14 May 1967, THE DAY OF THE GUN, “Speedo 3” / F-4C (64-7704) / MiG-17 / 20mm cannon.
The first MiG’s fell prey to the 20mm cannon on 14 May, when F-4C aircrews of the 480th TFS of the 366th TFW destroyed three MiG-17’s; two of them were shot down by the SUU-16. An F-4 flight trailed an F-105 strike force attacking the Ha Dong army barracks and supply depot; another F-4 flight was spaced between the F-105 flights. Both of the Phantom flights were providing MiGCAP. The first flight encountered 16 MiG-17’s, destroying two of them; the other flight encountered 10 MiG-17’s and destroyed one.
The first flight, led by Maj. James A. Hargrove, Jr., and 1st Lt. Stephen H. DeMuth, heard MiG warnings after it departed its refueling point. The lead F-105 called bogies at 9 o’clock, and Hargrove spotted two F-105’s leaving the target area. Four MiG-17’s in two elements were in hot pursuit.
Dropping their fuel tanks, Hargrove and his wingman headed for one element while aircraft 3 and 4 attacked the second. For the next 20 minutes
the scene was a beehive of activity as the F-4s took on in combat 7 of the 16 MiG’s. At least one SAM was fired at the U.S. flight during the air battle.
Hargrove’s victory came after 5 minutes of battle, during which he fired Sidewinders and Sparrows against three other MiG-17’s. He missed all three. On his fourth engagement, he elected to use the SUU-16 gun pod.
According to Hargrove:
“The MiG-17 was in a right-descending turn when we attacked from a 20-degree angle off its tail. I opened fire at approximately 2,000 feet from the MiG and continued firing until, at approximately 300 feet, flame erupted from the top of the MiG fuselage. Almost immediately thereafter the MiG exploded. . . . I broke left to avoid debris, then reversed to the right and saw the MiG, in two sections, falling vertically toward the ground. Due to other MiG’s attacking our aircraft we were forced to exit the immediate area before the MiG struck the ground”.
Five minutes later, Capt. James T. Craig, Jr., commander of aircraft 3, and his back-seater, 1st Lt. James T. Talley, also downed a MiG with a 20-mm gun after missing two other MiG-17s with Sparrow missiles. Craig describes his tactics:
“Three MiIG-17’s were sighted at 9 o’clock low in a left turn. I barrel rolled to the right and rolled in behind the trailing MiG. He tightened up his left turn, then reversed hard to the right as I approached gun range. I followed the MiG through the turn reversal, pulled lead, and fired a 2 and 1/2 second burst from my 20-mm cannon. Flames immediately erupted from his right wing root and extended past the tailpipe. As I yo-yoed high the MiG rolled out to wing level in a slight descent and I observed fire coming from the left fuselage area. I initiated a follow-up attack; however, before I could fire, the MiG burst into flames from the cockpit aft and immediately pitched over and dived vertically into the very low undercast. The tops of the clouds were approximately 4,000feet MSL* with the higher mountains protruding slightly above them. The attitude of the aircraft and the proximity to the ground would have precluded a successful recovery. No ejection was observed.”
“The kills with the gun mode could not have been made with a missile,” Craig later commented. Both MiG’s were picked off from incomplete Wagon Wheel formations. NOTE: Upon landing, armament teams noted that one aircraft had expended 226 rounds, and the other, 110 rounds of 20mm ammunition.
ANOTHER ACCOUNT OF THE DAY OF THE GUN
It was Sunday afternoon, 14 May 1967. The F-4s had a mission “Up North,” and several of them were loaded with the Air Force fighter’s newest air-to-air weapon.
Piloting the lead aircraft – call sign Speedo 1 – was Maj James Hargrove, Jr. Because he occupied the front seat of the F-4, he was the aircraft commander. In the backseat sat 1st Lt Stephen H. DeMuth. DeMuth was also a pilot, as were all Air Force F-4 backseaters during the Vietnam War, but he and the other pilots flying in the rear seat had grown accustomed to being referred to, somewhat derogatorily, as the “GIB” (guy in back). Mimicking the previous two days’ missions, Hargrove’s four-ship of F-4s teamed with an additional flight of four F-4s – callsign Elgin 1 – to provide MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP) cover for 19 388th TFW F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers from Korat Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, that were tasked with striking targets near Hanoi. The specific target that Sunday afternoon was the Ha Dong army barracks, located approximately four miles south of the capital city. After the members of Speedo flight completed their prestrike aerial refueling in the skies over Thailand and began their trek north toward Hanoi, Air Force early warning controllers alerted them to the suspected presence of enemy MiGs in the target area. The aircraft of Speedo flight assumed their tactical formation, slightly behind and 2,000 feet above the F-105 strikers, and eagerly searched the area with their state-of-the-art AN/APQ-100 radars. As the strike force neared the target, the Air Force controllers continued to warn the F-4s that MiGs were patrolling the area. Just then, the lead F-105 called, “MiG, 12 o’clock low, coming under.”
