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Glory Days: Super Sabre in Vietnam

 

The North American F-100 Super Sabre replaced the hero of the Korean War, the F-86 Sabre, and although the F-100 had been designed as a higher-performing air superiority fighter, it was soon adapted as a fighter-bomber.

In this latter role, the F-100 held the line over Vietnam until the appearance of the Mach-2 F-105 Thunderchief. It’s a story that Warren Thompson retells in the current issue of Combat Aircraft.

It was the F-100D model that saw widespread use during the early years of the Vietnam War. Even before the war began its inexorable escalation for US forces, the ‘Hun’ had been called into combat in Southeast Asia when it started flying missions over Laos in May 1962. This early effort was directed against the Pathet Lao forces that were initiating aggressive incursions into north-western Laos. F-100 units based at Clark AB in the Philippines were the first to answer the call. The more significant build-up began in 1964 immediately after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first South Vietnamese bases to be used by the Super Sabres were Da Nang (located in central South Vietnam on the coast of the South China Sea) and Bien Hoa (located about 30km from Saigon in the southern part of the country).

CA Nov 8 Pic 1

During the F-100’s early tenure in Southeast Asia, it was tasked with the air-to-air role, escorting bombers into areas where the MiG-17 could pose a threat, primarily targets in North Vietnam. This didn’t last long and the ‘Huns’ were soon totally dedicated to the close air support role. Records show that the first ‘official’ strike by F-100D models was flown on June 9, 1964, by eight ‘Huns’ from the 615th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS). Their target was in the Plain of Jars in Laos. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Super Sabres had been flying missions over South Vietnam and Laos for more than two years before the first example was lost on August 18, 1964 (F-100D serial 56-3085). During the F-100’s combat service in Southeast Asia, the type would use four air bases for its regular operations: Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa, Bien Hoa and Phu Cat. Exactly three months after the first loss, on November 18, an F-100D from the 613th TFS, operating out of Da Nang AB, was shot down over southern Laos while flying a two-ship escort for a ‘Yankee Team’ reconnaissance mission. The pilot was listed as KIA.

By the early summer of 1967, less than half a dozen Super Sabre squadrons remained based on US soil, with most of the remaining squadrons deployed to Southeast Asia. Of all the various combat types involved in the war, the F-100 had one of the best maintenance records, which led to a superior in-service percentage. As the F-105 and F-4 presence increased, however, the role of the ‘Hun’ as a bombing platform was diminished — these newer types could carry more ordnance over a greater distance than the Super Sabre. However, the F-100 had been established early on as a dependable fighter-bomber, and it was regarded as one of the best tools for working with forward air controllers (FACs) in South Vietnam and Laos. The F-100’s response time when helping troops under fire was nothing short of outstanding, a fact attested to by many FACs.

Combat operations for the F-100 in Southeast Asia came to a close on July 31, 1971. The versatile F-4 had completely replaced it in the close air support role. According to USAF records, the last F-100D loss in Southeast Asia occurred on April 28, 1971, when a flight of ‘Huns’ out of Phan Rang was returning from a bombing mission against Viet Cong positions in South Vietnam. Serial 55-3550 was hit by ground fire when returning to base and the pilot was listed as KIA. This was the last of 242 ‘Huns’ that were lost in the Vietnam War, this total including losses to both enemy action and mechanical failure. While it logged many years of combat, its two most costly years in the war were 1968 and 1969, in which a total of 116 Super Sabres was lost. Despite these losses, the importance of the F-100 in the air war over Southeast Asia can never be overstated.

The final version of the Super Sabre series was the two-seat F-100F version. It was initially used as a conversion trainer and first flew on August 3, 1956. Production of the F-100F continued until October 1959 by which time 339 examples had been completed. All were produced at North American’s Los Angeles plant. In Vietnam, the ‘F’ was used to pioneer the ‘Wild Weasel’ concept in which raids were launched against enemy surface-to-air missile sites. The F-100F was also used in Southeast Asia as a fast forward air controller (Fast FAC, using the call sign ‘Misty’).

For lots more on the F-100 in Vietnam, see the Combat Aircraft November 2016 issue.

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