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report: Warren E. Thompson

N MARCH 1966, United States
intelligence agencies reported
more than 60 North Vietnamese
Air Force MiG-17 fighters present
at their main base of Phuc
Yen. While the MiG-17 was a
known quantity, officials and planners
were more worried by the fact that
approximately 15 more advanced
MiG21s were there too. Phuc Yen was a
huge complex about 40 miles north of
Hanoi and had been off limits to any air
strikes by American aircraft. Up until this
time, most of the wars aerial duels had
been between the F-4 Phantom II and
the MiG-17.


The Phantoms first successful encounter

against a MiG-21 took place on April 26,
1966 and involved an F-4C from the US
Air Forces 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron
(TFS). In Vietnam, the F-4 faced the same
disadvantage that the F-86 Sabre had in
the Korean War. The Phantoms had to
fly a long distance to reach the enemys
territory, while the MiG-17s and MiG-21s
were just minutes away. Another factor
against them was the fact that the enemy
could be assisted by ground control
intercept (GCI) stations, which always
knew where the F-4s were. On the other
hand, if the MiGs wanted to venture
outside of their comfort zone, their short

range hampered them, with no recourse

to aerial refueling.
The MiG-21s faced off against any
adversaries that were able to carry their
loads up into Route Pack V and VI the
latter area, covering Hanoi and Haiphong,
was judged the most dangerous airspace
in the world. Both the F-4 and MiG-21
were in the Mach 2 class and armed with
air-to-air missiles (AAMs). However, even
after the MiG-21 became available, many
North Vietnamese pilots continued to
prefer the MiG-17 on account of its superb
maneuverability. The high wing loading
of the MiG-21 made it far less agile, but
combined with GCI and using smart

Above: Pictured
in early 1969,
this 435th TFS
F-4D Phantom
is loaded
with slick
and retarded
bombs to be
used against
rail lines and
troops in the
south and over
in Laos.
James Wood
via author

June 2016


Exactly 50 years ago, a US Air Force F-4
Phantom II was credited with the first
confirmed aerial kill against a North
Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed. The era
of supersonic, missile-armed aircraft
engaging in combat had begun,
and the F-4 and MiG-21
would remain locked
in battle for the
remainder of the
Vietnam War.

Right: Capt
Swendner and Lt
Buttell move out
at Da Nang AB for
another sortie in
September 1966,
two months after
their MiG-21 kill.
Bill Swendner
via author

tactics it was a weapon to be respected.

On numerous occasions, MiG-21s would
intercept F-105 Thunderchiefs (Thuds)
bearing down on Hanoi, forcing the USAF
pilots to jettison their bombs while taking
up defensive postures.
The primary weapon of the North
Vietnamese MiG-21 was the R-3S (AA-2
Atoll) missile. Although notoriously
unreliable, the weapon allowed the MiGs
to employ successful hit and run tactics.
The Atoll could reach a speed of
around Mach 2.5 as it closed on its
target. Its effective range was around
8km (5 miles), which was sufficient when
working with GCI.
Approximately 80 MiG-21s were shot
down during the Vietnam War between
late April 1965 and January 1973. US Navy
and USAF pilots flying versions of the F-4
registered most of these kills.

The second kill

One such aerial victory took place on July
14, 1966. The F-4C from the 480th TFS
was flown by Capt William Swendner as
pilot and Lt Duane Buttell as back-seater.
At the time, the aggressive F-105 Wild
Weasels stationed at Takhli Royal Thai Air
Force Base were working North Vietnams
numerous surface-to-air missile (SAM)
sites in an effort to cut down the losses



