Phantoms Over Phuc Yen

We are taking a break from Advanced Squad Leader today to showcase how my ASL mentor can take writing AARs to another level with another game we play : GMT Downtown featuring modern air combat.  He adopted our game narrative into an exciting short story!!

Author : Jonothan Halfin (“The Author”)
Disclaimer: The Author retains all rights to any portion of this work. No portion
may be used without prior written permission from The Author.

So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown, no finer place for sure
Downtown everything’s waiting for you….

Downtown….” Petula Clark, Columbia Records, 1965.


Two aircraft in the U.S. inventory carried the brunt of air combat over North Vietnam. The McDonnell- Douglas F-4 Phantom II and the Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader. One airplane was designed as a short-range dogfighter, based on all of the lessons learned in World War Two and Korea. The other was the next generation of fighter aircraft, designed to fight and survive in a Cold War era conventional or nuclear environment. The Crusader went on to become a legend over the skies in the Red River Valley as “the last of the gunfighters”, and racked up impressive kill ratios with well-trained pilots at the controls, before finally being retired from service in 1971. The Phantom was not so lucky. The models fielded over the Democratic Republic of Vietnam were the F-4B, RF-4B, RF-4C, F-4D. The Linebacker missions finally saw the F-4J and F-4G models come into the field

Mcdonnell F4C Phantom II is a painting by Douglas Castleman

Mcdonnell F4C Phantom II is a painting by Douglas Castleman

The major issue with the Phantom over North Vietnam was two-fold/ It was a purpose-designed fast interceptor, with a single mission profile – to shoot down large nuclear bombers before they could release. It did so by carrying a full complement of both radar mid-range and heat seeking short-range missiles, with no cannon capability whatsoever. The design was not meant or created to be a dogfighter, so its own maneuverability below 10,000 feet was sharply impaired. (The Pilots and ground crews affectionately called Phantoms “sky-pigs”, because of this).. Secondly, in a closing engagement standard of a U.S. “loose Deuce” 2 vs 1 for closing on enemy MiGs- the approach vectors meant even the slower MiG-17 was going to create a head on closure at over 800 Knots. No AIM-7 or AIM -9 model missile at that time could field a shot like that effectively, so the first burst often went to a 23mm armed MiG on a down the throat vector.

Then the MiGs could go into a low a altitude turning fight, as the F-4 loses capability to compete without stalling out (a bad design required high speed for airflow). The MiG gets a rear quadrant position for an easy deflection shot, or the F-4 is forced to zoom climb away (effectively disengaging), in order to prevent being shot down. The effective Phantom driver could reverse on the zoom, and enter what Capt. Bellevue did in his four-victory day, inserting the MiG and the Phantom into a position called a vertical rolling scissors. The MiG is incapable of maintaining energy on the vertical climb, so each pass means the F-4 is at less risk of a rear quadrant low deflection cannon shot, and each pass, the AIM-9 has a better chance of reversing into a rear quadrant lockup on a tailpipe heat signature.

Of all the USAF pilots in Vietnam, only a handful ever understood they had to fight their Phantom to its own strengths to defeat a MiG. Hence the 2.6 (+/-) to 1 air to air losses from 1965-1971. By Linebacker I, the rate dropped to below 2.5 to 1, so Brigadier General Robin Olds stepped in personally to intervene. (The man behind the 1967 Bolo massacre of MiGs that gutted the MiG 17 air pilots of VPAF). He voluntarily took a demotion to Colonel, in order to return to Vietnam and train USAF aircrews how to use the Phantom in combat as a dogfighter, and win. Linebacker II showed his methods worked….

Tahkli AFB, Republic of Thailand
October 7th, 1967

” Whiskey Flight will lead two sections on a Rail Recce down the Red River valley. The Gunslingers of 295th FS will detail an escort to keep the MiG’s off your back.”

Tahklii’s Air Intelligence team needed a set of good target pictures on the rail lines Southeast of Hanoi, so Capt. Kent was unceremoniously volunteered to lead this mission into RP5. – The Vietnamese People’s Air Force was not to be left wanting in this measure.

