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10 May 1972: Reconstruction of an Air Battle
By Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 02:21

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On the early morning of May 10th 1972 the US readied the first of large air strikes against North Vietnam in what became the Operation Linebecker II.

These attacks caused several large clashes between US and North Vietnamese interceptors during the Vietnam War. The first strike on that day was launched by aircraft carriers USS Constellation, USS Coral Sea and USS Kitty Hawk against targets in Haiphong area at 08:00 AM.




The MiG-Hunt along the Runway at Kep

The first strike against North Vietnam on 10 May 1972 was launched from three US carriers, which operated in the Gulf of Tonking area, namely, USS Coral Sea CV-43, USS Kitty Hawk CV-63 and USS Constellation CV-64. Constellation, being the farthest south on the „Yankee Station", started launching around 07:30 AM, Coral Sea followed some 20 minutes later, and ten minutes later Kitty Hawk.
The first of the main force to launch had been tanker planes, the EKA-3Bs and KA-6D, which now climbed to 15.000 feet and circled their mother ships. Closer to the Vietnamese coast, a full array of other aircraft were already in the air, including one E-2Bs each from Constellation and Kitty Hawk, one RC-135M from Okinawa, one U-2 from Thailand and an elderly EC-121D „Disco" radar picket plane of the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing from Korat in Thailand. From Da Nang in South Vietnam came an EP-3B Orion SIGINT-reconnaissance plane of VQ-1. Except for the high-operating U-2, which flew alone, all the other planes were to work as a team with the cruiser Chicago, which cruised in the Gulf of Tonking. Chicago was designated as PIRAZ (Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone) ship and her combat information center was to keep track of enemy movements using data from all available sources, using the codename „Red Crown". Ships’ own radars and those of radar picket planes were to provide some of plots, but due to ground clutter they had only limited ability to track plans flying low over land. However, to safeguard the confidentiality of the sources, all information passed out over normal communications channels was to sound as if it had been learned from Chicago’s own radars.

Almost half an hour elapsed between the first launch of aircraft from USS Constellation before the last plane joined the strike formation: in total, six A-6 Intruders, 12 A-7 Corsairs, 13 F-4 Phantoms and one RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft started. Around 08:00 AM Constellation’s strike package set a course for Haiphong, heading up the Gulf of Tonking. The formations from two other carriers swung into line behind at ten-minute intervals. The North Vietnamese were well prepared and certainly knew the planes were coming. Not only that the assembly of USN formations and the flight toward Haiphong took place in full view of early warning radars along the coast, but also Soviet intelligence ship Kursograf cruised in the vicinity.

Initially, two A-7 Corsairs of the Iron Hand-section, each armed with two Shrikes and six CBUs, attacked several SAM-sites close to Haiphong, causing them all to shut down their radars. The rest of the bombers was thus able to drop their bombs at targets without any interference, and finally both Iron Hand Corsairs dropped their CBUs on the Kien An airfield. The last of Constellation’s aircraft through the target area was an RA-5C Vigilante taking the post-strike photos, and two escorting Phantoms, all of which were engaged by fierce AAA and also several SAMs.

At the same time, ten miles west of Haiphong, Lt. Austin Hawkins led a pair of Phantoms of VF-92 on patrol at 14.000 feet. They did several radar sweeps searching for MiGs, but it seemed that none were coming up to fight. Very soon, Constellation’s bombers left the coast when USS Chicago came up: „This is Red Crown on Guard. Bandits. Bullseye zero-three-five for twenty-three, altitude unknown, time four-six. Out."

As it seems, the SRVAF was indeed surprised by the morning strike of USN and only around 08:30 AM was the 921 FR ready to launch four MiG-21s from Kep Air Base, in order to intercept formations which started from Kitty Hawk and Coral Sea. However, Austin Hawkins, which was nearing his tour without a single successful MiG-engagement, planned that if there would be any MiGs over Kep airfield, he would fly there and try to engage some of them. Such unauthorized probes were strictly forbidden, and his backseater Lt. Charles Tinker had to promise not to divulge the plan to anyone. Following the MiG-call from Red Crown, Hawkins accelerated to 600 knots and headed inland. His wingman, Curt Dosé, followed. The two Phantoms arrived over Kep without any problems and seemingly unnoticed by those on the ground: the defences remained silent. Dosé was on the left, nearer the runway, and on glancing down he noticed two silver MiG-21s on a taxiway, beside the runway. He scanned the sky to make sure none of their comrades were already airborne and - while pondering what to do next - his backseater, Lt. Jim McDevitt, called that the MiGs were accelerating down the runway in the opposite direction. It seems, namely, that one of the US SIGINT aircraft which orbited over the Gulf of Tonking recorded emissions of IFF transponders of Vietnamese fighters, before these even started.

