By, Neil Cosentino
George Air Force Base, Victorville, California – Lockheed AT-33, 1968.
It was a crystal clear morning with a light breeze from the desert mountains crossing the flight line. The air cool, dense mixed with the aroma of sun baked rocks, sand, and tumbleweeds. The ramp was beginning to wake up, full of aircraft and the hustle of crew chiefs and mechanics getting their aircraft ready for a full day of flying.
There was a good feeling building inside as I walked across the ramp toward my assigned aircraft. With that same morning breeze came the familiar scent of cold aircraft, JP-4 fuel, and hot jet engine exhaust. Walking tall, flight suit, g-suit, helmet in hand in a slow almost ritual like walk, like a matador walking into the bull ring. I paused to savor the moment; it was a beautiful morning and the start of a perfect flying day. I could not help smile inside with gratitude for being paid to do this.
It was exactly what that six year old boy from the Bronx, who I well remembered sitting of the stoop, when I that Navy Bearcat buzzing the neighborhood during World War II. From then on, now a man, doing what he always wanted to do, more than anything else – to fly fighters. The mission that spring morning at George, was a four-ship formation to the nearby tactical bomb range. Each aircraft had an instructor pilot in the back seat; and pilots like me, in my case qualifying to fly Phantoms in combat. It was smart for the system to test – to know if we all still have the
right stuff, still had “the hands” for the fighter business?
The pilots, the instructor pilots, the AT -33s and the missions where there to answer that question.
I was the flight leader for that mission. It all started on time, on ground power – the four-ship flight checked in all responded loud-and-clear with crisp “2”, “3”, “4”, as if scripted. The start engines, radio calls, taxi, run-up, takeoff and join-up went as smooth and flawless as my Rolex.
I sensed, as I turned the flight slowly-smoothly toward the tactical bomb rage; that this first morning mission would be a good one
It is a wonderful feeling for pilots when they, their aircraft and flight seem to melt together into one. These are the far too few joyful moments in life – of just being, just enjoying being alive and flying. The feeling comes naturally for pilots who love to fly. I was a happy warriors en-route to a combat tour in Vietnam. I am not a war lover, but this is what I had to do – to volunteer to go again to get into fighters.
It was good to get back into a single engine cockpit, being assigned to the “retread unit” that had a squadron of AT-33 aircraft as late as 1968 for their fighter re-qualification program. The AT-33 is a 1950’s vintage single engine jet trainer. Those aircraft were pulled out of the aircraft bone yard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base for the Vietnam War. It was a long and interesting road to the Phantoms with this short stop for AT-33 qualification and a happy relief to leave Strategic Air Command [SAC] and get on a ramp filled with fighters. The first rehab flight was a AT-33 “Dollar Ride”, an old Air Force term used for your first flight in a units’ aircraft. Those six months in California were for me, in many ways, a paid – joy filled flying vacation. It was great, to just go out and fly, “stalls-and-falls”, jet aerobatics, and touch and goes in the AT-33. With that basic flying out of the way, we got down to business.
This was the third flight, a formation flight of four AT-33s to the tactical bomb range. The targets for that day were an old collection of dark blue painted Korean war vintage, shot-up Navy Cougars and Panthers, surplus Navy carrier fighters. They had been trucked to the bomb range and unloaded into the earthen revetments that lined a simulated earthen runway; the entire area was bulldozed to look like an airfield North Vietnam or East Germany.
Flying the AT-33 was deja vu. It was the same aircraft I flew in my aviation cadet days, getting my silver wings and gold bars in March 1960 as a brand new second lieutenant in your United States Air Force. Pilot training class 60 Foxtrot started at Lackland AFB, Texas; went on the Spense Air Base, Georgia and graduated at Greenville AFB, in the deep South, near the still then segregated Greenville, Mississippi.
The T-33 or “T- Bird” is a solid, very stable advanced pilot trainer, a nimble easy aircraft to fly. The only difference between the T-33 and the AT-33 model was a gun sight, the 50 caliber machine guns in the nose and a weapons release systems.
I could not know, but as both luck and life would have it, the 50 caliber nose guns in my aircraft were perfectly bore sited. The six-gun barrels adjusted so all rounds would all hit at the exact same spot, at a set airspeed and range – where the gun sight’s red pipper was placed-aimed. It is much like today’s laser pointers, put the red dot – the pipper on the spot – on the target, and pull the trigger. And if the aircraft is rigged and trimmed properly, if it is bore sited accurately, at the calibrated range, with no yaw, no turbulence or strong crosswinds – and no one shooting at you – that spot is exactly where all the 50 caliber rounds will hit.
The typical kill-skill was total awareness, to watch everything closely, especially where the rounds hit so you could make the right corrections to compensate for the gun sight and makes wind corrections if needed on the next pass. The feeling of stability and solidness of the aircraft comes directly from the control stick, right though the hand to the seat of the pants and then to the brain.
That AT-33 responded beautifully- it was smoothly responding just so to the slightest touch. If you have all those things going for you, add them up, a solid aircraft like the AT-33, smooth, slow, small and trimmed to fly hands off, fly in a calm wind with no distractions – no one shooting at you destracting your attention, no jinking required.
If you roll out on the exact target heading and line up early. If you aim at the right spot in front of the target aircraft and let the pipper move forward – drift slowly toward the target. If you let red dot move along the desert floor, in a straight line; and at the right rate so that the pipper reaches the center of the target aircraft at the calibrated range. And if the power setting and dive angle is giving you the right airspeed and then smoothly pull the trigger – do all that and you will see what I saw and what really amazed me. I watched what happened like a spectator.
I could see the 50 caliber dummy rounds hitting the aircraft. It looked like a wheel barrel full of Chinese firecrackers, exploding, all going off at the same time – with traces, flashes, sparks, black and white smoke and then finally to my amazement the aircraft burst into flames.
I rolled in on the second attack heading, smoothly placing the piper a few hundred yards in front of the aircraft in the second revetment.
Then watched the pipper again move slowly over the brown sandy desert floor – in a smooth straight line forward toward the next aircraft. I pulled the trigger just as the red dot reached the center – the largest section of the aircraft.
I was amazed again as each round caused red flashes, with every one of those non-explosive rounds hitting the same spot exactly where I aimed.
How could that be – those old shot-up Navy aircraft, they looked like cheesecake – so the shot full of holes – like trash cans in the Fearless Fosdick cartoon.
By, Neil Cosentino