Nguyen Van Bay and the Aces From the North
As an F-4 Phantom pilot, I had tried to kill these men. And they had tried to kill me. I thought it was time we had a talk.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, November 2000
NASM photo 7A33704
(Page 2 of 4)
Another puff from the 555. Another nod. Then Bay read from his list the description of how he had killed Robbie.
The alarm to scramble sounded at Gia Lam airfield near Hanoi in the early afternoon. Bay flew the third position in a flight of four, led by Ho Van Quy (pronounced “ho von kee”), who had one F-4 kill to his credit. By this time, Bay had one of each: an F-4, a Navy Vought F-8 Crusader, and a Republic F-105 Thunderchief. Luu Huy Chao (pronounced “loo wee chow”) flew as the lead’s wingman. Chao also claimed three kills at this date and eventually became an ace.
Bay was the first to spot Robbie’s flight. When he asked permission to attack, Quy expressed doubt that the slower MiGs could catch the F-4s up ahead. But as the MiGs tried in vain to close the distance, Bay saw the Phantoms make a mistake. He saw them begin a climbing turn.
A few months after I met Bay, I talked to Robbie’s backseater, Hubert Buchanan. They were also flying at the number 3 position in their flight. It had been Buchanan’s 17th combat mission and one of the bigger strike packages he’d been part of. “We were trying to avoid radar detection,” he said. “We were down kind of low, but not real low where we’d get the ground fire, and the big strike was going on. Planes all over the place. And somewhere between Haiphong and Hanoi, I guess more toward Hanoi, one of our flight members yelled that there were MiGs, six o’clock low.
“At that point, everything, all the ordnance and fuel tanks we had, everybody dropped those and then went into combat trail and began a climbing left turn…which is not a good plan. The MiGs began to cut off our flight in the turn and climb also.”
Bay had all three of his guns armed by this time. “I rolled in behind the Phantom,” he said. “Our gunsight was poor. What I had to do was close to within 100 to 150 meters and begin firing. I would make adjustments from watching the tracers.”
Buchanan remembered telling Robertson, “This guy’s pulling right in on us. He’s going to shoot any time now!”
At that moment, a salvo of orange golf-ball-size rounds flashed over Buchanan’s canopy. Robertson pulled hard, then eased his turn. Buchanan saw the MiG closing again. He said, “This is going to be it. He’s corrected the problem.”
Bay lined up, fired again, and saw a wheel come out from beneath the F-4’s wing and sail past his canopy. For Buchanan, everything went black. “It could be from so many G-forces pulling the blood away from my eyes, not sure,” he said. “My helmet is bouncing around. I don’t really have a clear memory of ejecting; however, I do sort of have like a dream. I can kind of imagine pulling the handle the F-4 had between your legs. I also ejected, so I must have done it. I could hear booms, like the canopy blowing off. And I felt wind. The next thing I knew, my parachute was opening.
“When I got down low, I could see people running around on the ground in a little village. I could see a guy off to the right, looked like he had a uniform on and a rifle, running in my direction.”
Buchanan was captured and remained a prisoner until 1973.
Bay sped away from the burning Phantom, then rolled back to look. He watched the aircraft pitch down in flames. “I saw one chute,” he said.
Of the 16 VPAF pilots who have claimed ace status, only three, including Bay and Luu Huy Chao, flew MiG-17s. The other 13 flew the later model MiG-21, a delta-wing aircraft equipped with radar and heat-seeking missiles and considered the equal of the F-4 and F-8 in maneuverability and acceleration. The 1950s-vintage MiG-17 was difficult to control in roll and pitch at high speeds. It had no radar and no missiles. It was armed with one 37-mm. and two 23-mm. cannon, and its lead-computing gunsight had no radar for ranging; that’s why Bay had to watch his tracers and adjust his aim accordingly. The MiG-17’s advantages were its good visibility and superb turn rate, but these aircraft were heavily outnumbered by the more modern U.S. Phantoms, Crusaders, and Thunderchiefs.
The Americans claimed 103 MiG-17s and -21s between June 17, 1965, and January 12, 1973. For a MiG pilot to survive nearly eight years of war was an achievement in itself. Becoming an ace in the process made him a national hero. As I talked to Bay, and later to MiG-17 ace Luu Huy Chao, about the conditions of their training and their combat experiences, my understanding of their particular kind of courage grew.
Bay was born in 1937 near Saigon, the seventh of 11 children. He went north at 16 to join the army and fight against the French, and when that war ended in July 1954 with the peace agreement that partitioned the country, he chose to stay north. He had by this time lost contact with his family.
He volunteered for flight training in 1962 and was among the first pilots sent to China to learn to fly fighters. As he told it, he “went from the bicycle to the airplane with no stop in between.” He learned to drive a car only long after he began flight training.