The story of the North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed fighters tasked to attack USAF EB-66 Destroyer electronic attack aircraft

The story of the North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed fighters tasked to attack USAF EB-66 Destroyer electronic attack aircraft

By Dario Leone
Jan 15 2022
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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The VPAF’s determination to eliminate the highly disruptive effects of EB-66 jamming increased their efforts at interception. Air Defence Command gave the MiG-21 units a special ‘non-combat mission’, tasking them with developing tactics to attack EB-66s.

As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book B/EB-66 Destroyer Units in Combat, orbiting at the edge of heavily-defended territory, during the Vietnam War the vulnerable EB-66 Destroyer electronic warfare aircraft identified and jammed the enemy’s radar frequencies with electronic emissions and chaff to protect the American bombers. Their hazardous missions resulted in six combat losses, four of them to SA-2 missiles and one to a MiG-21, and they became prime targets for North Vietnamese defences when their importance was realised.

The Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF)’s determination to eliminate the highly disruptive effects of EB-66 jamming increased their efforts at interception. Air Defence Command gave the MiG-21 units a special ‘non-combat mission’, tasking them with developing tactics to attack EB-66s. MiG controllers soon began to direct MiG-21s towards EB-66 orbits, despite the fighter cover provided to the Destroyers.

On Nov. 19, 1967, MiG-21 pilots Vu Ngoc Dinh (given special responsibility for EB-66 interception) and Nguyen Dang Kinh left Noi Bai air base to intercept a Destroyer near Than Hoa. The pilots split up, one attacking from a high ‘perch’ and the other from low altitude behind the EB-66. Kinh evaded the F-4 escort and fired two R-3S missiles at the ECM aircraft, claiming that he hit an engine and destroyed the EB-66. The missiles exploded below their target, however, and no loss was recorded by the Takhli wing that day as the pilot of the Destroyer had received a MiG warning from the F-4s in time to execute an evasive diving manoeuvre. The Phantom IIs then chased the fleeing MiG-21s but both escaped. Another attempted attack on an EB-66C the following day was also frustrated. After that, the ECM aircraft had to be pulled back again to positions south of the 21st parallel.

RB-66C Destroyer
Douglas RB-66C Destroyer in flight.

A less auspicious MiG-21 encounter occurred on Feb. 3, 1968 when two 509th FIS F-102A Delta Daggers flew an EB-66 escort mission at 36,000 ft close to the North Vietnam-Laotian border near Sam Neua. Maj A L Lomax led ‘Jersey White’ flight, with 1Lt Wallace Wiggins as his wingman in F-102A 56-1166. At Noi Bai airfield in North Vietnam, 921st FR pilots Pham Thanh Ngan and Nguyen Van Coc (who would end the war as the top VPAF ace with nine kills) took off on their fourth interception mission of the day, heading for a pair of enemy aircraft that radar had picked up near Moc Chau.

Near the Laotian border Ngan thought he saw a distant EB-66, but at closer range he realised he was looking at the two F-102As. Lomax saw the MiGs, turned and launched three AIM-4D Falcon missiles, all of which missed. Ngan manoeuvred into Wiggins’ blind spot and triggered an R-3S (K-13A ‘Atoll’) missile which refused to leave its launch rail, but his second missile impacted the F-102A’s tail. Van Coc also fired an R-3S but it failed to guide. The MiG-21F-13s were then told to break off the engagement by their controller.

Wiggins reported handling problems with his aircraft, and when Lomax checked the Delta Dagger he saw an unexploded ‘Atoll’ protruding from its rear fuselage. Lomax attempted to locate the MiGs again but they had rapidly departed, and seconds later he saw Wiggins’ aircraft explode, with no sign of an ejection.