Flying at 19,000 feet and more than 500 knots airspeed, offset slightly to the right of Hargrove in Speedo 1, Capt James Craig, Jr., in Speedo 3, and his GIB, 1st Lt James Talley, were the first F-4 crew to spot the MiGs, passing head-on, underneath the F-105 strikers just ahead of Speedo flight. A passing glance out the left side of the F-4 and the shimmer of silver wings against the cloudy undercast alerted Craig to two more MiGs at nine o’clock. Hargrove called for the flight to turn left, descend, and engage the enemy aircraft. Midway through the turn, Craig recognized that the “enemy MiGs” he had seen to the left were in fact friendly F-105 strikers. Pausing momentarily in disgust at his misidentification and now wondering where the earlier-spotted MiGs were, Craig resumed his visual scan of the airspace surrounding the F-105s and quickly, and this time correctly, identified four MiG-17s, split into two elements of two aircraft each, chasing down the F-105s. Communicating the observed MiG formation to the other Speedo flight members, Craig and his element mates in Speedo 4 started to maneuver into position against the trailing two MiGs. Hargrove in Speedo 1 jettisoned his cumbersome external fuel tanks and announced that his element would attack the leading two MiGs. Hargrove’s wingmen, Capt William Carey, and 1st Lt Ray Dothard in Speedo 2, jettisoned their external fuel tanks and maneuvered into a supporting position slightly aft of Speedo 1.
Speedo 1 and 2 tightened their left turns, the four American pilots strain- ing against the rapidly increasing G-forces, and accelerated downhill toward the MiGs, hoping to position themselves at the MiGs’ six o’clock before the enemy fighters could react. It was to no avail. The MiGs may have seen the white vapor trails streaming off the F-4 wingtips in the humid afternoon air, or they may have detected the characteristic black smoke spewing from the Phantom’s General Electric J79 engines tracing the F-4s’ maneuvers against the blue sky above.
The MiGs started a hard, diving left turn toward Hargrove and his wing- man, eventually passing head-on before they disappeared into the clouds be- hind and below the F-4s; there was no time for Hargrove to mount an attack. Frustrated, Hargrove began a climbing right turn, exchanging kinetic energy for potential energy and maneuvering away from the deadly antiaircraft artil- lery (AAA) that preyed on fighters caught flying too low to the ground. As the needle on the altimeter spun through 7,000 feet, Hargrove looked outside and surveyed the area. Exuberantly recounting the engagement for Blesse after he landed back at Da Nang, Hargrove described the scene: “Wall to wall MiGs, Colonel. You should have been there!”
Indeed, F-4 and F-105 pilot reports submitted after the mission revealed the presence of 16 MiG-17s in the skies facing Speedo flight that afternoon. At this point, Speedo flight had accounted for only four.
Whereas the North Vietnamese MiGs quickly and successfully shook Speedo 1 and 2, Speedo 3 and 4’s MiG prey were initially not so lucky. Craig and his wingman were able to dive on the MiGs, achieving the ideal six o’clock position from which to launch their Sparrow radar-guided or Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Craig pointed the nose of the F-4 at one of the MiGs and told Talley in the back seat to get a radar lock. While Talley worked the radar, Craig ordered his wingman to jettison the external fuel tanks as Speedo 1 and 2 had done earlier – standard procedure to increase the F-4’s performance for an imminent dogfight. Unfortunately, only one of Craig’s two wing tanks fell away from the aircraft, leaving one tank partially filled with fuel still attached to the aircraft, seriously handicapping the Phantom’s maneuverability and stability.
