Category Archives: Military Aviation

Everything We Know (And No One Has Said So Far) About The First Waves Of Air Strikes On Syria.

Syria Air War Day 1 explained.

In the night between Apr. 13 and 14 aircraft from the U.S., UK and France launched a first wave of air strikes against ground targets in Syria. What follows is a recap based on OSINT (Open Sources Intelligence) since most of the aircraft involved in the raids could be tracked online via information in the public domain.

The “limited” action was preceded by intelligence gathering activity carried out by many of the assets that have been flying over eastern Mediterranean Sea lately. The first sign something was about to happen was the unusual presence of an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone tracking off Lebanon and Syria few hours before the first stand-off weapons landed on Syrian regime’s chemical sites/infrastructure.

The RQ-4, callsign “Forte 10” flew for several hours west of Lebanon, likely pointing its IMINT and SIGINT/ELINT sensors at the Syrian Air Defense batteries in heigthened readiness status. The drone then moved southwest, north of Egypt where it was joined by an RC-135V callsign Fixx74. It was about 23.20 GMT and it looked like the two ISR platforms, after collecting intelligence from a close position, were making room for the incoming bombers.

Here’s the position of Fixx74.

Among the aircraft coming in to conduct their bombing run from the Med, there were French Air Force Dassault Rafale jets from Saint Dizier AB, France, supported by C-135FR tankers and RAF Tornado GR4s with their Storm Shadow missiles, which launched from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. Whilst they did have their transponder turned off, the presence of the bombers and their accompanying tankers was leaked by their radio communications with civilian ATC agencies, such as Athinai ACC, that took place on unencrypted VHF frequencies broadcast on Internet on LiveATC.net.

Interestingly, at least two packages of fighters (each supposed to include 4x F-16Cs from 31FW and 4x F-15Cs from 48FW loaded with air-to-air missiles – actually, the second one included only 3 Vipers instead of 4) supported by KC-135 tankers, provided DCA (Defensive Counter Air) cover to the bombers and to the warships launching TLAMs.

After the first waves of attacks, that involved also U.S. Air Force B-1s from Al Udeid, another Global Hawk drone was launched from Sigonella, to perform BDA (Battle Damage Assessment).

The air strikes required a huge tanker support. There were 7 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers airborne over Southern Europe heading to the eastern Mediterranean Sea: something unusual for a Friday night. At the time of writing, there are 13 (!) tankers up: some are dragging the second package of U.S. F-15s and F-16s back to Aviano, whereas others are repositioning to RAF Mildenhall or Souda Bay after a night of operations:

Another interesting aircraft tracked online in the aftermath of the raid, is a Bombardier E-11A 11-9358 from 430th EECS stationed at Kandahar Afghanistan. The aircraft is a BACN (battlefield airborne communications) asset: BACN is technological “gateway” system that allows aircraft with incompatible radio systems and datalinks to exchange tactical information and communicate. By orbiting at high-altitude, BACN equipped air assets provide a communications link between allies, regardless of the type of the supporting aircraft and in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment. The BACN system is also deployed onboard EQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs. Although we can’t be completely sure, it is quite likely that the aircraft was involved in the air strikes as well, providing data-bridging among the involved parties.

In the end, thanks to ADS-B, Mode-S and MLAT we got a pretty good idea of what happened during the first wave of air strikes on Syria. It’s obviously not complete, still quite interesting.

H/T to @AircraftSpots @Buzz6868 @CivMilAir @GDarkconrad @ItaMilRadar @planesonthenet and many others for providing details, hints, links and what was needed to prepare this article. You guys rock!

At the Tip of the Spear: Midair Refueling F-35As and F-15Cs With the USAF 514th Air Mobility Wing.

We Flew a Refueling Mission with the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and F-15C Eagle.

Four miles above the open Atlantic I’m sitting in the cockpit of a KC-10 tanker with a hundred tons of explosive jet fuel under me. We’re flying at about 400 MPH. We gingerly inch upward toward another 181-foot long tanker aircraft. That enormous aircraft is only 30-feet away now.

