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Lethal Snakes

During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese exploited all the advantages of the equipment provided by the USSR, despite the technological inferiority that sometimes it had and the fact of being highly outnumbered by the United States Air Force. The top example was the effective use that they did of the old MiG-17s.

By 1963 the Quan Chung Phong Khong — Khong Quan (Vietnamese People’s Air Force = VPAF) was not a combat force, with only a transport regiment (the 919th) and a training one (910th), but there were plans to transform it into one equipped with fighters and fighter-bombers. The aircraft chosen were the Soviet-built MiG-17Fs, and 31 North Vietnamese students -whose had already flew MiG-15s- were sent to Chinese airbase of Mong Tu to convert to the new type. On February 3 1964 the Lt. Gen. Hoang Van Thai (North Vietnam’s Deputy Defence Minister) ordered the creation of the 921st Fighter Regiment «Sao Dao» («Red Star») and put it under the command of Lt. Col. Dao Dinh Luyen. That was the beginning of the MiG-17’s career in VPAF.

One MiG-17PF Fresco of the VPAFs 921st FR after its assembly on late 1965. When the war began, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had only 25 MiG-17s to face the USAF and the US Navy.

One MiG-17PF Fresco of the VPAFs 921st FR after its assembly on late 1965. When the war began, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had only 25 MiG-17s to face the USAF and the US Navy.

The Incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 with US ships and the following retaliation «Flaming Dart» attacks gave the VPAF the premature chance of a baptism of fire. From the US point of view, it was insane to send old jet aircraft no much more better than the MiG-15s which fought in Korea 15 years ago. Most of the US combat aircraft at that time (F-105, F-4, F-8) were faster than the old MiG-17 (which top speed was Mach 0.9, as they were ables to reach Mach 2) and the Phantom and the Crusader could carry air-to-air missiles, as the MiG only have his cannons. But in such «weaknesses» the VPAF tacticians found out the MiG-17' strengths: the slow MiG-17 could easily out-maneuver any of its adversaries in close combat, where the heavy shells of 37 and 23 mm were able to break into pieces any of them. At that time, the air-to-air missiles used to be very unaccurate (e.g: the infrared missiles could lock-on the sun!) and in close combat the NR-37 and the 2 NS-23 cannons of the MiG were much more reliable. In comparison, the F-4B of the US Navy and the F-4 °C of the USAF had no built-in cannons, and the F-8 Crusader had more less powerfull four 20 mm cannons, even when ironically the F-105 had a better built-in weapon: the rotative M61 Vulcan of 20 mm, able to fire of 3000 rounds per minute. Addittionally, the information extracted from the first US attacks showed that the American fighter-bombers used the same incoming paths time after time. Such circumstance could allow to positionate MiG-17s in the right place to intercept the raiders, and then engage the US planes in a close combat where the MiGs could exploit their advantages.

Baptism of Fire

On April 3 1965 the VPAF had its chance: USAF performed an huge raid against the important road and railroad bridge near Thanh Hoa, the Ham Rong («The Dragon Jaws» in Vietnamese language). 79 fighter-bombers arrived to the area. They were 46 °F-105D Thunderchiefs armed with bombs of 340 kgs and air-ground missiles AGM-12 Bullpup and 21 °F-100 Super Sabre acting as AAA supressors, plus 14 °F-100s acting as MiGCAP and two RF-101 °C Voodoos performing the after-attack recconoissance. But this first attempt was not only unsuccessful -the bridge remained intact and at least 1 °F-100 and 1 RF-101 were shot down by the AAA- but also the VPAF appeared for the very first time with high success.

The North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot Pham Ngoc Lan (right) shows his comrade Tran Hanh (left) the guncamera images which confirm his Crusader kill on April 3 1965. His victim was the F-8E of Lt. Cdr. Spence Thomas of the VF-211, USS Hancock, which should perform an emergency landing and was damaged beyond repair. This kill became the first air-to-air kill of the war, and also the first MiG-17s victory of the Vietnam War.

The North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot Pham Ngoc Lan (right) shows his comrade Tran Hanh (left) the guncamera images which confirm his Crusader kill on April 3 1965. His victim was the F-8E of Lt. Cdr. Spence Thomas of the VF-211, USS Hancock, which should perform an emergency landing and was damaged beyond repair. This kill became the first air-to-air kill of the war, and also the first MiG-17s victory of the Vietnam War.

Two flights of 4 aircraft each took off from Noi Bai towards Ham Rong at 9:47 and 9:48 hs respectively. The first flight would act as decoy as the second flight tried engaged the F-105s and F-100s. That flight was composed by Pham Ngoc Lan (#1), Phan Van Tuc (#2), Ho Van Quy (#3) and Tran Minh Phuong (#4). At 10:08 hs the leader Pham Ngoc Lan spotted some unaware naval F-8s covering the main force, and dived his aircraft MiG-17 °F Fresco towards the Crusaders, as he himself recalled:

1st Lt. Pham Ngoc Lan: «My flight consisted of Phan van Tuc (my wingman), Ho Van Quy and Tran Minh Phuong, while the second flight was made up of Tran Hanh and Pham Giay.

