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Pardo's Push: how an F-4 pushed a crippled F-4

  • Cold War Era
  • Losses and Aviation Safety
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Pardo’s Push: how an F-4 pushed a crippled F-4 to safety

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

“Drop your tail-hook!” Pardo cried. The steel tail-hook, designed to halt the aircraft after landing on an aircraft carrier, was nothing if not strong — seriously strong.

The following article contains excerpts from the story titled Stars And Stripes appeared in Richard Pike’s book  Phantom Boys Volume 2 .

Pardo’s Push

Some thirty miles north of Hanoi at a place called Thai Nguyen, an area in Vietnam renowned for the quality of its tea, a North Vietnamese steel mill was used for the production of essential war materiel. In March 1967 units of United States F-4s and F-105s were briefed to attack this heavily defended mill, and as part of the plan Captain Bob Pardo with his back-seater, First Lieutenant Steve Wayne, were to fly their F-4 leading another Phantom flown by Captain Earl Arran with First Lieutenant Robert Houghton as his back-seater. Their task was to defend other US aircraft against enemy MiG action but if no MiGs appeared, these two F-4s were to join their colleagues in attacking the steel mill.

Powerful monsoons and extensive low cloud had delayed this mission for nine days until, on Friday 10 March 1967, skies cleared. An air of nervous anticipation was apparent when crews walked out to their aircraft lined up at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force base ; the men all knew that a hazardous mission was in prospect with the high possibility of casualties. Before long, with engines started and weapons and other checks completed, the aircraft took off to head north towards the target area. The initial part of the flight may have felt surreal as crews flew above the rich and diverse vegetation and the tropical forests that spread like an intricate tapestry across Vietnam. Reality struck, however, when the aircraft were still some distance from the target and ground defences began to open fire. Suddenly, Aman and Houghton’s aircraft was hit by flak and their F-4 started to shake violently. They discussed whether to turn back but, despite the problems, decided to proceed.

No MiG fighters appeared but anti-aircraft fire persisted as the F-4s and F-105s continued towards the target. Aman and Houghton managed to drop their bombs, as did others, although several of the US aircraft were shot down near the steel mill. Then Aman and Houghton felt their aircraft take two more hits. Aman radioed Pardo: “We’re losing fuel fast!”

“Okay,” said Pardo, “we’ll head for the tanker.” He wanted to lead his wingman to a pre-briefed rendezvous point with an in-flight refuelling tanker, however it soon became clear that Aman and Houghton’s aircraft was losing fuel too rapidly to reach the tanker in time.

Pardo's Push: how an F-4 pushed a crippled F-4

“We’ll have to eject!” cried Aman on the aircraft radio.

“Standby,” said Pardo, conscious that an ejection at that point would mean a descent by parachute into enemy territory. In his mind were bleak thoughts of communist treatment of US forces, especially aircrew, which was known to be barbaric.

By this stage, as Pardo and Wayne’s Phantom had also been hit by flak, warning lights flashed in Pardo’s cockpit when his F-4 lost electrical power and started to lose fuel — fortunately, though, the aircraft’s handling remained normal.

“We’ll climb,” radioed Pardo to his wingman while he eased the Phantom’s throttles forward, “follow me up!” He wanted to gain height so that the aircraft could glide as far as possible if the fuel ran out. As the two Phantoms climbed towards 30,000 feet Pardo radioed his wingman again: “Earl, you’ve been hit bad. I can see you losing fuel.”

“Yuh…okay…we’re preparing to bail out, Bob.”

“Don’t jump yet! We’ll do our damnedest to help you out of here!” cried Bob Pardo. After a pause he went on: “Jettison your drag ‘chute, Earl.” Following this action Pardo planned to position the nose of his F-4 into the empty drag ‘chute receptacle; this, he hoped, would allow him to ‘push’ his wingman along. The attempt, though, was foiled by jet wash from Earl Aman’s aircraft. “Standby, Earl,” Pardo warned, “I’m gonna try something else.” At that, he manoeuvred very carefully to attempt to position the top of his Phantom’s fuselage directly beneath the other’s ‘belly’ but this, too, failed. Pardo, though, had not run out of ideas yet. “Drop your tail-hook!” he cried.

The steel tail-hook, designed to halt the aircraft after landing on an aircraft carrier, was nothing if not strong — seriously strong. Slickly, if warily, Pardo manoeuvred his F-4 towards the tail-hook, now locked down. Closer and closer he moved, his task hardly helped when the hook began to sway from side to side. Still he persevered, easing forward bit by bit until the one-inch-thick armoured section at the base of his windshield touched the hook. He eased forward a little more. Intense concentration no doubt crowded out dark thoughts that might have occupied his mind – feelings, perhaps, of anger, of fearfulness, of determination that his superb flying skills should not let them down at this crucial point.

With the rate of descent of the linked-up F-4s at around 3,000 feet per minute, Pardo began to push his aircraft a little harder against the tail-hook. It was a courageous thing to do; if his windshield gave way, the steel hook would smash into his face. But his plan was starting to work: as he persisted, the rate of descent was gradually reducing. Suddenly, though, he had to pull back when zigzag cracks began to form at the base of his windshield. He needed to think of something else. Pardo, therefore, repositioned slightly to place the tail-hook against a square of metal at the junction of his windshield and the radome. That led to a moment of ‘eureka’ for by pushing hard for a few seconds at a time he discovered that the rate of descent was halved to some 1,500 feet per minute.

But now Aman radioed: “We’re out of fuel! Both our engines have just flamed out!”

Pardo's Push: how an F-4 pushed a crippled F-4

Undaunted, Pardo continued to push and push – to such effect that the rate of descent was still kept under control. His situation, though, took a dramatic turn for the worse when, suddenly, a red fire warning light began to shine in his cockpit: the left engine was on fire. “Standby!” cried Pardo to his back-seater, “I’ll have to close down the port engine.” This action, however, meant that with just one engine to propel two aircraft the rate of descent increased drastically. Pardo therefore re-lit the engine only to close it down again a minute later when the light reappeared.

Despite the perils, Pardo carried on pushing for another ten or so minutes, the catalogue of complex thoughts within his head facilitated, no doubt, by that most mysterious yet beneficial compound – adrenalin. Eventually, he managed to push his wingman a total distance of nearly ninety miles. The two F-4s were down to an altitude of some 10,000 feet when Laos loomed. In sight was the border between Vietnam and northern Laos, marked by the Black River known locally as the Song Da. Pardo radioed his position to US search and rescue crews which resulted in the scrambling from Thailand of several Douglas A-1 Skyraiders (single-seat propeller-driven ground-attack aircraft with the call sign ‘Sandy’ ) and two HH-43 Jolly Green Giant helicopters. With this ‘posse’ underway what followed became a race against time.

By this juncture, with the Phantoms’ rate of descent starting to accelerate, even the resourceful Pardo was devoid of further ideas. They had made it, though. Pardo had pushed his colleagues beyond the Black River and into Laos and now, finally, Aman and Houghton were forced to abandon their aircraft. At an altitude of approximately 6,000 feet the two men pulled their ejection seat handles to escape immediate dangers even though further hazards faced them very shortly — dangling in his parachute, Houghton could spot a band of armed guerrillas with dogs running towards him. The guerrillas shouted and fired weapons at the parachute. Houghton landed in a small tree but despite back pain after his high-speed ejection he managed to extricate himself and to stagger, revolver in hand, through elephant grass towards a small stream. There, he radioed the rescue posse to report his situation as well as the armed guerrillas’ position and that of Aman who had ended up below a slippery cliff. Aman, luckily, had not been spotted by the guerrillas.

Pardo's Push: how an F-4 pushed a crippled F-4 to safety

Meantime, Pardo and Wayne flew south for another minute or two before Pardo turned towards a United States Special Forces camp in Laos. With their Phantom nearly out of fuel, he ordered Wayne to eject first. Following a successful ejection, Wayne landed by parachute to the north-west of Houghton and Aman. Wayne hid in nearby bushes until the A-1 ‘Sandys’ came in very low and drove off the guerrillas without having to fire a shot. A Jolly Green Giant’ helicopter then flew in to winch up Houghton and Aman before rescuing Wayne.

Pardo, meanwhile, had ejected but was knocked unconscious in the process. He sustained two fractured vertebrae in his neck and when he came to after his parachute landing he heard shouting and gunfire in the vicinity. At once, he radioed the “Sandys’ to strafe the hillside near his position before, in considerable pain, he stumbled, revolver in hand, a distance of about half-a-mile up a hill where he waited for some forty-five minutes until a jolly Green Giant’ helicopter finally located him and winched him to safety.

Despite his remarkable courage and tenacity, the United States Air Force leadership, sensitive to high combat losses at the time, far from commending Pardo reprimanded him for the loss of his F-4. It was over two decades later, following a re-examination of the case, that the injustice was at last acknowledged. At a ceremony in 1989, Major Bob Pardo and his colleagues were awarded Silver Star medals given in recognition of gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States of America.

