In the 1990s there was a plethora of published material on D-Day and the Second World War writ large. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers was published in 1992. The service members who served during that conflict were in their 70s and sought to tell their stories. Comparatively speaking, the veterans of the Vietnam War were in their 40s at the time; however, time marches on. In 2019, we are where we were in the 1990s, but this time it is the veterans of the Vietnam War who are now in the 70s, and a fresh new wave of scholarship and memoirs are being published on that most confusing of conflicts.
Into the mix comes, Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.’s Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Peck admitted early on that his mission here is not to rehash politics or make sweeping judgments, ‘It is not my intent to go into details as to how the war was fought. Nor will I delve into policy.’ This book is simply, and excellently presented. It provides one pilot’s perspective, through his own window on the world about his time flying during the Vietnam War. Peck’s work joins other recent accounts including David R. Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War (2018) and Terry L. Thorsen’s Phantom in the Sky (2019), as well as Dan Pederson’s TOP GUN: An American Story (2019).
Readers might recognise Peck’s name as he was also one of the commanders of the famed MiG-flying Red Eagles squadron and author of America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project CONSTANT PEG (2012) that was also published by Osprey. Peck now turns his attention to his time as a young pilot flying and fighting in the F-4 Phantom II in 1968-1969. ‘Evil’ as he has been known to generations of fighter-pilots at Nellis Air Force Base has decided to add prolific writer to an already fantastic resume. Peck is something of a legend in the US Air Force’s Fighter community, as he has been a staple at the F-15 and F-22 Weapon’s School for decades.
Sherman Lead is ostensibly about flying the F-4 in combat, but this work is much richer than just that. Peck included the social side of life for American aircrews flying out of Thailand, something missing in other works. Peck also deftly included aspects of flying left out of so many books. This included the process and importance of mid-air refuelling, a nice tip of the hat to the tanker community.
The book generally follows his training progression, from learning to not only flying fighters but also how to employ them. Peck also deftly demonstrated how the training at an air-to-ground gunnery range was accomplished as well as the physics and geometry of putting bombs on a target. By using both the training environment as well as his experiences employing munitions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the reader gets the sense that there is a genuine difference between precision-guided munitions and the precision-employment of munitions. Peck adroitly described all of these without being overly technical; thus the book can be enjoyed by the professional and the enthusiast alike.
Of course, the real effort of the book is to be found in his operations flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand and his missions over North Vietnam as part of Operation ROLLING THUNDER or over Laos as part of Operation STEEL TIGER. Perhaps the most significant contribution Peck has made to our understanding of the Vietnam War is that this is a dual ‘biography’ in that it is a memoir of himself, but it is also the biography of the F-4 Phantom II. This book is as much about how the war changed man as it is about how the war changed the machine.
Sherman Lead is destined to join the other classic memoirs on air power in Vietnam, including Jack Broughton’s Thud Ridge (1969) and Rick Newman and Don Shepperd’s Bury Us Upside Down (2006). Historians of air power and the history of the US Air Force will especially enjoy this book, but it will also find a wider audience in those seeking to understand individual and unique perspectives on America’s participation in the war in Vietnam.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: An image of an F-4 Phantom II being refuelled during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. Aerial refuelling permitted tactical aircraft to operate in the northern part of North Vietnam, something noted in Peck’s memoir. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Mike Hankins discusses the use of signals intelligence via Project Teaball that helped to improve the air-to-air combat ratios of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
Air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War has long been a sore subject for some observers. Sources vary, but U.S. forces overall killed approximately 200 MiGs while losing about 90 planes to them, for a ratio of about 2.2:1. Robert Wilcox, in his history of the Top Gun program, calls this ‘embarrassingly low.’ Looking just at 1968, the picture is even bleaker. The US Navy was disappointed with its 3:1 ratio and the US Air Force (USAF) traded McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms for MiGs at nearly a 1:1 rate. During the bombing halt between 1968 and 1972, both services sought to upgrade their technology and training, including the creation of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as ‘Top Gun.’ In 1972 when the LINEBACKER bombing campaign began, the US Navy’s air-to-air record jumped to 6:1. The USAF struggled in the early months of LINEBACKER, earning a negative kill ratio for the first time in the war and perhaps in its existence.
The US Navy is often praised for their changes to training procedures (even though Top Gun initially had little support from US Navy leaders) while the USAF is often criticised for over-reliance on technological solutions. However, the most significant improvement in air-to-air combat for the USAF was the result of a technological system: Project Teaball – a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system that allowed analysts on the ground to track enemy planes in real-time and communicate that information to pilots in the air.
‘Teaball’ was just as critical to the USAF’s air combat success during the LINEBACKER campaigns as Top Gun was for the US Navy. It demonstrated that the USAF was open to change and adapted its technological culture to meet new challenges. This is not to take away from the undeniable success of the Top Gun program, nor to diminish the importance the USAF’s effective RED FLAG program that began shortly afterwards. In the last throes of the Vietnam War, both technology and training worked in tandem.
Web of Confusion
North Vietnamese pilots had long relied on GCI to direct their movements – ground controllers used their extensive radar coverage of the area to track aircraft and give detailed second-by-second instructions to MiG pilots. American forces were different. They tended to rely more on the initiative and skill of individual pilots, but they also had far less radar coverage of the areas they flew over in North Vietnam. Complicating, this was the fact that US radar stations were not well integrated, creating a confusing web of systems competing for pilots’ attention.
The USAF operated a ground radar covering the southeast at Da Nang. Another radar further north at Dong Ha known as ‘Waterboy’ covered the lowest reaches of North Vietnam, although few air-to-air engagements occurred there. For further coverage, USAF flew a Lockheed EC-121 known as ‘College Eye,’ which was excellent over water but was less accurate over land. Other radar stations existed in Thailand, including ‘Brigham,’ at Udorn, and ‘Invert,’ at Nakon Phanom. These stations contributed ground control and navigational assistance, although their short-range provided almost no coverage of North Vietnam itself.
The US Navy used a system called ‘Red Crown,’ a ship-based radar located in the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide early warning of approaching MiGs. There was some limited cooperation between ‘Red Crown’ and ‘College Eye’ during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. The bottom line for all these radar systems was that none of them was effective for strikes further North than the 19th parallel, where air combat was more likely, and some of these systems, such as ‘Red Crown,’ could not effectively track planes below 10,000 feet, where MiGs often flew.
