In late 1966, the USAF was not permitted to bomb North Vietnamese airfields and could only destroy enemy fighters in the air. Complicating the problem, enemy MiGs focused on bomb-laden F-105s and only initiated combat when they had a clear advantage. Col. Robin Olds, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) commander, and the wing’s tactics officer, Capt. John “J.B.” Stone, devised a masterful plan to lure and trap North Vietnamese 921st FR MiG-21s by mimicking an F-105 bombing formation.
On Jan. 2, 1967, 8th TFW F-4s entered North Vietnam from the west using the same route, altitude, and formation as an F-105 bomb strike. They also carried and operated electronic jamming pods used by F-105s. The North Vietnamese took the bait, and the MiGs came up to intercept what they thought was an F-105 strike. At the same time, 366th TFW F-4s came into North Vietnam from the east to block the MiGs’ escape to China and to orbit their bases, preventing the MiGs from landing.
Despite some problems caused by the overcast weather, Operation Bolo was triumphantly successful. During the 12-minute engagement, seven North Vietnamese MiG-21s (according to North Vietnamese records the MiG-21s destroyed were five) — about half of their operational force — were shot down with no USAF losses.
As told by István Toperczer in his book MiG-21 “Fishbed” Opposing Rolling Thunder 1966–68, four days later, on Jan. 6, Col Olds devised a new tactic that would again inflict losses on the 921st FR. This time, he briefed F-4Cs of the 555th TFS/8th TFW to fly in tight formation along a flightpath regularly used by unarmed RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft photographing targets in Hanoi. After North Vietnamese radar had picked up the target, and concluded that it was a flight of reconnaissance aircraft, a GCI command post agreed to scramble MiG-21s at 0924 hrs. Tran Hanh, Mai Van Cuong, Dong Van De, and Nguyen Van Coc took off from Noi Bai and climbed through solid cloud in order to intercept what they believed were RF-4Cs. Coc explained what happened next:
‘That day, I was flying in the No. 4 position as wingman for Dong Van De [in the No. 3 jet]. Right after we broke through the top of the cloud layer I heard Mai Van Cuong [in the No 2 jet] report that he had spotted F-4s behind us. Tran Hanh also saw the enemy aircraft, and immediately realizing we had flown into a trap, he ordered the flight to turn hard to the right. De and I were still in the process of trying to form up after heading through the cloud in loose formation, which meant we were not yet able to make the turn.
‘Having pulled my control column hard over in order to turn inside my flight lead, I was able to see two missiles trailing white smoke flash beneath the belly of my MiG and head straight for De’s jet [“Red 4025”], which was on the outside of the turn. I shouted “Eject! Eject! Eject!” and De left his jet. His ejection was not successful, however, and he did not survive.
‘Hanh ordered the flight to dive back through the cloud layer, and when I broke out below the undercast I found myself over the Tam Dao mountains. I saw a MiG diving toward the ground and I again shouted “Eject,” but the aircraft crashed moments later. It turned out that Cuong had already ejected from his aircraft while he was still in cloud.’
Hanh and Coc were then ordered to return home, and they both made it safely back to Noi Bai. De’s MiG-21 had been hit by an AIM-7 fired by Capt R. M. Pascoe and 1Lt N. E. Wells, while Cuong’s “Red 4023” was brought down by a Sparrow fired by Maj T. M. Hirsch and 1Lt R. J. Strasswimmer.
Nine MiG-21s had now been lost in just two engagements, and not a single enemy aircraft had been claimed in return. VPAF Command immediately suspended all combat operations by the 921st FR and ordered that tactics were to be thoroughly reviewed.
MiG-21 “Fishbed” Opposing Rolling Thunder 1966–68 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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