Pardo's Push: how an F-4 pushed a crippled F-4

Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Ashley J. Thum / U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

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Pardo’s Push: How A U.S. F-4 Pushed Another Phantom Outside Of North Vietnam’s Skies

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

The famous episode when a USAF F-4 pushed another Phantom outside North Vietnam airspace.

Developed as interceptor in response to the need of the U.S. Navy to protect its aircraft carriers , in 1963 the U.S. Air Force procured its version of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, designated as F-110A and almost immediately redesignated as F-4C. 583 F-4Cs were built and employed in Vietnam where they fought against MiGs and intense ground fire.

Nevertheless the Phantom proved to be a very robust airframe , a claim confirmed by one of the most impressive stories of the conflict, known today as the “Pardo’s Push.”

As told by John L. Frisbee in his 1996 article for Air Force Magazine and today available on worldaffairsboard.com , among the 132 sorties that the Retired Lt. Col. Bob Pardo flew in Vietnam with the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing , the most memorable mission is for sure the one that took place on Mar. 10, 1967, when he and his Weapon System Officer (WSO), Lt. Steve Wayne, attacked a steel mills near Hanoi.

The Phantom flown by Capt. Earl Aman and Lt. Bob Houghton Phantom was also part of the mission. Over Hanoi, Captain Aman’s F-4 was hit. He was able to stay with the formation, but Aman was hit again before reaching the target and his Phantom began to leak fuel rapidly.

Pardo’s Phantom was also hit but he was able to continue with the strike, even though his F-4 was leaking fuel too. On their way out, at 20,000 feet, it became obvious that Aman and Houghton would have never reached Laos (where they could have ejected safely and avoid an almost certain capture).

Pardo had enough fuel to reach a tanker, but he never thought to leave  Aman and Houghton to an uncertain fate: Pardo decided to stay with Aman as long as he could.

But while they were still over North Vietnam, Aman’s F-4 flamed out.

To save Aman and Houghton, Pardo decided to do something that (he thought) had not been done before. He would have pushed Aman’s F-4 to Laos (but as explained by Frisbee, in 1952, during the Korean War fighter ace Robbie Risner had pushed his wingman out of North Korea in an F-86 . Pilots then were ordered to refrain from attempting the hazardous act again, and the event, which Risner hardly ever mentioned, faded from memory).

So with a delicate touch, Pardo brought the nose of his Phantom into contact with Aman’s F-4, but he soon discovered that the nose of an F-4 was not designed for pushing another aircraft.

After several failed attempts, Pardo came out with an extreme solution.

After having told Aman to lower his tailhook, Pardo leaned his windscreen against the tailhook of the other Phatom. Even if his idea worked, Pardo continued to lose contact because of turbulence and he had to reposition every 10 or 15 seconds.

Pardo also experienced a fire in one of his own engines and was forced to shut it down. In the remaining 10 minutes of flight time, Pardo used the one remaining engine to slow the descent of both planes. Pardo’s plane ran out of fuel after pushing Aman’s F-4 almost 88 miles; when both planes reached Laotian airspace, at an altitude of 6,000 feet, both aircrews ejected.


Fortunately, all four men escaped capture and were rescued by a helicopter that brought them to Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand.

According to Frisbee, Bob Pardo was an instant hero to the other pilots but not to some “higher-echelon accountants,” who threatened to bring charges against him for losing an expensive airplane. Good judgment prevailed, and the charges were dropped, but his achievement was rewarded only in 1989, more than two decades later, when Pardo and Steve Wayne received the Silver Star for what came to be known as Pardo’s Push.

The following video explains how the famous Pardo’s push not only saved the lives of Earl Aman and his WSO Bob Houghton, but also contributed to prove the extreme strength of the Phantom airframe.

  • McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
  • North American F-86 Sabre
  • U.S. Air Force
  • Weapon Systems Officer

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Vietnam War: F-4 Phantom II

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Taking Flight

  • Specifications (F-4E Phantom II)

Operational History

Changing missions, other users.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

  • M.A., History, University of Delaware
  • M.S., Information and Library Science, Drexel University
  • B.A., History and Political Science, Pennsylvania State University

In 1952, McDonnell Aircraft began internal studies to determine which service branch was most in need of a new aircraft. Led by Preliminary Design Manager Dave Lewis, the team found that the US Navy would soon require a new attack aircraft to replace the F3H Demon. The designer of the Demon, McDonnell began revising the aircraft in 1953, with the goal of improving performance and capabilities.

Creating the "Superdemon," which could achieve Mach 1.97 and was powered by twin General Electric J79 engines, McDonnell also created an aircraft that was modular in that different cockpits and nose cones could be affixed to the fuselage depending on the desired mission. The US Navy was intrigued by this concept and requested a full-scale mock-up of the design. Assessing the design, it ultimately passed as it was satisfied with the supersonic fighters already in development such as the Grumman F-11 Tiger and Vought F-8 Crusader .  

Design & Development

Altering the design to make the new aircraft an all-weather fighter-bomber featuring 11 external hardpoints, McDonnell received a letter of intent for two prototypes, designated YAH-1, on October 18, 1954. Meeting with the US Navy the following May, McDonnell was handed a new set of requirements calling for an all-weather fleet interceptor as the service had aircraft to fulfill the fighter and strike roles. Setting to work, McDonnell developed the XF4H-1 design. Powered by two J79-GE-8 engines, the new aircraft saw the addition of a second crewman to serve as a radar operator.

In laying out the XF4H-1, McDonnell placed the engines low in the fuselage similar to its earlier F-101 Voodoo and employed variable geometry ramps in the intakes to regulate airflow at supersonic speeds. Following extensive wind tunnel testing, the outer sections of the wings were given 12° dihedral (upward angle) and the tailplane 23° anhedral (downward angle). Additionally, a "dogtooth" indentation was inserted in the wings to enhance control at higher angles of attack. The results of these alterations gave the XF4H-1 a distinctive look.

Utilizing titanium in the airframe, the XF4H-1's all-weather capability was derived from the inclusion of the AN/APQ-50 radar. As the new aircraft was intended as an interceptor rather than a fighter, early models possessed nine external hardpoints for missiles and bombs, but no gun. Dubbed the Phantom II, the US Navy ordered two XF4H-1 test aircraft and five YF4H-1 pre-production fighters in July 1955.

On May 27, 1958, the type made its maiden flight with Robert C. Little at the controls. Later that year, the XF4H-1 entered into competition with the single-seat Vought XF8U-3. An evolution of the F-8 Crusader, the Vought entry was defeated by the XF4H-1 as the US Navy preferred the latter's performance and that the workload was split between two crew members. After additional testing, the F-4 entered production and commenced carrier suitability trials in early 1960. Early in production, the aircraft's radar was upgraded to the more powerful Westinghouse AN/APQ-72.

Specifications (F-4E Phantom I I)

  • Length: 63 ft.
  • Wingspan: 38 ft. 4.5 in.
  • Height: 16 ft. 6 in.
  • Wing Area: 530 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 30,328 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 41,500 lbs.


  • Power Plant: 2 × General Electric J79-GE-17A axial compressor turbojets
  • Combat Radius: 367 nautical miles
  • Max. Speed: 1,472 mph (Mach 2.23)
  • Ceiling: 60,000 ft.
  • 1 x M61 Vulcan 20 mm Gatling cannon
  • Up to 18,650 lbs. of weapons on nine external hardpoints, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and most types of bombs

Setting several aviation records just prior to and in the years after introduction, the F-4 became operational on December 30, 1960, with VF-121. As the US Navy transitioned to the aircraft in the early 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pushed to create a single fighter for all branches of the military. Following an F-4B's victory over the F-106 Delta Dart in Operation Highspeed, the US Air Force requested two of the aircraft, dubbing them the F-110A Spectre. Evaluating the aircraft, the USAF developed requirements for its own version with an emphasis on the fighter-bomber role.

Adopted by the USAF in 1963, their initial variant was dubbed the F-4C. With the US entry in the Vietnam War , the F-4 became one of the most identifiable aircraft of the conflict. US Navy F-4s flew their first combat sortie as part of Operation Pierce Arrow on August 5, 1964. The F-4's first air-to-air victory occurred the following April when Lieutenant (j.g.) Terence M. Murphy and his radar intercept officer, Ensign Ronald Fegan, downed a Chinese MiG-17 . Flying primarily in the fighter/interceptor role, US Navy F-4s downed 40 enemy aircraft to a loss of five of their own. An additional 66 were lost to missiles and ground fire.

Also flown by the US Marine Corps, the F-4 saw service from both carriers and land bases during the conflict. Flying ground support missions, USMC F-4s claimed three kills while losing 75 aircraft, mostly to ground fire. Though the latest adopter of the F-4, the USAF became its largest user. During Vietnam, USAF F-4s fulfilled both air superiority and ground support roles. As F-105 Thunderchief losses grew, the F-4 carried more and more of the ground support burden and by the end of the war was the USAF's primary all-around aircraft.

