Known to its pilots as the ‘last of the gunfighters’ due to its quartet of Colt-Browning Mk12 20mm cannon (its great naval rival, the F-4 Phantom II, was armed exclusively with missiles), the F-8 Crusader was numerically the most common fighter in the U.S. Navy at the start of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict in 1964 — some 482 F-8C/D/Es equipped 17 frontline units.
It enjoyed great success against North Vietnamese MiG-17s and MiG-21s during the Rolling Thunder campaign of 1965-68, officially downing 18 jets, which represented 53 per cent of all MiG claims lodged by Navy squadrons during this period.
Nevertheless on Sep. 5, 1966 USS Oriskany’s Crusaders sustained a rare F-8 air-to-air loss. On that day the Sundowners of VF-111 provided four Target Combat Air Patrol (TarCAP) fighters during an attack on enemy transport targets near Phy Ly. Leading the first pair was Lt Cdr Foster Teague while the second section was led by Capt Wilfred K Abbott, a USAF exchange pilot who had been flying since 1958.
As explained by Barrett Tillman with Henk Van der Lugt in their book VF-11/111 ‘Sundowners’ 1942-95, Teague took his wingman inland to cover the A-4 Skyhawks, leaving Abbott and Lt Randy Rime to orbit offshore. When Teague reached minimum fuel level he egressed, allowing Abbott to head in continue protecting the A-4s. A cloud layer forced Rime to fall in trail behind Abbott, reducing situational awareness. Circling at 6000 ft, Abbott and Rime were surprised by a pair of MiG-17s emerging from the clouds. The ‘Red Bandits’ got within gunnery range without being spotted, hitting Rime’s Crusader with 23 mm cannon rounds. Abbott pitched up to cover Rime, accepting a 90-degree shot from the stalkers. He placed his hope in the difficult gunnery problem – a close-range, high-deflection shot. Unfortunately for the USAF pilot, his North Vietnamese opponents could shoot.
The Crusader took multiple hits that proved devastating. Abbot’s canopy was shattered, his instrument panel smashed and his helmet knocked off. With the controls unresponsive, Abbott pulled the black and yellow handle, rocketing himself out of the doomed Vought. He parachuted into seven years of captivity, the “Sundowners” only jet loss to enemy aircraft.
Randy Rime barely escaped. Slightly wounded by glass splinters from his canopy, he evaded his assailants and just had sufficient fuel to limp back to the ‘0-Boat’. He ignored the wave-off lights, caught a late wire and his starboard wheel fell off. Rime had about 300 lbs of JP-5 remaining — not enough for another pass at the deck.
Subsequently, Oriskany checked with the controllers responsible for monitoring enemy radio nets and tracking hostile aircraft. It became evident that the two MiGs had made a mess of a previous pass at the F-8s and then been directed to reposition for the successful bounce. For reasons never determined, Abbott and Rime had been denied this critical information. Abbott later recalled:
‘On 5 September I was flying my F-8 Crusader in bright and sunny conditions when I was shot down over North Vietnam. In the ejection my right leg was broken. After the leg was finally operated on, I was in a cast for about four months. It took about two years, with my roommates’ help, for me to achieve full use of the leg. It was my constant desire not to be a cripple so as to fly again someday. Other than my leg, the treatment and daily routine as a PoW was similar to that described by most other veterans. The food was just enough to sustain life. A constant battle was to keep our minds active. In the early years communication was extremely limited, but in the last couple of years we were able to conduct our own educational programmes — courses in everything from languages and mathematics to meat cutting, duplicate bridge and Toastmasters.’
Abbott may have fallen victim to North Vietnam’s first ace, Nguyen Van Bay, who had already been involved in the downing of two Crusaders — an RF-8A and an F-8E off USS Hancock (CVA-19) on Jun. 21, 1966. Later that month he claimed an F-105 and an A-4 (not confirmed by U.S. records), adding four more victories in April 1967. Van Bay was, therefore, one of just four Vietnamese Peoples’ Air Force (VPAF) MiG-17 pilots who probably participated in downing five or more American aircraft.
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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