Capt Swendner stands in front of his battered

F-4 shortly before he and Buttell took down a
MiG-21 while assigned to the 35th TFW at
Da Nang. Duane Buttell via author


that plagued the bomber force. These

radar-controlled sites were placed all
along the main routes that the bombers
took when flying into Route Pack V and VI.
Capt Swendner recalls some of the
details of that memorable mission: I was
leading a flight of four F-4C Phantoms
call sign Nitro out of Da Nang Air
Base to escort a flight of four F-105 Wild
Weasels call sign Panda that were
coming over from Takhli RTAFB. After
refueling over Laos, we met the Thuds
just after passing the Black River, heading
straight for the Hanoi area. Over the past
few days, the MiGs had been attacking
the Wild Weasels and harassing them. We
were fragged to provide escort and keep
the MiG-21s off them. It was a difficult task
because the Weasels were much faster
than our Phantoms at such a low altitude,
which was right where the Fishbeds
wanted them. We were at about 10,000ft
and I was trailing about two or three miles
behind the three F-105s (one of their flight
had aborted early in the mission).
The escorting F-4Cs were all carrying
the big 600-gallon centerline fuel tank
that added a lot of drag. When they were
almost dry, Swendner gave the order to
jettison the tanks so they could close the
gap with the Weasels. We were about 50
miles north-west of Hanoi when Panda


lead called out that he had a three-ringer

at 12 oclock and that he was too close to
fire, so he was turning right to reposition
for a good shot. At that time, we were
trailing the fast-moving Thuds by about
five miles, so when he called for a right
turn it enabled us to close the distance
because I cut him off in the turn.
All of a sudden, about half way through
his turn, my number three in the flight
called MiG at seven oclock high! I looked
over my left shoulder and got a visual
on the MiG at high and reversed my turn
into him.

Above: A
close-up view
of a MiG-21
painted on
the side of
Swendner and
Buttells F-4
after scoring
the second
MiG21 kill of
the war. This
was taken in
early August
1966, just
days after the
Duane Buttell
via author

Lt Duane Buttell adds: We were closing

the gap with the F-105 Wild Weasels. The
MiG-21 was spotted and we had a good
idea that there was one or more in our
vicinity because the scattered flak had
stopped and that could only mean that
their aircraft were close-in they had to
stop firing just in case they brought down
one of their own MiGs.
Both the MiG-17 and MiG-21 were
routinely operated under radar control,
which allowed them to be vectored in at
high speed in order to close rapidly from
the six oclock position. This is exactly

June 2016


what was happening. Capt Swendner
immediately jettisoned his wing tanks as
the MiG-21 blew through his flight and
he reversed his direction to pick him up,
estimating that the MiG was now in the
three or four oclock low position. The haze
was very bad that day, especially below
15,000ft, which was beneficial to the MiG
because he disappeared into the haze
and ground clutter. As he looked around
to regain a visual on the F-105 flight,
Swendner saw a MiG-21 closing fast on
one of the Thuds. The jet retained an allsilver finish as opposed to a camouflage
scheme that would have been harder to
spot. The MiG also stood out because it
too was all-silver.
Swendner continues: Seeing the MiG
closing fast, I radioed for Panda 3 to break
right: You have a MiG closing from your
six oclock low. He replied, Negative. Ive
got a lock and getting ready to fire. I told
Lt Buttell to boresight [lock the radar
straight ahead] and I pulled down toward

the MiG and put my reticle on him. He got

a lock-on and I was about to fire an AIM-7
Sparrow when the break-x popped up on
my scope. This meant that the MiG was
within minimum AIM-7 range.
At that point, I switched to heat [AIM-9
Sidewinder] and didnt get a tone in my
headset. My closure rate on the MiG was
exceptionally fast, so I fired the missile
anyway because I felt I needed to do
something to get the MiG off Panda
3s butt.
Buttell adds: We were doing an S
maneuver back and forth above and
behind Pandas flight. We had fallen
slightly back and were accelerating, using
our altitude advantage to help us, when
the MiG appeared. I dont know if the
pilot knew we were close by as he was
obviously heading straight for the closest
Thud. I remember being extremely
impressed with Panda 3s reaction to Capt
Swendner calling for a right break. He
didnt move because he was in the middle

Below left to right:

A 497th TFS F-4D
taking on fuel
in 1972. At the
time, Phantoms
were conducting
the lions share
of fighter escorts
up into Route
Packs V and VI.
Nolan Schmidt
via author
A flight of F-4Cs
is prepped for an
escort mission
over the north.
Duane Buttell
via author
Bottom: An F-4D
heads north to
bomb targets
around Hanoi.
This shot dates
from August
1966, around
the time of the
first MiG-21
kills of the war.
Nolan Schmidt
via author

I continued to
track him and
finally got a good
heat growl in my
headset and fired
off another AIM9.
I watched it go
out and it looked
good and then it
just disappeared.
I said, Damn! I
missed again


June 2016




of setting up for his missile launch on an

active SAM site and coolly continued to
do so in spite of the fact that an enemy
fighter pilot was about to position himself
right on his six oclock! I had locked on to
the MiG and noted that we were inside of
our launch parameters. Bill fired the AIM-9
anyway and it went ballistic as it didnt
have a chance to arm.
The AIM-9 missile had an operational
range of a little over 10 miles back then.
Swendners Sidewinder fired and went
right over the top of the MiG. It was
too close to its target when fired to
arm, so it went above it and ended up
impacting the ground. However, it did
get the attention of the MiG pilot, who
immediately broke off the attack on the
Thud and lit his afterburner as he climbed
away to the east.
Now, I was about 200ft right behind him
and at this time I positively identified him
as a MiG-21, Swendner goes on. I started
to go into a vertical in order to gain some
separation for a better shot. About that
time, the MiG pilot went into afterburner
and that solved my problem fast. I let
him get about a quarter-mile out in front,
tracked him and fired another Sidewinder.
I dont know if I had a heat tone or not,
but I felt I had him just where I needed
him. The missile went out about 2,000ft


This image:
Capt Radeker
(standing far
right) and his
flight in the
555th TFS. Also
seen is Charles
E. Donnelly Jr
(standing second
from left). Walt
Radeker via author
Below left to right:
A famous shot of
eager MiG-21killers with Col
Olds. They are:
(left to right)
Frank Gullick, Bill
Lafever, Dick
Pascoe, Robin
Olds, Tom Hirsch
and Norm Wells.
Capt Everett
Raspberry is in
the F-4s intake.
Walt Radeker
via author
555th TFS
pose by their
Phantom: Capt
Radeker on the
left and Lt James
E. Murray on the
right. They fired
an AIM-9 to score
their kill on the
January 2, 1966
mission. Walt
Radeker via author

June 2016


to try to rejoin the flight, as it was hard
to recognize an aircraft coming in as to
whether it was friend or foe. However, he
did try to rejoin, and as he did he spotted
another MiG-21 that was closing in on us
from six oclock. It was probably the first
MiG that blew through our formation
earlier. Lt Martin fired a Sidewinder that
blew up alongside of the MiG and the pilot
ejected. It was the second MiG-21 kill by our
squadron that day.
Buttell concludes the story of the
mission: I recall that while we were close
to killing our MiG, the gunners below on
the ground opened fire on us, which was
strange because they had their fighters
in close proximity to us. The day after
our kill, we went to Saigon to debrief, as
ours was only the second MiG-21 kill of
the war. Our Intelligence was surprised
and even skeptical of our description of
the encounter because the F-4 wasnt
supposed to be able to climb with the 21.
Our performance info was verified a couple
of years later when the Israelis got their
hands on a MiG-21 and ran performance
tests on it.

Operation Bolo

and blew up. I continued to track him and

finally got a good heat growl in my headset
and fired off another AIM-9. I watched it
go out and it looked good and then it just
disappeared. I said, Damn! I missed again.
A split second after thinking he had
missed, Swendner saw a huge fireball
erupt straight ahead it was the MiG
he had aimed for. He pulled up quickly to
avoid the debris, rolled over the top, and
the only thing he could recognize within
the explosion was the tip of a wing that
had belonged to the MiG. The conclusion
had to be that the Sidewinder had tracked
perfectly right up the MiG-21s tailpipe
while it was in afterburner. The action had
taken place directly over the big airfield
at Phuc Yen.
We immediately headed back toward
friendly territory as I caught sight of the
egressing Weasel flight. I asked Panda if
they saw my kill and he replied Yeah did
you see mine? I told him I had not, but I
did see the smoke trail from his anti-radar
missile that he had fired at the SAM site.
During our initial maneuvering, my number
two, Lt Ronald Martin, got thrown out of
position. I told him to head 220 and get
out of the area. It was never a good idea

