Event Date: January 2, 1967
A ruse designed by the U. S. Air Force to engage Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF, North Vietnamese Air Force) MiG-21s on an equal footing. Because the Lyndon B. Johnson administration prohibited U. S. aircraft from bombing airfields in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) until April 1967, the U. S. Air Force sought another method of reducing increasingly dangerous levels of MiG activity in North Vietnam. Consequently, in December 1966 Seventh Air Force Headquarters planned a trap for the MiGs by exploiting deception and the weaknesses of the North Vietnamese ground radar network.
Normally U. S. Air Force strike packages flew in standard formations, which included refueling Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers at lower altitudes than their McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II escorts. In Operation BOLO, F-4s imitated F-105 formations-including their electronic countermeasure emissions, attack patterns, and communications-to convince North Vietnamese ground controllers that their radars showed a normal F-105 strike mission. However, when controllers vectored VPAF MiG interceptors against their enemies, the MiG-21s found F-4s, equipped for air-to-air combat, rather than the slower bomb-laden F-105s.
To maximize fighter coverage over Hanoi and deny North Vietnamese MiGs an exit route to airfields in China, Operation BOLO called for 14 flights of U. S. Air Force fighters to converge over the city. Aircraft from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) based at Ubon Air Base in Thailand would fly into the Hanoi area from Laos, while fighters from the 366th TFW based at Da Nang would arrive from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Marginal weather on January 2, 1967, delayed the start of the mission until the afternoon and prevented more than three flights of F-4s from reaching the target area. Colonel Robin Olds, 8th TFW commander, led the first of the three flights; Lieutenant Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James led the second flight; and Captain John Stone led the third flight. Olds’s flight passed over the Phuc Yen airfield twice before MiG-21s popped out of the clouds. The intense air battle that followed lasted less than 15 minutes but was the largest single aerial dogfight of the Vietnam War. Twelve F-4s destroyed seven VPAF MiG-21s and claimed two more probable kills. Colonel Olds shot down two aircraft himself.
As told by Olds to Walter J. Boyne for his book “Phantom In Combat,” the F-4s turned against the nearest attackers.
Unfortunately, the first one to pop through came up at Olds 6 o’clock position. Olds broke left, trying to get away of the enemy line of fire, hoping that his wingman would take care of him. At the same time he saw another MiG pop out of the clouds in a wide turn about his 11 o’clock position, a mile and a half away. He went after it ignoring the one behind and fired missiles at the Mig just after this disappeared back into the clouds.
But another MiG appeared after few seconds: “I’d seen another MiG pop out in my 10 o’clock position, going from my right to left; in other words, just across the circle from me. When the first MiG I fired at disappeared, I slammed full afterburner and pulled in hard to gain position on this second MiG. I pulled the nose up high, about 45°, inside his circle. Mind you, he was turning around to the left, so I pulled the nose up high and rolled to the right. This is known as a vector roll. I got up on top of him and, half upside down, hung there and waited for him to complete more of his turn, and timed it so that as I continued to roll down behind him I’ d be about 20° angle off and 4,500 to 5,000 ft behind him. That’s exactly what happened. Frankly, I am not sure that he ever saw me. When I got down low and behind he was outlined by the sun against a brilliant blue sky. I let him have two Sidewinders, one of which hit and blew his right wing off” Olds explained in “Phantom In Combat.”
There were no U. S. Air Force losses. The VPAF admits that it lost five MiG-21s in this battle. One of the Vietnamese pilots shot down that day, Nguyen Van Coc, went on to become North Vietnam’s top-scoring ace, credited with shooting down nine American aircraft.
Ultimately Operation BOLO destroyed almost half of the VPAF inventory of MiG-21s. Although bad weather prevented the full execution of the plan, it did achieve its primary objective of reducing U. S. aerial losses. Because of the reduced number of MiG-21s, the VPAF had no choice but to stand down its MiG-21 operations.
A working paper produced by the U.S. Seventh Air Force Tactical Air Analysis Center, the success of Operation Bolo is largely attributable to several factors like:
1. The overall planning and development of mission strategy and tactics, which accurately anticipated and fully exploited enemy reaction, and the attention to detail in the planning phase with particular focus on total force interaction in relation to both position and timing.
2. An intensive training program for 8 TFW combat aircrews which emphasized every facet of total mission to include missile capabilities, aircraft and missile procedures, MiG maneuverability, radar search patterns, MiG identification, flight maneuvering and flight integrity, radio procedures, fuel management, tank jettison procedures etc.
3. High degree of discipline, both ground and air, displayed by all participants.
Nevertheless the success of Operation Bolo was also the result of both leadership and tactical skills, two properties owned by Robin Olds, who still represents the natural embodiment of the fighter pilot.
References Bell, Kenneth H. 100 Missions North. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1993. Middleton Drew, ed. Air War-Vietnam. New York: Arno, 1978. Momyer, William W. Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1978. Nordeen, Lon O. Air Warfare in the Missile Age. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985. Pimlott, John. Vietnam: The Decisive Battles. New York: Macmillan, 1990. Ta Hong, Vu Ngoc, and Nguyen Quoc Dung. Lich Su Khong Quan Nhan Dan Viet Nam (1955-1977) [History of the People’s Air Force of Vietnam (1955-1977)]. Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House, 1993.