These “Phantom Boys” were the first Top Gun Graduates to score a MiG Kill

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These Men were the first Top Gun Graduates to score a MiG Kill

Beaulier went after the second MiG, using a ‘lag pursuit’ tactic to give his F-4J Phantom II the correct distance for an AIM-9D shot…

The main image of this article shows Lt Jerry Beaulier (left) and Lt(jg) Steve Barkley (sporting his famous moustache) of VF-142 eagerly examine a congratulatory bottle of champagne, presumably from the carrier battle group commander, after their Mar. 28, 1970 MiG-21 shoot-down.

Both men were graduates of the very first Topgun class, and Barkley was a former USAF pilot Recalling his long-standing partnership with Jerry, he recalled, ‘Being a bit older and perhaps more focused on quality and survival, our missions tended to be fairly well planned and “by our book’. At that point in the war almost never did anyone lay eyes on a MiG, much less get within Sparrow range of a bandit’. Despite this, they carefully planned their tactics for such an occasion, and flew many BARCAP missions in the hope that they would be able to draw a MiG out over the sea.

As told by Peter E Davies in his book U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73, on Mar. 28, 1970 Beaulier and Barkley were launched in F-4J ‘Dakota 201’ (BuNo 155875) as the replacement spare for VF-142 CO, Cdr Ruel E Gardner, in a CAP flight led by the commander of CVW-14 and F-8 MiG killer Cdr Paul Speer. Anticipating a lengthy fighter sweep, they carried three external fuel tanks, two AIM-7Es and three AIM-9Ds. A third F-4J crewed by Lt Cdr Gary Hakanson and Lt(jg) Dave van Asdlen joined the flight, which was vectored onto MiG-21s by PO White on board the destroyer USS Horne (DLG-30), the ‘Red Crown’ radar control ship of the day.These Men were the first Top Gun Graduates to score a MiG Kill

At 25 miles range they were cleared to fire AIM-7Es, but Hakanson’s radar was inoperative and Barkley’s also died as they approached the target, ruling out Sparrow launches. ‘I was really disappointed — the perfect set-up for a head-on shot and no radar! I fought it for about five miles and then gave up’ recalled Barkley. It was later realised that the radar in Speer’s F-4 was also faulty, being limited to a one-mile range.

Beaulier sighted the MiGs 10,000 ft above them and closing. The F-4Js climbed to intercept and the MiGs dived towards them. Beaulier turned behind the lead MiG-21, but his F-4 soon lost energy as he was still carrying his three drag-creating external tanks. The MiG leader launched an ‘Atoll’ unsuccessfully at Speer’s Phantom II and Beaulier went after the second MiG, using a ‘lag pursuit’ tactic to give him the correct distance for an AIM-9D shot. The missile, despite having a poorly adjusted seeker head, exploded inside the MiG-21’s tailpipe. `We pulled up at the MiGs’ “four o’clock” and took a look as the doomed aircraft descended into the cloud below us. We never saw an ejection’, noted Barkley. The inexperienced 921st FR pilot, Pham Thanh Nam was killed in the crash. There could be no public recognition of the F-4 crew’s success as the Rules of Engagement (RoE) at the time precluded attacks on MiGs unless they threatened a reconnaissance or BARCAP mission. Eventually, a story was released which suggested that Beaulier’s MiG-21 had been attacking an RA-5C when it was intercepted.

For the F-4 pilots, a MiG kill was a major accolade, particularly at a time of relative inactivity on the ground. Successful crews were also feted with specially baked cakes, national publicity and congratulatory meetings with`senior managers’ of the war. Similar recognition for successful attack crews and missions was rare, even though aircraft carriers were essentially platforms for attack aircraft.These Men were the first Top Gun Graduates to score a MiG Kill

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

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