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January 23, 2024

Profiles of Valor: LTC Robert Pardo (USAF)

Pardo’s Push — never leave your wingman.

Most fighter pilots and some aircraft enthusiasts have heard of “Pardo’s Push,” but in honor of Air Force fighter pilot and Texas native Bob Pardo, who died last month, I invite you to read about this daring maneuver to save his wingmen.

Kids, don’t try this one at home!

In 1967, then-Capt. Bob Pardo and his Weapon Systems Officer 1st Lt. Steve Wayne, and wingman Capt. Earl Aman and his WSO 1st Lt. Robert Houghton, were assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. On March 10, they and another two-ship of Phantoms were assigned to attack a steel mill just north of Hanoi.

It was a clear day, which meant good visibility in the air but also good visibility of the fighters from the ground. Indeed, both of the F-4 Phantom IIs were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Pardo recounted, “We took at least one hit, maybe two, right in the belly of the airplane.” One of the rounds severed his wingman’s fuel lines, and while an explosion was averted, Aman was losing fuel fast.

There was no way Aman and WSO Houghton could get to the nearest KC-135 tanker aircraft for more JP 4 fuel, and they were certain they would have to bail out over enemy territory. Yet Pardo devised a daring strategy to ensure his wingman’s aircraft would make it back over friendly territory so they would not be killed or taken as POWs after bailing out.

According to Pardo: “I knew if I didn’t do anything, they would have to eject over North Vietnam into enemy territory, and that would have resulted in their capture for sure. At that time, if you were captured by civilians, you were probably going to be murdered on the spot.”

Pardo first tried to do something bold that had never been attempted before — push Aman’s tail drag chute compartment with his plane’s bulkhead nosecone — but the turbulence across the fuselage of Aman’s plane made that impossible.

Pardo backed off to assess the situation and he radioed his wingman, “Aman, drop your tailhook.” Aman replied, “What?” Pardo: “Your tailhook. Drop it.” Fortunately, because the Phantom was originally designed for Navy and Marine Corps operations off of carrier decks, all the planes were equipped with heavy arresting tailhooks. As Aman shut his idle engines down to avoid fire, Pardo then moved in behind the disabled Phantom in order to find a way to engage the hook and push his wingman to safety.

Flying at about 270 knots, Pardo used the forward steel frame of his canopy windscreen just forward of the cockpit to push Aman’s tailhook. It worked, but because of the swing alignment of Aman’s tailhook and the curvature of Pardo’s nosecone, the tailhook would slide off about every 30 seconds, requiring that Pardo reposition and reconnect. “I had to fight to get it back in place,” he recalled.

Aman’s WSO Houghton, in disbelief, later observed, “If [Pardo] so much as bumped the windshield, he would have had that tailhook in his face.” Indeed, deep cracks had formed in Pardo’s inch-thick windscreen after a few taps from the tailhook.

Not far from friendly territory, a fire in one of Pardo’s two J79 jet engines necessitated shutting that engine down. For the remaining 10 minutes required to get to safe airspace, he managed, with his starboard engine at full throttle, to slow the rate of descent for both of their aircraft from 3,000 feet per minute to 1,500 FPM. “We continued to push and it got us where we needed to go,” he said.

With his own plane running out of fuel and having pushed Aman’s Phantom almost 90 miles into Laotian airspace at 6,000 feet, the planes separated and both pilots and WSOs safely ejected. The Laotian villages, thinking these were enemy aircraft, shot at the airmen, but after about two hours of evasion, an HH-53 helicopter arrived for the rescue.

Pardo’s commanding officer, Lt. Gen. William Wallace “Spike” Momyer, reprimanded him for the daring effort, noting, “This act should be punished because it was reckless and showed a lack of flight discipline.” And that reprimand stood … until…

Both Pardo and Aman completed their Vietnam tours, Pardo with 132 combat missions, and they retired from the Air Force in 1974 as Lieutenant Colonels. Two decades after what would become famously known as “Pardo’s Push,” a military review board reexamined the incident, and both Pardo and his WSO Wayne were awarded Silver Stars for their actions that March day long ago. That was in addition to Pardo’s other earned awards, a Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Air Medal with 12 Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Meritorious Service Medal.

After retirement, Pardo says: “I am frequently asked, ‘How did you have the courage to make the decision, knowing that the windshield could break at any time?’ My dad taught me that when your friend needs help, you help. I couldn’t have come home and told him I didn’t even try anything because that’s exactly what he would have asked me. He would’ve said, ‘Did you try?’”

Learning that his former wingman was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Pardo raised funds to assist Aman with a voice synthesizer, a motorized wheelchair, and a van to accommodate his disability.

Bob Pardo died on December 5, 2023. His son, John Pardo, says of his dad: “He is a legend, but his legacy is the thing he did, and you can do things like that. It doesn’t have to be pushing somebody’s airplane. You can find opportunities every day to help somebody. His character was one of outstanding individuals, his principles were unparalleled, and his love for his country was utmost in his mind.”

Capt Bob Pardo and 1st Lt Steve Wayne, your example of valor — American Patriots defending your fellow warriors and Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own safety — is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

(You can listen to Bob Pardo recount the incident and a current fighter pilot’s fuller narration of the event.)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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