Most of the time Steve Young bombed enemies in Vietnam he couldn’t see or hear, and he was guided by the locations of a smoke bomb dropped by another American plane or orders over his radio.
For seven months during the Vietnam War, Young flew an F-100 aircraft, known for being the first supersonic jet in the U.S., for the U.S. Air Force.
Young flew 93 combat missions low over the Vietnamese jungle, dropping bombs or napalm as ordered. He still remembers the missions and the plane now. The aircraft, which the Air Force used for more than 20 years but only for combat in Vietnam, was easy to stall at takeoff and roll when landing. More than once, he heard about a fellow pilot crashing.
But it was also known for its sturdiness under enemy fire and could zip in low to drop bombs, which was necessary for him to help protect American troops fighting on the ground.
This weekend, the Morgantown resident will be one of about 150 veterans who will travel to Washington, D.C., where the F-100 will be inducted into the Smithsonian museum. The U.S. Air Force began retiring F-100 planes near the end of the Vietnam War, and none of the fighter jets has been displayed in the Smithsonian until this year.
For Young, the trip is a chance to reunite with pilots he served with more than 40 years ago. He will be attending a banquet for members of a society for F-100 crews and their families at the Smithsonian.
Young wants to meet up with other pilots of the plane that was used to protect soldiers on the ground during the Vietnam War, he said.
“It is exciting because these were people who were part of something that was pretty important,” he said.
He’s thankful for the recognition of the plane’s part in the war — and the growing respect given to Vietnam veterans, who weren’t honored when they returned home from the unpopular war, Young said.
Young had wanted to fly planes since he was 10 and watched military aircraft flying over his family’s farm in Kentucky. He didn’t think he’d be able to be an Air Force pilot because he wore glasses and knew the military’s physical requirements were strict.
But when he finished college, he went in for an Air Force physical and passed. He then went to pilot training in May 1968 with the goal of flying fighter jets in the war.
Young’s missions during the months he flew the F-100 in Vietnam were to zoom into areas where American troops were fighting on the ground and needed help, dropping bombs or napalm.
He felt the responsibility of protecting the soldiers, even though he could never see them from the plane, he said. But his training helped him to think of each mission as a job, he said. When he was on alert, which was like being on call, he would sleep in his flight suit in a small building near the runway, and he could be up in the air within 10 minutes of waking if needed.
He rarely experienced the sights or sounds of combat because he would swoop down to 100 feet above the ground at the lowest and fly at speeds of about 550 mph. And most of the fighting was in the dense jungle.
“You knew something was down there, but you couldn’t see it,” he said.
Once, when bombing an anti-aircraft gun on the ground, he could see the orange flashes of tracer bullets coming at him.
More often, his targets were enemy munitions storage, such as a cave or cart camouflaged with tarps or jungle foliage, a bridge or a road where Vietnamese soldiers traveled. If he could hear extra explosions from a munitions storage spot as he flew away, Young felt the immediate satisfaction of a successful mission.
After his initial year-long pilot training, he spent six months training on how to fly and use the weapons of the F-100. He learned how to recover from the plane flipping over in the air, and how to avoid letting the aircraft’s nose get high enough for the engine to stall and crash.
“I always respected the airplane. I didn’t test it,” Young said.
He also learned how to hit targets in the air and on the ground with the F-100’s guns, and to drop practice bombs so he would be able to bomb accurately when in combat.
Flying the fighter plane was his purpose for being in Vietnam, and the aircraft was a part of his history and American history that he is proud of, he said.