Seldom emphasized about the second Skyraider-MiG encounter of the Vietnam War is the probability that three MiGs were destroyed by Spads.
As explained by Wayne Mutza in his book The A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam, by late 1966, North Vietnam’s air defenses had intensified to the extent that losses during air strikes were inevitable. On Oct. 6, three massive strike groups would run the deadly gauntlet into the North, with the predictable outcome. ResCAP coverage included four VA-176 Skyraiders (call sign “Papoose”) launched from the USS intrepid, led by Lt. Cmdr. C. Leo Cook, with Lt j.g. James Wiley on his wing; Lt. Peter Russell and Lt j.g. W. Thomas Patton comprised the second section.
Orbiting with a helicopter off the coast southeast of Hanoi, the Spad pilots were keenly aware that if strike aircraft went down, their quickest, most direct route would be over anti-aircraft and SAM sites. Just when it seemed all strike aircraft had survived the mission, a Navy Phantom was reported downed by ground fire, and its two-man crew had ejected 20 miles from Hanoi. Looking at their maps, dotted with enemy gun sites, the ResCAP pilots were faced with the unsettling prospect of running the deadly gauntlet between their position and the downed crew. Cook made the decision to go in, and he and Wiley headed inland. Russell stayed with the helicopter, while Patton covered the rear to deal with ground fire. Almost immediately after going feet dry Russell, Patton, and the chopper were met with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Hoping to keep the enemy gunners’ heads down, Patton made several firing passes, but the flak never slackened. The helo took some hits, but was able to continue.
Suddenly the firing stopped. It was the eerie calm before the storm, for moments later, Cook radioed that four MiGs were in the area. When Russell sent an urgent request for air cover to the radar-monitoring destroyer, the Spad pilots received the unsettling news that all the covering jets were low on fuel and a tanker aircraft could not be located.
Wiley saw them first—”I’ve got three MiGs making turns on me!” to which Russell calmly replied. “Right Pud…we’re on our way with two Spads and a helo,” as though he were confident that would turn the tide of overwhelming odds. It was do or die-the fight was on. In thick clouds over the mountainous region, the MiGs got between Cook and Wiley. One engaged Cook, while the other had Wiley trapped in a deadly wheel pattern. He stayed alive by hugging the ground. Wiley broke left to avoid a mountain peak and a pursuing MiG broke right, then sharply left, giving Wiley a shot. His cannon fire tore off the MiG’s wing tip and produced a vapor trail from the crippled jet. Although no one saw the MiG crash, Wiley was credited with a probable kill.
Russell and Patton got into the melee, spotted two MiGs, and maneuvered for a head-on attack. Russell fired all four cannons at the belly of one, which was not seen again, earning him a possible kill.
Patton, still at 9,000 feet, spotted a MiG headed in his direction, skimming the treetops. When Patton estimated the MiG to be within range, he rolled his Spad into a split-S and dove straight down, exceeding 350 knots, and pulled out of the dive behind and to the right of the MiG. A short cannon burst missed, but got the attention of the MiG pilot, who made the fatal mistake of executing a reverse turn. His airspeed bled off in a climbing attitude, while Patton had plenty of speed, placing him on the MiG’s tail. Having the advantage, Patton waited for the MiG to fill his gunsight and, in what he describes as the most exciting moment of his life, poured cannon fire into the MiG’s tailpipe. With both aircraft at a 75-degree upward angle, he closed to within 100 feet (close enough to watch the MiG’s tail disintegrate) when all four guns quit—two were empty and two, he learned later, had jammed.
Dissatisfied that the MiG had not exploded, Patton fired three of his Zuni rockets, which narrowly missed. As the MiG flipped over and fell toward the clouds, Patton fired his last rocket. Following his MiG down, he broke out of the clouds to see the MiG pilot eject. The helicopter crew witnessed the duel and Cook verified the crash site, ensuring Patton a MiG kill.
Patton and Russell escorted the helo to the coast while Cook and Wiley resumed the search for the downed Phantom crews, who were never found. Thankfully, their egress route was cloud-covered. When the exuberant quartet reached the carrier, they performed an echelon formation flyby before landing. For his aerial victory in combat Patton was awarded the Silver Star, while Cook, Wiley and Russell received Distinguished Flying Crosses. Russell returned for a second combat tour flying OV- l 0 “Broncos” with VAL-4 “Black Ponies.” On May 25, 1969, a single bullet killed Russell as he dove on an enemy position while supporting Navy patrol boats. He had encountered his “Golden BB,” the term pilots used for the round with their name on it.
The Skyraiders’ victories had various effects on different fronts. Premier Ky told VA-25’s pilots that their MiG kill was a tremendous morale booster in the VNAF A-1 squadrons. Conversely, North Vietnamese significantly minimized MiG flights to increase pilot training. The Spad pilots relished in the belief that they embarrassed the North into withdrawing their MiGs. Although the Skyraider was known for its ability to carry a tremendous load, it was never lost on Spad pilots that it was also designed to defend itself from air attack. That belief is evident in the following anecdote from Navy Spad pilot William “Speed” Ritzmann:
“In January 1968, just before the Tet Offensive, Lt j.g. Dunn and I were on an afternoon coastal reconnaissance flight. We were assigned to reconnoiter the islands from Haiphong east to the Cam Pha coal mine loading pier near the Chinese border. We had just started our last westbound leg from the Cam Pha area at about 6,500 feet when we heard a warning that two MiGs were feet wet southeast of Haiphong and headed southeast toward Yankee Station. This essentially put them between the Coral Sea and Joe and I. Further information led us to believe that the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over Yankee Station had been vectored to intercept the two MiGs. The MiGs started wide sweeping left turn in our direction, which put the CAP in a chase position 50 to 60 miles behind the MiGs. Joe and I prepared ourselves for what I expected to be the third encounter. I suspect that the North Vietnamese air controllers saw the pursuit by the CAP and vectored the MiGs back toward Haiphong and, ultimately, their base ear Hanoi. We saw the two bogeys high above and south of us as they were heading northwest.
“When we arrived back at Coral Sea, I sought out Lcdr. Dick Gralow, who was the flight leader of the VF-151 F-4s that were on the CAP. I asked him why he did not take up a vector that would cut the MiGs off from their home field. His reply was, ‘We were coming to protect you.’ Severely rebuffed by his good natured jibe, I replied, ‘Since the box score is Spads four – MiGs nothing, I thought we were capable of taking care of ourselves, and you may have missed out on your own opportunity.'”
In the years following their victories, the Spad pilots, when asked what they were flying when they brought down a MiG, enjoyed saying “Skyraider.” The reactions were always the same. Not so fortunate were three Skyraider pilots lost to MiGs during the war. Ironically, the only Navy Spad pilot shot down by a MiG was from VA-25, tempering the squadron’s earlier triumph.
The Spad’s slow speed, the untenable SAM and flak-filled skies over Southeast Asia, plus the arrival of the A-6 Intruder may have brought the A-1’s career as an attack bomber to a close, but not before it added MiG kills to its long list of achievements.
The A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force
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