366th Fighter Group Association

Best Little Stories


How the Gunfighters Got Their Name
by
Stanley E. Anderson, MSgt, USAF, Ret.

Background.

Early 1967 found the situation at the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, Danang AB, Vietnam “fluid”, our mission was constantly changing as were our tactics, frustration was high and morale could have been a lot better. Our three Tactical Fighter Squadrons, the 389th, 390th and 480th, were equipped with the F-4C Phantom, at the time the premier fighter in the Air Force inventory. Our aircrews were flying a variety of missions; close air support for the US Army and Marines in South Vietnam, interdicting supply and communication lines over North Vietnam and Laos, top cover for F-105 Thunderchiefs (“Thuds”) bombing in North Vietnam and other special missions fragged by 7th Air Force. Our World War II forebears of the 366th Fighter Group would have been proud of us, we were some of the best “mud shovelers” in the world – strafing, bombing, laying down CBU's (cluster bomb units), etc. Strafing was performed using the SUU-16 gun pod, an electrically driven, six barrel “Gatling” minigun containing 1000 rounds of 20 mm ammunition with a firing rate of 100 rounds per second. For whatever reason, our aircraft losses were unacceptably high and in mid-February “Charlie” (the Viet Cong) had visited us on the ground with Russian 144mm rockets, some of which landed in one of the barracks areas on the base.

When flying “up North”, our aircrews were hamstrung by insane Rules of Engagement – we were prohibited from flying within 10 miles of the center of Hanoi, 4 miles from the center of Haiphong and 30 miles from the China border. Furthermore we could only strike very restricted targets within 30 miles of Hanoi and 10 miles of Haiphong. Until the middle of April we couldn’t even strike North Vietnamese airfields, so their jets could attack with impunity and dash back to their “safe havens”.

On those rare instances when our pilots did tangle with enemy aircraft – MiG-17s, MiG-19s and MiG-21s -- the smaller, lighter, more agile aircraft could turn tighter than the heavier F-4s. The Phantom's close-in air-to-air capability was further hampered by the limitations of its weapons. When the F-4 was designed in the early 1950’s the assumption was that missiles would be the weapons of the future so there was no need to include a gun on the aircraft. Enemy pilots quickly figured out that the radar beam-riding AIM-7 "Sparrow" and infrared heat-seeking AIM-9 "Sidewinder" missiles didn't arm themselves until 1500 feet after being fired so one of their favorite tactics when being chased was to allow the Phantoms to close within 1500 feet. It was not uncommon to hear pilots returning from a flight exclaim, “If I only had a brick I could have knocked him out of the air!” or something similar.

On January 2, 1967, the 366th TFW participated in Operation Bolo, a MiG sweep over North Vietnam. The winter monsoon weather was bad. Our rivals, the F-4s of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing “Wolfpack” at Ubon AB, Thailand, knocked down seven MiG’s and, as luck would have it, we got none. And, of course, they got all the publicity and made the most of it. After the 8th TFW got two more MiG’s on January 6th the North Vietnamese Air Force decided to stand down for training and no more MIG’s were seen until early March. In March and into April, there were a few encounters, with seven MiG’s being downed by F-105 Thunderchiefs from the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tahkli, Thailand. But it was clear from their tactics that enemy pilots didn't want to come up and play with the Phantoms.

The Gun Comes of Age.

Things were clearly due for a change and when they did, they changed fast. On March 20th, 1967, the 366th TFW received a new commander, Colonel (Brig. Gen. selectee) Jones E. Bolt and within a few days, a new Deputy Commander for Operations, Colonel Frederick C. "Boots" Blesse. General Bolt describes what happened next.

