The F-104 Starfighter was lightning-fast, but despite its high performance, the diminutive Cold War fighter was not given much of a chance in the event of a ‘Shooting War’ due to its limited range and armament. Yet during the conflict in Vietnam, in 1965-67, USAF Starfighters performed admirably in missions such as MiGCAP and escort duties for Big Eye and Silver Dawn electronic reconnaissance aircraft.
As explained by Peter E Davies in his book F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat, by mid-1965 following increased MiG activity because of the combat introduction of the MiG-21, the formation of a second MiG-17 squadron and the adoption of more aggressive tactics by VPAF pilots more MiGCAP and escort missions were therefore assigned to F-104 aircrews.
Escort duties for the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) included protection for 6091st Reconnaissance Squadron (RS) EC-130E-II Silver Dawn `comint’ aircraft flying electronic and communications monitoring sorties just offshore from North Vietnam and China.
One of these missions on Sept. 20, 1965 had terrible consequences for the F-104C pilots when three aircraft from the 436th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) were lost. Capt Phillip Eldon Smith, the 479th TFW Wing Weapons Officer, took off in F-104C 56-0883 (the first production F-104C) as ‘Venus 5’ flight’s ‘ground spare’. He replaced Capt Harvey E Quackenbush, whose Starfighter had aborted ten minutes into the flight to the escort orbit area with a damaged in-flight refuelling probe that prevented him from taking fuel from a KC-135A.
On this, his 80th combat mission, Smith was driven to his aircraft by his squadron commander, who told him to be sure to stay away from Hainan Island. He picked up his tanker at a range of 17 miles on an unusually efficient radar set and refuelled over the Gulf of Tonkin alongside the deputy flight leader, R E Smith. Flight leader Ken Kerwin, with Don Madonna, were meanwhile holding the fort on the patrol orbit. Kerwin then ordered Capt P E Smith to meet them, leaving R E Smith to protect the tanker so that the flight could resume its original refuelling sequence.
As he set out from the tanker, Smith received a series of incorrect and confusing directional instructions from Panama ground control, indicating that either the Panama radar or the ‘parrot’ IFF unit in Smith’s F-104C were not working correctly. Calculating that he was about to approach Hainan at around 540 knots, he turned south and detected another aircraft, high and behind him. Smith reported this to Panama and turned to face the unidentified aircraft. After a short pursuit at 580 knots he had to abandon the chase as he was nearing China again, although solid cloud cover prevented him from seeing sea or terrain.
Panama made repeated attempts to find him on radar, but Smith then discovered that both his heading indicator and standby compass were inoperative. A request to the tanker for a fix on his position produced inconclusive results. Shedding his underwing tanks and becoming increasingly concerned about his fuel state, which had fallen to 3000 lbs, Smith declared an emergency and hoped that Da Nang’s ‘alert pad’ F-102A Delta Daggers with their long-ranging radars might be launched to find him in time. Desperate to establish some idea of his position Smith was reduced to using a pencil as a rudimentary sundial, but with the mid-day sun directly overhead even that was useless. He spied a coastline through a gap in the cloud base and descended to 9000 ft to investigate but nothing looked familiar. Suddenly, his aircraft’s right wing was hit by gunfire, blowing away the AIM-9B and launcher. His right arm was also struk by 37 mm bullet fragments.
Capt `Smitty’ Smith had been intercepted by a pair of Chinese J-6s (MiG-19s), with the lead jet flown by Capt Gao Xiang (commander of the 4th Division’s 10th Group) and deputy commander Huang Feng Sheng at the controls of the second aircraft. They had dived at Smith from the clouds above him and fatally damaged his F-104C with gunfire at close quarters. Many warning lights appeared in the cockpit, but Smith also saw a fleeting hope of retaliation as the leading MiG passed ahead of him with its afterburners blazing. He focused on gaining enough speed to get behind the MiG, but his engine stalled. As he re-started it he also heard the growl of the remaining AIM-9B, indicating that it had acquired the target. Smith began a turn behind the MiG to launch the missile but at that moment his control column suddenly failed to respond. Both of his hydraulic systems had been knocked out.
With his aircraft in a steep dive towards the sea several miles off the coast, Smith ejected close to a Chinese fishing fleet. He was immediately captured and spent seven-and-a-half years in a Peking prison, mostly in solitary confinement, as the only USAF pilot known to have been incarcerated in China after the only air-to-air shoot-down of an F-104 during the Vietnam War. Smith’s release came in March 1973, and he resumed his USAF career, finally commanding Bergstrom AFB. When he met his attacker in 1989, Smith learned that Gao’s J-6 was also damaged when debris from the F-104C knocked out one of its engines.
The loss of Capt Smith’s jet highlighted the lack of advanced navigational equipment such as INS, Doppler or UHF/ADF in the F-104C, although the 479th TFW’s training compensated for this. Smith’s unfortunate communications and navigation problems were the only example of this kind of difficulty experienced by the wing during its wartime deployment. This shoot-down resulted indirectly in the loss of two more 436th TFS aircraft. Capt ‘Q-Bush’ Quackenbush and Capt Dayle W Carlson took off to look for `Smitty’ Smith, escorting a pair of Grumman SA-16 amphibious rescue aircraft and supported by a US Marine Corps KC-130F tanker. As darkness approached they made a low-altitude search of much of Hainan’s coast but eventually had to turn for home.
In the twilight they realised that two of their aircrafts’ three sets of external navigation lights and Carlson’s interior cockpit illumination were not functioning. The squadron had flown exclusively in daylight until then, and these lighting systems had not been required or prioritised in maintenance routines. Unable to see his instruments for landing, Carlson had to follow Quackenbush for a formation landing. As they began a left turn on approach Carlson lost sight of his leader in thick cloud and requested a burst of afterburner flame to locate the other F-104C. Seconds later the two F-104Cs (56-0911 and 57-0921) collided and both pilots ejected as their aircraft disintegrated, landing close to each other in the sea just off Da Nang.
F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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