“Mig-17s and Mig-21s were reported earlier over several airfields in the Hanoi area by Red Crown. It is believed those flights are now down and refueling. Previous recon shows confirmed SA-2 locations in several areas of the Red River Valley under construction. It is not known if any are active or not. Flak is expected to be light, but there are some reports from the last strikes yesterday that heavier stuff has been brought up to the RP 5 area. “

After continuing the briefing to ensure all aircrew understood the Emergency procedures and in-flight refueling tracks, weather over the target areas and en route, the Staff Officer concluded the brief.

“Pilots- man your planes”

Kep Airfield, Democratic People’s Republic of Vietnam

Thac Hanh and his fellow MiG pilots smoked excitedly by their planes at Kep. The word was air spotters along the Laotian border had confirmed several enemy aircraft inbound. Today, Thac was going to down some Yankee Air Pirates.

Over the Red River Bridge near Vinh, DPRV

Start 01

At 0905, Whiskey and Gunslinger flights went feet dry into Route Pack 5. A Fire Can and an SA-2 radar were immediately detected searching along the southern end of the flight path. Red Crown, the destroyers off the coast of Haiphong that monitored all radar transmissions of the North Vietnamese, confirmed several MiG flights were detected taking off all over the Hanoi area. Most appeared to be vectoring in towards the Rail Recce mission. Five minutes later, a close-in flak burst tags Whiskey 01 on his low speed pass over the railroad in this sector. Whiskey 02 confirms only minor holes in the left stabilator can be seen. It appears to be negligible damage and no warning lights on the “Christmas Tree”. “Smokey Joe” and “Jimboy” are heard over the radio briefly, a bit of concern in the near miss is evident. At 0914, Iron Guard -a EB-66 over Laos – confirms a Fire Can radar is active and many SA-2 radars are online now. COM-6 reports are sent to Tahkli to confirm SA-2s appear operational. Gunslinger flight has a momentary blip on their RHAW gear, nothing critical as it didn’t even reach the “1” ring. But the Phantom crews now know, this is not going to be an easy railroad run today……

“Well, they know we’re here, Jim.”

” Yes, they do, Smokey. Shall we heat things up a bit for them? I got a hankerin’ to plug one of these here “Falcons” into the tailpipe of a MiG!”

“Knock off the chatter,, Whiskey flight!” “Bandits confirmed inbound from Hanoi and Phuc Yen. Red Crown, out.”

“DEE-DLE , DEE-DLE, DEE-DLE!!!” The RHAW gear on Joker’s Phantom goes wild, strobing to the 2 ring.

“Sh*t! They got a lock on us, Ford, a solid Lock! Break Left , NOW!!”

” I can’t! See the vapor trail out in front? MiG is closing high on the port beam!”

“Sh*t and double sh*t!! Ford, take him down the left. Gunslinger lead, this is Whiskey 02, do you copy ? Inbound bandit on port beam at 10 miles and closing!!”

“Ahh- roger Whiskey 02, we got your six, take him on down and we will engage. BREAK. Gunslinger flight, come around to 350 , bandits are at angels 10, 10 miles and closing…. ”

Gunslinger 01 switched to his ICS…

“Get me a radar lock on him, dammit!!”

“I’m trying John, come off the nose about 3 degrees left…..” Gunslinger 01 goes back to the Strike Frequency….

“Gunslingers, engage those MiGs! Iron Guard, Iron Guard, this is Gunslinger lead on button 1. we have bandits confirmed inbound our position, repeat bandits confirmed! The MiGs are real, boys! A SAM is strobing on Whiskey flight. We need an assist, over”

” Gunslinger Lead, Iron Guard on 1. No one is up in your AO to assist. Call is in to Yankee Station and Red Crown for possible assist, but no status on ETA for Alert 5 planes. Will keep you informed, over.”

“Iron Guard, Gunslinger Lead – better get some SAR birds up on button 1 ASAP. We may need them.”

