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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.

The story of the first unofficial MiG Kill achieved by an American fighter in the skies over Vietnam

The F-100 Super Sabre flew more individual sorties in Vietnam than any other fighter, but it was never credited with an air-to-air victory.

The first officially listed American aerial victory during the Vietnam War was achieved by a U.S. Navy F-4B Phantom that destroyed a Chinese MiG-17 on Apr. 9, 1965. However, compelling evidence clearly suggests that another MiG-17, this time a North Vietnamese one, was shot down by a USAF F-100D, flown by Capt. Donald Kilgus on Apr. 4, achieving the only Super Sabre air-to-air victory and predating the first US Navy MiG Kill by five days.

Nevertheless according to Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. book, “MiG Killers A Chronology of U.S. Air Victories in Vietnam 1965-1973,” the outcome of the air battle during which Kilgus destroyed the MiG-17 has long been the subject of much debate by historians over years.

This aerial engagement took place during the second strike on the Dragon’s Jaw bridge, 70 miles from Hanoi: the bridge was attacked by several F-105s while a total of 16 F-100Ds from the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) fulfilled both Rescue Combat Air Patrol (RESCAP) and MiG Combat Air Patrol (MiGCAP) missions.

As explained by Peter Davies and David Menard in their book “F-100 Super Sabre Units of the Vietnam War,” the RESCAP F-100D flight (using “Green” as callsign), carrying 2.75-in rocket pods, set up an offshore orbit, ready to move in and cover for SAR forces if required. As the strike package approached its target, the North Vietnamese controllers vectored two MiG-17s behind Green flight from a head-on approach.

The 416th TFS F-100s turned to meet them and Capt. Kilgus (flying the F-100D tail number 55-2894, callsign “Green 2”) pursued one of the MiGs in a steep dive from 20,000ft down to 7,000ft, firing several bursts with his 20mm cannons and observing hits on the fighter’s right stabilizer.

He and other flight members saw pieces flying off the MiG, but at the last moment Kilgus had to pull out of his dive, whereupon he lost sight of the target in the hazy conditions above the Gulf of Tonkin.

Super Sabre

Other three MiGs were able to attack the F-105s and two North Vietnamese pilots, Capt. Tran Hanh and Le Minh Huan, downed two of them, while the MiGCAP F-100Ds tried unsuccessfully to defend the Thuds, firing two Sidewinders and several bullets from their 20mm cannons that missed the MiG-17s.

Even though Kilgus believed that his MiG could not have survived, he was credited with only a probable victory by the U.S. Air Force because nobody had seen a pilot eject nor an aircraft crash. Moreover, the request to reconsider his claim was refused by the Air Force, given that President Lyndon Johnson had said that he did not want any MiGs to be shot down because he feared that aerial engagements of this kind provoked Russia and China, North Vietnam’s main allies during the war.

However, the Vietnamese have later admitted the loss of not one, but as many as three MiG-17s during the air battles on Apr. 4, 1965. They also identified the pilots by name and unit: Pham Giay, Le Minh Huan, and Tran Nguyen Nam, all of the 921st Fighter Regiment. According to Istvan Toperczer’s book “MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War,” the only Vietnamese pilot to survive to this air battle was Capt. Tran Hanh who said that the three MiGs lost that day were lost to American fighters.

Noteworthy, in the mind of Capt. Kilgus there has never been any doubt about the outcome of this air battle: in fact he painted a MiG kill marking beneath the windscreen of the F-100D tail number 55-2894 and another on the F-105G Wild Weasel that he flew later in the war.

MiG-17

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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

 

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.

F-8C_VF-111_over_USS_Intrepid_(CVS-11)_1967

Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

Surreal aerial footage of old Soviet warbirds in the east of Germany (filmed by drone)

Extremely cool footage of some old Soviet combat planes in a Cold War atmosphere.

Here’s a really interesting footage filmed by a quadcopter drone with some surreal close ups of MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-21, MiG-23, Su-22, MI-8, L-29 Delfin and a Ilyuschin plane at the Aviation Museum in Finowfurt, near Berlin, Germany.

Finowfurt is an old Soviet military airbase that nowadays is being used as a museum where planes on display are being restaurated one by one.