Author Archives: Dario Leone

The most unusual MiG killer: the Skyraider air-to-air victories on North Vietnamese MiG-17s

The Douglas Skyraider has been the last piston engine propelled aircraft to shoot down a jet fighter.

The last propeller U.S. Navy attack aircraft to disappear from the decks of the flattops was the Douglas AD Skyraider.

This airplane had a unique capability: even when it carried its full internal fuel of 2,280 pounds, a 2,200-lb torpedo, two 2,000-lb bombs, 12,5 inch rockets, two 20 mm guns and 240 pounds of ammunition, the Skyraider was still under its maximum gross weight of 25,000 pounds.

Entered in service just in time to take part in the Korean War, the Skyraiders in the improved A-1H version were quite slow; nevertheless in spite of performance not even comparable to those of the other assets in the air wing’s strike group, the propeller-driven attack aircraft managed to shoot down two MiG-17s during the early part of the Vietnam War.

In fact, some of the most unusual kills of the conflict did not come from the F-4s, F-105s, or F-8s, but from the Korean War-era piston-engine Skyraiders, thanks to the four M3 20 mm fixed forward-firing cannons capable of firing 800 rounds per minute, that fitted the A-1Hs.

The first of these victorious engagements took place on Jun. 20, 1965, when a flight of Skyraiders from the Strike Squadron 25 (VA-25) Fist of the Fleet, took off from the USS Midway (CVA-41) supporting the rescue of a downed USAF pilot in the northwest corner of North Vietnam were attacked by a flight of MiG-17s.

The two enemy jets launched missiles and fired with their cannons against the two A-1Hs, but both Skyraiders’ pilots, Lt. Charles W. Hartman III, flying A-1H BuNo 137523, radio callsign “Canasta 573,” and Lt. Clinton B. Johnson, flying A-1H BuNo 139768, callsign “Canasta 577,” evaded them before and maneuvered to shoot down one of the MiGs with their 20 mm cannons.

Lt. Johnson described this engagement in Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. book “MiG Killers A Chronology of U.S. Air Victories in Vietnam 1965-1973” as follows: “I fired a short burst at the MiG and missed, but got the MiG pilot’s attention. He turned into us, making a head-on pass. Charlie and I fired simultaneously as he passed so close that Charlie thought I had hit his vertical stabilizer with the tip of my tail hook. Both of us fired all four guns. Charlie’s rounds appeared to go down the intake and into the wing root, and mine along the top of the fuselage and through the canopy. He never returned our fire, rolled, inverted, and hit a small hill, exploding and burning in a farm field.”

The subsequent MiG kill of this engagement was shared by both Hartmann III and Johnson.

The second victory of the propeller-driven Skyraider against a  North Vietnamese MiG-17 jet fighter, took place on Oct. 9, 1966 and involved four A-1Hs launched  from the deck of the USS Intrepid (CV-11) in the Gulf of Tonkin flying as “Papoose flight.”

The flight was from the Strike Squadron 176 (VA-176) Thunderbolts and it was led by Lt. Cdr. Leo Cook, with Lt. Wiley as wingman, while the second section was led by Lt. Peter Russell with Lt. William T. Patton as wingman.

It was during the RESCAP (the REScue Combat Air Patrol, a mission flown to protect the downed pilots from ground threats) flight, that the “Spads” (as the Skyraiders were dubbed by their pilots) were attacked by four MiG-17s. This engagement ended with one Fresco confirmed as being shot down, a second as probably shot down and a third heavily damaged.

According to McCarthy, the MiG-17 kill was awarded to “Papoose 409,” the A-1H BuNo 137543, flown by Lt. Patton who, after having gained a position of advantage on one of the MiGs, opened fire with his four guns, hitting the tail section of the enemy jet. Patton followed the MiG which descended through the cloud deck and when Papoose 409 emerged from the clouds he spotted the enemy pilot’s parachute.

The U.S. Navy Skyraiders last combat tour took place from July 1967 to 1968 onboard USS Coral Sea (CV-43), but this versatile propeller aircraft continued to fly with the U.S. Air Force and with the Vietnamese Air Force until the end of the conflict thanks to its unparalleled capabilities in close air support.