The weather was foggy over Noi Bai air base on the morning of 3 April, with visibility of between four and five kilometres and 6/10 cloud with a base of 300 m. Over the anticipated battle area the volume of cloud was 5–6/10, with the cloud base up to 700 m and visibility of up to ten kilometres. At 0700 hs the radar operators reported a group of intruding fighters in North Vietnamese airspace, which left after carrying out their reconnoissance duties. The North Vietnamese command felt that a large formation would subsequently attack the bridge at Ham Rong following this earlier flight. Col. Gen. Phung The tai once again briefed the pilots on their objectives, and ordered a stage-one alert. As anticipated, at 0940 hs US aeroplanes attacked the bridges at Tao, Do Len and Ham Rong.

At 0947 hs the second flight was launched from Noi Bai, as the leader of the first attack flight, I took off at 0948 and followed a heading of 210 towards the province of Thanh Hoa. Our flight closed to within 45 kms of the intruders at 1008 hs, while the second flight was still flying over Ninh Binh province, I informed air control at 1009 hs that we had made visual contact with the intruders, and they responded with an order to drop our external fuel tanks and engage the enemy.

The bridge at Ham Rong was attacked in pairs by the American fighter-bombers, who were at this time still unaware of our fighters, and when in range I opened fire with my cannons, and the F-8Crusader in front of me exploded in a ball of fire and crashed. I was later credited with the first American fighter-bomber to be shot down by a North Vietnamese fighter pilot.

At the same time the aircraft of Ho Van Quy and Tran Minh Phuong were also pursuing another pair of intruders, with the latter pilot flying as wingman. Ho Van Quy opened fire, but the Americans were out of range and both jets managed to escape, although the battle between the MiG-17 and the F-8 Crusaders was still far from over in the area of Ham Rong. At 1015 hs my wingman, Phan Van Tuic, reported on the radio that he had spotted an American fighter to his right, and I immediately replied with an order to attack as I in turn became his wingman. He succeded in closing in on the American and opened fire with his cannons, eventually causing the F-8 to crash.

At 1017 hs Phan Van Tuc, Ho van Quy and Tran Minh Phuong received an order to land and they duly returned home. In the meantime I was running out of fuel in the vecinity of our airfield, and ground control gave me the order to eject. However, I thought that there was still a chance to save the aircraft, which was of considerable value to the VPAF, and still had many more battles in it! I looked for a suitable landing ground, and spotted a long sandy strip in the bank of the Doung river, on which I made a successful landing.»

According to Lan, his victim burst into flames and crashed, but the most recent research in US Navy sources shows that this F-8E, flown by Lt. Cdr. Spence Thomas (VF-211, carrier USS «Hancock») survived this encounter, but was so damaged that the American pilot must land ashore Da Nang, and the aircraft was written off later, because to repair it was considered impossible. So, Lan’s kill became the first air-to-air kill of the VPAF’s MiG-17s and the first aerial victory of the conflict. The «Crusader» claimed by the wingman of Lan, Phan Van Tuc, turned out to be the A-4 °C BuNo 148557 flown by Lt. Cdr. R. A. Vohden (VA-216) who became POW [the USN loss records listed this aircraft as downed by AAA].

The USAF attempted to destroy the bridge the next day, April 4 1965. This time the number of Thunderchiefs attacking the bridge was 48, and they were armed only with 340 kgs bombs (the Bullpup had proved to be useless), while the number of the other aircraft involved remained the same. This time about 300 bombs hit the bridge and forced the Vietnamese to close the bridge some time for repairs, but «The Dragon» was still alive, and his «Jaws» kept on burning US planes: at least one F-105 more was lost due to the 57 mm AAA.

The North Vietnamese pilot Tran Hanh posses beside his MiG-17 F Fresco after shooting down the F-105D BuNo 591754 of Major F.?E. Bennett (355th TFW, KIA) on April 4 1965. He have good reasons to be happy: besides his kill, he was the only one VPAF pilot who could return to Noi Bai airbase, all his three comrades were downed by the US F-105s and F-100s and perished.

The North Vietnamese pilot Tran Hanh posses beside his MiG-17 F Fresco after shooting down the F-105D BuNo 591754 of Major F.?E. Bennett (355th TFW, KIA) on April 4 1965. He have good reasons to be happy: besides his kill, he was the only one VPAF pilot who could return to Noi Bai airbase, all his three comrades were downed by the US F-105s and F-100s and perished.

A MiG-17 F Fresco of the VPAFs 921st Fighter Regiment in 1965.

A MiG-17 F Fresco of the VPAFs 921st Fighter Regiment in 1965.

