Cold War Era

Big Eye protectors: the story of the F-104 Starfighter missions flown to protect EC-121D Warning Star aircraft during the Vietnam War

The F-104 Starfighter in the Vietnam War

A primary role for the F-104 Starfighter in Southeast Asia was the protection of the Lockheed EC-121D Warning Star aircraft that patrolled off the coast of North Vietnam, providing MiG warnings to US pilots via their radar and monitoring equipment. The US Air Force (USAF) had received 74 of these high-value aircraft, supplemented by ex-US Navy examples from 1966. The 552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing (AEW&CW), based at McClellan Air Force Base (AFB), California, was responsible for operating them in the Far East.

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As explained by Peter E Davies in his book F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat, the piston-engined ‘Pregnant Guppy’ or ‘Connie’ (after its Constellation airliner origins) radar surveillance aircraft had been active during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in April 1965 the USAF established its Project Big Eye Task Force in Southeast Asia three days before the arrival of the first F-104Cs. Four EC-121Ds were sent from Tainan Air Station, Taiwan, to Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam, and two began radar orbits on Apr. 16, 1965.

The EC-121D Warning Star

Originally a US Navy aircraft, the EC-121 was designed to protect the fleet by detecting airborne intruders over the sea. It had difficulty, therefore, in achieving clear radar imagery over land due to terrain interference, particularly over mountainous North Vietnam. Its AN/APS-45 altitude-measuring radar in its large ‘conning tower’ radome was also only effective up to a distance of 70 miles from the EC-121. This meant that Big Eye aircraft had to fly their radar orbits only 30 to 50 miles offshore at altitudes as low as 50 ft so that their AN/APS-20 (or AN/APS-95) search radar signals could be bounced off the water, thus extending their detection range to 150 miles — a technique developed during the Cuba crisis missions.

Flying at low altitude also helped to protect the vulnerable EC-121s from detection by enemy radars. And even when they were detected Big Eye aircraft were usually left alone as Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) controllers kept their fighters away from EC-121Ds. Any VPAF pilot that ventured out over the Gulf of Tonkin in search of patrol or tanker aircraft knew that he would also face US Navy carrier-borne fighters as well as F-104C patrols.

F-104 Starfighter cover

Escorting EC-121Ds proved a challenge for F-104 pilots nevertheless. Flying at low altitudes in poor weather or at night was difficult enough for the Big Eye crews, operating at speeds below 290 mph. Close escort by considerably faster F-104Cs was clearly impossible, so separate barrier combat air patrol (BARCAP) orbits by up to three flights of Starfighters and their KC-135A tankers at altitudes of between 15,000 ft and 20,000 ft were established to keep MiGs away from the two Big Eye patrol tracks.

Usually four F-104Cs covered each EC-121D, with a third flight cycling to a tanker before moving in to replace the flight escorting the Bravo Track fighters, which would in turn move to replace the Alpha Track escort flight, freeing them up to refuel. Each mission therefore required 12 F-104Cs and two tankers, increasing to four tankers when the Starfighters were later supplemented by thirstier F-4C Phantom IIs. Starfighter cover occasionally had to be reduced to two-aircraft flights if insufficient jets were available.

The patrol areas were divided into a grid of ten nautical mile squares, and each was allocated a two-letter code, while MiGs had a colour code — blue for MiG-21s, red for MiG-17s and white for MiG-19s. ‘Blue, Alpha Golf’ therefore indicated a MiG-21 flying over Hanoi, and two CAP F-104s would be directed to head them off while a pair of jets on the tanker moved in to replace them if necessary.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-104C Starfighter 151st FIS, 134th FIG, 56-0890

F-104 Starfighter performance during the Vietnam War

The F-104’s performance was already well-known to the North Vietnamese, and its reputation helped to deter the VPAF from attempting to attack the scarce, costly and essential EC-121Ds. However, because MiG pilots did not anticipate being vectored into engagements with F-104s, they had no specific training in air-to-air strategies for use against them. As Dr Istvan Toperczer noted in his interviews with VPAF pilots, ‘They planned their aerial manoeuvres against USAF F-4s, F-105s, B-52s and US Navy aircraft. They did not mention tactics against the F-104’.

Starfighter pilots felt that the MiGs deliberately avoided tangling with F-104s in much the same way that the US Navy F-8 Crusader community believed that VPAF pilots were told to steer clear of combat with them. Protection of the vulnerable Big Eye was seen from the outset as vital, and most strike missions were cancelled if the F-104C escort was unavailable, or curtailed if the fighters had to abort their BARCAP. Big Eye’s value to the USAF strike packages over North Vietnam became evident in July 1965 when a 522nd AEW&CW aircraft vectored an F-4C Phantom II crew to the first EC-121-controlled MiG kill. Twenty-four others followed in the 13,931 combat missions flown by Big Eye crews, and the F-104C pilots could legitimately claim a share of those successes.

Chinese opposition

Airborne opposition to the Big Eye ‘Connies’ was not confined to North Vietnam. Communist China sometimes despatched fighters from Hainan Island (Hai Nan Tao) to intercept US aircraft that ventured too close. On one occasion Starfighter pilot George Wells was leading an escort flight when the EC-121 crew announced that they had picked up a potential enemy interceptor heading their way from Hainan. Wells and his wingman initiated a sharp turn into the bogie, which promptly headed back in the direction of the island. The F-104s returned to their patrol station, only to be told a short while later that the bogie had resumed its course towards them. George Wells explained what happened next;

`I accelerated to around Mach 1.6 as I was informed that my target was at “12 o’clock” and 12 miles. “Your target is now at six miles. Maintain heading” [was the instruction given by the Big Eye controller]. I knew that I should be able to pick the target up visually very soon at this range. I was probably running pretty high on adrenaline as all the training and fighter experience that I had accumulated over the years was hopefully going to be put to use by shooting down a MiG.

EC-121 did not get shot down

`As my wingman and I were eagerly searching ahead of us I noticed that we were very rapidly approaching the southern coast of China. At about a mile or two from the Chinese shoreline I executed a 6g turn in the opposite direction. My almost instantaneous reaction was a result of the realisation that this was very likely a Chinese MiG, and it would be prudent not to fly over Chinese mainland territory and shoot down one of their aeroplanes. There probably wouldn’t have been much said if I had shot him down over the Gulf of Tonkin — at least the evidence would have been covered up. I reported this incident to Intelligence after I landed at Da Nang and never heard a word about it from my superiors. I guess we accomplished our mission, for the EC-121 did not get shot down.’

F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

83d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron F-104s escort a Lockheed EC-121
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.

View Comments

  • The EC-121 was not known as The Pregnant Guppy, That was an entirely different aircraft.

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