To support this change in mission, specially equipped and trained F-4 Wild Weasel squadrons were formed with the first deploying in late 1972. In addition, a photo-reconnaissance variant, the RF-4C, was used by four squadrons. During the Vietnam War, the USAF lost a total of 528 F-4s (of all types) to enemy action with the majority being down by anti-aircraft fire or surface-to-air missiles. In exchange, USAF F-4s downed 107.5 enemy aircraft. The five aviators (2 US Navy, 3 USAF) credited with ace status during the Vietnam War all flew the F-4.

Following Vietnam, the F-4 remained the principal aircraft for both the US Navy and USAF. Through the 1970s, the US Navy began replacing the F-4 with the new F-14 Tomcat. By 1986, all F-4s had been retired from frontline units. The aircraft remained in service with the USMC until 1992 when the last airframe was replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the USAF transitioned to the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. During this time, the F-4 was retained in its Wild Weasel and reconnaissance role.

These two latter types, the F-4G Wild Weasel V and RF-4C, deployed to the Middle East in 1990, as part of Operation Desert Shield/Storm . During operations, the F-4G played a key role in suppressing Iraqi air defenses, while the RF-4C collected valuable intelligence. One of each type was lost during the conflict, one to damage from ground fire and the other to an accident. The final USAF F-4 was retired in 1996, however several are still in use as target drones.

As the F-4 was initially intended as an interceptor, it was not equipped with a gun as planners believed that air-to-air combat at supersonic speeds would be fought exclusively with missiles. The fighting over Vietnam soon showed that engagements quickly became subsonic, turning battles that often precluded the use of air-to-air missiles. In 1967, USAF pilots began mounting external gun pods on their aircraft, however, the lack of a leading gunsight in the cockpit made them highly inaccurate. This issue was addressed with the addition of an integrated 20 mm M61 Vulcan gun to the F-4E model in the late 1960s.

Another problem that frequently arose with the aircraft was the production of black smoke when the engines were run at military power. This smoke trail made the aircraft easy to spot. Many pilots found ways to avoid producing the smoke by running one engine on afterburner and the other at reduced power. This provided an equivalent amount of thrust, without the telltale smoke trail. This issue was addressed with the Block 53 group of the F-4E which included smokeless J79-GE-17C (or -17E) engines.

The second-most produced Western jet fighter in history with 5,195 units, the F-4 was extensively exported. Nations that have flown the aircraft include Israel, Great Britain, Australia, and Spain. While many have since retired the F-4, the aircraft has been modernized and is still use (as of 2008) by Japan , Germany , Turkey , Greece, Egypt, Iran, and South Korea.

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War News | Military History | Military News

Pardo’s push saved the lives of two men, but wasn’t recognized for decades.

  • Vietnam War

Photo Credit: 1. Senior Airman David Cooper / 3d Audiovisual Squadron / DVIDS / Public Domain 2. United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Capt. John R. “Bob” Pardo was assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, which attacked an integral North Vietnamese steel mill. During the engagement, the aircraft flown by Pardo’s wingman suffered serious damage, enough to cause the pilot to eject into enemy territory. Not wanting to leave his comrade behind, the former launched a risky attempt at “pushing” the aircraft toward safety. This became known as “Pardo’s Push.”

Attack on the Thai Nguyen Steel Mill

Two McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom IIs in flight

In early 1967, the US Air Force prepared for an air strike on the well-defended Thai Nguyen Steel Mill north of Hanoi. The mill, used to produce war material for the North Vietnamese, had long been listed as the top industrial target in the area. However, up until this point, it had been off-limits , due to constraints enforced by Washington.

After those were lifted, the attack was planned for the beginning of March. It would have to wait, however, as intense weather conditions and heavy cloud cover caused a nine-day delay.

On that day, Capt. Bob Pardo, weapons systems officer 1st Lt. Steve Wayne, wingman Capt. Earl Aman and weapons systems officer 1st Lt. Robert “Bob” Houghton were to fly their McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom IIs to the target and assist by defending other aircraft against enemy MiG retaliation. In the case there weren’t any, they were to join in attacking the steel mill directly.

As it turned out, there were no MiGs present, so Aman and Houghton dropped their bombs on the mill. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire from the enemy, and several US aircraft were shot down. Aman and Houghton’s F-4 was hit by flak, but they were still able to proceed with the task at hand. The hits proved to be extremely damaging, however, causing gas to leak from their fuselage. They subsequently concluded they wouldn’t have enough fuel to fly themselves to safety.

Pardo and Wayne’s F-4 wasn’t in much better shape, having also taken a hit from anti-aircraft fire. Their fuselage had suffered damage, causing them to lose fuel as well, but at a much lesser rate. Still, they weren’t entirely sure their aircraft could make it to the pre-briefed rendezvous point, where a fuel tanker was waiting.

After it became clear that Aman’s aircraft wasn’t going to make it to the tanker, Pardo radioed him, saying, “I’m gonna try to give you a push. Fly that thing as smooth as you’ve ever flown.” He later explained, “I couldn’t see leaving a guy I’d just fought a battle with.”

Bob Pardo had to try different methods while running out of time


Despite the damage the aircraft had taken, their handling remained relatively normal. As such, both F-4s climbed to 30,000 feet, to try and extend their glide as much as possible before running out of fuel. Pardo’s hope was that he could at least get the two out of enemy territory. “We’ll do our d******t to help you out of here!” Pardo radioed to his wingman.

Initially, the pilot planned to tuck the nose of his F-4 against the tail of Aman’s, to push both forward enough to eject into the Laotian jungle. He told the wingman to “jettison your drag ‘chute,” so he could snuggle into a stable push point near the fuselage. Unfortunately, this wasn’t going to work. “There was so much turbulence coming off his airplane that I couldn’t even get within 10 feet of him,” Pardo later recalled. He had to think up a new plan.

Switching tactics, Pardo flew his aircraft under Aman’s to slowly rise up and “lift” his wingman’s F-4 from its belly. The plan was to essentially carry the more damaged aircraft piggyback style to the border. However, he quickly realized :

“When I got about a foot from him, the nose of my airplane started trying to come up, up, up. I thought, This is not good because we could smash our canopies, which would be a problem if we had to eject, which it looked like we were going to have to do because we were obviously getting low on fuel too.”

Having tried two different approaches, time was running out. At this point, Aman had to shut down his engines, radioing Pardo, “We’re out of fuel! Both our engines have just flamed out!” Additionally, his aircraft was descending at an alarming 3,000 feet per minute . Pardo pulled back from under Aman’s F-4, and it was at that moment he figured out another possible approach for pushing his wingman to safety .

Pardo’s Push

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in flight

When Pardo came out from under the belly of Aman’s F-4, he spotted the steel tail hook at the rear end of the fuselage. This is designed to stop aircraft as they land on aircraft carriers, meaning they’re built to be extremely strong. Knowing this, Pardo radioed Aman to “put the hook down.” Once it was, he flew his F-4 against it. Immediately, the aircraft’s descent was halved to 1,500 feet per minute – a solution had finally been found.

At first, Pardo pressed the tail hook against his windshield, but this was proving dangerous, as the pressure caused cracks in the windscreen. If that were to break, the powerless F-4 would crash into Pardo’s cockpit, so, he repositioned the tail hook to rest against the metal base of the glass.

The rest of the push didn’t come easy. The tail hook was designed to swivel, and Aman’s dislodged itself from Pardo’s aircraft almost every 30 seconds. Additionally, Pardo’s left engine caught fire during the push, forcing him to shut it down, increasing their descent to 2,000 feet per minute.

With only one engine pushing the two F-4s, it didn’t look like they were going to make it out of North Vietnam. In an act of sheer necessity, Pardo restarted the closed engine . He had Wayne inform him when the gauge began to flash, at which time he would momentarily shut the engine down. He continued to do this for about 10 minutes, dangerously, yet successfully pushing both across the border.

They weren’t guaranteed safety in Laos


Now that the two F-4s had made it out of North Vietnam, Pardo radioed the US search and rescue crew their position. At around 6,000 feet, Aman and Houghton ejected, injuring their backs in the process. On the ground, there was an armed Laotian guerrilla group heading their way, whose position Houghton also radioed. A minute later, Wayne also ejected, and the three connected on the ground, evading the guerrilla group until they were rescued .

The right engine of Pardo’s F-4 had, by this point, been entirely exhausted of fuel, ultimately flaming out and causing him to eject shortly after Wayne. However, when he ejected, he lost consciousness and fractured two vertebrae in his neck. The pilot also injured his back. After regaining consciousness and at risk of being spotted by the guerrilla group, Pardo painfully made his way half a mile up a hill to await rescue. It took the rescue crew about 45 minutes to locate him.

Pardo’s Push, as it became known, lasted for approximately 20 minutes, with Pardo successfully guiding both aircraft nearly 90 miles. “When we got to the club, man, we couldn’t buy a drink,” he recalled. “We had a pretty good party until about midnight.” The party didn’t last long, though, as Pardo was later reprimanded for the damages caused to his F-4.

