Are you the reporter who wanted to talk to me? Yeah, I'm the one you talked to on the phone. What paper did you say you were with? Oh, a journal? Journal of the Unexplained? Never heard of it, but never mind, let's find a booth. You're a family publication, aren't you? Okay, good. I'll do my best to keep it clean, that way you won't have to do much editing.
No, never really talked about it, except, you know, once in a while here in the O Club Bar. But, you know how it is. If I'd said anything about what happened that day, anything at all, that would be that for my career. It's just like if you report a UFO. But you? I don't know. Look, as long as you buy the drinks I'll tell you, okay? But it has to be strictly off the record. I don't want any attribution, no name, nothing that might tell people who I am.
It was right at the beginning of Linebacker I, May of '72. I was flying F-4s out of Ubon, Thailand at the time. I was doing mostly escort missions, but hadn't had much luck in the MiG department, some fights, a probable back in '67 during Rolling Thunder, but no confirmed kills.
That day my backseater Jeff and I--that isn't his real name, by the way--anyway, we were BARCAP, that's Barrier CAP, for some bridge strikes around Nam Dinh. Wild Weasels in their two-place Thuds, uh, F-105Fs, were going to be working in our area, and we had a secondary mission to protect their asses while they killed SAMs.
We cycled off the tanker and headed northeast. The flight plan ordered by headquarters swung us north to Yen Bai on the Red River before turning toward our patrol line. They've got nothing in that town except a statue of Ho Chi Minh and what the Navy boys call an Ox Inspection Station, real 'vital' targets, which didn't stop the paper pushers in the Pentagon from wanting the place flattened. There were also about a million flak guns there, everything from those nasty little 37mm up to the big mothers, the 100s. They didn't believe in aiming at Yen Bai, either, they just shot straight up and the flak zapped them as it came back down, which put them in a real pleasant frame of mind. You just headed northeast from the tankers until the flak came up in your face, turned right, and you were over the Red River.
There were a number of SAM calls, so George 2 and I--we were George Flight that day--slid north toward Thud Ridge. That's a limestone ridge that runs down from the northwest into the heart of North Vietnam, and if you use it right it can shield you from the radars operating around Thai Nguyen. That took us past Viet Tri. Their guys in what the intelligence weenies insist is a hospital shot at us vigorously, but after the first few rounds I knew that they were just going through the motions this time. Yeah, they even had guns in the grounds of the hospital. The gun crews probably wanted the guns along to make them feel better or something.
Anyway, one of the flights closer to Hanoi began talking about MiGs, and then got stuck in with a couple of MiG-19s. DISCO, the airborne controller who was watching all this on his radars, moved us south of the Red so we could hit anybody coming out of the MiG base at Phuc Yen. He also peeled away my 3 and 4, stacking them farther north to block off any MiGs that might come down from China.
Everything began happening at once. The Navy was egressing from Thai Nguyen at the time, and the Weasel flight we were supposed to cover showed up to work the SAM sites.
Say, why don't you order the drinks? I'll have what they call a MiG-21. Order one for yourself, if you like, but be careful with it.
The Weasel flight, Tomboy, checked in with DISCO, and went to work. We were monitoring the Navy frequency at the time, and when one of their guys nailed a MiG, and when others began chasing them, I got hold of Tomboy to let him know what was going on.
"Tomboy, this is George."
"Yeah, George. Tomboy."
"Tomboy, the Navy is calling MiGs south of the ridge. We're watching them, and, uh, we're at your 7 o'clock."
"Uh, copy that, George. We've got indications in your area. The chaff flight just left."
"George, this is DISCO. We have bandits, 330 out of Quang Lang, 45 miles."
"George copies, DISCO. George 2, centerline, now." We dumped our centerline tanks and headed toward the MiGs.
DISCO hadn't cleared us to fire, but Jeff began searching ahead of us with the radar. Apparently the radar had taken some gas or something when we'd refueled; it showed nothing, not even when I pointed the nose at the ground.
"No joy, boss," Jeff said, "it's down."
"George 2, go to button 3." I waited until Tony, my eagle-eyed Captain in George 2, changed frequencies, then told him about the radar and passed the lead to him. When we came back to the main frequency Tomboy was talking about SAM launches.
