The F-104s were therefore given CAP role, although their radar cross section was actually more like that of a Thunderchief, and could have helped with the deception if they had flown in the F-105-type pod formations used by the F-4Cs carrying QRC-160-1 ECM stores to simulate F-105s.
Plans for the operation, in which the Phantom IIs posed as F-105 Thunderchiefs to lure MiG-21s into battle, also included three flights of F-104Cs from the wing’s 435th TFS — the ‘Wolf Cubs’ in Col Robin Olds’ ‘Wolf Pack’. As told by Peter E Davies in his book F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat, some Starfighter pilots looked forward to a belated chance of showing their prowess against MiG-21s in the main MiG interception wave, but the overall fighter force was also required to cover all MiG airfields and possible escape routes to China.
The F-104s were therefore given CAP role, although their radar cross section was actually more like that of a Thunderchief, and could have helped with the deception if they had flown in the F-105-type pod formations used by the F-4Cs carrying QRC-160-1 ECM stores to simulate F-105s. The shortage of ECM pods ruled this out, however.
Fighters from the 355th, 388th and 366th TFWs joined 8th TFW units to provide a full strike package, complete with Iron Hand and support aircraft. The F-104C component was led by the unit’s final commander at Udorn, Col Robert Preciado, whose jet later bore the nickname Hellooo Dolly. The aircraft were configured with underwing drop tanks and wingtip Sidewinders.
Heavy cloud cover rising to 7000 ft and a slow response by the VPAF reduced the possibilities for air-to-air successes. Four of the MiG-21s that attempted to intercept the force were able to escape into the undercast. Some timing problems, combined with the effects of the weather, reduced the size of the strike force and kept the 366th TFW’s F-4Cs from their designated patrol areas over Kep and Cat Bi airfields. The ECM-equipped F-104Cs were given a CAP area over the Black River, southwest of Hanoi, where they were on call to support the F-4 flights if needed. Thick cloud covered this area, which was known to be populated with SAM sites and frequented by MiGs.
Arriving on station, the aircraft divided into pairs, orbiting at 8000 ft for around 45 minutes until they were released for the homeward journey after a disappointing wait for some action. Only one MiG had approached them, turning away at four miles range when the CAP aircraft turned to intercept it. The F-104s’ secondary role, protecting the ‘strike’ force’s egress route, was also unnecessary as the VPAF did not chase the out-bound Phantom Ils.
Capt Gene West participated in Bolo;
‘Bolo wasn’t a big surprise. I often wondered why it took so long! It was scheduled for 1 January but the weather was really bad, so it was re-scheduled for the next day. We were first advised of the mission, which was to provide top cover for the F-4Cs, that morning. Only high-time F-104 pilots were assigned to this operation, and I was one of the 12 to go. Bob Preciado led and I flew as No 3 in Col Ed Gaines’ flight. He was at Seventh Air Force HQ and often came down to fly missions with us — a real fighter pilot’s pilot!
`We got airborne and headed north. When we crossed into Laos, Preciado had a navigation problem so Gaines took the lead. The weather was not the greatest, with visibility of one to two miles and cloud up to 8000 ft. The red SAM-warning “launch” light on my RHAW equipment stayed on during the entire mission. A number of MiGs “bought the farm” and I would say we had a very good day up North.’
F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force