More from us: Paris Davis’ Heroics in Vietnam Warrant the Medal of Honor – Why Hasn’t the US Army Awarded Him It?

It would be two decades before Pardo and his colleagues were recognized for their bravery. In 1989, he and Wayne were awarded the Silver Star, given in recognition of their gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force over North Vietnam.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam


The Premier Online Military History Magazine

Pardo’s Push – How a Quick-Thinking Fighter Pilot Used Some Incredible Flying to Save His Wingmen Over Enemy Territory

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

“Although the daring plan saved Aman and Houghton from capture, Pardo was initially reprimanded for his actions.”

By Sylvain Batut

MARCH 10, 1967 is a day Bob Pardo won’t ever forget.

At the time, the now retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-colonel was an F-4 Phantom II fighter pilot in the Vietnam War.

A veteran of numerous missions over enemy territory, then Captain Pardo and his weapons system officer, First Lieutenant Steve Wayne, suddenly found themselves having to rely on their smarts, determination and a whopping dose of unconventional thinking, to help save two of their comrades in a damaged aircraft from certain death or capture.

After both aircraft suffered critical damage from enemy fire during a bombing mission, Pardo spectacularly used his own plane to push the other Phantom jet out of North Vietnamese airspace. The action saved the two Air Force pilots.

As members of the 433 rd Tactical Fighter Squadron based at the Ubon Air Base in Thailand, Pardo and Wayne, along with their wingmen Captain Earl Aman and First Lieutenant Bob Houghton, were tasked with the bombing of Thai Nguyen steel mill , as part of a larger raid on a host of targets north of Hanoi. The site, which had been built by the Chinese government in the 1950s, was the biggest ironworks in North Vietnam.

The Pentagon fully knew the strategic importance of the plant and pushed it to the top of its list of targets, but monsoons in January and February of 1967 prevented air strikes. By March 10, the weather had cleared and an attack was finally given the go-ahead.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

Seventy-two planes would take part in the raid. F-105 bombers would hit the targets, while F-4 Phantoms from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, including two from the 433 rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, would provide escort.

The objective bristled with defences. As many as 96 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns surrounded the plant. These were supported by SAM batteries and a fighter base at nearby Phun Yen. No MiGs were scrambled, but the ground fire was heavy.

Over the course of the strike, both Aman’s and Pardo’s F-4s were riddled with anti-aircraft shells. Aman’s Phantom began shaking violently immediately after being hit. An enemy round had also damaged the fuel tank; the F-4 was losing gallons fast. With no tankers in range, it seem that the two fliers would be forced to bail out over enemy territory.

With few options left, Prado suggested an outlandish idea: He’d use his own Phantom to literally push the crippled F-4 to safety, after which the crew of the damaged aircraft could punch out and await rescue. Aman and Houghton agreed and the two crews jockeyed their planes into position.

First, Pardo tried to use the nose of his jet to nudge the crippled aircraft along by the tail. Aman powered down his engines to avoid damaging the other plane but heavy turbulence prevented the two birds from making contact.

Then, an idea.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

Pardo radioed Aman to lower his tail-hook. He wondered if he could use the appendage, normally needed for carrier landings, to drive the crippled machine forward.

It seemed to work.

Using his own windscreen to support the hook, Pardo drove his wingman’s broken Phantom for 20 minutes, eventually reaching Laos, 80 miles away.

Once out of enemy territory, Aman and Houghton safely ejected over Laos. Pardo and Wayne, their plane’s overworked left engine on fire, also hit the silk. The four aviators rendezvoused on the ground and made their way to safety, avoiding Laotian communist militia. They were rescued less than two hours after touching down.

Although the daring plan saved Aman and Houghton from capture, Pardo was initially reprimanded for his actions. Supposedly, pushing one airplane with another was against military regulations and the Air Force brass frowned on Pardo intentionally sacrificing his own multi-million-dollar aircraft to save another.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

What would eventually become known in military aviation circles as Pardo’s Push was celebrated as an incredible exploit of initiative and ingenuity. Years later, an investigation was launched to re-examine Pardo and Wayne’s actions. Both were finally awarded the Silver Star in 1989 for their heroism — 22 years after the fact.

Bob Pardo reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Air Force before retiring in 1974. Pardo’s Push earned itself a place in American military history, even inspiring an episode of the TV series JAG in 2000. In the meantime, Pardo opened the Earl Aman Courage Foundation in support of his former wingman who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“If one of us gets in trouble, everyone else gets together to help,” Pardo told Air Force Magazine .

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Sylvain Batut is a military history writer with a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University in Philadelphia. You can follow him at  @sylvain31000

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What couldn’t the f-4 phantom do.

A tribute to McDonnell’s masterpiece fighter jet.

Stephen Joiner


First, they tried an F-104.  “Not enough wing or thrust,” recalls Jack Petry, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. When NASA engineers were launching rockets at Florida’s Cape Canaveral in the 1960s, they needed pilots to fly close enough to film the missiles as they accelerated through Mach 1 at 35,000 feet. Petry was one of the chosen. And the preferred chase airplane was the McDonnell F-4 Phantom.

“Those two J79 engines made all the difference,” says Petry. After a Mach 1.2 dive synched to the launch countdown, he “walked the [rocket’s] contrail” up to the intercept, tweaking closing speed and updating mission control while camera pods mounted under each wing shot film at 900 frames per second. Matching velocity with a Titan rocket for 90 extreme seconds, the Phantom powered through the missile’s thundering wash, then broke away as the rocket surged toward space. Of pacing a Titan II in a two-seat fighter, Petry says: “Absolutely beautiful. To see that massive thing in flight and be right there in the air with it—you can imagine the exhilaration.” 

For nearly four decades  of service in the U.S. military, the Phantom performed every combat task thrown at it—almost every mission ever defined.

“All we had to work with at the beginning was a gleam in the customer’s eye,” said James S. McDonnell of the Phantom’s inception. In 1954, the ambitious founder of McDonnell Aircraft personally delivered to the Pentagon preliminary sketches based on the U.S. Navy’s request for a twin-engine air superiority fighter. The Navy green-lighted McDonnell’s concept, as well as a competing offer from Chance-Vought that updated the F8U Crusader.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

In an area of McDonnell’s St. Louis, Missouri factory known as the advanced design cage—a cluster of three desks and a few drafting boards partitioned off with drywall topped with chicken wire—just four engineers worked on the airplane that would propel naval aviation into the future. As the engineers worked, the Navy clarified its concept of air superiority: The service wanted a two-seat, high-altitude interceptor to neutralize the threat Soviet bombers posed to America’s new fleet of Forrestal-class super-carriers. Now designated F4H-1, the project soon engulfed the entire resources of “McAir,” as the company was known. By 1962, F-4 program manager David Lewis would be company president.

McDonnell’s and the Navy’s design philosophy assumed the next war, not the last. The F-4’s rear cockpit was there for a backseater to handle what was sure to be a heavy information load. For the air-to-air encounters of tomorrow, gunnery was supplanted by radar-guided missiles. Though not strictly solid state, the airframe was stuffed with state of the art: Westinghouse radar, Raytheon missile fire control, advanced navigation systems, and an analog air-data computer. A network of onboard sensors extended nose to tail.

On the factory floor, integrating 30,000 electronic parts and 14 miles of wiring gave troubleshooters a fit—and job security. Cheek-by-jowl components generated clashing sources of electromagnetic energy. Voltage wandered wire to wire, producing crazy glitches: Gauges displayed 800 gallons when the fuel tanks were empty. Just how convoluted the glitches could get was demonstrated when baffling control losses were traced to a random match between the pitch of one test pilot’s voice in the headset mic and the particular resonance of a signal controlling autopilot activation.

After the F-4 eliminated the F8U-3 in a competitive fly-off, George Spangenberg, an official in the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, declared: “The single-seat fighter era is dead.” Though its General Electric J79 engines advertised its arrival with a smoke trail visible 25 miles away—a Phantom calling card that would take two decades to engineer out—the first F-4 production models rolled off McDonnell’s assembly line with Mach 2 capability as standard equipment and a 1,000-hour warranty. Delivered to California’s Naval Air Station Miramar in December 1960 as a fleet defender purpose-built to intercept high-flying nuclear foes, the massively powered, technology-chocked F-4 seemed to herald the same break from 1950s orthodoxy as John F. Kennedy’s torch-has-been-passed inauguration speech, then only weeks away.

Navy aviators of the early 1950s made do with jet aircraft hamstrung by the requirements for carrier landings. “I wouldn’t say I really aspired to fly the [McDonnell] F3H Demon,” says Guy Freeborn, a retired Navy commander, of the clunky subsonic he once had to eject from. “But then, one day, here was this beautiful new F-4 sitting right next to it.” Suddenly, carrier-based fliers like Freeborn—who would spend two Vietnam combat tours in the front seat of a Phantom—found themselves sole proprietors of the hottest fighter on Earth.

