The Phantom in Vietnam

F-4 Phantom II aircraft pass by the Washington Monument in a missing man formation during the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 13th November 1982.

F-4 Phantom II aircraft pass by the Washington Monument in a missing man formation during the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 13th November 1982.

The Phantom has fought in many wars, but it is most strongly associated with the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. This chapter describes the Phantom's service over Vietnam, as well as its service with American forces after the war.

Air war Vietnam 1964-1965, "Operation Rolling Thunder"

The US military had just become comfortable with the Phantom when the time came to send it to war. US activities in the sputtering conflict in VietNam had been growing steadily in the early 1960s, and finally went passed the threshold to full involvement in the summer of 1964.

On 2 August 1964, the US Navy destroyer MADDOX got into a confrontation with North Vietnamese torpedo boats, which were then attacked by Navy F-8 Crusader fighters on combat patrol. Two days later, on 4 August, the MADDOX and another US Navy destroyer, the TURNER JOY, got into a night altercation with what they believed were more North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The facts of this second incident are murky, and it may have been nothing but nerves and shooting at shadows. Whatever the case, on 5 August major airstrikes were launched at the PT boat bases, and on 10 August the US Congress passed the "Tonkin Gulf Resolution", committing America to direct, large-scale intervention in the conflict.

The Navy began a campaign of limited bombing attacks against North Vietnam codenamed BARREL ROLL in December 1964 that continued into January 1965. Following attacks on US facilities in South Vietnam by Vietnamese Communist ("Viet Cong") guerrillas in early 1965, the US began to ramp up a bigger air campaign against the North, codenamed ROLLING THUNDER, that would continue off and on for several years.

In the meantime, the Phantom had apparently drawn first blood, but it was not an inspiring introduction to combat. On 9 April 1965, US Navy Phantoms mixed it up with Chinese MiG-17s over the Gulf of Tonkin. A Phantom apparently shot down a MiG down with a Sparrow AAM, but the victorious Phantom was lost with both crewmen, apparently the victim of a "friendly fire" accident involving a Sparrow launched by their wingmates.

As ROLLING THUNDER ramped up, both Navy and USAF Phantoms became involved, initially operating in the air superiority role to protect strike elements from MiGs.

Photo Sgt. D. R. Guerra, US Navy

An F-4B Phantom II aircraft on the flight line, 11th Feb 1966 at the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro California.The aircraft is assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 (VMFA-122).

An F-4B Phantom II aircraft on the flight line, 11th Feb 1966 at the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro California.The aircraft is assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 (VMFA-122).

On 17 June 1965, Navy F-4Bs were flying "barrier combat air patrol (BARCAP)", protecting a strike package that was attacked by four North Vietnamese MiG-17s. Once the Phantom pilots visually identified the MiGs, they took them on, firing Sparrows at them. Two Phantoms, one piloted by Commander Louis Page and the other by Lieutenant Jack Batson, each scored a kill. These were the first "People's Army of Vietnam North Air Force (PAVNAF)" MiGs shot down in the war.

The US Air Force couldn't let a Navy success like that go unchallenged, and on 10 July 1965, four F-4Cs accompanying a strike package of Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs, known as "Thuds", formed up as the tail end of the strike formation in hopes of luring PAVNAF pilots into thinking they were bombers and worth attacking. The trick worked. Two MiG-17s came up to intercept, and the four Phantoms split off in pairs to meet them.

A short dogfight followed. One F-4C, piloted by Captain Kenneth Holcombe with WSO Captain Arthur C. Clarke, got onto the tail of one of the MiGs. Holcombe fired all four of his Sidewinders. Three missed, but the last detonated behind the MiG, which went up in a fireball a moment later. A second F-4C, piloted by Captain Thomas S. Roberts with WSO Captain Ronald Anderson, was then trying to get on the tail of the second MiG. Roberts fired three Sidewinders, the third exploding behind the MiG and sending it into a dive trailing white smoke. Roberts followed it down and fired his last Sidewinder, but had to give up the chase when he ran into intense anti-aircraft fire.

