17 December, 2017

Profile 128: MiG-19/J-9 as flown by LtCol Phung Van Quang, 925th FR

Have a look at the MiG-19 above.  Actually, it's not a MiG but Chinese copy more properly called a Shenyang J-6.    This project began last Spring and if you're really interested in this arc, click here.   But, suffice it to state, this beast now has a pilot, the print has a name...and I got my interview (sort of).

As a reminder, the "MiG-19" was the middle-child of the North Vietnamese Air Force's fighter force.  Spec-wise, it's a short hop between the older (but more agile) MiG-17 and the newer (but pricier and more capable) MiG-21. In the end, the MiG-19 is barely remembered as being a transition fighter that had all the bugs of (then) bleeding-edge supersonic tech.   The NVAF outfitted only one squadron, the 925th.

To the Western airplane nerd, seeing one of the breed in-person has its challenges as virtually all of the MiG-19 series—including the J-6—were flown by somewhat and/or enemies.  Also, as a transition aircraft, the jet's moment in the spotlight as high-tech kit was quickly eclipsed by other jets like the MiG-21.

Poor old girl. :(  If I ever go back to Ha Noi, I'm going to volunteer for polish detail.  What it really needs is to be brought inside.  Perhaps next to an F-4?!  (Vietnam needs a kick-butt air museum).
Hmmmm.... ©Me
Still, on novelty factor alone, on my first visit to the Air Force Museum in Ha Noi, I bolted to the sadly weathered relic.  I remember asking General Soat (ret. head of the Vietnam Air Force and 6-victory ace) about interviewing a pilot who'd flown one and he replied that it'd be difficult; there were so many more that flew the 17 and 21...

*insert spinning clock as years pass*

So, this past summer, through some pretty-awesome post-war diplomacy headed by a passionate USMC F-4 driver and a gracious ex-NVAF MiG-21 master, (both prefer anonymity), opportunity to finally engage with a MiG-19 pilot presented itself.

Meet LtCol Phung Van Quang.

But first, there are some things you must know.

A. My interaction with LtCol Quang was much less than preferred; it was way too short,  the language barrier is crazy-hard and there just hasn't been time to cultivate the kind of trust/relationship that lend itself to thoughtful discussion.  Still, for now, it's better than nothing.

B. What you're about to read contains a recount of aerial combat between American and North Vietnamese aircraft that took place on September 2, 1972.  There is significant discrepancy between official USAF and NVAF accounts.  Though the differences will be noted, I am not going to try to determine who's right.  If you want to, knock yourself out.  (I might try later though).

C.  I've had to do a bit of editing due to the language barrier but I'm confident that LtCol Quang is represented accurately.  These edits are shown by ( ).

D.  I'm probably going to be editing this based on reader input/insight (which I welcome, btw).  Future edits will be done in a different color.


If you have another look, you'll notice a red star on the MiG-19's nose.  Chances are good, "6024" did not wear it in combat, at least on Sept. 2nd.  Yet, it is symbolic of LtCol Quang's awarded victory of an F-105G on that day.

Ok?  Ok!
Pilots of the 925th FR circa 1970ish.   Note "6024" in the background - it was also flown by Nguyen Hong Son, a fellow 925th pilot and awarded with three victories.
Photo courtesy of Nguyen Sy Hung   `
Me: Tell me about your upbringing?  Why did you become a pilot?

Quang: My home town is in Hung Yen province, but I grew up in Hai Phong. (I began) martial art training at my infantry unit.  (But in the process) I was spotted by a (member) of (the) Air Force pilot recruitment team, and from then I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot.

(By) 1969, when I was 20 years old, I had had many fighter (sorties).

Note:  Based on other ex-NVAF pilot accounts, this kind of field recruitment effort seems to have been common.  Though I've heard intelligence testing was part of the process, it'd be interesting to know more about what these recruiters were looking for...

Me:  What can you tell me about a typical day as a fighter pilot in combat?