The effectiveness of the USAF fighter protection was indicated by the loss of only one EB-66 to MiGs throughout the war, despite persistent efforts by the VPAF. It occurred over Laos, where EB-66Cs would provide up to 12 hours of radar surveillance daily in 1970-71 until tanker shortages forced them to reduce their commitment. MiGs were seldom a threat over Laos, with their solitary success occurring on Jan. 14, 1968. 41st TEWS EB-66C 55-388 ‘Preview 01’ was intercepted at 28,000 ft during an ELINT mission involving five Destroyers 65 miles southwest of Hanoi near Route 15 on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in support of a strike near Than Hoa.

Two 921st FR MiG-21s flown by Nguyen Dang Kinh (who had claimed the EB-66 on Nov. 19, 1967) and Dong Van Song were scrambled from Noi Bai air base and vectored towards the unescorted EB-66C. They detected the aircraft at a range of eight miles some 15 minutes into its orbit. Nguyen Dang Kinh fired his two R-3S IR-seeking missiles, but both failed to home correctly. Dong Van Song, who had already claimed three F-105s, then fired an ‘Atoll’. His R-3S destroyed the EB-66C’s right engine and wing. Maj Hugh ‘Sonny’ Mercer Jr turned towards safety, but the Destroyer entered a spin and he instructed his crew to bail out as they overflew mountainous country in North Vietnam.

MiG-21PF

Three of the crew landed a short distance apart. 1Lt Ron Lebert’s parachute was suspended in a tree, and he hung there for 17 hours before being cut down by local troops and taken into captivity. A search and rescue (SAR) effort was immediately begun at Nhakon Phanom RTAFB, and aircraft contacted four survivors on their emergency radios. Darkness and bad weather delayed the rescue attempt until the following morning, when a SAR force led by 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) HH-3E 64-14233 headed out. The helicopter, flown by Capt Gregory Etzel, entered the karst mountain area with visibility of around 50 ft. Its rotor blades struck a mountainside as it attempted to cross a ridge and the helicopter crashed. Although the crew escaped with their lives, some had suffered severe injuries. They were now stranded on a steep slope 40 miles into enemy territory. Two more helicopters were sent in, but they were frustrated by bad visibility and one was damaged by machine gun fire.

On Jan. 17, three crew from the RB-66C were rescued by an HH-3. Lt Col James Thompson and instructor radar navigator Lt Col Attilio ‘Pete’ Pedroli, who had also landed in a tree on a mountain side but was able to lower himself to the ground, were recovered intact. Maj Mercer had sustained severe injuries when ejecting while the aircraft was spinning, including broken legs. He died in hospital three days later. The CIA attempted to insert a Bright Light covert rescue team to locate the remaining four crew and arrange a helicopter extraction, but they had apparently already been captured. Majs Thomas Sumpter and Irby Terrell, Capt Hubert Walker and 1Lt Lebert, three of them EB-66C EWOs, were imprisoned until March 1973. Pedroli returned to the 41st TEWS to complete his 100 missions.

This incident did not initially increase awareness in Saigon of the MiG threat, and a mission on Jan. 18 on the same route was met by the same VPAF interception tactics. Fortunately, the crew evaded the MiG-21 and its missiles. Following the second engagement, the Seventh Air Force instructed that all EB-66s were to be removed from North Vietnamese airspace and given additional MiGCAP flights to protect them from VPAF fighters that were crossing into Laos to try and catch them. This arrangement remained in place until the end of Rolling Thunder on Nov. 2, 1968.

B/EB-66 Destroyer Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

EA-3B Skywarrior print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. EA-3B Skywarrior VQ-2 Sandeman, JQ12 “Ranger 12” / 146448 / 1980

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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  1. ppedroli says:

    Dario Leone,

    My Dad was Gen. Attilio Pedroli (Lt.Col. Attilio “Pete” Pedroli and your story closed the Circle on the Recovery Mission. After Dad died in 2010 I got a call from the Team Commander (Navy Seal) that was sent in to recover the crew and destroy any usable Intelligence. He found Dad and aided the PJ getting Dad onto the Jungle Penetrator. Thank You for the article

