Category Archives: Military History

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “One such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Remembering Three of the Fallen F-105 Thunderchief Heroes of the Vietnam Era

The Remarkable Exploits of Three Thunderchief Pilots Are a Must-Read on Memorial Day.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, part of a long three-day weekend where people in the U.S. reflect on the high cost of freedom and liberty as they remember those who sacrificed their lives for it. While it is a somber holiday it is also a celebration of heroes. Heroes who set the highest bar for selflessness, honor and sacrifice. It is a day when we recalibrate what it means to be an American.

There are a remarkable number of great American stories to be told on Memorial Day. Realistically, far too many to tell in a single day. I find these stories daily in research about military aviation history. Even after years I unearth new names and heroic exploits every week. It is a seemingly endless tablet of remarkable tales etched into the bedrock of freedom’s foundation. And as history arcs forward into the future, the foundation is expanded by more and more heroes.

There is one era that produced images that are particularly iconic to me. Images that shaped my boyhood impression of what it means to be a hero. It was the era of the early U.S. involvement in the air war over Vietnam. In particular, one group of pilots repeatedly shows up in photos of medal winners and in heroic tales. They were the “Thud drivers”, the pilots of the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

The F-105 Thunderchief itself was an ambitious aircraft. It’s journalistically and politically indelicate to write about any historical military aircraft as “bad” or “dangerous”, so we will handle the F-105 and its history over Vietnam objectively and respectfully. Early in its history, during 1961, the F-105 had the lowest rate of accidents of any jet fighter in the history of the Air Force. But by June of 1964 accidents in the F-105 Thunderchief increased remarkably. There were a reported 33.7 accidents per 100,000 flying hours in the F-105 by half way through 1964, a massive increase compared to earlier years.

Republic F-105D-30-RE Thunderchief (SN 62-4234) in flight with a full bomb load of M117 750 lb bombs. Normally drop tanks were carried on the inboard wing pylons. This aircraft was shot down on 24 December 1968 over Laos while being assigned to the Wing Headquarters, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Takhli RTAFB. Major Charles R. “Dick” Brownlee was the pilot of the lead aircraft (s/n 62-4234, call sign “Panda 01”) in a flight of four. The flight was conducting an afternoon strike mission against Route 911, between the Ban Karai Pass and the city of Ban Phaphilang, Khammouane Province, Laos. At 15:47h the aircraft attacked a truck moving along Route 911. 62-4234 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and caught fire. Major Brownlee’s aircraft exploded at roughly the same time he ejected from his aircraft. The next day a rescue attempt of heavily injured or dead Brownlee failed, but a member of the rescue team, CMS Charles D. King, was captured, too. Both men are listed as missing in action. The location was on the northern edge of a large valley and just east of Route 911, approximately 16 km southwest of Ban Thapachon (location 170600N 1055600E).

Especially during this era in the Thunderchief’s history, it was best to stick to observations that acknowledged its curvaceous, needle-nosed fuselage, artfully shaped wings that leave one with the visual impression of speed, and its remarkable performance. Even more so than the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief was what most Americans visualized when they heard the term “Jet Fighter” in the 1960’s.

The Thunderchief looked the part of a supersonic fighter. It did not, however, deliver great survivability during this era. It was not because the Thunderchief was somehow cursed. It may be fairer to suggest its mission was cursed.

It’s also best not to discuss the calamitous employment of the F-105 by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that ended in a fiery aircraft disintegration on May 9, 1964 at an airshow venue in California. That F-105 broke apart after receiving initially undetectable damage earlier in its career while midair refueling. The Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six shows before they switched back to the North American F-100D Super Sabre. The Thunderbird F-105 crash killed USAF Capt. Gene Devlin in aircraft 57-5801.

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin died in an F-105 crash on May 9, 1964. (Photo: USAF and Aerospace Museum of California)

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin’s F-105 crash on May 9, 1964 was the 15th accident in an F-105 in only five months during 1964. But it would get worse. Only four days after Devlin’s crash in California, a Nellis AFB F-105D lost its engine on takeoff and crashed into the Las Vegas suburb of Woodland North. The results were catastrophic. A mother and three children died on the ground where the aircraft crashed. The impact leveled seven houses and destroyed two cars. More homes burned near the crash scene. The pilot did not survive either. Following that horrific run of accidents that culminated in the Woodland North calamity the Air Force grounded all F-105s until a cause for the accidents was determined. A number of problems with the F-105 were subsequently discovered and corrected during inspections and the aircraft were returned to service in time for the escalation of the Vietnam War.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief attempting to dodge an SA-2 missile over North Vietnam. (USAF)

It is fair to acknowledge the Republic F-105 Thunderchief was a plane thrust into a mission that was largely misunderstood, frequently evolving, and very different from what the “Thud” was originally designed for, low-level, supersonic nuclear strike missions. As a result, the “Thud” earned its unfortunate nickname by raining out of the Southeast Asian skies with frightening regularity, often taking with it the lives of America’s finest.

