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The Day of the Gun
American post-Korean War planners envisioned a future where aerial battles would be fought with air-to-air missiles and not machine guns or cannons, the standard arsenal of aircraft since World War I. Fighter aircraft would down incoming bombers, or other fighters, with missiles at distances much greater than required for the use of guns. In response, the F-4 series aircraft were originally designed for the Navy, Air Force and Marines without an internal gun. Colonel Frederick C. “Boots” Blesse, the operations officer of the 366th TFW, a Korean War ace and a supporter of mounting guns on fighters, referred to these planners as “fuzzy thinkers” and noted that in some cases the guns were removed from existing aircraft and destroyed.
Powered by two General Electric J-79 GE-15 turbojet engines, the F-4C boasted a maximum speed of 1,485 mph and a range of 1,750 miles with three external fuel tanks. The Phantom’s introduction as the primary American fighter in the Vietnam War, however, revealed two handicaps in the early air-to-air engagements with the North Vietnamese Air Force. First, the F-4 relied entirely for armamentation on three types of airto-air missiles: the AIM-4 Falcon, an infrared homing missile designed in the 1950s for use against incoming Soviet bombers; the AIM-7 Sparrow, which tracked its prey by its radar signature; and the AIM-9 Sidewinder, which followed the heat signature of an opponent’s jet engine. The first generation of air-to-air missiles suffered from technical problems. Between April 23 and July 8, 1967, Air Force aircraft fired 10 AIM-4, 72 AIM-7, and 59 AIM-9 air-to-air missiles at North Vietnamese MiGs. None of the AIM-4 missiles hit their targets and only 11 percent of the AIM-7 and 14 percent of the AIM-9 missiles downed MiGs.
The F-4C’s second handicap involved the lack of a weapon to engage MiGs flying too close for American pilots to fire their air-to-air missiles effectively. According to a 366th TFW report, F-4s could not generally engage MiGs flying below 2,000 feet altitude and inside a 2,500 foot range around the American aircraft. On May 5th, the 366th TFW complained to Seventh Air Force headquarters that its pilots had forfeited at least seven kills in the previous 10 days because North Vietnamese pilots flew too low or too close for the Americans to fire air-to-air missiles.
An originally classified Air Force study of North Vietnamese aerial tactics noted: “MiG-17s will sometimes dive to the deck to avoid missile threat. On 19 April (1967), Flapper Flight [an American F-4C CAP] on egress was engaged with a MiG-17…The MiG under attack from two aircraft, immediately broke right and dove from 2,000 feet to 200 feet AGL [above ground level]. With radar lock continuing to break, an AIM-7 was still launched as minimum range was approached…A second, and later, a third missile were launched but they impacted on the ground, resulting in no damage to the MiG. The use of low altitude and hard maneuvers saved the aircraft from a missile-armed F-4C.”
MiG-17 pilots also formed low altitude “wagon wheel” formations, where two or up to four planes flew in a tight circle allowing each to cover the rear of the aircraft in front. The low level formation offered some protection from American air-to-air missiles attempting to lock on to them. If an F-4 tried to maneuver behind one of the MiGs in a wagon wheel, the other North Vietnamese aircraft would automatically be in position to engage it, since MiG-17s were armed with internal cannons. Although the Air Force was already developing the F-4E with an internal cannon, something had to be found to assist American F-4C pilots in short range combat situations over North Vietnam while they awaited the new fighter’s arrival.
While many individuals assigned to the 366th TFW deserve credit for the development and testing of a new temporary short-range weapon for the F-4Cs, the greatest share tends to go to Colonel Blesse. The Air Force inventory of weapons included the SUU-16 gun pod which housed the M-61 Vulcan Gatling gun. The M-61 was a 20mm cannon with a rapid fire rate of more than 6,000 rounds per minute. When mounted in the SUU-16 gun pod, the M-61 held 1,140 rounds and could place its 20mm rounds into a very tight shot pattern when fired at an enemy aircraft. Blesse, a staunch opponent of the policy that removed the guns from America’s fighters, ordered the SUU-16 to be mounted on the wing of an F-4C for local testing.
After a successful test, Blesse received permission to pitch his idea to Seventh Air Force. He flew to Saigon and briefed General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force commander, and Colonel Robin Olds, the flamboyant commander of the 8th TFW based in Thailand. The 8th TFW also flew F-4s without internal guns. Olds was skeptical, but Momyer gave permission for operational tests of the SUU-16. Following further testing to ensure the aerodynamics of an F-4C carrying the SUU-16 on its bottom center-line pylon, the 366th TFW was ready to test its surprise package on unsuspecting North Vietnamese pilots.