Dosé took charge, rolled and went supersonic in the descent, ending just to the right of the runway. He tried to position himself behind the MiGs. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed frenzied activity around MiGs in camouflaged blast pens to his right, as maintenance men scurried for cover or threw themselves flat. The Phantom pilot turned his intention to the front and saw the MiGs lift off the ground. Vietnamese interceptors were flown by Dang Ngoc Ngu and Nguyen Van Ngai. They hardly got airborne when their tower warned them of Phantoms behind. Both jettisoned their drop tanks and started a hard left turn, going between hills and down valleys. Dosé acquired the wingman and fired one Sidewinder: „It looked great until it got up to the MiG, then it flew right through the jet plume and detonated on the other side." The MiG had been turning too sharply for the missile’s proximity fuse to detonate at the right time for a kill. Undaunted, Dosé launched another missile, and this hit the tail of the MiG-21, slamming the wreckage into the ground.

Ngu remained alone now, however, he continued his turn in low level, deceiving any try of two Phantom pilots to fire at him. Meanwhile, two other MiG-21s, flown by Le Thanh Dao and Vu Duc Hop, started and tried to catch Hawkins and Dosé, but Hawkins noticed them while turning into a barell-roll behind the first MiG and ordered a fast break to the right. During the turn, both Phantom-crews noticed that they were in more danger than they had thought: the sky around them was dark with AAA bursts and one SAM was launched against them, but it passed by. The Phantoms went supersonic and sped toward the coast. However, having survived five actual or attempted Sidewinder attacks, Dang Ngoc Ngu - initially pursued by Hawkins and Dosé - now turned his MiG-21MF around and gave them a pursuit. Hawkins commented: „At that time we had strong intelligence that the MiG-21 could not do more than Mach 1.05 below five thousand feet. We were doing Mach 1.15 in combat spread, feeling cocksure as we headed towards the coast." Dosé continued: „Then a MiG-21 came up behind, overtaking fast. He made it look effortless. When I saw the MiG it was about three-quarters of a mile behind Hawkins. I called for an in-place turn." When Phantoms began turning Ngu fired a missile from the range of 1.200 meters at Hawkins. However, Hawkins was in a high-G horizontal turn and the Atoll, which initially guided, flew straight ahead. After attacking, Ngu turned hard to right and flew back to his base, claiming one Phantom as shot down.

The USAF and USN fighters encountered the much improved MiG-21MF on 10 May 1972 for the first time in combat. The good speed of this fighter at low levels was a considerable surprise. This MiG-21MF was in service with the 921st Sao Do at the time. The aircraft went on to serve during the Operation Linebacker II, in December 1972, and is said to have been the mount of Phanm Tuan, when he claimed a kill agianst a USAF B-52D, on 27 December. This kill was never confrimed, however, as the USAF never lost a B-52 on that day. Nevertheless, the plane was subsequently seen displaying eight kill markings, apparently a sign of the number of claims by several Vietnamese pilots who flew it. Pham Tuan, on the other side, went on to become the first Vietnamese in the space. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


After taking fuel from the waiting EKA-3B tanker, Dosé and Hawkins reached Constellation as last of the whole strike package. To the delight of those on deck, Dosé performed a victory roll, then made a wide orbit and landed. While the deck crew of USS Constellation and pilots of VF-92 and VF-96 cheered, Cdr. Gus Eggert, Commander of Air Wing 8, was not delighted. Hawkins actually disobeyed an order, left the strike package without escort and went „trolling" for MiGs. During his later mission of that day, both Phantom pilots were punished by being „tied" as an Iron Hand A-7 escort. Their commander told them not to come back at all if they don’t come back together with "their" Corsairs.

Oysters in Clinch

Hardly one hour later no less than 84 Phantoms and five F-105Gs of the USAF, supported by 20 KC-135 tankers and a SAR group of three helicopters, four A-1s and four Phantoms, closed on North Vietnam crossing northern Thailand and Laos.

The exact USAF OrBat for that morning was as follows:

- RC-135M in orbit over Laos
- U-2 in orbit over Laos
- "Disco", 1 EC-121D from 5523nd AWCW in orbit over Laos
- EP-3B from VQ-1 (USN unit) in orbit over Gulf of Tonkin
- 2 E-2Bs from USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation, in orbit over Gulf of Tonkin

- USS Chicago, USN cruiser, was designated PIRAZ ship ("Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone")

Weather Reconnaissance
- 1 RF-4C from 14th TRS/432nd TRW

Pre-Strike Support in Target Area, TOT 09:45hrs
- Oyster Flight, 4 F-4D (with Combat Tree) from 555th TFS/432nd TRW, lead by Maj. Robert Locher

- Balter Flight, 4 F-4D (with Combat Tree) from 13th TFS/432nd TRW, lead by

- Cowsip and Valent Flights, total of 4 EB-66Es from 42nd TEWS/388th TFW, stand-off jammers

- Fletch Flight, 5 F-105Gs from 17th TFS/388th TFW (5th plane airborne reserve)

