Voodoos Vs MiGs: how unarmed RF-101 tactical reconnaissance fighters dodged North Vietnamese MiG jets

Voodoos Vs MiGs: how unarmed RF-101 tactical reconnaissance fighters dodged North Vietnamese MiG jets

By Dario Leone
Jun 4 2024
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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Voodoo reconnaissance fighter

McDonnell’s F-101 Voodoo series was in many ways the most interesting of the ‘Century Series’ fighter programmes of the 1950s. partly because the type’s design and intended mission changed radically several times during a 40-year career.

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Of all the widely differing sub-types that evolved from the original F-101A ‘penetration fighter’, the RF-101 tactical reconnaissance fighter was the most useful to the USAF. The aircraft also performed some of the most challenging reconnaissance missions ever flown. Although it gained a reputation for being a difficult aircraft to handle because of its weight and tendency to ‘pitch-up’ due to its high-mounted tailplane, the Voodoo’s supersonic speed and newly-developed camera suite enabled it to conduct vital low-altitude photo-reconnaissance missions over heavily-defended target areas.

In 1961 the RF-101 was the first USAF combat aircraft to see action in Southeast Asia, remaining until 1970 when it was replaced by the slower but more sophisticated RF-4C Phantom II.

RF-101 Vs MiGs

As told by Peter E Davies in his book RF-101 Voodoo Units in Combat, the MiG-17 pilots of the 921st Fighter Regiment had been gaining in skill and confidence throughout 1965, but their first serious attempt to interrupt an RF-101C mission was frustrated by the skill and determination of two Voodoo pilots. Attempted interceptions began on Oct. 12, 1965 near Yen Bai, but the Voodoo pilots, given adequate warning, outran the VPAF lighters and avoided their gunfire.

On a Nov. 15 mission northwest of Hanoi, the watchfuI wingman noticed two MiG-17s pass above and behind them as his leader commenced a photo run over Yen Bai. The MiGs began a diving attack on the lead RF-101C but the wingman inserted himself between his leader, who continued his photo task, and the VPAF fighters. He was able to perform the very difficult feat of manoeuvring the Voodoo sufficiently to prevent the MiGs from gaining a firing position, and then resorted to afterburner and a dive to 100 f t while the lead RF-101C escaped in a different direction, zoom-climbing out of a foggy valley up to 44,000 ft.

Voodoos Vs MiGs: how unarmed RF-101 tactical reconnaissance fighters dodged North Vietnamese MiG jets

Upon seeing that the fleeing Voodoo was attracting a hail of gunfire from up to 200 AAA sites as it howled across the city of Yen Bai on the deck, the MiG-17 pilots prudently broke off their pursuit, leaving two Voodoos to return undamaged to Udorn with some valuable film results. Apart from the risk from their own AAA, the MiG-17 pilots suffered from flying controls that became virtually inoperable at that speed and altitude.

Supersonic speed

Two RF-101C pilots also used the Voodoo’s superior speed and acceleration to evade a flight of four MiG-17s that fired at them from a distance of 4000 ft in the same area on Nov. 26. Similar tactics by Capt Richard Cooper and Maj Hallet P Marston on Mar. 17, 1966 frustrated four firing passes by MiGs near Dien Bien Phu, although thick haze also helped the Voodoos to escape.

Like the F-105, the RF-101Cs best defence against the far more manoeuvrable MiG-17 was its ability to dive away and quickly reach supersonic speed. Apart from some distant, inconclusive contacts, RF-101Cs were seldom threatened by the much faster MiG-21 at this time, although one unsuccessful interception was attempted on Apr. 23 and a second on Jan. 1, 1967, when a Voodoo pilot’s AN/APR-25 showed a MiG-21 moving into position behind him. The MiG pursued him as far as the Laotian border at Mach 1.05 in thick cloud.

The AN/APR-25 Vector IV radar warning receivers used two small ‘bug eye’ antennas on the tip of the nose, with another pair on the drag ‘chute door. RF-101Cs (together with F-105F Wild Weasels) were among the first aircraft to use this protection after initial tests at Shaw AFB in an RF-101A. From May 1966 they were installed in Udorn’s RF-101Cs, together with the AN/APR-26 receiver which could detect signals from SA-2 launch sites and differentiate between detection by the weapon’s ‘Fan Song’ radar and a lock-on and imminent missile launch against the target aircraft.

RF-101 eluding a MiG

An APR-25/26 warning alerted a pilot via headset sounds and a tele-light display on a Jan. 16, 1967 mission, enabling him to elude a MiG-17 that was being vectored into a head-on attack.

Some pilots never saw MiGs. Capt Ed O’Neil of the 20th TRS flew 59 RF-101C missions without a glimpse of one, despite conducting sorties over North Vietnam’s most heavily defended targets. SAMs, though, could be expected whenever a pilot climbed above tree-top height. Two MiG-17s were avoided on another mission at the end of January 1967 when a Voodoo pilot noticed them overhead and dived to 100 ft for a prudent escape, and another was evaded by a pair of RF-101Cs close to the Laotian border.

Despite the RF-101’s considerable fuel reserves, many missions into North Vietnam left pilots close to the minimum, particularly when they had to cover several targets and evade SAMs or MiGs en route. Although tankers sometimes broke the rules and ventured outside their prescribed refuelling tracks to meet fuel-starved tactical aircraft, a refuelling hook-up was not always possible. In those circumstances RF-101C pilots would climb above 40,000 ft to commence a long descent to Udorn at idle power settings.

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This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RF-101C Voodoo 186th TRG, 153rd TRS, 56-0166 / 1970

RF-101 Voodoo Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force


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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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