On August 17, 1966, Lt. Andre Coltrin of VFP-63 Det G piloted an RF-8 while performing a very risky photo-reconnaissance mission over Bac Giang on the Thuong River at a height of only 100 feet and a speed of 675 mph
The Vought RF-8 Crusader took on the role of the US Navy’s primary light-photographic platform for the duration of the nine-year conflict throughout the protracted years of the Vietnam War. Between October 1963 and January 1974, 49 carrier landings were made, with 20 RF-8s lost in battle.
On Aug. 17, 1966, Lt Andre Coltrin (who had already seen considerable action with Oriskany’s Det G, VF-111’s Dick Schaffert recalled that as an escort pilot, he had ‘chased Andre across the Thanh Hoa Bridge and uptown Haiphong more times than I care to remember’) of VFP-63 Det G flew an extremely hazardous photo-reconnaissance mission at Bac Giang on the Thuong River at only 100 ft and 675 knots.
Later in the conflict, there would be limits against flying photo missions below 3500 ft within the range of most small-arms fire, but not here, as detailed by Peter Mersky in his book RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam. At this altitude, Coltrin intended to avoid hostile radar. Actually, his RF-8G (BuNo 146871 AH 601) was becoming too hot to handle.
Northeast of Hanoi, Coltrin was tasked with taking pictures of POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) installations close to Kep airfield. Capt. Wil Abbott of VF-111, an Air Force exchange pilot, flew escort in an F-8C; Abbott was later shot down in September, making his plane one of only three verified F-8s lost to North Vietnamese MiGs. He was a POW for the ensuing six and a half years before being repatriated in 1973.
Coltrin turned north at Bac Giang after snapping his shots, and Abbott followed closely after. The photographer spotted the 1,200-foot peak he would use as a reference point. The RF-8 suddenly trembled when it was hit by a flak. Bursts of white and black with red cores were abundant in the sky. It wouldn’t take much to bring him down at this height. When he later watched the mission tape, he could see clothes on wash lines as he went through the outskirts of Hanoi since he had flown so low.
‘The snow-covered mountains I thought I had seen from a distance turned out to be 37 mm flak bursts. I felt like every gun and missile site in Vietnam had us in their sights.’
Coltrinn, who was struggling to keep control, saw the large, circular viewfinder on his main panel dissolve and the hydraulic and fuel gauges start to steadily drop. He called Abbott.
`Hey, I’m taking hits. We’d better get out. My hydraulics and fuel are starting to unwind.’
Abbott came back. ‘Can you tell if it’s just the dials?’
`We’ll know in a few seconds’, Coltrinnreplied.
He monitored the gauges as he descended to a safer height, but the damaged plane continued to fly. In order to complete the task, the two pilots moved to a little island to the north of Cam Pha. But did he have enough fuel to return to Oriskany, Coltrin questioned.
After he heard the two Crusader drivers talking, an A-4 tanker pilot in orbit called to offer them fuel if they could rendezvous. Lt. Coltrin finally saw the A-4 with a buddy pack slung underneath after several anxious seconds. Running on adrenaline, it took a few attempts for Coltrin to finally strike the tanker’s basket and absorb enough fuel to recover back aboard. Lacking an airspeed indicator to help him match the A-4’s speed, his issues were made worse. He had to rely on the calls from the tanker pilot.
One sizable piece of a flak round had impacted inches from the main fuel manifold, according to a post-flight inspection, which revealed many bits in his RF-8. Coltrin received one of his three DFCs for the mission.
RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo by U.S. Navy