I listened a moment, and when he paused I broke in. "Tomboy, this is George. We have bandits south of here. We're checking them out."
"Copy, George. Tomboy will be along in a couple of minutes. We're working some sites behind you, but they're only giving us pre-launch indications at the moment. They aborted their launch when we showed up."
Tony spotted a bandit, and tried to lock-on so he could smoke them with a Sparrow, uh, a radar-homing missile, once we identified it, but there were too many returns and the bandit broke lock. Didn't matter, though. I confirmed it visually as a MiG-17, spotted a wingman of the MiG a little above him in the old Kuban Step, took over the lead, told DISCO I was engaging, then rolled over and bounced them as they went past.
Um, say ... my glass? Talking is thirsty work. Whiskey rocks will be just fine. Another MiG-21 for you? I know, they're good, but are you sure? Do you know what's in 'em?
Well, I was hoping they were only looking at the Weasel flight. If they were I'd smoke them before they even knew we were in the area. They didn't see us, but their controller did. Both MiGs did a little check turn to the right, then they broke hard left, right into us. Obviously they were trying to get us to overshoot. Then they'd reverse their turns and start shooting. If we followed they'd have us low, slow, and in a turning fight, just the place you don't want to be against a '17.
"George 2, break!" I called.
Tony rolled right and unloaded, going past those MiGs so fast they didn't even see him. I pulled up, went to full military power, and tried to grab altitude.
Both MiGs tacked on to me as neat as could be and started shooting. But I had a bunch of energy and just extended out of range. Tony whipped through some valley in those rugged hills and back up, below and behind the '17s. It took him only a few seconds to get a lock-on and fire, but it seemed like an eternity to me.
I glanced back over my shoulder. There were those '17s with their noses all lit up from their cannon, and once in a while a fat tracer drifted past us.
"Tomboy has valid launches, George."
"Copy, Tomboy, we're a little busy, too."
I started a gentle turn to the right to draw the MiGs across Tony's nose, and as I did so I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.
There was no mistaking that sight. "Oh shit! SAM, 2 o'clock. Three rings."
"Hang on, George," Tony called. He held in there for about a second longer, and then his missile hit. Powdered the MiG completely, nothing but debris, a little smoke, and no chute.
The SAM kept getting bigger and bigger. Obviously it had our names all over it.
"Take it down," I said, and broke toward those ugly green hills below us.
"Guns at 9 o'clock," Jeff told me.
I mentally shrugged. You can only handle so many problems at once.
I rolled under the SAM, and its electronics went nuts trying to separate us from the hills below us. It lost radar lock and slammed into the trees.
I pulled up just in time to have a burst of tracers flame past the canopy. I looked back and all I could see was the front end of a MiG pulling lead. Flames were shooting out of his nose, and they looked like they were about 90 feet long.
There I was, low, slow, a MiG trapped neatly on my tail, a SAM battery looking at me, and guns around someplace.
Oops, sorry, didn't mean to knock the glass over with my hands. You know what they say: a fighter pilot can't tell a story without using his hands. Yeah, I guess we'll need a refill.
What'd I do?
Didn't get to do much. The MiG driver had forgotten Tony, and Tony smoked him from the side with a Sparrow. Blew a wing off, and the MiG driver punched out. Smart fellow there, he'd fought, couldn't hack it, and got out before he joined the real estate along with his MiG.
I pitched up into a climb, and promptly had another SAM thrown at us.
"Tomboy, this is George. We've got an active site here if you need the business."
"Copy, George. We just launched against it. They'll shut up in a moment."
Even as he spoke I saw another SAM stand up on its pillar of smoke and bend toward us. It started to accelerate, then there were a lot of explosions all over the launch site, just boom-boom-boom, like that.
Without a controlling radar, the SAM went ballistic and headed for the trees. I pulled up and began looking for Tony. I also wanted to keep that SAM in sight.
There was this little heap of trees on a pyramid-shaped hill, and the SAM landed right in the middle of them.
"Hanoi Hannah's going to accuse us of another atrocity," Jeff said from the backseat. "Destroying perfectly harmless trees of the People's Republic and all that."
I ignored him. "George 2, you see those guns yet?"
"No, Lead," Tony replied.
.... There is more of this story ...