North Vietnamese Aces
MiG-17 and MiG-21 pilots, Phantom and “Thud” Killers
By Diego Zampini, Nov. 2002. Updated March 22, 2012.
August 23 1967, 14:00. Another US raid against the capital of North Vietnam is in process.
Due to the size of the American formation (40 aircraft, including Thunderchiefs carrying bombs, F-105Fs ready to supress the SAM radars, and escorting Phantoms) the crew of one of those F-4Ds, Charles R. Tyler (pilot) and Ronald M. Sittner (WSO), of the 555th TFS/8th TFW, felt overconfident. They did not expect any MiGs, which had been inactive after several bloody defeats dealt them by the Phantoms of the 8th TFW in late May and early June.
Suddenly, Tyler heard on the radio an F-105D pilot (Elmo Baker) announcing that he had been hit by a MiG-21 and was ejecting. As Tyler looked for the unexpected bandit, a tremendous explosion shook his plane, and Tyler lost control of his aircraft, and bailed out. Hanging in his parachute he saw his F-4D falling in flames to the jungle, but he did not see his WSO eject; Sittner had been killed instantly by the missile hit. Both Tyler and Baker were captured by North Vietnamese troops as soon as they touched the ground.
Both had been shot down by R-3S Atoll missiles fired by two MiG-21PF Fishbeds of the 921st Fighter Regiment of the Quan Chung Khong Quan (Vietnamese People’s Air Force, VPAF) flown by Nguyen Nhat Chieu and Nguyen Van Coc. Two more F-4Ds fell that day, without any MiGs lost, one of the VPAF’s most successful days.
While only two American pilots became aces in the Vietnam War – Randy “Duke” Cunningham (USN) and Steve Ritchie (USAF) – sixteen Vietnamese pilots earned that honor. Nguyen Van Coc is also the Top Ace of Vietnam War with 9 kills: 7 planes and 2 UAV (Un-manned Airborne Vehicle) Firebees. Among those seven US planes, six are confirmed by US records (see table below), and we should add to this figure a confirmed USAF loss (the F-102A flown by Wallace Wiggins (KIA) on February 3 1968), originally considered a probable by the VPAF. Even omitting UAV “drones,” his 7 confirmed kills qualified Coc as the Top Ace of the war, because no American pilot achieved more than 5.
Why so many Vietnamese Aces?
Why did so many VPAF pilots score higher than their American adversaries? Mainly because of the numbers. In 1965 the VPAF had only 36 MiG-17s and a similar number of qualified pilots, which increased to 180 MiGs and 72 pilots by 1968. Those brave six dozen pilots confronted about 200 F-4s of the 8th, 35th and 366th TFW, about 140 Thunderchiefs of the 355th and 388th TFW, and about 100 USN aircraft (F-8s, A-4s and F-4s) which operated from the carriers on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin, plus scores of other support aircraft (EB-6Bs jamming, HH-53s rescuing downed pilots, Skyraiders covering them, etc).
Considering such odds, it is clear why some Vietnamese pilots scored more than the Americans; the VPAF pilots simply were busier than their US counterparts, and they “flew till they died.” They had no rotation home after 100 combat sorties because they were already home. American pilots generally finished a tour of duty and rotated home for training, command, or flight test assignments. Some requested for a second combat tour, but they were the exceptions.