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Nguyen Van Coc: A Lurking Tiger over Vietnams Jungle

The events started to happen very fast. 1st Lt. Robert A. Abbott, pilot of one out of 40 °F-105D Thunderchiefs of the 354th TFS/355th TFW in course to attack a power station in Hanoi, heard in the radio that the crew of one of the F-105 °F Wild Weasels of the formation (responsible of the SAM suppression) reported that they had been hit by a missile fired by a North Vietnamese MiG-21 appeared out of nowhere, and that they were ejecting. He tried to see where the MiGs are in an attempt for avoid the attack, but it was too late. So sudden as the previous attack, his airplane was violently shaken by an explosion and Abbott couldn’t control it anymore: another MiG-21 pilot, coming from the sun (where the Americans hardly could see him), had fired an R-3 infrared missile which struck the fuselage of his F-105D BuNo 59–1726. Abbott could eject, but only for being captured by North Vietnamese soldiers as soon as he touched the ground. It was the evening of April 30 1967, and even when Abbott didn’t knew at that time, he became the first victim of the pilot who would be the leading ace of the Vietnam War: Senior Lieutenant Nguyen Van Coc.

Prey and Hunter

Nguyen Van Coc belonged to the group of 13 Vietnamese MiG-17 pilots who were selected to convert to the best fighter in the Soviet inventory, the MiG-21. The group finished their training periods in the Soviet Union in June 1966. Being 26 years old, Coc was older than the average Vietnamese prentice. He was assigned to flew his first combat sorties in December 1966, without scoring victories at that time, but acquiring a valuable experience.

However on January 2 1967 he and many of his buddies fell into the trap set up by the F-4 °C Phantoms of the 8th TFW («The Wolf Pack»). The American fighters went to Hanoi using the same flight patterns and radio callsigns than the F-105 formations. So, the North Vietnamese MiG-21 fliers did not meet fighter-bombers loaded with bombs as they expected, instead they encountered interceptors armed with air-to-air missiles. In a matter seconds, five MiG-21s plunged earthwards in flames, but fortunatelly all the Asian pilots ejected safe and sound. Nguyen Van Coc was one of them, learning that he should be always alert and to expect the unexpectable.

Two more MiG-21s were downed by American Phantoms of «The Wolf Pack» four days later. Due to the Vietnamese Popular Air Force couldn’t sustain losses in such rate, the MiG-21 operations would be reduced for several months (January — March) until new tactics were ready.

Senior Lieutenant Nguyen Van Coc cannot hide his happyness after scoring his first kill on

Senior Lieutenant Nguyen Van Coc cannot hide his happyness after scoring his first kill on

April 30 1967, the F-105D flown by Robert A. Abbott, who was taken POW. Van Coc’s battle horse was a MiG-21PF Fishbed of the 921st Fighter Regiment «Sao Do» («Red Star») and he scored all his victories using heat-seeking missiles R-3S Atoll.

Finally he had his chance: on April 30 he took off from Noi Bai as the wingman of Sr. Lt. Nguyen Ngoc Do, and due to the superb guidance of the VPAF ground controllers they could place in an excellent attack position. So, they started his attack runs «from the sun». Nguyen Van Coc recalled the battle:

Nguyen Van Coc: «I was scrambled as wingman of Nguyen Ngoc Do. I noticed F-105s flying beneath us at an altitude of 2500 m, at 30 to our course. My leader also saw the Thunderchiefs. We both increased our speed and dived at the US fighter-bombers, which were unaware of our presence. My leader shot down the second airplane of a group of four F-105s. Until now, I had been protecting my leader, but with an ememy fighter filling my sights, I also opened fire, downing another Thunderchief. We received an order to return to base and made a successful landing, while the eight F-105s dropped their bombs and started a search for the lost pilots.»

The victim of Coc’s leader Nguyen Ngoc Do was the F-105 °F BuNo 62–4447 flown by Leonard K. Thorness and Harold E. Johnson (357th TFS/355th TFW, both of them were captured), followed seconds later by Coc’s first kill. That was an outstanding day for the VPAF: a third Thunderchief fell destroyed by the MiG-21 pilot Le Trong Huyen few minutes later -the American pilot, Joseph S. Abbott (333rd TFS), perished- and there was no MiG losses that day.

