Electronic Warfare Officers: The Bad News Bears

The real key to the Weasel mission was the guy in the back seat - the "Bear". The Bear, more formally known as an electronic warfare officer (EWO), was trained to understand and operate in an electronic environment. He knew how to identify and react to electronic signals and to distinguish between friendly and hostile radio emissions. He was very proficient in the use of the weapons, even though he didn’t actually fire them himself, because it was up to the Bear to yell "shoot!"

In addition to monitoring radar threats on various scopes, the Bear listened intently to hundreds of strange signals emitted by North Vietnamese radars. To his trained ear, each sound was quite distinct and contributed to a mental image of how radar operators on the ground were responding to the incoming strike force. It would have been impossible for the pilot alone to effectively digest the dense signal patterns over North Vietnam. But the Bear could focus solely on pinpointing the location of enemy threats, instantly prioritize them, and recommend a course of action.

The Wild Weasels could detect radar signals beyond the 17-mile range of enemy SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), but they needed to close in to pinpoint the exact location. In the initial stage, a device called a panoramic scan receiver indicated the direction the plane should follow in order to close in. The signals emitted from the Soviet Fan Song radar trailers grew stronger as the distance grew shorter. Then the second phase kicked in, and the shorter range vector homing and ranging set began to home in on the radar installation. The electronic warfare officer compared readings to ensure they were on the proper heading and to gauge the remaining distance. The crew then began to search visually for the SAM position.

The Critical Importance of Good Teamwork

Teamwork was critical for the success and survival of Wild Weasel crews. The slightest bit of strife between the pilot and his back seater could ultimately pose a threat to an entire strike force. The EWO and his pilot had to live in harmony. You could not afford to have these two guys bickering with each other. Air Force staff tried to find out which guys really gravitated toward each other. This was normally discovered at the bar.

The pilots and their back seaters were allowed to pair up into teams, based on their own preferences. From that point forward, the crews lived, ate, socialized, slept and trained together, in order to develop close bonds. Trust between the Bear and the pilot was the single most important element of their relationship. Many back seaters had never set foot in a high performance jet fighter - let alone one that was threatened in combat, and many of the pilots had never flown with or wanted to fly with a back seater. In fact, many opposed the idea at first, but there was simply no choice in the matter. Weasel missions required the skill and attention of both men.

Weasel aircraft had a hot mic - the airmen could even hear each other breathe. Whenever one of them had something to say, they talked. Successful Pilot/EWO pairs were good friends, they understood each other, they were able to speak to each other, the interactions between them were perfect - and they survived. That was the reason for having guys team up, so that they could learn to understand and know each other, and that was one of the keys to survival.

The crew’s ability to anticipate each other’s thoughts became critical when entering high-threat areas. The radios were often jammed with excited calls from other members of the flight. This, coupled with an endless stream of audio signals emanating from enemy radars and other sources of electronic emissions, meant that communication had to be precise. As a result, Weasel crews often communicated with grunts and one-liners. Even in dead silence, some crews felt that they could still communicate.