It’s been almost 50 years since retired Lt. Col. Bob Pardo pulled off an unorthodox mid-air rescue in a fighter plane over Vietnam, but he tells the story like it happened last week.
The maneuver, which came to be known as “Pardo’s Push,” almost got him and his rear pilot court martialed. It also helped two men avoid having to eject from their airplane over hostile territory, where they would have probably become prisoners of war to the North Vietnamese Army.
The date was March 10, 1967 — Pardo’s birthday. The target was the steel mill in Thai Nguyen, North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army was using the mill to manufacture aluminum pontoons, which they would string together at night to help their soldiers move south by crossing the many rivers in North Vietnam. They would then disassemble the crossings and hide them to avoid U.S. detection during the day.
The U.S. military had made the mill a target at the first of that month, but weather prevented the strike force from making a move until the 10th. Pardo, along with three other F-4 Phantoms, would escort a group of F-105s to the mill, where they would drop their bombs before pulling back and connecting with a refueling tanker over Laos.
Pardo said they ran into problems almost immediately. The weather forced them to fly a little lower than they would have liked — at 8,000 feet instead of 12,000 feet. This put them within easier range for the Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns.
Pardo said he knew it was going to be bad. About 40 miles north of the target, Capt. Earl Aman and his rear pilot, 1st Lt. Robert Houghton, took a hit, but continued on with the mission. Arriving at the target, Aman took another hit from anti-aircraft fire.
The pilots knew that 5,000 pounds of fuel would get them to the tanker over Laos, where they could refuel and continue on to home base. When the strike force leader called for a fuel check after the run, he had 7,000 pounds of fuel, Pardo had 5,000, the No. 3 plane had 7,000 and Aman had 2,000 — he had taken a shot to the fuel tanks and was losing fuel quickly.
The 2,000 pounds of fuel wasn’t enough to get him out of North Vietnam. He was going to have to bail over enemy territory.
Ten miles outside the strike zone, Aman started to lag behind. His plane couldn’t keep up with the rest of them. Pardo and his rear pilot, 1st Lt. Steve Wayne, stayed back to see if there was anything they could do to help.
Aman soon started climbing. Pardo figured that he was trying to get high enough that he could glide for 30 or 40 more miles after his fuel ran out before he had to eject.
Pardo pulled up behind him. He thought that maybe he could position his plane under Aman’s and piggyback him a little farther. Pardo got about a foot from Aman’s fuselage and the nose of his plane started to ride up. Pardo started to back out.
As he pulled out, he saw Aman’s tail hook and had an idea. The F-4s had been equipped with heavy-duty tail hooks to assist with landings on aircraft carriers. Aman was losing about 3,000 feet a minute. Pardo had Aman lower his tail hook, then he carefully positioned the end of the hook against his own windshield and pushed — slowing the rate of descent to 2,000 feet a minute. Once Aman killed his engines the rate fell to 1,500 feet a minute.
Pardo was able to push Aman’s plane just far enough to make it across the border into Laos.
Pardo didn’t quite make it to the tanker. His own plane had taken some hits to the fuel tank and he was losing fuel. He and Wayne had to punch out a few minutes later.
Pardo floated down in his chute, crashed into a dead tree on his way and collapsed on rocks on the landing. He avoided capture and radioed a rescue helicopter. All four men were picked up and taken back to safety.
The Air Force wasn’t thrilled upon hearing the news of Pardo’s unconventional maneuver and tried to court martial him. They agreed not to as long as Pardo and Wayne would never receive any kind of recognition for their actions.
More than two decades later, they both received Silver Stars — the U.S. military’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat — for the maneuver.
Even today, Pardo said there was no courage involved on his part. He did what he knew he had to do, and that was to help people who needed help.
“There was no decision to be made,” Pardo said. “That decision was made when I was about 18 years old when my dad told me, ‘If somebody needs help, help them.’ And it’s that simple. There was no hesitation, There had to be something I could do.”
Aman and Houghton received Silver Stars in 1996 for continuing their mission despite taking damage. Aman died in 1998.
Pardo stayed close with his back-seater, Wayne. He said Wayne usually calls him on his birthday. If Wayne’s a little late, Pardo calls him.
“For us, that was a pretty important day,” Pardo said. “We could have ended up going to jail, we could have ended up getting ourselves killed, so we like to remember it.”