Cold War Era

3 reasons why Legendary Ace Robin Olds hated F-4 Phantom II gun pod

Operation Bolo

In late 1966, the USAF was not permitted to bomb North Vietnamese airfields and could only destroy enemy fighters in the air. Complicating the problem, enemy MiGs focused on bomb-laden F-105s and only initiated combat when they had a clear advantage. Col. Robin Olds, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) commander, and the wing’s tactics officer, Capt. John “J.B.” Stone, devised a masterful plan to lure and trap North Vietnamese MiG-21s by mimicking an F-105 bombing formation.


On Jan. 2, 1967, 8th TFW F-4s entered North Vietnam from the west using the same route, altitude, and formation as an F-105 bomb strike.

Despite some problems caused by the overcast weather, Operation Bolo was triumphantly successful. During the 12-minute engagement, seven North Vietnamese MiG-21s — about half of their operational force — were shot down with no USAF losses. Four days later, another ruse, this time mimicking an F-4 reconnaissance flight, shot down two more MiG-21s.

Lack of a gun on the F-4 Phantom II

As explained by Peter E Davies in his book USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers 1965-68, for the three months up to April 1967, the badly shaken Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) confined itself mainly to patrols over its own bases, avoiding combat with US jets, and limited in any case by the monsoon weather. There was sporadic action in March, during which F-105 pilot Capt Max Brestel became the first USAF pilot to score two confirmed kills in a single mission. They were achieved with three 2.5-second bursts of 20 mm gunfire, providing evidence for those who thought that the F-4C should have been equipped with a gun. In all, F-105 ‘bomber’ pilots racked up 28 MiG-17 kills with their M61 cannons and two more with AIM-9s.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Col. Robin Olds’ F-4C Phantom II FP/63-7680, as it appeared during Operation Bolo, January 2, 1967 – note the missing chin pod, which was not yet retrofitted at the time of Operation Bolo.

F-4 Phantom II gun pod

Although the gun-armed F-4E Phantom II variant had been suggested by Tactical Air Command (TAC) as early as October 1963, technical difficulties prevented the E-model from entering squadron service until October 1967. As an interim measure, some F-4Cs received the General Electric SUU-16/A gun pod from May 1967, the first examples going to the 366th TFW. Using the same basic M61 `gatling’ cannon as the F-104 and F-105, the SUU-16/A was powered by a pop-out ram-air turbine which officially limited its use to airspeeds below 350 knots. It held 1200 rounds in a linkless feed mechanism, and was replaced on the F-4D Phantom II by the SUU-23/A model, which was powered by gun gas. The pod weighed over 1700 lbs, and was normally attached to the centreline pylon, although F-4s could also carry two on their underwing pylons for strafing.

Firing it from the short centreline pylon caused a certain amount of inaccuracy since the pod vibrated, spreading the stream of shells more widely than a fixed. internal gun. Pilots also had to allow for the slight downward angle of the pod when firing it.

Korean War ace Col Frederick ‘Boots’ Blesse became the 366th TFW Wing Operations boss in the spring of 1967, the wing itself being led by Col Bob Maloy. Blesse became in enthusiast for the gun pod, which initially proved its worth as a strafing weapon whilst flying ‘in country’ ground attack sorties from Da Nang.

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

When the 366th was brought into the war over the North in May 1967, Blesse advocated taking the pod along on CAP and escort missions. He took the idea to Gen `Spike’ Momyer in Saigon, and his response was a muted go-ahead.

Robin Olds hated the gun pod

Col Olds, who also met with Momyer and Blesse, was far less enthusiastic, reportedly saying to Momyer, ‘I wouldn’t touch that thing with a ten-foot pole!’ Thirty-five years later his reservations still held, as he explained Davies;

‘The gun pod wasn’t so much a speed penalty as an object of increased drag, and therefore increased fuel consumption. But that wasn’t my objection to the gun pod. I refused to carry it for three basic reasons;

`1) It took the place of five or six 750-lbs bombs.

`2) Only my older and more experienced fighter pilots had ever been trained in aerial gunnery, to say nothing of air-to-air fighting. There were perhaps a dozen of them in the 8th TFW.

Robin Olds

`3) I had no intention of giving any of my young pilots the temptation to go charging off to engage MiG-17s with a gun. They would have been eaten, alive. Instead, they fought the MiGs the way I taught them, and I might say they did so with notable success. They learned that there were times to fight and there were times to go home and come back the next day.’

Gun pod drag

Mai Gen Don Logeman, a MiG-killing captain in October 1967, recalled that the drag caused by the F-4’s 600-gallon centreline tank was less than that created by the gun pod;

‘The gun (SUU-23/A) was somewhat sleeker than the centreline “tub”, but with the open-ended gun barrels and blast deflector on its front end, the pod was indeed cruel to the Phantom II’s slipstream and its fuel consumption.’

Although the 366th TFW scored the first three MiG kills of the spring of 1967, the gun was not used for them.

USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers 1965-68 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Staff Sergeant Robert Ward, 107th Fighter Interceptor Group, New York Air National Guard, secures an AIM-7 Sparrow missile on the underside of a McDonnell F-4C Phantom II aircraft. Other static load team members are loading 20 mm shells into a pod-mounted gatling gun during the air-to-air weapons meet “William Tell ’86” at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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