During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force gave fighter pilots a clear promise: Fly 100 combat missions, and you can go home. But they gave no promise of survival. Bombing runs were notoriously perilous. Enemy MiGs and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) were everywhere in the small airspace over North Vietnam, and each mission flew into the teeth of the most concentrated enemy defenses of the war.
100 Missions: Surviving Vietnam on Smithsonian (Monday 23 November at 9pm) makes it personal by following a few American pilots, including celebrated ace Robin Olds, through their wartime experience. Their riveting depictions reveal both swagger and fear as they get closer and closer to the 100 mark – each mission a white-knuckle sortie with split-second make or break moments.
Many never came home, but those who survived 100 missions enjoyed the grandest tradition of all – a raucous, homemade celebration. It included a spontaneous parade of anything on wheels, getting tossed into a pool (of something), buying the entire base a round, and receiving the coveted 100 Missions patch for their flight suit – a mission patch that was also their ticket home.