Chaff-bombers
- Dingus Flight, 4 F-4Ds from 433rd TFS, lead by Maj. Rober Blake

- Hitest Flight, 4 F-4Ds from 435th TFS, lead by Maj. Phillip Mentesana

Paul Doumer Bridge Strike Force, TOT 10:00hrs
- Goatee Flight, 4 F-4D from 435th TFS/8th TFW, lead by Col. Carl Miller, equiped with GBU-8s

- Napkin Flight, 4 F-4Ds from 433rd TFS/8th TFW, lead by Col. Richard Horne, equipped with GBU-10s

- Biloxi Flight, 4 F-4Ds from 25th TFS/8th TFW, lead by Capt. Lynn High, equipped with GBU-10s

- Jingle Flight, 4 F-4Es from 433rd TFS/8th TFW, lead by Lt.Col. Richard Hilton, equipped with GBU-10s

- Harlow Flight, 4 F-4Es from 336th/432nd TRW, strike escort

- Galore Flight, 5 F-105Gs from 17th TFS/388th TFW, Iron Hand defense supression (5th plane airborne reserve)


Yen Vien Rail Yard Attack Force, TOT 10:05hrs
- Gopher Flight, 4 F-4Ds from 25th TFS/8th TFW, lead by Maj. Albert Munsch, equipped with Mk.82s

- Icebag Flight, 4 F-4Es from 334th TFS/8th TFW, lead by Lt.Col. Dumitru Tokanel, equipped with Mk.82s

- Bowleg Flight, 4 F-4Es from 432nd TRW, escort for Icebag and Gopher Flights

- Gigolo Flight, 4 F-4Ds 25th TFS/8th TFW, lead by Maj. Lawrence Irwing, equipped with Mk.82s

- Bertha Flight, 4 F-4Es from 336th TFS/8th TFW, lead by Lt.Col. Daniel Blake, equipped with Mk.82s

- Arroyo Flight, 4 F-4Es from 432nd TRW, escort for Bertha and Gigolo Flights

- Calgon Flight, 5 F-105Gs from 561st/388th TFW, Iron Hand defense supression (5th plane airborne reserve)

Poststrike Reconnaissance
- Cousin Flight, 2 RF-4C from 14th TRS/432nd TRW

Search and Rescue
- King 21, HC-130 from 3rd ARRG/56th SOW

- Jolly Green Flight, 2 HH-53Bs from 40th ARRS/56th SOW

- Sandy Flight, 4 A-1 from 1st SOS/56th SOW

- Brenda Flight, 4 F-4E from 432nd TRW


Tankers (or "Air-to-Air Refueling Support" in official USAF jargon)
- 20 KC-135s from U-Tapao and Takhli
- Dogear Flight, 4 F-4Es from 432nd TRW

A typical F-4D of the 8TFW "Wolfpack", armed with GBU-10 LGBs, like on the mission on 10 May 1972. (Photo: USAF)


The vanguard of this attack force comprised eight F-4D Phantoms, armed for air-to-air combat, the Oyster and Balter flights, whose main task was to patrol areas around known North Vietnamese airfields and intercept any MiGs which would try to attack the main part of American formation. The whole operation was closely controlled by an EC-121 radar picket plane, which operated over Laos, and the cruiser USS Chicago, underway in the Gulf of Tonking and operating under the call-sign Red Crown.

Already during the air refueling over Thailand the cutting edge of the initial fighter sweep had been blunted. Balter 2 had electrical problems, Balter 3 was unable to refuel; both had to return to Udorn. Oyster 4, (flown by Lt. Feezel and Capt. Pettit) suffered a radar failure but its crew decided to continue the mission. Balter 1 and 4 joined up as an element and continued northeast, as did the four aircraft of Oyster flight. The fighter sweep had been devised by Major Bob Lodge, Oyster flight leader, an experienced air fighting tactician with two MiG kills to his credit. These two flights of Phantoms were to establish a barrier patrol northwest of Hanoi, Oyster flight at low altitude, descending from 3.000 to 1.000ft as they moved towards north, and Balter flight behind it at 22.000 feet in full view of the enemy. Any MiG moving against Balter flight would fly over the Oyster flight waiting in ambush.

The shadowboxing began at 09:42 AM, when North Vietnamese fighters went into action, being scrambled from their camouflaged blast pents to taxy on the runway. Two minutes later, according to Vietnamese and publications by Istvan Toperczer, two MiG-21s of 921 FR took off from Noi Bai, turning toward Tuyen Quang to decoy the Americans: according to all of the US reports about the following air battle there were actually four MiG-21s. At the same time four J-6s of the 1st Flight (#1 Nguyen Ngoc Tiep, #2 Nguyen Hong Son, #3 Pham Hung Son and #4 Nguyen Duc Tiem) of the 925 FR were scrambled as well. Unknown to either Red Crown or to crews of US fighters, the MiG-21s turned straight toward the Oyster flight - in turn covered by four low flying J-6s, which obviously have left their IFF-transponders on inactive. Both sides have set up an ambush for each other, and neither knew about this.