Quang:  One day(?) on the battlefield... (travel to airport) at 0400, check (out) aircraft, (shower/bathe) breakfast, dressing to fly, then (pilot's brief on any previous day's engagements).  Then, play chess, play cards.  Noon, lunch...then (wait).  (Our aircraft were always ready) for battle.

Note:  MiG-19s were notoriously short ranged and the North Vietnamese Air Force operated under strict coordination from a Ground Control Interception (GCI) base.  MiGs of all species were scrambled only when an incoming American strike was confirmed and the pilots were given strict orders on how to proceed.  NVAF sorties were prescribed with metered frugality. 

Me:  Describe flying the MiG-19...

Quang:  The MiG-19 was given a nickname, "Flying Coffin" because (it was) very old and difficult to operate and control.  But (once) you (learn) to control it, you will like it!  (It was) like taming a wild horse.

(It was) most impressive (for me).  (It was the aircraft) that (I was able) to shoot down an (American jet) that came exactly in front of me.

Note: This attitude of appreciating 'tool that was given' is remarkable and consistent with what many successful pilots state regarding aircraft that are otherwise scorned by historians and people who've never actually flown the airplane.  "Kossi" Karhila of the Finnish Air Force had praise for the cursed Brewster Buffalo*,  Joe Foss thought the F4F was a terrific fighter against the legendary Zero provided airspeed was kept up, Bill Creech thought the P-39 was an airplane spoiled by poor tactics and ignorant press—Hank Snow (3 wars, 666 combat missions/test pilot/airshow pilot) put it this way, "Every airplane can and can't do certain things.  This is called a flight envelope and (when used in combat) you just need to keep it inside."

Me:  So what memory of combat stands out the most for you?

Quang: (September 2, 1972).  (It was an) unequal battle and on that day, I realized how (exhausted) I was.  I had to fly many times and (while flying to another airport), I found an F-4 following another.  (That is how I got my victory).

Break break

My copy of The Red Book sitting on my coffee stained workspace. It's opened to the page dedicated to Sept. 2, 1972.  I added a picture of what "reading Vietnamese" looks like and the strangely packaged but wickedly addicting Vietnamese instant coffee called "G7."
I guess I'm a "method writer."

In 2013, a really cool book was produced by Vietnamese historians, Nguyen Sy Hung and Nguyen Nam Lien documenting "the North's side of things."  Unpublished in the West, it remains Vietnam's authority on aerial combat from 1965 to 1975.  From here on out, if I refer to "The Red Book," this is  what I'm referring.

Though I can read only...maybe...twelve? words in Vietnamese, it's an invaluable resource for me because the book is organized in day-by-day fashion, listing dates, American pilot crew names and units.  Flipping pages to the right date, I was able to sort through details.  Even though there are some contradictions with American records, one thing is certain—things happened quickly.

At 1127hrs, NVAF GCI detected 3 four-ships entering NV airspace on the Laotian/NV border about 120 miles approximately due West of Ha Noi.  Guessing the target was ultimately Pha Lai (no idea what it could have been but today, the place is a giant power plant), GCI scrambled, among other MiG-21s from different squadrons, two MiG-19s of the 925th FR from their home base in Yen Bai. The were directed to head East to Pha Lai; the two pilots were Hoang Cao Bong and Quang—Quang being Bong's wingman.

Enroute, GCI believed they had a better take on the target and re-routed the duo back to the airfield at Noi Bai (now Ha Noi's international airport; great service, nice design, not-so-awesome food options).

LtCol Quang, definitely NOT taken on September 2, 1972.  I suspect he was a little more hurried on that day.
Photo courtesy of Nguyen Sy Hung
I don't know how long it takes to scramble two MiG-19s, but let's say that the two MiG-19 drivers were airborne at 1135—seven minutes allows for comms, running to the airplanes, hot start, taxi and wheels up.  Tight, but doable (at least to my guess as to startup procedure for the MiG!).

