F-4 MiG Killer! The story of the only VF-31’s aerial victory of the Vietnam War

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“It was like something out of the old days. We had a standard Mark One dogfight, as if it were right out of WW II. If you could have spoken to the Red Baron, of WW I fame, he could have probably told you some of the manuevers we used,” Sam C. Flynn, former F-4 pilot

Although the F-4 Phantom II has been phased out of the Navy and Marine Corps, its history is illuminated with countless accomplishments and battle victories. The following article, titled F-4 MiG Killer written by then JO2 Julius L. Evans and appeared in May-June 1989 issue of Naval Aviation News, is a recap of F-4 Bureau Number 157307’s battle with MiG enemy aircraft on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam on Jun. 21, 1972.

Saratoga (CV-59) was diverted to the South China Sea from her originally scheduled deployment and had been on station for several months.

Normally, East Coast carriers don’t make Western Pacific cruises, but Saratoga had just completed her operational readiness requirement workups in preparation for the upcoming Mediterranean cruise. Docked at Mayport, Fla., she was the ready carrier. A short time remained before departure for the Med and just as all carrier crews are advised to have their seabags ready to detach earlier than scheduled if necessary, Saratoga’s crew was prepared.

Unexpectedly, the need arose.

Saratoga was in the 30-day period of preparation for deployment that follows the completion of at-sea workups. While the ship was being readied for her upcoming Med deployment, some crew members took leave and left the area, while others chose to enjoy the company of their families for the few remaining weeks before the men in white manned the rails as the ship returned to deep-water operations.

It was the night of the “Phantom Fling.” The officers and their wives were prepared for the gala, which normally received maximum participation from the fighter squadronmates who were not deployed. Many hours went into selecting the right dress for some of the wives and last minute tailoring was done on some of the white mess dress uniforms in anticipation of the festivities.

Thousands of miles away, combat in Vietnam was escalating. The Vietcong had proved to be a more challenging enemy than many Americans imagined. More power was needed on Yankee Station, and at the last minute a West Coast carrier was unable to deploy as scheduled. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wasted no time in making their decision. Saratoga would be routed to the Western Pacific to beef up operations.

Back in the U.S., as the “Fling” was in full swing, commanding officers learned in hushed whispers that Saratoga was to deploy immediately. It was a complete surprise. “No one expected an emergency deployment. Once we received notice, we had about 72 hours to get under way,” said then Lieutenant Willian H. John, the radar intercept officer (RIO) who later flew in Phantom 157307 during the MiG mission. “That included fully supplying and outfitting the ship with everything we needed for a WestPac cruise and getting supplies and personnel from Oceana, Va., to Mayport, Fla.

“We stayed up all night calling everyone back from leave,” John said. “Some personnel had to meet the ship at sea. It was quite an involved process to get everyone back onboard and get under way, but we were steaming well within our alloted time.”F-4 MiG Killer! The story of the only VF-31's MiG Kill of the Vietnam War

Once Saratoga arrived on station and joined forces with USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), flight operations accelerated. “We were on the front line flying combat missions from May until June,” said then Commander Sam C. Flynn, executive officer of VF-31 and pilot of the MiG mission.

Flying Phantom 157307, Cdr. Flynn and Lt. John led the MiG Combat Air Patrol (MiG CAP), which consisted of two Phantoms. Their mission was to fly in protection of strike force attack aircraft comprised of A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair IIs, whose mission was to strike targets between Haiphong and Hanoi.

The MiG CAP was to position itself between the strike force and the airfield from which MiGs were likely to come. The lead aircraft had just completed in-flight refueling when USS Long Beach (CGN-9), the MiG CAP’s control ship, reported that MiGs were airborne.

“We ingressed over enemy territory about five minutes before the strike force,” Cdr. Flynn said. When the two F-4s crossed ridge lines, the ground crew began firing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at them. They had barely escaped the missiles’ path when Long Beach vectored them north to the MiGs which were 15 to 20 miles away.

F-4J Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VF-31 Tomcatters, AC106 / 157307 / Mig Kill – 1972

The Phantoms were clear to fire during the run-in toward the MiGs before they made visual contact. However, the MiGs were at a higher altitude than expected so the F-4s did not detect them on radar. Lt. John explained, “After maneuvering against the SAMs, we came in at about 7,000 feet and expected the MiGs to be below us. They were actually well above us.”

According to Cdr. Flynn, when the Phantom met the MiGs, “It was like something out of the old days. We had a standard Mark One dogfight, as if it were right out of WW II. If you could have spoken to the Red Baron, of WW I fame, he could have probably told you some of the manuevers we used.”

The wingman initiated engagement but because the MiGs rolled in from above, the Phantom was at a disadvantage. “Our wingman who had the initial tally was unable to achieve an engaging position, so we took the offensive and came behind the lead MiG’s wingman,” Lt. John said.

“When we went high, we followed him and after a series of loops, turns and high-speed maneuvers, we locked up the MiG and attempted to fire a Sparrow missile but it malfunctioned on the aircraft.”F-4 MiG Killer! The story of the only VF-31's MiG Kill of the Vietnam War

Meanwhile, the lead MiG maneuvered behind our wingman and was about to fire an Atoll, the Soviet equivalent of a Sidewinder. “We had the advantage on our MiG but after the missile malfunction, and switching to Sidewinder, I came out of the cockpit,” Lt. John said, referring to looking out of the cockpit instead of using radar. “Knowing where our wingman should be – 10 o’clock high in that a MiG was at his 7 o’clock and pulling lead to fire – I told Nick, our wingman, that he had a MiG at his 7 o’clock who was firing, and called Sam off the MiG we were engaging and told him that our wingman was at 11 o’clock high. Sam immediately broke off the chase.”

The wingman evaded two missiles by the time the lead Phantom arrived. “Sam told him to keep puling on the stick and to keep it in afterburner because the MiG was still at his 7 o’clock,” Lt. John said. The lead Phantom was able to get a good firing position on the MiG, but his wingman was too close to his line of fire. “I didn’t know if the missile would guide on the Phantom or the MiG, so I fired a Sidewinder off to the right, hoping that the MiG would turn around to engage me,” Cdr. Flynn continued.

Because the MiG could out turn the Phantom, Cdr. Flynn knew he didn’t have much time to stay in the Sidewinder envelope. “I was about 45 degrees off his tail and realized that he was going to be out of the missile envelope real soon,” Flynn said. The MiG fired a third missile at the wingman. At that instant, the wingman pulled back hard, causing the MiG to yo-yo high, allowing Phantom 157307 to fall in right behind the MiG.

“Once we got in position, we were able to fire two additional Sidewinders at him. The first missed, but the second went right up the tailpipe and blew off part of the empennage, Lt. John recalled. “He went into a flat spin and tried to recover a couple of times eventually ejected at about 1,000 feet.”

The entire episode lasted about a minute and a half but for the aircrew of Phantom 157307, the adventure will probably last a lifetime. “The opportunity to successfully engage in combat instills a feeling of accomplishment,” Cdr. Flynn stated. “You’re honed right to the razor’s edge after 24 years of training for this event, you could say a sense of self-satisfaction sums up everything.”

Lt. John added, “This was like the graduation of all my training. It was an exhilarating experience that very few pilots or radar intercept officers get the opportunity to go through.”

For their gallant efforts, they each received the Navy Silver Star.F-4 MiG Killer! The story of the only VF-31's MiG Kill of the Vietnam War

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

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