With Craig in the front seat trying desperately to jettison the remaining fuel tank and Talley in the back seat working feverishly to attain a radar lock, the MiG suddenly initiated a hard, descending 180-degree left turn toward Speedo 3 and 4. Recognizing the fleeting weapons opportunity as the MiG
rapidly approached minimum missile employment range, Craig pointed his F-4 at the turning MiG and launched a Sparrow missile despite lacking the requisite radar lock needed to accurately guide the missile to the target. The aircraft shuddered as the 12-foot missile ejected from its nesting place under the belly of the F-4, but the missile motor never fired, and it fell harmlessly to the ground as the MiG disappeared into the clouds below. Craig and his wing- man began a climbing right turn, looking to escape the lethal low-altitude AAA employment zone as Speedo 1 and 2 had done earlier.
Midway through their climb, Craig visually acquired another MiG two-ship off the left side, low, in a left-hand turn. In a maneuver nearly identical to their first, Speedo 3 and 4 entered a tight, descending left turn and arrived undetected just behind the MiGs. Craig again pointed the nose of his F-4 at one of the MiGs as Talley adjusted the radar scan in hopes of achieving a radar lock on the enemy aircraft. Talley was successful this time, and from a mile away, in a left-hand turn, with the radar seemingly locked on to the target, Craig again squeezed the trigger and launched a Sparrow missile. Unfortunately, the result was the same – the missile separated from the aircraft and then promptly fell 4,000 feet to the ground. Now twice frustrated and too close to the MiGs to launch another missile, Craig and his wingman initiated a high-speed “yo-yo” maneuver to gain lateral and vertical separation from the MiGs and started searching for yet another target.
Meanwhile, Speedo 1 and 2 had similarly engaged another two flights of two MiGs each, with unfortunately similar results – both of Hargrove’s Sparrow missiles failed to guide, much less score a hit. After more than five minutes of intense air combat, the F-4s in Speedo flight had launched four Spar- row missiles, and none had worked as advertised – all fell harmlessly to the ground. The F-4s could ill afford to remain in the fight much longer. Well outnumbered by the MiGs, the American aircrews were losing situational awareness while quickly depleting their F-4’s precious energy and maneuver- ability with continued attacks. Their luck was beginning to run out.
Following his last unsuccessful Sparrow missile attack, Hargrove directed his element to pursue another MiG. By turning to pursue the MiG in sight, though, Hargrove inadvertently maneuvered his element directly in front of an attacking MiG. Fixated on the MiG in front of them, Hargrove and his wingman failed to detect the two incoming enemy Atoll heat-seeking missiles launched from the MiG now behind them. Luckily, the North Vietnamese missile performance was comparable to the Americans’ that day, and the missiles failed to guide toward the F-4 element. The MiG continued to press the attack, rapidly closing the range between the aircraft. Only a last-second, passing glance alerted Hargrove to the presence of the attacking MiG-17, the front of the enemy aircraft rhythmically sparkling with muzzle flashes as the Vietnamese pilot fired his cannons at the F-4s.
As missile failures continued to frustrate the members of Speedo flight, their accompanying flight of four F-4s – callsign Elgin – led by Maj Sam Bakke and his GIB, Capt Robert Lambert, approached the target area and quickly joined the melee. Bakke in Elgin 1 selected a MiG and fired two Sidewinder missiles at it. The enemy pilot abruptly initiated a hard defensive turn and successfully outmaneuvered the American heat-seeking missiles. Ob- serving their initial missiles defeated, Elgin 1 and 2 executed a high-speed “yo-yo” maneuver to reposition away from the turning MiG and selected an- other MiG-17 to attack. That MiG dove into the low clouds before Bakke could maneuver his element into a firing position.
Simultaneously, Elgin 3 and 4, flying in a supporting position slightly above the other two members of Elgin flight, caught a glimpse of another pair of MiGs rapidly closing on and firing at Bakke and his wingman. Hoping to distract the MiG pilots, Elgin 4 fired two Sidewinder missiles in quick succession, but neither missile was launched within proper parameters and both failed to guide toward the target. Elgin 3 also attempted to launch a Side- winder missile at the attacking MiGs; that missile, despite being launched with the requisite tone and within valid launch parameters, misfired and never left the aircraft. Then, as Elgin 3 and 4 were engaging the MiGs that were at- tacking Elgin 1 and 2, another set of MiGs appeared and began attacking Elgin 3 and 4. Like Speedo flight, Elgin flight’s luck was beginning to wear thin.
