On 10 May 1972 US Air Force and Navy planes resumed their attacks on targets in North Vietnam, following a bombing pause lasting more than 3½ years. That day Air Force F-4 Phantoms delivered set-piece attacks on two targets in the vicinity of Hanoi, one of them with the newly developed ‘smart’ weapons fitted with electro-optical and laser-homing heads. This article describes these actions and the force package tactics employed by the attacking planes. An important innovation during this war, from the point of view of historians, was the installation of a tape recorders in combat aircraft; the action conversations reproduced in this article all come from this source.
During the US Air Force raids on North Vietnam in the spring of 1972 the attacking planes flew from bases in Thailand. The F-4 Phantoms configured as bombers came from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon; the Phantoms configured for reconnaissance and air-to-air combat came from the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn; and the EB-66 radar jamming planes, F-105F ‘Wild Weasel’ defence-suppression aircraft and EC-121 Warning Star airborne command and control planes came from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat. Rescue and recovery planes to pick up crews who had been shot down came from the 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom, whilst the KC-135 tankers that supplied fuel for the high-speed jets before they entered enemy airspace and as they withdrew came from U Tapao and Don Muang.
On 10 May the Air Force’s targets were the important Paul Doumer Bridge over the Red River, immediately to the east of Hanoi, and the nearby Yen Vien railway sorting yard. At 7.30 a.m. that morning the initial wave of seven KC-135 tankers (six aircraft required, plus an airborne reserve) began taking off from U Tapao each carrying 75 tons of fuel. As this was happening, an RF-4C Phantom conducted a weather reconnaissance of the Hanoi area; its coded radio report of clear skies over the targets allowed the preparations for the attacks to go ahead.
At the head of the raiding force entering enemy territory would be two four-plane units, ‘Oyster’ and ‘Baiter’ Flights, with Phantoms armed for air-to-air combat. These took off from Udorn at 8.05 a.m. and headed north. Four more Phantom flights, configured in the same way, followed them into the air to escort different parts of the attack force over enemy territory. Last off from Udorn were a pair of RF-4Cs to carry out a post-strike reconnaissance of the targets.
From Korat, four EB-66 Destroyer radar-jamming planes took off to provide stand-off cover for the attack. Three flights of ‘Wild Weasel’ F-105G Thunderchiefs followed them, to provide defence-suppression cover for the attacks; because of the importance of this mission, each ‘Wild Weasel’ flight took off with five planes, including an airborne reserve that would turn back just short of enemy territory if all of the others were serviceable.
From Ubon, ten four-plane flights of Phantoms took off. Two carried chaff bombs to lay out a trail of the radar-reflective strips along the route to the targets. For the attack on the important Paul Doumer Bridge over the Red River, ‘Goatee’ Flight’s planes were loaded with two 2,000lb electro-optically guided bombs. Those of ‘Napkin’, ‘Biloxi’ and ‘Jingle’ Flights were loaded with two 2,000lb laser-guided bombs. It was to be the first use of the two new ‘smart’ weapons against a target in North Vietnam. A further four flights of Phantoms, to attack the Yen Vien railway sorting yard, carried conventional, unguided 500lb bombs.
By 8.50 a.m. the entire armada was airborne and heading north. Of the total of more than 110 aircraft, no fewer than 88 were scheduled to penetrate enemy territory. Over northern Thailand the raiders refuelled from the six KC-135 tankers waiting at the rendezvous area, then headed into Laos. Already, however, the two flights that were to spearhead the attack had been weakened. Two planes from ‘Baiter’ Flight had suffered technical problems. and had to turn back. A Phantom of ‘Oyster’ Flight had suffered a radar failure, but its crew opted to continue the mission though with a reduced capability.
‘Oyster’ and ‘Baiter’ Flights crossed the North Vietnamese border at 9.20 a.m. and headed for their patrol lines north-west of Hanoi. The plan was to establish a barrier patrol, with ‘Oyster’ Flight at low altitude and ‘Baiter’ at 22,000ft some distance behind and in full view of enemy radars. Any MiGs moving against ‘Baiter’ Flight were therefore likely to fly over ‘Oyster’ Flight waiting in ambush. Three minutes after crossing the frontier, the Phantom crews received warning from the EC-121 Warning Star radar-picket plane over Laos that enemy fighters were airborne. Similar warnings came from the cruiser USS Chicago acting as radar-control ship in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Initially the MiGs kept their distance from the incoming force, but at 9.42 the North Vietnamese controller finally ordered his fighters to go into action. A warning call from Chicago enabled Major Bob Lodge, ‘Oyster’ Flight Leader, to turn to meet the MiGs nose-on. That gave his flight a clear tactical advantage, for the Phantoms could engage the MiGs at long range with their Sparrow missiles while the enemy fighters with less advanced missiles had no effective means of shooting back.