    Peter Pedroli
    82nd Airborne Alumnus

    EB-66C Shoot Down West of Hanoi by a MIG-21
    by Ned Colburn

    On 14 January 1968, an EB-66C (Preview 01) was shot down west of Hanoi by a MIG-21. Major Pollard [Sonny] Mercer was the pilot, Attilio [Pete] Pedroli the Instructor Navigator, Irby Terrell the Navigator with the following EWOs: Thomas Sumpter, Ronald Lebert, Hubert Walker and Jim Thompson. All 7 ejected, but Sonny Mercer’s legs were broken in the ejection. Jim Thompson was the only EWO rescued. The other 3 EWOs were captured and spent the rest of the war as POWs. Mercer, Pedroli and Thompson were rescued several days after the shoot-down. Mercer was air-evacuated to the Philippines where he died in the hospital from a blood clot to the brain. Pete Pedroli and Jim Thompson went on to complete their combat tours at Takhli.

    Pete Pedroli went to the Bomb-Nav School at Mather as an instructor, made Lt Col and as a Full Colonel became the Navigator Training Wing Commander — and then made BG. One of the finest human beings on planet earth who deserved every good break that came his way.
    Background and story of Shoot-Down:
    [Based on Ned Colburn’s recollection of events and what Pete Pedroli and Jim Thompson related to me]. Rivet Top [EC-121] had just arrived in theater for Operational Suitability Testing and was so successful that it remained in SEA rather than return to the U.S. for modification. River Top had intercept gear that reportedly did the impossible of showing on a PPI exactly what the N. Vietnamese radar controllers saw on their ground scopes.

    On or about 12 January 1968, Rivet Top observed and reported to Saigon what they correctly deemed was preparation to shoot down a B-66, since we were the first on station preceding a bomb strike and flew unescorted without fighter cover. The B-66 always got its share of attention since there was time for one MIG sweep into the B-66 orbit area, before the Fighter Bombers arrived.

    Following the completion of Rolling Thunder operations for the afternoon and after all USAF & USN activity ceased over North Vietnam, Rivet Top observed MIGs taxi and take-off without any radio transmissions whatsoever during the entire flight profile. Prior to this time, the usual radio calls were made to Ground Control, Tower and GCI as the MIGs called for Taxi-Take Off, with IFF on and the mission controlled by GCI Radar Operators. The MIGs taxied out, took-off and flew with their transponders off, tracked 240 from Hanoi and then started a climbing turn into the orbit area and altitude that the B-66s flew West of Hanoi. Rivet Top passed the information to Saigon with the correct analysis that a B-66 shoot-down was being rehearsed – with not a peep from Hanoi relayed as a warning to Takhli.

    On 14 January 1968, Sonny Mercer and crew arrived on station and began their orbit to perform their dual mission of jamming and missile threat warning – when, without any warning, the right engine was hit by an air-to-air infrared heat seeking missile. All 7 successfully ejected. Sonny Mercer, Jim Thompson and Pete Pedroli landed in the jungle on a mountain – with Irby Terrell, Tom Sumpter, Ronald Lebert and Hubert Walker landing in a valley where they were immediately captured by the North Vietnamese Army and held as POWs for the duration of the war. Pete Pedroli drifted toward the valley and was saved from becoming a POW when his chute snagged the only tree that grew out over a cliff. One of Pete’s arms was completely numb and useless from his shoulder and arm being injured in the ejection. The NVA started shooting at Pete but never hit him as he tied stair-steps in his shroud lines to climb up into the tree – proving that necessity is truly the Mother of Invention when it is virtually impossible to tie knots in string with only one good hand. Once into the tree, Pete faced the dilemma of how to get to the jungle floor perhaps 200 feet below him. He found 2 growths of bamboo that were parallel to one another and curved down toward the ground. Sitting on the lower bamboo limb, Pete got his bad arm draped over the top branch of bamboo and grabbed the bad arm with his good hand as he shimmied down the bamboo inch by inch. Eventually the bamboo went straight down, and at this point no doubt totally exhausted, Pete let go and went crashing to the jungle floor – 100 or more feet below him. Pete told us how everything was pitch black in the jungle foliage, with vegetation so dense that you couldn’t possibly hack your way through such jungle to escape and evade – so he had no option but to stay put in an area about 8’ x 8’ until he was rescued. Sonny Mercer, Pete Pedroli and Jim Thompson all made radio contact with airborne friendlies – and settled down for their first night in North Vietnam.