The USAF Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six demonstrations. (Photo: USAF and Ron Rentfrow)

But also in fairness, the F-105 Thunderchief shouldered the majority of the USAF’s burden of bombing heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. In the first five years of the American involvement in the air war over Vietnam, the F-105 Thunderchief flew 70% of all attack missions. Regardless of your assessment of the Thunderchief, the odds were always stacked against it. In all, a staggering 382 Thunderchiefs were lost in Vietnam, nearly half the total number that was built.

Different from the aircraft itself the men who flew the F-105 Thunderchief, like USAF Captain Samuel E. Waters, were absolutely dependable no matter the odds or the mission. Capt. Waters was the type of a man you think of when you picture a jet fighter pilot. Chiseled features, serious countenance, heroic look, stony glare.

A USAF photo F-105D Thunderchief Pilot Capt. Samuel E. Waters. (Photo: USAF)

Unlike his outwardly attractive but structurally dubious aircraft, Capt. Waters had intrinsic mettle. He was a hero. An icon. The worthy subject of statues in town squares or the name of a new high school.

Capt. Samuel E. Waters died 51 years ago on Tuesday December 13, 1966 over the dense jungle region of Ha Tay Province, North Vietnam. It was, according to some records, the first day the U.S. launched airstrikes on the capital city of Hanoi. The 29-year old combat pilot was a member of the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing.

It is already difficult to sort through accurate records about Captain Samuel E. Waters. According to three websites and social media posts, Capt. Waters was flying Republic F-105D Thunderchief #61-0187 the day he died. His target was the Yen Vien railroad yard just ten miles south of the city center outside Hanoi. He had successfully bombed his target and was exiting the area when his aircraft was struck by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM). He managed to nurse his wounded Thunderchief for about 15 miles before it finally succumbed to damage from the missile.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief trailing fire and smoke just after interception by an SA-2 missile on February 14, 1968. The SA-2 did not actually hit an aircraft — the warhead was detonated by a command from the tracking radar or by a proximity fuse in the missle when it neared the target, throwing deadly fragments over a wide area. The pilot, Robert Malcolm Elliot (1929-1968), was killed. His body was not recovered until 1998. (USAF)

What struck me about the photo I found of Capt. Samuel E. Waters was that his image, and the similar images of men, fighter pilots, like him shaped my impression of what a real man truly was. What a hero is. In small suburbs and country towns people talked about these men. Men like Capt. Waters.

Another remarkable hero of the Thunderchief era was Lt. Karl W. Richter. Richter was an Air Force Academy graduate from 1964. He began training to fly fighter aircraft after graduation and subsequently volunteered to go to Vietnam. Richter learned to fly the F-105 Thunderchief at Nellis AFB, Nevada. He immediately volunteered to ferry an F-105 over to Thailand where he knew he would be put in the action. Once he arrived in Thailand he was assigned to the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, a hub of F-105 action over Southeast Asia.

Lt. Richter flew his first F-105 Thunderchief combat mission only four days after arriving in Southeast Asia. He eventually completed 198 combat missions over Vietnam in a number of aircraft including the F-100 Super Sabre and the O-1A Bird Dog light Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. Richter also shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17 on September 21, 1966 using the cannon on his F-105. At only 23 years old and still a First Lieutenant, Richter was the youngest USAF combat pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the Vietnam conflict at the time.

F-105 Thunderbird pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter. (Photo: USAF)

Lt. Karl W. Richter was shot down on July 28th, 1967 at the age of 24. He was leading a bombing attack on a North Vietnamese bridge when he was struck by automatic anti-aircraft fire (AAA). Richter managed to eject from his F-105 and parachuted into rocky terrain where he sustained life-threatening injuries including a broken neck. Although a rescue force was able to retrieve him quickly, Lt. Richter died in the rescue helicopter on his way back to safety.

There are several statues of Lt. Karl Richter at prominent locations around the U.S. commemorating his remarkable courage and career. Perhaps the most significant inscription is on the one displayed at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Below the chiseled figure of F-105 Thunderchief fighter pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter the Biblical inscription of Isaiah 6:8 reads:

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.”

It is not only a fitting inscription for the lives and sacrifices of F-105 Thunderchief pilots like USAF Capt. Gene Devlin, Capt. Samuel E. Waters and Lt. Karl W. Richter, but for every service person we remember on Memorial Day in the U.S. who gave their lives for freedom and security.

Top image: Crews of the F-105D and F-105G Thunderchiefs in Thailand. (USAF)

Rock Band Honors Gary Powers With New Song on U-2 Incident Anniversary

“Powers Down” is a tribute to Francis Gary Powers, the late U-2 pilot recipient of the Intelligence Star, by rock band One Man Mambo.