However, radar was only one way to gain situational awareness of enemy MiGs. Communications surveillance, or signals intelligence (SIGINT), could track enemy movements and plans. In 1967, the USAF brought in new EC-121s known as ‘Rivet Top; to do just that: Intercept North Vietnamese communications and pass on vital information to American pilots. ‘Rivet Top’ was a success. In its limited time of employment, American forces claimed 20 MiG kills, 13 of which received direct contributions from ‘Rivet Top.’ However, the ROLLING THUNDER campaign ended before they could make a more significant contribution. At the beginning of the LINEBACKER Campaign, the US Navy’s ‘Red Crown’ ship returned, and the USAF instituted a system known as ‘Disco,’ essentially a slightly upgraded version of ‘College Eye.’ Under ‘Disco,’ multiple EC-121s provided a larger area of radar coverage and continued the SIGINT role provided by the ‘Rivet Top’ equipment, although the system suffered many of the same problems that plagued the ‘College Eye’ system, such as a limited range, limited crew and equipment capacity, and the need to stay in slow, controlled orbits.
Both sides found that GCI was key to air-to-air victory. General John Vogt, Director of the Joint Staff and later commander of the Seventh Air Force, argued that MiG successes were attributable entirely to how their radar systems connected to their command and control practices. USAF Ace fighter pilot Richard ‘Steve’ Ritchie went so far as to state that flying a protective escort without GCI warning of incoming MiGs was ‘useless,’ and that employment of US GCI ‘was one of the primary reasons that we were able to engage MiGs and effect kills.’ Yet the limited range, communications problems, and frequent technical failures limited US GCI efforts.
Green Door Syndrome
An equally serious bureaucratic problem aggravated these technological difficulties. Unknown to most fighter pilots, the National Security Agency (NSA) frequently intercepted North Vietnamese communications – including information about MiG flights. Some NSA analysts, such as Delmar Lang, had previously advocated combining these intercepts with GCI to provide a more accurate picture of enemy locations and movements. Lang had developed such a system in the Korean War, contributing to the success of North American F-86 Sabre pilots. Lang had offered to create a similar program in Vietnam, but both NSA and USAF leaders, particularly Major General George Keegan, Director of Air Force Intelligence, repeatedly turned him down. Interception of North Vietnamese transmissions was classified, and American pilots did not have proper security clearance. This policy was not unfounded. Using these intercepts could undoubtedly aid American pilots but using them too frequently risked alerting the North Vietnamese that the US was intercepting their signals.
This was a dilemma for American planners who needed to balance using the data with keeping its existence secret. However, USAF leaders such as Keegan simply refused to pass on any information to American pilots in combat. This created a sense of ill will between pilots and intelligence agents. As former USAF intelligence officer, Gilles Van Nederveen noted, ‘US pilots, already frustrated by the small amount of data provided to them, felt betrayed when they learned that some losses over Vietnam could have been prevented if intelligence data had been shared with them.’ This animosity grew so prevalent that it received a name: ‘green door syndrome,’ so labelled because, in many combat wing bases in the theatre, classified information was kept in vaults usually behind a green door.
LINEBACKER and Project Teaball
When bombing (and air-to-air combat) resumed in earnest with the LINEBACKER campaign in May 1972, the US, particularly the USAF, received what Colonel Russ Everts, an F-4 Pilot, generously called ‘an old fashioned butt kicking, pure and simple.’ After some initial successes that May, in June and July, USAF F-4 Phantoms claimed 8 MiGs, with the US Navy shooting down only 3. While the US Navy only lost one F-4, USAF lost 13. The US Navy could still claim their previous 3:1 ratio; the USAF had sunk to its lowest ratio during the war, 0.6:1. For the first time in the war, the kill ratios favoured the North Vietnamese.
These reversals rippled through USAF quickly, prompting investigations into the quality of fighter pilots. General William Momyer, then commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC), who had previously resisted any alterations to training procedures, changed his mind and recommended the creation of an ‘Aggressor’ squadron to simulate MiGs in air combat training (building on a program at Nellis run by Major Roger Wells). Although Chief of Staff of the Air Force General John Ryan approved the Aggressor concept at that time, the program did not begin until after the war was over and thus it had no effect on air combat in Vietnam.
However, one element the USAF could fix in time to make a difference was their GCI system. The summer’s heavy losses, increasing concern from Vogt about the shortcomings of American GCI, and pressure from eager NSA analysts and USAF pilots all overrode earlier concerns with sharing classified intelligence and pushed the issue higher up the chain of command. Ryan directly contacted the head of the NSA, Admiral Noel Gayler – himself a former US Navy aviator – and requested the creation of an improved early warning system to alert pilots to approaching MiGs. With Ryan and Gayler’s approval, General Vogt worked with Delmar Lang and Lieutenant Colonel William Kirk to establish Project Teaball at Nakhom Phanom Air Force Base in Thailand in August 1972.
‘Teaball’ took the classified NSA intercepts and combined them with other US radar sources. These included the radio calls sent from North Vietnamese pilots to their ground controllers and vice versa, revealing precise locations and vectors for their MiGs. This information was fed into a computer known as ‘Iron Horse’ that took data from these sources and quickly synthesised it into a composite display showing a near real-time picture of the location of all friendly and enemy aircraft over North Vietnam. ‘Teaball’ operators then sent this information directly to pilots via Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio signals relayed through a Boeing KC-135 aircraft code-named ‘Luzon.’
There was still tension between some pilots and the intelligence community. Kirk worked to build trust between the two groups and overcome ‘green door syndrome’ by personally visiting every single wing in the theatre to brief them on ‘Teaball’s’ capabilities, the accuracy of its data, and the methods he used to contact pilots directly. Finally, US pilots could have situational awareness of the aerial battlefield and early warning of MiG threats. However, ‘Teaball’s’ implementation differed from the authoritarian North Vietnamese GCI system and simply provided information to pilots. The American ground controllers often suggested courses of action, but individual pilots handled threats at their discretion.