Immediately Red Crown informed the Oyster flight: „Multiple bandits in your area. I hold a Bandit at three-four-zero at twenty-four. The closest bandit I hold is zero-two-two at sixteen". Running in at 15.000 feet the MiG-21s closed rapidly, joining with four J-6s in trail in the process, and Balter flight edged toward Oyster to provide top cover. Lodge turned his flight to meet the MiGs nearly nose-on, jettisoning their external tanks and arming AIM-7 Sparrows (except Feezel, whose radar failed). After crossing the Red River south of Yen Bai Maj. Lodge ordered Oyster flight to climb towards the MIGs. The four Phantoms were divided into two elements of two aircraft. Lodge prepared to attack the leading MIG and told Capt. Ritchie and his WSO, Capt. DeBellevue, the leader of the second element of Oyster flight, to attack the third MIG.

The radars were locked on and at 13nm (24km) a warning light in the cockpit of Oyster 1 flashed, indicating that the hostile aircraft were within range. In Oyster 3 Chuck DeBellevue picked up MiG IFF-transmission on his Combat Tree equipment and informed his pilot that he had a positive hostile identification on the planes in front. Clipped instructions in Oyster 1 and 2 followed, as back-seaters locked on their radars and made the final switching for a head-on attack. The allowable steering error on the radar display began to contract and at 8nm (13km) Lodge launched his first Sparrow at the leading MiG element.

Maj. Robert Lodge and Maj. Roger Locher in the cockpit of their F-4D, seen earlier in 1972: the team had already two MiG-kills to their credit when they clashed with mysterious MiG-21s on the morning of 10 May 1972. Bellow is F-4D 65-0784 they flew on this fatefull morning. (Photo: USAF; Artwork by Tom Cooper)



Trailing a plume of white smoke, it accelerated out in front and began tracking upwards at a shallow angle, but detonated when its motor burned out. With range now down to 6nm (10km) Major Lodge fired a second Sparrow which launched successfully and tracked upwards at a 20 degree angle. It left a contrail and then came the flash of the detonation. A few seconds later a MiG-21 fell out of sky, trailing fire and minus its left wing. Lt. John Markle in Oyster 2 also fired a pair of Sparrows and his second missile started tracking upwards and slightly to the right. As Markle watched, the big missile pulled lead and flew right into North Vietnamese plane, causing another yellow explosion.

As it seems, the second Sparrow fired by Major Lodge hit the MiG-21 #2, while the second Sparrow fired by Lt. Markle destroyed either the MiG-21 #3, or the J-6 of Nguyen Hong Son, which is known to have been hit by a US missile at around this time and ejected but later died of his injuries.

At about this point, remaining two North Vietnamese - the MiG-21s #1 and #4 - flashed over the top of Oysters 01 and 02, the leading MiG-21, identified clearly by Maj. Roger Locher, RIO of the lead Oyster Phantom, as wearing a blue serial "53" and having a blue-trim around the cockpit - narrowly missing collision with Oyster Leader. Major Lodge instinctively pulled hard up to the right in an oblique half loop which brought him hardly 200ft (60m) behind the MiG #4. Lodge was now too close for a missile attack, and his Phantom was not equipped with guns. But he eased off his turn and the enemy fighter’s range was opening. The combat was going well for Oyster flight when, suddenly, the tables were turned. Zooming up from below came the J-6s. Namely, pilots of Oyster flight identified only four North Vietnamese fighters, while there were six - or, more likely - eight of them. After the first two MiG-21s - or their #4 - were shot down, other J-6s of the 1st Flight of the 925 FR reversed and Pham Hung Son, followed closely by Nguyen Duc Tiem, curved behind Lodge’s F-4 as Markle, to flying from the left to the right side of his leader and in no position to engage Vietnamese, shouted a warning: „OK, there’s a bandit...you got a bandit in your ten o’clock, Bob, level!"

Mysterious MiG: this is a reconstruction of the MiG-21 #2, clearly seen by Maj. Roger Locher from a range of barely 300ft when it almost collided with Oyster 1 during the engagement on the morning of 10 May 1972. In the following moments, Maj. Lodge turned behind this MiG in an attempt to shot it down, in turn exposing the tail of his aircraft to four J-6s that were approaching from the other side. Maj. Lodge did not survive the mission to tell the story, but in an interview for the Red Baron report, Maj. Locher recalled that this MiG wore a blue serial 53 and had its cockpit trimmed in blue. While the last detail is exceptionally unusual - then, there is no pictorial evidence of any MiG-21s of any air force being ever painted this way - the serial was probably applied in this manner, clearly indicating the origin of the aircraft: the USSR. If the pilot was Soviet remains unclear. Surely enough, a closer research about the Vietnamese reports about air battles over North Vietnam usually do not mention any kind of operations flown by foreign pilots. For many observers, this indicated that no foreign pilots have ever flown missions for the North Vietnamese air force, except perhaps one or two. In fact, however, in 2002 the North Koreans openly admitted their pilots to have flown for the SRVAF in the 1960s. A similar confirmation from the USSR-archieves is still not appearing.