June 2016

The most successful of the MiG-21 clashes

occurred on January 2, 1967 during
Operation Bolo. This was the brainchild
of Col Robin Olds and his planning staff.
Pitting the F-4 against the MiG-21, it
is considered one of the best combat
deceptions of the Vietnam War. Olds
assigned the planning of Operation Bolo
to several veteran junior officers. The group
planned a co-ordinated mission by the
west force (the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing)
consisting of seven flights of F-4Cs from
Ubon RTAFB, and an east force consisting
of seven flights from the 366th TFW based
at Da Nang. The west force would simulate
an F-105 strike force, while the east force
would cover alternate airfields to provide
a barrier preventing the MiGs from fleeing
towards China.
The planners determined that if the
MiG21s reacted, their endurance from
take-off to landing would be around 55
minutes. The arrival times of the F-4 flights
were set five minutes apart to provide
continuous coverage and to attempt to run
surviving MiGs out of fuel by preventing
them from landing. Everything hinged on
getting the MiGs airborne. If they didnt
take the bait, the plan would collapse. In
order to deceive the North Vietnamese,
the west force had to fly the same ingress
routes, altitudes and speeds as the F-105s,
use the same aerial refueling tanker tracks





and altitudes, and use Thud jargon in voice

The F-4s were fitted out with QRC-160
jamming pods, normally carried only
by F-105s, to replicate their electronic
signature. The F-4s would also fly the
inflexible line-abreast pod formations
used by the Thuds to maximize pod
effectiveness. The pods had to be mounted
on one of the wing pylons, forcing the F-4s
to carry a centerline and single wing tank,
creating an asymmetric imbalance that
made take-off difficult since the aircraft
would try to roll to the side carrying the
wing tank.
The operational plan was presented to
Gen William Momyer, who commanded
the 7th Air Force, and he immediately
approved it. The mission was planned for
January 1, 1967.


Due to bad weather, the sortie was

rescheduled for January 2. It launched
from Ubon, and by 15.00hrs local time
Olds and his flight were over Phuc Yen.
There was a huge cloud layer over the
area and it hid the MiG-21s taking off.
Unknown to Olds, the North Vietnamese
GCI controllers had delayed take-offs
because of the overcast. Just as the second
flight (call sign Ford) arrived in the area,
the first MiG-21 emerged from the cloud
below. The Phantoms finest hour as a
MiG21-killer had begun.
Capt Everett T. Raspberry was one
of the pilots that Col Olds had placed
his confidence in. He remembers that
mission: I knew nothing of the overall plan
for Bolo, but, over a few Martinis, Olds
asked me to do what I could to increase
the combat maneuvering skills of the

Top: A 555th TFS

F-4C heads back
to Ubon after
covering for
F-105s raiding
targets in Route
Pack V and VI.
Dave Menard
via author
Above: MiG
kills over North
Vietnam started
to escalate
when F-4s
began escorting
into the
Route Packs.
US Navy F-8s
were also very
in this role.
Dave Menard
via author

