Vietnam 1967. The operation Rolling Thunder, the aerial bombardment campaign over the North that began in 1965 is in full swing. The losses of US jets by the enemy fighters and air defense missile systems, however, worry the American commands and unleash the bitter irony of the pilots.
The F-105 “Thunderchief” fighter is in fact renamed “Thud”, an onomatopoeic voice that expresses the thud of a thud produced by a heavy body falling, because during that conflict it reached the unenviable record of losses suffered by the Mig opponents. The Thud, on paper, was well armed and was one of the few aircraft equipped with an M61A1 Vulcan cannon for self-defense, but the problem was its poor maneuverability, and when the North Vietnamese Mig, instead of adopting the classic “strike and run away “, they entertained themselves to engage in a maneuvered aerial combat, it was trouble. The F-105 was heavy, with a maximum laden weight of nearly 24 tons which was more than three times that of a nimble Mig-17 and over double that of a Mig-21: it was in fact nicknamed “lead sled”. Most of all, the Mig-17 had a turning radius about one third of that of the Thunderchief, depending on the temperature and altitude. Result: almost a massacre of Thud.
Hunt “all missiles”
If the Mig-17 was an obsolete aircraft already in those years, so was the Mig-21, which appeared recently in the northern skies, and its presence undermined US air supremacy. There was in fact a limit, given by the very nature of American aircraft: fighters, like the very famous one F-4C Phantom, they did not have an internal cannon and the pilots had become unaccustomed to close air combat, relying exclusively on missiles.
A pilot of a Phantom, however, had little chance to make full use of his aircraft “all missiles”: the ability of the Aim-7 Sparrow, for example, to operate beyond the line of sight, was almost unusable in the skies of North Vietnam, because these were so crowded with “friendly” (and enemy) aircraft that it was practically impossible to use them safely and therefore US pilots were rarely allowed to shoot them. The threat of the North Vietnamese Mig seemed impossible to eliminate, also in consideration of the fact that the US pilots had been expressly forbidden to bomb enemy airports.
The idea of Olds
Thus to a veteran USAF pilot, the Colonel Robin Olds, an’idea comes. “In November 1966 I was convinced that something had to be done” ricorda Olds “So I turned to the commander of the Seventh Air Force, General Momyer, with the suggestion that I let my ideas develop. I had no answer, but a few days later he summoned me to Saigon. I explained my reasons and ideas to him, and he gave me the green light “.
Was born theOperation Bolus. Olds relies on an old friend of his to plan it, General Donovan Smith, who suggests that he organize an “anti-Mig” mission using the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing and simulating the speed, tactics and flight profiles of the F-105s to mislead the North Vietnamese.
Olds arrives on 30 September 1966 in Ubon to take command of the Eighth Wing, which flew F-4Cs, and chooses two young pilots (Captains John Stone and Ralph Watterhahn) to help him study routes and timing. Together they meticulously try and retry what the mission will be: they alternate in the role of northern radar officer, head of the Hanoi defense network, commander of the American attack formation in order to be able to identify with sufficient approximation the reaction time of the “northerners” , delays, problem solving, in short, a meticulous and long work to leave nothing to chance.
Mig contro Phantom
The January 2, 1967, after weeks of preparation in absolute secrecy, Operation Bolo kicks off. Olds directly commands 14 squadrons of F-4C Phantoms, another six of EF-105F “Wild Weasel” equipped to destroy North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles on the ground, and four of support F-104C “Starfighters”.
At dawn on that January day, all the planes, in formation, spaced out and using the radio callsigns usually used by the Thuds, take off and head north. Each Phantom is set up with an asymmetrical configuration: on one side an additional tank, on the other an Ecm nacelle usually used by Thunderchiefs, plus a ventral tank and an armament consisting of four Aim-9 Sidewinder e quattro Aim-7 Sparrow.
The first wave, made up of three squadrons (Olds, Ford, Rambler callsigns), is commanded directly by the colonel, and as it veers over Phuc Yen, the base of Mig as well as a depot of petroleum products, Olds is informed that some Mig-21s were taking off on alarm to intercept it, while others, at the same time, were emerging from the blanket of mist that covered North Vietnam: the trap had worked.
The area battle rages immediately, even before the second wave of F-4 can arrive: the fighting, at medium and close range, is violent and the American pilots try to squeeze the best out of their Phantoms. More than one missile launched does not hit the target highlighting, once again, how much more useful it would have been to have a cannon mounted on the F-4 instead of just missiles. Everything is consumed in a few, but interminable minutes, at the end of which they are well put in Mig-21 North Vietnamese to be shot down by American fighters.
An illusory victory
Operation Bolo had ended in a clear-cut US victory. No F-4s were shot down that day, but the mission had a huge cost from the point of view of the resources used: in addition to the fighters already listed, the intervention of EC-121 Early Warning aircraft, EB-66 electronic warfare platforms, F-4Cs from other support flocks had been requested, as well as the mobilization of an infinite number of rescue forces that had been kept in alarm: at least 96 planes had been taken off to support the mission.
That morning they were launched 28 air-to-air missiles, sixteen of which missed the mark. A huge price for just seven Mig. At the end of the conflict, the total number of Mig in Hanoi shot down will be 57, while the total number of aircraft destroyed will be 196 against the 89 American fighters lost: a report that seems favorable to the United States yet the success was illusory and was only understood after the importance of training in maneuvered air combat and cannon.
In any case, those few Mig deleted from the North Vietnamese registers that day in January 1967 allowed, for some time, the United States to obtain clear air superiority and thus pave the way for the continuation of the bombing campaign on the North, which continued until October 31, 1968 when they were suspended and then resumed , in 1972, with the Linebacker II operation, but that’s another story.