Damaged!

Despite the fact that during May 1967 the VPAF could engage the US combat planes with a high degree of success, their losses also began to increase again, forcing it to reduce its operations during June and the first half of July. Since that point the MiG-21s of the 921st Fighter Regiment became pretty active again, and so did Sr. Lt. Coc.

On August 23 1967 the USAF performed a raid against Hanoi with about 40 aircraft, and in response four MiG-17s of 923rd Fighter Regiment took off, followed at 13:45 hs by two MiG-21PF Fishbeds of 921st Fighter Regiment piloted by Nguyen Nhat Chieu (leader) and Nguyen Van Coc (wingman). At that time the favorite Vietnamese tactic was the «double attack»: a classic coordinated attack from different directions, the MiG-17s acted as a bait performing an head-on pass and distracting the escort, while the MiG-21s attacked from the rear, catching the fighter-bombers and escorts by surprise.

Several Vietnamese pilots run towards their MiG-21PFMs to engage an incoming group of US aircraft. Its easy to imagine Nguyen Van Coc doing a similar run on August 23 1967, when he shot down one USAFs F-4D over Nghia Lo.

Several Vietnamese pilots run towards their MiG-21PFMs to engage an incoming group of US aircraft. Its easy to imagine Nguyen Van Coc doing a similar run on August 23 1967, when he shot down one USAFs F-4D over Nghia Lo.

That day the VPAF fliers perfectly executed this tactic, shooting down no less than three USAF jets. That is the way Nguyen Van Coc remembered the combat:

Nguyen Van Coc: «My leader Nguyen Nhat Chieu and I went the long way round to get into a better attacking position behind the enemy formation. He fired an AAM, bringing down a Thunderchief, while I also succesfully attacked a Phantom with an R-3S AAM.

In the meantime, my leader began another attack with his second missile but it missed. He went into cloud overhead, only to reappear moments later firing with his cannon. I also attacked the Phantom, using a missile, but I was too close, and I stayed into Nguyen Nhat Chieu’s line of fire as he dived from above. My airplane was damaged, but all the controls were working normally so I asked to carry on the engagement. However, command ordered to return to base — because of the damage, my MiG-21 was only able to do a maximum speed of 600 km/h.»

This seems to be the only one thing that worked wrong that day: Nguyen Van Coc’s prey was the F-4D BuNo 66–0238 flown by Major Charles R. Tyler and Captain R. N. Sittner (555th TFS/8th TFW, Tyler was captured and Sittner was killed), Chieu shot down the F-105D of Elmo Baker (who was taken POW), and one of the MiG-17 °F fliers -Nguyen Van Tho- bagged the F-4D BuNo 66–0247 — Captain Larry E. Carrigan (pilot) was captured and 1st Lt. Charles Lane (radarist) perished.

Ace!

At 13:48 hs on October 3 1967 Nguyen Van Coc and another -unidentified- pilot get up into their MiG-21 Fishbeds and scrambled. Their targets were two radar contacts over Hai Duong towards Hanoi at an altitude of 7,000 meters, most likely reconnaissance aircraft. As a matter of fact, the actual amount of enemy planes was three: an RF-4 °C and the escort of two F-4Ds, one of them had been hit by the Vietnamese AAA and lost one engine. The task of finding the US planes was not easy: a couple of EB-66 Destroyers were performing a good jamming of the Vietnamese radars, whose were only able to give an approximate location for the enemy planes to the MiG-21s. Van Coc climbed to 7,500 meters to perform a visual search for the targets, and about 13:54 hs (only six minutes after take off) he succeeded, finding out the enemy planes following a southwesterly course. He stealthily approached to the trailing F-4 -which was the one damaged by the AAA- and fired an R-3 Atoll which made impact in the unfortunate Phantom and forced the crew to eject (the pilot and the RIO, surnamed respectively Moore and Gulbrandson, were more lucky, both could be rescued). This victory was considered only «probable» by the VPAF and that time, and was followed few days later -October 7- by Coc’s fourth kill; the F-105 °F BuNo 63–8330 (13th TFS/388th TFW) whose pilots were captured after they bailed out.

