, we were stacked just above a flight of RF-4s from Bergstrom AFB, TX.  As I listened to the radio chatter I thought I recognized their flight lead’s voice.  “Is this ‘2-Beer Bob?” I inquired.  It was!

After the RF-4s made their pass it was our turn.  The way the run-in is structured is, we come in from the South.  The POWs and Dining In attendees all assemble on the patio of the Officer’s Club.  The swimming pool in front of them makes for a great aim point.  So, in we came.  I was on the right side of Lead.  By the rule, 300 knots at 1,000 feet.  At the designated pull-up point, I transitioned smartly into a climb.  Only the jet didn’t respond.  It just kind of “puked.”  We were too slow, and it was too hot, and I was way underpowered!  The jet just mushed.  Fuckin’ ADO…

I then rejoined the formation for another pass.  Same results; mush.  The next day however, was a different story.

When we came in for the “hot pass” the next day, I thought about what those guys went through all those years “up North.”  Then I thought about our “self-serving” ADO, and I knew what I was going to do.  Without saying anything to the guy I was flying with, I lit the burners just before the pull – and up we went.  This time we were quite a bit lighter on fuel, so the jet just rocketed into the heavens!  I was quite pleased.

Shortly after I began the climb, the remaining 3-ship began a shallow turn to the right to position the formation for recovery.  Just before reaching the top of our climb, I rolled to the right and picked up the formation down below.  At this time we was about 5 to 6 thousand feet above them.  I continued my roll and allowed the nose to “float” down – bringing the jet to almost the same heading as the 3-ship.  One of the most beautiful ‘outside barrel-rolls’ I ever flew!  Now our flight path was just a bit outside of their turn.  I didn’t want to “dig” my nose in too far down as I wanted to gain airspeed on them.  It worked like a champ!  As I came around the turn with them, perhaps 3-4 miles in trail, I had about 150 knots of overtake on them.  Sweet!  The guy-in-back was telling me, “Colonel, you have 150 knots of overtake now!”  I just ignored him…

It wasn’t long before they were lined up with the runway, on initial, for landing, and I was closing fast.  About 4  miles out from the field, I rejoined in the Number 4 position, and “clicked” my mic button, to let them know I was there.  We took off as a formation of 4, and I was bound and determined we were going to land as a formation of 4.  In my mind, there is just no other way.  In years past, I had always seen a 3-ship, followed by a single, on recovery.  I always thought that sucked.  The only job of a wingman is, to be there!  And you do what you have to do, to do this.

In the debrief, I was asked how I did the rejoin.  I didn’t say much; I just told them, “You do what you have to do.”  And that was that.

In the pull…

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