Known to its pilots as the ‘last of the gunfighters’ due to its quartet of Colt-Browning Mk 12 20 mm cannon, the F-8 Crusader was numerically the most populous 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-21s 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.
The Crusader also became a ‘bomb truck’ in war, with both ship-based US Navy units and land-based USMC squadrons pounding communist forces in both North and South Vietnam and… instructed frustrated US Air Force (USAF) F-4 crews in air-combat manoeuvering (ACM).
As told by Peter Mersky in his book F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War, in February 1972 VF-24 CO Lt Cdr John Nichols, who had shot down a MiG-17 in 1968, visited the Air Force base Udorn, Thailand. USAF fighters were only breaking even against the North Vietnamese MiGs and were looking for help. Accordingly, Nichols took another VF-24 pilot, and two from VF-211, along with their fighters from USS Hancock.
The plan was to fly strikes up north With the Air Force Phantom IIs, tank, and then get in some ACM practice before recovering at Udorn. This pace kept up for several days, and each day the Navy pilots destroyed their USAF brethren, to the obvious delight of the F-8 ‘drivers’ and the continued frustration of the air force.
Nichols didn’t enjoy always beating the Air Force — he was annoyed at their apparent lack of ACM training and expertise. He chastised them, none too diplomatically at times, for not using the vertical plane – the F-8’s specialty – during engagements. It seemed the Air Force had completely forgotten the lessons of earlier conflicts.
Even Robin Olds – the Air Force’s top MiG killer in Vietnam at the time with four victories – was angry. He heard about the Navy’s visit and wangled a few rides with the Udorn F-4s. Nichols recalls that after one mission and subsequent ACM session, the Phantom II with Olds in the back taxied in. The canopy barely opened when Olds’ helmet flew out, followed by the irate colonel. He was furious at his pilots’ poor performance.
As a parting shot, the Air Force tried to keep Nichols from flying more missions. Why? Because, he was told the grey F-8s looked too much like MiGs and were confusing the USAF pilots. He’d have to let his four Crusaders be camouflaged. At first Nichols was amenable until he asked how much weight the new paint job would add – about 1200 lbs. No way. The F-8 normally recovered with about 2000 lbs of fuel and the new paint job would cut the allowable fuel to just 800 lbs, which was totally unsatisfactory. Nichols and his detachment returned to the Hancock.
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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