26 August, 2015

Profiles 108, 109: IN PROGRESS—"The Snakes" of the North

Chugging up a tropical river on a leaky wooden boat...

Jungle trees hanging over hot brown water, sweat stinging my eyes...

Clothes stucking to me like cling-wrap stretched over a bowl of hot soup... 

Three sweat-soaked Americans, twelve dry Vietnamese...

I lean over to cameraman Rick and whisper, "Did'ja ever see the movie, Apocalypse Now?"

He grimaces, then softly sings the opening bars to the haunting vocals of Doors song that opened the film, "This is the end.  Beautiful friend.  This is the end..."

It was no stretch of my imagination to imagine the river bank ahead erupting into shards of splintered trees and metal shrapnel as a Huey Gunship roared overhead.

Yet, the reality of the moment was more improbable than the scene playing my head—I was going to a caucus of North Vietnamese fighter pilots with one American fighter pilot, Capt. Charlie Plumb.

Charlie's credentials are pretty amazing—author, speaker, Naval academy graduate, 75 combat missions and ex-POW; in his career, he's pretty much seen it all.  But the Vietnamese contingent was rather experienced as well—among them were two Generals, a Colonel a successful entrepreneur and a captain of Vietnamese industry.  And two also happened to be the Honchos of the MiG-17:  Le Hai and Nguyen Van Bay.  Between them, they accounted for 13 American airplanes.

Hold that thought and have a look at the MiGs below.

Le Hai's MiG-17.  

Nguyen Van Bay's MiG-17.

It was a strange day.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining!  Our hosts were fantastic, the scenery amazing,  food delicious..and yet, the history of the moment was sticky like that plastic wrap referred to in line three.  

War can do weird things to the brain and if merely studying it can warp my own (a Gen-x'er who's never really had to suffer much for anything) I can't comprehend what it does to those who actually have experienced it.

It was, as they said back in the '60s, "...a trip."

Anyway, back to the MiGs.  Notice the green-black MiG-17?  That's Le Hai's.  The silver one would be Van Bay's.  Of course, the men flew other MiG-17s too—the NVAF didn't have assigned airplanes; they took whichever one was ready when the scramble-call came.  But, I can confirm that the "Bort" numbers on the nose are accurate.

So, to the plastic modelers reading this blog, these are indeed their MiGs.  And, they're especially proud of them because these were, during the VN war, technically second-string fighters that gave the #1 military power in the world a nasty bite.  It needs to be understood that when the MiG-17 was first-flown back in 1950, it was state-of-the-art in an "art" that was in a state of rapid flux; by 1967, the airplane was out-of-date compared to the much more advanced American iron like the F-4 Phantom or F-8 Crusader.

But "out of date" doesn't necessarily mean the pilot was condemned.  For a variety of reasons (next post) the North Vietnamese used the MiGs with remarkable effectiveness.

Let's run the numbers.

It's generally accepted that MiG-17s accounted for 28 aerial kills between 1965 and 1972.   In that time span, approximately 65 MiG-17s were lost in combat for a Win:Loss ratio of about 1:2.  Granted, those numbers put the North Vietnamese on the short side of things but are actually rather remarkable.

Consider this—Le Hai (the green MiG) was credited with six aerial victories.   Van Bay (the silver MiG) was credited with 7.  The 13 victories between them account for nearly 50% of the total aerial losses due to MiG-17s during the Vietnam War.

REPEAT:  Nearly fifty percent! It doesn't matter what side you're on, these are the mounts of two pilots who deserve respect.  

Now.  You might be wondering why on earth Charlie was meeting these two guys.  Well, it turns out, he may have met them back on 24 April, 1967 but wasn't able to get a good look at their faces.

Not that he would have had the time...

Stay tuned.

I get into the craziest places...
I have no idea what I was saying at the time I took this picture but to have three guys of this
calibre listening to me is a page out of the Twilight Zone.

PS - Why "Snakes"?  It was the nickname given to the often snake-colored MiG-17s.  There are two versions of the story; one is that the name was given by the North Vietnamese pilots who saw their aircraft as deadly, quick and maneuverable. Like a snake.  The other version is that the name was given by American pilots who saw the MiG-17s as pestilent, nasty and to be dispatched as quickly as possible.  Like a snake.

Pick your poison.