And the air is getting rough.

Lt. Col. Brian Huster of the 78th Air Refueling Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, sitting left seat, pilot in command, works the plane’s control yoke like an arm wrestler in a cowboy bar. It swings forward and back, left and right through alarmingly large arcs. Despite, or rather because of, his rather physical control inputs our giant tanker remains rock steady. He somehow anticipates every buffet from the turbulent air coming off the vortex of the plane in front of us, anticipating control inputs to keep our KC-10 motionless under the big tanker only feet above our heads in the 400 MPH slipstream four miles above the freezing ocean.

We inch closer to the other aircraft, it’s massive hulk filling our windscreen above our heads. The refueling boom passes several feet over us, just feet from our windscreen. There is a low “clunk” above my right ear. We make contact with the tanker above us and the ride becomes decidedly smoother. Lt. Col. Huster’s job becomes a good bit easier now.
I’ve just joined the small fraternity of people who have refueled in a jet aircraft in midair.

As our KC-10 buffets in turbulence beneath another tanker, USAF Lt. Col. Brian Huster flies our aircraft onto the refueling boom. (All photos: Tom
Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

I’m flying with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve, out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst on America’s east coast. The 514th AMW is one of two units in the U.S. Air Force flying the KC-10 Extender. In addition to performing the air refueling mission the versatile KC-10 can also carry substantial cargo payloads over 4,000 miles making this aircraft an important strategic asset. Not only can the KC-10 support tactical aircraft in the midair refueling role, it can also deploy with their support crews and mission critical gear around the world, providing a unique combined tanker and cargo capability for rapid response around the globe.

Only two USAF units operate the KC-10 Extender.

We’re back over the U.S. mainland now. I’ve moved from the cockpit of our giant KC-10 tanker all the way back to the refueling bay in the rear of the aircraft. By comparison to other aerial tankers the KC-10’s refueling bay is spacious and comfortable. Strapped into my own seat just right of the boom operator I have a panoramic view of the earth 22,000 feet below. Broken cumulus at 10,000 feet over the snow-patched green east coast farms of New Jersey slowly cascade beneath us.

In utter silence a ghostly grey F-35A Lightning II slips under us from the right side of the aircraft. It’s eerie how quiet it is. Like a real-world Darth Vader its pilot sits under a tinted canopy wearing his custom carbon fiber helmet that interacts with the F-35A’s many sensors and systems. And exactly like a character from Star Wars his helmet helps the F-35A pilot see and hear everything around him throughout angles and at distances that would be impossible for normal human senses. My first impression looking down on the joint strike fighter pilot 30-feet from us is that he is a real-world cyborg, a living part of an advanced next generation machine that shares information with other aircraft and weapons systems, monitors the entire battlespace with clairvoyant reach and awareness and reacts almost automatically. The pilot under that custom carbon fiber helmet is the brains of it all.

An F-35A Lightning II forms up off our right wing before taking on fuel.

I had read the stories about midair refueling. The drama of the 6,800-mile-long Black Buck mission by the RAF to attack the Falkland Islands after the Argentinean invasion in 1982. The desperate tanker missions over North Vietnam in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to save pilots from ejecting and being imprisoned in the Hỏa Lò POW camp, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. In 2016 CNN’s Zack Cohen reported on a story that apparently still remains partially classified. An F-16 from an unspecified country could not access his onboard fuel during a 2015 combat mission over ISIS held territory. As was the tragic case of both a Jordanian and Russian combat pilot, going down over ISIS held territory is a death sentence for a combat pilot even if he does survive the ejection. The tanker crew flew with the malfunctioning F-16, refueling the aircraft every 15 minutes to keep it in the air until it reached safety. I also read USAF Lt. Col. Mark Hasara’s excellent book, “Tanker Pilot, Lessons from The Cockpit”. In the literature of aviation history, there are too many stories of heroism and daring by tanker crews to recount.

None of the books or history lessons or classes in the military prepared me for the real-life science fiction of what is unfolding in front of me now.