More MiGs came up to challenge the Americans, but the Phantoms were low on fuel and had to go home. In addition, although both Holcombe and Roberts still had their Sparrows, their radars had failed, rendering the missiles so much dead weight.

These successes were encouraging and the Phantom would score more kills in the coming months, but their pilots were not very happy. The US was fighting a "limited war" in Vietnam, and neither the military nor the political leadership had much experience with the concept. The end result was micromanagement from the top.

Rick Diaz

507th Tactical Fighter Group F-105 Thunderchief aircraft parked on the flight line

507th Tactical Fighter Group F-105 Thunderchief aircraft parked on the flight line

US President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara saw the air strikes against North Vietnam as a political pressure tactic, designed to discourage the North Vietnamese from supporting the South Vietnamese Viet Cong and hopefully push a negotiated settlement of the conflict, while avoiding escalation of the war. To this end, the strikes were conducted in an intermittent and highly selective fashion, constrained by "rules of engagement (ROEs)" that told the pilots what they could and could not attack. One Air Force pilot, Captain Bill Jenkins, later commented: "The rules of engagement were such that I sometimes felt I needed a lawyer in the back seat, instead of a WSO."

While the pilots were wrestling with ROEs issued from the rear, they were also trying to deal with North Vietnamese air defenses hitting them in the teeth. North Vietnam's air defense network was proving much more formidable than expected. The North Vietnamese were equipped with the best anti-aircraft weapons their Russian allies could provide, including light, medium, and heavy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA or "triple-A"), and particular batteries of SA-2 "Guideline" surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

Compared to the flak and SAMs, the PAVNAF and its MiGs were an annoyance. In fact, annoyance was their combat doctrine. Since most PAVNAF pilots were not highly trained, they were guided or "vectored" to formations of US aircraft by ground controllers; the MiGs would drop into the formations from high altitude, cannons blazing, and then zoom off, rarely hanging around to fight. If they could disrupt strike packages and force them to jettison their bombs, the MiGs had done their job.

The SAMs were bad enough in themselves. What made them even more frustrating was that, at first, the ROEs did not permit attacks on SAM sites, since Russian advisors were assumed to be working there. On 27 July 1965, USAF Captain Richard Keirn was flying over North Vietnam with a group of four F-4Cs on a "MiG combat air patrol (MIGCAP)", a free-ranging hunt for MiGs, when a Guideline popped up through the clouds and exploded. Keirn was shot down and became a prisoner of war (POW), while the other three Phantoms were damaged.

This was the war's first loss to a SAM. Both USAF and Navy brass asked their political superiors for permission to hit SAM sites, and were refused. On the night of 11:12 August, a Navy Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was shot down by an SA-2. The brass repeated their requests, and this time were granted permission. However, the North Vietnamese moved the SAMs around, and in two days of strikes none were confirmed destroyed, while five aircraft were lost.

The effectiveness of North Vietnamese air defenses would push the US to develop countermeasures as the war dragged on. RWRs were retrofitted to combat Phantoms and eventually became production fit. Electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods were carried by Phantoms, on a stores pylon or in some cases fitted to a Sparrow launch recess under the forward fuselage. F-4s were initially fitted with the AN/ALR-101 series of ECM pods introduced in the late 1960s, followed by the AN/ALQ-119, which went into service before the end of the war. In the postwar period, they would carry the AN/ALQ-131.

Phantom "Mud-Movers" & Recce Phantoms

Although the F-4 was used mostly in the air superiority role by the Air Force and Navy at the time, it was of course an excellent attack aircraft, being rugged and able to carry a heavy warload, and the two services would use it more and more in this role as the war went on.

Since Marine aviation is mostly dedicated to support of the "grunts" on the ground, USMC Phantoms were generally dedicated to the battlefield strike, or "mud-moving", role from the early days, attacking Communist forces in South Vietnam. They had little opportunity to chase MiGs.