The new jet took some getting used to. Getting F-4s to fly and fight required a team effort: a pilot up front and a radar intercept officer (RIO) behind. The ethos of the solitary hunter-killer, not to mention the ability to single-handedly grease precarious landings on pitching carrier decks, fostered a strong DIY culture among Navy fighter pilots. How to process the notion of a RIO (aka “guy in back,” aka “voice in the luggage compartment”), who wasn’t even a pilot, looking over your shoulder?

Aerial combat in Vietnam had a clarifying effect on pilots’ attitudes toward RIOs. “I loved it,” says John Chesire, who flew 197 combat missions in the Phantom during two tours in Vietnam. “We split our duties, and he kept me out of trouble. Going into combat, the workload was so high that I really relied on the guy behind me.”

Flying into combat without a shooting iron was another matter. “That was the biggest mistake on the F-4,” says Chesire. “Bullets are cheap and tend to go where you aim them. I needed a gun, and I really wished I had one.”

“Everyone in RF-4s wished they had a gun on the aircraft,” says Jack Dailey, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general and director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

McDonnell’s earliest concept included interchangeable nose sections to readily convert a standard F-4 into the RF-4B, a camera-equipped reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft’s most photo-friendly asset, however, was speed. RF-4Bs flew alone and unarmed deep into unfriendly airspace. “Speed is life,” Phantom pilots liked to say.

In the front seat of a Marine Corps photo-recon Phantom on more than 250 missions, Dailey was tasked to support Marines on the ground with film and infrared imagery. “We were trying to track movement of the Viet Cong coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he says. “They moved their trucks a lot at night. We could fly along a road and pop flash cartridges and catch them out in the open.”

The recce pilots in RF-4s had good reason to wish for a gun: The focal length of the RF-4’s camera lens and the required photo coverage imposed a flight regime that didn’t include evasive action. “For photographic purposes, they wanted you flying straight and level at about 5,000 feet,” says Dailey. The predictable flight path and the absence of defensive weapons drew enemy calibers from anti-aircraft artillery down to small arms. “We got hosed down every day,” says Dailey. Often, ground forces simply used barrage fire—large groups firing rifles and other sidearms into the sky simultaneously. Dailey’s Phantom was nailed on nine occasions. A rifle round once penetrated the cockpit, narrowly missing him. Another time he landed with so much engine damage “you could see light shining through.”

Naval aviators were rudely initiated into an F-4 idiosyncrasy: As airplane and deck parted company, the Phantom’s nose initially rose slowly.  And with a bit of speed, the nose could over-rotate to a near-stall attitude if not controlled. “It got pretty wild,” says Chesire. “It was always lots of fun to watch new guys take off.”

The snappy response of the J79 turbojets made one aspect of landing on a carrier safer. Earlier engines had often lagged behind urgent power requests. In a memorable moment landing on the USS Midway , Chesire realized that his tailhook had failed to engage an arresting cable—after he’d already fully idled back both engines (a rookie mistake). The Midway ’s deck camera recorded his Phantom plunging off the end of the carrier. He slammed the throttles forward. Instead of a large splash, the F-4 reappeared—“going straight up, in full afterburner,” says Chesire—as the J79s delivered just-in-time thrust.

Combat air patrol missions were proactive: Instead of escorting or defending, F-4s went looking for trouble. MiG pilots with North Vietnam’s air force were happy to oblige. Part of a two-Phantom patrol to waylay Hanoi-based MiGs, Guy Freeborn launched from the USS Constellation on August 10, 1967. “We were hungry,” says Freeborn, who had never encountered a MiG. Lurking beneath a thin cloud layer, “we figured we might be pretty close to their path. Then, holy crap, here come three MiG-21s out of the clouds right over us.”

The Phantoms shifted into afterburner and sped to 575 mph to develop enough energy to turn aggressively. F-4s hemorrhaged speed while turning—“It was a big, dirty airplane in terms of drag,” says Freeborn—so MiGs could generally out-turn the Phantoms. But the Russian fighter’s fancy footwork didn’t often trump the F-4’s brute, drag-strip acceleration.

The lead Phantom launched two Sparrow missiles, which lost radar lock on the MiGs. Freeborn had other issues beside the finicky, radar-guided Sparrow: Behind him sat a RIO with no combat experience. “I felt I couldn’t rely on him to stay cool, get a radar lock-up, and do what he had to do,” he recounts. As the Phantoms rapidly closed the gap, he chose “Heat” on his front-seat weapons selector and launched an AIM-9 Sidewinder. The streaking heat-seeker locked on to and hit one of the MiGs. Though smoking and trailing fuel, the fighter remained airborne. Before Freeborn could unleash the coup de grâce, the pilot in the lead F-4 finished off the MiG with a Sidewinder. “I told my backseater, ‘Look! That bastard just shot my MiG!’ ”

With only one target remaining, Freeborn quickly triggered another Sidewinder, which promptly misfired. “I said, ‘Oh man, it’s just not my day.’ ” He cycled the weapon selector once more and lit the next AIM-9. “That one blew him to pieces,” he says. He later discovered that neither MiG pilot had survived.

The third MiG-21? Last seen miles away, “streaking back towards Hanoi,” says Freeborn.

Before stealth, there was night. Darkness provided cover for the “Night Owls” of the Air Force 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, during the Vietnam War. “The first time I walked into the squadron, I noticed everything was painted black,” says Doug Joyce, today a retired Air Force colonel.

Missions centered on tactical interdiction and forward air control. Standard strikes were two-craft affairs. “We seldom flew in big gaggles like the day guys did,” Joyce explains. “Nor could we do a lot of jinking around as we came down the chute on a bomb run, because of the risk of spatial disorientation in the dark.” From Phantoms with painted-black bellies, Night Owls dispensed both dumb bombs and laser-guided ones, as well as cluster bombs. Looming terrain and ground fire posed dangers: “37mm anti-aircraft was the biggest threat,” says Joyce. “When they couldn’t see you, they’d just shoot everywhere. If there was any moonlight at all, of course, that F-4 would show up as a big black shape in the moonshine.”

One of the premier graveyard-shift gigs—reserved for the most experienced Owls—was supporting B-52s on bombing raids to Hanoi. “It was pretty breathtaking,” says Joyce, describing pyrotechnics in the night skies in the spring of 1972. “At the very beginning, even with Wild Weasel support, they shot hundreds of SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] at us. At the altitudes the B-52s were at, we were close to the service ceiling of the F-4. You didn’t want to use afterburner because you just lit yourself up. And you couldn’t maneuver laterally in these formations because there were other airplanes next to you.”

Plumes of metallic strips called chaff were released to distract radar-guided SAMs fired at the B-52s. However, Joyce says it had the opposite effect on the F-4s dispersing it: “Here we are in this very heavily defended SAM environment, and we’re appearing on enemy radar screens at the pointy end of a bright stream of chaff.” It amounted to an arrow pointing out the Phantom to North Vietnamese missile operators (see “The Missile Men of North Vietnam,” Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015).

“I always said if you were worried about dying, you weren’t doing a good job,” says Chuck DeBellevue, a retired Air Force colonel. He wasn’t much of a worrier. In Vietnam, DeBellevue flew 220 missions in the F-4 and shot down six MiGs, becoming America’s highest scoring ace of the war.

In 1963, a land-based variant of the Phantom emerged from the McDonnell assembly line. Optimized for both ground support and air superiority, the Air Force F-4C was distinguished by flight controls in both front and back seats and was primed for manual “down the chute” dive-bombing and tactical interdiction. In time, the Air Force bought twice as many F-4s as the Navy.

A pilot surplus put DeBellevue into the F-4 back seat for duty as a weapons systems officer. Unlike their Navy counterpart, the initial backseaters in Air Force F-4s were pilots. However, the Air Force soon decided that navigators were better suited to be F-4 WSOs—or “Wizzos.” “A lot of pilots were not really happy going into the back seat,” says DeBellevue. “But, as a navigator, I was just pleased as pink.” In November 1971, he was assigned to the 555th Tactical Squadron at Udorn, Thailand.

DeBellevue recalls that on the day he reported, he got a blunt greeting from the 555th scheduler. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got one year—if you live. Tomorrow morning you start on the dawn patrol.’ ” As a weapons systems officer, DeBellevue flew nearly 100 missions deep into North Vietnam.

“Crossing the fence into North Vietnamese airspace, you’d start psyching up,” says DeBellevue. Once the F-4 engaged an enemy, he says, “nothing that was happening outside the cockpit was important to me.” With an impending life-or-death event looming at near supersonic speeds, he narrowed his focus to managing weapons systems, acquiring the enemy aircraft on radar, calculating direction of intercept, and feeding the frontseater what he needed to know.

On September 9, 1972, DeBellevue was paired with pilot John Madden on a patrol mission to North Vietnam. Afterward, he was to make one of the last flights leaving Hanoi. “We crossed the Red River and I picked up two blips on the radar at 11 o’clock,” he recalls. Immediately he knew what they meant: “MiG-19s, a very dangerous airplane,” he says. “We couldn’t outrun—we didn’t have gas to run. So we had to fight. We turned on them.” Both MiGs jettisoned fuel tanks, ready to rumble. “They turned into us, and the fight was on,” he says.