Even worst, the VPAF appeared again: another four MiG-17 °F Frescos of the 921st Fighter Regiment «Sao Dao» («Red Star»), well directed by the ground guidance, made several runs against the US fighters from the sun, and two of the Vietnamese pilots (Tran Hanh and Le Minh Huan) scored one F-105D kill each. Let’s read how Tran Hanh recalled his victory.

Capt. Tran Hanh: «As the leader of the attack flight, made up of Pham Giay, Le Minh Huan and Tran Nguyen Nam, I took off at 1022 hs. The weather was very cloudy, with considerable fog patches. My flight received orders from ground control to descend to low altitude and head east, then, again on order, changed the heading to south-east. As my flight approached the area of the anticipated interception, we quickly gathered altitude to gain advantage. I reported at 1030 s that we had visual contact with the Americans. I had spotted a group of four F-105Ds which had just started dropping their bombs, and I ordered my wingman, Pham Giay, to cover me in the attack.

At a distance of 400 m, I opened up with all three cannons, downing one of the F-105s, which fell in flames into the sea. The Americans turned to attack us, and we split into two groups. My wingman and I stayed on the southern side of the Ham Rong bridge, whilst Le Minh Huan and Tran Nguyen Nam flew across to the northern side. Supported by Tran Nguyen Nam, Le Minh Huan downed another F-105D, in the ensuing combat, the numerical superiority of the Americans resulted in the loss of my wingman, as well as Le Minh Huan and Tran Nguyen Nam.

Indeed, I was only able to escape through hard maneuvering, but I lost contact with ground control in the process. Short on fuel, I had to land at the first possible opportunity, and I succesfully put my MiG down in the Ke Tam valley (Nghe An province), but was immediately arrested by the locals — I was only able to regain my freedomafter showing my VPAF badge. I was taken to the provincial capital, where the commander turned out to be my firend with whom I had fought against the French in the 320th Army Division. After bidding my host farewell, I returned to my unit.»

Hanh’s victim resulted to be the F-105D BuNo 59–1754 flown Major F. E. Bennett (355th TFW) who failed to eject of his burning jet. The Thunderchief blasted out of the sky by Le Minh Huan is also confirmed by USAF sources: it was the F-105D BuNo 59–1764, which pilot (Capt. J. A. Magnusson) also perished. But this time the escort could retaliate, and the American pilot Don Kilgus, a F-100D Super Sabre pilot of the 416th TFS/3rd TFW, became the first «MiG killer» of the Vietnam War when shot down Hanh’s wingman Pham Giay. The fate of Le Minh Huan and Tran Nguyen Nam is not clear, because despite VPAF reported lost in air combat, USAF pilots did not claim additional victories that day. It appears now that Huan and Nam either collided each other or were downed by the Vietnamese AAA. As the only survivor of the battle, and with a confirmed F-105 kill to his credit, Tranh Hanh became a national hero.

1965’s Battles

The next encounter between VPAF and US planes apparently happened on June 3 1965 (the Vietnamese sources mention June 4 as the date of the engagement) four MiG-17s intercepted 3 «F-4s» and again Pham Ngoc Lan shot down one of them. Leting aside the difference of date between the US and Vietnamese version, the other main difference is the fact that the downed plane was not an F-4, but and A-4 °C! (VA-22, USS Midway, pilot: Lt. R. P. Ilg — rescued). But the next battle with the American planes was not succesful: this time four F-4B Phantoms -VF-21, USS Midway- detected the MiGs coming at a long distance, and shot 2 out of 4 MiGs down with missiles AIM-7 Sparrow. When the remaining MiG-17s could get close to the naval F-4s claimed to shot down 2 of them, but any of such claims are confirmed by USN sources. Three days later 2 MiG-17s engaged six A-1Hs of the USN and claimed 2 kills, but 2 of the Skyraider pilots scored hits in one MiG, which crashed in a nearby mountain. Exactly a month later, 2 MiG-17s intercepted a group of F-4Cs, and claimed to shot down one (not admitted by USAF) but both were shot down by two F-4 °C Phantoms of the 45th TFS with AIM-7 missiles.

All those battles confirmed the superiority of the US Phantoms in mid-range engagements and in climbing and diving maneuvers, and showed than the Vietnamese MiG drivers had a long road to walk to obtain the enough skills needed to the aerial combat. But also confirmed the superiority of the MiG-17 in tight turns and allowed to built a core of experienced pilots who would transfer their knowledge to a new generation of VPAF pilots. Addittionally, they also scored at least 2 kills after the end of the year without suffering more losses: on September 20 1965 four MiG-17s took off from Noi Bai and engaged US planes over Nha Bam near the train station of Kep and Nguyen Nhat Chieu shot down one out of four F-4s which were bombing the railroad yard. The Phantom crashed on the ground and the crew was found death in the wreckage (they evidently died in the crash). An unknown VPAF MiG-17 flier shot down the F-105D of Capt. R. H. Shuler (KIA, 36th TFS/6441st TFW) on October 6, and exactly a month later -on November 6- four MiG-17s shared the shooting down of an CH-3 °C helicopter which was looking for another downed pilot, being captured all three crewmembers (Arthur Cormier, Warren E. Lilly and Jerry Singleton).