Phantoms assigned to the strike role were armed with general-purpose "slick" bombs, napalm tanks, unguided rocket pods, and cluster munition dispensers or canisters. Although the Phantom could carry the Bullpup ASM, this weapon proved unreliable and ineffective, and was not widely used. The F-4 could also carry chemical-agent dispensers and tactical nuclear free-fall bombs, but of course these have never been used by the Phantom in combat in Vietnam, or anywhere else.

As the recce RF-4Cs and RF-4B arrived in the battle theater, they too found themselves immersed in the war. Reconnaissance missions were often very hazardous. USAF RF-4Cs over North Vietnam not only faced heavy air defenses, but often had to conduct "post-strike intelligence" missions, photographing target areas after a strike, when the North Vietnamese were fully alert and expecting them. Marine RF-4Bs didn't face such an array of heavy weapons, but they had to get down low to get good intelligence, and the Viet Cong shot at them with everything they had. The fact that the recce Phantoms were always unarmed didn't reassure their pilots, either.

Air war Vietnam 1966-1968, "Operation Bolo"


A right side view of a Soviet MiG-21 "Fishbed-L" aircraft

A right side view of a Soviet MiG-21 "Fishbed-L" aircraft

The service of mud-moving and recce Phantoms in Vietnam tends to be obscure, since histories have focused on the campaigns against the North and the struggle for air superiority. By 1966 the PAVNAF was fielding Mach-2 MiG-21 interceptors, on paper much more of a match for the Phantom than the MiG-17. On 26 April 1966, USAF Major Paul Gillmore, with WSO Lieutenant William Smith, was protecting two Douglas EB-66 jamming aircraft on a raid over North Vietnam when they were "bounced" by a flight of MiG-21s that dove on them, firing, and then went back up to get altitude again.

Gillmore got his Phantom behind one of the MiG-21s and closed to fire a Sidewinder at it. The pilot ejected, but Gillmore didn't notice and fired two more Sidewinders, one of which went up the MiG-21's tailpipe and turned it into a fireball. It was the first MiG-21 kill of the war.

In reality, although the MiG-21 might have seemed a bigger threat to the Phantom than the MiG-17, simple speed did not carry the day with the F-4 because it was much more powerful than the MiG-21. The Phantom's weakness was its lack of maneuverability, and so in practice the MiG-17's agility made it the more dangerous opponent. On 21 September 1966, MiG-17s shot down a Navy F-4C, the first Phantom to be lost in air-to-air combat.

The US military was learning hard lessons in the skies over Vietnam. At the time of the Phantom's conception, dogfighting was thought to be an obsolete concept. Aircraft would blast each other out of the sky from long range with AAMs, or so the script went. The Phantom was designed as an interceptor, a strike aircraft, and a reconnaissance aircraft, none of which placed a premium on maneuverability.

Reality turned out to be more complicated. Although much faith had been placed in AAMs before the war, they proved much less effective in combat than anticipated. The most obvious part of the problem was that the designs themselves weren't as wizardly as imagined. For example, the heat seeking sensor head on the early Sidewinder AAMs used in Vietnam was easily confounded by sources of ground heat, and even sunlight glinting off bodies of water. The Sidewinder's infrared seeker reported target locks to the pilot through a "growl" or "tone" in his earphones that grew stronger as the lock intensified. One Air Force pilot, Major William Kirk, described the behavior of his Sidewinders during an engagement over North Vietnam in frustrated terms: "There I was, closing at a godawful rate with Sidewinders in an overhead attack. I'm pointing those Sidewinders at the ground and they are just growling and sputtering like mad. Of course, all they are 'seeing' is the heat of the ground."

Another part of the problem was the poor reliability of the missiles, particularly the Sparrow AAM. Even if the Sparrow had been reliable, its long range was often negated by the fact that the ROEs demanded that pilots make a visual ID of a target before engaging it, in order to prevent "friendly fire" losses. This made sense, in that most of the aircraft flying over North Vietnam air were American, but it also undermined the fundamental rationale on which the Phantom had been originally designed.

