Although the F-4 Phantom II was the most important fighter-bomber to see action with all three American armed services during the Vietnam War, it was essentially a U.S. Navy design, and the carrier-borne squadrons equipped with the jet were the leading exponents of its combat employment. The aircraft pioneered the use of long-range, radar-guided missiles in aerial combat, although the majority of its Vietnam missions involved ground-attack with a variety of ordnance.
From 1969 to 1973 the Phantom II was the standard U.S. Navy fighter in Southeast Asia, having replaced several other types. Its performance and versatility enabled it to undertake a wide range of different missions, and switch roles as necessary, in the assault on some of the world’s most heavily defended territory. In Operation Linebacker in 1972-73, F-4 crews were able to capitalise on the experiences of their brethren in 1964-68. They were also able to put into practice the air combat training skills taught by the US Navy’s Topgun school, allowing Phantom II crews to achieve an unmatched level of success against enemy fighters in the final year of the Vietnam War.
As explained by Peter E Davies in his book U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73, the 197th, and last, MiG kill of the Vietnam War occurred at 1253 hrs on Jan. 12, 1973 when two VF-161 ‘Chargers’ F-4Bs, flying Barrier Combat Air Patrol (BARCAP) mission from USS Midway (CVA-41), intercepted a lone MiG-17.
Lt Victor Kovaleski and Lt(jg) Jim Wise in ‘Rock River 102’ (BuNo 153045), with Lt Pat Arwood and Ens Lynn Oates in a second F-4B, were vectored to intercept a Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiG-17 that had ventured out across the coast to try and down a USAF C-130 Hercules.
The crew took advantage of more permissive RoE, allowing them to pursue the MiG beyond the 20th parallel, although (according to “Bart” Bartholomay) it took ‘three or four passes for the controller to get them hooked up on the MiG’.
Flying at around 1000 ft and at 450 knots, the novice MiG pilot, Luu Kim Ngo, of the 923rd Fighter Regiment (FR) was picked up sporadically on radar as he flew in a low cloud-base. The two pursuing U.S. Navy crews were quickly able to gain a visual identification on their quarry at a range of four miles and they closed in undetected.
Post-mission, Wise reported that the MiG pilot eventually saw them and used his superior turn rate to roll in behind the F-4s, before turning left and levelling out ahead of them. He then inexplicably turned in the opposite direction, placing himself in Sidewinder acquisition range of the F-4Bs. Kovaleski immediately fired an AIM-9G from ‘Rock River 102’ and it blew off part of the MiG’s tail. Luu Kim Ngo ejected, but his parachute failed to open and his body was later recovered from the sea. Kovaleski fired a second AIM-9G, which turned the MiG into a fireball as it crashed into the sea.
Two days later, Kovaleski and Ens D H Plautz were hit by 85 mm AAA while flying a Blue Tree reconnaissance escort mission near Than Hoa. With one engine knocked out and the Phantom II suffering a massive fuel leak, Kovaleski and Plautz had little choice but to abandon F-4B BuNo 153068 (previously a MiG killer for Lts ‘Bart’ Bartholomay and Oran Brown) and await rescue from the sea by an HH-3A helicopter. Their F-4B was the last of 44 aircraft lost by a Midway air wing during the war.
U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to pre-order here.
Photo credit: Russell M. Taylor / U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force
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