    Preview 1, a single EB-66, was launched for a selective jamming mission in support of an afternoon strike mission in Route Package VIA. The orbit point was approximately 50 nautical miles WNW of Than Hoa near the Laotian border.

    The 7AF CC first became aware that Preview was down at 1805H as a result of beeper signals reported by Crown aircraft. Later checks revealed that no GCI sites or Ethan Allen aircraft had received distress calls. Other ECM aircraft had made calls to Preview without receiving a response. SAR activities on the day of the downing were restricted due to adverse weather and approaching darkness but voice contact was established with 4 of the 7 downed crewmen. The survivors were advised that pick-up would be attempted early on the morning of 15 January. The following day adverse weather precluded first light pick-up but a flight of A-1 Sandies re-established voice contact with the survivors. A flight of 4 F-4s provided continuous RESCAP by cycling elements between the CAP station and a tanker, Later in the afternoon, Jolly Green 20, an HH-3 searching for the survivors of Preview, was operating between cloud layers at 6 000 feet. The aircraft descended through an opening to VFR conditions with poor visibility. While descending, a power loss was experienced. Recovery could not be accomplished before ground impact; however, a flare-out was made which reduced the ground impact. The aircraft received major damage but there were no crew fatalities. Immediately, Jolly Green 15 and 72 were launched from Lima Site 36 in an attempt to pick up 1 the crew of #20, The 2 rescue helicopters encountered cloud cover near the crashisite of #20 and could not proceed further. While attempting to cross a ridge small arms fire was encountered which struck #15. Due to approaching darkness, weather, and ground fire, the rescue forces were withdrawn from the area. The entire crew of Jolly Green 20, downed 15 January at 1723H was successfully recovered by Jolly Green 71 on 17 January at 1550H hours. During egress from the area. #71 was hit by ground fire which caused the loss of the #1 engine but he was able to proceed to Lima Site 36 where the crew of #20 was transferred to another helicopter and taken to Udorn for medical attention, All but 2 of the crewmen were in good condition; a broken leg and another a broken arm. On the same date 3 crewmen of Preview were recovered by Jolly Green 69. 1 of these crewmen also had a broken leg. More beepers from the remaining crewmen of Preview were identified but search efforts were suspended due to darkness. Subsequent searches failed to locate any beepers or survivors and the search for the remaining survivors was finally suspended.

    Also on the ground in the same vicinity was an F-4 crew who had likewise made contact and were awaiting Search and Rescue. As the rescue helicopter went in the next day, they crashed in heavy rains and low visibility – and now, there was a multitude of unfortunates awaiting rescue. A day or so later when the weather cleared, an HH-53 and Sandys arrived, first picking up the downed helicopter crew and then the F-4 crew before beginning the recovery of the B-66 crew. The rescue chopper reestablished radio contact with Mercer, Pedroli & Thompson and had them mark their positions with orange smoke flares. Mercer and Pedroli were picked-up, but when they went to Jim Thompson’s smoke he wasn’t anywhere to be found. It seems that Jim put thirst ahead of rescue, had left his hiding place and headed for a nearby stream for a drink. The helicopter came under hostile fire, and as they were exiting the area, someone saw Jim Thompson who was quickly scooped-up and they headed for friendly territory. After intelligence debriefing, a happy Pete Pedroli was surrounded by everyone in the officer’s club as we welcomed one of the greatest guys ever back into our midst. Pete repeatedly muttered “Why Me?” – which knowing Pete Pedroli, only meant “Why was I rescued and not the others?” Pete went on to complete his 100 missions over North Vietnam – and was still at Takhli several weeks after he should have rotated, when Colonel Giraudo saw Pete in the officer club and asked why he was still at Takhli. When Pete replied that he didn’t have an assignment, Colonel Giraudo got on the phone to MPC and was told that Pete Pedroli was MIA. Pete’s classification was quickly cleared-up, with the phone handed to Pete to state his assignment preference to MPC – Mather AFB.

