Fair Oaks Ranch veteran featured in new public TV documentary ‘The Misty Experiment’ about top secret Vietnam War squadron

It was May 1970 and the Vietnam War was raging when Captain Mike Hinkle, flying in the front seat of an F-100 Super Saber jet fighter, received a May Day call from another plane.

“We are ejecting,” they heard the pilot say.

Hinkle called the Airborne Command Control Center but was told he would have to sit still; the two downed pilots were No. 13 on a list to be rescued.

Armed with only 800 rounds of 20mm rounds, Hinkle did everything to prevent the Vietnamese troops from finding and capturing his comrades on the ground.

Then he received a radio call.

“Hi Misty, we are a couple of Cobras. Can we help you?”

Soon a pair of unmarked helicopters arrived, lowered the ropes to the pilots and whisked them away to safety.

A photo of Vietnam War veteran Mike Hinkle from 1970, when he was a pilot in a top-secret fighter jet squadron tasked with helping to stop the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and equipment along the Ho Trail. Chi Minh to southern Vietnam.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Hinkle believes, although he cannot prove it, that the helicopters were part of Air America’s covert operations run by the Central Intelligence Agency.

“They must have been CIA,” he said recently, sitting in the dining room of the Fair Oaks Ranch home he shares with his wife, Juli. “There was no further explanation of who they were and why they were there.”

Hinkle’s story is just one of many stories of heroism and bravery played out by the pilots of the Misty Experiment, a top-secret fighter jet squadron tasked with helping stop the flow of soldiers and North Vietnamese equipment along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. in South Vietnam.

The pilots are the subject of a new public television documentary, “The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” which will air in San Antonio over Memorial Day weekend.

Flying fast, low and solo, the two-seat jets carried out reconnaissance, looking for signs of troops, ground artillery and supplies stored along the runway. If they spotted anything suspicious, they marked the target with a white phosphorus flare, calling on other fighters and bombers to “Hit my smoke.”

Vietnam War veteran Mike Hinkle shows off his Misty patch on display at his Fair Oaks Ranch home.

Vietnam War veteran Mike Hinkle shows off his Misty patch on display at his Fair Oaks Ranch home.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Because the Misty experiment was top secret, little is known about the heroism of the pilots, all volunteers, who flew well beyond the front lines and into the teeth of the North Vietnamese military. The new documentary should change that.

Being a Misty pilot was a dangerous job.

There were a total of 157 Misty pilots and, according to the documentary, during its three years of operation, 34 were shot down, a loss rate of 22%. Eight were killed in action and four were taken as prisoners of war.

“What the Misty pilots did ranks up there with the Doolittle Raiders,” said Dean Echenberg, the documentary’s executive producer, referring to the first pilots to bomb the Japanese mainland during World War II. Echenberg attended the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB and served as the squadron’s flight surgeon, caring for pilots before and after their flights.

Misty's new pilots attended what they called Camouflage College, where they became adept at spotting anomalies in the densest jungles, such as unnatural shapes and angles that could indicate a hidden weapons site. .

Misty’s new pilots attended what they called Camouflage College, where they became adept at spotting anomalies in the densest jungles, such as unnatural shapes and angles that could indicate a hidden weapons site. .

The foggy experience

Once they took off, Misty’s pilots were on their own; no other aircraft accompanied them on their missions.

“Nobody really knew where you were unless you called and told them,” Hinkle said. “That’s why we had a lot of guys missing. We did not know if or where they had been shot.

He described his time as a pilot of Misty as hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.

“You were more scared once you came back than when you did,” he said.

Although Hinkle was one of the lucky ones, there were a few close calls. Once, during a mission, he looked up to see what looked like black dots above him. It turned out there was a B-52 overhead that no one had warned them about, and it was dropping bombs on a target.

“We managed to get out from under there and watch the bombs hit, which was an incredible thing,” he said.

Misty's pilot duty periods lasted only four months or 100 missions, although several pilots flew more than that.  Here pilots celebrate a successful last flight.

Misty’s pilot duty periods lasted only four months or 100 missions, although several pilots flew more than that. Here pilots celebrate a successful last flight.

The foggy experience

Other than the light ammunition they carried, the pilots’ only defense against ground rockets was to fly fast and change direction often, maneuvers they called jinking.

Tours of duty lasted only four months or 100 missions, although several pilots flew more than that.

About half of Misty’s pilots are alive today, and many went on to successful post-war careers. Two became Air Force Chiefs of Staff, one received the Medal of Honor, two became astronauts, and one became the first pilot to fly nonstop and unrefueled around the world.

(The call sign Misty was assigned by her first commanding officer, Colonel George “Bud” Day. He chose it because the song of the same name, popularized by singer Johnny Mathis, was one of his favorites and that of his wife.)

Almost 10 years in the making, the documentary was launched by Emmy Award-winning producer Danny McGuire for KQED in San Francisco. He had done many interviews for the film, but the project ended when he was unable to secure funding to complete it. After McGuire suffered a stroke about four years ago, he made a rough cut to Echenberg.

Echenberg had only planned to show the film to the surviving members of Misty, but when he played it for his grandson, producer Ian Adelson, they decided to finish it, shooting a new beginning and a new ending and making other minor changes.

Vietnam War veteran Mike Hinkle was a Misty pilot.  In its three years of operation, the top-secret squadron suffered a 22% casualty rate, meaning nearly one in four pilots were shot down.

Vietnam War veteran Mike Hinkle was a Misty pilot. In its three years of operation, the top-secret squadron suffered a 22% casualty rate, meaning nearly one in four pilots were shot down.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Then Maryland Public Television took it over, agreeing to be the presenting station for American public television.

The film is primarily a series of interviews with former Misty pilots, intelligence officers, and other support personnel, supplemented by historical photos and film footage.

Several pilots recount how they attended what they facetiously call Camouflage College to learn how to spot anomalies in the densest jungles, such as abnormally sharp angles that could indicate an artillery battery hidden under branches.

“A lot of the time you had to know what you were looking for without seeing the actual object,” Hinkle said. “You learned it by doing.”

Hinkle, who grew up just south of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, was one of the last pilots to join Misty. It flew 67 missions before its closure in 1970.

Dean Echenberg, executive producer of “The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” also served as the squadron's flight physician, tending to pilots before and after their flights.

Dean Echenberg, executive producer of “The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail”, also served as the squadron’s flight physician, tending to pilots before and after their flights.

The foggy experience

He said he volunteered for Misty whenever he could after arriving in Vietnam in August 1969.

The foggy experience

Where to see it: 5 p.m. May 29 and 10 p.m. May 29 on KLRN World (channel 9.2), which is available to those watching KLRN live via antenna or on Spectrum cable. The film is also available from May 2 on the KLRN video player, video.klrn.org.


“I wanted to be part of Misty because I always liked playing on the A team, and Misty was the A team,” he said.

Even after the war, almost everyone involved in the program kept quiet about it.

Before retiring as a colonel in 1992, for example, Hinkle worked for several years at the Pentagon alongside then lieutenant colonel Ron Fogelman.

“We worked for the same general officer, I saw him frequently, spoke to him frequently, went to his house for parties,” Hinkle said. “But until we started getting together for a reunion, I didn’t know he had been Misty’s pilot.”

rmarini@express-news.net | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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