The Best Show We’ve Had
‘Teaball’ was only active from August 1972 until the end of LINEBACKER operations in October. In that time, USAF F-4’s shot down 21 MiGs with only six losses. Of those kills, 13 were a direct result of vectoring from ‘Teaball.’ Of those losses, five of the six occurred when ‘Teaball’ was down due to technical failure, demonstrating just how critical the system was to the USAF effort. When examining only MiGCAP flights, USAF F-4s claimed 18 kills with five losses, a nearly 6:1 ratio. During that same timespan, the US Navy got two kills but lost two Phantoms. General Vogt extolled the program’s success:
This is the most effective show we’ve had during the entire war with the battle against the MiGs […] This proved one thing – if you can show the American fighter pilot where [the enemy] is in sufficient time, he’ll shoot him down.
Vogt went on to say:
Same airplane, same environment, same situation, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball. It was one of the most impressive developments we’ve had out here.
Pilots praised ‘Teaball’ as well. One mission report stated: ‘A good GCI capability made the difference, and will in the future.’ Another echoed: ‘Computerized real-time intelligence will get more kills than all the fighter sweeps we can put together.’
No matter how well-trained a pilot is, if they do not realise they’re under attack, they cannot use their training. ‘Teaball’ gave them that warning, preventing further losses. ‘Teaball’ also provided more accurate visual recording of encounters than the memory of pilots could provide, enabling both a better study of enemy tactics and a useful training tool. It was also invaluable for search and rescue efforts, as ‘Teaball’ data could pinpoint the location of downed aircrews, enabling rescue craft to arrive quickly.
However, the program, literally operating out of the back of a van, was not without problems. The ‘Iron Horse’ computer was powerful for its time, but processing the data of all the SIGINT and radar inputs took an average of two minutes – an eternity in a dogfight. For this reason, ‘Teaball’s’ role was limited to providing early warning only. Once combat began, most pilots relied on more timely information from ‘Disco’ or ‘Red Crown’ if in range. Also, the UHF radio relays in F-4 cockpits were old and broke down frequently.
Increased American success forced the North Vietnamese Air Force to scale back its operations, flying fewer missions and attempting to counter ‘Teaball’s’ tracking ability by turning off their IFF (Identify-Friend-or-Foe) signals. However, that separated North Vietnamese pilots from their GCI, their chief advantage to this point. They could run with radio silence, but that risked making them vulnerable to their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). ‘Teaball’ operators could spot them as soon as they tried to alert their missile sites. The more common technique the North Vietnamese used to get around ‘Teaball’ was deception. Ground controllers sent messages pretending to be pilots, essentially creating ‘ghost MiGs.’ However, ‘Teaball’s’ operators could easily distinguish between these fake calls and authentic ones due to differences in the signal itself.
When LINEBACKER ended, so did most air-to-air combat, but ‘Teaball’ stood ready when LINEBACKER II commenced on 18 December 1972. Lieutenant General Horace Wade, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was impressed enough with ‘Teaball’ to move it into a permanent facility at Nakom Phenom. However, MiGs barely flew during the operation – only 26 were even sighted. USAF Phantoms took down four, the US Navy got one more, and B-52 gunners shot down two. USAF lost two Phantoms to MiGs. North Vietnamese sources claim that MiGs shot down two B-52s as well, but this is unconfirmed by the U.S. This 3.5:1 is above average for the war, if not as impressive as when ‘Teaball’ was most active in LINEBACKER. However, the sample size for LINEBACKER II is incredibly small, and the operation was unique. In any case, although SAMs wreaked havoc on the B-52 fleet, MiGs did not pose a significant threat. By 28 December 1972, North Vietnam had exhausted its SAM supply and was incapable of defending itself from the B-52 raids. When Hanoi expressed its desire to renew serious negotiations, President Nixon halted all bombing north of the 20th parallel. With the signing of final settlements on 23 January 1973, air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War ended.
The typical, perhaps romanticised narrative of air combat in Vietnam is that the US Navy used the ‘correct’ approach when creating the Top Gun program and that the USAF deserves criticism for its failure to produce a similar program and its adherence to technological chimeras. However, this story ignores that the US Navy also used technological improvements, including upgrades to their missiles and the jamming of enemy communications. It fails to note that the US Navy engaged fewer MiGs during the LINEBACKER period, with little contact with the more advanced MiG-21 Fishbed, so perhaps a direct comparison of each service’s kill counts is misleading.
Furthermore, this narrative fails to recognise that the USAF saw a more significant improvement in its effectiveness than did the US Navy in the same period owing to the systems-based, technological approach of Project Teaball. Top Gun worked, but ‘Teaball’ worked better. The role performed by ‘Teaball’ laid the foundation for the later role of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) that has become an essential element of American air power strategy. In the final phase of the Vietnam War, the USAF demonstrated that technological solutions could be effective.
Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-121K ‘Rivet Top’ of the 552nd Airborne Early Warning & Control Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in 1967-68. (Source: Wikimedia)
 This article is adapted from Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63:3 (2016), pp. 7-24.
 John Correll, The Air Force in the Vietnam War, The Air Force Association (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), p. 17. See also Robert Futrell, et al., Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, 1976); Chris Hobson, Vietnam Air Losses: United States Air Force Navy and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961-1973 (England: Midland, 2001); and the Red Baron Reports, Volumes I, II, and III, Institute for Defense Analyses Systems Evaluation Division.
 Roger K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles: The Dramatic Account of the US Navy’s Top Gun Fighter Pilots: How they Took Back the Skies over Vietnam (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1992), p. xii.
 Red Baron II Vol. I, C-1–E-2, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1973; and Red Baron III, Vol. I, C-1–D-6, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1974.
 Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, 214-215; See for example Steven A. Fino, ‘Breaking the Trance: The Perils of Technological Exuberance in the US Air Force Entering Vietnam,’ Journal of Military History, 77:2 (2013), pp. 625-55.
 United States Air Force Oral History Program, Interview #K239.0512-630, Captain Richard S. Ritchie, 11 Oct 72 and 30 Oct 72, 1, pp. 74-5.
 William Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), pp. 150-5.
 Marshall Michel, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 114.