An helicopter CH-3 C perform a rescue mission in Vietnam. One aircraft like that was downed by four pilots of MiG-17 F Fresco (Pham Ngoc Lan, Tranh Hanh, Ngo Doan Hung and Tran Van Phuong) of the 921st Fighter Regiment in 6 November 1965.

An helicopter CH-3 C perform a rescue mission in Vietnam. One aircraft like that was downed by four pilots of MiG-17 F Fresco (Pham Ngoc Lan, Tranh Hanh, Ngo Doan Hung and Tran Van Phuong) of the 921st Fighter Regiment in 6 November 1965.

This kill started a habbit among the MiG-17 pilots members of a flight to share any claim, even if some pilots of the flight did not fire a single shot. Such habbit is controversial, because do not help to establish who Vietnamese pilot actually scored a victory. But also must be noted that such attitude was not an VPAF prerrogative: the Italian Regia Aeronautica during WW2 used to credit shared victories to every pilot involved in an action without further details (even if some pilot did not shoot) in the same fashion than VPAF, and both air forces did so due to a good reason: with the intention to prevent unnecesary rivalries among the pilots, raising the pilot’s morale with awards. By the other hand, it must be noted the US way to credit shared kills fractioning the kill among the involved pilots caused very weird scores. e.g: The US WW2 Ace Philip C. De Long ended up with 11.166 kills! The odd fractions resulted from his shared credit when three planes scored two kills (0.666 to each pilot), then he scored another half kill (0.5).

Arrival of Reinforcements

By the end of the year the VPAF received enough MiG-17s to create a new regiment, the 923rd FR «Yen The», which was placed in Kep airbase, as the 921st FR remained in Noi Bai. One out of the 2 squadrons of the 921st began to be re-equipped with the MiG-17PF (first night fighter of the VPAF) and the other with the newest MiG-21 °F-13s. Even more important, in July 1965 30 new pilots returned from China, and the High School of Tuong Van converted many cargo pilots of the 919th ATR into fighter pilots, besides to train new crews to the cargo planes. With such refreshing reinforcements, the VPAF began the year 1966 with 2 A-1s downed at night by MiG-17PF pilot Lam Van Lich on February 3 (none of them confirmed by US sources).
Lam Van Lich was a MiG-17PF pilot who was credited with two A-1 kills during the night of February 3 1966. At the end of that year (1966) he was awarded as Heroe of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the highest North Vietnamese military award, together with Tranh Hanh and Nguyen Van Bay. ,   .

After a lull to complete the training of the new pilots and to assembly the recently bought MiGs, the VPAF turned back to the fight; on March 4 1966 the MiG-17s of the recently created 923rd FR appeared for the very first time when the flight of Pham Thanh Chung (leader), Ngo Duc Mai (wingman), Tran Minh Phuong (element leader) and Nguyen The Hon (element wingman) took off at 15:42 hs and at 16:00 engaged several F-4s in Phu To area, claiming Ngo Duc Mai to blast one Phantom out of the sky (not confirmed by USA). On April 26 1966 another flight of MiG-17 °F Frescos of 923rd FR engaged an recce plane RF-4 °C and their escorts, claiming the Vietnamese pilot Ho Van Quy to shot down the RF-4 °C -confirmed, the crew (James Tucker/Warren Anderson) is MIA- and one of the escorting Phantoms (not confirmed). Three days later a MiG-17 shot down the A-1E of Leo Boston, who became MIA too.

Crusader Killers

According to the US bibliography, the F-8 Crusader was the most efficient «MiG-killer» of Vietnam War, because it shot down 18 MiGs and only 3 °F-8s were downed by MiG-17s, or a 6:1 kill-to-losses ratio. Actually, the real amount of Crusaders lost in air combat was 7, and the first one of them, as we stated before, was written off after the meeting with Pham Ngoc Lan on April 3 1965. On June 21 1966 a flight of MiG-17 °F Frescos of the 923rd FR made up by Phan Thanh Trung, Duong Truong Tan, Nguyen Van Bay and Phan Van Tuc surprised over Kep an naval RF-8A escorted by other 2 Crusaders, and it seems like Phan Thanh Trung shot down the RF-8A (flown by Leonard Eastman, who ejected and became POW) and Nguyen Ban Bay smoked the F-8E BuNo 149152 of Lt. Cdr. Cole Black (VF-211, carrier USS Oriskany), who was also captured after he bailed out. This last victory was the first one of who would became the Top MiG-17 Ace of the VPAF. It must be also noted that other two F-8E Crusader pilots of the Cole’ squadron claimed to shot down 2 MiGs on that same engagement.