Whiskey flight flight went to full throttle, zooming to the deck from high altitude. This resulted in a missile coming off the rails. The SAM made the four Phantoms go into SAM avoidance, placing Whiskey 01 right in the line of approach of the incoming MiG flight, while burning up half of the Phantom’s fuel. As Whiskey 01 makes for a turn into the SAM radar to reduce their cross-section – the radio comes to life….

“Guideline! Guideline! Jim, we have a LAUNCH!”

“Confirm Whiskey – Gunslinger 02 reading positive SAM Launch Light at this time, no joy.”

“Where is it, dammit!!? Whiskey 01 to all birds, anyone got eyes on the ‘pole?”

“Negatory from Gunslinger, 01. no joy on the ‘pole, but all indicators reading positive launch…..”

“Whiskey 01, this is 02!. Coming up fast, at your 8:00 on your quarter, prepare to break!….. BREAK NOW!! Barrel Roll, Jimboy!!”

The long whitish-colored missile streaked under the lead Phantom as it tried vainly to keep up with a turn and altitude change in the same sector of sky. The tiny tail fins cannot guide the missile rapidly enough and it loses lock-on, now coasting out towards the jungle canopy, before self-destructing 400 or so yards away from a shaken Whiskey flight. Jim’s hands shake as he moves the throttle detente back from Max A/B. Another radio call…

” ahhh Whiskey 01, this is Gunslinger. you are dead on for the approaching MiG – do you intend to engage? Come on, Jimboy – snap out of it! Get your jet back into this fight, we got a long way to go before we’re back at the BOQ tonight, buddy!”

Jim shakes his head, Gunslinger’s right – it’s a long way home, now. Hold it together, old boy.

“ahh Roger, Gunslinger, we are 5 by 5 on the rollout, Angels 1.5 and closing at speed of heat on the MiG – intend to blow below and roll back on target to get the cameras working again. Cover me.”


Gunslinger knew that Whiskey 01 was back in the fight – for now. They should never send a rookie up here. Tac Air Ops should know better. Well, if this one made it through today’s hop, he might just pan out, yet.

“Iron Guard, Red Crown, this is Gunslinger on Button 2. Let the boys at Air Ops and 7th Fleet know, those Guidelines are operational – repeat, OPERATIONAL”.

“Roger Gunslinger. We have Sandy 01 and Mother Hen up on Guard if needed.”

Thanks a lot. Just what we need, forget any reinforcements , but we’ll come scoop your ass outta the jungle if you get shot down.


The terse reply from Gunslinger echoed over the airwaves……….

Jim Reynolds felt the airframe rattle as a MiG flashed by on the beam, far to fast to identify. CRAP!! That was close!! The warning light panel began blinking – quick scan as he rolled out over the SAM site. Fuel boost pump was out in left wing tank – ‘we can live with that’. Utility pressure light..uh oh.

“Gunslinger Lead, MiG is inbound your 2:00 high.. Am I venting fluids???”

This got Gunslinger’s attention. He figured he was onto what the FNG was up to – get a picture set of the SAMs to show TahkliTacAirOps they were AFU. Can’t dispute evidence like that. Looking up to the right, he spotted Whiskey flight straggling up and over a karst ridge as a stream of cannon shells from a MiG-17 Fresco slammed into the nose section of Whiskey 02. Status checks would have to wait….

“Whiskey, Gunslinger is engaging on your MiG – he is 300 AGL off the deck and pushing around hard to engage us as well. What is your sitrep, over?”

“Whiskey Flight on GUARD… we have taken damage to multiple A/C in flight. We are being bounced by multiple MiGs, need immediate support!!”

Mid 01That’s the problem with new guys, they get jumpy under fire. Then all it takes is a single mistake to kill you just as dead.

“Whiskey, you are on VOX, check mic!! Come around to 090 and take the MiG lead on to set up these Falcons!”

“Uh… Roger” Jim grunts as he pulls out of a 5 -g turn to line back up with the coordinates his escort gave him.

“Talk to me” Gunslinger Lead said to his WSO on the ICS.

“MiG closing 2:00 to 4:00, come right and dogbones are selected. Listen for tone….”