 Futrell, Aces, p. 14; Momyer, Air Power, p. 155; Michel, Clashes, p. 226.
 M. F. Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ Project CHECO Report, 27 Sept 1973, p. 48.
 Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972 (Fort Meade, MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1995), p. 580.
 Michel, Clashes, p. 115; See also Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ Air Force Magazine (July 2008), p. 68; and Gilles Van Nederveen, ‘Wizardry for Air Campaigns: Signals Intelligence Support to the Cockpit’ (Research paper for the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell: 2001), pp. 2-3.
 Michel, ‘The Revolt,’ 146-52. See also, Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
 Johnson, American Cryptology; Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ p. 69; Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25. See also Calvin R. Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations: September – December 1972,’ Project CHECO Report, 31 December 1978, p. 50.
 Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations of SIGINT at War,’ Cryptologic Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1991), p. 92.
 Quoted in Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ pp. 69-70. See also Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25-6.
 Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 580. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.
 William Sayers, ‘The Red Baron Reports: What They Really Said,’ Air Power History, 52:3 (2005), p. 12, 39. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.
 Red Baron III, C-1–D-6. Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam:The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat (Mechanicsburg, VA: Stackpole Books, 2010), p. 141, 145. See also, István Toperczer, Mig-21 Units of the Vietnam War and MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, both from Osprey Press. Toperczer and Boniface each claimed to have examined North Vietnamese records, but make no mention or citation of specific documents, and their work has not been peer reviewed. Naturally their claims for NVAF victories are significantly higher that official US records. While their claims may have merit, this article has chosen to rely on official US records where possible, admitting that these are also not perfect.
 Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 188-9, 198-200.
A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’ This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.
Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’ However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1. By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.
Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?
Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.
Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.
Telling the Tale
As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage. According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.
There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness. Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.
To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down. With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him. His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’
Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.
The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.
Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon. This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.
Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:
Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.
Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller. Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.
However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.
Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:
The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.
The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.
Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.
Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)
 William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.
 For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).
 Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.
 For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.
 For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.
 Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article,Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel examines the enduring legacy of Operation Bolo, an operation during the Vietnam War that was designed as a response to the increasing loses being incurred on the United States Air Force (USAF) in the mid-1960s.
Deliberately planned fighter sweep went just as we hoped. The MiGs came up; the MiGs were aggressive. We tangled. They lost.
Colonel Robin Olds, 3 January 1967
By the end of 1966, USAF fighter pilots were incredibly frustrated by rising aircraft and aircrew losses, restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and North Vietnam People’s Air Force’s (NPAF) ‘hit-and-run’ tactics. The pilots were looking for an opportunity to seize the initiative and strike the premier NPAF fighter, the MiG-21. The NPAF was extremely careful with their limited number of MiG-21s, launching them only when their air defence network determined slow and non-manoeuvrable fighter-bombers were conducting unescorted strikes in North Vietnam. Colonel Robin Olds, Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack,’ at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, devised a plan to dupe the NPAF into believing his F-4 Phantom IIs were a large formation of unescorted F-105 Thunderchiefs, which he believed would draw out the MiG-21s. On 2 January 1967, Olds and his Wolfpack executed Operation Bolo and destroyed seven NPAF MiG-21s with no friendly losses. The plan was elaborate, and successful execution relied on deception, predictive and actionable intelligence, and a well-integrated force package. These factors ensured Bolo was a triumphant success and have enduring applicability for air power theorists and air campaign planners preparing for future high-intensity conflict.
The Strategic Environment before Bolo
Two significant factors shaped the American prosecution of the air war over Vietnam in 1966. First, to reduce the risk of escalation, US ROEs at the time of Bolo did not allow strikes on critical North Vietnamese airfields. The result was that MiGs could not be destroyed on the ground; they had to be destroyed in the air. The second factor was the rapidly improving North Vietnamese air defence system, which included air defence artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft. The combination of surface and airborne threats was taking a heavy toll on US aircraft. By the end of 1966, 455 US aircraft had been lost to enemy action, and USAF leaders wanted to take action to address the losses.
The airborne threat to US aircraft increased dramatically when the NPAF began receiving the MiG-21 in 1965. The MiG-21 retained the manoeuvrability of its predecessors the MiG-15/-17/-19, but it was capable of supersonic flight and was the first Soviet aircraft capable of carrying an infrared-guided air-to-air missile, the K-13 (NATO Designator: AA-2 ATOLL). Intelligence estimates at the time of Bolo put the NPAF MiG-21 inventory at only 16 airframes. To preserve these precious assets, the North Vietnamese only scrambled these aircraft to attack bomb-laden fighter-bombers such as the F-105. According to Walter Boyne, the MiG-21 tactics were very effective:
The MiG-21s’ rear attacks with Atoll missiles were achieving North Vietnamese goals by causing the F-105 formations to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets.
MiG-21 attacks on F-105s resulted in failed missions causing multiple strike packages to be sent to re-attack high-priority targets in a dense threat environment.
Olds was increasingly concerned with the MiG-21 attacks on the fighter-bombers, and the inability of the F-4 escorts to find and kill the MiG-21s in the air:
As we entered the winter of 1966, the MiGs began increased efforts to harass U.S. strike forces […] It became imperative for U.S. forces to bring counteraction to bear on the MiG fighter threat.
Unfortunately, Olds did not see any plan to deal with the threat at the tactical, individual fighter wings, or operational level, 7th Air Force. Olds expressed his frustration with the inaction in an oral history interview two years after the mission: ‘There was no concerted effort really to do anything about the MiGs.’ Olds decided to take the lead in developing a plan to take the fight to the MiG-21s.
Olds is often given credit as the sole mastermind behind Bolo, but others deserve credit for playing critical roles in the development and refinement of the plan. In early December 1966, Olds began discussing the MiG-21 problem with one of his most gifted fighter pilots, Captain J.B. Stone. Stone laid out the foundation for the plan that would eventually be adopted; using a ruse to make the North Vietnamese launch their MiG-21s against what they believed were fighter-bombers.