An VPAFs MiG-17 F Fresco (still looking their metal surface) near the land shelters in Noi Bai. During 1966 the MiG-17s of 923rd FR claimed to shoot down 7 F-8s -5 of them (1 RF-8A and 4 F-8Es) are confirmed by US sources- and in reverse the USN F-8 Crusader pilots only could claim to shot down 3 MiG-17s (plus one MiG-21).

An VPAFs MiG-17 F Fresco (still looking their metal surface) near the land shelters in Noi Bai. During 1966 the MiG-17s of 923rd FR claimed to shoot down 7 F-8s -5 of them (1 RF-8A and 4 F-8Es) are confirmed by US sources- and in reverse the USN F-8 Crusader pilots only could claim to shot down 3 MiG-17s (plus one MiG-21).

North Vietnamese peasents found a piece of a downed F-8 of the US Navy. A similar scene happened on June 21 1966 -when the MiG-17 pilots of 923rd FR shot down one RF-8A and one F-8E- and again on July 14, September 5 and October 6 1966, when the Vietnamese MiG-17 drivers shot down one F-8E on each one of those days.

North Vietnamese peasents found a piece of a downed F-8 of the US Navy. A similar scene happened on June 21 1966 -when the MiG-17 pilots of 923rd FR shot down one RF-8A and one F-8E- and again on July 14, September 5 and October 6 1966, when the Vietnamese MiG-17 drivers shot down one F-8E on each one of those days.

On July 14 1966 the veteran pilot of MiG-17 °F Fresco Ngo Duc Mai surprised the F-8E BuNo 150908 piloted by the commander of the VF-162, Cdr. Richard Bellinger, and hit it very hard. Bellinger managed to head south towards the USMC airbase in Da Nang, but finally was forced to eject over the sea, being rescued later (Bellinger took revenge of his defeat that day shoting down one MiG-21 on October 9 that same year). The next battle MiG-17 vs F-8 occured a month and a half later, on September 5 1966 when the USN sent an strike raid against the recently re-built bridge of Fu Li over Song Dai river. Two MiG-17s of 923rd FR were in the air at that time in the nearby and were directed to the area, engaging the escorting Crusaders of the VF-111 and claiming to shot down two of them without own losses. Actually only one is confirmed: the F-8E BuNo 150896, which pilot, Captain W. K. Abbot (an exchange USAF pilot serving in the VF-111 of the USS Oriskany) was captured. One month later -October 6- another F-8E fell due to the devastating 37 and 23 mm shells of the MiG-17, the one piloted by R. D. Leach (VF-162), who was rescued. So, the actual figure of the Crusader’s score was 18 kills vs 7 losses (less than 3:1 kill-to-losses ratio) and, particularly in 1966, it was 5 °F-8s downed by MiG-17s against only 3 Vietnamese losses of that type due to the Crusader, or in simple words, almost a 2:1 ratio in favour of the MiG-17 Fresco.

Rest and Back

Between June and October 1966 the MiG-17s claimed to shot down 18 American aircraft -10 of them (two F-105Ds, two F-4Cs, one RC-47 and the already mentioned four F-8Es and one RF-8A) confirmed by US sources- but during December 1966 were the MiG-21 pilots of the 921st FR who more often engaged the US fighter-bombers (particularly the F-105 formations), and the MiG-17s saw little action, without score any addittional kill, as the MiG-21s claimed to shot down 9 °F-105s against no losses.

But the loss of at least five MiG-21s on January 2 1967 because the new American tactic of sending the fighters F-4 °C Phantom in the same paths and using the same radio frequencies than the F-105s (Operation «Bolo»), was a hard strike and a bitter defeat to the VPAF, and the valuable MiG-21s were in a serious danger of being exterminated. The VPAF’s High Command decided to stop any MiG-21 interception sortie to analyze in a proper way the new American tactics and design adecuate counter-tactics, as the MiG-17s carried most of the interceptions. So, small groups of 2–4 MiG-17s should perform very fast attacks followed by an even more fast withdrawal, and not against all the US raids, but only against the larger ones.

Vietnamese pilots run towards their MiG-17Fs to scramble and engage US planes. During April 1967 they would claim to shot down 11 American planes -three F-105s, two A-1s, three F-4s, two A-4s and one F-8- against one MiG lost and 2 damaged. Seven of those claims (one F-105 F, one F-105D, one A-1E, one F-4B, two A-4Cs and one F-8 C) are fully confirmed by the USAF and the USN loss records.

Vietnamese pilots run towards their MiG-17Fs to scramble and engage US planes. During April 1967 they would claim to shot down 11 American planes -three F-105s, two A-1s, three F-4s, two A-4s and one F-8- against one MiG lost and 2 damaged. Seven of those claims (one F-105 F, one F-105D, one A-1E, one F-4B, two A-4Cs and one F-8 C) are fully confirmed by the USAF and the USN loss records.

