Phillips, A Fighter Pilot
Vance Phillip’s younger brother
Dee told me this story first in 1990 at a high school reunion in Odessa, Texas, where I just accidentally ran across him. Some of the other information came to me via Vance’s wife Nancy Hinds Phillips
when she moved to Round Rock, Texas in the late seventies. When Dee told
me the story I remember wondering if Dee might have been slightly embarrassed in the telling of the story to me, but I have
recently talked to Dee by phone to make sure of the accuracy of some of my facts and he has reassured me that he fully understood
the environment in which this story took place, and like me and numerous Air force pilots to whom I have related this event,
was more than a bit amused by it all. In fact, Dee said even his mother got a
kick out of it.
In a letter to me, Dee said he was “glad
that Vance did what he did.” This shows the sense of humor in the Phillips
family because Dee has a son in the Navy in this year, 2003, and that son is flying F-18 Hornet Fighters off of a carrier,
so Brother Dee is more than aware of the factors that existed during the times and situation that existed years ago.
Before I get into the incident itself,
and just for the sake of veracity and history, I need to state that I followed Vance’s career the best I could because
he was a friend and secondly because I am an aviation freak and I have been since the mid-60s when I became a civilian flight
instructor training USAF pilots in the Air Force T-41 program.
T-41 program was a primary flight school funded by the USAF for the purpose of teaching new Air Force student pilots how to
fly. The aircraft used in this T-41 program was a military version of the Cessna 172. Of course, all the students were
military and all of us instructors were civilians employed by contract and supervised by military officers. The program was designed to shave the cost of flight training for new pilots by identifying those potential
pilots who would or could not hack the program. The guys who had no aptitude for flying were washed out in a relatively
inexpensive to operate airplane rather than in the jets that were used before Viet Nam heated up into a full-blown war. Vance went through this program as the first phase of his military flying, and even
though he was not stationed where I was an instructor, we were both aware of each other’s activity at the time, so much
for the veracity.
As far as the history goes, Vance and
I lived on the same block of Windsor Drive within a few doors of each other in Odessa, Texas in the 50’s, and early
60’s. His best friend at that time was also a pal of mine, Johnny Ben Sheppard,
who lived just across the street from me. The three of us together would often
dream up mischief at night together in our old neighborhood. The specifics of
those adventures are best left untold, but we were in our mid-teens and mischief came easy with us.
After graduation from high school and
after we all went our separate ways, and as the years passed, I would occasionally call Vance’s parents, Ed and Trigger,
to keep track of Vance. I know he entered the Air Force in 1967 just after I started my aviation career as a flight
instructor in the aforementioned USAF T-41 program. In 1967 Vance and I once
talked by phone in Odessa over a Christmas holiday season right before he was to report to pilot training in Alabama early
in the year of 1968. After that conversation, many years went by without any
contact between us until around early 1976. In that year I wrote to him by addressing
the letter to his parents’ home in Odessa, knowing they would forward it to him.
I wrote him and his wife Nancy Hinds a letter asking to be updated on his career.
I got back a very warm letter from the two of them. I remember that letter
vividly even though I can no longer find it.
At the time of the update, Vance and
his wife Nancy were stationed at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. It was then that I began learning
just how spectacular his Air Force career must have been. Vance had become a flight instructor in the Aggressor Squadron.
It was said at the time that the Aggressor Squadron flight instructor job was the best job to be had in the Air Force in that
era because it was a squadron designed to simulate air combat conditions that would be encountered with the best of the Russian
pilots flying the best of the Russian fighter aircraft. The Aggressor squadron was similar to the Navy’s Top Gun
school and it was in addition to The Red Flag program the USAF had put together for Air combat training earlier on for the
Viet Nam War.
Those guys in the aggressor squadron
got to do what any fighter pilot loves to do, dogfight all day in fast jet airplanes.
Any fighter pilot of that era would have given all he had or could ever hope to have for that job because they flew
against the best we had and they flew the hottest airplanes we had. It was a dream job.
You can be the United States Air Force offered that job to the best pilots they had.
