Although the Crusader was built primarily as a Navy interceptor, as has often been the tradition with American fighters, a photo reconnaissance variant was also produced by Vought. Boasting high speed and the traditional “long legs” associated with all Navy aircraft, the Crusader was effectively converted into a reconnaissance platform by removing the four 20mm guns under the cockpit. In their place, an equal number of camera positions have been introduced into an enlarged and flattened belly. The photobird’s first operational test came in the fall of 1962 when its overflights of Cuba alerted the world to the likely presence of medium-range ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island.
The Recce Crusader’s next action came during the long years of the Vietnam War, when the Vought jet assumed the role of the US Navy’s main light photographic platform throughout the nine-year conflict. Forty-nine carrier det deployed between October 1963 and January 1974, with 20 RF-8s lost in action.
As Peter Mersky recounts in his book RF-8 Crusader Units over Cuba and Vietnam, with the January 27, 1973 ceasefire, US, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese forces ceased fighting. The following months included the long-awaited return of American prisoners of war and the clearance of the various North Vietnamese waterways that had been jettisoned from May 1972.
The next two years saw an uneasy peace as the struggling South Vietnamese government, now devoid of much of the physical presence of American support, balanced precariously between independence and the inevitable resurgence of activity. Communist. Neighboring Cambodia and Laos were in constant turmoil, and by early 1975 the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, was lost.
The Communists pushed into South Vietnam and headed for Saigon. There was little America could do to prevent the takeover, and the United States turned its attention to withdrawing its people and some of the South Vietnamese who had worked for American interests during the war.
Task Force 77 and its ships departed Saigon, sending helicopters into the besieged city. Hancock and Coral Sea—along with Enterprise and Midway—launched protection missions to monitor and CAP the Navy and Marine “helicopters” as they moved in and out with their human cargoes.
The VFP detachments of the smaller carriers occasionally carried out reconnaissance missions, but it was clear that their work was done. A month later, Coral Sea’s RF-8Gs covered the unexpected confrontation between Cambodian and American units during the Mayaguez incident, but it was an anti-climactic end to the photobird’s stellar career.
The RF-8Gs continued to serve until June 1982, when the VFP-63 was decommissioned, leaving the Navy without a viable tactical reconnaissance aircraft for the first time in nearly 40 years. The much-vaunted F-14 TARPS (Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System) failed to live up to expectations, especially in the ultimate tests of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And Tomcat crews trying their hand at the recognition lacked somewhat intangible pride and morale.
The Photo-Crusader had a full career in the Naval Air Reserve from 1970 to 1987, equipping two squadrons at the Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C. VFP-206 and -306 carried on the traditions of fleet photos, initially attracting many former Crusaders of the fleet pilots, both fighter and photo, as well as many young aviators who were eager to add Crusader time to their logbooks. But the Crusader, in its reconnaissance variant, retired from service in March 1987, leaving behind an impressive record in peace and war, especially since few squadrons flew the RF-8.
Indeed, from 1968, only the VFP-63 kept the RF-8G as main equipment. Of 1261 Crusaders produced, 144 were Photo-Crusaders, of which 73 were remanufactured as RF-8Gs. Some 20 RF-8s were lost in combat, all in Vietnam, and another 14 were lost in operational accidents – non-combat. No RF-8s were lost to North Vietnamese MiGs, and all losses were Navy aircraft, with the Marine Corps VMCJ-1 losing no RF-8As – the only model that it flew in combat (only the VMJ-4 reserve squadron flew ‘Golfs’ at all) – although several Marine Corps aircraft were damaged by flak. Five VFP-63 airmen were killed in action, including one missing. Six others became prisoners of war, including one, Lieutenant Charles Klusmann, who eventually escaped after three months.
The Photo-Crusader, unlike other dedicated reconnaissance aircraft (with the possible exception of the RA-5C Vigilante), created a need and a product, as well as a myth, which grew, became developed, matured and died in a short, but intense, 20 year career. The RF-8 has had a career beyond its production figures. In an unpopular war, the pilots (supported by their dedicated ground crews) of the VFP and VMCJ Det flew in all conditions, often when their compatriots from other squadrons were grounded for weather or political reasons. Neither the men nor the machines were lacking, even in the most difficult moments. The men who flew the RF-8 series were true heroes and represented the best naval aviation had to offer. They piloted a machine that suited the job that needed to be done at the time. It is unlikely that we will see such a fair combination again in military aviation.
RF-8 Crusader Units over Cuba and Vietnam is published by Osprey Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: US Navy