In 1969, North Vietnam decided to increase its fighter force before the latest lull in the American bombing campaign ended. It had the pilots, all qualified to fly the MiG-21, but not enough of the jets were available, nor would they be until year’s end. Fortunately for Hanoi, China had been trickling in Shenyang F-6 fighters (essentially a Chinese-built MiG-19S) since 1966, and that plane’s instruments, controls and performance were only slightly different from those of the MiG-17, on which the pilots had trained before going to the Soviet Union to learn how to fly the MiG-21. The transition training to the MiG-19 took no more than six weeks, and the pilots flew to China in late February and brought their planes back.
In that same month, the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) assigned its MiG-19s to the newly formed 925th Fighter Regiment at Yen Bai. The unit did little, however, until early 1972, when American air assets began building up for President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing campaigns. These were much larger and more intensive, and enjoyed more flexible rules of engagement, than those conducted during Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
In anticipation of the coming raids, Hanoi imported another 24 MiG-19s from China, bringing its total inventory up to 44. Training at the 925th was meant to be intensive, but fuel shortages and maintenance problems limited flying hours. The first nine pilots weren’t ready until late April, but the regiment had to be thrown into the fray by May, defending the air space over northern and northwestern North Vietnam. Its first engagement with American F-4 Phantoms was on May 8, 1972, and in spite of claims made on both sides, neither achieved substantive results. The 925th’s first success came two days later, when a flight of four took off in support of MiG-21s trying to intercept American aircraft west of Haiphong. While the MiG- 21s drew the combat air patrol away, the MiG-19s approached the strike group from behind. They managed to surprise one F-4D, and Pham Hung Son shot it down after a prolonged chase, while Nguyen Van Tung downed an F-4E. One MiG-19 was hit by an air-to-air missile, killing Nguyen Hung Son, and while landing with just enough fuel to return to base, Nguyen Van Tung’s plane overshot the runway, crashing and killing him.
MiG-19 tactics were very similar to MiG-17 tactics, with one key difference. The MiG-19 had significantly more power, which gave it a higher acceleration rate and supersonic flight. Additionally, unlike the MiG-17, the MiG-19 could carry two AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles, Soviet copies of the American infrared-guided AIM-9B Sidewinder. Those missiles and the MiG-19’s greater speed meant that accelerating away didn’t give the target the same chance of escape. The MiG-19 had a similar turning ability to that of the MiG-17 and the MiG-21, and its snap roll was superior. Overall, however, it was difficult to fly.
The MiG-19 began life in 1950 when the Soviet air force directed the development of a new fighter that had more range and speed than the MiG-17, which was then early in its test program. The new fighter, initially designated the SM-1, used many MiG-17 airframe components but was to receive new, more powerful engines. It proved very unstable in flight, but much faster than the earlier aircraft.
The second prototype, the SM-2, conducted its first flight in July 1952. It incorporated a more powerful ejection seat and new armament—two 37mm cannons. The cannons were moved away from the engine intakes to the wing roots to prevent the firing gases from affecting engine performance. Provision was made to carry two 760-liter drop tanks or 250kg bombs. Range had improved to more than 1,000 miles, and operational ceiling had improved to 52,000 feet. The aircraft was equipped with the SRD-1 Radial M gun-ranging radar and an RV-2 radio altimeter. The resulting fighter had a far superior climb rate and range than the MiG-17F, but it was unstable and its turning radius was 200 meters greater. Soviet air force authorities found that unacceptable and demanded further development. Nonetheless, they ordered it into production. The first operational MiG-19 unit was formed in 1955.
The MiG-19 was the Soviets’ first supersonic production fighter, and also the first to employ a braking parachute to shorten its landing run. The aircraft was crammed with fuel, however, and one of those tanks was located immediately below the engine exhaust. Consequently, early MiG-19s had a tendency to catch fire in flight and blow up, making them very unpopular with pilots. The air brakes were also poorly designed; when deployed, they caused the plane’s nose to pitch, which often led to a stall. Turning and landing could be tricky because of the MiG’s inherent instability. Although that gave it an impressive snap roll, a moment’s inattention or a slight mistake in handling resulted in an uncontrolled spin that required several thousand feet and much skill to recover.
