"Peace is not our profession."

Fighting spirit one must have. Even if a man lacks some of the other qualifications, he can often make up for it in fighting spirit.
Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF

There is nothing absolutely nothing, to describe what goes on inside a pilot's gut when he sees a SAM get airborne.
Commander Randy "Duke" Cunningham, USN


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Aviation and war in Asia is the family business. My father flew B-25's in WWII in Burma and China. His CO was Claire Chennault. He spent the Cold War on alert or in the air first, in a B-36 and later, a B-52 for the Strategic Air Command. His career and life ended one night when the wing broke off and the big bomber fell with its nukes into the North Carolina mud below. Becoming a pilot therefore seems an unlikely choice but being raised around aircraft and WWII fliers, it was really hard to resist. I fell in love with radial engines and tail draggers and am in love with them now.

My mother's second husband was the CO of the 45th Tactical Recon Squadron at Tan Son Nhut flying RF-101C’s and my mother worked for the US Navy at the US Embassy during the Tet Offensive. A cousin had been shot down and captured in Laos in an RF-101C years before I decided that I would serve in the Air Force. They think he was executed.

I am the producer of Yankee Air Pirate, not the point. While there are many men with better personal stories of the Air War in Vietnam, I think there are few people who have the collection I have amassed in 40 years as a pilot. We put this on the website to explain the unique vantage point I had all these years to acquire these stories and to know how things really look to someone living through these moments.

Some of the stories in Yankee Air Pirate were told to me by my flight instructors at Williams Air Force Base in 1967 where I was training to fill their seats in Rolling Thunder. My first was a recent returnee named Gary Donovan with a 100 Mission patch from flying F-105's from Korat. My T-38 instructor flew 100 missions North in an F-4C at Da Nang. There were F-100 pilots and Wild Weasel pilots. There was one young captain named Rasimus who as a mere lieutenant was talented and lucky enough to finish 100 in a Thud. Cold beer in the heat of Arizona and the smell of jet fuel and salt on your flight suit was the setting for the telling of great war stories. These were men happy to be alive, haunted by loss and uncomfortable because they were unwillingly coming down from the biggest adrenaline high in the world and not quite fit for peace. Not yet.

My first assignment was an F-4C and D and E. I trained in Tucson. One Friday night at the bar, a tall grim character entered with his hat on and bought a round. That was Robin Olds. He was coaxed into telling about the raid on the Thai Nguyen Steelworks and I watched the eyes of combat veterans and babies like me stare at a man who was what a fighter pilot was supposed to be.

I flew 238 combat missions from Da Nang to targets in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The war was big and as you get the feel of YAP, you will see what I mean. It happened everywhere every day in little and big engagements. Hot and humid, Southeast Asia was the setting from the stories we all shared as lessons. "The dumb bastard tried to roll inverted when they called a SAM launch and it hit him in the cockpit! You just PUSH the stick and Take It Down. Understand?"

When my war was over, I left the Air Force and went to work for a civilian "contractor" that operated C-46's into Central America. The men who must stay close to the flame even when their time has passed are the ones with the stories of the places that jet pilots don't go. Raven FAC. Air America. Bird Air. Continental Air Services. They were, in fact, a CIA airline themselves and these men were some of those very same adrenaline junkies hanging onto the thrill. My Vietnam Vet Cobra beta-tester is in Afghanistan just to be "in the shit" once more.

I worked with Vietnam helicopter pilots who were doing construction work in America’s cities with Sikorsky helicopters or spraying fields in Salinas. Aviation has introduced me to Air Force, Navy, Marine and Army pilots of everything that has flown in the 20th Century.

Some of my best tales were gleaned a decade after the war ended while sitting in a bar full of whores in Bangkok drinking a Singha beer at a table full of mercenaries who had not gone back to America when the war ended. I was there working for another government "contractor" on a project in the Golden Triangle of Burma killing opium poppies. I had been a crop duster for 20 years in California and was ready for a change. I guess I too was yearning to see it all again and was only slightly disappointed to find out that spraying lettuce is more dangerous than bombing Hanoi for pilots with the hours we had when we went to war.

Pilots fly. Then they talk about it. Much of it cannot be repeated or reproduced. Let me tell you one. When I first started building Yankee Air Pirate, I went to see a man I had met when I was racing sailplanes in the desert, Dick Rutan. If you don't know who he is, you have not read this far. But to YAP, he was not the guy who flew around the world. He was a Misty FAC, the first high-speed forward air controllers. He flew the game on my laptop and was amazed to see F-100's and even more amazed that anyone knew who Misty was. Then he started telling a story with his hands and his mind went back 40 years while I watched. He talked about the game they played in which he or the men on the ground would die, a game in which he would mark the gun with a white phosphorus rocket while the Gunfighters (F-4's from Da Nang) would circle overhead. Once they saw the gun, the gun had no chance. They were waiting for Misty to mark. The gunner’s only chance was to kill Dick Rutan before he could get into position to fire. "Right there. Like that. When you are right there, it's his last chance. He has to kill the Misty then or he knows he is dead. They had balls. They would shoot at you all the way in and all the way off the pass. What choice did they have? When the Gunfighters started dropping the CBU's, they were going to die." And Misty did it every day. They won and lost. Now Dick Rutan, like me, is in years an old man if a man like him gets old. But once upon a time in a little corner of the sky in a war that will become a paragraph on Wikipedia, Dick Rutan dueled with other men to find out who would live to see the next century and who would rot in the mud.

Is this like the Wright Brothers tossing a coin to see who goes first? No. But it is a vignette, a moment in time full of testosterone and adrenaline and sweat that defines who we are when we do what we must.

Yankee Air Pirate is an attempt to let you sit in that seat, knowing the situation and go through the version that the game engine throws at you that time. It's not a shoot-em-up although it is plenty violent. Completing a mission for you is a lot like it was completing a mission for me. Go do what you are sent to do, try to do it and come home to do it again. Landing and opening the canopy might just be the point. I really don't know either.

I met a man whose pilot’s license was signed by Orville Wright. I met Jimmie Doolittle. And Eric Hartmann. And Bernie Fisher. And Robin Olds.  I have flown every kind of aircraft that flies. I have been to a score of funerals for young men, some better and some lesser. I have done whatever there is to do in an airplane or helicopter or sailplane. I have been shot at and shot down. More than that, I have spent most of my youth in the air every day for most of the day. I have lived and breathed aviation. And being a professional pilot, I tell stories. We hope deeply that you enjoy hearing them as much as we enjoy telling them.

~John Shelton