Skyraider

Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

Join a B-52 on a Linebacker II mission with this story about the Christmas bombing campaign over Hanoi

The first of the many bombing sorties flew by the BUFFs during “The December Raids” conducted against North Vietnam Targets.

Even if the Boeing B-52 was born to be the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force nuclear deterrent, the Stratofortress saw an extensive use as conventional bomber during the Vietnam war. The full potential of the B-52 was applied during the massive Operation Linebacker II, the 1972 Christmas air offensive which represented the biggest bombing campaign conducted by the U.S. over North Vietnam.

Robert P. Jacober, an experienced B-52 pilots who logged 64 combat sorties flying the BUFF, deployed in Southeast Asia just in time to take part as a BUFF copilot to Linebacker II. As he explained to Walter J. Boyne for his book “Boeing B-52 A Documentary History,” every month there was the “15th of the month rumour” that B-52Gs were going back to the U.S. in 1972.

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Then, one day in December, when all of the BUFF crews on Guam were assembled in the “D Complex”, the briefing room already used for Operation Arc Light missions, the briefing officer projected on the screen an image of a small portion of a map. As Jacober explained, a huge surprise appeared in front of the Stratofortress aircrews: “The map scale was such that ‘HA’ was on one side of a city and ‘NOI’ was on the other. The mind did not fuse the words until the briefing officer said ‘Hanoi’. Dead silence was followed by everyone talking at once. Dramatic and impressive, yes. Scared, yes. Eager, yes.”

More .38 ammo were delivered to every crew member and, as already happened during the World War II, everyone watched the bombers take off.

The trip towards North Vietnam airspace was boring, but as the bombers neared Hanoi everyone began to feel the real sense of combat. According to Jacober, the most impressive thing was the sound of the multiple emergency locator radio beacons, activated by a parachute opening  after an ejection. So many ‘beepers’ going off could only means that a BUFF had been shot down by a SAM: according to Jacober, the only way to avoid to be hit by a surface to air missile was keeping it moving across the B-52 windscreen.

During the bomb run, Jacober became very busy: in fact, being the copilot of the leading aircraft of the cell (the typical three ship formation used during air raids over North Vietnam to maximize ECM protection) he had to cover all radio communications between his BUFF and the other two aircraft, keep the heading marker updated to the bomb run heading during the evasive maneuvers  to give the pilot a reference mark to roll out on, and observe outside the cockpit to watch for any enemy aircraft, since they had been informed that MiGs were scrambled to intercept them.

The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) warned that SAM radars were following them and almost immediately the first SAM left its launcher and quickly lit up the foggy sky like a candle thrown against Jacober B-52.

Seven SAMs were launched against them, four on their inbound run and three over Hanoi, but only one of them was guided. The EWO said “Uplink” (meaning that the command uplink embedded in SA-2’s SNR-75 engagement radar had acquired its target) and the SAM came up through the clouds, passing off of their nose and exploding several feet above them: if they had had their B-52’s altitude right, they would probably have been hit.

The bomb run went smooth, but their post target turn bring them again towards the four SAM sites downtown Hanoi. Three surface to air missiles were launched against them and the pilot rolled into a 70 degrees bank, loosing several thousand feet of altitude. Luckily, none came close to them and the return flight to Guam as told by Jacober was a quiet, subdued, introspective trip and the same people who watched the B-52 taking off, “counted them as they landed wondering where the missing were.”

In the video below you can listen to the tape of a typical Linebacker II mission: the professionalism you can hear in the aircrews’ voices while they fly through countless SAMs launches is still very impressive.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

Maverick and Goose would not have had to bail out from their jet if they had flown a F110-powered F-14 Tomcat

Almost every aviation geek has seen the famous film Top Gun. But few of them know that if Maverick and Goose flew an F-14B they would not have had to eject during the flat spin they experienced in the movie.

Developed in the late 1960s as a multi-mission fighter, the F-14’s missions were to protect U.S. Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBG – now CSG where “S” stands for Strike) from potential raids conducted by the Soviet bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles and to provide fighter cover for Navy attack aircraft.

The Tomcat was fitted with the potent AWG-9 radar which, supporting six AIM-54 missiles, gave the F-14 unprecedented and unparalleled mission capabilities.

