Vietnam veterans look to the skies

A fly-in event at the Allen County Regional Airport over the weekend brought in about 30 war-era airplanes and helicopters. Among the visitors were two Skyraider pilots who flew together in Vietnam in 1971-72.

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May 23, 2022 - 3:20 PM

Byron Hukee, left, of Grand Junction, Colo., and Ron Smith, center, of Phoenix, flew Douglas A-1 Skyraiders like Naked Fanny, pictured above, when they served in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972. The Skyraider provided air support for helicopters that rescued pilots who had been shot down. The plane’s owner, Jim Roth, is at right and flew the plane from Iowa to the Allen County Regional Airport for an event to honor Vietnam veterans this weekend.

“I came here to see a plane I haven’t seen in 50 years,” Ron Smith said, smiling as he made his way across the concrete apron of the Allen County Regional Airport.

His target: Naked Fanny.

The Douglas A-1D Skyraider is nicknamed “Spad.” The single-seat American attack plane flew from 1946 to the 1980s. It carries ordinance under each wing. 

The Skyraider was one of about 30 planes that buzzed area skies over the weekend for an event that honored Vietnam veterans. Allen County’s airport was home base for the  planes that took to the skies again and again, often flying in formation. The event was organized by aviation enthusiast Vince Hill, and Robert Rice with the American Flight Museum of Topeka.

Because of the plane activity and the potential danger from propellers, a large audience was required to stay off the apron and away from the planes. Vietnam veterans were given special access, and some veterans were given rides in Huey helicopters. 

In addition to the Skyraider, other planes at the event included a DC-3, Corsair, T-28 and T-6 planes and a Globe Swift. 

But in many ways, the Skyraider was the star of the weekend. 

About 30 war-era planes descended on Allen County Regional Airport for an event to honor Vietnam veterans. Many flew in various types of formations. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
The Globe Swift and a North American T-6 Texan. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Two T-28 planes fly over the folded wings of the Corsair. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
The Skyraider, left, and Douglas DC-3 fly overhead. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
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IN VIETNAM, the Skyraider was used to provide air support to helicopters on rescue missions. The Skyraider protected the helicopter as it retrieved American pilots who had been shot down in enemy territory. 

That’s how Ron Smith of Phoenix, Ariz., and Byron Hukee of Grand Junction, Colo., became acquainted with the Skyraider. 

The two men were pilots with the 1st Special Operations Squadron with the U.S. Air Force, serving from 1971 to 1972 at the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base, Thailand.

Area Vietnam veterans take a ride on a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, nicknamed the Huey.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The base was commonly referred to as NKP. 

“Naked Fanny. That’s where the name comes from, the NKP,” Hukee explained. 

Yes, say Nakhon Phanom and it sounds like Naked Fanny. 

Or close enough.

“People couldn’t pronounce it so they came up with the nickname,” Hukee said.

Friday was an anniversary of sorts for the two men. 

On May 20, 1972, they flew a mission to rescue a pilot who had been shot down in North Vietnam. Days earlier, the pilot had shot down an MiG fighter plane “so they got even,” as Huskee explained it.

The Allen County Regional Airport hosts warbirds.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Will Kientz of St. Louis fills his Globe Swift with fuel.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The rescue mission was dangerous. It was a long flight, so fuel supplies were a concern. Plus, they faced heavy resistance, especially so close to the capital of Hanoi.

“Ron was leading and I was just trying to hang on for dear life, trying to keep everybody safe. Including myself,” Hukee said. 

“He cost the government $17,000 because he cleaned out the plane,” Smith said.

“Yeah, everything on my plane I jettisoned” to save fuel, Hukee added. 

“The most expensive thing we had was the mini-gun. That was $17,000,” Smith explained.

“Well, it’s less expensive than the airplane,” Hukee said.

A North American T-6 Texan flies over Allen County Regional Airport. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
A T-6.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

TODAY, few Skyraiders can be found in the skies. Most are found in museums.

Jim Roth owns the plane, which is based in Iowa.

“You’re looking at one of 12 in the world,” Roth said.

This particular plane was owned by the U.S. Navy from 1953 to 1959 and “then it went to the boneyard” before it was purchased by the French, who used the plane in Africa before it was relinquished there.

Roth owned a North American Aviation T-28 Trojan when he had a conversation with another T-28 owner, who told him about a Skyraider he’d just sold.

Posing with the Vought F4U Corsair is TikTok personality “Warbird.”Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

“He was telling me how much gas it used and how many tires, and I thought to myself, I’m glad he got rid of that thing,” Roth said. “Well, I own it now.”

Smith laughed and pointed to a dark-gray puddle on the ground under the nose of the plane. Oil.

“If it doesn’t leak, that means it’s empty,” he said. 

It’s not easy to keep a Skyraider flying these days, Smith noted.

“Back when we had 29 of them, parts were not a problem. But now, those parts do not exist in many cases.”

The Skyraider was a lot of fun to fly, Smith said. The engine is a derivative of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber.

“It is big. That propeller is 13-feet long,” he said. “The first thing you do on takeoff is push full-right rudder. If you don’t, you’re going off the left side of the runway. It’s a lot of torque.

“We were both very lucky. It was a great assignment.”

Vietnam veteran Lonny Rohr of Iola receives a special pin from Chris Moore of FISH (Friends in Service of Heroes). Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Vietnam veterans. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
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Smith was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during the Vietnam War.

Hukee kept a journal during his service, and it can be found on his website: skyraider.org

He also published a book, “USAF and VNAF A-1 Skyraider Units of the Vietnam War (Combat Aircraft Book 97).”

In a combat journal entry regarding the mission on May 20, 1972, Hukee wrote: “The Skyraider gave us all confidence. It could take lots of punishment and could give it out, too.” 

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