30 October, 2016

Profile 119: FINISHED—"5016" as flown by Pham Phu Thai, 921st FR

MiG on scope!

Other than the four red stars on the nose and "Bort Number" of 5016, it's a workaday North Vietnamese Air Force weapon, circa 1972.  There's some controversy here among us Wingnerds; note the green coloring on the tail's radar panel, colored banding on the Sidewinder-copy Atoll missiles and victory stars.  Were they just as depicted?   A few of my sources say, "Yes."  A few say "No."

But what's life without a little bit of controversy, eh?  And, to be frank, right now, drawing MiGs is a welcome distraction from controversy of today's politics...

I digress; my apologies. Back to the topic at-hand...

In the end, I made the call and moved on with the aspect of this airplane that interests me most—the pilot.  To me, without the mind that made it move, this MiG is nothing more than a park sculpture. So, that in mind, have a look at the picture below.  It's of 921st FR pilot Pham Phu Thai, taken when he was a Flight Officer and pilot of 5016.*

VPAF Officer Pham Phu Thai, circa 1972 after his first aerial victory over an F-4 Phantom.
Photo:  Dr. Sy Hung
The VPAF credited him with four victories, the first of which was achieved in 1972 during the game-shifting Linebacker I campaign.  Remember that for much of the war, tactical bombing against North Vietnamese targets were regulated by bizarre (and largely ineffective) "Rules of Engagement" conjured by politicos instead of warriors.  The Linebacker campaigns of 1972 were an attempt to change the tactical mistakes of the past.

Considering the overwhelming power of USAF/Navy aircraft of the day, that Thai managed to succeed as he did indicates remarkable prowess.  But, it was after the war that the man achieved his most demonstrable success; he stayed in the VPAF and worked his way up to become Vice Commander in Chief.

Well now...!  This vertical climb is especially impressive considering he did so during Vietnam's past fifty years of dramatic transformation.   If there was any concrete proof of how much Viet Nam has changed since the war, it was when, after 90 minutes during my first morning in Hanoi, I stopped counting Porsche Panameras at eleven.**   (Let that sink in; not sure Lenin would approve but that's another topic).

Anyway, General Thai's story is why my artwork—in and of itself—is so incomplete; the rendering is really only a snapshot of a thing during a moment in time.  This is why I work to move my pencil from sketching lines to writing words; the words that come as a result of conversation.

My conversation with General Thai, however, was disappointingly brief.  In fact, I can't even qualify it as such.  Instead, it was more like a "quick-chat."

Read for yourself:


ME:  So tell me about your upbringing and how you got to be a MiG pilot.

General Thai:  (I) was born in 1949 in Phu Tho province. I joined the Air Force in 1965 and was sent to Russia for MiG-21 training.

ME:  What was that training like?

General Thai: After a hundred and sixty hours of flying on L-29 and MiG-21, I graduated with license to fly (the) MiG-21 in January 1968. After returning to Vietnam, I served in the Air force and was staffed to 921st Regiment of (VNPAF) and started combat fighting from April 1968** with 180 hours of flying.

ME:  Describe your first combat...

General Thai:  (In) June, 1972***, I shot down an enemy fighter jet for the first time.

(Note - I got the impression he didn't want to engage any more about combat, so moved on to other questions)

Pham Phu Thai (far right) describes a dogfight in an NVAF propaganda photo.  Not sure but there's a good chance the photo was taken at Phuc Yen, NE Vietnam.

 In reality, I don't think the pilots would be huddled up in the middle of the ramp talking shop.

 5016 is the first MiG-21 in line.

Photo: Dr. Sy Hung

ME:  So then how did you feel about the war when it ended?

General Thai:  Independence for Vietnam is the desire of generations of Vietnamese and I was very happy when Vietnam gained independence.

ME:  Ok, so what are your thoughts about the United States today?

General Thai:   I visited USA in 2015 (with several other war veterans), accompanying Party General,  Nguyen Phu Trong. My impression of the US?  This is a prosperous country with a strong economic and social development system. However, I think the gun control need(s) to be well regulated and gun safety can be problematic.

ME:  (Note to self: the gun-thing again.  Leave this one alone and hold-back on inviting him to go pheasant hunting).  Ok, so how do you see the United States in relation to the rest of the world? 

General Thai:  A power country like (The United States) can improve its image and reputation if it can listen to the voices of other countries (and) respect their cultures and religions.

ME:  And who do you particularly respect?

General Thai:  (My idol) is a good pilot who willing to sacrifice for his/her country.

ME:  I'm curious—what do you think of my questions?

General Thai:   I am very glad to learn that you are interested in researching on Vietnam Air Force history. I think in order to do so, it is important to understand the culture and people of such country. I would like to thank you very much for (the) gift of (this drawing). I wish you good health and have more beautiful artworks of Air Force history.

General Thai today.  It kills me how the Vietnamese just don't seem to age.
Photo:  VPAF

'Told you it was quick.  Too few questions, not enough conversation...


Anyway...have another look at 5016 but this time, notice the title.  

One lesson my wife and I have tried to instill in our kids it's this—things change.  Economies change, jobs change, fads change, politicians change (most need to change more often) but none of such forces are to be feared or particularly fawned.

If I ever get another chance to engage with General Thai, the stuff I will want to find out from him are what he feels shouldn't change—the stuff that distinguishes solid character from the illusion of personality, objective fact from transient perception and sacrificial duty from self-interest. 

It doesn't matter what country we're from, nor what political persuasion we follow, we should expect certain qualities from those who desire power and influence, don't you think?

(personal note: I am going to be very pleased when this year's political storm has passed).

General Thai offered me a copy of his book and for that, I am grateful.  But in the time it will take for me to learn to read Vietnamese decently, I'm afraid I'll change into dust.  So, clearly I am going to have to figure out a way to have another conversation.

Watch this space. 

Personal note:  This is Gen. Thai's book.   The title, "Linh Bay" is translated to mean something like, "Basic Airman" or "Just a Pilot."   I wish more successful people would write their Bios.

*The North Vietnamese Air Force didn't assign specific aircraft to specific pilots. 

**I really doubt there were any Porsches in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, nor for many years afterwards for that matter.  I'm not an Economist but I think a Porsche Standard could be a novel way to describe a population's economic and social progress.

***June 1, 1972 to be precise. Gen. Thai's first combat mission was April 18, 1968.  Get your head around this date as he was flying jets in-combat at the age of 19.