The obsolescent MiG-17 fighter produced North Vietnam's first jet air-to-air victories
(too old to reply)
2007-08-06 15:17:55 UTC
Carl O Schuster.
Jun 2007. Vol. 20, Iss. 1; pg. 19-EOA

No one saw the two low-flying North Vietnamese MiG-17 fighters
approaching the large force of U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft, which
was zeroing in on taking out the North's Than Hoa Bridge on April 3,
1965. Essentially an evolutionary improvement on the Korean War's
MiG-15, the MiG-17 was a subsonic, swept-wing fighter aircraft that
entered Soviet service in 1953.

The obsolescent MiG-17 fighter produced North Vietnam's first jet air-
to-air victories

No one saw the two low-flying North Vietnamese MiG-17 fighters
approaching the large force of U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft, which
was zeroing in on taking out the North's Than Hoa Bridge on April 3,
1965. Visibility was good at high altitude, but hazy below 5,000 feet.
Flying at about 1,000 feet, the MiG-ITs closed in on a pair of F-8E
fighter-bombers that had just pulled up from bombing the bridge. When
the range closed to about 700 feet, lieutenant Pham Ngoc Lan opened
fire, scoring several 23mm cannon hits. One F-8 appeared to explode as
it dropped away, and Pham's wingman, Lieutenant Phan Van Tuc, opened
fire on the second F-8. While the North claimed two victories that
day, neither F-8 was actually shot down. However, the engagement did
mark North Vietnam's first MiG-17 intercept in what would become the
longest air war in American military history. The next day would see
two confirmed shoot downs of F105s by MiG-17s.

Although U.S. intelligence was aware of the MiG-17's presence in North
Vietnam several months earlier, the fighter's April exploits came as a
tactical surprise. Most analysts had expected North Vietnam's pilots
to continue training for another year before seeking engagement. After
all, they were outnumbered and equipped with a clearly inferior
fighter aircraft, and they lacked the Americans' nigh level of
training. Intelligence, however, had misjudged North Vietnam's mindset
and culture. Moreover, American rules of engagement gave the aerial
initiative to the North Vietnamese. In 1965 American forces were
prohibited from attacking North Vietnam's fighter airfields, allowing
its pilots to train, rest and launch at times of their choosing.
Equally important, as American radar coverage did not reach those
airfields, the fighters' takeoffs went undetected. Those technological
and tactical challenges to the United States would be overcome in the
intervening years, but in the meantime the North Vietnamese came to
understand and exploit both U.S. operating patterns and rules of

The Vietnam People's Air Force (VPAF) was introduced to the MiG-17
(which carried the NATO designation Fresco) in October 1960, when 57
of its pilots were dispatched to China's Son Dong Air Base for
conversion training. Another handful of pilots went to Russia to
train. Essentially an evolutionary improvement on the Korean War's
MiG-15, the MiG-17 was a subsonic, swept-wing fighter aircraft that
entered Soviet service in 1953. The MiG-17F production variant
constituted the bulk of those provided North Vietnam. Its Klimov VK-1
afterburning jet engine provided a maximum thrust of 5,900 pounds,
giving the plane a thrust-to-weight ratio of .45 to 1 and a top speed
of Mach .97 at 15,000 feet in a clean configuration (no drop tanks or

Although the Fresco was capable of carrying bombs, American pilots
most often saw it in an air-to-air configuration with one or two
external fuel tanks, which were dropped upon entering an engagement.
The MiG-17F had no radar and was not equipped to carry air-to-air
missiles. The late-model MiG-17PF carried an SRD-3 gun-ranging radar
and SIV-52 infrared sight, a combination that suited a night fighter.
All MiG-17s' armament consisted of one N-37D 37mm cannon with 40
rounds, and two NR-23 23mm cannon with 80 rounds per gun. Neither
weapon was fast-firing, since the fighter had been developed to engage
strategic bombers. The ammunition load limited the pilot to about
seven seconds of firing, significantly less than the American F-100,
F-105 and F-8. The plane had a tactical radius of 210 nautical miles
and a service ceiling of approximately 47,000 feet.

The MiG-17's lack of hydraulic control systems made it an exhausting
and difficult plane to maneuver over an extended engagement. High-
speed maneuvers at low altitude were particularly taxing for the
pilots. Its light weight, however, made it extremely maneuverable at
low speeds. That was to prove its most useful characteristic in the
aerial engagements over North Vietnam. The VPAF's tactics were
designed to exploit the Fresco's strengths while masking or
compensating for its weaknesses, which included an inferior
acceleration rate and poor sustained turning rate at low altitude.

