I met Dan Petkunas at Valencia Corner Bakery and was instantly intrigued as he expressed his life experiences. When I told him, he’s the first Vietnam War fighter pilot I’ve interviewed he proudly relied, “cool”. It was enjoyable sharing our Vietnam War experiences.
Lumberjack or Pilot?
Dan was born February 2, 1948 in Chicago, Illinois where he grew up and graduated from Proviso West High School in June 1966. Dan attended the University of Illinois at Urbana and graduated June 1970 and through his ROTC membership, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant at that time. From age 10, Dan thought one day he would be either a lumberjack or a pilot but as he matured he realized he didn’t want to cut down trees. Becoming a fighter pilot was fixed during college and afterwards, Dan went to Navigator Training at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, California for 9 months. Dan chose “to fly a plane with a gun” when given the choice of which plane he preferred, he selected the F4 Phantom II. F4 Phantom II production ran from 1958 to 1981, with 5,195 built, making it the most numerous American supersonic military aircraft.
Flash of Claustrophobia
Next, Dan went to George Air Force Base in Victorville for six months to learn flying F4’s. As Dan first was fully strapped into an F4 cockpit, a massive sense of claustrophobia hit him like a flash and he promptly realized he must get over it if he was to fly F4’s. Dan graduated as an F4 Weapons System Officer in January 1972. Following graduation at George, 22 graduates were asked where they preferred to serve, England or Thailand. Dan chuckled as he recalled that 20 graduates volunteered for Thailand, which was granted, but the other two who selected England were instead sent to South Vietnam. Next, Dan was sent to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State for two weeks of General Survival Training and then a one week Jungle Training course in the Philippines. Dan and his fellow pilots were instructed to thoroughly conceal themselves in the jungle while Filipino troops search them out. Remarkably, Dan was caught merely because his boot polish odor gave him away.
From Urbana to Udorn
After jungle training, Dan was assigned to the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base where F4 Phantom fighter jets operated combat missions over North Vietnam and down to the Mekong Delta. Once at Udorn, Dan and his fellow newly trained F4 pilots went through combat orientation and days later began flying bombing runs and missions to protect B52 Bombers, A7’s, F105’s and other F4’s. Dan’s job, as a Weapons System Officer was flying back seat – both pilots controlled their F4. At Udorn, Dan watched F4’s return from their missions and he was both awestruck and relieved at just how many actually returned because he remembered movies of WWII bombing runs when so many U.S. planes were routinely shot down. During 1972, the 13th Squadron adopted as their mascot a panther nicknamed “Eldridge” after Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
222 Combat Missions
Dan figures he spent at least seven of his nine lives during his one year tour of duty flying 222 combat missions as he experienced a number of close calls. 382 F4’s were shot down during the Vietnam War. Here are a few. After dropping bombs over North Vietnam, they dropped their F4 down to 50’ to 100’ elevation clicking along at 600 knots. Suddenly Dan noticed a sizable hill looming ahead which his pilot obviously didn’t see, so Dan calmly eased their F4 up barely missing it. His pilot passively said, “thank you.” On a night mission over North Vietnam requiring full blackout – no external lights – his pilot lost sight of their wingman. Again, Dan saved the day just in the nick of time spotting the plane and instantly rolling their F4 over and away to avoid collision. Back at Udorn, neither pilot nor the other F4 crew said a word. Clearly, they were freaked out. But the most notable close call came on July 30, 1972, during an escort mission with an F4 Recon team assigned to photograph over Hanoi. Flying over North Vietnam required refueling over the Gulf of Tonkin and when flying over Hanoi, the safest route was flying low and slow behind a ridge north of Hanoi, nicknamed Thud Ridge. Once past it, immediately climb to 9,000 feet and kick up to 600 knots to avoid the NVA’s missiles and anti aircraft flak, but drop down to 100 feet at 900 knots over Hanoi. It was dangerous beyond belief especially flying low dodging ridge after ridge returning back to the Gulf for refueling. Their refuel plane was in sight over the Gulf when they flat ran out of fuel and had to eject into pitch blackness over water. Parachuting down, Dan’s thought if they landed close to land the NVA’s would reach them before our Navy could. Thankfully, a U.S. Marine helicopter incredibly retrieved them 30 minutes later as Dan believed no one would ever find them.
Linebacker II and Love
Ordered by President Nixon, from December 18 to 29, 1972, Dan’s squadron supported Linebacker II, also known as “The Christmas Bombings”, a maximum bombing campaign to destroy major Hanoi and Haiphong military complexes. This hair raising heavy bomber campaign was the largest by our U.S. Air Force since World War II. Dan spotted a B52’s right wing hit by an NVA missile and saw it go down in flames. Among numerous awards Dan received are the Distinguished Flying Cross w/2 Devices. But the highlight of Dan’s tour of duty at Udorn, which ended January 1973, was falling in love with Tem Nuankathok, whom he married in November 1973 at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. They’ve been married 43 years and have two sons and one grandchild. Following retirement from the Air Force, Dan worked as a contracts manager until 2011 and these days, Dan enjoys bicycling, the gym, playing poker, and visiting Tem’s family in Thailand.