During the late 50s, with the approval of Pakistani Government, U.S. President D. Eisenhower established a secret intelligence facility in Badaber (Peshawar Airbase), equipped with a runway that allowed U-2 spy planes to perform secret missions over the majority of the Soviet airspace.

On May 1, 1960, fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East-West summit conference in Paris, pilot Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Badaber on board its “Dragon Lady” Item 360 for a mission over the Soviet Union. The task was to photograph ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk and then, landing at Bodo, Norway.

The flight was hardly a surprise, since Soviet defenses were pre-alerted by the U-2 unit “10-10” piloted by Bob Ericson: some weeks before, he had overflown some of the top secret military installations such as the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the SAM test site, the Tyuratam missile range and the Dolon airbase with its Tu-95 strategic bombers.

According to some Russian sources, just after the U-2 was detected, Lieutenant General of the Air Force Yevgeniy Savitskiy ordered all the air unit commanders on duty “to attack the violator by all alert flights located in the area of foreign plane’s course, and to ram if necessary (see for details: http://www.webslivki.com/u11.html – Russian language only).

Some fighters took off immediately but like the previous alerts, all the attempts to intercept the foreign plane failed. Eventually the U-2 was hit and shot down by the first of three S-75 Dvina surface to air missiles fired by a defense battery.

According to Russian sources, it is interesting to know how Pilot Gary Powers, after successfully bailing out from the plane, was soon captured by the Russians and was found with a modified silver coin which contained a lethal saxitoxin- tipped needle…to be used in case of torture!

After the event, the whole Soviet air defense system was obviously in red code but the lack of coordination brought to a curious incident often hidden by the ordinary tale of facts: the SAM command center was unaware that the foreign plane had been destroyed for more than half so that at least 13 further anti-aircraft missiles were fired, one of them shooting down a MiG-19 and killing his pilot, Sergei Safronov.

The episode became of an outstanding relevance among the international community and represented one of the higher peaks of the face off between the two nuclear superpowers.

On May 1, 2018, 58 years after the incident, One Man Mambo, a rock band founded in 2016, releases a tribute to Francis Gary Powers.

“Gary Powers’ U-2 mission over the mighty Soviet Union has fascinated me since I took U.S. History in high school” said band member Lazar Wall in an email to The Aviationist. “Particularly impressive were the ramming attempts by a Sukhoi fighter jet, and the unfortunate death of a Soviet pilot whose MiG got hit by friendly fire. The Iron Maiden song Aces High, about Spitfires and ME-109s in the Battle of Britain, was definitely an influence on Powers Down. Our band released its first aviation-related song at the end of last year. Flight 2933 is a tribute to the Chapecoense players and staffers from Brazil who perished in a 2016 air accident.”

The song, titled “Powers Down” will be on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services May 10.

Meanwhile, here’s the lyric video of the song, in case you are interested in a quite unusual (at least by our standards) way to honor one of the world’s most famous pilots:

Top image credit: CIA / RIA Novosti

The description of May 1, 1960 incident is taken from our previous article “Airspace Violations – Episode 5” that you are strongly suggested to read for more details.

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.

On This Day In 1970 An F-4J Shot Down A North Vietnamese MiG-21. It Was The First Kill Scored By A Top Gun Graduate

The first time a Topgun graduate shot down a MiG.

On Mar. 28, 1970, an F-4J Phantom II (BuNo 155875) belonging to VF-142 off the USS Constellation (CVA 64) aircraft carrier shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 from Kien Ann airfield during an aerial engagement.

The U.S. Navy fighter, radio callsign “Dakota 201”, was piloted by LT Jerome Eugene Beaulier and LT Stephen John Barkley. Beaulier had attended the Navy Fighter Weapons School’s first Topgun course, run by VF-121 instructors (VF-121 was the West Coast RAG – Replacement Air Group). The NVN Fishbed, piloted by Nguyen Van Truang, aged 28, was shot down using an AIM-9D Sidewinder. The pilot was killed.

This was the first Navy kill since 1968 and the first from a pilot graduated at the famed “Topgun” school. According to the National Naval Aviation Museum, the next time Phantom crews engaged MiGs over Vietnam in 1972, it marked the beginning of an intense period of combat in which Navy and Marine Corps F-4 crews shot down 26 enemy airplanes in less than 12 months.

According to “U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers 1965-70” by Brad Elward and Peter Davies, the F-4J BuNo 155875/NJ-201 served with VF-142 until it was destroyed, following an in-flight fire on Apr. 26, 1973: according to records, it had logged 1540 Flight Hours, most of those in combat, and had nearly completed its third WestPac cruise (first one aboard USS Constellation in 1970; second and third one with USS Enterprise in 1971-1972 and 1973 until it was lost).

H/T National Naval Aviation Museum