In 1971, the U.S. Air Force offered a checkout in the McDonnell F-4 to Republic F-105 drivers who had completed a 100-mission combat tour and were willing to volunteer for a second tour. I dearly loved the Thud, but with its numbers dwindling due to combat losses, its future was bleak.
I checked out in the F-4 at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida and in June arrived at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. The usual mission of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron was two-ship bombing flights under forward air control in Laos and an occasional reconnaissance escort into southern North Vietnam. By protecting the recon guys from MiGs, aircrews felt they were really doing something productive and, according to the rules of engagement, if the recce airplanes were fired at, we could drop bombs.
In 1972, combat missions grew more challenging. More reconnaissance escorts were dropping bombs and more F-4s were sent on multiple-flight missions against specific North Vietnam targets. On April 15, the air tasking order for the next day called for 20 airplanes to fly MiG patrol in the Hanoi area for bombing flights taking off from other F-4 and F-105 bases. The gloves were coming off.
At 8 a.m., the four airplanes of Basco Flight, each with three external fuel tanks and less than a full load of missiles, roared off Udorn's Runway 12, with Fred Olmsted and Stu Maas leading and Jeff Feinstein and me flying number 3. We jettisoned our empty centerline tanks and accelerated across the border into North Vietnam, heading straight for Hanoi. Enemy surface-to-air missile radars were on us immediately but we ignored the warnings: Our mission was to kill MiGs.
From the back seat of Basco Lead, Maas radioed that he'd spotted MiGs: two "bandits" dead ahead at 20 miles. We jettisoned our inboard fuel tanks, lit afterburners, and set switches as two MiG-21s tracked down the radar screen. Olmsted gained visual contact on the silver fighters as they passed overhead. We made a hard right turn to get into firing position.
Out of nowhere came a camouflaged MiG trailing the first two. I rolled out of the turn and headed straight for him, following as he broke into a cloud bank. "Lock him up, he should be right off our nose," I told Feinstein. But we were unable to lock on in the clouds, with surface-to-air radar warning blasting in our ears, so I pulled up into the clear. Flying with no visibility in a high-threat area is not what you want to be doing, MiG or no MiG.
Basco 4, Greg Crane, was hanging in there just fine as we popped out in the clear on top of the clouds. Then he spotted our MiG at 2 o'clock high. We made a hard climbing turn into firing position. Fire one Sidewinder. Fire two. No results. Something was wrong with my fire control system.
Frustrated, breathing hard, I switched element lead with Crane, who, in a descending right turn, fired three AIM 7 Sparrow missiles. Nothing. Are we snake-bit, or what? I took the lead again.
I concentrated on smoothly tracking the MiG in my gunsight and setting up switches for a shot. Lo and behold, at about 4,000 feet Feinstein got a full system lock-on. I clamped down on the trigger—with no expectations—and swoosh, out came a Sparrow. It hit the MiG in the right wing root. The wing blew off. Flame, smoke, and pieces of airplane went in all directions. What remained of the aircraft went into a snap roll and then, right in front of me, out popped the pilot with his parachute. I had to maneuver quickly to avoid the white canopy with one red panel. Crane confirmed the kill, and we joined up and headed home. Then came Olmsted's call, "Scratch another MiG-21," confirming his kill on one of the silver MiGs.
Two confirmed MiG kills, and all of Basco Flight coming home safe and sound. The Udorn Officers Club was the hot spot that night.