Olds enthusiastically embraced the plan and decided to take the plan to his boss, Lieutenant General William Momyer, Commander of 7th Air Force. Momyer also enthusiastically supported the plan and identified his Operations Officer, Brigadier General Don Smith, as his dedicated liaison for the plan. Momyer and Smith shepherded the plan from the start to ensure Olds and his planners were given all available resources and support. According to Olds, Bolo ‘wouldn’t have been possible’ without ‘Momyer’s courage in doing this, probably in spite of a lot of opposition.’ Olds is rightly given credit for a bold and brilliantly designed and executed plan, but the success of the mission would not have been possible without significant support from his subordinates and superiors.
On 2 January 1967, 56 F-4s launched in waves of eight aircraft into Northern Vietnam to execute Bolo. The mission worked as it was designed, despite heavy cloud cover in the target area that threatened to keep the MiGs on the ground. Believing they were engaging F-105s, the MiG-21s took the bait; the results were disastrous for them.
According to USAF records, Olds and his Wolfpack destroyed seven MiG-21s in less than 15 minutes with no damage to any US aircraft. Though the seven kills may not seem a significant number, it was nearly half of the NPAF inventory. Four days later, two more MiG-21s were destroyed when they attacked what they believed were unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, but in actuality were more of Olds’ F-4 pilots. The devastation wrought by Bolo, combined with two additional aircraft lost on 6 January led the NPAF to remove the MiG-21 from combat while they re-equipped, and evaluated the causes and their response to recent aircraft losses. Bolo played a significant role in the US re-acquiring air superiority during the beginning of 1967.
The Role of Deception in Bolo
Deception was central to the successful execution of the Bolo plan. The F-4s had to disguise themselves as lumbering F-105s to bait the MiG-21s into an aerial engagement. According to J. Alfred Phelps, the purpose of the deception plan was to create beneficial conditions for an aerial engagement:
The ultimate objective was to deceive and lure the MiG air defense force into a reactive posture and, once they were airborne, seek them out, engage, pursue, and destroy them.
To trick the North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-4s used F-105 callsigns, formations, speed, aerial refuelling tracks, mission routing, and electronic countermeasure (jamming) pods. The deception caused mass confusion among the NPAF MiG-21 pilots. Terry Mays explained the success of the ploy:
The North Vietnamese fell for the ruse and launched MiG-21 fighters to intercept what they thought were F-105s streaking along ‘Thud Ridge’ […] As the MiG-21 pilots maneuvered through the clouds and entered the open sky, expecting to attack F-105s, they found themselves in the midst of F-4s.
MiG-21 pilots had avoided the US’ premier air-to-air fighter, the F-4, so seeing a wall of Phantoms was a shock to the NPAF pilots and ground controllers.
Airborne intelligence collectors were able to capture the shock of the NPAF air defence force. In 2014, Joseph Trevithick analysed recently declassified intercepts from the mission, which showed the near-panic of North Vietnamese pilots upon realising they had been duped:
When Olds’ strike team started its attack, the C-130s picked up enemy pilots shocked to find that ‘the sky is full of F-4s,’ according to the declassified report. ‘Where are the F-105s? You briefed us to expect F-105s!’ ‘I’d like to come down now,’ another Vietnamese pilot reportedly declared.
The North Vietnamese were not prepared to face the F-4s, nor able to quickly react to the changing operational environment in time to save many of their MiG-21s.
The expert application of deception is one of the most important lessons to be learned from Bolo; aerial combat is not merely about the fastest jet, the missile with the longest range, or the best pilot. The use of deception can mitigate a tactical disadvantage or maximise a tactical advantage in the air. The use of deception is rarely a critical aspect of modern aerial combat plans, as US air planners often rely on overwhelming numerical or technological superiority. However, as nations like Russia and China develop and deploy large numbers of advanced fighters and air defence systems, the US cannot continue to rely on numerical or technological advantages. The use of a well-developed deception plan can once again tip the balance in aerial combat, as Olds and his Wolfpack proved in Bolo.
The Role of Intelligence in Planning and Execution of Bolo
Intelligence played a crucial role in both the planning and execution of Bolo. Olds knew that to develop a complete plan for the operation, he needed an accurate intelligence assessment of how the enemy would react to the ruse. According to Olds, ‘it was crucial to accurately predict the capabilities and possible reaction of the MiGs.’ The support of Momyer and Smith opened the doors to closely guarded intelligence, including signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts of NPAF fighter missions. This intelligence shaped the predictive assessment the intelligence analysts provided to Olds. He continued:
Intelligence gave us some highly probable MiG tactics. The MiGs were usually in the air anytime strike aircraft were in the area. Typically, they were airborne approximately ten to fifteen minutes prior to the strike, about the time the Thuds crossed the Black River.
Olds and Stone used the predictive assessments to determine the number and time spacing of the F-4 formations.
The mission also relied on timely and accurate intelligence during execution. Olds believed real-time relay of SIGINT collection was vital to the mission’s success:
Most critical to the success of BOLO, we had to have clear, real-time intelligence from USAF monitoring stations listening in to VPAF transmissions—no more of the bullshit of keeping essential knowledge secret from the strike force. VPAF transmissions had been monitored and translated but never shared down the line. It was sensitive, but it was imperative to have this intel for BOLO.
Olds and Stone ensured airborne and ground-based SIGINT collectors were included and integrated into the mission so that the force package would receive real-time intelligence updates. Trevithick used declassified Bolo reports to illuminate how important real-time SIGINT collection was to the mission:
Another key—and previously unknown—element of the top secret plan involved deploying signal-snooping aircraft to keep track of the MiGs. The special C-130B-IIs would listen in on enemy radio chatter and feed information straight to American pilots throughout the mission.
Two of these specially modified C-130s, known as SILVER DAWN aircraft, were airborne during the mission providing real-time collection to the force package. The use of predictive intelligence to help refine the plan and the use of real-time intelligence collect was nearly revolutionary because of the classification walls that prevented much intelligence, specifically SIGINT, from being shared with tactical operators. Such barriers have come down in the decades since Bolo, but air planners still struggle with the integration of intelligence into mission planning and execution.
