Sometimes during hostile events, a single person emerges with an inspiring act of heroism. On March 10, 1967, that person was U.S. Air Force Captain Bob Pardo.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. Air Force Captain Bob Pardo, piloting a F-4 Phantom, carried out a remarkable aviation maneuver now known as Pardo’s Push. Pardo and his wingman, Captain Earl Aman, were sent on a mission to attack the well-defended Thai Nguyen steel mill north of Hanoi, North Vietnam, with intelligence reports warning them of the dangers they would face in the sky during this important effort.
Roughly 75 miles from the steel mill target, Aman’s F-4 experienced deadly flak from anti-aircraft shell, fiercely shaking the fighter jet as it approached. Through antiaircraft blackened skies and an instantaneous check of his aircraft, Aman continued the mission, staying on course and flying into enemy fire bombs on the target alongside other F-4 and F-105 fighter jets. Aman felt the power of two direct hits, and soon realized he was in serious trouble over a very hostile North Vietnam.
Pardo’s F-4 received heavy anti-aircraft fire as he also made a run at the steel mill, and was hit a second time by a 37mm round to the fuselage as he exited the target. Though heavily damaged and losing fuel, his F-4 was still handling remarkably well. The pair radioed their element leader who proposed a route south of Hanoi in hopes of in-flight refueling, but Aman’s F-4 was rapidly losing fuel – it could not reach the tanker aircraft or make it 90 miles to relative safety at the Laotian border… ejection would be necessary over hostile territory.
“As we flew over the target, we took at least one hit, maybe two right in the belly of the airplane,” recalled Pardo during an interview with 1stCombatCamera for the Veterans in Blue Series. “Just as we started rolling out, our number four man [Aman] got hit again. When number four [Aman] checked in, he checked in with bingo minus 5,000 which meant he had 2,000 pounds left, which was not enough gas for him to get out of North Vietnam.”
Preserving fuel meant climbing to 30,000 feet, then gliding once the fuel ran out to cover as much of the 90 miles to safety as possible before ejecting. As fast as Aman was losing fuel, Pardo was not convinced he had enough fuel to make the glide successful – he was concerned for his wingman. If Aman was to eject at that moment, it was certain he would become a prisoner of war, most likely facing death at the hands of the enemy. “My dad taught me that when your friend needs help, you help,” Pardo staunchly stated. “I couldn’t have come home and told him I didn’t even try anything because that is exactly what he would’ve asked me – he would’ve said ‘did you try?’, so I had to be able to answer that with a yes.”
Pardo’s father served in the National Guard, his oldest brother served in the Navy and his younger brother served in the Air Force during the Korean War. The family was well versed in the importance of trust and camaraderie during combat. “As we were climbing up, I started thinking, ‘what can I possibly do to help get this guy out of North Vietnam’ – because North Vietnam was nothing but rice paddies.”
Pardo radioed Aman telling him to jettison his drag chute, allowing Pardo to slide his plane under Aman’s and position the nose of his F-4 into the empty drag chute receptacle. The attempt failed, so Pardo moved on to positioning the top of his F-4’s fuselage against the belly of Aman’s F-4 – but again, the attempt failed due to immense jet wash.
“As I was backing out, I was looking up at the belly of his airplane and then all of the sudden the tail of his airplane and there was the tail hook,” Pardo explained. These steel tail hooks were specifically designed to latch onto barrier cables, slowing momentum for emergency landings on US Navy ships. “I had him lower the tail hook and I moved in under him and put his tail hook in the middle of our windshield and started to add power,” Pardo remarked.
Aman’s fuel level continued to plummet, now registering at 400 pounds while the aircraft dropped 3,000 feet per minute. Flying at 300 miles per hour, Pardo carefully approached Aman’s F-4, positioned his nose under the rear end of his plane, and with delicate pushes from his inch-thick glass windscreen, a few seconds at a time, Pardo successfully slowed Aman’s descent.
Persistent nudging cracked the F-4s windscreen, forcing Pardo to push from a different location – the metal square between the windscreen and the radome. When Aman’s engines flamed out, jet wash was eliminated, allowing consistent contact with the tail hook and for Pardo to push for longer – tripling Aman’s glide range and decreasing the rate of descent to 1,000 feet per minute.
The hits Pardo’s plane took complicated the effort when he lost his left engine to an internal fire. Miraculously, the pair of F-4s were able to maintain their course – Pardo continuing to push Aman further away from North Vietnam all the while – inching closer to the relative safety of the Laotian border before ejection was necessary. The 58 mile push journey ended just across the Black River where Aman ejected, while Pardo continued south for approximately one minute, then banked northwest hoping to make an attempt at a belly landing at a top-secret U.S. Armed Forces base camp runway strip. Pardo ran out of fuel, as a result, he was also forced to punch out.
Once rescued and flown to safety, Pardo was met with criticism and a formal reprimand for his bravery. Air Force leadership implied Pardo’s concern should have focused on his multi-million dollar F-4 Phantom’s safe return – not the livelihood and safe return of Aman. Pardo faced a court martial for his efforts to save his fellow serviceman, sparking outrage by his Wing Commander, Colonel Robin Olds. Olds refused to allow the court-martial against Pardo to move forward, composing a compromise agreement – the matter would be dropped as long as Pardo did not receive accolades for the push.
In the 1980s, an aide to U.S. Senator John Tower discovered the bravery Pardo exhibited during the Push had never received accolades and felt something was deserved. Still upset over the loss of the two Phantom’s, the Air Force awarded Pardo the Silver Star for his heroic maneuver. Pardo explained, “It [the Silver Star] means a lot, especially having had the honor of serving in combat. I can guarantee you it makes me feel better about who I am.”
Aman, who also survived his ejection during combat, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1994. Soon after his diagnosis, thedisease paralyzed him, leaving him unable to work and pay for his medical bills. Pardo, following his father’s advice as he had years earlier in North Vietnam, established the Earl Aman Fund, bringing in donations to pay for Aman’s medical bills, a voice synthesizer and an electric wheelchair. Aman later passed away in 1998.
Pardo looks back on his time in the service fondly. “Most of us who served in Vietnam placed our lives in jeopardy from time to time,” he said. “I guess I, and others, were willing to sacrifice our lives if needed. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to, but I would do it all over again if asked.”