Major Lodge thought that the MiG-21 #4 in front of him opened the range sufficiently for a close-in shot, and called: „Oyster One padlocked!" firing a Sparrow shortly after. But, Pham Hung Son fired as well and large shells from his three large 30mm guns bridged the gap between it and Lodge’s Phantom. The F-4 was hit, loosing speed, but initially its crew thought they had escaped with minor damage and both the pilot and the RIO were disappointed at the sight of the lost AIM-7 and the MiG in front of them separating away. Pham Hung Son closed and fired again, and as more shells stuck his aircraft, Lodge’s RIO, Captain Roger Locher, realized what happened. The right engine exploded and the Phantom ended doing hard yaws to the right. Soon after all the hydraulics was lost.

This F-6A of the 925 Fighter Regiment SRVAF was flown by Pham Hung Son on the morning of 10 May 1972, as #3 of the "1st Flight". This formation was scrambled from Noi Bai AB at 0944: only one minute later its rear section hit the Oyster 1 and shot it down. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


As Locher prepared to leave the falling Phantom, Captain Steve Ritchie, flying as Oyster 3, had been chasing either the MiG-21 #1 or the J-6 of Nguyen Duc Tiem which continued almost straight ahead. Lacking visual contact and acting on radar information, Ritchie pulled up to the right in a 4 to 5G turn. Rolling out at 18.000ft (5.500m) he finally sighted his target almost 10.000 feet (5.500m) away to the left. He pulled to the inside of opponent's turn, locking on his radar as he went. From a range of 6.000ft (1.800m) Ritchie ripple-fired two Sparrows, both of them guided. The first passed close under the target without detonating, but the second scored a direct hit. From the rear seat of Oyster 03, Captain DeBellevue caught a glimpse of a dirty yellow parachute of the Vietnamese pilot as they passed the falling MiG.

Above and bellow: F-4D 66-7463, a Combat Tree-equipped Phantom II flown by Captains Ritchie and DeBellevue as "Oyster 3" on May 10, 1972. The aircraft is shown later during its career, with no less but six kill-markings applied and armed with AIM-9J Sidewinders: on 10 May it carried two AIM-4Ds (one each on the inner station of inboard underwing pylons), an ALQ-101 ECM-pod on the right inboard underwing pylon and an ALQ-71 ECM-pod on the right inboard underwing pylon. (Photo: USAF; Artwork by Tom Cooper)



Flying at 20.000 feet, two Phantoms of Balter flight arrived in time to see the final moments of the fight, as Lodge’s Phantom plunged to the earth like a meteor. Due to smoke nobody saw ejection of Captain Locher: Maj. Lodge decided to stay with the aircraft. Shaken by the sudden loss of their leader, the survivors of the Oyster flight sped away from the area. The first large clash of 10 May 1972 was over, but others were now to follow.

Unseen MiGs

During a later strike against Railway Yard at Hai Duong, between 11:00 AM and 2:15 PM, the Constellation’s Air Wing, composed of F-4s, A-6s and A-7s was intercepted by a high number of Vietnamese MiG-17s and a well known series of dogfights developed, in which the F-4Js of VF-96 downed six enemy fighters. Three of these were shot down by Lt. Randy Cunningham and his RIO Lt. (jg) William Driscoll, which thus became first US aces of the Vietnam War. It is widely accepted, that during this battle USN fighters haven’t suffered any losses to North-Vietnamese interceptors. By closely examining the works of Dr. Istvan Toperczer and Jeffrey Ethell this cannot be confirmed. To contrary.
At 12:54 PM, the strike package of A-6s and A-7s arrived over Hai Duong, failed to identify the target during ingress, turned around and bombed from second try. Together with bombers, F-4Js of VF-96 dropped their Rockeyes on positions of Vietnamese flaks, while Vietnamese also fired several SAMs. Finally, US aircraft started to pull out from the target, when first four MiG-17s of the 923rd FR appeared.

Only at that moment did Red Crown give the first broadcast warning of MiGs airborne, and it did not refer to those now sweeping in to engage! The MiGs, flown by Nguyen Van Tho (#1), Ta Dong Trung (#2), Nguyen Hang (#3) and one other pilot, parted in two pairs. The #3 and #4 attacked as first, and caught Cunningham off guard, but he reversed port and both Vietnamese slashed beside him. Cunningham fired one AIM-9 and it smashed into the MiG flown by Nguyen Hang, which exploded in a ball of fire (according to Vietnamese records, Hang ejected, but was killed by 20mm cannon fire from two Phantoms; as is known, USN Phantoms weren’t armed with any guns or gun pods during this raid). Seconds later another MiG pulled behind Cunningham, which turned around, trying to invite his wingman, Lt. Brian Grant to shoot down the Vietnamese. Grant was then warned of another MiG behind him and accelerated away. Cunningham followed and both Phantoms disengaged. Meanwhile, Cdr. Dwight Timm, VF-96’s XO, was northeast of that area, when one MiG-21 - closely followed by another MiG-17 - swept in beneath his Phantom. Timm curved around, trying a Sparrow shot, but with so many planes flying around, he was momentarily rather trying not to collide with anybody, then to fight.