Two F-35A Lightning IIs rendezvous with our aircraft to take on fuel.

With unusual grace and almost slow-motion gentleness the F-35A tucks under us and smoothly levitates upward toward our refueling boom. As a practical courtesy, our boom operator sitting to my left scoots the refueling boom over the right side of our aircraft, away from the dark-tinted canopy of the F-35A as it inches forward. Two small doors cantilever open on the F-35A’s back. The refueling receptacle on the F-35A is behind the cockpit where the pilot has to observe it with some kind of a sensor, maybe in his helmet, maybe from training, maybe both- it likely remains part of the vast amount of classified information about the F-35A.

Our refueling boom connects with the F-35A in one smooth attempt. A whirring noise over my head tells me fuel is flowing from our tanks into the F-35A now. The pilot below us glances up at us through his canopy, and I get goosebumps. This is the manifestation of the most modern warfighting capability on earth. The combination of the F-35A and the KC-10 grant the U.S. Air Force the ability to strike anytime, in any conditions, with impunity and without detection.

An F-35A Lightning IIs approaches the refueling boom.

Just a few feet below us the F-35A Lightning II remains rock-steady on the tanker boom. High overcast gives way to broken cloud and a spectacular backdrop of the Atlantic opens up beneath us. The lighting changes for the better, and I am hammering away at the shutter release on my camera.

In the history and literature of midair refueling there are countless stories of how difficult and dangerous it can be, but this crew makes the task look quiet, relaxed and effortless. Of course, this is daytime and the weather is fine. At night, in a thunderstorm, over enemy territory while low on fuel and with battle damage, it is an entirely different affair.

Aerial refueling started on a regular basis after WWII using techniques developed largely by the RAF and later improved upon by the USAF. In 1949, a USAF B-50 Superfortress, an up-engined version of the B-29, completed a non-stop circumnavigation of the earth using aerial refueling. According to historical references, nearly every mission flown during the Gulf wars and the Global War on Terror included aerial refueling.

In January 2017, B-2 Spirit long-range bombers used a total of 15 aerial tankers, both KC-10s and KC-135s, to fly a non-stop 30-hour strike mission against ISIS targets in Libya. The strategic implications of aerial refueling have completely changed the reach of U.S. airpower, effectively putting every place on the globe within range of a relief mission, security flight or strike mission from a U.S. base somewhere in the world. It has also subverted diplomatic constraints on U.S. air operations, granting virtual impunity to the air assets of our nation in the global theater. When France, Spain and Italy prohibited overflight of U.S. F-111 strike aircraft during the 1986 Operation El Dorado Canyon, the U.S. air strike on Libya in retaliation for a terrorist bombing in West Berlin where U.S. servicemen died, the aircraft had to fly an additional 1,300 miles. They simply used aerial refueling to fly around those countries.

The fly-by-wire refueling boom on the KC-10 Extender.

Especially in recent conflicts where air power is critical, the message is clear: Aerial refueling is a powerful strategic and tactical force multiplier.

The two F-35As refuel quickly and smoothly, on and off our boom in eerie near-silence. They scoot to our right wing as a beautiful two-tone F-15C Eagle slides into place below our tanker. The contrast between the fifth-generation F-35A and the F-15C is immediately apparent. The F-15C Eagle is from the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. The Eagle joins us from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Massachusetts. She takes fuel through her left forward wing root. Sliding into place on the tanker boom is a different procedure than the F-35A. Our Eagle driver plugs into the tanker boom on the first attempt. Fuel begins to whir into his gas tanks from the refueling boom over our heads.

Our tanker spends almost three hours “tanking” F-35s and an F-15C as it enters a wide oval racetrack pattern over the eastern U.S. I can’t help but wonder what this looks like from the ground, or if anyone down there even notices the aerial ballet unfolding four miles above them.

An F-15C takes on fuel.