Vance Phillips evidently was among the best in the Air Force at that time.
do know that he had to graduate very high in his class to get the assignment that he got after finishing flight training. He got an F-100 fighter assignment and at the time that assignment was rare because
other types of airplanes were starting to replace that favorite. It is said that
the F-100 was the last fighter that was strapped onto the pilot. In other words
it was a pure fighter and it was not asked to do so many other things that the next generation of fighters were being asked
to do. Fighter pilots loved it. In
those days it was the vision of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the fool, that the military should have an all around airplane
that could do a multitude of jobs. This was not a good idea and it did not work. But in the mean time there was a war in Southeast Asia that was being fought and Vance
found him self right in the thick of things flying his choice of airplanes, the F-100 Super Sabre.
After his tour in Viet Nam, and while
in the Aggressor Squadron assignment, Vance was killed in early May of 1976 on a training mission in a T-38 jet trainer eighty
miles off the coast of Virginia when his ejection seat malfunctioned by arming itself and firing without warning to Vance.
It was a freak accident. Neither Vance nor his aircraft was recovered.
The student flying with him survived. The news of that accident was broadcast nationwide. I’ll never forget the
sickening feeling when I heard the story.
There was another time when Vance made
the news nationwide in his career while flying an F-100 Super Saber fighter over Cambodia in some of the hottest action of
the war. Vance’s airplane was hopelessly damaged by enemy fire, but he managed to eject over water and was successfully
rescued. I know the Cambodia story because I was zooming across the remote plains of Wyoming driving back to Denver in the
late 60's listening to the car radio when the news came on telling about Air Force Lieutenant Vance Phillips from Odessa,
Texas, surviving that experience. It was a strange feeling to hear that news, in that time, in that place, of a friend
of mine from our home town.
Some months later while on another mission in Viet Nam he again had to eject because his
airplane had just been shot up so badly that he could not have landed it. The
second incident resulted in his receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. I have the feeling Vance hung on in tough situations
when few others would. It is no secret that some pilots in that war had to be
urged to fly some of the crazy and too dangerous combat missions that Defense Secretary McNamara dreamed up on his own in
those days. I’ll bet that Vance Phillips did the job he was asked to do
and more. That was his style
Dee Phillips’ story to me is one
story that will never be told in the news, but it is a story that I can say typified the Vance we all knew growing up.
Keep in mind, Vance lived at full throttle, the same way he flew fighters, all out. He flew the Air Force’s fighters
“like he was trying to tear them up.” I heard that statement from Vance’s Uncle Chuck Phillips of
Austin, Texas, where Chuck and I became friends in the early 70’s. Uncle
Chuck was a bomber pilot in World War II. Chuck and Vance’s dad were brothers; both of them were very fine men.
Over the years in the early to mid seventies I kept up on the news of Vance’s career through Chuck in Austin, Texas
right up to the time of Vance’s death in May 1976.
understand the following incident and to keep it all in the proper perspective it needs to be well understood by any reader
that the rivalry between our Navy and Air Force Pilots is more intense than any rivalry such as the rivalry between schools
like the University of Texas and Texas A&M or Notre Dame and Southern Cal, or Arizona State and University of Arizona
or Ohio State and Michigan. Put all of them together and multiply them by a factor
of your choice. It is fierce rivalry. Also,
it is important to remember that the hottest aircraft in the USA are often flown by fuzzy face kids fresh from our colleges,
and those fuzzy face kids who eventually are chosen to fly fighters are always at the top of their class out of pilot
training. They are at the top of their class because they fit a profile of being
the most competitive and self-demanding of all the guys in the program. It is a hot mixture of factors and knowing that, please
realize anything can happen with these guys. It is a man show with fighter airplanes.
Plus, consider that the Navy pilots boast
they are the best pilots in the world because they are able to conduct their combat missions while performing the most difficult
flying task in the world: flying off the deck of an aircraft carrier at night and in bad weather when the ship is pitching,
rolling and faced into high gusty winds and bad seas while churning along at nearly 30 knots.
It is a tough job and the Air Force knows it.
Also, at the heart of the rivalry is
the Navy's perceived arrogance and pomposity toward their fellow brethren in the blue suits whom are seen by those Navy pilots
as just incapable of doing the job the Navy has to do.