“After a few days at Danang I scheduled myself as the element lead in a flight of four to fly top cover for the “Thuds” into Route Pack 6 (Hanoi). After a detailed briefing we went to our aircraft and I could not believe the configuration of the F-4. There was a 600 gallon centerline tank, the ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) pod on the left outboard station where we normally had a 400 gallon fuel tank; a 400 gallon tank on the right outboard station as it was supposed to be; the two Sidewinder missiles on each of the two inboard stations and of course the Sparrow missiles on the fuselage as was normal. These were the radar guided missiles we always carried on top cover or air-to-air missions. The airplane was asymmetrically loaded and it was not only unstable but would fly sideways! The only saving grace to this lousy configuration was that as soon as we hit the Black River going into North Vietnam we would jettison the centerline tank and that would make the airplane fly a little better. But if you got into a fight with the MiG’s you would jettison everything except the ECM pod. We used to joke among ourselves occasionally that every time we dropped the 600 gallon centerline tank we had just dropped a Cadillac on the North Vietnamese. But the seriousness of dropping the centerline tank was that if you did not drop it in straight and level flight under 450 knots it was likely to damage the aft fuselage and the elevators on the airplane -- not a good situation over enemy territory.

“After landing and debriefing I called my Ops and Maintenance people together and asked them how they came up with this configuration. Everybody said that the reason was that the ECM pod which was much smaller than the 400 gallon fuel tank and resulted in much less drag, could only be carried on the outboard station and you had to drop off the outboard fuel tank to do that. This was a case of the Maintenance people dictating to the Ops people how the airplane would be configured and it was a terrible mistake. Not only was the airplane unstable to fly that way it was terribly expensive to drop all those tanks on almost every mission. And keep in mind that we were flying 16 top cover sorties every day at the least.

“I gave the problem some thought that night and talked to my squadron commanders and I just knew that there was a better way. The next morning I went down to our armament shop and got in touch with the Chief Master Sergeant who ran the place and had been running my armament shop at the F-4 Combat Crew Training Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ that I commanded before going to Vietnam. I said to him, ‘Chief, can you make a wiring harness that can be installed on the inboard pylon that will operate the ECM pod?’ He said to me, ‘ we’ll give it a try, but you know, Colonel, we cannot legally rewire the airplane without getting permission from Logistics Command because the inboard pylons are wired to carry nuclear weapons.’ I told my good Chief... that if he did not say anything about it I would not. I told him the reason was that we needed to do something about the configuration of the airplane to make it symmetrical and further that we could not hit MIG-17’s and few MiG-21’s with the Sidewinders and only occasionally with the Sparrows and I wanted to put the (SUU-16) gun pod on the centerline station. But to do this we had to drop off two Sidewinders and install the ECM pod on the inboard pylon. This would give us a pretty stable and symmetrical airplane and we would not have to drop off those tanks on almost every mission.

“The next afternoon the Chief called me to come down to his shop and we got into my staff car and went out to the F-4 he had rewired. It was a very simple wiring harness with a cannon plug on each end that could be removed in a couple of minutes and the ECM pod worked great. I flew the airplane and checked it out with our radar site at Monkey Mountain and it worked like a charm. I told him to make enough of them so we could configure enough airplanes to fly 16 sorties a day into Route Pack Six to cover the Thuds. I talked to all the Ops people and they were ecstatic that we were putting the 20 mm gun pod on the centerline and they could hit the MiG-17s and MIG-21’s even though we had a lousy gun sight in the F-4C.”

The first hurdle overcome, Colonel Bolt called Lt. Gen. Momyer, the 7th Air Force Commander in Saigon, to inform him, “because, after all, he was my boss and would be writing my performance report and possibly my obituary”. Receiving approval to move forward, Colonel Bolt turned the project over to Colonel Blesse and the Ops people to “wring out” the new configuration. Colonel Blesse put together a weapons section comprised of Lt. Col. Fred Haeffner, Majors Sam Bakke, Bob Dilger, Ed Lipsey and Jerry Robinette and Captains "Skip" Cox, Jim Craig and Bob Novak. Throughout the month of April they worked through every conceivable situation including gun problems, munitions loads, barrier procedures, chaff drops, drag chute procedures, ECM devices, bombing and air-to-air procedures. One of the major problems to be surmounted was that the F-4 did not contain a computing gun sight. Another peculiarity was that the SUU-16 gun pod was self-powered by a small turbine (known as a “rat”) which was deployed in flight and worked reasonably well above 500 knots -- but only if deployed at speeds below 450 knots. If deployed at a faster speed its performance was questionable.