Gunslinger heard a growling faintly in his microphone, as the heat-seeking head was uncaged and began tracking on the MiG. ‘Come on, Whiskey, get outta my line of fire so I can fox this MiG!’, thought the veteran pilot. Whiskey flight was veering offline towards the SAM station, with Gunslinger’s escorting fighters vainly trying to catch up behind it. The remaining MiGs moved into rear arc positions, and with the new turn of heading by Whiskey flight, the VPAF went to take the initiative – putting one flight. a MiG-17 Fresco, just behind the recon flight Dropping to their altitude and moving in used up some more precious fuel in the F-4’s, and the engagement netted two effective shots by a MiG squeezed off – both damaging Gunslinger 02’s F-4D. With another MiG coming up hard from 3:00, these Phantoms were in a position where it’s time to didi mau from that SAM avoidance turn.

VPAF MiG 17 Fresco Callsign Moment of Truth #3.
Orbit Popoint just South of Phuc Yen Airfield

Tranh Vanh spun his Mig-17 off to the South as he grimaced a smile against the G-forces pushing him into his seat. Those two Yankee Air Pirates now understood the People’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam Air Forces outclassed them. Positive that his twin streams of 23mm cannon shells had walked into both Yankee planes as they dove for the deck in a corkscrew, he chalked up 4 more likely “guests” for Hoa Lo prison. Scanning behind him into the karst, he spotted two fast moving objects climbing just above the jungle along Thud Ridge. Calling out to GCI, Tranh was rewarded by a radio call overheard to his fellow pilot and roommate, Van Co.

“Ha. That will get them for sure.” he thought.

Co’s MiG-21 was absolutely deadly at these low altitudes. Those Yankees were going to pay for today’s attempt to penetrate Hanoi’s airspace.

Van Co turned Northwest with the GCI radio call and quickly picked out a pair of slowing Phantoms as they climbed over the ridgeline. Kicking in his afterburner to engage them, he rolled in and closed up, as his heat- seeking Atolls were uncaged…. No growl. No beep, nothing.

“Shit! The warheads were malfunctioning again!”

Van cataloged to kick the ground crew all the way from Kep to the Chinese border when he landed. Switching to cannons, he tried to set up a shot, but the Phantoms of Gunslinger flight had seen his contrails and began maneuvering in loose deuce scissors to cover each other. No shots possible, so Van tried to break away, but again, the Yankee maneuvers caused him no end of grief. He could not break and run for a new a setup without exposing his own MiG to the Yankees. So a vertical climbing barrel roll and over the top into a Split-S. All three jets had somehow managed to maneuver themselves out of any possibility of a shot. Van was confused as to where to head now, and GCI was not responding to his radio calls.

Gunslinger radioed that he was taking control of the flight as a finger four at this time – all US jets were maneuvering independently, and someone was going to die if he didn’t get control of the situation ASAP.

“Fours! – break to Rally point Bravo! – repeat – All Fours! Break for Rally point Bravo, ASAP.”


“Whiskey 01 copy”

“Whiskey 02 – Wilco”

Now, if they could just get clear of the MiG’s and get some pics, and get out of here – this lashup of a flight plan might actually get everyone home.

Over the Karst Ridgelines of Thud Ridge, DPRV

The MiG 17 was disoriented after hitting both Phantoms of Whiskey flight. The wounded Phantoms were now in dire straits as well. The DPRV guided another MiG-21 flight right into the following Gunslinger Phantom flight. Both flights rolled in to engage, but the overcast meant no one could maneuver for a shot. both flights were now disoriented as well, All 4 Phantoms were left with finding a rallying point or bugging out. At least 2 more active MiGs and possibly three could still engage, AAA and SAM sites were also still active in the area,-so things look pretty grim for the “Fours” as they spun out towards Thud Ridge seeking cover from a looming SAM radar to their starboard.

Over Phuc Yen Airfield, DPRV

As the minutes ticked by, Van Co awaited the call from GCI – nothing. Then all of a sudden another voice over the airwaves cut in with instructions being fed from GCI. Van Cuong! Ace of the skies – the master of the MiG17, and recently cut into the newer -21 PF model fresh from the Soviet Union. He was going to get Co’s kills!! Enough of that – a terse –

“What are my orders!?!?” emanated from Co’s MiG.