"Showtime 100", the F-4J flown by Lt. Cunningham and Lt.Jg. Driscoll on 10 May 1972. The aircraft did not survive the mission. (Photo: USN) Bellow: Showtime 100 as it appeared during the crucial battle on 10 May 1972, already with TERs free of Mk.7 Rockeye CBUs, but still with its centreline drop tank on - and four AIM-9Gs, three of which were to find their mark in a matter of only few minutes! (Artwork by Ivan Zajac)



While the Phantoms tried to hold off the MiGs, Cdr. Gus Eggert ordered the attack planes to exit to the south, because in spite of escort’s best efforts, the first pair of MiG-17s - Nguyen Van Tho and Ta Dong Trung - succeeded in getting to the Intruders and Corsairs. In the next second, Lt. Matt Connelly found an A-7 pursued by a MiG-17 of Dong Trung. Connelly also tried a Sparrow shot, but his radar was unusable, and he had to switch to Sidewinders, firing one at the MiG behind the Corsair. Van Tho pulled sharply into the attack and successfully evaded the missile, but this forced him off the A-7’s tail. Don Trung first attacked the A-7 of Lt. George Goryanec, and then the Corsair of Lt. Al Junker. Cdr. Fred Baldwin, Junker’s element leader, saw his wingman in trouble and barrel-rolled into a firing position behind one MiG-17. But, that was all he could do; his Corsair had no Sidewinders (after the morning strikes there were not enough Sidewinders to arm all Corsairs, thus, most of them flew without any) and his 20mm cannons were unserviceable. Dong Trung couldn’t know this, but he continued the pursuit of Junker, which now turned according to instructions from Baldwin. Goryanec heard Baldwin’s calls and turned into the MiG, attacking it from above and scoring several hits near the wing root. The MiG leveled out and turned back towards the coast, landing safely at Kep, several minutes later.

In the meantime, Van Tho joined the melee of additional MiG-17s of the 923rd FR and F-4Js of VF-96, but during his attack at one of the Phantoms, he appeared in front of Lt. Matt Connelly, which turned to approach. Hearing a good Sidewinder tone, Connelly closed, but the MiG was in a tight turn and there was little chance of a successful shot. Had Van Tho held his turn he would have escaped, but he suddenly rolled out - probably because he was out of ammunition - and Connelly’s snap shot with an AIM-9 - almost at minimum range - hit the MiG’s exhaust blowing it up. Nguyen Van Tho ejected and landed safely under his parachute. At the same time ex-Blue Angels pilot Lt. Steve Shoemaker charged his Phantom at 600 knots through the target area from north to south, when a MiG-17 suddenly appeared rolling over the top of him. Shoemaker’s RIO, Lt. Keith Crenshaw, warned the pilot, and the Phantom accelerated towards the south, exiting from the battle area. Several miles away, Shoemaker went into a sweeping turn before lining up for another attack run.

Randy Cunningham and Brian Grant were now also trying to assess the situation, thus both Phantoms zoom climbed to 12.000 feet, and then turned around to attack again. Diving back, Cunningham almost collided with the F-4J of Cdr. Timm, which was in serious trouble: hardly 300 feet behind him was a MiG-17, completely unnoticed by Tim or his RIO, 3.000 feet behind him was a MiG-17 which already fired at him and 3.500 feet behind was a MiG-21 in tracking.

Cunningham lined up on the MiG-17 nearest to Timm - which kept his port turn - and prepared to launch, when - out of nothing - two J-6s appeared and opened fire at Cunningham. The Phantom easily evaded their fire and then realigned on the MiG-17 close behind Timm, calling Commander to reverse starboard. The call had the desired effect, and the Phantom swung rapidly clear of the nearest MiG, thus Cunningham squeezed off a Sidewinder. Timm’s RIO, Lt. Jim Fox, knew nothing of the MiG nearby until after the turn. Then he caught sight of the enemy fighter to one side on a diverging heading and moments later the missile smashed into its rear. The MiG wallowed drunkenly and its pilot ejected. Remaining Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21 were attacked by Brian Grant, when another Phantom appeared, pounding toward the same target. Grant had to pull away to avoid a collision! Steve Shoemaker was making a second charge through the battle arena, closing on the remaining MiG-17 and firing a Sidewinder from inside a minimum range. The MiG pilot obviously saw it and pulled into a hard turn, breaking away from Timm’s F-4J.