Still, even though it was one of the most capable fighters in the aviation history, one problem that plagued the F-14A was the reliability of its TF30 engine. In fact, the fan blades of the Pratt & Whitney engine could break free, causing aircraft stalls and spins as a result of airflow induced engine stalls.

These problems were solved when the F-14B (former F-14A Plus), powered by a new engine, the General Electric F110-GE-400, began to enter in service in 1987.

As explained by Grumman’s Chief Test Pilot Kurt Schroeder to aviation artist and author Lou Drendel, in an interview released towards the end of the 1980s for his Squadron Signal Publications book Modern Military Aircraft: Tomcat:

“The TF30 engine’s highest stall margin, which means the difference between its operating line and where the engine will stall, occurs when it is stabilized at military power. If you would like to go to idle power when you are maneuvering, you stand a very good chance of stalling the engine. The F110 has tremendous stall margin everywhere and, at idle power, it’s higher than anywhere else. When you are maneuvering with the F110 engines, you can do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it.”

Moreover, with the new engine, the afterburner thrust went from 20,000 pounds per side up to 28,000 pounds per side, while dry power increased from 11,000 pounds per side to 16,000 pounds per side.

Thanks to the improved performances, Schroeder told Drendel that Maverick and Goose would not have had to bail out from their jet if they had flown a F110-powered Tomcat.

Indeed, Grumman’s Chief Test Pilot explained that the flat spin shown in the movie was “a very concern early in the F-14 program. When the aircraft is in a fully-developed flat spin, it’s going at a very high yaw rate and it is spinning down in a very small radius. In the ejection sequence, the canopy leaves first, then the back seat, then the front seat. […] The concern in a spin is that the canopy will be ejected straight up, followed shortly by the seats and the possibility exists for a collision. We have had several ejections in spins and I believe there was one case where the RIO brushed the canopy. So the scene (of the movie) was entirely possible.”

Some concern existed about the possibility of generating a stall or a spin even with the 110 engine in case its greatly increased thrust was applied asymmetrically, but Schroeder affirmed that “We deal with that easily in 110 powered aircraft. If the aircraft departs for any reason, we just pull the throttles back to idle, which just takes all the thrust effects out of the equation and you recover the aircraft. Since the 110 loves to run at idle, there is no problem. Unfortunately the TF30 does not love to run at idle and you can’t apply this solution.”

According to Schroeder the enhanced maneuverability of the 110 powered Tomcat was able to make the F-14B and F-14D superior to its adversaries in the Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) arena.

Then, as the experienced F-14 driver said to Drendel, alongside with the new engine, the digital flight control system improved the handling qualities of the aircraft making of the Tomcat airframe the perfect platform for air to ground missions:

“The F-14 was designed to carry bombs. The Navy, however, chose not to develop that capability. There is now more and more emphasis on carrier deck loading and development of multi-mission aircraft, with the F/A-18 as the primary example of that. The F-14 is very capable of performing the air-to-ground mission, mainly because of our range and the fact that we carry the weapons conformally on the fuselage between the engine nacelles, which results in much less of a drag penalty than carrying bombs on the wings. The technology to enhance the radar for this mission has already been developed in the form of the F-15E.”

The F-14 was retired on Sep. 22, 2006, but the last years spent as U.S. Navy’s premiere fighter bomber confirmed Schroeder claims and were a proof of the reliability reached by the Tomcat thanks to the improvements it had received, the most important of which was the F110 engine.

 

 

A memorable anti-terrorist operation with U.S. Navy F-14s and E-2s took place over the Mediterranean Sea in October 1985

A memorable anti-terrorist operation took place over the Mediterranean Sea in October 1985.

On Oct. 7, 1985, four PLF (Palestine Liberation Front) militants hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

With passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians jailed in Israeli prisons. After two days of negotiations (and the killing of an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish retired businessman who was in a wheelchair) the terrorists agreed to abandon the ship in exchange for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egypt Air Boeing 737.

Of course something had to be done to intercept the commercial airliner which would have carried the terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro liner off Egypt.

A brilliant operation was orchestrated  by CVW 17 Commander Air Group (CAG) Robert “Bubba” Brodsky, who explained how the mission took place to Robert L. Lawson in the latter’s book “Carrier Air Group Commanders.”