Barely a second later from GCI responded:

“RTB Hoa Lac.”

“Dammit!” cursed Co. Today’s actions were over for him.

Cuong took up a heading and advanced the throttle to full A/B as his MiG roared off over Thud Ridge and along the course given him by ground. Looking up, he picked out the planes of the Yankee Air Pirates and grimaced as he pulled up level and slightly off to the right rear beam.

“Time to die, Yankee” he whispered.

He uncaged both AA-2 Atolls and received a good tone and then growl from both heads almost simultaneously. A quick jerk on the trigger switch, 1 then 2 missiles away and guiding on the track….
Cuong watched in satisfaction as first one and then the other Atoll tracked right up into the tailpipe of the lead Phantom, cruising off without ever seeing the MiG that shot him down. The resulting explosion as the Phantom’s fuel tanks detonated, sent a shower of debris all over the valley floor below. A large brownish smoky ball of fire in the sky was all that remained of Gunslinger 01.

Gunslinger Flight, over Phuc Yen, DPRV

Mid 01Gunslinger 01 turned to cover the RF-4Cs as they headed for the rally point. Inadvertently, the gunfighters turned their tailpipes to a closing MiG in order to seek cover from a SAM site coming online. In a second, all that was heard over the radios was a short scream, then a fireball in the sky. No chutes, nothing. Gunslinger 02 was rattled…

“Whiskey, Whiskey. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Gunslinger 01 is KIA. Repeat Gunslinger 01 is KIA at this time, no chutes! I’ll do my best to cover, but you guys need to pull some weight and get cracking, or we are all going to end up like -01!”

“Gunslinger 02 – Sandy Lead copies – two KIA, no chutes.”

“Gunslinger, Whiskey, this is Red Crown relay for Udorn. State intentions. You are cleared to RTB Tahkli at this time.”

The MiGs are all but disoriente4d from a near constant level of combat, but with few prospects for any reinforcement or relief, and two RF-4C damaged and 1 F-4D shot down with a KIA crew of two, and only about 3/8 of the target locations photographed, the mission profile was pretty clear to Gunslinger 02. As the de facto lead, he took control. With difficulty, Gunslinger 02 managed to get a semblance of the remaining “Fours” into a line astern staggered formation, now heading South. He’d made up his mind, two dead and two more planes damaged was just too much risk in the Red River Valley.

“Red Crown, Iron Guard, Gunslinger up on button 4.. We are RTB at this time, speed of heat. Expect egress over Steel Tiger OpArea within 10 mikes, over.”

“Roger, Gunslinger, Red Crown confirms you are RTB, will notify Sandy and Udorn.”

“Roger Gunslinger 02, Iron Guard copies. Texaco will be on station at race-track 3 for you, Angels 15.”

Jim, in Whiskey 01 was shaking from head to toe, as the Phantoms egressed out, southeast of Thud Ridge, keeping low to mask them from any SAM sites to the North. He had survived his first flight into North Vietnam, and this one into Route Pack 6a, no less. but it wasn’t enough. His mentor since arriving in country was now a lingering smoke trail over the jungle valley and he was, for the first time since becoming a Phantom pilot, alone.

The Phantoms returned to the emergency strip at Udorn without incident, as the MiGs had all bugged out after a full engagement and a successful series of ambushes. Whiskey 02 had a stuck Nose Landing Gear door, but the emergency T-handle blew all three struts down and locked for a safe landing. The film cassettes were pulled from both RF’s as the crews dismounted their jets. Jim told a photo-tech to make damn sure copies of those SAM site photos get over to TacAirOps, TODAY!!!. Two dead aircrew should have earned at least that much hustle on the ground crew.

At Hoa Loc airfield, Van Cuong and Van Co stood as they were proclaimed Heroes of the Party. They were awarded an equal share in 2 1/2 kills of Yankee Air Pirates over North Vietnam and held up as shining examples of what the DPRV was prepared to do to defend itself against incursions by American aircraft.
Today, the US learned that a multilayered air defense was something to respect over Vietnam.


