May 24, 2023

Profiles of Valor: Col. Victor Simpson

From Vietnam to Desert Storm: A view from the cockpit.

Col. Victor Simpson piloted one of the last bombing missions during the Vietnam War and flew fighters for the next 25 years. What follows are a few accounts of his flying experience, in his own words.

I was drawn to his observations not because they detail the most high-profile air-combat actions but because his reflections are typical of the day-to-day accounts I have heard from many pilots over the years. “Typical” for his occupation, but not by any other occupational standard, because every time they strap into these birds, it is deadly, and doing so is of itself valorous.

After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Victor joined the Marine Corps in 1969. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who served in the Corps during World War II and Korea. He signed on and completed his flight training just in time to be shipped out to Vietnam weeks before the end of that War.

Simpson notes: “I was stationed in Thailand and we were flying sorties into Cambodia in our F-4 ‘Phantom’ jet fighters. They were still fighting and we were bombing enemy artillery and tanks. There was very little shooting at our planes. We would fly in and drop our 500-pound bombs at 1,500 feet and fly out. As soon as we dropped our bombs we’d fly high because most of their defense was small arms fire. Generally four of our planes would attack a target.”

A few weeks later, Simpson’s squadron flew from Thailand to Okinawa and Naha Air Base there. He made it back to the states in 1974 and became a Navy/Marine flight instructor at a base in Mississippi. After serving as an instructor pilot, Simpson was transferred to the Marine airbase in El Toro, California. It was at this point his squadron got updated F-4s that made them capable of landing on smaller carrier decks.

But he found out the hard way that cat launches were not always up to speed: “Myself and my RIO in the back seat, Jim Ardaiolo, were flying just another night flight by VMFA-531 off the carrier Coral Sea in the Indian Ocean during a cruise we took in 1979-80. The routine for the F-4N CAT Shot is full afterburners with full back stick. The shot is designed to give the aircraft about 10 knots airspeed above minimum flying speed for the aircraft weight at launch. As I went through the routine of moving the stick slightly forward to establish climb attitude I felt the nose of the plane continue to go up. At that point I slowly fed in some left rudder which brought the nose down enough to establish a routine climb and power us out of a stall.”

What happened? “After we returned from our mission the CAT office was waiting for us in the ready room. He apologized and said just as our launch was made he noticed a drop in catapult launch pressure which reduced our minimum flying speed by 10 percent. It was the brute force of the J-79 engines in the F-4 that made it the great plane it was. It was this force that kept a positive rate of climb during an approaching stall condition and powered us out of what could have been a disastrous ending.”

Just another day at the office.

After the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980, Simpson’s Marine squadron transitioned from the F-4 Phantom to the F-18 Hornet.

Recalling one of his first F-18 missions, he said: “The F-18 had improved avionics. We were out there to fly cover for the helicopters that were going to rescue our hostages. I was number one on the flight deck ready to take off when our mission was called off.”

That rescue mission was a disaster after several of the aircraft positioned in the desert collided.

A decade later, Simpson was back in the desert with “Operation Desert Storm” in January of 1991 under President George H. W. Bush.

“I was on the first mission of the Gulf War. On this initial flight we were going after Iraqi air defense. We started off bombing Kuwait at night with lots of airplanes. We took out their missiles and RADAR. They fired tons of missiles at us.”

The bombing restrictions were much different then when he flew bombing missions in Vietnam.

“In Operation Desert Storm they told us to go fight the war. We had improved bomb sites that allowed us to drop bombs right on target at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. I few 40- or 50 combat missions during the Gulf War. We flew two or three times a day.”

Simpson’s squadron and other air support units bombed enemy targets for 42 days before the ground war started, at which time they provided air support for our troops. “Once the ground war started our job with the Marines was close air support. We flew down low to support our troops and took out enemy artillery and tanks. We had a lot of triple-A coming our way. We were lucky because our group never lost an airplane. Two of our planes were hit by enemy fire.”

Late in his career, Simpson was commander of an air group (five squadrons), and he ended his military career in the Pentagon as Director of Space Systems. As a civilian, he spent the next 18 years in Colorado working for civilian space contractors.

His commendations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (2 Awards), Meritorious Service Medal (2 Awards), Air Medal-Individual Action (W-Combat “V”), Air Medal (w/5 Strike/Flights), Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Unit Commendation (2 Awards), Meritorious Unit Commendation (3 Awards), Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2 Awards), Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal (3 Awards), Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (3 Awards), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia), Kuwait Liberation Medal, and Letter of Commendation (2 Awards).

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

(Thanks to Don Moore and David Yuzuk, author of The Giant Killers, for this profile.)

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