When photos of the F-100 Super Sabre were released after test pilot George Welch completed the plane’s maiden flight on May 25, 1953, hardly anyone thought the F-100 looked “right.” Its thin low wing, low-set horizontal tail, and long snoot narrowing to a nose air intake made up a shape that had never before been seen in an aircraft. Never mind that it was the result of years of aerodynamic research. Its adherents believed the F-100 would be the air-to-air fighter of the future, a product of American know-how that would come up against the Soviet Union’s latest MiGs and prevail over them.
The F-100 has never been credited with an aerial victory.
“We never thought we’d be doing air-to-ground in a stinking Southeast Asia backwater,” said retired Col. Charles Vasiliadis. “We never thought our ‘silver bullet’ of a fighter would eventually be painted the green-brown color of a Vietnamese swamp.”
Long and sleek with low-set wings and tail, the F-100 ushered in a new look while propelled by a 16,950-lb thrust Pratt & Whitney J57-P-21/21A turbojet, the Air Force‘s standard engine of the era. Its long-snouted nose bristled with four 20mm cannon.
“I felt that my squadron commander was LBJ and my operations officer was McNamara,” Laven carped after the mission, referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
Billed in press releases as the world’s first fighter able to maintain supersonic speed in level flight, the F-100 was the air-to-air successor to the Korean War-era F-86 Sabre.
Second to One
In fact, the F-100 was not the first fighter capable of supersonic speed in level flight. The Soviet MiG-19 – which it never met in battle – flew on Jan. 5, 1953, while the first Super Sabre took to the air on April 24 of that year. And although the F-100 was a formidable adversary in an air-to-air fight, would-be air aces soon found themselves using the Super Sabre to haul napalm, bombs, and rockets on air-to-ground missions in Vietnam.
“Everybody wanted to get a MiG. But it was rapidly becoming clear that our F-100 was a valuable tool to support friendly troops on the ground.”
As part of a larger build-up, in 1965 the United States began expanding the number of F-100 squadrons in Southeast Asia. By then, most F-100s were painted in the green-brown color scheme known as T.O.114 camouflage, named for a technical order. Developed as an air-to-air fighter with enormous effort — including a redesign of the fin after a crash that killed Welch — after a decade of service it was belatedly being nicknamed the “Hun” and was being used as a fighter-bomber.
Col. George Laven introduced the F-100 to combat with a strike on anti-aircraft installations in Laos on June 9, 1964, after a last-minute change in the ordnance he was instructed to carry. Laven’s unit was the 615th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flying from Da Nang, South Vietnam. Afterward, Laven complained about being micro-managed from Washington, a lament pilots were to repeat often in Southeast Asia. “I felt that my squadron commander was LBJ and my operations officer was McNamara,” Laven carped after the mission, referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
After a few missions into North Vietnam in 1965, F-100s spent the remainder of the war south of the 17th Parallel.
During the brief period when the F-100 was used for air-to-air fighting, on April 4, 1965 Captain Donald Kilgus of the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron fired on a fleeing North Vietnamese MiG-17. Kilgus and others who were in the air that day believed he shot down the MiG, but the Air Force dubbed it a “probable” kill. The F-100 has never been credited with an aerial victory.
“We were still thinking air-to-air,” said Vasiliadis, referring to the early days in Vietnam. “Everybody wanted to get a MiG. But it was rapidly becoming clear that our F-100 was a valuable tool to support friendly troops on the ground.” After a few missions into North Vietnam in 1965, F-100s spent the remainder of the war south of the 17th Parallel.
Close air support missions flown by F-100C and F-100D models were perilous and often put pilots in close proximity to friend and foe on the ground. The 510th Tactical Fighter Squadron alone lost eight aircraft in three months. “You usually don’t see muzzle flashes during the day, but when you’re eyeball to eyeball with the Viet Cong, you see them,” said Vasiliadis of the 510th squadron. “When their tracers are flying over the top of your canopy, it’s pretty easy to remember that your job is to break things and kill people.” Pilots like Vasiliadis say the “Hun” was extremely accurate when delivering bombs to enemy forces on the ground, but was never a particularly good strafing platform.
In 1965, two-seat F-100F Super Sabres began operating as dedicated surface to air missile (SAM) detection and suppression aircraft in the “Wild Weasel I” program.
