August 1, 2004

F-102, Vietnam, and George W. Bush

NOTE Aerospaceweb has taken down their page on Bush and the Texas Air National Guard, due to abuse by people linking to photos. Here's the text from the page, taken from Google's cache:.

    It really bothers me that a coward like George W. Bush spent the Vietnam War training to fly old and useless planes in Texas while John Kerry was heroically risking his life in combat and got three purple hearts!
    - Jennifer Braun
We normally shy away from the world of politics, but we get variations of this kind of question regularly and feel it necessary to clarify some information. We'll do our best to avoid bringing our own political biases into this article since we are more interested in defending an "old and useless" aircraft than any particular politician!

George W. Bush's military service began in 1968 when he enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard after graduating with a bachelor's degree in history from Yale University. The aircraft that he was ultimately trained to fly was the F-102 Delta Dagger. A number of sources have claimed that Bush sought service in the National Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam, and that the F-102 was a safe choice because it was an obsolete aircraft that would never see any real combat. However, those perceptions turn out to be incorrect, as will be seen shortly.

The F-102 was a supersonic second generation fighter designed in the early 1950s for the US Air Force. The primary mission of the aircraft was to intercept columns of Soviet nuclear bombers attempting to reach targets in the US and destroy them with air-to-air missiles. The technologies incorporated into the aircraft were state-of-the-art for the day. The F-102 set many firsts, including the first all-weather delta-winged combat aircraft, the first fighter capable of maintaining supersonic speed in level flight, and the first interceptor to have an armament entirely of missiles. Among the many innovations incorporated into the design were the use of the area rule to reduce aerodynamic drag and an advanced electronic fire control system capable of guiding the aircraft to a target and automatically launching its missiles.

The F-102 made its first flight in 1953 and entered service with the Air Defense Command (ADC) in 1956. About 1,000 Delta Daggers were built, and although eventually superseded by the related F-106 Delta Dart, the F-102 remained one of the most important aircraftin the ADC through the mid-1960s. At its peak, the aircraft made up over half of the interceptors operated by
the ADC and equipped 32 squadrons across the continental US. Additional squadrons were based in western Europe, the Pacific, and Alaska.

As the 1960s continued, many of these aircraft were transferred from the US Air Force to Air National Guard (ANG) units. By 1966, nearly 350 F-102s were being operated by ANG squadrons. A total of 23 ANG units across the US ultimately received the fighter, including squadrons in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

One of the primary ANG units to receive the F-102 was the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) at Ellington Air National Guard Station, which operated the aircraft from 1965 through 1974. These planes were given responsibility for patrolling the Gulf Coast and intercepting Soviet Tu-95 bombers that regularly flew off the US shore while carrying a payload of nuclear weapons. The 111th was and still is part of the 147th Fighter Wing in Houston, Texas. It was here that George W. Bush was stationed following his enlistment in May 1968.

It is a common misconception that the Air National Guard was a safe place for military duty during the Vietnam War. In actuality, pilots from the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, as it was called at the time, were actually conducting combat missions in Vietnam at the very time Bush enlisted. In fact, F-102 squadrons had been stationed in South Vietnam since March 1962. It was during this time that the Kennedy administration began building up a large US military presence in the nation as a deterrent against North Vietnamese invasion.

F-102 squadrons continued to be stationed in South Vietnam and Thailand throughout most of the Vietnam War. The planes were typically used for fighter defense patrols and as escorts for B-52 bomber raids. While the F-102 had few opportunities to engage in its primary role of fighter combat, the aircraft was used in the close air support role starting in 1965. Armed with
rocket pods, Delta Daggers would make attacks on Viet Cong encampments in an attempt to harass enemy soldiers. Some missions were even conducted using the aircraft's heat-seeking air-to-air missiles to lock onto enemy campfires at night. Though these missions were never considered to be serious attacks on enemy activity, F-102 pilots did often report secondary explosions coming from their targets.

These missions were also dangerous, given the risks inherent to low-level attacks against armed ground troops. A total of 14 or 15 F-102 fighters were lost in Vietnam. Three were shot down by anti-aircraft or small arms fire, one is believed to have been lost in air-to-air combat with a MiG-21, four were destroyed on the ground during Viet Cong attacks, and the remainder succumbed to training accidents.

