Noteworthy one of the highlights of the 1967 cruise was a fighter combat that did not result in a MiG kill. Nevertheless, it entered legend as one of the classic dogfights of the jet age.
As explained by Barrett Tillman with Henk Van der Lugt in their book VF-11/111 ‘Sundowners’ 1942-95, on the afternoon of Dec. 14, Lt Cdr Dick Schaffert escorted an A-4E on an Iron Hand anti-SAM (surface-to-air missile) mission supporting a mining operation between Hanoi and Haiphong. Alerted by bandit calls, ‘Brown Bear’ Schaffert remained vigilant while the Skyhawk pilot, Lt(jg) Charles Nelson, prepared to fire an AGM-45 Shrike anti-radar missile. At that moment Schaffert spied a glint — two MiG-17s. He called Nelson, who also spotted the threat, but lost sight of the Crusader.
Schaffert rolled in from his 18,000-ft perch, tracking the MiG section as he descended. Pulling level at 3000 ft, he looked for Nelson . . . and saw two more MiGs. Schaffert laid the control column over and pulled hard, loading eight Gs on ‘Old Nick 106’. ‘Brown Bear’ had 3500 hours of fighter time, and he would need all of that experience to survive on the short end of four-to-one odds.
Schaffert’s initial break forced the nearest MiGs to overshoot, but the exceptional stress pulled his oxygen mask below his chin. Unable to call for help, he was on his own.
It was nearly impossible for a Crusader to turn with a MiG-17 so Schaffert did what F-8 pilots did best — he fought in the vertical. Kicking in and out of afterburner, he began a series of ‘yo-yo’ manoeuvres peaking as high as 25,000 ft, trying to deny the VPAF pilots a good shot at him, while striving for an advantageous position. The odds against Schaffert were improved since the four MiGs fought as two sections, permitting the former tactics instructor to conduct the engagement as a ‘1-v-2’.
The first time Schaffert got a tracking tone from one of his Sidewinders, he was about to shoot when 23 mm tracers flashed past his canopy. The second pair had quickly reversed and countered his run on the first section. After three more ‘yo-yos’, Schaffert had worked into position for a missile shot, but the AIM-9B passed between two MiGs without exploding. One of his four Sidewinders had been inoperative before launch, so he was now left with just two missiles.
Working hard, timing his breaks and pitch-ups, Schaffert sustained high-G overhead reversals to defeat the MiGs’ superior turning radius. The next time he pressed the trigger, the missile tracked but failed to explode. In turn, two MiGs fired ‘Atoll’ heat-seeking missiles at the F-8 but the launches were out of parameter. Schaffert’s third Sidewinder failed to guide. He was beyond frustration — three good shots and three malfunctions. But ‘Brown Bear’ was undaunted. With hundreds of gunnery flights in his logbook, he felt confident that he could hit anything in range. When a MiG presented him with a tracking solution, Schaffert pulled into a five-G turn and, at a range of 800 ft, pressed the trigger. All four 20 mm cannon choked. The high-G manoeuvres had disconnected the pneumatic ammunition feed system!
At some point in the fight two MiG-21s blazed through the combat area, firing ‘Atolls’. Schaffert was barely aware of them.
Nonetheless, Schaffert determined to teach the Vietnamese a lesson. Still feeling confident, he pulled into another high-altitude yo-yo, engaging in a vertical rolling scissors with the enemy leader. At the bottom of that evolution Schaffert bent the throttle for the coast, leaving the MiGs behind. He recovered aboard Oriskany with merely 200 lbs of JP-5 remaining. There, VF-162 skipper Cdr Cal Swanson and Lt Richard Wyman performed a victory roll after the latter had successfully engaged another MiG-17. Schaffert had survived a gruelling ten-minute solo combat with six MiGs — a classic engagement still examined at Topgun decades later. He recalled, ‘I needed every ounce of experience to come away from that mission intact’. Schaffert’s 1500 hours in F-8s had been time well spent.
VF-11/111 ‘Sundowners’ 1942-95 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force
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