After a lull of a month, on February 5 the VPAF inaugurate the new strategy when MiG-17s faced the same amount of F-4Cs 50 kms SW of Hanoi, and the element leader claimed to shot down one F-4 (that is not confirmed by USAF). But it took more almost 2 months to VPAF to appear with some strenght, and that happened on March 26 1967 when again four MiG-17s engaged six USAF planes -4 °F-105s and 2 °F-4Cs- being shot down the F-4 °C of Frederick Crowe and Henry Fowler (both became POW). Few weeks later, on April 19, a F-105 formation sent against Xuan Mai was intercepted by MiG-17s, whose pilots claimed to shot down two F-105s and two A-1s of the rescue force sent to recover the downed Thunderchief pilots. Actually the MiG-17s only shot down the two-seats F-105 °F BuNo 63–8341 of the 357th TFS/355th TFW -its crew, Thomas Madison and Thomas Sterling, was captured- and the A-1E BuNo 52–133905 of the 602nd ACS -Major John S.Hamilton (KIA)- as one MiG was shot down and another seriously damaged by the 20 mm fire of a F-105 °F Wild Weasel piloted by Leonard Thorness and Harold Johnson.

Poisson Snakes over Haiphong

About that time half of the MiG-17s were camuflaged with an scheme green with brown spots. Such new scheme caused that the MiGs were nicknamed «Snakes» by the ground personnel and many of the pilots. On late April 1967 the US Navy sent massive raids against Haiphong docks, and a group of 4 pilots (Nguyen Van Bay, Nguyen The Hon, Ha Bon and Nguyen Ba Dich) were stealthly sent together with their MiG-17s to Kien An airfield (nearby to Haiphong) to reinforce the AAA and SAM defences of the city. They would really prove to be snakes, and a very poissoning ones.

On April 24 1967 Nguyen Van Bay leaded his flight of MiG-17s against a group of 24 American naval planes. Bay personally got close to an unaware F-8 °C of VF-24 and fired a burst of 37 mm which broke it into pieces with the deathly shells of 37 and 23 mm. That Crusader -the F-8 °C BuNo 146915 flown by Lt. Cdr. E. J. Tucker- caught fire and its pilot was forced to eject and was captured later (unfortunatelly Tucker died in captivity). Then the escorting F-4Bs of the VF-114 entered in the battle and fired several Sidewinders against Bay, but Bay’s wingman Nguyen The Hon warned him of the missiles, and Bay sharply broke off, succesfully evading all of them (the USN Phantom pilots wrongly claimed two MiG-17 kills). Suddenly, Bay headed his MiG-17 Fresco towards one of the attacking Phantoms and shot down the F-4B BuNo 153000 with cannon fire — the US crew, Lt. Cdr. Charles E. Southwick and Ens. James W. Land (who wrongly thought that they had shot down Bay’s MiG before) was captured. They were so unaware of the Bay’s presence that believed to be hit by AAA).

The VPAF pilot Nguyen Van Bay (923rd FR) pins his most valuable award -the Medal of Heroe of Vietnamese Peoples Army, the highest Vietnamese military award- to his flight jacket. He earned it when on April 24 1967 he shot down with his MiG-17 F Fresco two USN planes: one F-8 C and one F-4B (Bay claimed two F-4s). Bay was credited with 7 kills during the war, which make him the Top MiG-17 Ace of the war.

The VPAF pilot Nguyen Van Bay (923rd FR) pins his most valuable award -the Medal of Heroe of Vietnamese Peoples Army, the highest Vietnamese military award- to his flight jacket. He earned it when on April 24 1967 he shot down with his MiG-17 F Fresco two USN planes: one F-8 C and one F-4B (Bay claimed two F-4s). Bay was credited with 7 kills during the war, which make him the Top MiG-17 Ace of the war.

The remains of the second victim of Bay on April 24 1967, the F-4B BuNo 153000 of Charles Southwick and James Land (VF-114, carrier USS Kitty Hawk).

The remains of the second victim of Bay on April 24 1967, the F-4B BuNo 153000 of Charles Southwick and James Land (VF-114, carrier USS Kitty Hawk).

The next day (April 25) his flight of MiG-17s was successful again, because shot down two naval Skyhawks without own losses, and both are admitted by the US Navy: the first victim was the A-4 °C BuNo 147799 of Lt. Charles D. Stackhouse (POW) and the second one was a the A-4E BuNo 151102 flown by Lt (jg) A. R. Crebo, who was recovered. Bay was awarded with the Medal of Heroe of Vietnamese People’s Army for their outstanding skills and bravery in combat, and also for the superb leadership of his flight.

