Capt William ‘Gene’ Eskew ‘s F-105 was engulfed by fire as the MiG disintegrated in a violent explosion. Eskew’s head jerked down onto his chest, as he feared that his jet was going to be hit by debris. Convinced he had rammed the MiG, he transmitted, `I hit him. “Panda lead” is hit’.
On the afternoon of Apr. 19, 1967 one of the most hair-raising dogfights of the Vietnam War took place after F-105 Thunderchief fighter bombers from ‘Panda’ flight, led by Capt William ‘Gene’ Eskew, had bombed Xuan Mai barracks near Hanoi.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book F-105 Thunderchief MiG Killers of the Vietnam War, two MiG-17s were spotted as the F-105s left the target, the ‘Thud’ pilots cleaning off their tanks and MERs and accelerating to 600 knots behind the unsuspecting VPAF pilots. As ‘Panda 1’ (Capt Eskew) prepared to fire from 1500 ft the MiG element turned sharply towards the target area. Eskew adjusted his position, but as he reached for the trigger he was distracted by another flight of F-105s that suddenly approached head on, just above ‘Panda’. However, he re-acquired the MiGs over Hoa Binh and was able to fire at one from a distance of about 800 ft. With his gunsight and radar properly set up, Eskew saw bullets explode on the jet’s left wing root. His wingman, Capt Paul Seymour, also scored hits on a second MiG, but both enemy fighters turned sharply and escaped. Eskew reported, ‘It was absolutely impossible for us to follow them through that turn’.
Another MiG-17 was seen moments later, and its pilot rapidly acquired a position behind them within perfect gun range. Afterburners were lit and 450-gallon tanks jettisoned into the MiG’s flightpath, causing the VPAF jet to lose some speed and fall behind. ‘Panda’ flight duly withdrew and refuelled from a ‘Green Anchor’ tanker, although ‘Panda 4’ required assistance to do so. Fortunately, Leo Thorsness, Wild Weasel F-105F pilot leading Kingfish flight, was on hand to provide this. Whilst arranging for a tanker hook-up over Laos for his ‘own fuel-starved aircraft, he heard a distress call from ‘Panda 4’ stating that he was lost, with only 600 lbs of fuel. Putting aside his own urgent fuel requirement, Thorsness guided the tanker and ‘Panda 4’ into a link-up just as the F-105D’s engine was about to flame out over enemy territory.
He then took his own aircraft up to 35,000 ft, calculated that a Thunderchief could glide two miles for every 1000 ft of altitude and set the throttle to idle for the last 70 miles of the journey. The engine cut out as the F-105F touched down at Worn RTAFB. Maj Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor, but by the time this was announced he was already a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
As they approached their KC-135A, the other members of `Panda’ flight heard that `Kingfish 2′ was down, but they did not hear any mention of air cover for the RESCAP effort. Eskew offered the services of ‘Panda’ flight, only to be told that their short endurance (as they had jettisoned their external tanks) would reduce their effectiveness — external tanks were normally carried by RESCAP aircraft. It soon became obvious that they were the only aircraft available though, and the Red Crown controller allowed them to refuel and make the 200-mile return journey to the target area. As they re-entered the arena Maj Thorsness had warned them of the MiGs, and advised them that he had to leave as his fuel was very low.
A RESCAP A-1E ‘Sandy’ was under attack by four MiG-17s when ‘Panda flight arrived. The MiGs, three of them flown by VPAF officers Tan, Tho and Trung, attacked in a ‘butterfly’ pattern of carefully coordinated individual passes. The A-1E jettisoned his stores but hung onto an SUU-11/A 7.62 mm gun pod, which he fired head-on at a MiG from 500 ft, booting his rudder to make the bullets disperse. Other than that he had only the slow-speed manoeuvrability of his heavy, piston-engined aircraft at treetop altitude to steer clear of the five firing passes the MiGs had made by the time the ‘Panda’ Thunderchiefs roared in to the rescue at 700 knots.