This is the jubilance of flight, the wide-open view of the refueling window, the close company of the exotic fighters. Nothing in aviation matches this experience. One of our boom operators, TSgt. Rob White, a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, and “more” he doesn’t want printed, has 2000 hours in the boom seat of a tanker, 500 of them in combat. He has been tanking planes for over 7 years and has put gas on board every aircraft in the U.S. arsenal with aerial refueling capability and many allied aircraft as well. He tells me the most interesting aircraft he refueled was an Australian P-3 Orion maritime patrol plane.

Jan Mack of TheAviationist.com tapes an aircraft taking on fuel as our boom operator flies the refueling boom.

Well before I’d like to we’ve left the tanker track and are descending back toward Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to land. We talk about the future of KC-10 Extender, destined for eventual replacement by the new, modernized Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker. But a report by Samantha Masunaga for the Los Angeles Times published on April 11, 2018 says the new KC-46 may not be ready for the Air Force as soon as originally expected.

Masunaga reports, “Delivery of the first KC-46 aircraft — last planned for August 2017 — is now expected to be more than a year late, and technical issues have cropped up during development and testing.”

The new KC-46 will use several advanced systems that include a boom operators’ station served by a video feed from the rear of the aircraft instead of the wide window only feet from the aircraft taking on fuel in the KC-10. There are advantages to the new system, and the KC-46 represents a leap forward for the USAF tanker fleet, especially over the aging KC-135 tankers that are even older than the KC-10. But I will miss the view out of the back of the KC-10. If you love aircraft and our Air Force as much as I do, that seat at the back of a KC-10 is the best view in the world.

The Aviationist wishes to thank the 514th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs Office and Lt. Col. Kimberly Lalley for their generous assistance in the preparation of this report.

Sabers Rattle as New Round of Brinkmanship Appears to Unfold Off Syrian Coast.

Syrian Situation Update

The U.S. administration has suggested there may be an impending military response to the claims of a chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma on Saturday, April 7, 2018. Over 500 people, “were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent,” according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a U.S. backed, Washington-based nonprofit group that provides aid in the region. The report about the casualties, that allegedly include “over 40 people killed” appeared in the Washington Post and other U.S. news outlets.

In response to a prior chemical weapons attack in Syria during April 2016 the U.S. launched 59 cruise missiles at Al Shayrat Airbase where the chemical strikes originated, according to U.S. intelligence sources at the time.

A photo posted on Twitter today by Wael Al Russi, a “Proud Syrian, Supporting Syrian Arab Army & Russia against who ruined out country” according to his Twitter page, claimed that a Russian Su-34 (NATO reporting name “Fullback”) accompanied by “several” Su-30 fighters (NATO reporting name “Flanker C”) was seen carrying a pair of Zvezda Kh-35U anti-ship missiles. The Tweet was accompanied by a long range photo of an Su-34 carrying two large shapes under its wings claimed to be the Kh-35U missiles.

According to reports appearing in Russian and English media outlets, Russian aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles have flown near the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Donald Cook (DDG-75) following a claimed chemical weapon attack in Syria this past Saturday.

Several U.S. media outlets claimed today that reports of Russian aircraft flying near U.S. ships are false. U.S. Navy spokesman Commander Bill Speaks told the U.S. media outlet Task & Purpose that, “There are elements of that story that are just simply not true,” According to reports on both the Navy Times and Task & Purpose, Speaks said the reports that the ship was being buzzed by Russian aircraft were “completely bogus.”

A photo tweeted by @WaelAlRussi claims to show a Russian Su-34 allegedly armed with cruise missiles that he reports flew nearby a U.S. ship. (Photo: @WaelAlRussi via Twitter)

A separate incident reported over the weekend by Business Insider, Reuters and the French media outlet Le Point alleged that a French Naval multipurpose frigate of the Aquitaine class “was flown over the weekend by at least one Russian aircraft displaying an “aggressive” posture, according to the term we heard.” The text was translated from the original French publication. No photos accompanied the allegations and the type of aircraft was not specified, raising questions about the credibility of the reports.