Down at 2,000ft the Phantoms jettisoned their external tanks and accelerated to fighting speed. In an air combat, victory usually goes to the side which sees its opponent first. Lodge kept his force low to remain out of sight for as long as possible, while the four enemy fighters ran obliquely past his nose at 15,000ft. The two forces were not meeting exactly head-on, but even so their combined closing speed was tremendous — more than 1,000mph, or just over a mile every four seconds. Tape recorders in the fighters captured the words spoken as the MiGs appeared on their radars:
‘Oyster 2 has contact!’
‘Oyster 1 has a contact zero-five-zero [bearing] for fifteen [miles]’
‘Oyster 3 is contact, Bob!’
‘Right, we got ’em!’
‘Oyster 1 on the nose, twelve miles, fifteen [degrees] high…’
The Phantoms were fitted with ‘Combat Tree’, a device that worked on the same principle as the Second World War British ‘Perfectos’ equipment (see Chapter Ten). ‘Combat Tree’ transmitted signals to trigger the IFF transponders in the MiGs and picked up their coded reply signals. In the context of this mission the device was vitally important, for it provided proof that the planes seen on radar were hostile. And that meant that they could be engaged from long range with radar-homing missiles, without having to close to within visual range to confirm their identity. In the three ‘Oyster’ fighters with serviceable radars, the back-seater locked-on to an enemy plane and made ready the Sparrow missiles.
Bob Lodge eased his fighter into a shallow climb preparatory to missile launch and the other Phantoms followed. When the leading MiG was in firing range, Lodge squeezed the trigger to launch his first Sparrow. Trailing smoke, the 450lb missile accelerated from the Phantom’s 700mph to more than 2,000mph in 2.3 seconds. The motor then cut out and the weapon should have coasted on to the target, but instead it blew up in a cloud of smoke. Lodge squeezed the trigger a second time and another Sparrow streaked away from the fighter.
A few hundred yards to the right of Lodge, Lieutenant John Markle in ‘Oyster 2’ fired a pair of Sparrows. These gave similar results, as he later recalled:
Our first missile apparently did not get rocket motor ignition. The second missile came off the aircraft and turned slightly right as it climbed. We continued to maintain position on ‘Oyster 1’ in an easy right turn, slightly nose-up. As I checked the missile’s progress, the trail showed a slight left turn toward the radar target.
Captain Steve Ritchie in ‘Oyster 3’, 3,000yds to the left of Lodge, also launched a Sparrow but this too was a dud: the motor failed to ignite and it fell away from the fighter like a bomb. Thus, of the five Sparrows fired, three had failed to function properly. The two missiles that worked as advertised produced devastating results, however. The tape recorder in Markle’s plane captured his reaction as he saw his missile explode beside the enemy plane:
‘Oh right!…Now!…Good!…Wooohooo!’ Then came a short pause to calm down, after which the pilot announced on the radio, ‘Oyster 2’s a hit!’
From the leading aircraft Lodge replied, ‘I got one!’
Steve Eaves, Markle’s back-seater, confirmed that he had seen the leader’s kill: ‘Roger, he’s burning and he’s going down one o’clock!’
Captain Roger Locher, Lodge’s back-seater, saw a couple of small clouds suddenly appear as the two missiles detonated a long way in front of him. A few seconds later he caught sight of the two stricken North Vietnamese fighters, MiG-21s, tumbling out of the sky. One was cartwheeling and going down in a shallow dive, the other had part of a wing missing and was in a steep dive, rolling out of control.
The two MiG-21s that had survived the Sparrow onslaught flashed over the top of the Phantoms, as the latter were pulling into tight turns to the right to get behind their opponents for follow-up attacks. When Lodge rolled out he was only 200ft behind one of the MiGs, giving Locher in the rear seat a sight that he would never forget:
We were in his jet wash. There he was, [after]burner plume sticking out, the shiniest airplane you’ve ever seen. He was going up in a chandelle to the right, we were right behind him.
The Phantom carried no gun and it was too close for a missile attack, so Lodge eased off the turn to open the range on the enemy fighter. It seemed only a matter of time before that MiG too was smashed out of the sky. Then, without warning, a pair of MiG-19s climbed steeply from below and gate-crashed the fight. Probably flown by Lieutenants Le Thanh Dao and Vu Van Hop of the 3rd Company, the newcomers slid into firing positions behind Lodge’s Phantom as Markle bellowed a warning to his leader: ‘OK, there’s a Bandit…you got a Bandit in your 10 o’clock Bob, level!’ The MiG-19s passed behind Lodge then closed in from his right.
Further warning calls followed from the other Phantoms: ‘Bob, reverse right, reverse right Bob. Reverse right!’
