“Major John R. Pardo distinguished himself by gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force over North Vietnam on 10 March 1967. On that date, Major Pardo was flying as the pilot of the lead element on the return from a 1,000 mile flight in which heavy flak damage was encountered. He noticed that his wingman’s aircraft was in trouble and was advised that the aircraft was extremely low on fuel. Realizing that the wingman’s aircraft would not make it out of North Vietnam, Major Pardo implemented maneuvers to literally push the aircraft across the border. The attempt was successful and consequently allowed the crew to avoid becoming prisoners of war. By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Major Pardo has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force”.
Silver Star Citation for Major John R. (Robert) Pardo
The Pardo Push
The citation awarding the Silver Star to Major John R (“Bob”) Pardo was considered long overdue when it was made in 1989.
The story of what became known as the Pardo Push is one of incredible courage and ingenuity in the air over hostile territory.
On March 10, 1967, then Captain Bob Pardo and his wingman Captain Earl Aman along with their weapons systems officers, 1st Lt Steve Wayne and 1st Lt Robert Houghton, were taking part in a bombing raid over North Vietnam in two Phantom F-4 jets.
They were assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, flying out of the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand.
Their mission on 10 March had two parts: First, they were to escort the main strike force of F-4s and F-105s against North Vietnamese MiGs. Second, they were to attack a steel mill used to produce war materials.
The mission had been ready for nine days but was delayed by constant bad weather. The sky was clear on 10 March and the mission was under way.
It wasn’t long – and still far from the target – before the planes ran into anti-aircraft fire. The F-4 with Aman and Houghton aboard took the biggest hit. Both men weren’t injured and the F-4 was still able to fly.
Opting to continue the mission, Aman and Houghton took part in the attack on the steel mill along with the other planes.
As they had thought, the steel mill was heavily protected. Several American aircraft were shot down.
The F-4 flown by Aman and Houghton took two more hits. The F-4 flown by Pardo and Wayne also came under heavy fire.
Aman and Houghton saw their plane was losing fuel and turned it towards a rendezvous point with a tanker plane flying above Laos. But the fuel was emptying fast and making the rendezvous point was out of the question.
Aman and Houghton prepared to bail out over enemy territory.
Pardo and Wayne’s plane also had been hit during their run on the steel mill And they were hit again as they pulled away. Their plane’s fuselage was hit just near the pilot’s seat.
Even though warning systems showed the plane was severely damaged– electrical systems were failing and fuel was leaking – Pardo was still able to fly it.
Both pilots took their planes up to 30,000 feet to save fuel and allow a longer glide path if the engines failed.
They were by themselves, high above enemy territory between North Vietnam’s Red and Black Rivers as the surviving planes from the mission headed back to Ubon. Aman’s fuel loss was becoming critical and he and Houghton prepared to bail out to face death or capture.
Pardo immediately hatched a daring plan. He called on Aman to jettison his drag chute.
Pardo then tried to put the nose of his plane into the empty drag chute receptacle of Aman’s F-4 and push the plane away. But there was too much jet engine wash and Pardo could not get into position.
Again, Aman and Houghton prepared to bail. But Pardo wasn’t done.
Time for plan B.
Pardo later recalled: “I looked up and there was the tail hook. I thought, ‘What do we have to lose?’
He called on Aman to drop the plane’s tail hook.
The steel tail hooks were fitted for use in emergency landings to snag barrier cables, in the same way aircraft carriers catch planes.
Pardo’s outlandish – and untried – plan was to use the hook to push the crippled jet.
Flying at 300 miles per hour, Pardo directed his plane’s nose up under the tail of Aman’s plane to put the windscreen against the tail hook. This was dangerous – if the glass broke, the tail hook would smash into Pardo.
Even though turbulence meant the manoeuvre had to be repeated several times, Pardo managed to slow the descent of Aman’s plane.
But then the windscreen began to crack. Pardo opted for a new approach – push the tail hook with the metal frame of the cockpit.
Pardo continued to push the other fighter a few seconds at a time. The rate of descent of Aman’s F-4 was cut from 3,000 to 1,500 feet per minute.
The engines on Aman’s F-4 flamed out. But there was an upside – the jet wash was no long a hazard to the delicate push manoeuvre.
It looked like that with a decreased rate of descent, some controlled gliding and some nudging from behind, Aman and Houghton had a chance to reach safety.
But more drama was to come. The jet flown by Pardo had been damaged in the raid. Suddenly an alert told him one of his engines was on fire. He had to shut it down.
That left one engine to fly the two planes. And the rate of descent of Aman’s jet was increasing again. Pardo’s fuel was dangerously low and the tankers were too far away to get to him in time.
Pardo recalled: “It got a little discouraging after about 10 minutes because our left engine caught fire and we had to shut it down. We continued to push and it got us where we needed to go.”
Bailing out for both crews was now the only option. They called in their positions to the air search-and-rescue crews
Both aircrews ejected safely, though injured, over the Laotian border and were all rescued in less than two hours by HH-53 “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters.
Ironically, Pardo first was reprimanded for the loss of his F-4 and could have faced a court-martial. A review of the incident two decades later resulted in all four airmen being given significant awards.
Pardo said: “They lost eight airplanes that day, but the four of us were the only ones that made it back. What the general didn’t understand was we had already got what we wanted, which was our friends.”
Bob Pardo and Steve Wayne received Silver Stars for their heroic actions. Earl Aman and Robert Houghton received the Silver Star for continuing to press the attack even though their plane was badly damaged.
Pardo and Aman completed their Air Force careers, both retiring in the rank of lieutenant colonel. Later, Pardo heard that Aman had Lou Gehrig’s disease and had lost his voice and mobility. He created the Earl Aman Foundation that raised enough money to buy Aman a voice synthesizer, a motor-powered wheelchair and a computer. The foundation and the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association later raised funds to pay for a van, which Aman used for transportation until his death.
The flight manoeuvre was later the subject of an episode of the TV program JAG.