French reports claimed a Russian aircraft flew in close proximity to one of their ships. (Photo: Le Point)

Russia’s defense ministry told the Associated Press in a Monday, April 9, 2018 report that Israeli aircraft had attacked the Syrian Tiyas Military Airbase west of Palmyra. “Two Israeli aircraft targeted the base Monday, firing eight missiles,” the Russian report claimed. Russia also claimed Syria shot down five cruise missiles of an unspecified type while three of the claimed missiles landed in the western part of the base. Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Israeli F-15 warplanes fired several missiles at the Tiyas base, also known as “T4”.

The conflicting reports in news and social media suggest an escalating concern that the U.S. may strike Syria soon in retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attacks that happened there on Saturday. U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled a planned diplomatic trip to several South American countries early this week to monitor the developing crisis in Syria.

Eurocontrol said in a notification published on Apr. 10 that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used over the following 72 hours and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption to radio navigation equipment.

Interesting things are currently happening in the region. Here’s a report of the alleged Russian activities:

Here’s the position of NATO/US AEW/ESM platforms this morning:


Top image: NOTAM & navigation warnings in force around Cyprus for Wed 11th April (via @CivMilAir)

Check Out This Cool Video Of Three B-2 Stealth Bombers Contrailing Over Kansas

The stunning sight of a B-2 Stealth Bomber 3-ship formation.

Filmed on Apr. 4, the video below shows three B-2s over Pittsburg, Kansas. The stealth bombers headed southwest then made a wide left turn and headed back northeast presumably back to Whiteman AFB, Missouri.

Although the Spirit bombers fly over Kansas quite often (3 to 5 times per month, according to our readers who live there), the formation with backlit contrails isn’t very common.

The result is quite stunning.

The B-2s are among the assets that might be involved after the very early stages of an attack on Syria, as happened in Libya or during Operation Allied Force in 1999, when the stealth bombers operated directly from Whiteman AFB, Missouri.

Interestingly, there’s been much speculations about what could be done to to spot an impending B-2 strike mission, for instance by watching tanker movements over the Atlantic. As I’ve already commented on Twitter, it’s really difficult, as the past operations taught: for instance, during the Libya Air War, the B-2 used a REACH callsign, usually allocated to tanker, transport and support aircraft, to remain invisible even to HF, VHF and UHF listeners who were able to listen to radio communications in the clear. This is I wrote back in 2011:

“This gives an idea of how the OPSEC problem was faced by the USAF: keeping in mind that aircraft spotters around the world, virtually interconnected by means of forums, websites, messageboards, Twitter, Facebook and any other social networking tool, are today capable of tracking aircraft movements even before aircraft depart their homebases with the various LiveATC.net, Flightradar24.com, ADS-B, etc., they decided to deceive them not using difficult and “suspect” zip-lip ops (no-radio) but masking aircraft callsigns.

The result was satisfactory as the strikes of the B-2s as well as the TLAM attack were almost unexpected in spite of the technology in the hands of the aircraft enthusiasts meaning that there are still ways to achieve strategical surprise, if needed…..”

Anyway, this video shows B-2’s continuous training over CONUS, operational activity aimed to prepare U.S. Air Force stealth bombers aircrews to strike targets all around the world.

The Historic Thanh Hóa Bridge Raid: A Historic Lesson in Adaptive Air Combat and The Cost of Getting It Wrong.

4 April, 1965. Above Thanh Hóa, (then) North Vietnam.

It was like trying to hit a needle in a haystack, kill a fly with a sledgehammer, or whatever analogy you prefer for using brute force to apply surgical precision in the middle of a swirling ambush.

By analogy and history, the attack on Dragon’s Jaw is a bizarre mismatch of weapons to mission. It is another hard lesson for U.S. air power in the ‘60’s. Several decades of evolving doctrine and aircraft development have led the U.S. Air Force in a different direction from how air wars will actually be fought in the future. Instead of long range strategic nuclear attack, tactical precision anti-insurgent strike is the emerging mission. The U.S. will continue to learn that hard lesson on this day.