On Oct. 10, after having completed a major NATO exercise in the Central Mediterranean, the USS Saratoga (CV-60), commanded by Capt. Jerry Unruh, received a phone query from Sixth Fleet headquarters in Gaeta, Italy, asking for the exact location of each ship of the battle group.

Intelligence had indicated to the National Security Council (NSC) staff that the hijackers were still in Egypt and about to be transported out on an Egypt Air Boeing 737 about to be flown to Tunisia.

According to Brodsky the idea to attempt to capture the hijackers came from a Navy captain in the NSC staff who suggested: “Why don’t we pull a Yamamoto on these guys?” referring to the Japanese admiral intercepted by American fighters over the Pacific during WWII.

Aboard the Saratoga orders were immediately received from Sixth Fleet to launch the Alert CAP (Combat Air Patrol) and despite the official “Alert 60″ posture, two VF-74 F-14A Tomcats and a VAW-125 E-2C Hawkeye were airborne in just 22 minutes.

Within minutes, confirmation of their mission came from Sixth Fleet.

Since the exact take-off time, the route and the altitude the hijackers plane would fly were unknown, other VF-103 and VF-74 Tomcats, with tracer ammunition in their 20mm cannons, were launched, while another E-2 alongside with VA-85 KA-6D tankers were alerted for a possible launch.

But, perhaps, the most difficult problem to solve was how to communicate with the airliner, once intercepted, and how to persuade the crew to divert to the NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily.

C3 (Command, Control and Communication) provided by the E-2C was essential to the success of the mission. “CDR Raplh Zia, commanding officer of the E-2 squadron, widely respected for his airborne professionalism, had been kept abreast of unfolding events almost from the beginning. As much as anyone, he had a clear picture of what we were attempting to do. When directed, CDR Zia personally manned the second E-2 and was launched to assume airborne control of the operation. There wasn’t a better man for the job. His ability to quickly assess the situation and ad lib solutions to each hiccup in the evolution was the key to success,” Brodsky explains in “Carrier Air Group Commanders.”

Since, as we explained, the takeoff time of the Egypt Air airliner was unknown, the Tomcats assigned to CAP stations south of the Greek island of Crete were vectored by the E-2 to intercept all contacts that fit the profile of an airliner following the airways between Egypt and Tunisia.

According to Brodsky, on the fourth intercept of the evening, two F-14s pulled up behind an airliner and when they radioed the markings and tail number-2843- back to Saratoga (the tail number had already been discovered by Israeli intelligence agents as reported by Michael K. Bohn in his book “The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism”), the Tomcats were ordered to remain in position, keeping their lights out so the Egyptian crew and their terrorist cargo would have no idea they were under escort.

In the meantime, the State Department in Washington asked Tunisia and other friendly littoral Mediterranean nations to deny landing rights to the terrorists.

After CDR Zia in “Tigertail 603” listened the landing clearance denials to the Egypt Air pilot, he understood that it was time for the Hawkeye crew to take charge.

“2843, this is Tigertail 603, over” CDR Zia radioed. After several more attempts at communications, the Egypt Air pilot finally acknowledged.

Zia continued: “Egypt Air 2843, you are being escorted by two F-14s. You are directed proceed to and land immediately at Sigonella, Sicily. Over.”

The Egyptian pilot was shocked. “Say again. Who is calling?” Allowing the pilot to believe he was talking with one of the F-14 pilots, Zia repeated, “This is Tigertail 603. I advise, you are directed to land immediately. Proceed immediately to Sigonella, Sicily. You are being escorted by two F-14 interceptor aircraft. Vector 280 Sigonella, Sicily. Over.”

The order was repeated once again before the F-14s turned on their external lights. The Tomcat crews watched as the excited Egyptian crew ran to both sides of the airliner to peer out the passenger windows. Zia now had the Egypt Air pilot’s attention.

Concerned by the close proximity of the Navy fighters, the nervous Egyptian pilot again came on the radio: “I’m saying you are too close. I’ m following your orders. Don’t be too close. Please.”

“Okay, we’ll move away a little bit”  Zia responded.

Since the Italian air traffic controllers vectored the 737 to land at the civilian field nearby Catania and refused the permission to land in Sigonella, the escorting F-14 commander declared a low fuel emergency and indicated the requirement for an immediate landing. But the presence of four F-14 Tomcats on his wing charged up the Egyptian pilot, who was able to land only after having going around on his first pass.

