The fierce aerial battles that became synonymous with the 1972-73 Linebacker offensive over North Vietnam saw the USAF’s F-4 Phantom II crews claim 48 MiG-19s and MiG-21s destroyed.
Although the USAF had introduced few initiatives to update the Phantom ll’s missiles and improve tactics since Rolling Thunder had come to an end four years earlier, it did deploy the gun-armed F-4E, and its 20mm cannon scored seven kills. Other electronic modifications — notably the APX-80 Combat Tree IFF interrogator — allowed more effective use of the AIM-7 Sparrow missile.
Nevertheless, poor missile reliability and inflexible tactics caused a low score of Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiGs when air combat over North Vietnam resumed in early 1972.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers 1972-73, June 1972 brought a steady increase in MiG activity, causing the loss of seven USAF aircraft, all of them F-4s. Just two MiGs were shot down by USAF fighters in return (the US Navy claimed three more). A 432nd TRW MiGCAP flight pursued a decoy formation of MiG-19s on Jun. 13, but the F-4s were trapped from behind by two MiG-21s and F-4E 67-0365 (308th TFS) was hit. This loss cast further doubt over the ‘fluid four’ concept that often placed the number four jet in a vulnerable position and on this occasion sent two 1st lieutenants into captivity.
The MiGs’ supersonic, slashing attacks from high behind the slower-moving F-4s were hard to handle. On the occasion of another 308th loss, flight leader Dan Miller reported that the `MiG-21 came through so fast that pursuit was basically useless, but they tried anyway to no avail.’
The Udorn Wing struck back on Jun. 21 in a remarkable duel between a MiG-19 and a 58th TFS F-4E flown by Maj Phil Handley and 1Lt Jack Smallwood. Over 250 US aircraft were involved in attacks on the North’s supply and transport network that day, and ‘Hands’ Handley’s F-4E was leading `Brenda’ MiGCAP flight 40 miles north east of Hanoi. The 58th TFS CO, John Downey, was element leader, with Bob Ellis on his wing.
In the event, the two elements became separated, partly due to a violent SAM break and then by the second clement reaching ‘bingo’ fuel and egressing shortly thereafter. Maj Handley also began to take his element off CAP soon afterwards. He had jettisoned his 600-gallon `bath-tub’ fuel tank before coasting in to the target area, punching off his 370-gallon wing-tanks when they ran dry just before egress. His Homestead AFB Phantom Il carried two AIM-7s in the rear wells, a pair of AlM-4s (`Hughes’ Arrow in the ‘Heart’) outboard and an ALQ-87 pod in the forward left missile bay.
However, it was the M61 Cannon that Phil Handley used to despatch one of a pair of MiG-19s that rose to intercept them as they left the CAP area. Warned in advance of the MiGs, he had accelerated. ‘I wanted to get “corner, plus a little” as soon I knew that bandits were in the area.’
By the time he engaged the enemy he was at Mach 1.2, descending to 500 ft above the ground. The MiG flew at 90 degrees across the F-4s’ flight path, travelling at 500 knots. At a slant range of only 200-300 ft, Handley triggered his cannon and the second MiG was hit. As he pulled his F-4E (67-0210) up into a vertical climb, Handley and his wingman crew (Capts Stan Green and Douglas Eden) saw the MiG streaming fire and losing altitude, with its wings rocking alarmingly. Seconds later it flopped to the ground and exploded in a burgeoning fireball.
On his return to Udorn, Maj Handley discovered that his incredibly accurate snap shot had used virtually all his ammunition;
‘I was supposed to have a lull load of 20 mm, but someone had fired the gun on a previous sortie, failed to note it on the form and left only 310 rounds aboard out of 640. This was discovered in post-flight inspection when an armourer found only ten rounds remaining after I had fired my three-second burst.’
For ‘Brenda’ flight’s MiG killing mission on Jun. 2, 1972, Maj Phil Handley devised ‘fluid two’ tactics. ‘I drew them out on the back of a napkin at the “O” Club the night before, briefed the flight next morning and worked like a charm. I instructed “fluid four” for many years. When I flew the F-86 it was the way to go when altitude was king and you tried to get as high as possible. When you move the flight down into dense air at 15,000-20,000 ft, and turns are made with higher g-forces, the wingman doesn’t have a chance during patrol turns. He simply becomes MiG bait.’
USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers 1972-73 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
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