“We fired two Sidewinders at the trailing MiG,” he says. “One hit him, and he dropped out of the fight.” DeBellevue couldn’t see that the enemy had in fact crashed and burned, officially making him an ace. “But the other guy was turning hard into us anyway, so we put all our attention on him,” he says. The F-4 launched a heat-seeker, which immediately soared out of sight. “It looked like it was heading for the sun, which isn’t good news,” he says. “Even from the back seat, I could see the MiG, and by this time he was really making angles on us.”

A streak entered his field of view: The errant Sidewinder had rejoined the battle. It ended up in the MiG’s afterburner. “He rolled out wings-level, and then rolled inverted” says DeBellevue, of the MiG’s pilot. “He was at about twelve or fifteen hundred feet when he started a split-S. The first 90 degrees was perfect. After that—he turned to dust.”

Even as he was being toasted at the officers’ club the night of his fifth and sixth victories, “they handed me transfer papers and told me to be ready to leave at six the next morning,” he says. The Air Force removed aces from combat. Stateside, after graduating from pilot training, he was soon in the Phantom again—this time the front seat. When he retired from the Air Force 26 years later, Chuck DeBellevue was the last American ace on active duty.

Jim Schreiner had flown Air Force A-10s and was facing a desk job in 1990 when he was offered one more flying tour. He suggested a General Dynamics F-16 or a McDonnell Douglas F-15, the elite fighters at the time. In his book Magnum! The Wild Weasels in Desert Storm , coauthored with Brick Eisel, he described his assignment flying 1969-vintage F-4Gs instead. “It was still a fighter,” he says today, “but not exactly what I was thinking of.”

Twenty years after SAMs downed more than 200 American warplanes in Vietnam, “Wild Weasel” pilots like Schreiner flew upgraded Phantoms into SAM-filled skies during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. This time, the outcome was very different: Not a single U.S. aircraft was downed by an Iraqi radar-guided SAM.

The Wild Weasel F-4s were fitted with an AN/APR-47 radar-homing-and-warning system, which enabled them to sniff out missile sites. Also, the back-seat configuration was altered to accommodate additional radarscopes and inertial navigation equipment. The Weasel’s most pertinent weapons were two or four AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles, designed to follow the SAM radar beam right back to its origin.

At 2 a.m. on the first night of the war, Schreiner and his backseater, Dan Sharp, one half of a two-aircraft mission, quickly found the Iraqi SAM sites. Early on, North Vietnamese SAM operators had connected the dots (energized radar equals missile exploding through the roof) and learned to keep their radar powered down until the last moment before launch. “The Iraqis hadn’t yet figured out that it wasn’t a good idea to have the sites up,” says Schreiner. “So they had them all turned on.” The result was a “target-rich environment,” says Schreiner. “Lots of things to look at and shoot at.”

In the cockpit, he watched as each anti-radiation missile found its mark, and the icon representing a SAM site on the Phantom’s radar screen was replaced by a symbol indicating where it used to be. Air-to-air threats were a non-issue—AIM-7 Sparrows carried for self-defense were never used. “There was never any reason to,” says Schreiner. “Had there been any threat, we had plenty of F-15s in the air to take those out.” None of the Wild Weasels were hit by anything larger than small-caliber ground fire. “We continued to fly until they called a halt to the air war,” says Schreiner. 

“yes, 68,000 is well above the F-4’s operating range,” says Jack Petry. “We weren’t supposed to go above 50-, so we didn’t tell anybody.” That day in January 1965, while he and his backseater, Captain Ray Seal, were chasing the Titan II rocket, their Phantom’s “smash”—flight energy—pushed the space program’s comfort zone.

In his helmet headset, Petry could hear that the range controller at Cape Canaveral was getting nervous: “Break it off,” the controller repeated.

“Negative,” Petry replied, assuring the controller that his finite momentum wouldn’t mess with the missile. “The whole idea was to keep the airplane pointed at the missile,” he says. “So we stayed with it just as long as we had the airspeed—to keep the cameras rolling.”

For a fleeting moment, his altimeter eclipsed 68,000 feet. “We had virtually no energy left,” says Petry. “We weren’t flying anymore at that point—just riding. But the F-4 stayed quite stable.”

The Titan leaned into its trajectory and barreled downrange. Petry broke away inverted and maneuvered to restore airflow over the wings. He and his backseater kept Gemini II in the F-4’s camera sights, he says, “until we fell out of the sky.”  

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Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in southern California.

The Phantom Menace: the F-4 in Air Combat in Vietnam

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The F-4 Phantom II was the United States' primary air superiority fighter aircraft during the Vietnam War. This airplane epitomized American airpower doctrine during the early Cold War, which diminished the role of air-to-air combat and the air superiority mission. As a result, the F-4 struggled against the Soviet MiG fighters used by the North Vietnamese Air Force. By the end of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in 1968, the Phantom traded kills with MiGs at a nearly one-to-one ratio, the worst air combat performance in American history. The aircraft also regularly failed to protect American bombing formations from MiG … continued below

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Hankins, Michael W. August 2013.

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  • Hankins, Michael W.
  • Citino, Robert Major Professor
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  • University of North Texas Publisher Info: www.unt.edu Place of Publication: Denton, Texas

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  • Name: Master of Science
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The F-4 Phantom II was the United States' primary air superiority fighter aircraft during the Vietnam War. This airplane epitomized American airpower doctrine during the early Cold War, which diminished the role of air-to-air combat and the air superiority mission. As a result, the F-4 struggled against the Soviet MiG fighters used by the North Vietnamese Air Force. By the end of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in 1968, the Phantom traded kills with MiGs at a nearly one-to-one ratio, the worst air combat performance in American history. The aircraft also regularly failed to protect American bombing formations from MiG attacks. A bombing halt from 1968 to 1972 provided a chance for American planners to evaluate their performance and make changes. The Navy began training pilots specifically for air combat, creating the Navy Fighter Weapons School known as "Top Gun" for this purpose. The Air Force instead focused on technological innovation and upgrades to their equipment. The resumption of bombing and air combat in the 1972 Linebacker campaigns proved that the Navy's training practices were effective, while the Air Force's technology changes were not, with kill ratios becoming worse. However, the last three months of the campaign introduced an American ground radar system that proved more effective than Top Gun in improving air-to-air combat performance. By the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force and Navy overcame the inherent problems with the Phantom, which were mostly of their own making.

  • F-4 Phantom
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  • military aviation
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Bookcover: The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot's Combat over Laos

The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot's Combat over Laos

Vol. 12: north texas military biography and memoir series.

September, 2018

54 b&w illus. Map. Notes. Bib. Index.

Hardcover, E-Book, Audio Book

About Honodel's The Phantom Vietnam War

David R. “Buff” Honodel was a cocky young man with an inflated self-image when he arrived in 1969 at his base in Udorn, Thailand. His war was not in Vietnam; it was a secret one in the skies of a neighboring country almost unknown in America, attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail that fed soldiers and supplies from North Vietnam into the South. Stateside he learned the art of flying the F-4, but in combat, the bomb-loaded fighter handled differently, targets shot back, and people suffered. Inert training ordnance was replaced by lethal weapons. In the air, a routine day mission turned into an unexpected duel with a deadly adversary. Complacency during a long night mission escorting a gunship almost led to death. A best friend died just before New Year’s. A RF-4 crashed into the base late in Buff’s tour of duty.

The reader will experience Buff’s war from the cockpit of a supersonic F-4D Phantom II, doing 5-G pullouts after dropping six 500-pound bombs on trucks hidden beneath triple jungle canopy. These were well defended by a skillful, elusive, determined enemy firing back with 37mm anti-aircraft fire and tracers in the sky. The man who left the States was a naïve, self-centered young pilot. The man who came back 137 missions later was much different.

“ The Phantom Vietnam War will be the standard against which other memoirs are measured—Honodel is one hell of a good pilot and a great storyteller.” —–Earl H. Tilford, author of Crosswinds: The Air Force in Vietnam

About the Author

Lieutenant Colonel DAVID R. “BUFF” HONODEL flew 4,400 hours in F-4, A-10, OV-10, and T-33 aircraft during his 22-year Air Force career. He served overseas in Korea and Germany, and flew two tours in the Vietnam War. His decorations include two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Meritorious Service Medals, and nineteen Air Medals.

More from David R. “Buff” Honodel

North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series: Recent Titles

Bookcover: My Darling Boys: A Family at War, 1941-1947

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f 4 phantom push in vietnam

U.S. Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units

U.S. Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War

by Peter E. Davies, Osprey Publishing, 2012

In contrast to its previous tradition of making do with whatever aircraft the Navy could spare or didn’t want, the U.S. Marine Corps had as much say as the Navy in the four-year development of the McDonnell F-4H Phantom II. “This does present some unique design requirements,” Marine Lt. Col. Thomas H. Miller told aviation historian Peter E. Davies.“The Navy’s primary concern was for the protection of its ships at sea, while the Marine Corps’ was the protection of its highly mobile forces ashore.”