Finally, pilots had simply not been trained very well in the use of these weapons. The AAMs had a definite engagement and performance envelope, outside of which they were ineffective. They weren't magical under the best of circumstances, and though they have been greatly improved since then, they still require that the pilot understand how best to use them. All that said, the Sidewinder missile still proved to be the most effective weapon in air-to-air combat over Southeast Asia. The day of the gun was fading.

It was, however, not over completely, and Phantom crews greatly regretted the lack of a built-in cannon. Such a weapon often proved vital in close-in situations, or when a pilot needed to "finish off" a damaged adversary, and there were cases when the bandit got away because of the lack of a gun. William Kirk commented: "I loved the F-4 and thought it was probably the answer to a fighter pilot's prayers -- with the exception of the lack of an internal gun. We missed that terribly."

This issue was starting to be addressed in 1966 with initial deliveries of Vulcan cannon pods to the war zone, but it wouldn't really be solved until the introduction of the F-4E. Even then, the Navy and USMC would still be stuck with the cannon pods. After Vietnam, new US fighter designs would be fitted with a built-in cannon from the outset. But that was in the future.


Air Force personnel inspect an Egyptian MiG-17 aircraft (Soviet designed) on display during the joint exercise Bright Star 83

Air Force personnel inspect an Egyptian MiG-17 aircraft (Soviet designed) on display during the joint exercise Bright Star 83

The Phantom now had to engage in dogfighting for which it had not really been designed, but it was hardly defenseless. Although not agile, by the standards of the time it had plenty of engine power, and that meant that a competent pilot could choose when to engage a MiG, and when to break off combat as well. Trying to get into a turning contest with a MiG-17 was foolish, all the more so because of the F-4's nasty spin characteristics; maneuvering slats wouldn't become available until the 1970s. Unfortunately, the belief that dogfighting was obsolete had also infected pilot training, and for the time being many Phantom pilots really didn't know how to make effective use of their machines in air-to-air combat.

By the end of 1966, the futility of the ROLLING THUNDER campaign was becoming increasingly evident. The North Vietnamese seemed indifferent to the bombings; the US had lost hundreds of aircraft and aircrew; and many aircrews were discouraged and frustrated.

American pilots didn't lack for determination, however. The USAF 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), nicknamed the "Wolfpack", had arrived at Ubon AFB in Thailand in September, under the command of Colonel Robin Olds and his executive officer, Daniel "Chappie" James. The two worked very closely together, and since James was black American, they were referred to as "Blackman & Robin".

The 44-year-old Olds was a charismatic, tough, competent leader who had combat experience going back to 1944, flying North American P-51 Mustangs against Hitler's Luftwaffe. When of the Wolfpack's pilots, Captain John Stone, came up with a plan to allow the 8th TFW to pull a trick on the MiGs, Olds was willing to listen. Stone's suggestion was simple: fly formations of Phantoms fitted for air combat just as if they were a strike package of F-105s, and then take on the MiGs when they came up to attack. Olds gave the OK for Stone and other pilots to begin planning the mission, which was codenamed OPERATION BOLO.

OPERATION BOLO took place on 2 January 1967. 56 F-4Cs participated, organized in two groups with seven flights of four aircraft each, one group from the 8th TFW and the other from the 366th TFW. The effort also involved 24 F-105D Wild Weasels for defense suppression; four EB-66 jamming aircraft; and a Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star radar warning aircraft, a military version of the Lockheed Constellation airliner fitted with a radome and known to pilots in theater as "College Eye" and later "Disco" for its callsign. Another hundred aircraft were to perform diversionary strikes.

The 28 Phantoms from the 8th TFW departed first, with 12 aircraft in a first wave that took off at about 1225 local time, followed by 14 aircraft about a half-hour later. The Phantoms were fitted with the ECM pods normally carried by F-105s. The flights in the operation were named after automobile types. The first wave of 12 Phantoms was divided into three flights, with Robin Olds commanding the OLDS flight, Chappie James commanding the FORD flight, and John Stone commanding the RAMBLER flight.