Of course the blue suiters in the Air
Force say that any of them could do the job if they were given the same training. So goes the bantering and debating
between these highly competitive souls. The rivalry is made even the more bitter over the media’s presentation of the
two services, with both services pouting that their respective service gets less favorable publicity than the other. The most famous pilot of all history is probably the Air Force’s Chuck Yeager,
who broke the sound barrier in 1948, and has mountains of pages written about his exploits.
His notoriety alone accounts for a great deal of the acrimony between the two services, and to the uninitiated, the
movie industry’s movie, TOP GUN made Navy flying legendary to the latest generations.
It was too cheesy for me, but I loved the music!
Dee Phillips story began by his telling
me that in 1974 at age 31 Vance got accepted into an exchange program between the Air Force and the Navy in which he would
go aboard a Navy carrier, and a Navy carrier pilot would likewise go through the Air Force combat mission training.
It was an honor for Vance to be picked by the Air Force and to be handed over to the Navy for a Navy tour at sea. The
Air Force wanted to send one of their best and most competitive pilots to the Navy. They picked Captain Vance Phillips
of Odessa, Texas. It was a good choice.
Events like this are not news items we civilians would ever hear about,
the fighter pilots on each side of that infamous rivalry know how it all
One way that it all works is that the
Navy jocks are in constant competition with one another when it comes to the best execution of landings on the carrier deck.
There is a fierce scrutiny of each approach and landing; each exercise is graded, and the flight crews throughout the tour
monitor their grades. The leader with the highest score is like a rhinestone cowboy with honors and recognition and
probably a lot of ribbing along the way. Frankly, for an Air Force guy to lead that competition on their carriers is,
well, a painful slap in the face to those who love to dig at the "inferior" flying the USAF does compared to the “superior”
flying of the pilots of the Navy. The rivalry is fierce.
Let the record show Vance Phillips, the
Air Force pilot, won that competition during his tour at sea with the Navy.
So, upon his departure of the carrier
at tour's end, there was a farewell ceremony honoring him as the hottest jock aboard. These ceremonies are the climatic event
of a lot of stress and then relief from getting back home alive and it is a little more than likely that a bit of alcohol
is consumed during said meetings. Navy gatherings can be infamous. Tail-hookishly infamous.
Vance was a guest of honor at this gathering of his peers and they all
were celebrating his accomplishments while sending him back to the Air Force. There
were high-ranking officers and their wives in attendance and Admirals and other officers in bright white uniforms. Vance was introduced and went to the podium where he was given his award, and where he was expected to
say a few words.
After saying a few words Vance the honoree
said something to the effect, “ Now here is what I think of you Navy pukes.”
He then turned around, bent over and mooned the Navy.
Brother Dee, in his letter to me further
states, “It is unclear to this writer whether this was done linen up, or linen down, but it is definitely the thought
that counts.” Dee further stated in effect that even though Vance always
was for a good time he doubted Vance would have totally insulted the Admiral’s wife.
Case closed. Linen up.
There was no doubt raucous laughter and
returned gestures of some type. Vance then left the stage.
Dee assures me that the family understood
the circumstances, so I don’t know for sure if there might be some who knew Vance who wished that he had not done what
he did. It is a reasonable guess that some of them might have wished he had accepted the honors in a humble and grateful
fashion, in a way that would have allowed them to write home to the local newspaper of his accomplishments. But, that was not the way of one of the Air Force’s most competitive pilots. I can dang sure guarantee
that the entire USAF who became aware of what he did in his farewell address to the Navy, got the laugh of their life, and
they loved Vance for doing what he did.
The pilots who were his friends in the
Air Force and who knew Vance Phillips understood that he did what he did for his pals who endured the insufferable taunting
of those who fly off carriers and say, "I can do it and you cannot do it."
Should anyone in our civilian world think that this was ungentlemanly and crude,
I also would like to point out that it did not diminish the respect the Navy pilots had for Vance. In that world, it was nothing to them except a hearty laugh given to them by someone as competitive as
they were and they respected him for his abilities and Úlan.
Friendships were made on that cruise
that outlasted the farewell. In fact, some years after Vance’s death, an
old Navy buddy looked up Vance’s widow, Nancy Hinds Phillips, and married her.
