27 February, 2015

PROFILE 102: UPDATE - "280" as flown by the 523rd TFS

"(I) thought I was going to the big show. Vietnam.  (But) wound up in the Philippines (and) thought I had missed the action."

That quote is from James Null of the 523rd TFS.  If you've followed my work on the 523rd so far, you'll remember that this particular F-4 is going to be a "Team Airplane" and representative of the many that comprised the squadron.  More on that when I post the final sometime in April (get ready for some of the coolest F-4 photographs you’ve ever seen!)

In the meantime, much to Jim's chagrin, I'd like you to focus on the red star painted on the splitter-plate.   Why chagrin?  It’s because the particular F-4 that I’m drawing is also the F-4 that Jim and Mike Vahue flew when he downed a MiG-21 over North Vietnam.  Jim has let me know—on a number of occasions—that the story that follows neither makes him a celebrity, something special or particularly better than anyone else in the unit.  Instead, that it happened at all was, in his words, "luck."

On April 16, 1972, Jim and Mike got…lucky.  

The day before, the pilots of the 523rd were told that the USAF would be going into North Vietnam for the first time since 1968.   The squadron’s particular roles in the operation were two-fold:  one, to provide MiGCAP (protect the bombers from MiGs) and two, Air Defense Alert (wait around for a "scramble!").  Jim and Mike, on account of rank (they were mere Captains) were told they wouldn't be a part of the MiGCAP show up North and to wait it out in the lounge.

Mental picture: two guys in green flight suits, white paper cups topped off with mediocre coffee, feet up on a chair and snapping open the paper.

"(You) train for something, you want to do it!  We were on 15-minute alert which means that we're part of two airplanes that are a backup to the planes on 5-minute alert.  But, just before the main strike takes off, the two planes on 5-minute were scrambled to check the weather." 

But, about 0930—45 minutes after the main strike had been launched—the remaining Alert F-4s were scrambled.  In a scene out of the movie Battle of Britain, Jim and Mike, along with another F-4 crew lead by Gary Lorenz, bolted to their...nothing!  In the preparation for the strike mission, the airplane Gary had been assigned was used to fill a slot in the main strike force.

"So Gary goes off looking for another F-4!"

Mental picture:  two frustrated guys in green flight suits wandering around a shopping mall parking lot looking for their car.
However, after twenty or so minutes of phone calls, frustrated pleas and I'm sure a few swear words, another F-4 was found.  Finally, some thirty minutes later, "wheels  up" from Udorn AFB occurred and the two F-4s bolted north towards Laos for what was sure to be a waste of time.   By then, the main strike was on its way back home and the show over.

However, once on point over northern Laos, the two F-4s got the call that made Jim and Gary tighten and clench—"Papa 3 flight, we hold blue bandits zero six seven degrees, seventy miles from you at nineteen thousand, supersonic."

As a believer that "Luck" favors the prepared, Jim turned the flight to face the threat, and readied his F-4 for combat that he still doubted might ever come.
An F-4D cockpit.  A multi-tasker's heaven.
"(So) we blow off centerline tank. At 35 miles (from the target) we then blow off outboard tanks. I had already determined that if I ever get the chance to engage MiGs, I would tune missiles1 and go into engagement missiles tuned and armed. I had seen guys miss shots because they were late getting ready. The GCI which were Navy cruisers off shore of N.V. Nam,some 120 miles away keep giving us info on bogies. At 35 miles I ask if bogies are declared hostile! (And the) answer? YES!  Heavy breathing starts!  Now they are bandits!"

At about 19 miles, my wingman calls he has contact (and) GCI confirms that they’re our bandits. I tell him he has lead and is cleared to fire, which he does, but nothing happens!  (I) find out later that Gary fired but no missiles leave his aircraft.2 Confusion now ensues. GCI calls and says we are merged with bandits...and we don't have a tally3 on the bad guys. I call for a split-S4 but Gary doesn't hear the call.