“Everyone breathed easier when he landed successfully on the second pass.” Brodsky says.

He also believed that even if the terrorists were taken into Italian custody once the mission ended, that fact did little to diminish the elation aboard the Saratoga: “The real reward, was the knowledge that they had helped bring terrorists and cold-blooded murderers of an American citizen to justice.”

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Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

How to survive in a dogfight, alone against six MiGs: the lesson learned from Richard Schaffert dogfight.

An incredible air-to-air engagement, where one U.S. pilot alone survived to six North Vietnamese MiGs.

A true milestone in the progress of naval aviation, the Vought F-8 has been one of the few carrier-based fighters that could outperform most land-based counterparts.

Being the first genuinely supersonic naval aircraft, the Crusader, was a single seat, single engine swept fighter that introduced an unusual feature, the variable incidence wing. Armed with four Colt Mk 12 cannons,  the F-8 was called “The last gunfighter”: these guns combined with its high thrust-to-weight ratio and with its good maneuverability, made of the Crusader a good dogfighter.

The Crusader showed its ability in close combat during the Vietnam war, especially on Dec. 14, 1967: in fact, as explained by Barrett Tilman and Henk van der Lugt in their book “VF-11/111 Sundowners”on that day, Lt. Cdr. Richard “Brown Bear” Schaffert (the VF-111 Sundowners operation officer during the 1967 deployment  onboard the CV-34 USS Oriskany), were involved in an aerial combat which became a classic dogfight of the jet age, even if did not result in any MiG kill.

Schaffert was escorting an A-4E Skyhawk, piloted by Lt Charles Nelson, tasked in an Iron Hand anti-SAM (Surface to Air Missile) mission in the area between Hanoi and Haiphong, when “Brown Bear” saw two MiG-17s (“Fresco” based on NATO designation).

Schaffert immediately started a descent from 18,000 ft and when he recovered at 3,000 ft, he looked for Nelson but he found two more MiGs. Having lost the sight of the A-4E, Brown Bear understood that he had to rely on his 3500 hours of flight experience to face four bandits alone. He started the dogfight with an 8 Gs break forcing the first Fresco to overshoot, but Schaffert knew very well that he had to fight working in the vertical, since the F-8 couldn’t turn as fast as a MiG-17.

As it became obvious that the four bandits had split into two sections,Schaffert started a series of yo-yo maneuvers using the afterburner, trying to reach an advantage position against the MiGs, leaving the chance to Brown Bear to conduct the dogfight as a 1 vs 2 engagement.

Schaffert got a “good tone” from one of its Sidewinders, but the second pair of MiG-17s shot at him with their cannons and he had to perform three more yo-yos before launching a Sidewinder….which didn’t explode. Now he had only two missiles left since one of the four AIM-9s carried by the F-8 had already experienced a failure before take off.

Executing reversal maneuvers and pulling high Gs to defeat the superior turning radius of the MiG-17, Schaffert shot another missile which failed to explode.

Then, two MiGs fired a couple of IR-guided K-13 missiles (AA-2 Atoll as reported by NATO designation) which failed to get on target because they were launched out of the missile operative envelope. Brown Bear found himself once again in a good firing position but this time the guidance system of the last Sidewinder failed, leaving Schaffert with only the rounds of his plane’s four Colt cannons.

After another 5 Gs turn, he had a good tracking solution on a MiG but when he pulled the trigger, all the four 20 mm cannons…choked!

The problem was caused by a common defect of Crusader cannons: the pneumatic ammunition feed system disconnected after high-Gs maneuvers.

Two MiG-21s joined the air combat firing two more Atolls missiles, which Brown Bear was able to avoid.

Facing six adversaries, Schaffert started another series of high altitude yo-yos and engaged the enemy leader in a vertical rolling scissors; once he had reached the bottom of the maneuver, he accelerated towards the coast leaving the enemy behind. He returned safely to the USS Oriskany with almost no fuel left.

Despite the fact that Brown Bear didn’t shoot down any enemy fighter, he left an important lesson to Topgun instructors: how to survive in a dogfight alone against six MiGs, a good lecture to give to the Fighter Weapons School students in the following years.

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Image credit: U.S. Navy