Once it finally entered service, the Phantom proved versatile enough to satisfy both services’ needs and more— during the Vietnam War it unloaded a variety of ordnance, served as a useful highspeed photoreconnaissance plane and did well enough in air-to-air combat to be adopted by the U.S. Air Force as well.

Davies’ book focuses principally on the ground war in the south, where the Phantom crews’ close-support missions sometimes made the difference between life and death for their fellow Marines, who faced Viet Cong ambushes one day and sieges by the North Vietnamese Army the next. The Marine air units often found conditions at their airbases as rugged as those of the ground grunts’ firebases, and occasionally had to “borrow” Navy ordnance or even improvise their own napalm bombs.The latter were sometimes hazards in themselves, being vulnerable to intense enemy groundfire or even igniting on their own. Regardless, the Marine units chalked up hundreds of missions and sterling records of upholding an air-ground variation on the credo that “Marines don’t leave Marines behind.”

“Most of us dreamed of encountering a MiG,” remarked Colonel Denis Kiely, but the Marine Phantom crews were not used to air-to-air combat. In VMFA-232’s only such encounter on Aug. 26, 1972, one of its F-4Js became the fifth victory for MiG-21 ace Nguyen Duc Soat of the North Vietnamese 927th Fighter Regiment; its pilot 1st Lt. Sam G. Cordova, being killed, though his radar intercept officer,1st Lt.Darrell L.Borders,was rescued. The Marines got some revenge on September 11, when Major Lee Lasseter and Captain John Cummings of VMFA-333, operating from the aircraft carrier America , scored a Sidewinder hit on a MiG-21.

Besides serving as forward air controllers, specialized Marine RF-4Bs became popular with their crews in reconnaissance roles.“The cockpit fitted like a glove,”said Colonel Ed Love,commander of Da Nang– based VMCJ-3, “and all the controls and switches were where you expected them to be. You added throttle and there was an immediate burst of power.”

Illustrated with a plethora of color photos and 30 profiles with plenty of information on the extended careers of individual aircraft, U.S. Marine Corps Phantom II Units is equally endowed with rich recollections and anecdotes.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam . To subscribe, click here .

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Lieutenant Bill John furiously spun the thumb wheel on the controls of his AWG-10 radar, trying to get a radar lock as his F-4 Phantom rolled over the top, inverted and pulled hard toward the MiG-21 in front on them. He got it, then shouted to the pilot, Commander Sam Flynn, “Shoot!” Everything seemed to go still for an instant, but nothing happened. John shouted two more times at Flynn to fire—but a malfunction had prevented the AIM-7 radar guided Sparrow missile from launching. The battle had only just begun.

F4 Phantom

Cmdr. Sam Flynn (right) and Lt. Bill John (left) sit in their F-4 Phantom, just prior to takeoff on the mission during which they shot down a MiG-21. This Phantom is currently on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center (Photo courtesy Bill John)

It was the summer of 1972, in the middle of Operation Linebacker: an aggressive bombing campaign in the last year of major air operations in the Vietnam War. The goal of the strikes was to cripple the recent North Vietnamese ground offensive launched that spring, to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to defending South Vietnam, and to pressure North Vietnam at the negotiating table. For the crews of US Navy Fighter Squadron 31 (VF-31, the “Tomcatters”), June 21, 1972, was the last day of their first line period of sustained operations onboard the USS Saratoga before a scheduled week off. That day proved to be one of the most significant in the squadron’s history.

The squadron’s Executive Officer was Commander Sam Flynn. That day he was flying an F-4 Phantom with his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Lieutenant Bill John. That F-4 is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Their wingman was Lieutenant Junior Grade Nick Strelchuk, still very new to the squadron, having just finished his time in the F-4 Training Squadron. Strelchuk’s RIO was Lieutenant Dave Arnolds. The group had only flown together a few times before June 21, 1972, when they were assigned to MiGCAP (combat air patrol against enemy MiG fighters) to protect a bomber strike against a North Vietnamese missile storage facility northwest of Haiphong. Flynn hoped to “troll” the enemy airfields nearby and engage the North Vietnamese Air Force in air-to-air combat. While the group was still on their first aerial refuel, they got that wish.

Painting F4-Phantom

Lt. Bill John (top) paints a MiG-shaped victory marking on the intake of the F-4 Phantom as Cmdr. Sam Flynn (below) watches. (Photo courtesy of Bill John)

“Red Crown”, a radar ship, radioed to tell them MiGs were airborne, heading North. The two eager F-4 crews crossed over land ahead of the Marine A-6 Intruder on station that could have provided electronic jamming of enemy ground radars. Without that, enemy missile sites began lighting up the Phantoms, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) launched into the sky. Defeating a SAM meant flying at it head-on and breaking away at the last second. But enemy missile operators knew that, and often fired more than one. “It wasn’t the first missile you worried about,” John recalled. The crews immediately began evasive maneuvers, dropping strips of metal chaff to confuse enemy radars and dodging the SAMs as best they could. Seeing Strelchuk end up in exactly the correct position after evading, Flynn shouted, “Sierra Hotel! We got a good wingman!”

Red Crown radioed again, warning that the MIGs were about ten miles out. The Phantoms’ external fuel tanks were still too full to risk jettisoning without damaging their aircraft. They would have to fight with tanks still hanging, which blocked two of their four AIM-7 Sparrow missiles from being able to fire. MiG-21s usually flew low, but not this time. Strelchuk looked up, saw a MiG-21 just ahead, and shouted “Tally, one o’ clock high!” Flynn, who was still smarting over an earlier unverified shoot-down of an An-2 Colt, made a very difficult choice. Although he was the flight lead, his agreement was that whoever got the first Tally got the first shot. “You got the lead,” Flynn said to Strelchuk.

Arnolds brought the F-4’s radar to bear to try and get a lock, but the system wasn’t working. Whether it was enemy jamming or a malfunction, the radar couldn’t get a lock. Realizing that the radar wasn’t going to function, Strelchuk pointed his Phantom directly at the oncoming MiG, passing as close to the MiG as possible while going into a vertical climb where the Phantom might have an advantage. But that MiG wasn’t alone. Flynn saw a second aircraft and went for it. “I’m engaged,” he said as the roles switched again—this time Strelchuck reverting to a defensive wingman position as Flynn and John passed by the MiG. As they turned to get a shot lined up, John saw a third MiG-21 flying high above them.

F4 Phantom

The F-4 Phantom in which Flynn and John shot down a MiG-21, in flight. Markings include the logo for VF-31, “The Tomcatters,” featuring the namesake of their callsign: “Felix.” (Photo courtesy Bill John)

Museum F4 Phantom

The same F-4 Phantom flown by Flynn and John is currently on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, after being upgraded to an F-4S model and serving with the US Marine Corps. (Smithsonian Institution NASM-NASM2004-18299)

The same F-4 Phantom flown by Flynn and John is currently on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, after being upgraded to an F-4S model and serving with the US Marine Corps. (NASM photo NASM-NASM2004-18299)

As Flynn and John went up and over, chasing their MiG, their Sparrow missile malfunctioned, despite John’s shouts to shoot. John looked out and saw Strelchuk and Arnolds—but one of the MiGs was right behind them, looking like it was pulling lead and about to fire guns. Instead, an Atoll heat-seeking missile launched from the MiG, John called a warning: “Break it off!” John told Flynn, “Nick is 10 o’clock high.” Flynn told Strelchuk, “Keep it in burner and pull!” Strelchuk saw the missile coming—but it wasn’t alone. The MiG fired three missiles. Strelchuk managed to break the missile locks with a combination of pulling toward the Atolls and putting his rear stabilizers down, blocking the heat exhaust of the Phantom’s massive engines.

After dodging the missiles, Strelchuk maneuvered into the MiG. Flynn and John followed both battling aircraft, with the third MiG still hanging ominously over their heads. John managed to lock onto the MiG that was tussling with Strelchuk, but again the AIM-7 missiles failed. Flynn switched to the AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seekers and fired twice, both missing. The third Sidewinder flew off the rail and went straight into the MiG’s tailpipe, exploding inside the plane’s engine. The MiG pilot tried desperately to save the aircraft as it fell in a flat spin.

