Unarmed, Alone, and Afraid

By: James C. Wheeler MSgt Retired USAF

Unarmed alone and afraid, a descriptive phrase as well as a feeling of those flying the Top Secret Missions of the EC-47, flown over Southeast Asia from mid-1966 until May 15th, 1974. The aircraft was older than most of the men who made up the  crew who flew her. An aircraft and its mission, so secret that at times, the entire "front end" flight crew was not fully advised of all aspects of the mission. 

Day and night, she prowled the skies over Southeast Asia, her mission unknown but to a few. She was big, flying rather low and always slow and was an easy target for the guns of the enemy watching from  below. The initial minimum terrain  clearance altitude was 1,500 feet but this was increased to 2,000 feet after the first aircraft  was lost to ground fire. The men, who flew her and made up her crew, were from two squadrons, the Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadron and the 6994th Security Squadron, working like a well-oiled machine to accomplish their joint mission. Both the men and the squadrons were highly decorated, and can be very proud of their accomplishments, often under the most adverse conditions. 

The Need

It was early 1966 and the United States was becoming increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam. There was an urgent need for a suitable airborne platform on which to install the equipment needed to locate enemy radio transmitters and gather communications intelligence. The platform had to meet size and speed requirements compatible with the equipment needed for such a mission. It was decided to call upon a proven workhorse, a true Lady of the sky, the C-47, or Gooney Bird. 

She would again be called to active combat duty, this time in the most sophisticated role of her career. She would be rebuilt, almost from the ground up, given a new paint job and then be Outfitted with the most modern electronics available. After much testing of the new equipment she would be flown half way around the world to again serve her country, and serve well.

Enter the Electric Goon 

A Multi-million Dollar Antique, entered what was to become known as "Antique Airlines".  The first "PHYLLIS ANN" (the project name) aircraft arrived at Tan Son Nhut ABVietnam and was delivered to the 360th Reconnaissance Squadron, on 14 May 1966. As more aircraft arrived in country, two other squadrons would be established, the 361st  at Nha Trang on 1 October, 1966 and the 362nd  at Pleiku on 1 February 1967. The three squadrons would be more appropriately named Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadrons on 15 March, 1967. Along with each of the TEWS units, the 6994th Security Squadron activated Detachments, Det.1 and Det.2, collocated with the TEWS, to provide the back end crews for the mission. 

This new version of the C-47 was originally dubbed the RC-47, was in May 1967 renamed the EC-47. She would fly alone, unescorted and unarmed, with the  exception of a footlocker type lockable box containing five (5) M-16's and a few rounds of ammunition and the individual crew members Smith and Wesson Model 10, revolvers, caliber .38. I guess the M-16's were to make you feel you might have a chance, should, heaven forbid, you go down in hostile territory.

The Equipment 

Inside, is where very few people got to see. Here it was anything but the common C-47. This is where she proved to be a new and one of a kind, C-47. Among her many ultramodern electronic equipment was the Airborne Radio Direction Finding unit, the AN/ALR-34, known also as the "X" console. This unit employs a "phase measurement" technique in determining the relative bearing of a transmitter signal to the EC-47. It arrives at the direction of the received signal through a complex computation of the time/time difference of arrival of the signal at each of the three system antenna pairs. 

There is also a Target-acquisition position known as the "Y" console. This console contains the equipment necessary to allow it's operator to search the frequency spectrum, from 0.2 to 190 megahertz, for any enemy radio signals. The operator had some  redetermined frequencies to monitor, but did also scan the entire spectrum to the limits of the equipment for enemy transmissions.  These enemy transmitters were for the most part low powered transmitters, many were also mobile and with a range of only a few miles. 

As the mission progressed and modifications and updates were made, a few aircraft were also configured with two additional communications data collection stations, known as the "Z1" and "Z2" consoles. Each of these consoles housed various combinations of HF and VHF receivers and each contained magnetic tape recorders for recording communications data received. Likewise, as more equipment was added, more operators were needed and more antennas had to be added to the exterior and she soon began to resemble a porcupine. 

The unit known as the KY-8 SCRAMBLER, is used by the "back end" crew for secure communications between the aircraft and necessary ground stations. The Navigator also had some of the newest of equipment.  This new equipment included the Bendix Doppler Computer, the AN/APN-179. This enables him to maintain a fix of the aircraft's position within a very close tolerance. The Doppler must be updated at intervals that differ with each Doppler unit. Some are stable for longer periods of time than others, just like people; each one is a little different.  The accuracy of all needed to be checked periodically and reset/updated. This was  done using a rather old-fashioned unit similar to a bomb site, the B-3 Drift meter. 