Now I'm heading SW with sun at my back. I get a glint off a canopy at my 12 o'clock at about 7miles. GCI says that's my bandits. Now, I must interject that there had recently been some close calls on fratricide  A guy in our squadron had been cleared to fire on a bandit which (actually) turned out to be a Navy A-6. Needless to say I didn't want that! Plus this was my first air-to-air engagement (with the enemy).”

You following this?  Good.  So let’s take a break for second as a little context is in order.  In comparsion against the knife-edged duels from WWI or the more calculated tactics of WWII, the aerial engagements over Vietnam were far more complicated.   Because of the speeds, distances and “rules of engagement,” both the USAF/Navy and VPAF relied on outside help (i.e. GCI5) technology, (i.e. missiles and their guidance systems) in addition to old-fashioned flying. 

Mental picture:  think about it this way—in the 1940s, you bought a car and drove. That’s like flying a Fokker Dr.1 or Sopwith Camel.  Dogfighting is visceral and simple—maneuver, shoot.  In the 1970s, you bought a car, drove and listened to the radio.  That’s like flying a Spitfire or P-51—still fairly straightforward but the increased speeds and innovations allow for new tactics;  Today, you buy a car, drive, synch your telephone so you can listen to satellite radio, navigate with a GPS and dictate your email.   That’s like the F-4 vs. MiG-21 duels—GCI, radars, guided missiles, rapid speeds and “rules of engagement” in addition to flying the airplane.

Make sense?
Null was an hour away from home at 300mph.  Or, about 15 minutes balls-out.
Ok, getting back to the two Phantoms burning eastward towards the blips on their radar screens, we’ll pick this up when Jim realizes that the MiGs have now “merged” with the F-4s.  In short, it’s on!

“(After GCI) called ‘merged’—that their radar blips of us and them overlapped—I called for a split-S.  I Found out later Gary didn't hear the transmission, not uncommon in combat and with F-4 radios. I then got a vector of 245 degrees for 8 miles.  I (see) a glint off of a canopy, head that way and see a black aircraft with a silver aircraft about 1 mile behind. A black aircraft to me was an F-4!   A silver one was a MiG-21!  I thought I was looking at Gary's aircraft with a MiG-21 about to shoot down Gary—I called for him to break and that he had a MiG on his ass! The MiGs were in a right turn coming to a heading of 060 degrees heading back to Hanoi. I was lower, looking up at them. They were rocking to the right and left trying to find me as I'm sure their GCI controllers told them I was below them.”

Ok, hold that thought for a second.

The MiG-21 was designed out of Cold War thinking that ‘dogfighting’ was a thing of the past.  MiG-21s were made to go fast, fire missiles then run home for more fuel and missiles.  Though comparatively maneuverable, the MiG-21 lacked the crucial quality that all good dogfighting aircraft need:  good visibility for the pilot.

Check the photos below; I took these of a MiG-21 in Hanoi. You can see that the cockpit is so streamlined into the fuselage, it's as if the engineers were doing everything they could to keep the pilot from getting distracted by anything behind.

“I started a climb. With a clean F-46, low altitude, I'm sure I was above the (speed of sound) as I started my climb. I aimed at the lead MiG (black)7 and passed off of his right wing going straight up. I definitely ID'ed him as a MiG. I could see the pilot, the pitot tube coming out above the intake...I had to be inside 100 yards of him. I continued up and waited until the silver wingman to pass then I pulled down to follow. I was low at the 6 o'clock of the trailing MiG (silver).
Jim Null vs. the "Black MiG."  I doodled this while on the phone with Jim; took me three times to get
the orientation right.  And I haven't figured how to draw black airplanes with a pencil yet.
We achieved a lock on, waited the necessary 4 seconds8  and fired an AIM-7. I had fired an AIM-7 at Clark AB with the Test Squadron and knew what to expect.

The missile departed the aircraft—I could feel the launch mechanism function—but no rocket engine ignition with accompanying roar.  I thought I had screwed up! I quickly checked my switches. Everything looked good so I fired again. The second missile came off, rocket fired and the missile appeared to be tracking.  I decided to ‘up’ the probability of kill so I fired my 3rd missile.  (That one) appeared to track for a while but then it took off up and to the right and exploded harmlessly in the sky.