I’d like to think that Vance, being the man that he was, would have wanted the best for his wife and kids he
left behind. I’d bet on it.
I miss Vance Phillips
I RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING LETTER
IN RESPONSE TO MY STORY. IT IS SELF EXPLANATORY.
Dee just sent me a piece that was forwarded by Nancy...one you
had written regarding my cousin Vance Phillips. I enjoyed it immensely and could only think of the times Vance and I had cooked
up our on brand of mischief here in Pampa, Texas. It prompted me to write and tell you one other humorous story, one that
Vance could have probably had his stripes pulled, but one of those "insider" family-stories.
My dad was Fred Vanderburg and Vance
adored everything my dad was and stood for. Some of his favorite times were spent in the Panhandle on our farm and ranch.
I have several fond memories about Vance...like riding a horse and running a herd of cattle through a barbwire fence-- out
on wheat ground ( He thought he was Roy Rogers the second), or his suggestion that he could "kill" the boar pigs better than
my dad as they were being castrated, but this short story has to do with his ability as the pilot we loved.
Dad just happened to be putting out fertilizer in the field--
which up here is done by pulling an applicator with a tractor. Dad's hired hand, Callan George was a short distance away tending
to a chore, when out of nowhere came a sound from you know where...a sound way louder than the noise of the tractor. Of course
it was Vance...flying just above the tractor. As Callan later reported, he spotted my dad jumping out of the tractor and circling
it and the applicator two or three times trying to figure out where that dang noise had come from. . Of course Vance was completely
out of sight by the time dad had the tractor stopped. As only Vance would do he made another pass over Dad's tractor ending
it by cork-screwing up over the tractor and straight into the sky. Not too long later there was a telephone call from Vance,
someplace in Louisiana, which verified the culprit. Needless to say, the hogs went crazy and the rural neighborhood still
speaks of the day they thought the world had ended.
It was indeed a painful day for us all when we lost Vance. The only consolation in
it is we know he was doing what he loved. Once again, thank you for your wonderful story, and I hope I haven't bored you with
my sharing another "Vance Story.”
(Vance and Dee's first cousin)
BELOW IS AN EXCHANGE MADE BETWEEN DEE PHILLIPS AND I ABOUT SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED IN MY LIFE OCTOBER 30, 2010 AT A GATHERING
OF PILOTS IN AUSTIN, TEXAS. TO ME, IT WAS AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE.....MLM
Dee, It has been a strange day. I am member of a flying fraternity called the Quiet Birdmen. They call themselves
an Ancient and Secret Organization, uh, so I cannot tell you much about it except that it started after the first world war,
and several famous people, like astronauts, and Lindberg have been members. You have to be invited in, and meet certain
qualifications. Today we met for lunch at Lago Vista airport west of Austin and on Lake Travis. I flew my RV-6A
over there to show it off. As I was standing in line to get my burger for lunch, there was a guy in front of me wearing
an F-100 T-shirt, announcing an organization of some type. Curious, I asked him if he flew them in VietNam, of course
thinking about Vance, and the guy replied yes, and I further learned he did his pilot training in 1957, and that little factoid
stopped me from asking the burning question in my mind, and the question was, did he ever run across Vance Phillips.
As we sat down to eat he was talking to the guy on his left, and it both turned out that they both were from Walla Walla,
Washington. The guy on his left then mentioned something about the other guy the two of them had run across in Vietnam
that also was from Walla Walla, and he had been a FAC, and the FAC driver had helped the the guy next to me, a 100 driver,
in a SAR mission in Cambodia. The third guy said, and what was that Hun driver’s name, the one who punched
out? The answer was Vance Phillips! I spit my beans out and said, “What did you say?” “You
just mentioned someone’s name, what was it?’……Again he replied, “Vance Phillips.”
I quickly told him my
story of knowing Vance, and he was absolutely astonished. He stood up and told the story to the whole bunch about the
SAR and told them he was sitting next to a guy who personally knew his lead the day the lead got the whole belly knocked off
his F-100. Below is the story as he published it on the web. He does not mention Vance’s name, but Vance
was leading the two-ship formation that day on an air-strike to knock out two camo boats on the river that had been identified
as bad guys. I was just floored. Michael Lewis Moore.
