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Gunfighting Over North Vietnam

By Terry M. Mays
7/25/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Despite the visions of post-Korea U.S. aircraft designers, the days of old-fashioned aerial machine guns were far from over.

A brilliant sky greeted Major Durward Priester of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) as he led a flight of four McDonnell F-4C Phantom II jet fighters on a combat air patrol (CAP) mission over North Vietnam on June 5, 1967. Flying at 17,000 feet with his backseater, Captain John Pankhurst, Priester could easily keep watch over the Republic F-105D Thunderchief fighter bombers being shepherded toward their target by the F-4C pilots. It was the Phantoms’ duty to protect the “Thuds” from enemy interceptors that might be lurking in the area. The CAP aircraft flew above and behind the strike planes in order to have maximum visibility as they screened the sky and terrain for any indication of North Vietnamese fighter activity.

As the strike aircraft approached their target, Priester spotted two North Vietnamese MiG-17 Fresco aircraft taking off from Phuc Yen airfield. The Soviet-built single-seat jet fighter had proven to be a nimble aircraft capable of downing F-4s and F-105s when flown by skillful pilots. Priester watched as the MiGs maintained a low altitude and turned toward sanctuary across the border into China. U.S. rules of engagement forbade American fighters to cross the border in pursuit of North Vietnamese aircraft.

Priester figured that these two pilots were probably inexperienced and were simply moving their aircraft across the border. However, a third MiG rose behind the first two and quickly began climbing to a higher altitude. In the early years of the conflict, North Vietnamese pilots frequently flew a formation known as the “stack three,” in which three planes were staggered in altitude and separated by approximately one mile; but these MiG-17s were flying a modified stack three formation, with the third plane carrying the most experienced pilot and rising to protect the other aircraft making haste toward China. In fact, the other two MiG pilots were in such a hurry to escape, they flew through the falling bombs now being dropped by the F-105s over their target.

Priester quickly decreased his altitude and maneuvered toward the 8,000-foot altitude of the third MiG. Normally, F-4Cs carried an assortment of air-to-air missiles, but lacked automatic weapons such as cannon for close range fighting. Priester’s aircraft, however, was armed with a new field-modified innovation—an SUU- 16 gun pod carrying a 20mm cannon attached to the F-4C’s bottom centerline section. Priester recalled, “I pulled up and in trail with the number three MiG, as the MiG executed a hard right turn. I fired a short burst but saw no evidence of the 20mm rounds hitting the MiG.”

The gun sight mounted in his plane had burned out and Priester figured that he was probably firing in front of the MiG. “I relaxed and fired a second short burst and I could see the rounds hitting behind the MiG’s canopy. Although I did not see smoke, a big ball of fire rolled out of the MiG’s tail. The MiG banked hard into a 30 degree dive and crashed into a military barracks area.”

The MiG pilot did not eject from his aircraft. Priester reported that the entire engagement lasted approximately 45 seconds and he expended only 202 rounds of 20mm ammunition to bring down the MiG. The kill made by Priester and Pankhurst that afternoon was the fourth in 1967 to be made by an F-4C carrying the field-modified SUU-16 gun pod and helped pave the way for the United States to reintroduce cannons to all of its future fighters.

American post-Korean War planners envisioned a future where aerial battles would be fought with air-to-air missiles and not machine guns or cannons, the standard arsenal of aircraft since World War I. Fighter aircraft would down incoming bombers, or other fighters, with missiles at distances much greater than required for the use of guns. In response, the F-4 series aircraft were originally designed for the Navy, Air Force and Marines without an internal gun. Colonel Frederick C. “Boots” Blesse, the operations officer of the 366th TFW, a Korean War ace and a supporter of mounting guns on fighters, referred to these planners as “fuzzy thinkers” and noted that in some cases the guns were removed from existing aircraft and destroyed.

