Destin man a combat-tested Air Force pilot

Mladen Rudman
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Hines flew F-4 fighter-bombers during the Vietnam War.

He has been shot at repeatedly and, almost as harrowing, lived through a crash landing after the main landing gear tires on his fighter blew out.

Today, Larry Hines, a former city of Destin councilman and software company owner, is enjoying retirement. Hines’s days in the cockpit of the F-4 Phantom and, later, F-15 Eagle offer vivid snippets into the life of an Air Force pilot.

Hines joined the service in 1967 and retired 20 years later. From August 1972 to August 1973, he was a 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Nite Owl,” flying nighttime interdiction strikes from the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand.

Hines’s targets were trucks using supply lines, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail, meandering from communist North Vietnam to American ally South Vietnam. He also flew strikes against boats moving men, food, medicine, ammunition, and other goods along rivers.

“We flew every day of the month,” he said. “It didn’t matter what day it was, what the weather was.”

Nor did the aircrews have night-vision goggles. They relied on their eyes and ability to distinguish shades of gray while searching for the enemy below.

Hines and his backseater flew as part of a two-ship formation. Sometimes he was a forward air controller, marking targets with incendiaries so that the other F-4 could drop bombs or cluster munitions. Other times, Hines made the bombing runs.

He was shot at regularly. The greatest threat to the F-4s was anti-aircraft artillery.

Though flying 184 combat missions, a vast majority of them at night, Hines’s aircraft was never hit. He, his crewmen and the other F-4 crew were always watching for tracers, which meant an enemy on the ground had opened fired.

Then, it was a matter of “jinking,” or maneuvering the big F-4 from the path of oncoming projectiles.

“It’s just going straight and you have to fly the airplane around it,” said the retired lieutenant colonel, about the anti-aircraft fire. “If you can see it coming, the probability is that you should be able to avoid it.”

Attacks against trucks on rainforest paths started as shallow dives and ended at roughly 3,000 feet above the ground with, ideally, the F-4 moving away at high speed.

A mission was more dangerous if Hines had to deliver “special ordnance,” mines dropped into a river to hamper boat movement.

They also had to fly slower to drop mines, which exposed aircrews and their multi-million dollar aircraft to even AK-47 assault rifle fire.

A typical mission profile for Hines included dropping bombs on foes. The 11 missions that he flew during Operation Linebacker II, a December 1972 bombing campaign designed to force North Vietnam to restart peace negotiations, were different. The fighter pilot dispensed chaff to blind North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile radar sites. The clouds of chaff deployed in the vicinity of Hanoi were intended to protect B-52 bombers from SAMs.

It was during a Linebacker II sortie that Hines and his flight of F-4s had an encounter with an enemy aircraft.

Looking out the cockpit at the ground, Hines spotted the glow of an afterburning jet engine in what appeared to be a steep climb. The sighting was broadcast to his formation.

Some moments later, the trailing bogey fired two missiles at the F-4s. Both missed. A Phantom flying combat air patrol responded with an antiaircraft missile of its own.

“I saw the missile come off the F-4 and I saw the MiG blow up,” said Hines.

After Hines’s distinguished tour in Vietnam, he received other assignments. Among them was serving with an England-based F-4 wing that periodically pulled nuclear alert watches.

For a man used to seeing many drab-colored bombs hanging from wing racks and the fuselage, the presence of a sole silver, polished, and bulky B61 nuclear bomb along the centerline of the F-4 was memorable.

“It looked like something that came out of a showroom,” he said. “It leaves an impression.”

Hines eventually transitioned to flying the F-15. At one point he was responsible for testing the new fighter as it came off the McDonnell Douglas production line.

He had to make sure each airplane conformed to military specifications. One didn’t.

On landing, the aircraft’s antilock braking system failed. Hines resorted to using the pneumatically powered backup system, which locked the main landing gear wheels.

After the blowout, Hines had one goal, “I said to myself, ‘Just keep the airplane on the runway.’ ”

For approximately 3,000 feet that’s what he managed. The F-15, however, eventually started to rotate and then slipped off the runway, burying a wing. Hines popped the canopy and jumped to the ground. He wanted to put distance between himself and the machine in case of fire.

He described the mishap as otherworldly. The retired officer felt blessed because he was lucky to be alive. He was amazed that the F-15 stayed upright during the skid and departure from the runway.

“It was in slow motion,” said Hines. “I was a passenger. Basically, it came down to God and friction.”