DUKE FIELD, Fla. --
In the minutes just after midnight, a large formation of aircraft entered the southwest side of North Vietnam just a few hundred feet above the tree tops in the valley between the mountains. It was November 21, 1970.
The controls of the C-130 were sluggish, and large inputs were needed any time the wings were upset by turbulence. It was precariously slow to fly a tactical low-level, but it did so—with its flaps extended—in order to maintain formation integrity with the helicopters in the assault force. The crews approach to their targets took advantage of the radar clutter offered by the terrain. However, they still faced a sophisticated air defense system from North Vietnam and needed something more to ensure mission success.
The formation initially exploited a five minute hole in the radar coverage, something discovered by the intelligence team assisting in planning the mission. The gap in radar coverage was likely not enough to ensure their mission success. Close coordination during planning allowed the air component to execute a well-timed attack that likely saturated the command and control of the North Vietnamese air defense system.
The mission, which included 28 aircraft and 92 Airmen, was the culmination of six months of planning. Drone flights over Vietnam collected photographs while special operations forces rehearsed at an Eglin AFB auxiliary field starting in August of that year. Retired Admiral William McCraven, former commander of United States Special Operations Command, covers the anecdote in great detail in this thesis, Special Ops – Theory and Practice.
Additionally, the 919th Special Operations Wing finds the earliest threads from the fabric of our legacy in the event, which was a precursor to the formation of the 919th Special Operations Group less than a year later at Duke Field, the location used for training and rehearsals.
History has repeated itself as members of the 96th Test Wing and the 919th SOW have teamed up to conduct live training exercises that take advantage of the unique capabilities of both wings and countless other agencies.
Combat aircraft assigned to the 40th Flight Test Squadron at nearby Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and special operations aircraft from all over the Gulf region have teamed with airpower experts from other units, range support, engineers, and Citizen Air Commandos to exercise operationally relevant scenarios mirroring events around the globe today. Such realistic training allows Airmen to experiment with ideas that the Air Force and combatant commanders can employ in strategic competition that will enhance the readiness and capabilities of tomorrow’s fighting force.
The result is Airmen who, having learned from the past, are thinking differently about the future. These Airmen are developing the kind of courage and cohesion that have set Americans apart time and time again.
The next time the distraction may only last a matter of seconds, and that’s all America’s Citizen Air Commandos will need to accomplish their objective.
(Editor’s Note: Carroll Glines of the Air Force Magazine contributed to this article).