Unfriendly skies: 'Sandy' cheated death in 'Nam

Courtesy photo<br> 
George Marrett with a Douglas Skyraider in 1968. The jet fighter test pilot traded jets for these slower, armored planes when he became an Air Force rescue pilot in 1968.

Courtesy photo<br> George Marrett with a Douglas Skyraider in 1968. The jet fighter test pilot traded jets for these slower, armored planes when he became an Air Force rescue pilot in 1968.

PRESCOTT - Most military pilots want the latest and greatest aircraft around when they go into hostile airspace.

George J. Marrett went into combat in something a little different.

In his discussion at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Davis Learning Center Wednesday, he described flying for a U.S. Air Force unit in Vietnam, the 602nd Fighter Squadron (C) - for "commando" - that rescued downed USAF and Navy pilots.

Marrett, who had been test-flying hot jets like the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in the early 1960s, in 1968 found himself over Vietnam and Laos in a World War II-vintage Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a straight-wing, propeller-driven ground-attack aircraft.

In his Skyraider, named "Sock it to 'Em," a reference to the TV show "Laugh-In," he would respond to reports of pilots downed in hot zones from a base in Thailand. Marrett, callsign "Sandy," flew with a wingman and a full armament load, and would search for the missing man, then call in a rescue helicopter to pick up the victim.

"Any aircraft that's in combat" that goes down, he said, "the rescue becomes number one" priority.

He described his first mission in vivid detail, explaining how he, as Sandy-4, ended up as the lead aircraft when Sandy-1 and Sandy-3 were hit by enemy fire.

Sandy-1 returned to base, but 3 went down, and night was approaching.

"Now there's two guys on the ground, and it's dark," he said.

The next morning, Marrett was put in charge of the rescue flight.

It took three days to make the rescue. They managed to do it, but not before a U.S. F-4 Phantom jet dropped a bomb a little too close to one of the pilots. "Now he's bleeding and he's kind of mad that the Air Force bombed him," Marrett said. Finally, a helicopter got in and got them out.

That was his trial by fire, but later missions went more according to plan, and, in his year of cheating death, he ended up completing 188 missions with over 600 combat flying hours and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

It wasn't all serious flying, though. One day, Marrett, knowing that his heavy, armored, piston-driven plane would take a while to get to altitude, decided to eat a banana on the way up.

The snack started off badly when he found that the end of the banana was bruised, and, after taking a bite, he wanted to get rid of it.

But then Marrett couldn't figure out what to do with the mushy mess - he couldn't just spit it out onto the floor. Then he realized that, unlike jet fighters, the Skyraider's cockpit canopy could be opened in flight.

"I can spit that baby out," he said. He opened the canopy, spit hard, and found himself covered with banana.

When he landed, the ground crew was not impressed. "'Did you fly through a banana tree?'" they asked him.

A crew member pointed out that the propeller's rotation made the airflow off the left side come back into the cockpit.

The next flight, he found a sign on the instrument panel: "Jet pilots: Please spit out the right side."

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