    Hubert Walker,

    On 18 January 1968, in EB-66C [468], we flew the same identical mission that Mercer and crew had flown 4 days earlier and still hadn’t received an alert warning from Saigon of what Rivet Top had correctly assessed was going on. We had just made our first orbit when Raven 3 detected a MIG-21 AI Radar in Acquisition Mode painting our aircraft, followed by the dreaded high PRF steady lock-on that meant missiles would be forthcoming in 5 seconds or less. Raven 3 called “MIG, MIG — break left” twice, responded to by “Say Again” from the pilot, before the warning was finally understood the third time. Just as we broke left, the missiles and MIG-21 passed harmlessly on our right hand side.

    The pilot was our Squadron Commander — a SAC veteran who had spent 17 years in one squadron, progressing from 2nd Lt to Lt Col before being assigned to Takhli and becoming 41st TEWS Commander through Spot Promotions with Date of Rank Adjustment when he made Lt Col the normal way. This mission produced my DFC — which I have always wondered if it was awarded from flying with this particular Squadron Commander or exposure to the MIG-21. Guess I’ll never know!

    • Dario Leone Author says:

      Dear Mr Pedroli I am happy you appreciated our article! And I am also glad it closed the Circle on your father’s the Recovery Mission. Can I ask you who is Ned Colburn, author of the story you shared? Is an EB-66C pilot? Where is Colburn’s story available?

  2. ppedroli says:

    Dario,

    Sorry Don’t have any contact information Ned Colburn. There is a Veteran’s group of the 41st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron. They use to have an annual reunion but the Calendar has caught up to many who flew during his tour 67-68.

    Here is some more sources for your Blog……..You might say Dad was the First Bat 21

    “”Glory Days: The Untold Story of the Men Who Flew the B-66 Destroyer into the Face of Fear””

    Wolfgang Samuel dedicated a whole Chapter in his book on the Shoot Down of Preview 01
    Ch. 21 “Pete Pedroli and the Mig-21”
    https://www.amazon.com/Glory-Days-Untold-Story-Destroyer/dp/0764330861

    Pedroli, Attilio, Brig Gen
    https://airforce.togetherweserved.com/usaf/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=164576

    Order of the Sword (United States)
    https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Order_of_the_Sword_(United_States)

    Attilio Pedroli
    Brigadier General, United States Air Force
    http://arlingtoncemetery.net/attilio-pedroli.htm

    I have the Full After Action Report of the entire Mission Loss and Recovery of the Crew Members of Preview 01. Under a FOIA application my Brother in Law was able to secure a copy of the report while he was doing some work at Wright Patterson AFB but it is currently in storage.

  3. ppedroli says:

    Another side bar to the Mission………..Dad was the Duty Officer that Sunday Morning, He wasn’t scheduled to fly but the Navigator who was …..Was too Hung Over to Fly so Dad said, “Screw it and Flew the Mission.”

    So after his Recovery and 30 Day RR, he returns to Takhli and his First Mission back he’s flying with a Close Friend Maj. Chris Divich(Retired Maj. Gen.) and they enter a SAM Kill Box and they almost get Shot Down………..Dad to Chris………””GOD DAMMIT Chris get us the Hell out of here! Being Shot Down Once is more than enough times in a Fucking Tour.”” I was at the Dinner Table when that story was told when Chris came to Ramstein AFB. Dad was the Base Commander and Chris was the Pilot for then Sec. of Defense, James Schlesinger who flew into Ramstein for a 3 day tour and briefing at USAFE Headquarters with David Jones………..Not our Favorite 4 Star!!!!!!!

    • Dario Leone Author says:

      Dear Mr Pedroli,

      Thank you very much for sharing all of your memories! And thanks also for the links and the book you suggested me, it is already on my list! More EB-66 articles will be published in the future, so please continue to follow my site! 🙂

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