Known to its pilots as the ‘last of the gunfighters’ due to its quartet of Colt-Browning Mk12 20mm cannon (its great naval rival, the F-4 Phantom II, was armed exclusively with missiles), the F-8 Crusader was numerically the most common fighter in the US Navy at the start of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict in 1964 – some 482 F-8C/D/Es equipped 17 frontline units. It enjoyed great success against North Vietnamese MiG-17s and MiG-21 s during the Rolling Thunder campaign of 1965-68, officially downing 18 jets, which represented 53 per cent of all MiG claims lodged by Navy squadrons during this period.
As told by Peter Mersky in his book F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War, the Crusader’s last official Vietnam kill went to Lt Anthony j Nargi of VF-111’s Det 11 whilst flying F- 8C BuNo 146961 (AK 103) front the veteran carrier USS Intrepid. On Sep. 9, 1968 he shot down a MiG-21 scoring the Navy’s 29th MiG kill of the war and the F-8’s 18th, and last, confirmed victory.
Carrier-based F-4 Phantom II crews used their proven loose-deuce tactics and AIM-9 Sidewinders, as well as the highly touted training from the new Topgun school at Miramar, to shoot down 26 MiGs from 1970 to 1973 – they had scored 10 times during 1965-68. For the F-8 Nargi’s s kill represented the end of a relatively short list of victories.
There is, however, one last, controversial F-8 kill – that of VF-211‘s Lt. Jerry Tucker on May 23, 1972. It wasn’t as if the ‘Checkmates’ had nothing to do, for they had been quite busy supporting the intense war on the ground, delivering bombs and rockets against Communist positions in the face of occasionally intense flak and SAM defences. Still, every fighter pilot dreamt of at least one chance at a MiG…
The squadron now flew the F-8J, an upgraded ‘Echo’ that featured better avionics and boundary layer control, which improved the Crusader’s notorious handling around the ship.
On this day, Tucker and Lt Cdr Frank Bachman were TARCAP (Target Combat Air Patrol) for an Alpha strike near Vinh airfield. Orbiting their station was getting boring, and as the strikers returned, two of their F-4s from VF-161 got a vector toward a MiG that was coming out over the water in response to the attack on the airfield.
The two F-8 pilots listened to the proceedings as the F-4 crews quickly lost the ‘bubble’ and the MiG. Tucker called Red Crown and said his section was ready to go. Red Crown called the Phantom IIs off and sent the Crusaders toward the MiG.
Heading north, the F-8s spotted the MiG-17 and sped toward what seemed like a sure kill. Lt Tucker took the lead because he had the enemy fighter in sight. The MiG was low and really moving out. Tucker’s Sidewinder began to growl, indicating the missile’s seeker head was ‘sniffing’ its quarry.
Suddenly, the MiG’s canopy flew off, followed by the pilot. Tucker watched incredulously as his ‘kill’ floated down under a white parachute. The frustrated Crusader pilot made two passes by the understandably nervous North Vietnamese pilot, whose head turned as the American fighter flashed past him.
Unfortunately, the Navy denied credit for the kill, leaving, those concerned, as well as historians, to argue the point for posterity. One of the aspects of this ‘engagement’ has long been whether the MiG pilot punched out when he found his opponents were F-8s instead of F-4s. Of course, the Crusader ‘drivers’ will say that his reaction was understandable given the potent reputation of the F-8. As Lt Tucker points out, however, only that MiG pilot knows for sure, and he has long since faded into the security of anonymity.
F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force
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