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Gail Peck: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam
Gail Peck flew the mighty F-4D Phantom II during the Vietnam War. In this interview, he tells us about his new book, Sherman Lead, which records an incredible year of life behind the controls of the US Air Force's iconic fighter bomber
Buy a copy of Sherman Lead
★ Thank you so much for speaking with us about your new book, Sherman Lead. Our traditional opening question, where in the States are you from?
I was born in San Antonio, TX, but raised in a military family in many different locations, including occupied Japan and the Territory of Alaska.
★ Can you tell us a bit about the book, and what encouraged you to write it?
The book is about a year of flying combat in the F-4D during the Vietnam War. It includes things that happened to me and my colleagues. Not about how much I love my mother and how hot the head cheerleader was in high school. Just war stories.
★ The book focuses particularly on your time flying combat missions during the war in Vietnam – what was the role of the USAF during that conflict?
The role of the USAF during the Vietnam War was to execute US national policy, which was aimed at maintaining a geopolitical rim in Southeast Asia against domination by Soviet client states such as North Vietnam. This was based on the thoughts of Halford McKinder and amplified by Nicholas Spykman regarding the need to contain the world island through a rim land of containment presence, in this case against Communism.
★ During the Vietnam War you particularly flew the F-4D Phantom II – what are your memories of the aircraft and its importance to your work?
The F-4 was a wonderful fighter aircraft. It was fast and agile and had a state-of-the-art weapons system for employing both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance. The reliability that came with two engines was important also. It always brought me home to my base in Thailand.
★ The book explains how during Vietnam a lot of new technologies came into play within the USAF – were the '60s a particularly important time for technological advances in the Air Force?
The Vietnam War brought major changes to aerial warfare. First, North Vietnam was defended by surface-to-air missiles for the first time in a major conflict. And their air force was equipped with air-to-air missiles as well. Both were a step up from the traditional antiaircraft guns and the machine guns mounted on Korean War-era fighters. Offensively, smart air-to-ground ordnance was introduced by our forces. Initially electro-optical (EO) guidance systems such as those built into the Walleye glide bomb were used. Advanced EO systems followed that were eventually named GBU-8 and AGM-65. Perhaps the most successful smart ordnance were the laser guided bombs, which guided on a laser point projected onto a target by an airborne laser designator.
★ The book also covers the human stories behind being part of the USAF - is there a particular story that stands out in your memory?
In terms of human stories, perhaps in this current world of email and Skype, one of the most dramatic aspects was the clear revelation as to how isolated we were and how far we were from home. Letters took weeks to arrive, often with long lapses between deliveries followed by reception of a stack of letters. Questions asked about home, family, and friends written weeks before were answered without repeating the question, often leading to puzzling efforts to read and understand what was being said. The promise of a phone call home using the Military Affiliated Radio System or MARS ham radio links brought scheduling nightmares and frustration when atmospheric conditions precluded contact with the US-based radio or 12 or so hours of time zone differences resulted in unanswered calls. Most of us gave up and instead relied on the mail, as bad as it was.
★ How did fighting in Vietnam affect you personally?
In terms of the personal impact on me, I would call it minimal. No PTSD. I looked forward to my combat experience because it was what I had been trained to do. I went and did my job as best I could. I got tired and eagerly looked forward to a couple of days of rest in Bangkok every once in a while, and then I went back and continued to do my job.
★ Just after Vietnam, you were initially assigned to a role at Bentwaters AB in England, but that assignment was canceled – do you wish you'd had a chance to spend some time on duty in the UK?
In a perfect world I would have had a tour in the UK flying F-100s after pilot training, but in spite of being first in my class in pilot training, that assignment was not offered to my class. I hated that. The cancellation of my assignment to Bentwaters came as a result of a parachute accident in Thailand when I was trying to reach my goal of getting jump wings. As it turned out, my opportunities during the alternate assignment groomed me for my future, from both personal contacts I made and by the fact that those contacts sent me to the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis. That school set the stage for the rest of my career. But I would have loved to have had an assignment in the UK. My son and his British wife live in London, and all three of their children were born in the UK. We visit a lot and love it.
★ Since your retirement from active duty in '88, you've also been involved in academic instruction. I wonder, from a pilot’s perspective, how much the role has changed for today's and tomorrow's USAF pilots?
This is a very interesting question, in that time still flows at the same rate. But what we do with the time has changed dramatically.
We can get more done now in a given amount of time. As instructors we formerly labored over 35mm slides for high-quality presentations, sometimes actually laying out individual letters on a felt background to prepare text to be photographed. Then the lag time to get film developed and pictures sorted and loaded into carousel projectors took up more time. Often, we resorted to grease pencils and clear acetates using overhead projectors. But even that was glacial in terms of production time. Now, with PowerPoint and other computer-based presentation tools, beautiful productions can incorporate photos, graphics, videos and text in a fraction of the time. So, efficient use of time makes instructors more productive and capable of enhanced communication with students. I am not sure students can absorb the increased volume of material that is offered at a greater rate, and that could be a challenge for educators of the future.
In aviation, airmanship is one of the greatest qualities an aviator can possess. This is a double-edged sword in that the experiences that can come through repetition in a high fidelity simulator tremendously enhance the rate at which students in aviation are able to master difficult and complicated scenarios, especially in the world of the fighter aircraft. On the other hand, automation and computer-based avionics and devices can tend to cause pilots to forget about the importance of the basics. Fly the airplane. All the fancy new tools make one better, but are not solutions when malfunctions occur or other events put the pilot in uncharted territory.
★ What do you hope readers will take away from reading Sherman Lead?
I hope readers will enjoy learning about our experiences and will be able to visualize what the war was like on a day-by-day basis for a fighter pilot. We weren’t in the jungle unless we had a bad day and got shot down. But that threat was always there, and this coupled with the possibility of getting killed or becoming a PoW weighed heavily on each of us and certainly also our families. That weight on us triggered a lot of our outrageous conduct in that it released a “devil may care, live today, tomorrow may never come, go for it” mindset. I think it is important for Americans and allies to learn about and understand this glimpse at the price of freedom. Every warrior’s story will be different, and most will be more frightening than mine. But, to those who have (in the words of Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage) “seen the elephant,” the memories are not forgettable.
★ Finally, what's the best thing about being Gaillard Peck?
I am very happy with my life. If I had it to do over again I would do it the same way including both the ups and the downs that come with the life experience. I am very glad that I got my start while being raised in a caring and loving family environment. The basics were there, and the opportunity at the Air Force Academy was an easy transition, even though I was still pretty young and immature. At least I made it through and was ready to roll when I got to pilot training. The next two major learning events were the Fighter Weapons School and the National War College. Along the way I was blessed with wonderful and loving companionship and a house full of bright-eyed children, all of whom are on their own and doing well. So, the bottom line is that the people in my life really made it special for me, both from a personal family perspective and from a professional development standpoint. Thanks for asking that question. It is important to reflect on the many blessings life as an American can offer.
Gaillard R Peck Jr. is an Air Force Academy graduate and retired US Air Force colonel. His book, Sherman Lead, tells the unmissable story of one man, his colleagues and his machine, the mighty F-4 Phantom II, at war. It was published on 21 March 2019, by Osprey Publishing.