After the mission, Latham discovered that two other MiG-21s were on their way to the dogfight but were misdirected
On Nov. 5, 1966 two F-4 Phantom IIs (Opal flight) were flying in a triangular pattern behind a Douglas EB-66 Destroyer, escorting the slow-moving light bomber on a radar jamming mission.
Even though during the operation the skies were clear with only a few scattered clouds 35 miles north of Hanoi, Vietnam, the F-4 pilots nervously scanned the skies ahead of them a mile apart, armed with Sidewinder missiles and the knowledge that MiG-21s were in the area.
As told by Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. in his book MiG Killers A Chronology of U.S. Air Victories in Vietnam 1965-1973, two MiG-21s were first detected on radar at a range of 18 miles. One of the attacking Fishbeds fired an air-to-air missile at the EB-66 just as the aircraft broke into a diving spiral.
“We got attacked from 6 o’clock, and instead of trying to take us out first, they went right for the B-66,” said, then a 1st Lt., Joe Latham, an F-4 Phantom pilot from the 366th Wing, deployed from Holloman Air Force Base (AFB), N.M. to Master Sgt. Matthew McGovern, 49th Wing Public Affairs for his article MiG-21 Destroyer visits Holloman, tells story. “They launched a missile, which missed, and the B-66 broke off and spiraled down from 30,000 feet to 10,000, and ducked into a little cloud.”
Latham had a front row seat for the action and, then a 1st Lt., Klaus Klause was in the back of the two-seater. The other F-4, the flight leader, was piloted by Capt. Jim Tuck and 1st Lt. John Rabeni, also from the 366th Wing.
“As the MiGs tried to re-attack, we became daisy chained; it was the B-66 with the MiG-21 behind it,” explained Latham.
Noteworthy the downing of the EB-66 would have been a major victory for the MiG pilots.
“Jim Tuck was chasing that MiG, on his tail was the second MiG, and right behind him was me,” pointed out Latham.
The MiG-21 behind Tuck was too close and out of missile range. The enemy pilot had to maneuver to create some distance.
Latham and Klause, who were flying the F-4C 63-7535 (Opal 02), maneuvered into position to fire on it. Latham locked on to the MiG with an AIM-9 and after obtaining a good tone launched the missile, which exploded near the MiG’s tailpipe, causing the pilot to eject, as he explains “As the MiG started rolling in to get some space, I was able to get a lock on him and fire a Sidewinder that blew off part of his tail, and he immediately ejected.”
Instead, Maj. Tuck and 1st Lt. John J. Rabeni, who were flying the lead F-4C 63-7541 (Opal 01), fired a total of three Sparrow missiles at the attacking MiG, as Latham describes “Tuck chased the lead MiG-21 and fired three Sparrow Missiles that didn’t hit him. But, at the very last moment, the lead MiG pilot ejected. It was later surmised that he had a compressor stall or something like that.”
After the mission, Latham discovered that two other MiG-21s were on their way to the dogfight but were misdirected.
“The scary part for me was if the other two MiGs found us five minutes later, we would’ve been shot down, run out of fuel and either captured or killed,” concludes Latham.
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Matthew McGovern / U.S. Air Force