They flew towards Hanoi as if on a strike, and at about 1500 an EC-121 notified them that MiGs had scrambled and were coming up to meet them. The enemy had swallowed the bait. There was cloud cover beneath the Phantoms, but they picked up the MiGs on their own radar and turned around to jump them as they emerged from the cloudtops.

Photo Ssgt Davr Cornwell

Captain Al Madar of the 191st Fighter Interceptor Group, Michigan Air National Guard, inspects an AIM-7 Sparrow missile mounted on his F-4C Phantom II aircraft.

Captain Al Madar of the 191st Fighter Interceptor Group, Michigan Air National Guard, inspects an AIM-7 Sparrow missile mounted on his F-4C Phantom II aircraft.

A wild fight followed, with aircraft darting in and out of the clouds. Olds fired two Sparrows and a Sidewinder at a MiG that disappeared into a cloud, but as Olds curved over in an barrel roll he spotted another MiG emerge. Olds thought the North Vietnamese pilot hadn't seen him, so he delayed coming out of his roll to drop right down on the tail of the MiG, and then fired two Sidewinders. The first blew the MiG's wing off, a clear kill.

In the meantime, Old's wingman, Lieutenant Ralph Wetterman, got a solid radar lock on a MiG and fired two Sparrows. The Sparrow homed in on reflections from the radar of the launch aircraft, meaning that the launch aircraft had to maintain the lock, but Wetterman was able to keep the radar beam on the target, and one of the Sparrows sent the MiG up in a fireball. A third member of OLDS flight, Captain Walter Radecker, also destroyed a MiG with a Sidewinder.

In the meantime, Chappie James' FORD flight was having it out with the MiGs as well. His four Phantoms fired a total of four Sidewinders and two Sparrows, and a Sidewinder launched by Captain Everett T. Rasberry sent one of the MiGs tumbling to the ground. By this time, OLDS and FORD flight were beginning to run low on fuel and had to leave the target area.

RAMBLER flight had lagged behind in the flight into the target area, and took up where OLDS and FORD left off. Stone saw two MiGs below him and launched two Sparrows, scoring a hit on one of the MiGs and sending to the ground. As this happened, two more MiGs made a head-on attack against Stone and his wingman, Lieutenant Lawrence Glynn, firing cannons at the Phantoms and then passing between them. Stone and Glynn engaged afterburner and pulled up and over to get on the tail of the MiGs. Glynn fired two Sparrows and hit one of the MiGs, the pilot ejecting, another clear kill.

Another member of RAMBLER flight, Major Phillip Combies, got a radar lock on a MiG below him and fired two Sparrows, both of which went wide. Frustrated, Combies fired all four of his Sidewinders, two of them striking the MiG's tail. The Phantoms were jumped by more MiGs and Combies did not see what happened to his target after that, but as the Phantoms exited the target area the Americans spotted a parachute, indicating a kill.

The MiGs had gone back to ground by the time the second wave of Phantoms arrived, but overall the 8th TFW had reason to be pleased with themselves. They had fired 28 missiles to destroy seven MiGs and a "probable", with no loss to themselves. Olds would end the war with four kills of his own.

OPERATION BOLO was encouraging to the USAF and one of the great air combat stories of the Vietnam War, but it made little or no difference in the course of the conflict. The PAVNAF avoided fights for a while, and when they did start to engage in combat again, their tactics were much more cautious. Unfortunately, the wastage of American aircraft to AAA and SAMs continued.

Phantoms scored more kills, but 1967 proved to be a very tough year, with high losses. On the plus side, the ROEs were modified to allow attacks on certain North Vietnamese airfields, which had previously been off-limits. Strikes were made on the airfields beginning in April 1967. This had the contrary effect of forcing more air combat, as the PAVNAF realized that their aircraft were less vulnerable in the air than sitting on the ground.