The Role of Force Packaging in Bolo
Bolo included detailed planning and integration among a host of platforms, both airborne and on the ground. Each had a critical role to play to ensure the maximum lethality and survivability of the force. 48 F-4Cs were designated to conduct the aerial sweep mission to find and kill enemy MiGs. They were supported by 24 F-105F IRON HAND aircraft designed to suppress enemy air defences to protect the force package from SAMs. Eight F-104Cs were tasked with the protection of the fighters as they egressed the sweep area. Twenty-five KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers were needed to support the huge strike package. Combat support aircraft including the RC-121 BIG EYE battle management aircraft, EB-66 jamming aircraft, C-130 airborne command post and SILVER DAWN SIGINT platforms, combat search and rescue aircraft, ground control intercept sites, and the ground-based SIGINT stations all participated in the mission. Planning to integrate each of the platforms and its capabilities was complex, and Olds spent days travelling the theatre briefing operators on the plan.
The Bolo package foreshadowed the massive force packages that would become prevalent in Operation Desert Storm and all other air campaigns since. In addition to multiple fighter types executing various mission sets, combat support aircraft provided the updated air picture, collected real-time intelligence, executed command and control, jamming, and aerial refuelling. These aircraft were force multipliers in the mission, and the roles and importance of similar platforms have continued to expand over the past five decades. Bolo was an early and clear example of the effectiveness of a complete and fully integrated force package. This is one of the lessons of Bolo that air planners have absorbed, and force packaging is now a daily part of air operations.
Bolo was not only the highlight of the larger Rolling Thunder air campaign; it was the most successful US fighter operation of the war. Despite the mission being executed more than fifty years ago, there are critical lessons about mission planning and execution that can be used in the development of aerial missions and air campaigns today. Historian Jon Latimer summed up the primary takeaway from Bolo:
U.S. Air Force pilots demonstrated over Hanoi in 1967 that lure tactics can also work well in the higher reaches of technology. So it was that Operation BOLO, a small but unusually successful part of the ROLLING THUNDER bombing program, succeeded in claiming seven North Vietnamese MiGs within 15 minutes, without losing a single American aircraft.
The shrewd use of deception allowed the US fighters to engage their adversary at the time, place, and in the manner of their choosing.
Additionally, the use of intelligence before and during the mission was vital to the success of the operation. The utilisation of predictive intelligence in mission planning allowed the Bolo planners to optimise the F-4’s survivability and lethality against the MiG-21. The timely dissemination of SIGINT was unheard of at the time, but Bolo showed the importance of real-time intelligence updates to the operational environment. Finally, the integration and coordination of airborne and ground-based elements in a massive and diverse force package was a significant contributor to the overall success of the mission. Bolo made better use of deception, intelligence, both predictive and real-time updates, and force packaging than any air operation of the Vietnam War up to that point.
In this era of ‘near-peer’ threats, including the development and deployment of fifth-Generation aircraft, modern long-range SAMs, and advanced electronic warfare, the US and its allies cannot rely solely on numerical or even technological superiority to win future air conflicts. Air power theorists and operators need to think through problems, evaluating the operational environment and the adversary and build plans that leverage and maximise their comparative advantages while mitigating risk and minimising the adversary’s comparative advantages. Air planners and tacticians should study these aspects of Bolo and consider incorporating tactics similar to those of Olds and his Wolfpack in the planning and development of future air operations in a high-intensity conflict.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: Pictured here are revetments and F-4s of the 8th TFW at Ubon, Thailand. (Source: National Museum of the Unites States Air Force)
 Robin Olds, interview with Armed Forces Network, 3 January 1967. Clip shown on Dogfights: Air Ambush. History Channel, 10 November 2006.
 Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), pp. 162.
 Jon Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo: Phantom ambush over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 15:3 (2002), pp. 38.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 68
 Frank F. Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob, and Charles A. Ravenstein. Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, Headquarters US Air Force, 1976), p. 21.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 65.
 Terry M. Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 20:6 (2008), p. 47.
 J. Alfred Phelps, Chappie: America’s First Black Four-Star General: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), pp. 225.
 Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ p. 47.
 Joseph Trevithick, ‘Spies Helped the USAF Shoot Down a Third of North Vietnam’s MiG-21s,’ WarIsBoring.com, 30 Dec 2014.
Works dealing with the history of military technology tend to fall into a few camps. Some will praise a single ‘genius inventor,’ some will chronicle a teleological, linear path of ‘advancement,’ some are content to merely unpack the ‘black boxes’ and describe a piece of technology in detail for its own sake. Rare is the work that discusses the social and cultural interchange between people and machines, digs deep in technical details, while at the same time being a well-written, gripping narrative history sure to excite any enthusiast. Steven Fino’s Tiger Check is all those things at their finest.
Fino examines the American fighter pilot experience in three specific aircraft: The F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle. Each plane featured new technology that seemed to threaten the existing ‘knights of the air’ culture of fighter pilots. Fino argues that despite this series of cultural threats, that culture adapted. The image of pilots as ‘flying knights’ never changed, although they did have to modify themselves into ‘flying scientists.’ This did not replace the previous culture of fighter pilots but merely broadened and democratised it.
Fino begins the book by briefly exploring the ‘knights of the air’ mythology that dates to air-to-air combat in the First World War. As he defines it, the fighter pilot myth has three elements. First, air-to-air engagements as a form of honourable combat among gentleman warriors. Second, that success in air combat is due to the unique skill of the individual pilot. Finally, that the measure of greatness is the kill count—the number of enemy aircraft downed by a single pilot. It could be argued that there are more elements to this myth, and in his attempt to define these cultural factors as steady between the two World Wars, Fino glosses over the emphasis on bombing doctrine in the Second World War, and the battles between fighter culture and bomber culture during those years. That is a minor nitpick, however, as he does a wonderful job of defining the terms of his argument and how he intends to explore the evolution of the fighter pilot myth in the Cold War era.
The rest of the book is organised into three long chapters, each devoted to a particular aircraft. These chapters all follow a similar formula. First, Fino looks at how the pilots of a specific era still maintained and celebrated the three main elements of the ‘flying knights’ mythology. Fino then gives a detailed look at the new cockpit technologies of that era and how they seemed to threaten that myth. Finally, Fino chronicles how pilots adapted, slightly modifying their culture and practices in a way that allowed them to both masters the new technology while keeping the ‘knights of the air’ myth intact.