The dangers inherent in the F-100 Wild Weasel mission were illustrated on Dec. 20, 1965, when Capts. John Pitchford and Robert Trier failed to return from a mission. Pitchford, at the controls, was guiding four F-105s on a strike against North Vietnamese targets. After detecting a “Fan Song” surface-to-air missile-associated radar near Haiphong, Pitchford launched an attack. A 37 mm shell struck his craft. Pitchford pulled up and found that he had some control. He fired his marker rockets into the SAM site, enabling the F-105s to hit it, and turned for the Gulf of Tonkin – when his hydraulics went out. A full hydraulic failure meant total loss of control so, with the shoreline in sight, Pitchford and Trier ejected. The North Vietnamese later claimed that they killed Trier in a shoot-out on the ground and his remains were eventually repatriated. Pitchford became a prisoner of war for the next eight years.
The F-100F remained in the “Wild Weasel” role until replaced by the F-105F Thunderchief.
In 1966, “Wild Weasel” F-100Fs were wired for the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile and began using the weapon against “Fan Song” radars. The combination of aircraft and missile never proved fully satisfactory.
On Aug. 11, 1967, Lt. Col. James E. McInerney and Capt. Fred Shannon in an F-100F led a mission that destroyed six SAM sites and damaged four, clearing the way for a strike on Hanoi’s Paul Doumer Bridge. McInerney was awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest U.S. award. The F-100F remained in the “Wild Weasel” role until replaced by the F-105F Thunderchief.
Fogleman became the only Super Sabre pilot ever rescued by riding out on a Cobra helicopter
On Sept. 12, 1968, F-100D pilot Capt. Ronald Fogleman was shot down in the I Corps area 200 miles (320 km) north of Bien Hoa while flying aircraft 56-3245. Fogleman became the only Super Sabre pilot ever rescued by riding out on a Cobra helicopter. The U.S. Army AH-1G reached him and he came out clinging to a deployed gun-panel door. On another combat flight, Fogleman and Capt. Merrill “Tony” McPeak were together in a two-seat F-100F. It is fortunate the Viet Cong were not lucky that day: Both Fogleman and McPeak reached four-star rank and served as Air Force chief of staff in the 1990s.
The last combat F-100 departed Vietnam in 1971, after nearly eight years of combat. According to official figures, Super Sabres flew 360,283 combat sorties. The four tactical fighter wings in Vietnam (3rd, 31st, 35th and 37th) thus exceeded the number of combat sorties flown by 15,000-plus P-51 Mustangs in World War II. The Air Force lost 186 F-100 Super Sabres to anti-aircraft fire, none to MiGs, seven during Viet Cong assaults on its air bases and 45 to operational incidents.
The Air Force’s Thunderbirds demonstration team flew F-100 Super Sabres for several years. F-100s were exported to France, Denmark, and Taiwan. After Vietnam, many continued to serve in Air National Guard squadrons until replaced with newer fighters.
North American F-100D Super Sabre
Type: Single-seat fighter and fighter-bomber
Powerplant: One 10,200 pounds thrust (45 kN) Pratt & Whitney J57-P-21/21A turbojet engine rated at 16,000 pounds thrust (71 kN) with afterburning
Performance: Maximum speed, 864 mils per hour (3190 km/h) or Mach 1.13; rate of climb, 22,400 feet per minute (114 meters per second); service ceiling, 50,000 feet (15000 m); range 1,995 miles (2310 km)
Weights: Empty weight, 21,000 pounds (9500 kg); loaded weight, 28,847 pounds (13085 kg); Maximum takeoff weight, 34,832 pounds (15800 kg)
Armament: Four 20mm Pontiac/Philco-Ford M39A1 revolver cannons with 200 rounds per gun and up to 6,000 pounds (2722) of external ordnance, typically one AGM-12 (ASM-N-7) Bullpup air-to-ground missile and one AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missile or six Mark 82 Snakeye 500-pound (227-kg) conventional bombs or one Mark 7 nuclear bomb
First flight: May 25, 1953 (F-100A); Sept. 9, 1955 (F-100C); Jan. 24, 1956 (F-100D); Aug. 3, 1956 (TF-100C); March 7, 1957 (F-100F)
Number built: 2,294 (including 1,274 F-100D)