The first 36 MiG-17Fs entered North Vietnamese service with the 921st
"Sao Do" Fighter Regiment on February 3,1964. The pilots returned to
Vietnam from China on August 6 and began an intense training program
out of Noi Bai Airfield. In addition to longer flying hours, they also
spent hours in ad hoc simulators, studying U.S. aircraft silhouettes
and receiving instructions on U.S. attack and fighter tactics from
Soviet air force and Vietnamese intelligence officers.

The VPAF assessed two key weaknesses in early American air operations.
First, the aircraft flew in large groups along fixed routes. Second,
the bombers had few if any fighter escorts. Most U.S. aircraft came in
below 1,000 feet. The Vietnamese pilots, therefore, practiced air
combat maneuvering and other flight operations at those altitudes. The
North Vietnamese also noticed that American night attacks lacked
fighter escorts, so they requested a night fighter version. The Soviet
Union delivered a dozen PF variants in 1965. Finally, noticing areas
of North Vietnam where the U.S. planes didn't go, the VPAF decided to
launch intercepts from those areas and conduct the aerial equivalent
of "hit and run" strikes against the American strike packages.

Technology and the Fresco's flight characteristics favored that
approach. In those days before "look down/shoot down" radars, terrain
features interfered with the American aircraft radar's ability to
detect targets operating close to the ground. The first Airborne Early
Warning (AEW) aircraft lacked the computerized signal-processing
capabilities characteristic of today's Airborne Warning and Control
System aircraft. So even when the AEW aircraft were deployed in
support of U.S. strike packages, they were of limited value until the
MiGs rose above 2,500 feet. Moreover, the Fresco's jet engine emitted
no smoke, making the much smaller and lighter Soviet-built aircraft
very difficult to spot visually.

Below 5,000 feet, the MiG-17 enjoyed a much better roll and initial
turning rate than all of its American counterparts except the F-8E.
Below 200 knots, it also had a better initial climb and sustained
turning rate than the F-4 and F-105, regardless of altitude. All U.S.
jet aircraft, however, had far superior speed, acceleration and
sustained climb rates than the MiG-17. Below 20,000 feet, the F-4's
sustained turning rate was superior to the Fresco's if the pilot kept
his air speed above 400 knots. Above 20,000 feet, the Fresco's initial
and sustained turn rates were better than all U.S. aircraft except the
F-8E, regardless of air speed. The MiG-17 may have been designed as an
interceptor, but over North Vietnam, where guns and aircraft agility
had the advantage, it was employed as a close-in dogfighter.

The early F-4 Phantom's lack of cannon put that highly capable
aircraft at a disadvantage against such tactics. American air-to-air
missiles had been designed to engage large bombers, and therefore had
difficulty taking down a highly maneuverable fighter aircraft. Of the
three missiles in service during the Vietnam War, the infrared guided
AIM-9 Sidewinder was the most effective. Simple and efficient, it
locked onto the enemy jet's exhaust gases, provided the American pilot
got almost directly behind his opponent and fired from within two
nautical miles.

Technically, the AIM-7 Sparrow should have been more effective. Its
radar guidance enabled the American aircraft to engage the enemy
whether he was behind or in front of it. More important, the MiG-17
had no radar warning or countermeasures systems. The American pilot,
however, had to keep the enemy aircraft within his fighter-radar's
guidance beam throughout the engagement. If the Fresco pilot spotted a
Sparrow launch in time, he could evade the missile by a tight, rapidly
descending turn. Another problem was that the Sparrow's greater
complexity gave it a higher failure rate than the Sidewinder.

The rules of engagement represented a further disadvantage for the
Americans. The U.S. forces were prohibited from conducting preemptive
strikes against North Vietnam's fighter airfields. While Robert
McNamara was secretary of defense, U.S. forces were only allowed to
conduct retaliatory strikes against airfields from which the North
Vietnamese launched intercepts against U.S. air strikes. The approval
process required military planners to prove that the intercepts came
from the airfields they wanted to strike. In addition, the rules
prohibited engagement of any aircraft without visual confirmation of
its identity and threat. Although this rule was prudent (it
significantly reduced the possibility of engaging friendly aircraft),
it gave the VPAF the initiative and ensured a close-in engagement,
which favored the North's aircraft.