Once under attack, both Elgin 3 and 4 immediately initiated individual defensive “jink” maneuvers, but not before the MiGs’ bullets passed within 15 feet of Elgin 4’s crew. Fortunately, Elgin 4’s maneuvers were effective; the F-4 crew successfully shook the MiG attacker and, in a remarkable stroke of good luck, ended up in perfect Sidewinder firing position behind another MiG that inexplicably flew directly in front of them. They tried to take advantage of the precious opportunity, but par for the day, that Sidewinder missile also failed to guide toward the target. The crew of Elgin 3 successfully shook an attacking MiG, and following the last unsuccessful Sidewinder missile attack by Elgin 4, the two aircraft, now both low on fuel, decided to exit the fracas. They turned south out of the target area and joined a flight of F-105s that were heading home after dropping their ordnance on the target.
Elgin 1 and 2 remained in the target area battling the MiGs. After losing sight of the second MiG that dove into the clouds, and as Elgin 3 and 4 were defending themselves from the separate MiG attacks, Bakke and his wingman observed a lone MiG in a left-hand turn a half-mile in front of and 2,000 feet above them. Bakke pointed the F-4 toward the MiG, and Lambert acquired a radar lock. In his zeal to dispatch the MiG, Bakke squeezed the trigger three times trying to launch a Sparrow missile at the target before he realized that he was too close to the MiG to shoot.
Selecting idle power and slowing the F-4 opened the range between the two aircraft. Once outside of minimum missile range, Bakke launched two Sparrow missiles in quick succession at the unsuspecting MiG. The first missile failed to guide, but the second missile “ ‘homed in’ on the target, causing an explosion and fire in the right aft wing root of the MiG-17.”11 The MiG “burst into flame and pitched up about 30 degrees, stalled out, and descended tail first, in a nose high attitude at a rapid rate into the cloud deck” below. Finally, a missile worked; a MiG was destroyed, and Bakke and Lambert had earned a kill.
Bakke and his element mates had no time to celebrate. The North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites surrounding the target were particularly active that day. The F-105s reported observed SAM launches, one of which claimed an F-105. Fortunately, the SA-2 missile launched toward Bakke’s element shortly after it destroyed the MiG missed, detonating almost a mile away. Undeterred, Elgin 1 and 2 continued to attack the MiGs. They engaged another lone MiG with two Sidewinder missiles, but that MiG successfully outmaneuvered both missiles by executing a maximum-G turn.
As they broke off their unsuccessful attack and initiated a climb to higher altitude, the F-4s observed another three MiG-17s flying directly beneath them. Once more, Bakke and Lambert selected a MiG, acquired a radar lock, and fired a Sparrow missile – their last. And once more, the Sparrow missile failed to guide to the target. After separating from the aircraft, the missile veered sharply to the right and rocketed out of sight. Out of missiles, Elgin 1 tried to maneuver the element into position behind the remaining MiGs so that Elgin 2 could engage the enemy aircraft with its missiles, but the last of the remaining MiGs dipped into the clouds below before a stable firing position could be attained. The MiGs never reappeared. Elgin 1 and 2 conducted one last sweep of the target area and then turned south toward the tanker aircraft orbiting over Thailand before continuing home to Da Nang.
Bakke and Lambert’s kill was not the only one that day. Immediately before Elgin 3 and 4 defensively reacted to the attacking pair of MiGs, all of the members of Elgin flight observed a “MiG-17 erupt into a ball of flame and dive, at an 80-degree angle, into the cloud shelf.” About two minutes later, just prior to Elgin 3 and 4 exiting the target area, Elgin 2 and 3 observed another “MiG-17 in a 60-degree dive, at a high rate of speed, with a thin plume of white smoke trailing the aircraft.”14 Both MiGs were victims of Speedo flight and Blesse’s mystery weapon.
Recall that as the members of Elgin flight entered the fight, Hargrove and DeMuth in Speedo 1 were under missile and gun attack by a rapidly closing MiG. Tightening the F-4’s turn, Hargrove hoped to both avoid the MiG’s bul- lets and cause the MiG to fly out in front of the Phantom. The tactic worked; the MiG overshot, and Hargrove, slamming the throttles into afterburner, re- versed his turn direction to follow the MiG. Unfortunately, the F-4 was too slow, having sacrificed energy and speed executing the tight defensive turn, and the MiG quickly sped away from the lumbering F-4.