The Battle until 1968

Late April also saw the re-appearance of the MiG-21s in greater numbers with great success (on April 30 three F-105s fell due to the R-3 missiles of the MiG-21PFs), but it did not mean the withdrawal of the MiG-17s, at least not immediatelly. On May 12 the MiG-17 flight composed by Cao Thanh Tinh (leader), Le Hai (wingman), Ngo Duc Mai (element leader) and Hoang Van Ky (element wingman) engaged several USAF Phantoms over Hoa Lac and the experienced Ngo Duc Mai (flying the MiG-17 °F «2011») blasted out of the sky the F-4 °C BuNo 63–7614 of 390th TFS/366th TFW flown by Colonel Norman Gaddis (POW) and 1st Lt. J. M. Jefferson (MIA). Few minutes later a pair of MiG-17s flown by Duong Trung Tan and Nguyen Van Tho shot down the F-105 °F of Peter Pitman and Robert Stewart over Vinh Yen (both crewmembers are still listed as MIA). On May 19 1967, the day of the 77th birthday of Ho Chi Minh, two highly motivated MiG-17 pilots -Phan Thanh Tai (#1) and Nguyen Huu Diet (#2)- shot down respectively the F-4B BuNo 152264 -Cdr. R. Rich (MIA) and Lt. Cdr. W. R. Stark (POW), VF-96, carrier USS Enterprise- and BuNo 153004 -Lt (jg)s J. C. Plumb and G. L. Anderson (both POWs), VF-114, USS Kitty Hawk. The next day another F-4 °C fell in MiG-17’s hands and its crew (Joseph Milligan and Jack Vanloan) became POWs.

Certainly May was a good month for the VPAF fighter pilots, whose claimed to shot down 19 US aircraft (7 of them were claimed by MiG-17 pilots, 5 fully confirmed by US sources). However, there was a prize to pay: in late May and early June 1967 in many occassions the MiG-17 pilots became overconfident and were surprised by USAF F-4 °C and USN F-8 °C/E fighters, resulting 10 MiGs and their pilots lost.

The MiG-17s of 923rd FR participated in several air battles and scored an addittional number of kills during the whole 1967, but since June until December were the MiG-21s who more frequently engaged the US raids, and the MiG-17s began to act more as decoys, performing head-on attacks to the American formations and distracting them of the real threat, the MiG-21s armed with missiles attacking from the rear. Probably the most succesful day was November 19 1967, when about 10:00 hs the US Navy sent an important raid against Haiphong docks. Four MiG-17s took off from Kien An airbase, engaged the escorting F-4Bs and two of the North Vietnamese pilots -Le Hai and Nguyen Dinh Phuc- shot down resepctively the F-4Bs BuNo 150997 (Lt. Cdr. C. D. Clower and Lt (jg) W. O. Estes, POWs) and BuNo 152304 -Lt (jg)s James E. Teague (died in captivity) and Theodore G. Stier (POW)- both jets of the VF-151, USS Coral Sea.

Since 1967 the main user of the MiG-17 F was the 923rd FR based in Kep airfield. The MiG-17 F 2072 served in there along 1968.

Since 1967 the main user of the MiG-17 F was the 923rd FR based in Kep airfield. The MiG-17 F 2072 served in there along 1968.

There were 2 main battles in 1968 where the MiG-17s were involved: the first one in January 3, when four MiG-17s scrambled from Gia Lam to engage F-4D Phantoms of the 435th TFS. One of the US planes, piloted by C.Squier and M.Moldoon, shot down the MiG of Nguyen Hong Diep with an AIM-4 missile (Diep ejected and landed safe and sound) as other F-4D -piloted by B. Bogoslofski and R. Huskey- damaged the MiG of Luu Huy Chao with 20 mm fire. By the other hand, Bui Van Suu was able to shot down one F-4D with cannon fire (the loss is not admitted by USAF). The second battle happened on June 14, when again Luu Huy Chao -leader- and Le Hai -wingman- engaged at 14:28 hs several F-4s over Tho Xuan and claimed to shot down one each (again the losses are not admitted by US sources). The end of «Rolling Thunder» on October 31 1968 prevent the MiG-17s to claim/score more kills that year.

The Years of Pause and Linebacker (1972)

During the long impass 1969–71 the MiG-17s were not so bussy like their «big brothers», the MiG-21s. Now the main responsability of the VPAF fighters was to intercept Un-manned Air Vehicles (UAV) Ryan 147J and AQM-34 Firebee (more frequenly called «drones») which were performing recconnoissance flights over the whole North Vietnam. In 1969 both the 921st FR (MiG-21s) and the 923rd (MiG-17s) performed 540 sorties against those drones and claimed to shot down 10 of them, only 2 by MiG-17s. In 1970 was worse, because only 6 out of 70 sorties the VPAF fighters met drones, and none was shot down. On March 9 1971 the 923rd FR scored the only one drone kill of the year when Luong Duc Truong shot down one Firebee with his MiG-17; unfortunately he crashed and died shortly afterwards, most likely due to he accidentally hit some tree (it is well known that the US drones used to fly at very low altitude, 5 mts or less!).

