Lt Cdr Thomas’ F-8 had been hit in the utility hydraulic system, preventing him from raising the fighter’s wing for a proper shipboard landing. He diverted to Da Nang, blowing down his landing gear with an emergency air system.
The first acknowledged engagement between US Navy F-8 Crusaders and Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiG-17s occurred on Apr. 3, 1965 during a Rolling Thunder strike. The targets were several bridges that formed a key part of vital supply lines to the south. Three A-4s from VA-212 and VA-216 would go after the bridges. Hitting the Dong Phong Thuong Bridge near Ham Rong, VF-211 F-8Es from USS Hancock, armed with Zuni rockets, attacked in sections (two planes each, flown by Lt [later Vice Adm] Jerry Unruh and his wingman, Lt Bobby Hulse, and Lt Cdr Spence Thomas and his wingman, Ens Ray Lorang). Unruh and Hulse followed Thomas and his wingman in a run against flak sites defending the bridge. Clouds and fog obscured the target as Thomas and his wingman climbed back up to 10,000ft.
Six MiG-17s of the 921st Fighter Regiment (FR) from Noi Bai, near Hanoi, rose to intercept them. Either by chance or design, the MiGs had mixed with the A-4 formation and stolen in behind the two Crusaders. Two jets homed in on a pair of F-8s whose pilots, now making a second run, were intent on the bridge. MiG driver Pham Ngoc Lan got off a burst. His F-8 prey, flown by Lt Cdr Thomas, seemed to explode. When Lan’s gun camera film was developed, it did appear that the American Crusader had indeed been destroyed. Lan received credit for the VPAF’s first aerial kill.
The Crusader, BuNo 150845, although severely damaged absorbing Lan’s 23mm and 37mm hits in the wings and vertical tail, had, incredibly, remained in the air. Lt Cdr Thomas punched in his afterburner and raced away from the MiGs. His wingman joined up with Lt Unruh’s section. Thomas’ F-8 had also been hit in the utility hydraulic system, preventing him from raising the fighter’s wing for a proper shipboard landing. He diverted to Da Nang, blowing down his landing gear with an emergency air system. The VPAF’s first confirmed kill had landed safely ashore. The jet was repaired and returned to flight status, accumulating 4,037 hours before being struck administratively and stored at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. Thus, the VPAF claim of the first F-8 kill was wrong.
Pham Ngoc Lan, who was erroneously credited with the Crusader’s demise, gave a detailed account of the engagement in Peter Mersky’s book F-8 Crusader Vs MiG-17:
“My flight consisted of Phan Van Tuc (my wingman), Ho Van Quy and Tran Ming Phuong, while the second flight was made up of Tran Hanh and Pham Giay.
“The weather was foggy over Noi Bai air base on April 3, with visibility of between four and five kilometers and 6/10ths cloud, with a base of 300m. Over the anticipated battle area the volume of cloud was 5-6/10ths, with the cloud base up to 700m and visibility of up to ten kilometers. At 0700 hrs the radar operators reported a group of intruding fighters in North Vietnamese airspace, and they left after carrying out their reconnaissance duties. The North Vietnamese command felt that a large formation would subsequently attack the bridge at Ham Rong following this earlier flight. Col Gen Phung The Tai [commander of the VPAF] once again briefed the pilots on their objectives, and ordered a stage-one alert. As anticipated, at 0940 hrs US planes attacked the bridges at Tao, Do Len and Ham Rong.
“At 0947 hrs the second flight was launched from Noi Bai. As the leader of the first attack flight, I took off at 0948 hrs and followed a heading of 210 degrees towards the province of Thanh Hoa. Our flight closed to within 45km of the intruders at 1008 hrs, while the second flight was still flying over Ninh Binh Province. I informed air control at 1009 hrs that we had made visual contact with the intruders, and they responded with an order to drop our external fuel tanks and engage the enemy.
“The bridge at Ham Rong was attacked in pairs by the American fighter-bombers, which were at this time still unaware of our fighters. My wingman and I quickly latched onto the tails of the two American fighters, and when in range I opened fire with my cannons. The F-8 Crusader in front of me exploded in a ball of fire and crashed. I was later credited with the first American fighter-bomber to be shot down by a North Vietnamese fighter pilot.
“At the same time the aircraft of Ho Van Quy and Tran Minh Phuong were also pursuing another pair of intruders, with the latter pilot flying as wingman. Ho Van Quy opened fire, but the Americans were out of range and both jets managed to escape. However, the battle between the MiG-17s and the F-8 Crusaders was still far from over in the area of Ham Rong. At 1015 hrs my wingman, Phan Van Tuc, reported on the radio that he had spotted an American fighter to his right, and I immediately replied with an order to attack as I in turn became his wingman. He succeeded in closing in on the American and opened fire with his cannons, eventually causing the F-8 to crash.
“At 1017 hrs Phan Van Tuc, Ho Van Quy and Tran Minh Phuong received an order to land, and they duly returned home. In the meantime I was running out of fuel in the vicinity of our airfield, and ground control gave me the order to eject. However, I thought that there was still a chance to save the aircraft, which was of considerable value to the VPAF and still had many more battles left in it! I looked for a suitable landing ground and spotted a long sandy strip on the bank of the Duong River, on which I made a successful landing.”
His MiG was later returned to service.
F-8 Crusader Vs MiG-17 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force