With all the problems worked through, in early May Colonel Blesse flew down to Saigon to brief General Momyer and receive final approval. General Momyer’s approval was luke warm at best and may have been influenced by a comment made by Colonel Robin Olds, the 8th Tac Fighter Wing commander, who happened to be present at the briefing and who dismissed the presentation with, “General, I wouldn't touch that thing with a ten-foot pole.” But “GO” was the word and with modification of more aircraft the hunt was on.

About this time, a change was made in air tactics of our strike forces. Throughout March and April, MIGCAP F-4s would sweep through the target area five minutes prior to the arrival of the flights of F-105 strike aircraft which were themselves spaced three to five minutes apart. In May this was changed so that the first flight of F-105s would be closely followed by a flight of four MIGCAP F-4s which in turn would be followed by more F-105s and finally a flight of Phantoms bringing up the rear. The first 366th F-4s carrying guns for air-to-air combat were flown into Route Pack Six starting on May 12th but for the first two days the strike aircraft went unchallenged. On May 14th, sixteen MIG's rose to take on the first wave of F-105s. Seven of the MIG's tangled with four Phantoms and two MiG's fell as the first victims of the guns wielded by Major Jim Hargrove and Capt Jim Craig. The second F-4 flight also downed a MiG with a Sparrow fired by Major Sam Bakke (see separate story, “May 14, 1967 - The Day of the Gun ”).

During the period April 23 - June 5, 1967 eleven MiG's were downed by aircrews of the 366th Tactical Fight Wing -- four to the 20 mm guns. No USAF Tactical Fighter Wing downed as many aircraft in such a short period in the entire eight years of the air war in the skies over Southeast Asia. As Lt. Colonel (later Major General) Bob Tanguy, 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron commander, said, "I don't think the MiG’s ever figured out that the F-4s were carrying guns." And he may well be right because a review of after action reports shows that no parachutes were reported from the MiG’s downed by F-4C guns. In any case after June 5th the North Vietnamese Air Force, having lost 54 aircraft in April, May and June, went into another stand down for the remainder of June and July to reevaluate their situation. At about the same time, the 366th Wing’s mission was again changed back to air-to-ground work, but not before Colonel Blesse and a group of pilots had gotten together and come up with a name and emblem by which the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing has been known ever since, “The Gunfighters”.

Epilogue.

By October 1967 all F-4C’s in Southeast Asia, and later the F-4D's, were reconfigured to carry the SUU-16 and SUU-23 minigun pods for air-to-air combat – including those of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand. Perhaps General Bolt provides the best summary, “(The gun pod) was so successful that when the Air Force got control of the F-4 program from the Navy and built the F-4E it had a 20 mm gun built into the airplane. The F-4E was the best fighter in the world in its day and if we had that airplane with the gun in it we would have had much more success against the MIG-17s and 21s in Southeast Asia. We have not built a fighter since that did not have a gun built in. . . . It was a hard lesson we learned or I should say re-learned. It's a shame we have to keep ‘re-inventing the wheel’. If our present day Air Force leaders do not read and pay attention to history then we will make the same stupid mistakes again and again and again.”

Acknowledgements: Material for this monograph was gathered from many sources, among them: “Aces & Aerial Victories, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965-1973”, Office of the U.S. Air Force Historian; “Check Six” by Frederick C. Blesse, Maj. Gen., USAF, Ret.; letters and telephone interviews with Jones E. Bolt, Maj. Gen., USAF, Ret.; Robert Tanguy, Maj. Gen., USAF, Ret.; Robert D. Janca, Colonel, USAF, Ret.; and James A. Hargrove, Lt. Col., USAF, Ret.



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