TO ACQUIRE CAMBODIAN PILOT WINGS
Lester G. Frazier
This is the story of a rather unusual combat mission.
The fact that I acquired a set of Cambodian Pilot Wings as a result of the mission is ancillary, but it's a good story and
a true one.
In 1970, I was posted to Phan Rang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, flying F-100Ds. It was my second combat
assignment to Phan Rang in the F-100 and my third In-Country tour, having flown the L-19 out of Phouc Long Province back in
1962-63. We had an Alert Pad at Phan Rang with eight Huns uploaded, in flights of two, on five-minute alert. The object of
the alert pad was to provide immediate air cover for friendlies needing it or for high priority targets that could pop-up
and need prompt attention.
My first tour on the alert pad was as the number two man in a flight of two. Although I
probably had as much combat time as my young leader had total time, the regulations stated that you couldn't lead off the
pad until you followed at least once. I didn't have any problem with that as my leader, although a relatively inexperienced
lieutenant had a good set of hands and was aggressively disciplined. His name was Vance Phillips.
to the pad early in the morning, relieving the night alert crew, and preflighted our airplanes, uploaded with four 500-pound
Mk.82 high-drag snakeyes.
The high-drag snakeye had a steel umbrella that opened on release, slowing its speed considerably.
This did two things: it allowed the pilot to get in close to the target and allowed him to egress the fragmentation envelope
before the bomb detonated. Our birds also had all four 20 millimeter cannons loaded with a high-explosive incendiary and armor-piercing
We sat around all day and finally received a scramble order late in the afternoon. We were airborne
within three minutes and copied target information as we climbed out. All we were told was that our target was boat traffic
on the Mekong River in Cambodia. Nothing to write home about.
We usually worked with a Forward Air Controller (FAC),
a pilot of a slow moving aircraft who spotted targets and controlled the fighters attacking the target. When we were within
radio range, my leader contacted the FAC, Rustic 08, and told him who we were and what ordnance we carried. Zero Eight told
us that our targets were two 100 foot camouflaged ships, nestled in the trees, up against the western bank of the south flowing
Mekong. He included other information such as the position of the nearest friendlies (none around), target elevation, altimeter
setting and recommended attack heading, which was from east to west. He correctly determined that it was impossible to visually
acquire the targets on any other heading. However, an east-west run-in would have us attacking directly into the sun in the
late afternoon of a high humidity day with associated haze. Adding to the attack problems was a 50% cloud cover at the altitude
best for commencing the attack. Zero Eight also recommended that we circle to the north after each attack, as a huge mangrove
swamp north of the target would preclude bad guy harassment as we set up for the next attack.
At one point my leader
asked Zero Eight how he knew the ships were unfriendly. He said that he had a Cambodian pilot in the back seat of his OV-10
Bronco and that the Cambodian government had declared the ships unfriendly. We were all jaded enough to realize that the target
could be a business rival of the local commander, but ours was not to reason why...
When Zero Eight said he had a
Cambodian in the back chair, I jumped on the radio and asked if he could get me a set of Cambodian pilot wings since I collected
military pilot wings.
In a fighter flight, protocol dictated that everybody in the flight keep his mouth shut, except
for leader, but, I wasn't about to miss a chance to acquire a set. After some discussion with the Cambodian, Zero Eight said
that he would take care of my request if I called him that night. I made sure that they understood I wanted pilot wings and
not hat brass, air force insignia, stickpins or whatever, got his phone number and we proceeded with the mission.
set up our switches for bomb-single, took spacing and Zero Eight rolled in and marked the ships with a white phosphorus smoke
rocket. Zero Eight moved away from the target and told leader he had him in sight and he was cleared to drop on his smoke.
All total, we probably made seven or eight passes, dropping all of our bombs. We damaged the ships but did not sink them,
and I could truthfully say that I never saw the targets. But, one of our bombs opened up the jungle just west of the ships,
exposing an oil storage depot. Clearly now, these were the bad guys.
I saw Rustic 08 pull straight up, hammerhead
his Bronco around into a ninety degree dive, and drill a rocket straight into the middle of the depot. The depot started to
explode and burn and Zero Eight cleared us in for gun attacks. Almost as an afterthought, he said, "move it around, the guns
are up." What he meant was that he had taken ground fire, and suggested that we keep our flight paths unpredictable. We made
several passes, adding to the general morass, when leader attacked the depot amidst tracer fire from south of the target.