On 14 May 1967, three crews from the 480th TFS / 366 TFW, scored kills on THREE MiG-17s. Two of the the kills were accomplished using the SUU-16 gun pod. The day became known as “The Day of the Gun”, and on that day the idea that “all fighters need a gun” was validated.
Between August 1966 and June 1967, Warhawk crews shot down NINE MiGs.
First MiG-21 kill of the war
First MiG kill (MiG-17) with the 20mm cannon
First kill by a Lieutenant Aircraft Commander
Additional 480th TFS members scored MiG Kills during the Vietnam conflict but were not assigned to the unit at the time of the achievement:
Richard S. “Steve” Ritchie, who flew the first “Fast FAC” mission in the F-4 forward air controller program, had five MiG kills with the 555th TFS, (F-4D/E, all AIM-7s), on 10 May 72, 31 May 72, 8 Jul 72, 8 Jul 72, and 28 Aug 72.
Fred W. Sheffler achieved one MiG kill while assigned to the 336th TFS, (F-4E/MiG-21, AIM-7, callsign “Date 04”) on 15 August 1972.
The 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, which had figured so prominently in the Rolling Thunder* phase of the war in Southeast Asia, again temporarily entered the MiG-killer business on 15 August. On that day, a chaff-dispensing F-4E from the 336th TFS, crewed by Capts. Fred W. Sheffler and Mark A. Massen, engaged a MiG-21. Temporarily attached to the 8th Wing for combat, the flight of F-4E’s was supporting routine Linebacker strikes in Route Package 6. The MiG-21 apparently hesitated, believing that the chaff aircraft carried no air-to-air missiles. Sheffler provides the following account: “Our mission was to provide support for two strike flights targeted with laser-guided bombs against a thermal power plant and a railroad bridge along the Northwest Railroad at Viet Tri and Phu Tho, respectively. We were the right outside aircraft in a formation of two flights of four. One minute prior to our first target our escort, the other flight, called a single bandit coming down from high 6 o’clock and attacking us on the right. Our flight began a hard turn to the right in an attempt to negate the enemy’s attack. Escort told us that there were now two MiG’s in the attack. We continued our turn, trying to visually pick up the MiG’s. A camouflaged MiG-21 overshot at this time on my right, no further than one or two thousand feet away. Captain Massen, my weapon systems operator, called for me to auto-acquire. I placed my pipper on the MiG and toggled the proper switch on my throttles. We achieved an immediate radar lock-on. I continued our turn to the right, striving to pick up the second MiG. Unable to achieve firing parameters, aircraft 3 gave me the lead, and at the same time Captain Massen cleared me to fire. I made a quick check to see if the MiG-21 was still at my 12 o’clock and then squeezed off an AIM-7 missile. By this time the MiG-21 was about four to five thousand feet in front of me. For the next 10 seconds, until missile impact, I divided my attention between monitoring theAIM-7’s flight and checking our 4 to 6 o’clock for his partner. The missile made two minor corrections in flight; one just prior to impact on the left side, just forward of the tail section. He did not appear to take any evasive action up until the last second, when he hardened up his turn to the left. After impact and explosion, the MiG-21 entered a 45” dive, trailing smoke and flames from his aft section. I estimate his altitude when hit at between 9,OOO and 10,OOO feet MSL. At this time the second MiG-21 came by on our right in a hard left turn and went between our two flights head- on. We continued our turn and egressed the area at low altitude. Because of the ensuing engagement with the second MiG-21, I was unable to observe a chute or impact of the MiG-21 with the ground. However, the backseater of an aircraft of the follow-on strike flight observed a large fire on the side of a hill near the area of the engagement during ingress, and it was still burning during his egress some 15 minutes later.
Interestingly, Fred Sheffler served in the 480th as a Flight Commander and Assistant Operations Officer in the early 80’s at Spangdahlem AB, Germany.