(But) then I turned my attention to the second missile. It pulled up to the left wing of the (silver) MiG, exploded and the expanding ring warhead took the tail off of the MiG. I saw the tail spinning off to the right and pieces of the missile exploding off to the left. The MiG appeared to be un-phased and continued on.  I'm sure it was only for an instant but it seemed much longer. It suddenly pitched nose up and had a large plume of fire coming from the tail.

We were close by this time and pulled up and to the right of the MiG. We banked to the left to keep the MiG in sight. The MiG rolled upright one last time, the silver skin gleaming in the sun. I could see the markings on the wings and the canopy was still in place. It then rolled inverted for likely the last time as we were only about 3000 feet or less and the MiG 2-300 feet below us.

We then began to look for the (black) MiG. With no (additional) tally, only AIM-4s remaining and just 5 or 6000 pounds of fuel remaining and 200+ miles to Udorn, I decided to go away and live to fight another day.”
©James Null.  Invaluable photo in finishing out the 523rd's bird, too.  
And that, thanks to Mr. Null, is how MiG-hunting was done, April 16, 1972.

Anyway, like I wrote at the beginning, I’ll post the 523rd’s finished F-4 here in April.  If you’re curious, there are no plans to offer signed prints for sale, though I do look forward to hanging my Squadron-signed copy in my man-cave.

And those promised F-4 photos?  DEFINITELY worth the wait.  You will like them.

Ok.  Now, about those superscripts1234567…

1The system that acquired a target and gave the scent-signal to the missile’s seeker-head was complicated and needed a bit of man-handling by the pilot, not unlike a crappy clock radio dial that squawks its way to find a nice, clear signal.

2Missiles in Vietnam were notoriously unreliable.  AIM-9 Sidewinders were the best performing missile with an aggregate success rate of about 18%.  At extreme close range (less than 1,000 feet) Sidewinders did a better job, hitting their target 86% of the time.   But you can see by the disparity of average-numbers how rarely those close ranges occurred.

AIM-7 Sparrows, like the one that Jim used, were a longer-ranged missile that could acquire a target moving away, towards and obliquely.  However, that target acquisition required an uninterrupted signal between the F-4 and the missile and that meant the F-4 was not completely free to maneuver.  Regardless, it’s success rate was only about 10%, hence Jim’s firing of multiple missiles.  Gary's unfortunate moment where all four of his Sparrows failed is at once astonishing and unremarkable.

AIM-4 Falcons were the least liked missile.  Though its success rate was on-par with the Sparrow, it required the longest time for the missile to acquire the target and required the most pre-launch inputs from the pilot.  It’s rumored that pilots would rather dump their AIM-4s under some other pretense (as in damage due to flying through a thunderstorm) than bring them back to bother someone else another day.
3”Tally” comes from the English hunting cry of “Tally ho!” when contact with prey was sighted.

4Split-S is a manuever in which the airplane reverses direction via a snap roll and dive.  Significant altitude is lost but the aircraft gains airspeed and a completely new direction, quickly.

5GCI = Ground Control Intercept.  Whether in a little dark room in a hidden bunker or a little dark room in an airborne command center, “GCI” are the people and tech that identify/confirm targets and relay the information to the pilots.  

6”Clean” means Jim’s F-4 was stripped of heavy, maneuverability-sucking weight like drop-tanks. 

7MiG-21s came in all colors.  Most of them were silver, a few of them were dappled green, some dappled green and brown, some brown…and as Jim saw first-hand, black (or at least extremely dark).  These were suspected to be MiG-21s designated for night-flying duty.  I’m checking in with my VN sources to verify this but suffice it to state, it’d be wicked-cool to do a black MiG-21 and talk to one of the pilots.

84 seconds was what it took to transfer information to the missile before launch.  Remember, these where information was transmitted "analog" fashion versus today's "digital" fashion.  There is not enough room here to describe in detail but it's like comparing magnetic tape sound-recording versus how an MP3 file is created today.  Vietnam-era missiles relied on technology that, in comparison to today, is Cro-magnon.