Eight minutes into the flight, 1143hrs, GCI called the change to Noi Bai and gave final vector.  Quang then spotted two F-105s (G models used for SAM suppression).  Bong ordered to jettison the drop tanks just as two F-4Es were seen on the other side of the horizon. 

Bong and Quang had worked out a plan beforehand that accounted for an attack on disparate targets.  Bong went after the F-4s, Quang turned into the F-105s.  No idea on distance but since these were visually ID'd, consider them to be close enough to where fast-moving specs can be ID'd.  No idea on what altitude they were at but I'd bet it was higher than 5K.

Break break

The speeds involved here have to be appreciated.  Most likely, the six aircraft involved were not supersonic but still traveling at a brisk rate. Based on what I know, let's call that somewhere between 575 and 675 mph.  At these speeds, a mile is passing underneath in 5-6 seconds, faster if it's head-on.  

Back to the battle.

Now, I'm not quite sure why the 105s and the F-4s were coming in from opposite poles.  Maybe they were from different Flights, Forces...? Dunno.  But, Bong quickly engaged an F-4 and claims to have put a brace of 30mm into the Phantom's back.  This is significant because the MiG-19's three cannon put out about 40lbs of explosive metal for each second of fire. 

Map of the day's events.  I didn't mark where any of the aerial engagements took place but I'd guess this one happened near Noi Bai airport, the center yellow/red graphic of the three marked. 
Indeed, USAF records show an F-4E loss of crew William Commodore Wood and Robert Roy Greenwood Jr. (Callsign TUFA 2) on this day.  But, the loss wasn't recorded as happening anywhere near Ha Noi...but over Laos.  Yet, Bong specifically mentions seeing the F-4 crash north of Ha Noi near the Tam Dao mountains (which is closer to Ha Noi).  

Fairly, "The Red Book" does not specifically state that Wood and Greenwood were Bong's target.  In fact, the Red Book only states the loss as "...very likely."  So, no confirmation, only the researcher's confident speculation.  Indeed, the Red Book offers that Woods/Greenwood may have been actually hit by AAA.  Still, Bong specifically mentions hitting an F-4E. 


Break break (again)

It's time to give more attention to the MiG-19's 3 30mm cannon.  If you squint, you can see the barrel of the cannon mounted in the wing root.  What you can't see is the one mounted in the fuselage.  The cannon in the wing roots each drew from a belt of 75 rounds while the fuselage cannon had 55(some).  So, let's call that a total 205 rounds.

With a rate of fire of 850-950 rounds per minute, the MiG-19 has about 15 seconds of fire or, more appropriately, 15 one-second tugs on the trigger.   With each shell head weighing about 2/3 of a pound, a one-second burst spewed approximately 14 explosive shells.  Put in practical terms, imagine 12 cans of soda pop, filled with explosive, traveling at about 1,700 miles per hour, hitting your car—it's going to leave a mark.

Hmmmm! (indeed).

Back to the battle.

When Bong disengaged, another F-4, flown by Maj. John Lucas and Douglas Mallow (34th TFS), got a lock on Bong's MiG and—through direct hit or close-proximity detonation—blew enough holes in the MiG to force Bong to eject.

Meanwhile, Quang was busy chasing the two F-105Gs (who were busy with SAM suppression).

At approximately 1144hrs, Quang had selected a target—apparently the #2 in the Thud two-ship—and fired one of his MiG's missiles.  It's important to note here that the MiG-19s typically did not carry missiles.  However, on this day, the 925th FR were testing out aerial adaptation of the (relatively) new Soviet SA-7 "Grail" ground to air missile (shoulder mounted by trained infantry).   Quang admitted that he fired his first missile too far away (no idea how far is too-far) and it went wide.  At 600 yards, he fired his second missile and it too missed.  He also fired two bursts of cannon (which also missed).

