Thanks to some well-timed instructions from an unexpected voice, an Air Force fighter pilot escapes trouble over Vietnam.
My father, James Rozinek, was an F-100 pilot in the Vietnam War. One story he told me I’ll never forget...
The morning dawned misty and gray—like so many mornings in the swelter of Vietnam—as my father climbed into the cockpit of his F-100. He had flown dozens of bombing missions in areas occupied by the Viet Cong, but to him, the feeling never got old. He couldn’t wait to get airborne.
He roared off the runway in his single-seat plane. Seconds later, he rendezvoused with his wingman. In the Air Force, for safety, pilots never flew into enemy territory alone.
The first part of the mission proved easy. He dropped his bombs and got out of there fast, before the VC’s anti-aircraft guns could target him. But then came part two. He had to go back into enemy fire and take out those guns. My father set a course and started in. That’s when it struck him. Where’s my wingman?
My father scanned the horizon. He couldn’t spot him. He circled down lower to search for him. Still no luck. He flew lower.
At that moment, he felt the engines lose thrust. He had gone too low and didn’t have enough airspeed to maintain altitude. He was headed for a crash.
He had one last option—light the afterburner, which would instantly provide 9,000 pounds of thrust. In a nanosecond, he’d be back in the sky. But perhaps not for long. On this overcast morning, the afterburner’s signature blue flame from the tailpipe would be like hanging a neon sign for the enemy: Here I am, boys, shoot me down.
My father whispered a prayer and lit the afterburner. Instantly, gunfire and explosions surrounded them. He had to get out of there, fast.
“I banked the plane in a maneuver called the Split-S,” my father told me. “I rolled the plane over so we were flying upside down, then I yanked the control rod toward me to bring the nose down. When the plane leveled out, I’d be flying low and in the opposite direction. I’d practiced the maneuver a hundred times.”
“In the middle of lowering the nose, though, something stopped me. Instead, I had this crazy impulse: Turn the wings 90 degrees. I don’t know where it came from. But I felt compelled to follow it, as if it were a superior officer commanding me.”
He came out of the turn. The gunfire ceased. My father was safe.
“Then I looked behind me,” my father continued. “Performing the Split-S in that unusual way had carried me right through the middle of a narrow valley. On either side were mountains I couldn’t see through the mist. That impulse had saved my life.”
Upon returning to base, my father learned that his wingman had been shot down. He grieved for him every Memorial Day. But my father wouldn’t have survived, and I wouldn’t be here to tell his story, if it wasn’t for the “other wingman” with him that day.