US Navy F-4 pilot tells the story of when his skipper flew straight for China after his compass precessed during a MIGCAP mission over North Vietnam

US Navy F-4 pilot tells the story of when his skipper flew straight for China after his compass precessed during a MIGCAP mission over North Vietnam

By Dario Leone
Sep 17 2021
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‘My flight lead was not heading back to our aircraft carrier. In fact he was heading in the very opposite direction, straight for China and at a very high speed,’ John Chesire, former F-4 pilot with the US Navy.

‘My skipper and I were flying a MIGCAP mission over North Vietnam near Hanoi,’ John Chesire, former F-4 pilot with the US Navy, remembers on Quora. ‘It had come time to return to base (RTB) to our aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. We completed a high cross-turn that took us through a thick and towering cumulus cloud. Then coming out of the cloud and into the clear, I could not find my flight lead (a cardinal sin for a fighter pilot). After frantically searching for several seconds, I thankfully saw his telltale F-4 smoke trail well off in the distance.

‘Almost immediately I realized a serious problem. My flight lead was not heading back to our aircraft carrier. In fact he was heading in the very opposite direction, straight for China and at a very high speed. [As I recall, the going rate for us defecting to China was $2 million, although I did not give that any thought at the time. It was unthinkable.] I could not reach the skipper on radio and also had once again lost sight of him. Not wanting to end up in China, I reversed course flying back to the Gulf and ‘feet wet’.

‘We always had a pre-briefed rendezvous point in case we were ever separated. In this case it was what we called the “arm pit.” This was a bay north of Sam Son. We circled there for a few minutes when, to our surprise, the skipper rendezvoused on our wing. He had had a radio failure, so we led him back to the carrier.’

Chesire concludes;

‘We learned in our debrief that his compass had precessed, and was indicating 180 degrees off. This would happen occasionally depending what compass mode you were in after continuous maneuvering. It was a good thing he finally realized his problem and turned around.’

VF-51 F-4 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4B Phantom II VF-51 Screaming Eagles, NL100 / 150456 / 1972

Photo credit: U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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