This pattern starts with the F-86 Sabre and the massive air-to-air battles over ‘MiG Alley’ during the Korean War. The main new piece of technology in the fighter cockpit was the A-1C(M) gunsight, relying on radar to help pilots aim their guns against the new generation of fast, agile jet fighters. The new gunsights, which required more technical knowledge and at least some understanding of radar theory, threatened the image of the lone fighter pilot using his skills, rather than relying on machines. Many pilots resisted the new gunsights and lobbied for their removal. Indeed, the first generation of sights was notoriously unreliable. However, after mid-1952, newer versions of the gunsight increased its reliability, and a younger generation of pilots adapted their culture to emphasise the combination of man and machine, rather than the earlier conception of man or machine. As Fino concludes:
Pilots had to move beyond the decades-old stereotype that had defined their profession. Detailed knowledge of their aircraft and its weapons systems wouldn’t necessarily dilute their tiger spirit […] It might actually render their tiger-like instincts that much more lethal for their opponent. (p. 109)
The next section jumps to the Vietnam War and examines the next biggest ‘threat’ to the fighter pilot mythology: The F-4 Phantom. The threat came not only from a reliance on guided missiles rather than guns (as the Phantom did not carry a gun at all until the later ‘E’ model) but more so from the fact that the F-4 was a two-seater. No longer was the fighter pilot a lone wolf, but he had to work in tandem with a radar cooperator in the back seat (colloquially called the ‘GIB’ for ‘guy in back’) to help identify and track enemy aircraft as well as obtain weapons locks. It was no longer enough to use one’s skill to maneuver a fighter into position and pull the trigger aggressively—now a pilot needed to understand the intricacies of how their large radar worked, and how to operate a large array of knobs, buttons, and switches to find and track targets. These tasks, split between two people, seemed to destroy social conventions among fighter pilots. Most importantly, who got credit for a kill? Most pilots bristled at these changes, as Fino notes:
Many of those sitting in either seat in the Phantom would have preferred instead to be flying a single-seat fighter, even if it was an older, less sophisticated, more vulnerable aircraft. (p. 196)
Even this radical of a shift did not destroy the image of pilots as ‘flying knights.’ The definition of what a pilot was shifted, emphasising coordination between men and machines. As Fino surmises, the Phantom’s advanced technology:
[m]ight have been designed to simplify and democratize fighter aviation so that the nation would no longer have to rely solely on the skills of carefully screened and combat-seasoned ‘birdmen,’ but it quickly became apparent in the skies over Vietnam that skilled pilots were still needed, and that those necessary skills could often be developed only in combat. (p. 197)
The final shift in this narrative came with the arrival of the F-15 Eagle—which promised to be a return to ‘traditional’ fighter pilot conceptions, optimised for air-to-air combat as a true ‘fighter pilot’s fighter plane.’ Although the Eagle had a single-seat, it was also larger and much more complicated than the Phantom. Its radar and long-range missiles still required extensive knowledge and skill to operate, although a computer now performed most of the tasks formerly handled by the GIB. Still, Eagle pilots had to be, to some degree, ‘flying scientists,’ who could perform delicate, precise movements on their joysticks to manipulate their radars and make the most of their weapons systems.
Fino does not examine the Eagle’s performance in actual warfare as much as simulated combat, specifically the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests of 1976-1977. During and after these tests, F-15 pilots developed new tactics, including changing their formations, but more importantly developing the practice of ‘sorting’ targets. Fino examines this shift from a cultural perspective—lone fighter pilots duelling in the skies indeed became a thing of the past. Skilled individuals were still key, but now, pilots had to work together and pick targets, maximising the advantages of their weapons, ideally to end air-to-air engagements before they became dogfights. This seemed to threaten the ‘knights of the air’ image at first, but ultimately upheld it. Although the necessary skill set to be an effective Eagle pilot had drastically changed since the Korean War, pilot skill, aggression, and individual prowess were still crucial factors.
When describing the technical aspects of these systems, Fino goes into incredible detail. A close reading of this book would give the reader a thorough knowledge of the science behind radar technology and comes close to approaching an instruction manual for all three aircraft. These technical descriptions are never boring and never devolve to a case of opening ‘black boxes’ for their own sake. Fino continually ties the technical issues back to larger questions of cultural identity with an engaging style of writing. His sources are deep, and his notes thorough, proving ample opportunity for further research. If there is any flaw in the work, it tends to assume pilots are inherently antagonistic to engineers and aircraft designers. Many pilots likely shared this view. However, it might have been interesting to examine the culture and perspective of those designing and building this technology and how they viewed themselves as aiding pilots rather than threatening their culture. However, that would require another book’s worth of research and is not the type of work Fino set out to create here.
Ultimately, this work is one of the best works of air power (and technology) history that this reviewer has read in quite some time, and will likely become a standard of the field. It certainly sets a very high bar for other historians. For those interested in pilot culture and/or aircraft technology, this is required reading, while still pointing towards directions for future scholarship.
Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: An F-22 Raptor, P-51 Mustang and F-15E Strike Eagle perform the historic heritage flight during an air show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, 8 November 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at email@example.com.
Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)
Previously, we looked at how McDonnell lost a significant contract with the US Navy after their upgraded F3H Demon failed a fly off competition against their competitor, Chance-Vought’s entry which became the F-8U Crusader.
McDonnell engineer Herman Barkley took the Demon’s rejection as a personal challenge and immediately began designing an unsolicited new aircraft initially without military funding. Original sketches for the new craft consisted of yet another version of the Demon, similar to the design that had already failed against Vought’s F-8U. The US Navy had a vested interest in allowing McDonnell to experiment with the design. It could keep McDonnell afloat, enabling it to remain a valuable supplier, and perhaps reap some return on the initial investment they had both placed in the failed F3H. Upon review of these sketches, The US Navy did support the project, but gave no stated mission requirements for the plane, encouraging McDonnell to experiment on the drawing board. According to J. S. McDonnell himself:
All we had to work with in the beginning [of F-4 Phantom II Development] was a gleam in the customer’s eye […] What followed was two years […] of orchestrated confusion.
The US Navy, because of their doctrinal assumptions, wanted to focus on high-speed interceptors but was purposefully vague about communicating this, hoping McDonnell would reach in new and unexpected directions. This lack of specificity and a desire to maximise profits by designing a versatile plane that functioned in many contexts led McDonnell to develop a multi-role aircraft not optimised for the air-to-air mission.