I told him he was taking fire, and went back to pulling my airplane around for another pass when leader transmitted, "OH SHIT,
I'VE JUST HIT THE TREES!" I aborted my pass and asked him his position. He said he was turning north and losing hydraulics.
Rustic Zero Eight transmitted that he had him in sight and was taking up a chase position. To do so, he had to fly across
the guns, which shot at, but missed him. I remembered thinking what a gutsy FAC, to have flown across hostile guns to assist
a Hun driver he had never met and couldn't possibly catch. A few seconds later leader transmitted, "My hydraulics are gone;
I'm stepping out." I still couldn't see him and asked his position again. He said he was north of the target, headed southeast.
I knew he was over the mangrove swamp and if he jumped out, he'd spend the night there, if he survived the landing. I asked
him if the bird was still flying, and he said that it was, but his control stick was frozen. I told him to stay with the bird
as long as it was flying.
Zero Eight gave him distance and heading to Bien Hoa Air Base, the nearest suitable landing
field. About that time, I spotted Zero Eight and eyeballed a line-of-sight directly ahead of him. About 10 miles ahead and
high was my leader. He was just a tiny speck in, and amongst, the clouds. Without taking my eyes from him, I slammed in the
afterburner and closed rapidly. I came aboard at about Warp Nine, threw out the speed brakes and performed an energy-losing
maneuver (called a high-speed barrel roll) around leader. I matched his 240 knots, which was over 100 knots slower than his
best climb speed. But leader, with no airspeed indicator, had no idea what his air speed was.
As I eased onto his
right wing, I was shocked to see the entire bottom section of the fuselage missing from the main wing's trailing edge to the
tail. I could see the entire engine and various accessories attached to it. F-100 Pratt & Whitney J-57 engines were shoulder
mounted and, for that reason, it was still positioned correctly within the fuselage. The rest of the airplane was garbage:
the wings and horizontal stabilizer were torn up, the nose was bent and the pitot tube (airspeed measuring device) was missing
and tree branches driven vertically into the underside. I had seen other F-100's that had hit trees and returned to base.
They all had foliage buried in the wings leading edge. For that reason, I hadn't thought my leader had hit the trees. Rather,
it looked like something had blown up underneath him and ripped his airplane apart. Leader told me he had some control. By
varying his engine power, he could raise or lower his nose sluggishly, and the rudders still worked. About eighteen years
later, Captain Al Haynes of United Airlines would face a similar dilemma, as he and his crew heroically guided his passenger
filled DC-10, onto the runway at Sioux City, Iowa.
With the sun setting, we dived, zoomed and skidded our way through
the clouds 147 miles to the South China Sea. Leader had decided that he did not want to eject over the jungle if he was able
to make it to water. The entire time, Rustic 08 had given us the best information he had on our position, safe bail out areas
and weather data. I had called up SAR (Search and Rescue) and we managed to make one large circle, while the Jolly Green positioned
himself below us, just off the coast of Vietnam, near Vung Tau. Leader successfully ejected from 12,000 feet, and the chopper
picked him up immediately and took him to Bien Hoa. Needing fuel, I landed at Bien Hoa right behind Rustic 08. The ground
crew took me to his operations, where I thanked him for his superb support, and gave him my address for the wings (which arrived
in a few days). I then went to the hospital and checked on my leader, who was uninjured.
A couple of weeks later,
the Phan Rang newssheet carried an article about the rescue. As always, they listed name, rank, age and hometown of the article
participants. The information about me was correct but no hometown was listed. This didn't surprise me because I wasn't interviewed
for the article. But, the hometown of the rescue pilot was listed: Walla Walla, Washington, which is my hometown. As Chief
of the Command Post, I had extensive communications available to me, so I located the pilot who was now flying out of Danang,
and thanked him for his efforts. I asked him if he really was from Walla Walla. He said yes, and named an uncle, Lester Keen,
who still lived there. Lester Keen, of course, was my dad's best friend and the person for whom I am named.
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