By this, Air Force Phantoms were generally carrying the SUU-16/A 20 millimeter cannon pod. On 14 May 1967, USAF Phantoms escorting a strike package of F-105s mixed it up with PAVNAF MiG-17s, and the cannons scored two kills. Major James Hargrove had expended all his missiles and then got the drop on a MiG, moving in to close range and slamming 20 millimeter rounds into it until it exploded. Captain James Craig fired two Sparrows at a MiG and missed, but finished the job with his cannon.

On 20 May, Colonel Robert E. Titus made excellent use of all of the Phantom's armament, shooting down three MiG-21s, one with a Sparrow, one with a Sidewinder, and one with the cannon.

William Kirk, nearing the end of his Vietnam tour, did get his hands on a cannon pod before he left. On 21 October 1967, he was on a MIGCAP over North Vietnam, protecting a strike package of F-105s. An EC-121 Warning Star and a Navy cruiser were watching the airspace over North Vietnam on radar, and warned Kirk that bogeys were approaching. The Phantoms turned to meet the attackers, Kirk recalling: "As I rolled out of this turn, I met a MiG-21 head-on. It was highly polished -- a beautiful little airplane -- and as we passed within twenty yards of each other I thought: What a shame to have to shoot at him."

He had to protect the F-105s, however, and so climbed up to reverse his course and get on the MiG's tail. To his surprise, he found that the MiG was doing the same thing. The PAVNAF rarely liked to dogfight, and in fact the MiG pilot would have been better off to have gone on to disrupt the formation of Thunderchiefs. The Thuds were his priority target, and the MiG-21 was fast enough to make pursuit difficult.

The two aircraft wheeled through two vertical loops, the Phantom held back by its external fuel tanks. Kirk finally managed to discard his tanks, which confused the MiG pilot and allowed Kirk to get on his tail. Kirk's WSO fired a Sparrow, but it exploded short. Kirk fumbled for the switches to arm his cannon pod: "It couldn't have taken more than a couple of seconds, but when I looked up, I had a windscreen full of MiG-21! He was in a hard left turn and the gunsight pipper was right in the middle of his back. I squeezed the trigger and the 20-mm Gatling sawed a hole right through him between the wing roots. He bailed out immediately."

The bombing rose to a high intensity during the summer of 1967, and many MiGs were shot down or destroyed on the ground. Yet the North Vietnamese showed no signs of weakening, and were in fact intensifying their war in South Vietnam. Back in the US, the public was increasingly wondering what their country was doing in Southeast Asia.

The air war, as implemented in the ROLLING THUNDER campaign, was not working. Robert McNamara became disillusioned with the war and was on questionable terms with his boss, President Johnson. In November 1967, McNamara resigned to become President of the World Bank. For the moment, however, ROLLING THUNDER continued, and American aircrews continued to gripe about the ROEs.

Then, in early 1968, the war took an abrupt turn for the worse. The Buddhist New Year's, Tet, takes place at the end of January, and on 30 January 1968 North Vietnamese troops launched simultaneous attacks on provincial capitals all through South Vietnam, assisted by uprisings all over the country. After weeks of bitter fighting, the Tet Offensive was crushed. Tactically speaking, the enemy had lost. The North Vietnamese had suffered heavily, the Viet Cong had been almost wiped out, though to North Vietnam the elimination of their overly independent Communist comrades in the south was not unwelcome.

However, in hindsight, the US had lost the war. The Communists did not have to win battles: all they had to do was to survive and keep on fighting until the Americans decided they were sick of the fighting. The US military's story that progress was being made in winning the war no longer seemed convincing to many of the folks back home. On 31 March, Lyndon Johnson, in poor health aggravated by the stress of the war, announced that he would not seek re-election, and the next day the ROLLING THUNDER strikes were halted for a month. They were resumed off and on in a declining fashion until they were given up completely on 1 October. They were officially ended on 1 November, with presidential elections coming up.

Richard Nixon won the election, partly on promises that he would disengage America from the quagmire in Southeast Asia. There would be little air activity over North Vietnam for three years.

Author: Greg Goebel