How the Mohawk became MiG Killer: the story of the US Army OV-1 pilot that shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17

How the Mohawk became MiG Killer: the story of the US Army OV-1 pilot that shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17

By Dario Leone
Dec 1 2022
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The OV-1 Mohawk achieved the only US Army air-to-air victory during the Vietnam War.

In 1957, the US Army identified a requirement for a light but rugged front-line observation aircraft that could operate from rough airstrips and had short take-off and landing (STOL) capability. Grumman’s proposal was accepted, and development of the YAO-1A began.

The aircraft’s first flight was Apr. 14, 1959. It was a mid-wing monoplane powered by two turboprop engines, with a tail featuring three vertical stabilizers. The pilot and observer sat in a side-by-side cockpit with bulged side windows, providing excellent downward visibility.

More than 375 OV-1 Mohawk aircraft were built over a period of almost 10 years. They were used extensively in the Vietnam War. The aircraft was not designed to carry armament, but many were modified in the field to carry rockets, mortars and rotating-barrel machine guns in addition to iron bombs.

What the Mohawk wasn’t supposed to do was shooting down a MiG, a thing that actually the aircraft did during the Vietnam Conflict.

On a morning in mid-February 1968 two OV-1As from the 131st Aviation Company were flying at 2000ft above the Ashau Valley, one of two strongholds for the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam, the other being the U Minh Forest north of Saigon. The flight was led by Capt. Ken Lee, one of the most experienced Mohawk pilots of the unit. Since the two pilots knew that in the jungle below them there were more than 6,000 permanent troops and one of the most sophisticated complexes of anti-aircraft batteries in the world, they kept their altitude to use the OV-1 side-looking radar and infrared detection gear to observe the enemy activity in the valley.

OV-1 Vs MiG-17: the story of how the Mohawk became a MiG killer

Suddenly, as explained by Wayne Mutza in his book U.S. Army Aviation in Vietnam, Lee felt his airplane taking hits and he immediately turned to right when his wingman from half a mile behind his tale, shouted at him: “You got a MiG behind you!”. Lee levelled his wings and a MiG-17 passed at 275 knots on his left, pulling out of its dive two hundred feet below him and turning back to attack the two Mohawks again. Lee understood that his only chance to avoid being shooting down by the MiG would have been attacking it. The OV-1A in fact could carry a 2.75-inch rocket pod and a podded .50-caliber machine gun under each wing – a load Lee was carrying that morning.

The MiG pilot had made a major mistake in slowing down to make his attack and Lee fired 38 rockets in two shots, with four of them hitting on the MiG. Moreover, Lee hit the enemy fighter also with many bullets of his machine gun “I put about 100 rounds of .50-caliber into him – I could see the tracers going into the fuselage. Hitting his engine killed his power.” Since the MiG was climbing when Lee opened fire, they entered into a cloud bank. Lee pulled out of the clouds to the right, and saw the MiG coming out about three to five seconds later. The aircraft right wing was low and his nose was pitched over, with orange flames. The MiG went around one of the mountains ringing the Ashau, turning into what Lee knew was a blind valley, but he was so low, that Lee could not have gotten out of that valley without impacting the hillside and he didn’t see the MiG crashing.

The night 12 Chinese MiGs were scrambled to intercept a lone B-17 Spy Plane. They failed, and two of them crashed.

Once they returned to Phu Bai air base Lee discovered many bullet holes in the tail and in the aft fuselage of his aircraft, but it was ordered to him and to his wingman not to talk to anyone about Lee probable MiG kill. The Army in fact feared that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) would have forced them to either disarm the Mohawks or even turn them over to the USAF, because the Air Force had reserved shooting down MiGs as their exclusive domain.

Few weeks later Lee flew from Phu Bai to Ubon, where he met Col. Robin Olds, the 8th TFW commanding officer. Olds told Lee that he heard some rumours about a Mohawk shooting down a MiG and he was interested to discover that Lee was the pilot involved in that singular dogfight. In May Lee flew another mission that stopped to Ubon and once he landed, Robin Olds and Chappie James ordered him to accompany them to the Officer’s Club, where they told him that a MiG had definitely been shot down under the circumstances he had described. When Lee asked how they knew, Olds said to him “We know things you guys don’t and will never find out.”

Photo credit: U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, J. S. (Steve) Bond and Atsushi Tsubota via Wikipedia

OV-1 Vs MiG-17: the story of how the Mohawk became a MiG killer

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Dario Leone

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.

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  1. says:

    Love to read about my friend, Ken Lee. Please edit this article, as there are many grammar mistakes. A poorly written article leaves a negative impression of the entire story. Thank you!

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