Powered by two General Electric J-79 GE-15 turbojet engines, the F-4C boasted a maximum speed of 1,485 mph and a range of 1,750 miles with three external fuel tanks. The Phantom’s introduction as the primary American fighter in the Vietnam War, however, revealed two handicaps in the early air-to-air engagements with the North Vietnamese Air Force. First, the F-4 relied entirely for armamentation on three types of airto-air missiles: the AIM-4 Falcon, an infrared homing missile designed in the 1950s for use against incoming Soviet bombers; the AIM-7 Sparrow, which tracked its prey by its radar signature; and the AIM-9 Sidewinder, which followed the heat signature of an opponent’s jet engine. The first generation of air-to-air missiles suffered from technical problems. Between April 23 and July 8, 1967, Air Force aircraft fired 10 AIM-4, 72 AIM-7, and 59 AIM-9 air-to-air missiles at North Vietnamese MiGs. None of the AIM-4 missiles hit their targets and only 11 percent of the AIM-7 and 14 percent of the AIM-9 missiles downed MiGs.

The F-4C’s second handicap involved the lack of a weapon to engage MiGs flying too close for American pilots to fire their air-to-air missiles effectively. According to a 366th TFW report, F-4s could not generally engage MiGs flying below 2,000 feet altitude and inside a 2,500 foot range around the American aircraft. On May 5th, the 366th TFW complained to Seventh Air Force headquarters that its pilots had forfeited at least seven kills in the previous 10 days because North Vietnamese pilots flew too low or too close for the Americans to fire air-to-air missiles.

The “Thud” stood some ironic comparison with its intended fighter escort. The F-105D was a single-seat strike aircraft powered by a Pratt Whitney J-75-P-19W engine, which provided the plane with a maximum speed of 1,390 mph and a range of 2,206 miles. It carried air-to-air missiles and an internal 20mm M61A1 cannon for self defense, and several Thud pilots had downed MiGs with their gun systems. The North Vietnamese, however, were aware that the F-4 series planes did not carry internal guns. In addition, North Vietnamese pilots learned to fly low and use the natural terrain to mask their radar signatures or interfere with a heat seeking missile. This is probably why two of the MiG-17s Priester encountered remained low as they headed for the Chinese border.

An originally classified Air Force study of North Vietnamese aerial tactics noted: “MiG-17s will sometimes dive to the deck to avoid missile threat. On 19 April (1967), Flapper Flight [an American F-4C CAP] on egress was engaged with a MiG-17…The MiG under attack from two aircraft, immediately broke right and dove from 2,000 feet to 200 feet AGL [above ground level]. With radar lock continuing to break, an AIM-7 was still launched as minimum range was approached…A second, and later, a third missile were launched but they impacted on the ground, resulting in no damage to the MiG. The use of low altitude and hard maneuvers saved the aircraft from a missile-armed F-4C.”

MiG-17 pilots also formed low altitude “wagon wheel” formations, where two or up to four planes flew in a tight circle allowing each to cover the rear of the aircraft in front. The low level formation offered some protection from American air-to-air missiles attempting to lock on to them. If an F-4 tried to maneuver behind one of the MiGs in a wagon wheel, the other North Vietnamese aircraft would automatically be in position to engage it, since MiG-17s were armed with internal cannons. Although the Air Force was already developing the F-4E with an internal cannon, something had to be found to assist American F-4C pilots in short range combat situations over North Vietnam while they awaited the new fighter’s arrival.

While many individuals assigned to the 366th TFW deserve credit for the development and testing of a new temporary short-range weapon for the F-4Cs, the greatest share tends to go to Colonel Blesse. The Air Force inventory of weapons included the SUU-16 gun pod which housed the M-61 Vulcan Gatling gun. The M- 61 was a 20mm cannon with a rapid fire rate of more than 6,000 rounds per minute. When mounted in the SUU-16 gun pod, the M-61 held 1,140 rounds and could place its 20mm rounds into a very tight shot pattern when fired at an enemy aircraft. Blesse, a staunch opponent of the policy that removed the guns from America’s fighters, ordered the SUU-16 to be mounted on the wing of an F-4C for local testing.

After a successful test, Blesse received permission to pitch his idea to Seventh Air Force. He flew to Saigon and briefed General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force commander, and Colonel Robin Olds, the flamboyant commander of the 8th TFW based in Thailand. The 8th TFW also flew F-4s without internal guns. Olds was skeptical, but Momyer gave permission for operational tests of the SUU-16. Following further testing to ensure the aerodynamics of an F-4C carrying the SUU- 16 on its bottom center-line pylon, the 366th TFW was ready to test its surprise package on unsuspecting North Vietnamese pilots.