Barton P. Crews (CINC Warhawk 1978), 8 May 1972, F-4D / MiG-19 / AIM-7 / 13th TFS
Two different MiGCAP flights, both from the 432d TRW, supported this strike and each encountered MiG’s in the target area. Maj. Barton P. Crews and his WSO, Capt. Keith W. Jones, Jr., downed a MiG-lethe first enemy aircraft of this type destroyed by an Air Force crew. Major Crews describes his skirmish:
“On 8 May 1972, a flight of four FAD’S was fragged to provide MiGCAP for strike flights hitting the Hanoi area. I was scheduled as number three, with Capt. Keith W. Jones as my weapon systems officer. After the flight arrived at the preplanned orbit point the flight proceeded north of Yen Bai airfield and then made a 180”right turn heading south. After crossing the Red River, the lead aircraft called, “Bogies, 12 o’clock.” I immediately acquired them visually and identified them as four MiG-19’s.
I called over the radio, “They’re not friendly.”
The lead aircraft commander confirmed that, and directed the engagement. I set up my attack on the northernmost element of MiG-19’s and started a closure on what appeared to be the number two man. My WSO stated that he couldn’t get a lock-on so I pulled the pipper up to the MiG and fired one AIM-7. I estimated the range was under 3,000 feet. I did not see the missile impact as I directed my attention to the lead MiG. Captain Jones stated he saw a yellowish chute go by. As I was trying to get my pipper on the lead MiG he did a hard break and ruined my tracking solution. At that time my number four aircraft said over the radio, “That’s a kill.”
Shortly after that my number four WSO, Lieutenant Holland, called, “Bandits at 6 o’clock.” I then broke off my engagement and went into the clouds and lost the MiG’s. Later, on the ground, 1st Lt. William S. Magill and 1st Lt. Michael T. Holland, the aircraft commander and weapon systems officer on my wing, confirmed seeing a chute and observing the MiG do a slow roll to inverted position and start down.
Eldon D. Binkley, 22 Dec 1966, F-4D, “Maneuvering”
One MiGCAP crew demonstrated unusual aggressiveness and persistence and scored a victory without even hitting the MiG with any ordnance. Capt. Gary L. Sholder and his WSO, 1Lt. Eldon D. Binkley, who were the lead aircraft on 21/22 December. Smolders explains their accomplishment:
“Out flight dropped off the tanker at 1948Z and proceeded north toward the assigned orbit point. Upon contact with Red Crown, the flight was
advised of enemy aircraft activity west of Hanoi. Red Crown began vectoring at 2003Z.
We elected not to pursue the bandit immediately because his altitude was below an overcast which covered virtually all of the Hanoi area. Our flight established a left orbit at approximately 60miles from Hanoi. We remained in this orbit until approximately 20182, when Red Crown advised that the bandit had climbed to 16,000 feet.
We made a hard left turn to 100 degrees, established immediate radar contact with a single enemy aircraft crossing right to left, range 18 miles. Clearance to fire was obtained from Red Crown, and we rolled into a 5-mile trail position on the bandit. The bandit then engaged his after-burner and began a steep climb. We obtained a lock-on using boresight mode, and closed to approximately 3 miles when the radar broke lock at approximately 2022Z.
Red Crown advised our flight shortly thereafter that the bandit was south at 10 miles. We then turned to reengage. The flight remained within 8 miles of the bandit in a maneuvering engagement, using intermittent radar returns and vectors from Red Crown, until approximately 2033Z. We were unable to obtain a radar lock-on during this period of time. Red Crown advised the flight at 2033Z that the bandit was south at 7 miles, heading home. We then turned southeast, attempting to reacquire the bandit heading toward Hanoi; no contact was made on this heading. We then made a right turn to the northwest and immediately acquired radar contact with an enemy aircraft at 25 miles on the nose, apparently heading for Yen Bai airfield.
We pursued the bandit, closing to approximately 2 0 miles as the bandit appeared to be orbiting Yen Bai. The bandit then turned northeast. Using radar we were able to close to approximately 7 miles. We pursued the bandit until approximately 2046Z, when the engagement was terminated for fuel considerations. At the termination of the engagement, the bandit was on the nose at 7 miles. Our position at that time was approximately 010 degrees, 60 miles from Hanoi. Shortly after termination of the engagement, one of the controlling agencies called a bandit north of Hanoi.
Intelligence sources confirmed (on 24 December) that an enemy aircraft went down in the early morning hours of 22 December 1972. Ours was the only flight in the area that engaged an enemy aircraft for any length of time on 21/22 December; in addition, the only flight that pursued an enemy aircraft after he had apparently attempted a landing at Yen Bai airfield. On the strength of the aforementioned evidence, we claim one enemy aircraft destroyed due to continued pursuit which resulted in fuel starvation for the enemy aircraft.
The 480th’s final combat mission was flown on 20 October 1971, and the squadron was inactivated in November of 1971.