The MiG 21 PF fighter did everything it was designed to do, and was never used outside its intended design role. Cockpit armor and a belly armored fuel tank made it near impregnable to cannon fire unless its control hydraulics were shot away. The design was meant to zoom it at high speed under ground control, take a shot, zoom away at high speed to get the enemy to pursue so the MiG 17s and 19s could ambush them – or run away and live to fight another day. Their pilots never tried to dogfight anyone- they understood the plane’s limitations there. The Kumansky R-25-series engines in the MiG21s of the 1960’s and 1970s produced maximum military power thrust (without A/B selection on the throttle detents) for 41 minutes with no external fuel tanks onboard. The MiG 21 had a nominal combat efficient range with full missile and cannon load of just under 600 nm.

The twin J-79s in an F-4 at max military detent (before going around the horn into A/B modes on the throttle), gave the series F-4B,C,D,E and J models, a maximum engagement time of 30 minutes at these speeds with internal fuel cells alone. To get more than that in flight time required cutting power to minimum cruise for an extended time (SOP while feet wet or over Thailand), external tanks (Centerline tanks became the standard – less drag than a wing and run off it first, then drop it when engagements begin to clean up for fighting.), or in flight refuelling (SOP for every flight once it left North Vietnamese airspace.).

The Phantoms did not have a large endurance. Their logistical design allowed for external fuel tanks on centerline and outboard wing stations (using wing tanks limited firing points for AAMs), and IFR probes/traps (depending on service branch), with a SOP to train every pilot well in in-flight fuelling.

The only redeeming feature of the Phantom was its speed in combat was unmatched. This meant they could always disengage if they got into trouble. (A lesson Robin Olds pounded into the aircrews in 1972.) The speed allowed for the high wing loading to be utilized in a dogfight to enter ascending or descending scissors, both of which favor the F-4 and its thrust to weight ratio, and leave a MiG who does this in a very bad place. (Bellevue’s tactics became the SOP to teach pilots at Top Gun). Finally the thrust to weight allowed for the aircraft to enter a dive speed from high altitudes. When paired with a sharp lateral maneuver (we’re talking a 3-mile radius turn at Mach 1.8 here), it could not be duplicated by a SA-2 missile’s minimal flight surfaces at heights. There is insufficient density of air flowing over those surfaces to allow the missile to maneuver, they were almost incapable of a turn above 25,000 feet. So the Phantom could use its supersonic design features to extend and escape from a SAM (another lesson Olds brow-beat into his pilots in 1972).

Finally the MiG driver never needed range in combat over DPRV. His airfields were less than 100 nm away. An F-4 needed to fly in from ranges as far as 1500 nm out, refuel in and out, use centerline tanks to get in, and then fight and survive, and then get out again. Then it faced either a long flight home or surviving a OK trap aboard a carrier (something sane people only ever want to experience once-.), even if the plane was damaged.

The MiG 21s, especially early models, faced some real issues with Tumansky engines, but B\by 1972 and Linebacker, those were all fixed and the planes coming up to knock down the USAF and USN planes. The VPAF were more than ready to fight it out. Olds saw this too, and encouraged his pilots to take advantage of the rare opportunity to again gut the VPAF of its best MiG drivers by careful planning and ambush techniques. It worked. The airframes were approximately equal in their capability to shoot each other down in the 1967-1972 time frame, if competent pilots capable of dogfighting to their airframes’ strengths had piloted both. Overall, the VPAF failed to learn from the lessons of the 1967 BOLO operation, and lost their operational MiG 21s (and their best pilots for them) on the second day of Linebacker II.

The USAF and USN remembered to learn from Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I losses. It showed in Linebacker II. The pity was that pilots forgot how to dogfight in order to win using of the strength of their planes in F-4s. So they took an unnecessary beating along the way.

Author : Jonothan Halfin (“The Author”)
Disclaimer: The Author retains all rights to any portion of this work. No portion
may be used without prior written permission from The Author.