Lacking any photos of aerial combat between MiG-19s and USAF iron, I had to do this one. I screwed up the tail
and the Thud isn't quite as Thud-like as I'd like but, you get the picture...

Just speculating, this had to be a 'fangs out' moment for Quang.  My experience with talking to ex-NVAF pilots is that they tended to be keenly aware of the cost of their weapons.  Though I didn't ask him, I can only imagine that Quang wanted to justify the missing of two (albeit unreliable) missiles, fuel and 30mm shells.  So, he got in close.   How close?  Assuming an angular closure rate of 400mph, Quang gained on the 105 by 180 yards each second.  In 3 seconds, he was possibly "right on" the F-105.

According to The Red Book, Quang fired a long burst at very close range and, quoting, "...after which the F-105 dove toward the ground."**

GCI ordered Quang to land and at 1158hours, he was on the ground at nearby Kep Airfield.  Later, he was informed that he'd had less than 20% of fuel remaining.  Doing (my) math, in 23 minutes of hard combat, the MiG-19 blew through 80% of gas.   Essentially, the MiG-19 had a combat endurance of 30 minutes.  (ouch).  What the hell...fuel was cheap then, right?  

Now, USAF records do not show any F-105 losses for this day.  I was unable to find any records of damaged F-105Gs—if you know better, feel free to email me.  Why the NV war-time officials granted a victory that, according to The Red Book is not specifically recorded as being destroyed** is beyond me and that's a topic for another day.  But.  It's still a fascinating look at what the NVAF pilots experienced.

I remember listening to MiG-17 ace Van Bay describe the tension and anxiety that came from being on constant defensive alert against an expertly trained enemy.  Though the politics are dramatically different, there's surprising similarity between the English experience during the Battle of Britain and the air war over North Vietnam. Regardless of one's 'side,' the age old story of David vs. Goliath remains a captivating one!

So anyways...back to the conversation...
Quang (Left) in his Search & Rescue flight suit.  No idea of the date, but clearly it's well after the war.  Interesting flight suit design though!
Photo courtesy Nguyen Sy Hung

Me:  What happened to you after the war?

Quang:  After (the) war, I work(ed) at the Vietnam Civil Aviation Department.  (I worked my way to positions of) Vice Director of Air Service, head of (the) Department of Air Search & Rescue (and then became the) Chief Administrator of (the) National Committee of Air Search and Rescue.

When asked about favorite aircraft and admired leaders, the answers were a little more awkward but I gathered Quang thought the Sukhoi Cy-22M was a decent airplane (looks like a MiG-21 enlarged about 20% and modified to carry bombs under the wings.)  As for admired people, Quang singled out Pham Tuan, a fellow war vet who went on to become the first Vietnamese astronaut.  Read his bio; he's an impressive dude and, thumbing through my ideas for future documentaries, there's good reason for me to talk to HIM next...


This was a great experience and I'm very grateful for LtCol Quang's willingness to engage in spite of the fog of war and various other barriers to clear communication.  It shows that so much has changed since those bloody years of conflict...and that in mind, this is the appropriate place to end this post with my last question to Quang.

Me:  So any advice?  Thoughts on legacy?

Quang:  Please (do) your best to avoid war.

Hmmmm.  Sounds like a great title for the artwork, don't you think?

As a thank you, a few prints were given to LtCol Quang for he and his family.
If you want one, let me know but there aren't many left.

*About the Finnish "Brewster."  It's true the Finns modified the Buffalo's basic airframe substantially, removing weight, adding horsepower, etc.  This, of course, changed the Brewster significantly and lead to the fact that, under Finnish direction, pilots flying the airplane achieved WWII's highest victory:loss ratio.  Click here.

**Again, here's where translations can foul things up.  I'm working with translation from a book written in Vietnamese.  Quang seems to be confident that, at least, he hit his target.  Based on what we know about the MiG-19s firepower, any hit would have to be impactful (no pun intended).