Despite those challenges, both the U.S. Navy and Air Force quickly
developed tactics to counter the MiG-ITs. The key was to use the
American aircraft's superior engine power and climb capabilities to
conduct fight-in-flight regimens that favored American aircraft
strengths. The MiG-ITs could not keep up with an American fighter that
accelerated away. One technique was to use deceptive fighter packages
as if they were strike packages in an effort to induce an intercept.

What followed was a cat-and-mouse game, wherein the Vietnamese tried
to engage only those aircraft that seemed to be or should have been
low on fuel. Their GCI advised pilots on the locations of American
pilots who had just reported "bingo." In a fashion similar to British
Harrier engagements against Argentine A-4s making bomb runs at maximum
range in the FaIklands War, the Vietnamese fighters would try to
intercept an American aircraft before it reached the relative safety
of the combat air patrols supporting their raids. An American flying
short on fuel couldn't employ his aircraft's superior speed to
advantage for fear of running out.

By 1966, American fighter pilots had all but mastered Fresco. By 1969,
the MiG-17 was relegated primarily to a training and supporting
intercept attack role. Two years later, VPAF leaders decided to shift
some of their MiG-ITs to a surface attack role, with 250-kilogram
bombs replacing the two 400-liter drop tanks it carried for air
intercept missions. Air-to-ground attack training began in March 1971.
The initial focus was on antishipping missions. Cuban instructors
taught maritime strike tactics, while North Vietnamese intelligence
studied U.S. naval operating patterns off the North's coastline.

In March 1972, the 923rd Fighter Regiment's first six pilots graduated
from the training program. They staged to Gat Airfield on April 18,
1972, and awaited their opportunity. It came at 1605 hours the next
day, when two Frescos launched to strike four U.S. warships operating
nine nautical miles from Nhat Le. The 402nd Radar Company provided
target location and movement information as the flight flew just above
the terrain en route to the coast. The lead pilot, Le Xuan Di, spotted
the smoke from one of the ship's stacks before he crossed the coast.

A pair of motor torpedo boats was also moving in to strike the U.S.
Navy task element as Le approached the target area. He reported
sighting a U.S. warship and was given the attack order. He estimated
the ship, a World War Ð-era destroyer, to be 10 to 12 kilometers away
as he accelerated toward it. It turned out to be USS Higbee. The other
Fresco, piloted by Nguyen Van Bay, went after the second group of
ships about five nautical miles away, the guided missile cruiser
Oklahoma City and the destroyer Sterrett.

Le climbed to about 400 meters for his approach and released his two
bombs from a shallow dive. (Higbee's captain says the Fresco conducted
two attacks, dropping one bomb each time. Le says he flew straight to
the target, dropping both bombs at the same time in a single attack.)
One bomb hit and destroyed Higbee's rear gun mount, while the other
missed the ship's fantail by about 10 meters. Le pulled away to the
left, did a slow descent to 100 meters and returned directly to Gat.
Nguyen overshot Oklahoma City and had to come around for a reattack.
He released his bombs too early, missing the cruiser by more than 50
meters and inflicting little noticeable damage. Sterrett fired a
Terrier surface-to-air missile at Nguyen as he pulled away, and
Sterrett's crew claimed to have shot him down. The North Vietnamese,
however, admit no aerial losses in the attack. To add to the
confusion, the North Vietnamese shore batteries spotted Sterrett's
missile launch shortly after the bomb splashes and reported that it
was also damaged in the attack. In fact, Sterrett suffered a no damage
at all. The entire ® engagement took less than 17 minutes.

Some defense commentators have claimed that Frescos were used for
ground support during North Vietnam's final offensive in 1975, but
that has never been confirmed. They were employed with some success,
however, against Chinese ground forces during the brief Sino-
Vietnamese border conflict in 1979. North Vietnam accepted delivery of
some 90 MiG-17s during the Vietnam War, and about 30 of them
reportedly remained in service as of 1980. The last MiG-17s were
retired from service shortly thereafter.

Although the MiG-17 wasn't the best fighter to serve North Vietnam
during the Indochina War, it was that country's first jet fighter and
its first interceptor capable of engaging U.S. high-performance
aircraft. Its historical importance in Hanoi is best illustrated by
the fact that present-day Vietnam commemorates the day of its first
claimed aerial victories, April 3,1965, as Air Force Day. The Fresco's
impact on the United States was both operational and technological.
The MiG-17's introduction into the battle forced the U.S. military to
change its aerial tactics and operations to an extent that far
exceeded what one would expect in countering such a small group of
obsolescent fighters. Much of that was because of the limitations the
Americans placed on their operating forces; but some of it was also
the result of overconfidence in the capabilities of their air-to-air
missiles systems.

