Years after, in piecing together the events of the air battle, the destruction of the Chinese MiG-17 was given to US Navy F-4 crew members Lt. (j.g.) Terrence M. Murphy and RIO Ens. Ronald J. Fegan.
In response to Navy requirements for a high-altitude interceptor to defend carriers with long-range air-to-air missiles against attacking aircraft, McDonnell Aircraft Company delivered the F4H (later redesignated F-4) Phantom II. The aircraft’s maiden flight occurred in 1958 with deliveries to Navy and Marine Corps squadrons beginning in 1960. Its performance and versatility eventually attracted the interest of not only the US Air Force, but also the air forces of ten foreign nations, making it one of the most widely-employed aircraft in the history of aviation.
According to Naval History and Heritage Command National Naval Aviation Museum, the Phantom II quickly demonstrated that it was a special aircraft, establishing twelve world speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records in the space of just 28 months, the pilots on some of those flights including future astronauts John Young and Richard Gordon. The escalation of the war in Vietnam thrust the F-4 into a tactical environment for which it was not originally designed, yet by war’s end it had performed well in air-to-air combat and ground attack missions, with Navy and Marine Corps aviators scoring 36 kills.
The first official American aerial victory of the Vietnam War was scored on Apr. 9, 1965 by Lt. (j.g.) Terrence M. Murphy and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Ens. Ronald J. Fegan from Fighter Squadron 96 (VF-96), who downed a Chinese MiG-17 while flying from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) in F-4B Phantom II BuNo 151403, callsign “Showtime 602.”
The story behind Murphy and Fegan’s victory is quite interesting because several details of their engagement are still classified today.
On Apr. 9 three VF-96 crews were assigned Barrier Combat Air Patrol (BARCAP) duty, involving a racetrak pattern over the sea about 25 miles off the coast near Haiphong. As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book Gray Ghosts, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms, the goal of the sortie was to prevent hostile aircraft from trying to attack elements of the 7th Fleet. Pairs of aircraft cruised the “racetrack” at about 300kts and 20,000ft, flying the legs of the circuit in around three minutes, but often slowing down and nudging a little towards the coast on the inshore side of the circuit in the hope of drawing out a MiG or two.
Leading the Apr. 9 BARCAP was CDR Frazer, with LT Don Watkins as wingman. The third F-4B was flown by LCDR Greer and his RIO LTJG Bruning who had to eject after their Phantom II sustained an engine failure on launch. Murphy and Fegan launched in Showtime 602 as replacement section leader with LT Watkins and LTJG Mueller on their wing.
While they were flying north from Hainan Island, Watkins tried to catch up with Murphy but heard him transmit “Three in contrails” as Chinese MiG-17s were sighted. According to Davies, Watkins’ F-4 came under attack from astern by a fourth MiG-17, and Murphy reported that he was being fired upon. Frazer and Don Watkins were called back from their BARCAP and engaged the MiGs. Two AIM-7s were fired: one went ballistic and the other one’s motor failed to ignite. Two AIM-9s were fired too but one was evaded and the second failed to make contact. Shortly after while they were heading to the tanker the three Phantom crews realized that Murphy and Fegan were missing. Their last transmission had been, “Out of missiles. Returning to base.” However Watkins and Mueller had seen a MiG-17 exploding and crashing shortly after shaking off the other bandits. As Showtime 602 turned away from Hainan a second blip was seen behind it on the Fleet’s Combat Information Center (CIC) radar, and the F-4 then vanished off the plot.
Even if Chinese claimed the destruction of the F-4 immediately after the engagement, it was not considered politically prudent to counterclaim a MiG-17 and Murphy’s kill remained unconfirmed. Moreover other Chinese reports claim that Murphy and Fegan were shot down by an errant missile fired by one of the other Phantoms.
Years after, in piecing together the events of the air battle, the destruction of the Chinese MiG was given to Murphy and Fegan.
However this engagement immediately highlighted problems which were to persist throughout the Vietnam War. As explained by Davies these issues were:
- A poor missile reliability. Of the four missile fired in fact, none found its target.
- Murphy and Fegan attempted to turn with the MiGs at fairly low speed. They were perhaps the first of many to realize that this maneuver was potentially fatal in an F-4: in fact they lost when their Phantom ran out of energy in the turn.
- Communication problems. The two elements involved in the air battle, Frazer’s and Murphy’s, were operating on different frequencies and under different radar controllers. Frazer’s section was authorized to engage the MiGs only after they had shown hostile intent and dropped their wing-tanks. With only one main radio per F-4 the mutual effectiveness of the two sections may well have been compromised.
Summing up, the only consolation was that the loss of Murphy and Fegan would have been VF-96’s only wartime loss to enemy aircraft.
Gray Ghosts, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: PHC Pierce / U.S. Navy and Mike Freer – Touchdown-Aviation via Wikipedia