By any measure this is an impressive air armada: Sixty-six advanced supersonic fighters and strike aircraft from America’s “Century Series”. The main strike package is 46 Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs with massive bomb loads. The defensive escort is 21 North American F-100 Super Sabres holstering a covey of air-to-air missiles. The strike and escort fighters are supported by an enormous number of tanker, surveillance, rescue and reconnaissance planes. They all have one objective: to kill “The Dragon”.

The Dragon is the Thanh Hóa Bridge, near the geographic center of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese nicknamed the bridge “Hàm Rồng” or “Dragon’s Jaw” since its massive steel and concrete construction seem like a row of sturdy teeth set in the mouth of a deadly dragon. The Dragon itself is made up of one of the most sophisticated integrated air defense networks on earth modeled closely after the most sophisticated, the Soviet Union’s.

Ironically, if this same task force had been attacking the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons their results would have almost certainly been better. That is the mission these aircraft were actually designed for. But the Dragon is a small, critical target, and an elusive one. Even though it’s not an all-out nuclear war with the Red Menace, the Dragon must be slayed in the ongoing proxy war that is Vietnam.

The Thanh Hóa Bridge would be a tough target to hit even without an advanced, integrated network of radar guided anti-aircraft guns, SAMs and MiGs surrounding it. The bridge has only a single one-meter wide railroad track on its deck. It is 540 feet long and 54 feet wide at its widest point. From the attack altitude of about 10,000 feet it is difficult to see well at high-speed.

The flight of F-105 Thunderchiefs break into sections of four aircraft each. Today they are armed with 750 pound “dumb” bombs. The day before a nearly identical strike also failed to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw when the Thunderchiefs attacked with crude AGM-12 Bullpup guided missiles and 750 pound dumb bombs. The AGM-12 missiles, an early attempt at “smart” weapons, failed significantly. Remarkably, even though some of the 750 pounders did hit the bridge, they had little effect. The first attempt at breaking the Dragon’s Jaw on April 3rd failed spectacularly. The bridge proved sturdier than expected, the weapons less precise than hoped.

Having abandoned the AGM-12 Bullpup missiles from the day before the F-105 Thunderchiefs would strike with only dumb bombs today.

The F-105 was originally designed to carry a nuclear weapon enclosed within its streamlined fuselage using an internal bomb bay. It was supposed to attack a target from low altitude at Mach 2, “toss” the nuclear weapon at the target in a pop-up attack, and escape at twice the speed of sound.

Today the big F-105 “Thuds” lug a junkyard of dumb bombs under their sleek swept wings and below their sinewy Coke-bottle curved fuselage. The yardsale of external bombs and bomb racks creates enormous drag on the needle-nosed “Thud”, slowing it to below supersonic speed and making it vulnerable.

As predictably as a firing line of advancing redcoat soldiers facing off against Native American insurgents in the Revolutionary War, the Thunderchiefs returned the very next day, marching across the aerial battlefield in broad daylight. The North Vietnamese had been ready the day before. Today they were angry, battle hardened and ready.

According to historical accounts ranging from Air Force Magazine to Wikipedia, four of eight lightweight, nimble, subsonic MiG-17s (NATO codename “Fresco”) of the North Vietnamese 921st “Sao Do” (Red Star) Fighter Regiment led by North Vietnamese flight leader Trần Hanh visually acquired an attack formation of four F-105Ds at 10:30 AM.

The Thunderchiefs were just starting to drop their bombs and already committed to their attack run. Flight leader Trần Hanh ordered his wingman, Pham Giay, to cover his attack on the F-105s. Hanh dove in through light cloud cover, achieving complete surprise. He opened fire on the F-105 with his heavy 37mm cannon at extremely close range, only 400 meters. Having attacked from above and behind in a classic ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) scenario, Hanh preserved energy and positioning. The hapless F-105, piloted by USAF Major Frank E. Bennett of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, was pummeled by the MiG’s cannon shells. It erupted in a comet of plunging fire and hurtled downward toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Major Bennett did not survive.