Even in peacetime conditions, F-102 pilots risked their lives on every flight. Only highly-qualified pilot candidates were accepted for Delta Dagger training because it was such a challenging aircraft to fly and left little room for mistakes. According to the Air Force Safety Center, the lifetime Class A accident rate for the F-102 was 13.69 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours, much higher than the average for today's combat aircraft. For example, the F-16 has an accident rate of 4.14, the F-15 is at 2.47, the F-117 at 4.07, the S-3 at 2.6, and the F-18 at 4.9. Even the Marine Corps' AV-8B, regarded as the most dangerous aircraft in US service today, has a lifetime accident rate of only 11.44 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. The F-102 claimed the lives of many pilots, including a number stationed at Ellington during Bush's tenure. Of the 875 F-102A production models that entered service, 259 were lost in accidents that killed 70 Air Force and ANG pilots.

Nevertheless, we have established that the F-102 was serving in combat in Vietnam at the time Bush enlisted to become an F-102 pilot. In fact, pilots from the 147th FIG of the Texas ANG were routinely rotated to Vietnam for combat duty under a program called "Palace Alert" from 1968 to 1970. Palace Alert was an Air Force program that sent qualified F-102 pilots from the ANG to bases in Europe or southeast Asia for periods of three to six months for frontline duty. Fred Bradley, a friend of Bush's who was also serving in the Texas ANG, reported that he and Bush inquired about participating in the Palace Alert program. However, the two were told by a superior, MAJ Maurice Udell, that they were not yet qualified since they were still in training and did not have the 500 hours of flight experience required. Furthermore, ANG veteran COL William Campenni, who was a fellow pilot in the 111th FIS at the time, told the Washington Times that Palace Alert was winding down and not accepting new applicants.

After being accepted into the ANG, Airman Basic Bush was selected to attend pilot training. His six weeks of basic training was completed atLackland AFB in Texas during July and August of 1968. Upon its completion, Bush was promoted to the officer's rank of second lieutenant. He spent the next year in flight school at Moody AFB in Georgia from November 1968 to November 1969. The aircraft Lt. Bush trained aboard were the T-41 Mescelero propeller-driven basic trainer and the T-38 Talon primary jet trainer. He also completed two weeks of survival training during this period.

Bush then returned to Ellington in Texas to complete seven months of combat crew training on the F-102 from December 1969 to June 1970. This period included five weeks of training on the T-33 Shooting Star and 16 weeks aboard the TF-102 Delta Dagger two-seat trainer and finally the single-seat F-102A. Bush graduated from the training program in June 1970. The previously mentioned Maurice Udell was a flight instructor for Lt. Bush who was interviewed by the Associated Press in February 2004. MAJ Udell recalled that Bush was one of his best students saying that, "I'd rank him in the top five percent."

As he was completing training and being certified as a qualified F-102 pilot, Bush's squadron was a likely candidate to be rotated to Vietnam. However, the F-102 was built for a type of air combat that wasn't seen during that conflict, and the plane was withdrawn from southeast Asia in December 1969. The F-102 was instead returned to its primary role of providing air defense for the United States. In addition, the mission of Ellington AFB, where Bush was stationed, was also changing from air defense alert to training all F-102 pilots in the US for Air National Guard duty. Lt. Bush remained in the ANG as a certified F-102 pilot who participated in frequent drills and alerts through April of 1972.

By this time, the 147th Fighter Wing was also beginning to transition from the F-102 to the F-101F, an updated version of the F-101B used primarily for air defense patrols. Furthermore, the war in Vietnam was nearing its end and the US was withdrawing its forces from the theater. Air Force personnel returning to the US created a glut of active-duty pilots, and there were not enough aircraft available to accommodate all of the qualified USAF and ANG pilots. Since USAF personnel had priority for the billets available, many of the Air National Guard pilots whose enlistments were nearly complete requested early release. The ANG was eager to fulfill these requests because there was not enough time to retrain F-102 pilots to operate new aircraft before their enlistments were up anyway. Bush was one of those forced out by the transition, and he was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant in October 1973, eight months before his six-year enlistment was complete. Bush had approximately 600 flight hours by the time he completed his military service. In the fall of 1973, Bush began coursework at the Harvard Business School where he received an MBA in 1975.

