In December 1971, U.S. Air Force rescue crews from the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Air Base, Thailand, were scrambled to rescue an F-105G crew (Ashcan 01) and F-4 crew (Gunfighter 82) downed near Mu Gia pass and an F-4 crew (Falcon 74) downed in northeastern Laos. All missions were long, involved, and dangerous and tasked the crews and machines to the limit. As a result of their efforts and the efforts of supporting A-1s and forward air controllers (FACs), one man from the F-105 and both members of each of the F-4s were recovered and sent home.
However, those successes were not just blind luck. They were the result of technological improvements made to rescue and support forces in the theater, and leavened with a great deal of tactical initiative and leadership displayed by young officers who flew those aircraft. (1)
Initially, the 40th was based at Udom Air Base, Thailand. However, it was moved NKP in July 1971, giving its crews the ability to directly "liaise" with other key elements of the search and rescue (SAR) forces. The unit flew HH-53B/C helicopters. Six of the aircraft had been recently modified with a Limited Night Recovery System (LNRS) as part of a program called Pave Imp, and a Doppler navigation system. In theory, this equipment upgrade provided the crews a basic capability to perform rescues in night and low visibility conditions, something which was long needed in the conflict. However, the Doppler was proving not to have the necessary navigational precision needed to get the helicopter into the immediate area of the survivors, and design engineers and commanders were looking for further improvements.
Also located at NKP was the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), the remaining U.S. Air Force A-l unit. Its primary mission was SAR support, and it kept several aircraft on alert at all times for SAR tasking. (2)
The 40th's parent unit, the 3d Air Rescue and Recoveiy Group had a command and control center there, call sign Joker, which provided critical command and control and liaison for the various SAR forces. Joker had an intelligence section, and during 1971, it established a critical intelligence link to Task Force Alpha (TFA), also located at NKP. TFA commanded and controlled all of the sensors implanted along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other areas of SEA. The data that it was collecting could be very useful in real time for SAR missions. As missions occurred, Joker began asking TFA for data, which it then began passing out to the rescue and support squadrons and/or briefing directly to the crews as they prepared for their missions. Additionally, Joker procured secure radios, giving TFA the capability to pass intelligence via secure voice communications to the aircrews in their aircraft, which had compatible equipment. This node was in full bloom for the December SARs. (3)
Also stationed at NKP was the 23d Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS). This FAC unit currently flew the OV-10 and patrolled over large sections of Laos and Cambodia. Like all FAC units, its pilots were able to initiate and support SARs as a basic skill. Recently, though, fifteen of its OV-10s had been highly modified with some new and exciting technology. The aircraft were equipped with the Pave Spot, an optical system that a weapons systems operator (WSO) in the back seat of the OV-10 operated. Pave Spot was designed to provide magnification for better visual...