The first two victims of the SUU-16 gun pod fell on the same day. Major James Hargrove, with First Lieutenant Stephen DeMuth in the back seat, were flying CAP for an F-105 strike force targeting the Ha Dong army barracks and supply depot on May 14, 1967. A total of 26 MiG-17s rose to challenge the Thuds. Hargrove spotted four MiGs flying in elements of two aircraft chasing two F-105s that had just completed their bombing run over the target. Hargrove and his wingman engaged one element and the other two F-4C pilots in the force tackled the other two MiGs. As the battle became heated, the four American pilots and their backseaters realized they were now fighting seven MiG-17s attempting to form a wagon wheel formation.

Hargrove fired Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles at three different MiGs in the wagon wheel without success. Moving in to engage a fourth, Hargrove switched tactics and tried the SUU-16 gun pod. As the American pilot remembered, “The MiG-17 was in a right-descending turn when we attacked from a 20 degree angle off his tail. I opened fire at approximately 2,000 feet from the MiG and continued firing until, at approximately 300 feet, flame erupted from the top of the MiG fuselage. Almost immediately thereafter the MiG exploded…I reversed to the right and saw the MiG, in two sections, falling vertically toward the ground. Due to other MiGs attacking our aircraft we were forced to exit the immediate area before the MiG struck the ground.”

Within five minutes of the kill made by Hargrove and DeMuth, the commander of aircraft number three in the F-4C element, Captain James Craig and his backseater, 1st Lt. James Talley, used an SUU-16 to bring down a second MiG. Craig attempted to down two MiGs with missiles before switching to the SUU-16. After the second miss with a Sparrow missile, Craig moved in again but this time with the intention of changing tactics. “I barrel rolled to the right and rolled in behind the trailing MiG. He tightened up his left turn, then reversed hard to the right as I approached gun range. I followed the MiG through the turn reversal, pulled lead, and fired a 2½ second burst from my 20mm cannon. Flames immediately erupted from his right wing root and extended past the tailpipe. As I yo-yoed high, the MiG rolled out to wing level in a slight descent and I observed fire coming from the left fuselage area. I initiated a follow-up attack. However, before I could fire, the MiG burst into flames from the cockpit aft and immediately pitched over and dived vertically into the very low undercast…The altitude of the aircraft and the proximity to the ground would have precluded successful recovery. No ejection was observed.” A third 366th TFW pilot downed a MiG-17 with an air-to-air missile.

The results at the end of the day proved to be better than Colonel Blesse had imagined. Since the wing commander was in Hong Kong, Blesse prepared the daily operations summary to Seventh Air Force headquarters. With glee and the intention of ribbing Colonel Olds, Blesse wrote, “We engaged enemy aircraft in the Hanoi area, shooting down three without the loss of any F-4s. One was destroyed with missiles, an AIM- 7 that missed and an AIM-9 heat seeker that hit. That kill cost the U.S. government $46,000. The other two aircraft were destroyed using the 20-mm cannon—226 rounds in one case and 110 rounds in the other. Those two kills cost the U.S. government $1,130 and $550 respectively. As a result of today’s action, it is my personal opinion there will be two pilot’s meetings in the theater tonight—one in Hanoi and the other in the 8th TFW at Ubon [Thailand].”

The latter comment was a friendly jab at Olds for his initial skepticism about mounting the SUU-16 pods on the F-4Cs. Olds recognized his error of judgement and his 8th TFW pilots, flying F-4Ds, later downed six North Vietnamese MiGs with the SUU- 16 before the arrival of F-4Es.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Titus, the commander of the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Da Nang, South Vietnam, was third to bag a MiG with the SUU-16 cannon. Titus and his squadron often provided escort for F- 105s. “Normally there are about 16 aircraft in a strike flight with two fourship escort flights of F-4s,” Titus noted. “Usually the first four-ship flight flies abeam of the strike flight and the second flight [of escorts] takes up the rear…It appears that the MiGs try to get in and position themselves behind the strike force to mount a rocket attack or missile attack or a feint so as to cause the F-105s to drop their ordnance prior to getting to the target area. Generally, they seem to be interested in hit-and-run type attacks at high speed.”