wings pilots. Each time I was flight lead or

mission commander, I would demonstrate
and critique various maneuvers when
returning from a mission up north.
Before my tour with the 8th TFW, I was an
instructor in the USAF Fighter Weapons
School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada,
so I was not operating from complete
ignorance. After evaluating the air combat
maneuvering skills and relating the launch
capabilities of the AIM-9B and AIM-7
[+2g and -1g], I concentrated on a simple
maneuver referred to as a roll to the
outside, which tended to put the attacker
in a position within the missiles launch
envelope. As it turns out, all of the MiG kills
included that maneuver. Im proud of that.
On January 1, the mission crews were
briefed on the mission. We would have
jamming pods, which we had never
flown with before. Also, we would use
F-105 call signs and F-105 refueling tracks,
plus Thud pre-strike terminology. It was
obvious we were trying to imitate an F-105
task force so the MiGs would react to that.
The good part was that I was Ford flight
lead, which was to be the second flight in
the area.
On the evening of January 1, Chappie
James [Olds second-in-command] came
by my room and told me that he was
taking my place as Ford lead. On January
2, we took off from Ubon RTAFB and flew
low level to avoid North Vietnamese radar
up to the Thud base and then climbed to
altitude for the refueling tracks. En route, I
did my missile check. As luck would have
it, only one of my eight missiles an
AIM9B passed the test but I was not
going to miss this one. The next thing
was we dropped our centerline tanks and
turned toward Gia Lam.
In the target area we had a 100 per cent
cloud undercast, which was supposed to

June 2016


Col Robin Olds and his

back-seater Lt Charles
Clifton climb out after the
monumental mission during
which 8th TFW crews nailed
the largest number of kills
against MiG-21s on a single
day. Craig Cosgrove via author

I knew I only had one missile, so if I was going to

kill this guy I wanted to give it my best shot. I did a
roll to the outside of his turn to try and get within
the missile launch envelope
be an abort situation. However, it turned
out to be a blessing. As we approached
the Hanoi area, of course missiles were
flying everywhere, but the electronic
countermeasures pods were doing their
job. I saw Col Olds flight approaching
below at about our 10 oclock position
when a MiG-21 came out of the undercast
at their six oclock position. I called to Olds
lead about the MiG and I do believe that
they killed that one. I looked back to our
five oclock and saw a MiG-21 at Ford 3s
six oclock. I called Ford 3 to break right,
which he did. That was the only thing he
did right on the whole mission.
The MiG broke from number 3 and
approached Chappie and I called Ford
lead, break right, but there was no

June 2016

response. I tried several times, even calling

him Chappie, to break right nothing!
As a last resort as the MiG approached to
maybe 500ft, I turned into him just to get
him off my leads butt! For a few seconds,
canopy-to-canopy, I could actually see his
eyes. He overshot and actually went well
out into our 12 oclock position. I guess he
realized he was in a whole lot of trouble
so he started a hard left descending turn
heading for the undercast. I knew I only
had one missile, so if I was going to kill this
guy I wanted to give it my best shot. I did
a roll to the outside of his turn to try and
get within the missile launch envelope,
including range and launch g-limits.
I had the right range, but he was able
to maintain a fairly hard turn, which kept

Below left to
right: Capt Walt
Radeker with
the F-4C he flew
on the January
2, 1967 mission
while operating
from Ubon,
Walt Radeker
via author
The 433rd TFS
was involved
with Col Olds
on the MiG-21
killing spree. The
squadron had FG
tail codes while
the 555th TFS
used FY. USAF
via author

me out of the g-limit launch envelope. All

of a sudden he made a fatal mistake
he reversed his turn, which gave me an
opportunity to go to 0g with him exactly
at 12 oclock. I launched my Golden BB,
which flew like a rocket-powered bullet
and went right into the cockpit with the
pilot. I did notice that right after launch the
MiGs rear-view mirror started reflecting
the sun, which was a great target for an
infra-red missile. I made a couple of 360
turns watching the MiG-21 break into little
pieces. Then I realized I was alone, flying
almost directly over Hanoi, which was
the most heavily-defended area in aerial
combat history. Everybody else had gone
home. I quickly made a hasty exit to the
south and that was the end of a good day.
Capt Raspberrys victory was one of
seven in what would be the single largest
days haul of MiG-21 kills during the war.
Of the 16 MiG-21s known to be in the
North Vietnamese inventory at that time,
between 11 and 14 had been engaged,
with seven destroyed and two others
probably shot down. In turn, Hanoi
admitted the loss of five MiG-21s, without
posting any claims of their own.