Speedo 1 and 2 initiated a climb and searched for other MiG targets. They found two at right, two o’clock, a half-mile away, low. Hargrove started a right turn, selected the trailing MiG in the right-turning formation, and surmised that he was in perfect position to employ the new weapon slung beneath the F-4’s belly. Flying between 450 and 500 knots and only 2,000 to 2,500 feet behind the MiG, Hargrove pulled the nose of the F-4 far out in front of the MiG and squeezed the trigger. As the range collapsed inside of 1,000 feet, Hargrove could clearly distinguish the individual aluminum panels that made up the skin of the Russian-built fighter. Hargrove continued to mash down on the trigger. As the range collapsed inside of 500 feet, even more detail on the MiG became apparent. Despite continuing to accelerate toward the MiG on a certain collision course, Hargrove pressed the attack. Watching Hargrove’s at- tack from a supporting position 500 feet behind and 1,000 feet above, slightly offset toward the left, Carey in Speedo 2 began worrying that “Speedo 1 had lost sight of the MiG-17 and would collide with him.”
Finally, at 300 feet separation – the point where the image of the MiG completely filled the F-4’s windscreen – Hargrove observed the weapon’s effective- ness. The weapon was the SUU-16 20-millimeter (mm) gun pod, and at 300 feet the impact of the individual rounds could be observed tearing holes into the MiG’s thin aluminum skin right behind the canopy. “At approximately 300 feet, flame erupted from the top of the MiG fuselage. Almost immediately, thereafter, the MiG exploded from the flaming area and the fuselage separated in the area just aft of the canopy.”
Desperately trying to avoid the debris from the MiG erupting immediately before him, Hargrove initiated a violent, evasive maneuver to the left, inadvertently toward Speedo 2. Carey and Dothard in Speedo 2, in turn, executed an aggressive climbing turn in their own frantic attempt to avoid hitting both the MiG debris and Speedo 1. In the commotion, Speedo 1 and 2 became separated from each other, and the two fighters never successfully rejoined. Instead, Speedo 2 came upon another set of American fighters, and Hargrove in Speedo 1 directed Carey in Speedo 2 to join with the other fighters and accompany them home.
Speedo 1, now operating alone, attempted to engage an additional MiG with a Sidewinder missile, but Hargrove launched the missile when the F-4 was under too many G-forces, and it missed the target. Hargrove continued to close on the target, intending to employ the gun once again, but passing in- side of 2,500 feet he realized he was out of ammunition. Rather than continue to press the attack, the crew of Speedo 1 thought better of using their sole remaining Sidewinder and elected instead to retain the missile for the long trek south to friendly airspace.
Craig and Talley in Speedo 3 also had success with the new SUU-16 20 mm gun pod that afternoon. Frustrated by two unsuccessful Sparrow launches, Craig observed two MiGs at nine o’clock low, in a left-hand turn, and immediately decided to maneuver for a gun attack. As Craig led his element in a diving left turn to engage the pair of MiGs, he noticed another lone MiG trail- ing the others by 3,000 feet. Craig wisely decided to switch his attack to the trailing MiG. Speedo 3 and 4 executed a barrel roll to gain better position on the trailing MiG, but, like Elgin 3 and 4, they too came under SAM fire. Similarly undeterred, Speedo 3 and 4 continued to prosecute the attack. The MiG tried to shake the chasing F-4s with a sudden reversal in turn direction, but Craig matched the maneuver perfectly and closed to within 1,500 to 2,000 feet before opening fire. Craig later reported, “I followed the MiG through the turn reversal, pulled lead, and fired a two and one-half second burst from my 20-mm cannon.” His aim was spot-on. “Flames immediately erupted from his [the MiG’s] right wing root and extended past the tailpipe. As I yo-yo’d high, the MiG rolled out to wings level, in a slight descent, and I observed fire coming from the left fuselage area. I initiated a follow up attack. However before I could fire, the MiG burst into flames from the cockpit aft and immediately pitched over and dived vertically into the very low undercast.”
Shortly thereafter, Craig and his element-mate rejoined with Hargrove in Speedo 1 and together they pressed home, looking forward to the celebration that would take place later that night at the DOOM, the DaNang officer’s open mess.