A VPAFs MiG-17PF Fresco. On March 6 1972 two MiG-17PFs engaged two F-4Bs of the VF-111 and claimed to shot down one F-4, being one MiG shot down by the other Phantom.

A VPAFs MiG-17PF Fresco. On March 6 1972 two MiG-17PFs engaged two F-4Bs of the VF-111 and claimed to shot down one F-4, being one MiG shot down by the other Phantom.

The MiG-17 turned back to its air-to-air role on March 6 1972: two MiG-17PFs scrambled from Kep airfield to intercept US aircraft which entered in Vietnamese airspace, and the leader performed evasive maneuvers. His wingman, who spotted an F-4B, managed to put him in his tail and claimed to shot it down. When the MiG leader ceased to maneuver, was downed by an AIM-9D fired by the second F-4B Phantom (piloted by Lt. Garry Weigand and Lt (jg) William Freckleton). The appearance of two MiG-21s sent to assist the now alone MiG-17 forced the naval fighters to withdraw. Later that same day another pair of MiG-17s surprised a flight of F-4Bs -which were acting as top cover of four A-7E Corsairs attacking an unidentified Vietnamese airfield- and shot down two of them with bursts of 37/23 mm (none of those VPAF claims are confirmed by USN).

When the US destroyers began the coastal bombardment of military installations in early May 1972, the VPAF High Command decided to counter-strike. During 1971 a Cuban advisor had trained six pilots in the sea attacks, and they were sent to the recently prepared airfield in Gat, together with 2 MiGs. The activities of the US ships were monitored by the 403rd Radar Company, and on April 19 1972 they were finally located at 16 kms of Nat Le. So, at 16:05 hs two MiG-17s of 923rd FR -piloted by Le Xuan Di (leader) and Nguyen Van Bay (wingman)- took off and set course to the American destroyers, which resulted to be the USS Higbee and the USS Oklahoma City. Flying at a very low altitude, the MiG-17 °F Fresco leader closed to the USS Higbee and when he was at only 750 mts Le Xuan Di dropped his 2 BETAB-250 bombs of 250 kgs, which knocked-out the rear 127 mm cannon turret, causing 4 woundeds. Van Bay so did with the USS Oklahoma City but the damage was very slight. Anyway, the VPAF had performed the first succesful attack against US war ships since the WW2.

Le Xuan Di (left) shows how he attacked the destroyer USS Higbee on April 19 1972 with 2 bombs of 250 kgs with his MiG-17. The attack destroyed one of the 127 mm turrets of the ship and injured 4 US sailors. Nguyen Van Bay (right) hit the USS Oklahoma City in the same attack, but caused only slight damage to the ship.

Le Xuan Di (left) shows how he attacked the destroyer USS Higbee on April 19 1972 with 2 bombs of 250 kgs with his MiG-17. The attack destroyed one of the 127 mm turrets of the ship and injured 4 US sailors. Nguyen Van Bay (right) hit the USS Oklahoma City in the same attack, but caused only slight damage to the ship.

The MiG-17s also returned to its role as fighters, but this time several factors -a better training in air combat of the US aviators, an improved airborne early warning- conspired against the MiGs. Only on May 10 seven MiG-17s were downed by the USN F-4B/Js, against no victories. Only on 11 July the MiG-17s took a little revenge when Han Vin Tuong riddled the F-4J BuNo 155803 of VF-103, USS Saratoga, and forced its crew (Lts. R. I. Randall and F. J. Masterson) to bail out to captivity. Tuong could not taste victory because it was in turn shot down and killed shortly afterwards by another F-4J. It was clear that the veteran fighters were now totally overwhelmed, and its golden age as front-line fighters was a thing of the past. Apparently the last victim of the MiG-17 was a UAV Ryan 147 shot down on August 26 1972, and since that point onwards the aircraft is not mentioned in the Vietnamese battle reports. It was a sad end for the career of a plane which showed that an old aircraft can defeat apparently superior opponents if it is flown with skills, determination and patriotism.

The MiG-17 F Fresco 2047 as it looks on VPAF Museum in Hanoi. With this plane Nguyen Van Bay attacked and hit the American destroyer USS Oklahoma City on April 19 1972.

The MiG-17 F Fresco 2047 as it looks on VPAF Museum in Hanoi. With this plane Nguyen Van Bay attacked and hit the American destroyer USS Oklahoma City on April 19 1972.

Sources:

  • «Air War over North Vietnam», Dr. Istvan Toperczer, Squadron/Signal Publications Inc. 1998
  • «MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War», Dr. Istvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing. 2001
  • Task Force Russia # 210, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, Pages 2 to 32.



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