One F-4D of the USAF launches a Sparrow. Nguyen Van Coc shot down two F-4Ds like this, the first one on August 23 1967, and the second one on October 3 1967.

One F-4D of the USAF launches a Sparrow. Nguyen Van Coc shot down two F-4Ds like this, the first one on August 23 1967, and the second one on October 3 1967.

The last Phantom kill of Nguyen Van Coc happened on May 7 1968, and it was the US Navy F-4B BuNo 153485 of VF-92, similar to the one of the picture.

The last Phantom kill of Nguyen Van Coc happened on May 7 1968, and it was the US Navy F-4B BuNo 153485 of VF-92, similar to the one of the picture.

Next month was very busy for the MiG-21 pilots of 921st Fighter Regiment: they shot down an F-4D on November 8, two F-105s on November 18, two F-4Bs downed by MiG-17 pilots of 923rd Fighter Regiment the next day and one more Thunderchief on the 20th. One of the Thunderchiefs destroyed on November 18 1967 was the fifth victory of Nguyen Van Coc, making him an ace — his prey was the F-105 °F BuNo 63–8295 of the 34th TFS/388th TFW, the crew (Oscar Dardeau, Edward Leinhoff) crashed to their death. The unknown Coc’s wingman shot down the second US jet (F-105D BuNo 60–0497 of 469th TFS/388th TFW). Furthermore, in general terms November was an excellent month for the Vietnamese, because besides these six confirmed victories, the VPAF lost only one MiG-17 due to a Phantom on November 6.

Almost a month later (December 19) Coc claimed a sixth kill (another F-105) not confirmed by USAF loss records. The actual victory N 6 of the skillful Asian flier occurred on 3 February 1968, when he blasted out of the sky the F-102A BuNo 56–1166, killing its pilot 1st Lt. Wallace L. Wiggins (509th FIS/405th FIW).

Last Victories

Nguyen Van Coc should wait three months for his next victory. On May 7 1968 he took off in his MiG-21PF Fishbed «Red 4326» from Tho Xuan airfield (at that time in southern North Vietnam) as the wingman of Dang Ngoc Ngu, followed by other two MiG-21s piloted by Nguyen Danh Kinh and Nguyen Van Lung. The original target of Ngu and Coc was an EKA-3B (the cistern version of the A-3 Skywarrior), but both MiGs were detected by an AEW plane E-1, and five F-4Bs of VF-92 were sent to the area. Let’s read his memoirs of that mission:

Nguyen Van Coc: «My leader Dang Ngoc Ngu and I took off from Tho Xuan. A second pair of MiGs, flown by Nguyen Dang Kinh and Nguyen Van Lung, acted as our escorts. Because ofpoor coordination with local air defence forces, our MiGs were mistaken for American fighters, and the AAA opened up on us. This was not the only mistake — even Dang Ngoc Ngu initially mistook the escorting MiGs for Americans and dropped his fuel tanks in preparation for an attack, but he soon recognised them as North Vietnamese.

We flew three more circuits over Do Luong before being told of fighters approaching from the sea — this time they were real Americans. Dang Ngoc Ngu noticed two F-4 Phantoms five kilometers to starboard. There was a lot of clouds, and he was unable to get into a firing position. I wanted to follow him, but I noticed I was running low on fuel. I was planning to land back at Tho Xuan when suddenly I spotted a Phantom ahead of me at an altitude of 2500 m. I went after him and launched two missiles from 1500 m. The Phantom crashed in flames into the sea.»

The US Navy fully corroborates Coc’s narration: Lt. Cdr. Christiansen and Lt (jg) Kramer were forced to eject of their burning jet, the F-4B BuNo 151485 (VF-92, carrier USS Enterprise). Christiansen and Kramer were recovered alive. All the MiG pilots -Ngu, Coc, Kinh and Lung- landed safe and sound at Tho Xuan.