The point of this discussion is that the military record of George W. Bush deserves a fair treatment. Bush has been criticized for avoiding service in Vietnam, though the evidence proves that the Texas Air National Guard and its F-102 pilots where serving in Vietnam while Bush was in training. Bush has been criticized for using his family influence to obtain his assignment, but the evidence shows that he successfully completed every aspect of the more than two years of training required of him. Bush has been criticized for pursuing a safe and plush position as a fighter pilot, but the evidence indicates the F-102 was a demanding aircraft whose pilots regularly risked their lives. Bush has also been criticized for deserting the Guard before his enlistment was complete, but the evidence shows he was honorably discharged eight months early because his position was being phased out.

This is not to say that there exist no points of contention in Bush's record worthy of criticism. There are indeed some irregularities from April 1972 to May 1973 that indicate he may not have completed his responsibilities as a National Guardsman. However, these allegations have been fully investigated in the past and were found to lack credibility. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe investigated Bush's military service and concluded that "Bush logged numerous hours of duty, well above the minimum requirements for so-called 'weekend warriors.'"

While it is not our goal to compare and contrast the records of the candidates on this subject, the fact that the questioner cites John Kerry's military service makes us feel it necessary to comment. It is interesting to note that there are just as many, if not more, irregularities in Kerry's military record as there are in Bush's. Kerry can certainly be praised for some of the actions he performed while in the line of duty, but his record does contain some troubling portions as well. Not the least of these is his involvement in the controversial group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) while he was still an active-duty member of the US Navy. Kerry's testimony before Congress as VVAW spokesman in 1971, during which he accused soldiers serving in Vietnam of being war criminals, was found to be based on largely falsifed information as documented by Wikipedia. The Boston Globe has also reported on troubling accusations regarding the circumstances surrounding Kerry's medals, particularly his first two purple hearts awarded for minor injuries that may even have been self-inflicted.

Nevertheless, the important point to remember is that one can find good and bad elements in virtually anyone's military history. If the military service of both George W. Bush and John Kerry is to be an issue during the upcoming election, then both records ought to be treated with balance and fairness rather than be subjected to double standards.

To learn more about the history and military service of the F-102 Delta Dagger, readers should see The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft by David Donald, ed., and Convair F-102 Delta Dagger by Wayne Mutza. Another excellent resource is Joe Baugher's American Military Aircraft, particularly the F-102A and Squadron Service sections.

As we had anticipated, this subject has generated a tremendous response from our visitors, both positive and negative. Below are a few of the replies we have received.

"I want to express my gratitude for your excellent discussion of the F-102's service in Vietnam. I was a mechanic with the 509th [Fighter Interceptor Squadron] in the Philippines. We were the primary F-102 unit to deploy to Vietnam, and I was stationed at Da Nang when we were attacked by the [Viet Cong] in 1965...the attached picture shows one of our F-102s destroyed in a VC raid.

...I am so happy to find a site like yours that looks past politics to tell the truth about our service and contributions to the war effort. I want to thank you on behalf of myself and my squadron mates, especially those who didn't make it home."
- George, 3 August 2004

"Your site is an obvious front for the right-wing conspiracy that hijacked the media and is destroying America. Your pathetic attempt to defend draft-dodger and deserter Bush is nothing but right-wing lies. Where's the proof? Show it to me and then I'll correct you. All you have is b---s---."
- name withheld, 1 August 2004

"Heartfelt applause to Aerospaceweb.org. I just had the pleasure of reading the answer to the slightly vitriolic question regarding President Bush and Senator Kerry's military service. A plain reading of the available information proved far superior a response than any mere counter vitriol. The fact is mightier than the hyperbole."
- John, 1 August 2004

Posted by John Weidner at August 1, 2004 7:33 PM
Weblog by John Weidner