9North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot Tran Hanh shown after the war. (Photo: Via Wikipedia)

A small, nimble, lightweight fighter had just gotten the better of a large, heavily loaded fighter-bomber despite having a substantial escort from F-100 Super Sabres. The Super Sabre fighter escort was out of position to respond to the MiG-17 ambush. A brutally hard lesson in the future of air combat was in session.

The melee continued when another North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot reportedly named “Le Minh Huan” downed a second F-105D, this one piloted by USAF Capt. J. A. Magnusson. Capt. Magnusson reportedly radioed that he was heading for the Gulf of Tonkin after being hit. He struggled to maintain control of his heavily damaged Thunderchief as he tried to escape North Vietnam. Capt. Magnusson was forced to eject twenty miles from the island of Hon Me, and was eventually listed as missing in action, then killed in action after a 48-hour search turned up nothing.

Painfully, the U.S. Air Force confirmed they had lost two F-105s and pilots in the second attack on the Dragon’s Jaw. Even worse, the bridge remained intact, a straight, iron grin at the futile attack of the Americans.

After the failed F-105 strikes and aircraft losses the Americans were desperate to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw bridge. Author Walter J Boyne wrote in Air Force Magazine that the U.S. developed a bizarre, massive pancake-shaped bomb weighing two and a half tons and measuring eight feet in diameter but only thirty inches thick. The gigantic, explosive Frisbee was dropped from the back of a lumbering C-130 Hercules transport and was intended to float down river toward the bridge where it would be detonated by a magnetic fuse. Several of the weapons were actually dropped, one C-130 was lost.

The bridge remained intact.

Early laser guided bombs were also employed against the Dragon’s Jaw with modest success. An attack on May 13, 1972 by a flight of 14 F-4 Phantoms used early “smart” bombs and actually knocked the bridge surface off its pilings, briefly rendering it inoperable and forcing repairs.

But the bridge still stood.

Attacks on the Dragon’s Jaw continued until October 6, 1972. A flight of four Vought A-7 Corsair attack aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) was finally successful in breaking the bridge in half. They used the AGM-62 Walleye guided bomb and 500-pound Mk.84 general purpose “dumb” bombs. The bridge was finally severed at its center piling.
Author Walter Boyne wrote about the final strike, “At long last, after seven years, 871 sorties, tremendous expenditure in lives, 11 lost aircraft, and a bewildering array of expended munitions, the Dragon’s Jaw was finally broken.”
The key lesson from the brutal campaign to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw was that tactics and equipment need to be adaptable and precise in the modern battlespace.

USAF reconnaissance photo of the Thanh Hóa Bridge in North Vietnam. (Photo: USAF)

The F-105 Thunderchief was an impressive aircraft, but was forced into a brutal baptism of fire over Vietnam during an era when air combat was in transition. As a result, the F-105 suffered heavy losses. The history of the aircraft went on the include an unusual accident with the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds. On May 9, 1964 Thunderbird Two, an F-105B piloted by USAF Captain Eugene J. Devlin, snapped in half during the pitch-up for landing at the old Hamilton Air Base in California. The Thunderchief only flew in six official flight demonstrations with the Thunderbirds.
Interestingly, and perhaps ominously, the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II shares a remarkable number of similarities with the Republic F-105 Thunderchief used in the raid on the Dragon’s Jaw in 1965.

According to author Dr. Carlo Kopp, the F-35A dimensions are oddly similar to the F-105. But among several critical differences is the wing surface area, with the F-35A having larger wing surface area and the resultant lower wing loading than the F-105. Other major differences are the F-35A’s low observable technology and greatly advanced avionics, data collecting, processing and sharing capability. Finally, the F-35A is purpose-built for a wide range of mission sets, whereas the F-105 was predominantly a high-speed, low-level nuclear strike aircraft poorly suited for conventional strike.

Lessons learned from the F-105 strike on the Dragon’s Jaw, the success of the nimble, lightweight North Vietnamese MiG-17s and the need for better precision strike capability are now deeply ingrained in U.S. Air Force doctrine. But revisiting this story is a vital part of understanding the evolving mission of the air combat warfighter and the high cost of failing to adapt in the constantly evolving aerial battlespace.