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The-Misty-Experiment

BALTIMORE – Presented through first-person accounts from veterans who risked their lives during a time of escalation in the Vietnam War, the documentary “The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail” tells the largely unknown story of the U.S. Air Force pilots who volunteered for top-secret missions to stop the flow of weapons and supplies traveling south from North Vietnam. Produced by Floor 1 Productions and Spirit Productions, and presented by Maryland Public Television, the film airs on public television stations across the country in time for Memorial Day (check local listings).

By 1967, American forces in the Vietnam War had entered a stage of expanded air and ground battles throughout Southeast Asia during a time of increased southward flow of weapons and supplies from North Vietnam. Convoys of trucks carrying Chinese- and Russian-supplied weapons traveled on newly carved or expanded roads through the jungles of Cambodia and Laos, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Traditional intelligence flights, the Air Force’s Forward Air Controllers (FACs), were hobbled by slow aircraft that made them easy targets; it became clear the U.S. needed to fly closer and faster to gain the advantage. 

Quietly, an elite squadron of combat-seasoned pilots was recruited, supported by on-the-ground intelligence and ancillary personnel. Referred to by their radio call sign, the so-called “Mistys” would spend months flying into danger knowing they had a 30 percent chance of being shot down, killed, or taken as prisoners of war. 

Don Sheppard

The film chronicles how decisions by American military leaders resulted in not being allowed to hit ports where supplies to North Vietnam were coming in. The decisions were made to keep Chinese forces from moving into the battle, but left open routes that the North Vietnamese exploited. Eventually the government was convinced a new approach was necessary; Air Force commanders designed an experimental approach that needed pilots with steely reserve. As seen in the film, Misty pilot Don Sheppard (r., inspecting battle damage to his plane) who flew 58 missions, and later became Major General and Head of the Air National Guard from 1994-98 says “when the nation wasn’t willing to take that risk (bombing the harbors), we were the ones who had to pick them off, truck by truck.”

“These were a bunch of guys who would do anything to accomplish the mission we were given…an impossible mission to stop the flow of arms and material coming south,” Sheppard said. 

Unlike today’s automated drones, and satellites that pinpoint target areas, Mistys relied on human observational skills to root out enemy movements. They describe developing “Misty eyes” -- the ability to spot signs of enemy troops such as dust accumulations on tree leaves indicating nearby movement, tell-tale splash patterns on creek beds pointing to truck traffic, or too-perfect canopies that suggested man-made camouflage. “We became masters at finding anything,” Sheppard says.

L-R: Intelligence team Roger Vandyken, John Haltigan, and Carl Kunz

L-R: Intelligence team Roger Vandyken, John Haltigan, and Carl Kunz

Mistys flew hours-long daily missions from Phù Cát Air Base, putting their bodies through extreme physical stress from G-forces during quick evasive maneuvers known as “jinking,” while also taxing their eyes and brains to identify and remember enemy locations. Immediately upon their daily returns – and often finding their planes riddled with battle damage – the pilots would debrief for hours with intelligence officials who created detailed maps with the crucial information they recounted. “There was an atmosphere of innovation,” says Misty Intelligence Officer Roger Van Dyken (l.) in the film. “One flight reconnaissance fed into the next. The next day’s group of pilots tested the theories from the day before. There was constant pressure.”

The missions began showing results after just a few weeks. And the thrill of flying high-octane sorties proved undeniable to the pilots. But the physical and mental strains of flying F100s through enemy territory were real; Mistys were limited to flying 100 missions in 120 days. 

Rutan

“There were a few of us who thought ‘gee, this is so much fun…how can I go back to South Vietnam? This is where the action is…this is where I want to be,’” says Misty pilot and military history author Dick Rutan (r.), who appears in the film and was himself shot down (then rescued) on an unprecedented 105th mission.

Veterans in “The Misty Experiment” recount other hard losses; stories of pilots shot down, and the harrowing lengths others took to save them or recover their bodies; bailing out of a damaged plane over the ocean and waiting hours to be rescued; leaving behind buddies who just can’t be found. Of the 157 Misty pilots who served during the Vietnam War, 34 were shot down; eight were killed and four became prisoners of war. 

“Joy and sorrow, intermixed…that became part of the Misty story…and part of the Vietnam story,” says Van Dyken. “Wanting to have individual successes, and yet, leaving so many good people behind.”

The discipline of being a groundbreaking pilot translated into other successes after leaving the mission. Two Mistys, Merrill AnthonyTony” McPeak and Ronald Fogleman, became Air Force Chiefs of Staff; two more became astronauts. Many became industry CEOs. One Misty alumnus received the Medal of Honor for his service, and another became the first man to fly non-stop, unrefueled, around the world.

“The story of the Mistys has never been told in-depth and on-camera” says Executive Producer Dean Echenberg, a Misty veteran who was the squadron’s first Flight Surgeon and remains the group’s ad-hoc historian. About half of the men who served as Mistys are living; many are in their late 70s and 80s. Echenberg says the film is “a testament to an amazing group of brave men who jumped at the chance to change the course of a devastating war.”

Producer Ian M. Adelson of Floor 1 Productions says the film was more than 14 years in the making, having been started in the late 2000s by former KQED San Francisco television producer Danny McGuire who interviewed numerous squadron members. Adelson says when health problems forced McGuire to step away from the project, McGuire turned over the footage to Echenberg, who brought Adelson in.

“One day he showed me the interviews and an early rough cut of the film that Danny did,” Adelson says. “We knew this story needed to be told in a way that honors the vets who served and gives a human perspective of a conflict that’s been subjected to animosity for five decades.”

TUNE IN INFORMATION

“The Misty Experiment” will be available to public television stations across the country starting May 2, 2022, in time for Memorial Day commemorations.  Viewers should check local listings or contact local public television stations to find out when the program will be shown in a particular market. Information about local stations is available here.

Viewers can check local listings, and the film also airs nationally on PBS World (all times Eastern):

• Saturday, May 28 at 6pm ET 

• Sunday, May 29 at 11pm ET

• Monday, May 30 at 11am ET

PRODUCTION CREDITS 

Executive Producer for “The Misty Experiment” is Dean Echenberg. Ian M. Adelson is Producer for Floor 1 Productions. Danny L. Mcguire (Spirit Productions) is Producer/Director. Gregory Bayol is Assistant Producer. Videographer is Blake McHugh. Editors are Lynne Cudden, Robert “Gopher” Harris, Danny L. McGuire and Todd Popple. Maps and graphics are by Chris Sheesely.

ABOUT MARYLAND PUBLIC TELEVISION

Maryland Public Television (MPT) is a statewide, public-supported TV network and Public Broadcasting Service member offering entertaining, educational and inspiring content delivered by traditional broadcasting, and streaming on TVs, computers and mobile devices. A state agency, MPT operates under the auspices of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission. MPT creates local, regional and national content, and is a frequent winner of regional Emmy® Awards. MPT’s commitment to educators, parents, caregivers and learners of all ages is delivered through instructional events and at Thinkport.org. MPT’s year-round community engagement activities connect viewers with resources on a wide range of topics.  More information is available at mpt.org.

* “The Misty Experiment” is made possible by a gift from Frederick W. Smith.

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