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The strangest aerial engagement of the Vietnam War
In late February 1968, what was perhaps the strangest aerial engagement of the Vietnam War took place above the clouds over the Ashau Valley’s triple canopy jungle.
As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book Going Downtown The US Air Force over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, 1961–75, on the morning of Feb. 24, two US Army OV-1A Mohawks “threaded the needle” through the pass at the western end of the Ashau that led to the Laotian plain beyond. The Mohawk was a strange looking airplane, reminiscent in shape of a dragonfly, and the only fixed wing US Army airplane that carried underwing ordnance, in the form of a .50 caliber gun pod and two Zuni pods under each wing.
Captain Ken Lee, who had first flown Mohawks with the 73rd Aviation Company from December 1964 to November 1965, when they “wrote the book” about Mohawk operations in Vietnam, flew lead. The two flew high, since under the riot of green below were more than 6,000 PAVN troops. The enemy disliked the bug headed OV-1, having learned the hard way what happened when they were discovered by the Mohawk’s side looking radar and infrared detection gear. If they were forced down, Lee and his wingman could expect leech infested streams, cliffs, and hills with 60 degree slopes, jungle so dense one could not see more than a few feet in any direction, populated by 140 varieties of poisonous snakes and the most unusual insects in the world – and that was if the NVA didn’t find them.
OV-1 Vs MiG-17
Many years later, Lee recounted:
‘All of a sudden, I felt the airplane taking hits, but it felt different from before, not like the usual ground fire. I didn’t know why, so I commenced a clearing turn to the right, but then my wingman – who was maybe half a mile behind me in trail – shouted “You got a MiG behind you!” I immediately leveled my wings, just as a silver, swept wing airplane dove past on my left about sixty feet away at around 275 knots. My first thought was it was an Australian Sabre, since they were based in Thailand, but then I saw the red star and knew I was in trouble.’
The MiG-17 pulled out 200 feet below Lee and turned back. “I was a sitting duck. With our full load of ordnance and extra fuel, I was so heavy I’d stall at about 165 knots in a 30 degree bank, so I sure couldn’t dogfight him.” Lee ordered his wingman to break left and over the mountain range into a cloud bank, since there was no reason for two Mohawks to be shot down that day.
The MiG pilot then made a major error as he slowed to make his attack. The OV-1A might have looked like a dragonfly, but it was a thoroughly competent warplane. More than half the wing span was within the wake of the big, reversible pitch propellers, and the wing incorporated a pair of hydraulically operated auxiliary ailerons that worked only when the flaps were down, for better low speed control. It was fully aerobatic, rated at +5G and 1.5G.
OV-1 pilot explains how he was able to shoot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17
Lee decided the best defense was a good offense and turned toward the approaching MiG:
‘I fired 38 rockets in two shots, and got what looked like four hits. I put about 100 rounds into him – I could see the tracers going into the fuselage. Hitting his engine killed his power. His right wing dropped when he got hit, and he went into a cloud bank. I pulled out of the clouds to the right, and saw him come out about three to five seconds later. His right wing was low and his nose was pitched over, with flickers of red flame, followed by white smoke, then black smoke, and then orange flames.’
The MiG turned into what Lee knew was a blind valley. “He was so low, he could not have gotten out of that valley without impacting the hillside. The clouds were dense and I didn’t follow him in there.”
Back at base at Phu Bai Lee recalled:
‘I didn’t get scared from the fight till I climbed out and saw the bullet holes in the tail and the aft fuselage, but the unit leaders were also worried that maybe it had been an Aussie Sabre, plus nobody could explain how a MiG could be down over South Vietnam when they never came that far south before. The doubt continued for days.’
The two pilots, neither of whom was trained for air combat, were accused of trying to cover themselves from the repercussions of being involved in a second friendly fire incident.
“Three weeks earlier, my wingman was accused of hitting my airplane when we made a strafing run up in Ashau,” Lee explained.
The only Army aviator to have shot down an enemy airplane in combat since the USAF was founded
The doubts ended when incontrovertible evidence of an air battle was produced:
‘My crew chief measured those 39 holes in my rear section, and found they’d all struck at about a 45 degree angle, which would mean my wingman would have had to have been diving on me to do that. And then there was the fact that the holes were bigger than a .50 cal. They were about 20 millimeter. After my chief reported that, they started taking the story seriously.’
For the Army, Lee’s “victory” could turn into a major defeat if it became widely known that an Army airplane had shot down a MiG, which the Air Force considered its prerogative.
As Lee explained, “The Army was terrified the Air Force would force them to either disarm the Mohawks or even turn them over to the Air Force.” The event was officially forgotten until 2004, when Lee’s story was published in an aviation history magazine and the Army confirmed it had happened. “I always knew I’d got him, because a month later I flew into Ubon, and the guys at the Wolfpack found out who I was and told me ‘We know it happened, don’t ask how.’ They even let me take a victory flight around the bar in the officer’s club.”
Ken Lee is the only Army aviator to have shot down an enemy airplane in combat since the US Air Force was founded as a separate service; the flight suit he wore that day is now on display at the Fort Rucker Army Aviation museum.
Going Downtown The US Air Force over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, 1961–75 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.