Lodge’s attention was focused on the MiG-21 in front of him, which by now had opened the range sufficiently to allow a close-in missile shot. Meanwhile, behind the Phantom, the leading MiG-19 opened fire with its cannon. The hefty 30mm rounds rapidly bridged the gap between the two machines and Markle’s warnings to his leader took on a more strident note: ‘He’s firing — he’s firing at you!’
In the Phantom under attack, events now followed each other in confusingly rapid succession. Roger Locher recalled:
One or two seconds later — wham! We were hit. I looked up and saw the MiG [the MiG-21 in front of him] separating away. I thought we had mid-aired because that was exactly my interpretation of how a collision would feel. We both said ‘Oh shit!’, and my ‘Oh shit!’ was because the guy in front was getting away from us.
More 30mm shells slammed into the Phantom, and at last Locher realized what was happening. The fighter decelerated rapidly and he felt it yaw violently to the right. The whole of the fighter’s rear fuselage was ablaze and as the flames ate their way forwards the heat began to roast the plastic of Locher’s canopy, which turned an opaque orange. Smoke seeped into the cockpit.
Around the doomed Phantom the air battle continued. The MiG-21 that Lodge had been about to engage sped clear. The fourth plane from the original enemy formation was less fortunate, however. Steve Ritchie in ‘Oyster 3’ rolled out of his turn about a mile behind it, in a perfect firing position, and squeezed off two Sparrows in quick succession. Once again, the first missile failed to guide, but the other homed in perfectly. It detonated immediately below the Soviet-built fighter, pieces flew off it and the MiG quickly lost speed. As the Phantom swept past its victim, Chuck DeBellevue in the rear seat saw a black shape flash past his left, less than 100ft away — the enemy pilot. DeBellevue gave a jubilant shout on the radio: ‘Oyster 3’s a splash [enemy plane shot down]!’
DeBellevue’s triumphant call was the last thing Roger Locher heard before he ejected from his Phantom. By then the burning plane was upside down and falling fast. Locher grabbed the firing handle between his legs with both hands, and pulled hard:
We were under negative g at the time. My ass was off the seat; I was pinned against the top of the canopy. I saw the canopy go, then I went out under negative g. There was a lot of wind blast; I started to see again. Then thwack! — the parachute opened. And Zoooom! — past me went two MiG-19s.
The other members of ‘Oyster’ Flight watched in horror as the Phantom fell from the sky, hoping for a glimpse of one or more parachutes to indicate that there were survivors. They saw none. The fighter was upside-down when Locher ejected and probably the plume of smoke trailing behind the aircraft screened him from their view. It seems certain that Lodge was still in his cockpit when the fighter plunged into the ground.
Shaken by the loss of their leader, the survivors of ‘Oyster’ Flight kept up their speed as they returned to low altitude and made a rapid withdrawal from the area. The two aircraft of Salter’ Flight also had a tussle with MiGs, though without loss on either side. Those skirmishes were not decisive, but for the raiding force now approaching Hanoi they had an important result: they kept the MiGs to the area northwest of city, enabling the main attackers to approach their targets without interference from enemy fighters.
Now the second phase of the action could begin, with the aim of blunting the cutting edge of Hanoi’s SAM and anti-aircraft gun defences. Four EB-66E stand-off jamming aircraft, four ‘Wild Weasel’ F-105Gs and eight F-4 chaff-bombers were assigned to this task.
The first to make their presence felt were the EB-66s. Each plane carried a battery of eighteen radar-jammers and their role was similar to that of the target-support Liberators operated by No 100 Group in the Second World War (see Chapter Ten). At 9.45 a.m. the aircraft arrived at their orbit positions just outside the reach of the Hanoi missile belt and, flying at 30,000ft, began jamming the enemy radars. As they did so four ‘Wild Weasel’ F-105Gs split into two pairs and ran into the defended area at low altitude. Their role was to strike at the radars of enemy surface-to-air missile sites as they came on the air. Each plane carried three anti-radar missiles — two short-range Shrikes and a long-range Standard ARM. One of those who flew on this type of operation, Major Don Kilgus, described the tactics used:
Once we had found an active site we would go into afterburner and increase speed to between 450 and 520 knots [520-600mph]. Speed gave us survivability and manoeuvre potential, because when we started pulling g the plane would slow down. The Thud [F-105] was a super plane but it was not the tightest turner in the world and you had to plan ahead if you wanted to make a violent manoeuvre. So we would light the burner, pull up and turn at the same time to establish the firing parameters for the missile. Needles showed where the Shrike was looking and gave an indication of range plus or minus about 20 per cent. If a loft attack was necessary, for maximum range we would launch in a 30-degree climb from 15,000 feet. Or if we were close to the site we would pitch over and push the missile down his throat.
The ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft were themselves likely to come under missile attack, and this was no mission for the faint-hearted.