The lessons learned from the early MiG-19 were used to modify the basic design, and the resulting MiG-19S entered production in 1956. It integrated the gun-ranging radar into a trajectory computing system that fed the gun sight, greatly improving the pilot’s ability to hit maneuvering targets. The air brakes were improved and a third 37mm cannon was added. Turning radius was reduced, making the plane only slightly less maneuverable than the MiG-17. It had a better sustained turning rate at all altitudes.
The MiG-19, however, continued to be a dangerous platform, suffering the highest accident rate of any plane in Soviet service. Its cockpit pressurization had a tendency to fail without warning, forcing the pilot to descend quickly. The MiG-19’s Soviet production ended in 1958, but in 1957, components, machine tools and a production license were sold to China, which became its largest manufacturer.
Chinese production began in 1959, and China designated it the Jianjiji Type 6 or Jian-6 (Fighter Type 6). The J-6 was equipped with the same RD-9B engine as the MiG-19 but suffered from poorer quality manufacturing. Chinese engines were less reliable and required significantly more maintenance than Soviet models. Armament was reduced to two 23mm cannons in some Chinese variants, each carrying 100 rounds of ammunition. The wing flaps and air brakes were modified to increase their efficiency, but the Chinese hydraulics had a high failure rate. For all its faults, however, the J-6 offered Third World countries an inexpensive supersonic fighter, and China sold an export version, the F-6, to numerous countries including North Vietnam.
Few American pilots encountered the MiG-19 over North Vietnam. There were never more than 36 in service at any one time. Given their area of assignment, U.S. Air Force pilots were more likely to spot a MiG-19 than were Navy pilots.
The MiG-19 proved no more popular in North Vietnamese service than it did in the Soviet Union. Vietnamese pilots loved its acceleration, and the cabin depressurization problem was not as much a concern for them since most of their operations were below 20,000 feet. However, pilots who had previously trained on the MiG-21compared the MiG-19 unfavorably to it.
Although the MiG-19’s turning radius was superior to the F-4 Phantom’s at all altitudes, it entered service several years after the American pilots had learned how to counter such tactics. By the time the 925th took to the skies, few Americans were foolish enough to turn with any MiG.
The MiG-19 still suffered an unusually high accident rate. Engine failures were common, particularly in planes using Chinese license-built engines. Ejection seat problems also reduced the chances of survival for any pilot who had to abandon the aircraft. Finally, starting in 1969, the American forces attacked the North’s fighter bases regularly, destroying fuel supplies, planes, spare parts hangars and ammunition. Pilots got little rest and had to disperse their planes shortly after landing, to reduce the chances of being caught on the ground.
MiG-19s were used primarily as advanced trainers after 1975, but also served in a ground attack role, bombing suspected Meo bases in Laos in the late 1970s and interdicting Khmer Rouge troop movements during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. The Soviet Union provided a last batch of MiG-19s shortly after the war. Despite these deliveries, fewer than 30 MiG-19s were still in Vietnamese service when China and Vietnam fought their short war in 1979. The last North Vietnamese MiG-19s reportedly were decommissioned by the late 1980s.
Despite the shortcomings of MiG-19s, they arrived at a critical time during the air war. There weren’t enough MiG-21s to fill out the country’s order of battle, and they were an improvement on the MiG-17. It may not have been enough to impress the pilots, but with nothing else available, it was better than nothing. The MiG-19 remains in service with the air forces of Bangladesh, China, North Korea and Pakistan. A handful were also in Afghanistan when the United States launched its war on the Taliban in November 2001. Given world tensions, it is possible that American pilots have not seen the last of the venerable MiG-19.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.