Interestingly, every American fighter aircraft introduced into service
since 1965 has been equipped with cannons for close-in air-to-air
engagements. Viewed in that context, perhaps the MiG-17 could be seen
as the Vietnam-era fighter that most affected U.S. postwar fighter

U.S. intelligence misjudged the enemy's mindset and culture when it
expected North Vietnam's pilots to train for another year before
seeking engagement

Gun camera footage shows U.S. Air Force Major Ralph L Kuster shooting
down a MiG-17F over North Vietnam from his F-105D Thunderchief on June
3,1968. Because of the American rules of engagement, however, U.S.
forces didn't always have the advantage in air combat.

North Vietnam's best-known MiG-17 ace, Nguyen Van Bay, took part in as
many as nine shootdowns and near-missed the cruiser Oklahoma City with
a 550-Ib. bomb on April 19,1972. His many awards included the Ho Chi
Minh badge.

[Author Affiliation]

The Wrong Pilot

I found the MiG-17 article from the June issue very interesting.
However, it contained an error commonly and continuously promulgated
in U.S. publications, this being the participation of Vietnam's first
and highest scoring MiG-17 ace, Nguyen Van Bay, in the April 19, 1972,
attack on the USS Higbee and USS Oklahoma City. By 1972 there were two
pilots assigned to the 923rd Fighter Regiment with the name Nguyen Van

Nguyen Van Bay (the seven-kill ace) was born Nguyen Van Hoa, a
southerner, in 1936 in Lai Vang District, Dong Thap province,
southwest of Saigon. In 1954 he rallied to the North, changed his name
to Nguyen Van Bay (a common practice among southerners fighting for
the North to avoid repercussions on family remaining in the South),
and joined the military. He joined the People's Army of Vietnam in
1954, transferred to the Air Force in 1960 and attended flight school
in the People's Republic of China. He began flying combat in 1965
while attached to the 921st Fighter Regiment at Phuc Yen. Almost shot
down on October 6, 1965, in combat with Navy F-4Bs, he returned to
base with his MiG-17 riddled with 83 shrapnel holes from an air-to-air
missile. He may in fact be the MiG-17 kill awarded to Switchbox 107,
piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Dan Maclntire and Lt. j.g. Alien Johnson on this
date. Captain Bay flew combat throughout 1966 and 1967 and, following
his fourth credited aerial victory, he was awarded the Hero of the
Peoples' Armed Forces of Vietnam Medal on January 1, 1967, along with
MiG-17 pilots Tran Hanh and Lam Van Lich. He was credited with his
fifth kill on April 25, 1967, becoming the first ace of the Vietnam
War, and continued to fly combat during the summer of 1967. He was
credited with two more kills, bringing his final total to seven.

The Ho Chi Minh Badge pictured in the article was awarded to DRVAF
pilots for each confirmed victory, and Bay is seen in the photo with
all seven on his jacket. By 1972, he had been promoted to major, was
serving as the deputy regiment commander of the 923rd Fighter Regiment
and was no longer flying combat missions. He survived the war and
retired in the early 1980s as a senior colonel.

The second Nguyen Van Bay, referred to in official Vietnamese
histories as "Nguyen Van Bay (B)," was also a southerner, born in 1943
on the Ca Mau peninsula, southwest of Saigon. lieutenant Bay flew
wingman for Le Xuan Di during the attack on the Higbee and Oklahoma
City on April 19,1972. Both pilots successfully returned to base,
although at least one MiG-17 was claimed shot down. lieutenant Bay's
combat career didn't last much longer. Less than a month later, on May
6, 1972, he was again in combat. He was credited with the shootdown of
a U.S. Navy A-7 (U.S. records do not reflect a corresponding loss) and
then tangled with the F-4B TarCap from the Coral Sea. In the ensuing
combat he was shot down and killed by Showtime 100, flown by Lt. Cmdr.
Jerry Houston and lieutenant Kevin Moore. lieutenant Nguyen Van Bay
(B) was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Peoples' Armed Forces of
Vietnam 22 years later, on December 20,1994.

Guy C. Bentz

Via e-mail

Editor's note: The error that prompted this informative letter was
inserted as a photo caption by our editorial staff.
John Carrier
2007-08-06 22:02:19 UTC
Well, that was long winded. In truth, the Mig-17 had superior sustained and
instantaneous turn performance compared to ANY US Vietnam era tactical
aircraft if flown within its optimum flight envelope. Due to flight control
limitations, its turn capability was severely limited above 420KIAS.

R / John