The Crew

Now, with probably the largest crew compliment she had ever had, she was again, ready for combat. In the beginning, a normal crew size was six or seven men.  This too would change over time and become as large as ten men. The "Front End" crew as they were called, was made up of a Pilot/Aircraft Commander, a Copilot, a Navigator and a Flight Mechanic, sometimes referred to as an Engineer. The average age of the first group of the "Front End" crew members was some forty years of age. This would soon change and the upper ranks were replaced as the tours ended for them and new crewmembers arrived.  It was these replacements that brought in the younger folks, those younger than the aircraft itself. 

The "Back End" crew was made up of all enlisted men, highly trained and professional in every sense of the word.  The were the linguist (language specialist) and code specialist from the 6994th Security Squadron and it's detachments.  

A typical mission day 

It was 06:00 and I had just completed a quick pre-flight inspection of the airplane when the officer crew, Lt. Col. Hinkle, Maj. Lagasse and Capt. Harris arrived.  The preflight walk around complete, box of M-16's and the rear door insert removed and both secured, I guess we are ready. The door insert was removed for a number of reasons, primarily for air circulation. It was HOT over there, but it also gave you a chance to really get a view of what lay below and what was coming UP at you. 

Oh well, all preflight and before starting engines checklist procedures performed with no problems. Cough, Belch, Wheez, the little 1830 engines roared to life, belching a cloud of bluish white smoke. This was normal as with all radial engines. So far, so good. Everything is checking within limits, looks like we will make an on time takeoff.  Chocks removed,  we slowly ease out of our own little room, a steel sandbag reinforced revetment, used to protect our birds from predators called among other names, "Charlie", sneaking around like Sylvester the Cat after Tweety Bird. 

As we taxi towards the runup area at the end of the runway, most of the checklist items are run up front while the backend crew is head over heels double-checking their equipment.  Without their equipment, we don't even need to worry about our aircraft systems working cause, "we ain't going no where". If their equipment is not 100 percent, we have no mission, at least for that bird, that day. If that happens, we usually have to really hustle and prepare another bird for a quick mission. There is always a backup bird that has had a preflight completed by the ground crew, but the thing is the time involved in another aircrew preflight, which in most cases is very brief, thus the possibility of overlooking something that could be very vital. And this usually means a late take-off, which also means a late return, thus a very long day. It also means at times, we will not be in our target area at the prescribed time. The timing on some missions is vital to the successful gathering of intelligence. 

So far, so good. All the backend equipment is fine they are ready to go. We had only to clean out the spark plugs after a slightly greater  than acceptable mag drop on number one engine. This was probably caused by the residual oil which had caused at least one sparkplug to carbon over and not properly fire. Tide 62, taxi into position and hold, helicopters departing mid-field, came the call over the radio. Then, Tide 62, you are cleared for immediate takeoff.  Power up, engines check normal, brakes released and rolling; maximum power, all systems check ok, engines check ok.  Lift off; gear up, METO power; all systems check ok, engines check ok; flaps up. Now to quickly get enough altitude to clear all small arms fire. 

As soon as possible after takeoff and before any work could begin, the Doppler Computer had to be set, a procedure that would be repeated several times over the duration of the mission. The procedure was called appropriately, the "Doppler Set" and was accomplished by the navigator directing the pilot over a well defined landmark, such as a bridge or highway intersection by using the drift meter much like the WW II bombardier used his bombsight to place his bombs. 

Visualize the WW II bombardier, peering down through his bombsite as he directs the aircraft to the target; hand on the bomb release button. With one hand controlling the drift meter and the other on the switch on the Doppler, the navigator talks the pilot on a heading that will take him directly over the landmark. When directly overhead, the button is pressed and the current information is feed to the Doppler computer and the aircraft location is printed out. The pilot maintains the heading for a short period of time, about a 10 count and then, (at least the way we did it) would make a ninety degree turn to the right followed by a two hundred and seventy degree turn to the left. This would again line the aircraft up on the same landmark, but going in the opposite direction. And again, the navigator would direct the pilot over the target spot, only this time would insure the Doppler was zero at that point, and the crew could then resume working, locating and fixing targets. 

After the initial Doppler Set and now enroute to the assigned area of operation, the operators of the "X", "Y", or "Z" positions would search for targets of opportunity, with priority given to reaching the assigned area at the prescribed time. Once in the assigned area, the Doppler would be reset at the first opportunity to assure a more accurate fix of any targets worked. The Doppler computer kept the aircraft location in relation to the last Doppler Set Point, (how far north or south and east or west from this point). 

