An A-4 Skyhawk Pilot in Vietnam

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Rampant Raider: An A-4 Skyhawk Pilot in Vietnam. By Stephen R Gray. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2017.
Reviewed by David Hobbs

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AFTER serving for a short while as a junior sailor in the USN, during which he maintained and flew in anti-submarine helicopters, Stephen Gray entered the US Navy’s Aviation Cadet Programme in 1964 to train as a pilot, qualifying in 1966 with the rank of Ensign USNR. He was subsequently appointed in January 1967 to VA-212 Squadron, the Rampant Raiders, which flew A-4E Skyhawks from the USS BON HOMME RICHARD, CVA-31, for a combat tour on ‘Yankee’ Station off North Vietnam. His experiences in action with this squadron gave him both the subject matter and the title of this very readable book.

The book was originally published in 2007. This paperback edition was released by the Naval Institute Press in 2017.

Gray writes with clarity and clearly has a good memory for detail as he describes the various stages of his flying training as he progressed from NAS Pensacola to NAS Lemoore in California where Pacific Fleet strike squadrons were based. Roughly half the book is devoted to his training and, far from being dull, I found that this gave an excellent idea of the US Navy’s contemporary ideas on how to prepare fighter and attack pilots for front line tours of duty that would take them into harm’s way over Vietnam.

The second part of the book describes his experience in VA-212 putting the theory into practice in one of the smaller strike carriers taking part in Operation ‘Rolling Thunder’ missions over North Vietnam. He was the most junior pilot in an experienced and well-respected Skyhawk squadron and his detailed accounts of missions flown against some of the most heavily defended targets in the world give insight into how he matured as a combat pilot and also how he and his fellow naval aviators viewed the inept handling of the war by the Johnson Administration in Washington. His description of the division of strike packages between Navy and Air Forces assets, together with their airborne control, adds detail to our understanding of a war that happened 50 years ago. Anyone who has flown fast-jets and particular the A-4 will find this an absorbing read and there were passages where I was unable to put it down. Gray’s clear recollection of events combined with his lucid style of writing tell the human story behind historical accounts, giving insight into the thoughts of the men who carried out these dangerous missions. Some of his moving descriptions of attempts to rescue pilots who ejected from damaged aircraft over North Vietnam give pause for thought about the scale of SAR coverage that should accompany contemporary strike operations.

Gray was under no illusions about the risks he and his colleagues were taking and as his first tour drew to a close the tensions within his air wing are well described. Even though we know the author survived, how else could he have written the book, his fear when engaged by surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and massed small arms fire is palpable yet throughout he continues to stress his pride in becoming a carrier pilot. In any air arm, only the best students are selected to fly single-seat attack aircraft and it is clear that Gray fitted into that category. His front line tour saw the use of some of the first ‘smart’ weapons such as the command-guided Bullpup and TV-guided Walleye air-to-surface missiles. His narrative is, therefore, made more interesting because his story effectively describes the end of the ‘iron bomb’ era and the beginning of the contemporary era of ‘smart’ or ‘stand-off’ weapons.

I found this book to be an absorbing read and I thoroughly recommend it, not just to fellow naval pilots and observers but also to a wider readership with an interest in the human experience of conflict in Vietnam and the role of aircraft within Navy’s ability to deploy power from the sea.

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