Florida Keys News
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Vietnam vets recall beloved A-5 Vigilante
Joined by war as young men, they meet later in life in Keys

Art Skelly leaned over the restaurant table flanked by buddies who remain the loyal crew to one of the Navy's lesser known, but fastest, Cold War aircraft.

"We called the Ho Chi Minh Trail U.S. 1," Skelly said with a grin.

Skelly and his friends -- John Smittle, Mike Bankester and Randy McDonald -- all flew in the A-5 Vigilante, an aircraft carrier-based supersonic bomber developed for the Navy that was intended to drop atomic bombs but evolved into one of the most important spy plans of the Vietnam War. It was capable of speeds just north of Mach 2.

"It was a beautiful airplane, beautiful lines and it was fast," Skelly said. "It was fast."

The pilots all would eventually retire in the Florida Keys and today they regularly meet together (and attend air shows together,) but mostly they get together to share war stories of flying one of the sleekest planes to ever leave an aircraft carrier.

The Vigilante was weaponless and its aviators relied only on their own skill and that of their F-4 fighter security escort pilots to make it back to the carrier alive.

"There were a few hairy missions," Skelly said with a laugh.

Many Vigilante pilots rotated through Naval Air Station Key West in those years and today an Vigilante plane rests on stilts at the gate of Boca Chica Field with the names of all four buddies near the cockpit.

The Vigilante's life was relatively short-lived as submarines took nuclear duties and space satellites became the preferred surveillance method with intelligence wonks, but during Vietnam the Vigilante proved it a capable and cost effective way of surveying Vietcong missile and anti-aircraft sites.

Back in the early 1970s, a Vigilante Replacement Air Group was eventually stationed in Key West. RAGs are now called Fleet Replacement Squadrons, but their job is the same. They trained pilots for deployment. For war.

NAS Key West is still a training hotspot for Navy aviators the nation over, though the aircraft has changed over the years.

"We were all RAG instructors and Art was RAG skipper," Smittle said, meaning Skelly was the commanding officer of the RAG during those years after deployments.

Smittle is a retired lieutenant commander at NAS Key West, the same rank that Bankester retired at, though he flew the Vigilante after Vietnam. All made the Navy a career.

Skelly is also the former Monroe County Airports Director. He was succeeded by Peter Horton in 1988.

"Everything I know about airports I learned from Art," Horton said. "And he's got the most mathematical mind of anyone I've ever met."

The three Vigilante men -- McDonald couldn't make this weekly get together -- sat with their books of photos from Vietnam, but mostly it was memories that fueled the conversation.

Skelly and Smittle were pilots and Bankester was a reconnaissance attack navigator, meaning he sat in the back second seat and controlled the cameras and just about every technical piece of hardware and gizmo on the plane.

"Art and I had the easy job," Smittle said. "All we had to do was fly."

Skelly should know. He flew 260 combat missions over North Vietnam in the Vigilante, more than any other pilot of the same aircraft.

He poured over surveillance photos showing out anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missile sites.

One of Skelly's pictures shows the Thanh Hóa Bridge near the capital of Thanh Hoa province and everyone at the table immediately perked up.

"The French built that bridge and they did one hell of a job let me tell you," Skelly said. "We bombed and bombed that bridge and it stayed put."

Smittle added, "A walleye bomb finally took it out, I believe," referring to a bomb that glides into it's target, a first of the precision munitions that would later become America's primary bombs of choice.

Skelly shook his head in agreement.

One of his closest calls occurred in 1966 over Haiphong when Skelly's Vigilante and the F-4 fighter flying with him began taking heavy anti-craft fire. Skelly flew the Vigilante low over targets in order to capture quality pictures.

Skelly and his RAN, Lt. Joe Shevlin, were maneuvering around missiles as well as anti-aircraft fire when it became clear the they probably wouldn't make it through such heavy resistance. Skelly flew into a thunderstorm.

Storm clouds sometimes provided shelter for Vigilantes from enemy aircraft because the Soviet-made MiGs didn't fly as well in bad weather as well as hiding the plane from ground gunners.

The F-4 escort stayed on Skelly's wing and soon they went from being nearly shot out of the sky to being struck by lightning as bolts clashed around them as well as continuing anti-aircraft busts.

Skelly rolled the plant upside down attempting a maneuver commonly used by Vigilante pilots to make rapid descents and they blasted out the other side of the storm clouds upside down and far too low to the ground for comfort, but there was the F-4, right on his wing, also upside down.

What was going through enemy aircraft gunners when both planes appeared out of the thunder clouds inverted and far too close the ground remains a mystery.

"What was going through your mind," Bankester asked.

"What do you think? I was trying to keep my ass from being shot off," Skelly said to laughter.

Skelly nearly blacked out righting the plane, but he managed to get himself and his RAN back to their carrier without a scratch. That plane wasn't as lucky.

The Vigilante was full of bullet holes, Skelly said, noting the holes just behind of the cockpit.

"Had we been going just a little faster, we both would have been killed," Skelly said with a wry grin.

The Vigilante was eventually replaced by the 1980s-era F-14 Tomcat, but it remains part of the aviation history of NAS Key West particularly for four friends who loved flying the silver plane.

"You were still at 160 mph when you came in to land on a carrier," Skelly said smiling as a few restaurant patrons looked over. "It was better than a 75 cent ride at Disney World." alinhardt@keysnews.com

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