The A-1E saw their approach and talked them in towards him, but he also noticed another MiG-17 close behind them and called for them to, `Break! One of those flickers is on your tail!’ Rather than selecting one of the circling MiGs as a target, Gene Eskew elected to drive ‘Panda’ flight straight through them at supersonic speed in an effort to disperse them. One of the MiG pilots quickly recovered and turned in behind Seymour’s F-105D. Capt Howard Bodenhamer (Panda 3′) in turn rolled in behind the MiG. Another VPAF jet moved in behind him, and that was soon followed by ‘Panda 4’ (Capt Robert Hammerle) in a frantic line astern chase. Eskew had noticed yet another MiG heading away north towards Hoa Lac airfield, presumably fuel-starved, and he pulled in behind it and fired his AIM-9B. The missile’s proximity fuse may not have had time to arm since it passed five feet beneath the MiG’s wing without detonating in conditions that were otherwise ideal for a Sidewinder.
Turning back to the ‘furball’, Eskew saw Bodenhamer’s gunfire hitting the lead MiG and heard Hammerle warning Bodenhamer (who had slowed to 275 knots in a 6g turn to track his target) that he was under fire from another MiG. Bodenhamer hung on and fired, hitting the MiG-17 on its left wing and just behind the canopy (witnessed by Eskew). He then had to react to the large, orange fireballs passing close to his canopy, wrestling the sluggish F-105 into a break. With full rudder and a steep dive, he persuaded it to descend into a cloud, hoping there was no karst rock inside it.
Hammerle, meanwhile, continued to fire at ‘Panda 3’s’ pursuing MiG from only 200 ft behind it, but no hits were evident. Eskew, watching the shells pumping from ‘Panda 4’s’ gun, could not understand why the MiG was not burning. ‘Panda 4’ was now in trouble himself, Hammerle transmitting, ‘Somebody help me. I have a MiG on my tail and I can’t shake him’. Eskew, with no one on his tail, was able to switch his armament from `Missiles-Air’ to `Guns-Air’ and pull in behind Hammerle’s adversary. He drove it off with a quick burst of 20 mm fire, executing a high-speed yo-yo manoeuvre to avoid overshooting, and then resumed firing at the MiG.
Eskew reported, ‘I saw an estimated 50 to 75 hits on the upper fuselage directly behind the canopy’. The MiG-17 began a slow roll, forcing the F-105 pilot to pull up hard to avoid a collision. Seconds later his aircraft was engulfed by fire as the MiG disintegrated in a violent explosion. Eskew’s head jerked down onto his chest, as he feared that his jet was going to be hit by debris. Convinced he had rammed the MiG, he transmitted, `I hit him. “Panda lead” is hit’. However, when he had had a moment to check his aircraft he found that the tough Thunderchief was actually undamaged, so he went back into the fight. ‘Glancing back at the downed MiG, I saw the wreckage burning on the ground. I could see the smoke from both an A-1 “Sandy ” and the MiG’. The surviving VPAF fighters were still attempting to destroy the other A-1, who was desperately manoeuvring around the karst. ‘Panda’ flight made a more determined effort to take the MiGs’ attention, allowing ‘Sandy 02’ to escape under low cloud.
The fight continued, with ‘Pandas’ and MiGs manoeuvring between 3000 ft and 30 ft. Bodenhamer saw an F-105 (probably Seymour’s) hitting one of the persistent MiGs, but being pursued by two others, one of which was fired at by Eskew. Bodenhamer then fired an AIM-9B at another MiG, watching it guide directly towards the fighter’s tailpipe before he had to break away to avoid another MiG. He hassled with the incoming jet in repeated scissors manoeuvres, rather than outrunning it, so as to distract attention from the A-1E. The two pilots ended up line abreast, looking at each other and wondering what to do next. They then attempted to roll across each other to get on each other’s tail. In the end Bodenhamer had to play his ace. His aircraft was slowing down more than the MiG, so he engaged afterburner.
At that moment Eskew called for ‘Panda’ flight to disengage, and Bodenhamer accelerated to 600 knots, leaving the MiG pilot far behind as he headed into the mountains. He had 1000 lbs of fuel left, and when the flight finally reached a tanker, which had come to meet them with its throttles firewalled, he was down to 30 seconds of powered flying time remaining. The other ‘Panda’ aircraft were only slightly better off. Although they all returned to Takhli intact, there was general disappointment that none of their gun cameras had worked, leaving insufficient evidence for the damaged claims by ‘Pandas 2’, ‘3’ and ‘4’ to be increased to kills. Had film indeed been available, this could well have increased the F-105’s MiG kill record by at least two.
F-105 Thunderchief MiG Killers of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force