On May 22, 1967, Titus flew a mission during which he downed two MiG-21 aircraft—one with a Sidewinder and the other with the SUU-16. “We were escorting the Thuds inbound to the target, headed for the heart of Hanoi, and I had a feeling that we would get some kind of reaction,” he said. “The MiGs had been flying that month and of course with the strike force headed for Hanoi, it did seem to be a fruitful mission to get on, although I just happened to chum up on the mission that day.”

His assumption was correct as the North Vietnamese launched numerous MiGs to challenge the strike on their capital. “We were south of the [F-105] formation line abreast of the first two flights at about 16,000 feet headed west to east when suddenly out in front at eleven miles, I spotted a couple of MiGs,” he continued. “I happened to see the sun reflecting off them. I called my backseater and told him to go boresight, and immediately called that I was ‘padlocked’ and accelerating, and I went into afterburner and started pushing forward. Because of the numerous MiG calls in the area, I had already cleaned off my external tanks so we were in a good fighting configuration at this time.”

Titus turned toward a MiG-21 that had made a missile firing pass at the formation of F-105s and gave chase. He downed the MiG-21 with a Side – winder as it tried to escape into the clouds. The American pilot almost immediately diverted his attention to a second MiG-21 and fired a second Sidewinder. The MiG pilot, flying at approximately 25,000 feet, made a violent turning and twisting dive to avoid the missile trailing him. Titus noted, “It was very impressive to me to see the rapid roll response and directional change ability in that airplane!” Titus followed the MiG as its pilot dove toward the ground. “We could not obtain a radar lock-on, presumably because of the ground return,” he said. “We were right in the vicinity of the Hoa Lac airport. There was quite a bit of flak, SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] were going off. The MiG made a very high G pull-out and leveled at approximately 1,500 to 2,000 feet above the ground.”

This was a situation calling for a cannon rather than missiles. North Vietnamese pilots could use the surrounding terrain at low altitudes to help mask their aircraft from opponents attempting to secure a lock with their missiles. “In his pull-out he was wing level,” Titus continued, “so I got the pipper [gun sight] on him with about a 25 mil depression and fired a long burst of the SUU-16 at him. I did not observe any impacts and thought I had missed him. However, he did slow down quite rapidly. I overshot, pulled up to the left, did a reversal and came back around again, put the pipper on him, and had a gun jam. I overshot again, used my overtake speed, converted it into altitude, and again rolled back around and called for my number two to take him. About this time, my number two had overshot and came up on my right. I turned off watching the MiG and called for number three and as I did so, I observed the MiG was in a shallow dive and impact with the ground. Where he was hit, I don’t know, but apparently he was out of it after the first hits were taken.”

Major Priester, while flying the same aircraft in which Hargrove bagged a MiG-17, accounted for the fourth and last MiG to be downed in 1967 by an F-4C carrying a SUU- 16 gun pod. An F-4C would down a fifth MiG with an SUU-16 in early 1968. While the American fighter wings in Southeast Asia eagerly awaited the fielding of the F-4E with its internal cannon, the introduction of the SUU-16 gun pod on the F-4C proved to be a highly successful temporary countermeasure against North Vietnamese MiG fighter tactics in 1967. Between April 23 and July 8, 1967, Air Force F-4C pilots downed none of the MiGs they engaged with the AIM-4 missile; 11 percent with the AIM-7 missile; and 14 percent with the AIM-9 missile. During the same period, F-4C pilots shot down 60 percent of all MiGs engaged with the SUU-16 gun pod.

F-4C and F-105 crews claimed a total of 35 North Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters between April 23 and July 8, 1967. The losses suffered by North Vietnamese pilots at the hands of United States Air Force as well as Navy fighters in mid-1967 persuaded their military essentially to re group and withdraw from the air war for many months. The introduction of the SUU-16 gun pod on F-4C phantoms in May 1967 played a major role in forcing the North Vietnamese to re-evaluate their tactics. The days of the aerial gun slingers did not end as envisioned by some post-Korean War planners. Today, most fighter planes still carry internal guns to supplement their air-to-air missile arsenal.

 

Dr. Terry M. Mays is an associate professor at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, he was recently mobilized to serve in the Global War on Terror. For additional reading, see: To Hanoi and Back, by Wayne Thompson; and Gradual Failure: The Air War Over North Vietnam, 1965-1966, by Jacob Van Staaveren.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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