The confusion continued until Spring of 1955 when Commander Francis X. Timmes (newly in charge of the project) emphasised the high-speed interceptor role and stressed adaptability. Those concepts required that the plane to have two seats, two engines, and an armament of only missiles. The plane thus featured eleven hardpoints for carrying bombs or missiles, the most ever designed on an airframe at that time. The homogenous armament and dual-pilot setup both theoretically enhanced adaptability, since dogfighting was (allegedly) unnecessary, the lack of guns made the plane lighter (thus faster), and pilot duties could be split between two people. In July 1955, the US Navy rewarded McDonnell’s efforts with a contract for the production of seven prototypes.
The Phantom’s unique look was the result of over 5,300 hours of wind tunnel tests, which revealed a significant problem in supersonic flight. The plane was susceptible to ‘roll coupling,’ which is a technical way of saying the plane became uncontrollable – a condition from which pilots were trained to eject immediately. The angled wingtips and tail decreased the chances of this occurring. To add to stability concerns without sacrificing speed, the Phantom was given the ‘Stab Aug’ system that could sense unstable flight paths and automatically correct for them quicker than a pilot could manually. Computer controlled intake ramps to control air flow into the engines also increased the plane’s top speed. Another computerised system, ‘Boundary Layer Control,’ sent excess air from the engines over the wings to generate more lift and increase speed and acceleration. 
Though the bond between the US Navy and its developers was strong, the military was loathed to place all its eggs in one basket. Timmes solicited other designs to fit the same roles as the Phantom in August 1955. The company that stepped up to the plate was none other than McDonnell’s old nemesis: Chance-Vought. Vought had developed an upgraded version of their successful F-8U Crusader, the very plane that had beaten McDonnell’s F3H Demon. Both new designs were set to compete in an unofficial fly off beginning on 15 September 1958. The tests emphasised the assumptions of the time, focusing on maximum speed and climbing rates. The assessments did not include manoeuvrability, gunnery, or other metrics pertinent to air-to-air combat.
In every tested category, the F8U-3 Crusader proved superior. It even had better fuel mileage. Its only drawbacks were a lower payload and time-consuming maintenance requirements. Despite this, George Spandenberg, then the director of Bureau of Aeronautics’ Evaluation Division, thought that single-seat, single-engine planes were inherently unreliable and argued that a two-seat plane would boost morale. Thus he boldly asserted, ‘The single-seat fighter era is dead.’ Advocates of the F-4 often claim the Phantom ‘won’ the contest (since it did win the US Navy contract after all), although a close look at the fly off reveals the upgraded Crusader had clear performance advantages in every category.
Despite the Phantom’s lacklustre performance at the fly off, it was still an impressive aircraft in many respects. Between December 1959 and April 1962, the F-4 set over a dozen world records, the most coveted (and revealing of the plane’s doctrinal design focus) of which was that of absolute top speed: 1,606.3 miles per hour. The F-4 also possessed many problems that came back to haunt the military over the jungles of Vietnam, and that appear almost negligent in retrospect. Aside from the stability issue (which caused ‘departure’ or ‘the adverse yaw effect,’ terms for when the plane loses control during maneuvers), the almost non-existent rear-visibility was a problem, as were the giant plumes of black smoke produced by the engines that gave away the location and heading of every Phantom. The plane was also quite vulnerable to ground fire because its hydraulic lines were delicate and devoid of redundancy. Indeed, ground fire downed more F-4s in Vietnam than any other single threat. Across US Air Force (USAF), the US Navy and the US Marine Corps combined, from January 1962 to January 1973, 930 planes were lost to small arms ground fire, or, 45% of losses by known causes. AAA claimed 632; SAMs shot down 191; MiGs destroyed 79, and friendly fire claimed 25.
The USAF observed these record-setting demonstrations and grew interested in the plane’s usefulness as a strategic bomber and interceptor. After a series of tests, USAF eventually ordered more than triple the number of Phantoms as the Navy. McDonnell finally created four new models of the Phantom to USAF specifications, the first and most significant of which was the F-4C.
Although the Phantom would undoubtedly have performed extremely well in its designed role of intercepting enemy bombers, it ironically never had to. Instead of saving the world from nuclear Armageddon in the hypothetical World War III, the F-4 instead flew in a limited war over the jungles of a tiny third world country that many Americans had trouble locating on a map. The enemies it faced were not large lumbering bombers threatening nuclear annihilation, but missiles, ground fire, and manoeuvrable MiG fighters much more adept at air combat. Statistically, the deadliest enemy for the Phantom, one of the most powerful and expensive planes in US history to that point, was an individual on the ground with a machine gun. Similar to the doctrine that spawned it, the F-4 was the right plane for the wrong war.
The F-4 Phantom II was a fighter plane possessing few characteristics of traditional fighters. It was large, cumbersome, and built around the concept of long range attacks, sacrificing the agility and armament necessary of true air superiority craft. Originally conceived as an interceptor and soon burdened by ‘mission creep’ that insisted it handle multiple roles, the plane was the poster child for pre-Vietnam USAF doctrine, namely, the quasi-religious devotion to strategic bombing that minimised all other roles of air power.
Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: A USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II from the 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 52nd Tactical Wing, releasing 18 Mark 82 227 kg bombs over the Bardenas Reales Gunnery Range, Spain, 25 March 1986. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, The American Fighter (New York: Orion, 1987), p. 451, 310. Larry Davis, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1984), p 4.
 Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996)p. 23, 9, pp. 13-14.
 Peter E. Davies, USN F-4 Phantom II vs VPAF MiG 17/19: Vietnam 1965-73 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011), p. 16; Lou Drendel, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Warren, MI: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1972), p. 6; Bugos, Engineering the F-4, pp. 95-9.
 Mick Spick, All-Weather Warriors: The Search for the Ultimate Fighter Aircraft (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), p. 131; Enzo Angelucci with Peter Bowers, The American Fighter: The Definitive Guide to American Fighter Aircraft from 1917 to the Present (London: G.T. Foulis, 1987), pp. 310-1.