The console operators searched the frequencies for any enemy activity. Once a signal was acquired, the "X" Operator, using the ALR equipment would lock on to the signal and call over the intercom, "Lock On".  On the call "Lock On", the pilot would maintain straight and level flight and the navigator would then, when confident that the line of bearing of the signal was indeed stable and true, would what was called, "Take a Shot". This action triggered the Doppler Computer to accept the current data from the C-12 Compass and the relative bearing of the signal as given by the ARDF equipment. The input would be immediately processed and the data printed on a Franklin printer using a paper similar to the old adding machine paper tape.  This data was manually transferred to the navigation chart used by the navigator to plot the location of the aircraft on the map at the time of the "shot", and a Line of Position (LOP) of the transmitter. The navigator would direct the pilot as to the heading needed to maintain contact for the next "shot". This procedure would be repeated again and the convergence of the Lines of Position indicated the location of the transmitter.  At least two LOP's were required with three or more preferred for a more accurate 'FIX'. 

Once a good target fix was accomplished, the operator would, using the secure communications, KY-8 radio, transmit the encrypted fix data to the appropriate ground agency. The ground agencies would then determine the value of the fix for appropriate action.  This action could be anything from holding the data as intelligence only, to taking actions to cause immediate or scheduled artillery or air strikes by fighter aircraft or ARC LIGHT (B-52) strikes, etc. to be called against the target. The back end crew also collected some communications intelligence data and this function became increasingly more prevalent as the mission continued through the years with the continued updating and addition of more and newer equipment. 

In the early stages of the operation, the missions were of 7 hours duration (limited by fuel capacity). On some missions 3 or 4 good target fixes were made while on others, as many as 20 or more might be worked. The numbers alone did not determine the mission success rate. The nature of the target or targets were at least as important as the numbers. And in case of many immediate action targets, the fix and the action taken, prevented ambush of ours and or allied ground forces.

The Losses 

And there were losses. Those known to the author were 15 aircraft (combined all causes) and 34 crewmembers lost aboard mission aircraft, 6 of these aircraft were lost to hostile actions. There were other personnel lost to enemy ground mortar and rocket attacks and some to other incidents/accidents, these numbers not confirmed. The first EC-47 shot down was "Tide 86", shot down over QuangNgaiProvince, South Vietnam on March 9th, 1967 with 7 men lost, I knew them all. The last to be shot down was "Baron 52" shot down over SaravaneProvince, Laos on February 5th, 1973 with 8 men lost.  The final EC-47 missions were flown out of Ubon Thailand  May 15th, 1974. 

Mission Accomplished 

Before it was deactivated on June 30, 1974, the 361st Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadron was the last organization of its kind in SEA. Its primary mission had been to conduct day and night Airborne Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) collection operations against enemy forces in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and in Thailand. The 6994th Security Squadron was also deactivate on June 30, 1974. While they boasted that they "flew unarmed, alone and afraid', the 6994th wrote one of the most distinguished  chapters in the history of the U.S. Air Force Security Service. 

While some of these great old aircraft lie as wrecks, scattered about over the countryside of South Vietnam and Laos, several of the aircraft had earlier been transferred to the South Vietnamese. Some had been flown to ClarkAB in the Philippines and some were left in Thailand. 


The author, a Flight Mechanic/Engineer, was a member of a flight crew, flying one of the first EC-47 across the Pacific, from New Hampshire to Tan Son Nhut AB in Vietnam, and 11 day trip.  He arrived on 11 September 1966 with about the 3rd aircraft to arrive in country. He would move to the new squadron, the 361st Tactical Electronics Squadron at Nha Trang about 1 November, 1966. Here he would serve as the Squadron Standboard Flight Examiner and fly 114 Combat  missions aboard the EC-47, a total of 610 flying hours. He was six times awarded the Air Medal and once, the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

The Doppler set routine is believed, at least by some to be a contributing factor in the loss to enemy ground fire, of at least one of the EC-47's.  Seems the enemybecame aware that when the "Black Nosed Gooney Bird" flew directly over a certain point, it just might make a turn and come back.  Using this knowledge, the enemy could set up the big gun and be waiting for the return.  The Doppler could be reset using ground radar positioning, but this was far less accurate than the method above and only used mostly at night and as a last alternative. The Doppler set procedures were modified after the loss of Tide 86 to prevent establishment of predictable patterns. 

I was there.I was an aircrew member and a part of this mission. I write from personal experience.  

James C. Wheeler  

MSgt Retired, U.S. Air Force