Meanwhile Matt Connelly approached another MiG-17, which started a turn. Connelly fired a Sidewinder, which exploded in a black puff beside the target. All of a sudden the tail of the Northvietnamese fighter came off, the MiG rolled to the left and the pilot ejected. At the same time, Brian Grant fired another Sidewinder at the MiG previously attacked by Steve Shoemaker, but although the missile appeared to guide properly, it detonated well behind the target.

Meanwhile, two MiG-21PFM of the 927th FR, flown by experienced pilots Le Thanh Dao and Vu Duc Hop, were scrambled and closing to Hai Duong at an altitude of 10.000 feet. Ground control informed them that the Americans were flying 35km from Hai Duong at an altitude of 3.500 meters. Dao looked around and noticed a black dot in front of him. He ordered Hop to jettison his fuel tanks as he moved his throttle forward. Soon he was able to see the smoke trail left by the Phantoms. Circling Hai Duong at 14.000 feet, Cdr. Harry Blackburn and his wingman remained in the target area long after the last attack aircraft had disappeared to the south. Their Phantoms were - supposedly - in position to intercept MiGs attempting to enter or leave the fight, but their eagerness to engage enemy in air combat was about to lead into a catastrophe. Steve Rudloff, Blackburn’s back-seater, made another radar search for MiGs but still found none. „There were no targets present, so I turned my attention back outside, to check our wingman’s position and t clear his six o’clock following the change of course. He was high in our eight o’clock position, but between our aircraft and his there were ten or fifteen flak bursts." Le Thanh Dao and Vu Duc Hop - now only two miles behind the enemy - believed that they were spotted when F-4s split up and one of them made a left turn. Vu Duc Hop accelerated and fired his first K-13 from a distance of 1.500 meters. Actually, Rudloff called the other Phantom intending to ask its crew to inspect his for possible damage. „OK, we’re taking some flak over here...." His words tailed off in a short high-pitched howl as the UHF radio antenna was blown to smithereens with the rest of the vertical stabilizer: the K-13 found its mark, exploding on or very near the tail of the American fighter, just as Blackburn initiated a hard left turn to escape from flak bursts! The force of explosion slammed the plane violently to the right and jolted Rudloff against the side of his cockpit. Then the panel in front of him erupted into a mass of flames, sparks and smoke. A glance in the rearview mirrors provided no reassurance; the entire rear of the plane was engulfed in flame. Duc Hop was about to fire a second missile when he observed the first strike its target. He shouted into the radio: „Success!" But, most probably, Hop’s second K-13 was already underway, then seconds later something exploded in front of Rudloff in a dazzling white flash. The damage to his sight occurred in the split second before the reflex action could close his eyelids. He squinted hard a few times but everything remained black. Moments later, Blackburn and Rudloff ejected, and were both captured by Northvietnamese. Hours later - after the shock was over - Rudloff could see again. Willie Driscoll watched the Phantom go down: „It was, like witnessing an auto accident late at night on a highway. It was a jolt." Meanwhile, Vu Duc Hop another F-4 and, even through the AAA fire was very strong, he wanted to press on with another attack. He was ordered to land for his own safety.

Regardless of heavy flak fire, the air combat over Hai Duong went on. Steve Shoemaker was on his third high-speed charge through the target area, and came on one MiG-17 to the southwest of the „furball". The Northvietnamese never saw the Phantom and flew straight, when Shoemaker fired one Sidewinder. After that, the American had to pull up, as he was getting too close to the ground. He lost sight of both the missile and the MiG. He got some altitude, then rolled over, and on the ground was what was obviously an airplane burning, giving off thick black greasy smoke. In the meantime, Lt. Rod Dilworth, Blackburn’s wingman, tried to evade the flak: both he and Blackburn never saw any of MiGs, even when Dilworth passed closely under the MiG-21 of Le Thanh Dao. Dilworth was now in trouble, when one 85-mm shell damaged his engines and he had to shut one down. Lt. Goryanec was still in the area with his A-7, and saw the crippled Phantom. „The F-4 was about one thousand feet above and four miles in front of me, streaming fuel. Before I could join him a section of MiG-21s (Le Thanh Dao and Vu Duc Hop on their return to Kep) flew between us about two thousand feet above, heading towards Hai Duong. I guess they didn’t see us because they sure didn’t react. They could have had us both." Breathing a sigh of relief, Goryanec moved closer to the Phantom and inspected the damage. After crossing the coast, Dilworth decided to rid his plane of its missiles. He fired the four Sidewinders in turn without difficulty. But the Sparrows were mounted under the fuselage and had to be jettisoned, because there was a danger of them igniting the leaking fuel. Goryanec knew that jettisoned missiles could behave unpredictably, but nothing he had heard prepared him for what followed. The first Sparrow bumped aft down the fuselage, waggled and fell away. Then the second came, waggled a bit then started sliding across the underside of Phantom’s wing. Goryanec was some 50 feet above the Phantom and slightly aft, yet, the mad Sparrow cleared the wing of the Phantom, went nose up and missed the intake of the A-7 by a few feet! „This is crazy! I’d avoided MiGs and flak, and I nearly got hit by a jettisoned Sparrow!" said Goryanec, which subsequently opened out to a more respectful distance and followed the Phantom back to Constellation, where Dilworth was able to land safely.