That was the last kill of Coc that year: the end of the «Rolling Thunder» bombing campaign on October 31 -ordered by the US President at that time, Lyndon B. Johnson- meant the end of Coc’s chances of shooting down more American combat planes. However, the USAF kept on sending UAVs to perform recce flights over North Vietnam, and two of these drones became the last victories of Van Coc on December 1969 (the exact location/date of them was not given).

Nguyen Van Coc (right, 9 kills) and Nguyen Doc Soat (left, 6 victories) listen the ace Pham Thanh Ngan (center, credited with a score of 8) who is accounting them one of his victories.

Nguyen Van Coc (right, 9 kills) and Nguyen Doc Soat (left, 6 victories) listen the ace Pham Thanh Ngan (center, credited with a score of 8) who is accounting them one of his victories.

One interesting topic about those last kills is that on December 20 1969 the USN reported that the OV-10 Bronco BuNo 155503 of the VAL-4 «Black Ponies» downed by a MiG near the DMZ (both crewmembers perished). Due to the Vietnamese pilots were not familiar with these type of airplanes, there is a possibility that Coc intercepted this OV-10 almost over North Vietnamese soil, mistook it as an UAV Firebee and shot it down. Of course, it will be necessary a lot of additional research to confirm or deny such theory, but one thing is sure: with 8 enemy planes and 2 drones downed he was certainly the leading ace of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, 7 airplanes are fully confirmed by US sources, so he is admitted by both sides as the Top Ace of the Vietnam War, and that is something very unusual to see. The Table #1 summarize Coc’ score:

Date Unit Aircraft
Pilot
Weapon Victim Victim(s) name - status UNIT/service
30-Apr-1967 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-105D Robert A. Abbot (POW) 354 TFS, USAF
23-Aug-1967 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-4D C. Tyler (POW) - R. Sittner (KIA) 555 TFS, USAF
3-Oct-1967 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-4D Moore - Gulbrandson (rescued) 555 TFS, USAF
7-Oct-1967 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-105F BuNo 63-8330 13 TFS, USAF
19-Nov-1967 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-105F O. Dardeau – E. Leinhoff (KIA) 34 TFS, USAF
19-Dec-1967 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S
F-105
----- USAF*
3-Feb-1968 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-102A Wallace L. Wiggins (KIA) 509 FIS, USAF
7-May-1968 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S F-4B Christiansen - Kramer (rescued) VF-92, USN
Dec-1969 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S Firebee ----- USAF*
20-Dec-1969? 921 FR MiG-21PF Nguyen Van Coc R-3S OV-10A? Carl Long? (Coc claimed a Firebee) VAL-4, USN

A relatively recent picture (November 1994) of Nguyen Van Coc taken while he was explaining to the Hungarian Historian Dr. Istvan Toperczer how he scored one of his F-4 kills. Two out of his nine kills were UAV Firebees (not counted by USAF as losses in air combat). Among his remaining seven claims, an amazing amount of six had been fully confirmed by USAF loss records.

A relatively recent picture (November 1994) of Nguyen Van Coc taken while he was explaining to the Hungarian Historian Dr. Istvan Toperczer how he scored one of his F-4 kills. Two out of his nine kills were UAV Firebees (not counted by USAF as losses in air combat). Among his remaining seven claims, an amazing amount of six had been fully confirmed by USAF loss records.

After his duty tours, the VPAF decided that his combat experience should be teach to the inexperienced pilots, and it was what he did since 1969. Despite he did not participate in the furious battles of 1972, many of his aprentices did, showing that his skills were not lost when he stopped to fly combat sorties. His best student, Nguyen Duc Soat, learnt well from the master, because shot down five F-4s and one A-7 during 1972. At the moment of writing these lines (August 2006) he is 66 years old and he lives in the homeland what he bravely fought for.

Sources:

  • «Air War over North Vietnam», Dr. Itsvan Toperczer, Squadron/Signal Publications Inc. 1998.
  • «MiG-21 Units of the Vietnam War», Dr. Itsvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2001
  • «MiG-17and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War», Dr. Itsvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2001
  • «Clashes», Marshall L. Mitchell.
  • «Aviones de Guerra», Fascicle N 32. Editorial Planeta-DeAgostini S.A. 1986.
  • Task Force Russia # 210, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, Pages 2 to 32.



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