Cdr. Gus Eggert was now calling all Phantoms and Corsairs to disengage: „Showtimes and Pouncers, disengage and get out of there if you can!" But, moving south from Hai Duong, Randy Cunningham noticed another MiG in front of him. What followed was the epic battle, in which both planes engaged in four subsequent series of vertical rolling scissors, until the better training of Cunningham and the power of his trusty F-4J prevailed and the MiG dived away to make a fundamental error of opening the range and presenting his tail. The American made the most of the opportunity. He curved after the enemy plane, placed the gunsight pipper over it and squeezed the trigger. The Sidewinder detonated beside the tail of the MiG, which didn’t blew up, but simply flew into the ground. For many years, stories were explained around, about Lt. Cunningham shooting down the greatest Vietnamese „ace", „Col. Tumb" or „Toon". Yet, during his visit to Vietnam, Dr. Toperczer couldn’t find any records about a man with this name. Actually, there were very few pilots in the SRVAF, and they knew each other very well from the training and from joint service. Yet, nobody remembered any „Col. Toon" or „Tomb" (the name „Tomb" doesn’t even exists in the Vietnamese language), and in 1972 there was not a single flying pilot in the SRVAF with the rank of Colonel. Also, if the SRVAF would have an ace with 13 kills to his credit, the Northvietnamese propaganda would certainly have used him.

Meanwhile, Cunningham pulled out of the dive, once more trying to took stock of the situation. To his left were yet more MiG-17s, and he had begun turning into them when a warning call made him hesitate: „Showtime heading about one-eight-zero. Heads up! You got a MiG behind you!". The caller was Matt Connelly, also heading for the coast after a successful encounter with enemy fighters, who emphasized the point by launching a Sparrow missile without guidance in the general direction of the MiG. Initially Cunningham was less than ecstatic at his colleague’s action, because it looked like the Sparrow was coming right to his plane. But, the missile went past his tail and past the MiG, and served its purpose by making the enemy fighter break away from Cunningham.

At 1:06 PM, the air battle over Hai Duong was over, yet, two further events followed. During his flight towards the coast, Cunningham’s Phantom was badly damaged by a SAM, and the crew was forced to eject over the coast, to be rescued by helicopters. The Coral Sea’s air wing was now closing toward Hanoi, and two of its escorting Phantoms, flown by Lt.Cdr. Chuck Schroeder and Lt. Ken Cannon, were warned by Red Crown, that MiGs were in vicinity. Phantoms closed and found a single MiG-17. Schroeder attacked as first, but was outmaneuvered and had to accelerate away, while Cannon dived from above, fired a Sidewinder and shot the MiG down. That was the last air-to-air engagement of the day.

Nonetheless, it would certainly be interesting to hear what happened to the first „MiG-killer" of the day, namely Lt. Court Dosé- which was punished by escorting A-7s - on the same afternoon. At 3:15 PM Dosé and Hawkins escorted a pair of Iron Hand a-7s north of Hon Gai, when Dosé’s RWR showed signs of a SAM launch from the West. Dosé informed the A-7 pilot, but the later - only 300 meters away - said his equipment showed no such signals. As luck would have it, the late afternoon sun sat low in the sky to the west, and its rays were diffused by a bank of haze. Suddenly, Dosé saw two SAMs, „busting out of the haze in our nine o’clock, doing about Mach 3." He rolled the Phantom on its back and pulled into a dive trying to outmanoeuvre the missiles, but the robot weapons corrected to a new collision course. Dosé rolled out and pulled into a maximum G climb, while missiles readjusted their trajectories and continued after the fighter. Now, the SA-2s were too close for any further evasive manoeuvring and closing fast: „One missile came past the nose, the other went over my canopy. It looked like a killer shot. Those missiles had 280-ound warheads, they had us cold. They were so close I could see the control surfaces moving. I gritted my teeth and waited for the explosion. I was looking at ‘em, tensed up, ready to die. And they just continued on past, they didn’t get off!"




Sources:

- MODERN FIGHTING AIRCRAFT: F-4, by Doug Richardson & Mike Spick, Salamander, 1983

- ONE DAY IN A LONG WAR, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, Guild Publishing, 1989

- AIR WAR OVER NORTH VIET NAM, by Istvan Toperczer, Squadron/Signal Publications

- MiG-19 in Vietnam, by Istvan Toperczer, WINGS OF FAME, Volume 11





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