Nicholas Strelchuk

Lt. j.g. Nicholas Strelchuk wore this gear, currently on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, during the Vietnam War when he flew F-4 Phantoms with Navy Fighter Squadron 31. (Smithsonian Institution/Photo by author)

Awards ceremony aboard the USS Saratoga

Awards ceremony aboard the USS Saratoga . For their involvement in downing a North Vietnamese MiG-21, Lt. (j.g.) Nicholas Strelchuck (far right) and Dave Arnolds received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Lt. Bill John (2nd from right, along with CDR Sam Flynn, partially hidden) received the Silver Star. (Photo courtesy of Bill John)

Bill John, Nick Strelchuk, and Dave Arnolds

Left to Right: Bill John, Nick Strelchuk, and Dave Arnolds at a VF-31 reunion event at the Udvar-Hazy Center in 2022, standing with the F-4 Phantom in which John and Flynn shot down a MiG-21 and a scale model diorama of the encounter. (Smithsonian Institution NASM2022-03521-S)

Strelchuk radioed “bingo fuel,” indicating they had only enough gas to return to the ship. As Strelchuk and Arnolds sped toward home, Flynn stayed in the area. John said they needed to go. Flynn watched the damaged MiG fall, haunted by the inability to verify the Colt he had shot down before. This time he needed to be sure. “Yeah, yeah, we’re going in a minute,” Flynn said. When the MiG pilot ejected near 1,000 feet, Flynn and John booked it out of there—and realized they needed to fly back through the same SAM sites they had come through on the way in. But this time didn’t have enough fuel to handle dodging more missiles. Thankfully, the A-6 Intruder was on station to jam the North Vietnamese radars and ensure the group a safe trip back to the Saratoga . After a victory roll, all four crew members landed safely to large celebrations.

F4 Phantom

This F-4 Phantom, although not the same one in which Flynn and John shot down a MiG, was the one they typically flew and featured their names below the canopy. Crews did not always fly the jets with their names listed, due to maintenance or availability. The MiG-shaped victory marking on the intake generally went on the aircraft marked with the names of the crew that earned the victory. (Photo courtesy Bill John)

The F-4 that Flynn and John flew that day, as well as Strelchuk’s flight gear, is currently on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Looking back, John was incredibly proud of the aerial victory—an event that was rare in the Vietnam War. But he was also a little disappointed. “If all our missiles were good, we would’ve had three kills that day,” he recalled. Faulty missiles were a widespread problem during the Vietnam War, as guided missile technology was in an early phase of development at that time.

The battle that Flynn, John, Strelchuk, and Arnolds took part in fifty years ago demonstrates the difficulties that US tactical pilots faced in the Vietnam War—a war fought on the cutting edge of technology as the battlefield became increasingly electronic and sophisticated. Aircrews had to balance a much wider set of specialized tasks than pilots of previous generations, using aircraft, sensors, and computer technology that their predecessors could only have dreamed of. In doing so, they paved the way for future pilots and engineers to further develop these technologies and tactics into the combat capabilities that the US Navy and other US military aviators use today.


This MiG-21 (NATO code-name “Fishbed”), on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, is the same type of aircraft that Flynn and John shot down in June 1972. It was known for being more agile in horizontal turning than the F-4 Phantom during aerial combat, but was weaker in vertical maneuvers. (Smithsonian Institution NASM2006-21732)

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Colonel Richard H Graham (ret’d) is best known as an SR-71 Blackbird pilot – but he earlier flew 210 combat missions in the F-4 during the Vietnam War, some of which were in the Wild Weasel role.


f 4 phantom push in vietnam

I arrived at Udorn in Thailand in March 1971 to join the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Triple Nickel’ and was eager to start flying combat missions. The USAF’s Seventh Air Force headquartered in Saigon controlled all combat missions flown in Vietnam. Each fighter base had its own mission planning and tactics office that further refined each unit’s role.

During my tour with the 555th TFS, I flew the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom and then the ’D model. The main F-4 missions flown out of Udorn were air-to-air pitched against North Vietnamese MiG-17s, ’19s and ’21s, air-toground (bombing) and escorting the RF-4C on reconnaissance missions.

The squadron flying schedule board depicted who you would be flying with, the timing and type of mission. Most missions were flown in four-ship formation.

A large Air America contingent of ’planes and personnel were located on a separate section of the Udorn flight line. Laos was very close to Udorn and many of our missions were in support of Air America activities in that country. Most of their landing strips there were constantly under fire from the Pathet Lao, a communist organisation, fighting for control of the country.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

The last thing any crewmember wanted was to bail out over Laos and be captured, as the Pathet Lao usually killed everyone they captured. Over North Vietnam you had a better chance of being a prisoner of war. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was still an awful place to be!

My squadron commander was Lt Col Joseph ‘Joe’ Kittinger, who on August 16, 1960 was the test pilot who set a record when made a high-altitude jump from 102,800ft from a gondola. He reached over 600mph before opening his parachute. He was a great leader of combat aviators, caring for his crews.

I don’t think many US aircrew believed in the rules of engagement that came into effect in late 1971. These prohibited US warplanes from flring at targets in North Vietnam unless they were either fired at, or locked onto by enemy radar. In those situations, we could carry out so called ‘protective reaction’ strikes.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

Forbidden targets included any North Vietnamese fighter base designated as a sanctuary, an enemy aircraft that had its landing gear extended, any fighter not showing hostile intent and SAM sites not in operation. Basically, a SAM had to be fired at us before we could fire back. How could these rules ever win a war?

Having a reconnaissance squadron at Udorn, we often flew combat escort for the RF-4Cs which didn’t carry any weapons. Our Phantoms were armed with air-to-air missiles and bombs. It was typically a three-ship – one RF-4C and two F-4 escorts. The former would be in the lead, flying low and very fast with specific targets to take pictures of.

We spaced our two ’planes about 3,000 to 4,000ft above and about 1 to 2 miles behind the RF-4C. It was basically a loose V-formation. Our job was to protect the RF-4C by attacking any signs of aggression.

Udorn’s proximity to Hanoi meant we routinely stood five-minute alert in case the MiGs flew aggressively in our direction. Four crews and four aircraft held alert for three to four days at a time in the alert facility next to the aircraft at the end of the runway. We had a full-time cook and slept in bunk beds and passed the time by watching movies, reading and studying.

The MiGs started flying further south than they had before and close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Someone came up with the idea of trying to trap the MiGs by using Udorn and Da Nang air bases which involved both having F-4s on alert.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

The codewords that were sent via phone to each alert facility were: “Your water will be turned off in 10 minutes.” That meant the Phantoms on alert at each base would scramble and get airborne in 10 minutes.

We flew at low level until reaching a predetermined point, at which time the F-4s from both bases would pop up and hopefully target MiGs that strayed too far south.

Prior to standing alert duty we pre- flighted our aircraft with all switches set for a scramble. We practised to be airborne within five minutes. The aircraft engines were ‘cart started’ with an explosive cartridge, driving a small turbine to rotate the compressor shaft for a quick start. If you were not on 100% oxygen when the starter carts ignited, the fumes gave off a nasty acrid smell and stung your eyes.

Months went by without any use of the plan. I happened to be on alert when we received the call, only it said “5 minutes”. It was around 2am and I had been sound asleep. I always slept with my g-suit and boots on, saving precious time. As we scrambled out the door we were immediately hit by a downpour of rain – typical for the monsoon season.

Soaking wet, I climbed up the cockpit ladder; both canopies down and locked, engines running, quick taxi, off in 5 minutes. The rule was first one airborne is lead. Those behind used their radar to maintain a 2-3 mile trail position on each other.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

Once I reached the designated pop-up point, I hit the afterburners and climbed to about 15,000ft and contacted ‘Red Crown’ – the call sign of a US Navy cruiser in the Gulf of Tonkin that tracked enemy aircraft and issued warnings of their location. We were told the MiGs had retreated back to their safe haven in the Hanoi area. It was a very frustrating mission for all those involved.

On another night scramble from Udorn, one pilot was so focused on getting airborne he forgot to lower his canopy. It blew off, causing him to abort. It proves that mission focus can blur small details.

My tour was completed in March 1972, having flown 148 combat missions in. Combat creates bonds you never forget. What a great group of crewmembers!


My next assignment was to Kadena AB on Okinawa, Japan, flying the Wild Weasel version of the F-4C with the 67th TFS ‘Fighting Cocks’. Wild Weasel tactics and techniques were originally developed in 1965 in Vietnam.

This role was considerably different from mainstream fighter tactics, requiring a sixweek ground course at Nellis AFB, Nevada; then we got to practise electronic warfare missions.

Our task was to bait enemy SAM sites into locking onto our aircraft, tracking the radar signal back to its source then destroying it with radar-guided air-to-ground missiles. The result is a hectic game of catand- mouse.

The rear crewmember in a Wild Weasel F-4 would be an electronic warfare officer. The original Wild Weasel aircraft was the North American F-100F Super Sabre and, later, the Republic F-105F Thunderchief, both two-seat models. After my training at Nellis I was back with the 67th TFS on Okinawa practising what I had learned.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam

In September 1972, my squadron commander, Lt Col Don Parkhurst, was tasked on short notice to provide nine Wild Weasel crews and six aircraft to deploy to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. No one knew for how long.

At a squadron meeting, he asked for volunteers, but made it clear that if anyone chose to go that would not get back to our families unless we told them. Many crews raised their hands that day. On September 23, 1972 six aircraft departed Okinawa for Korat. For the deployment I was paired with John Williams as my ‘Bear’ – slang for a Wild Weasel backseater.

The resident 17th Wild Weasel Squadron, equipped with the F-105F, found some space for us in their building. The F-4 Wild Weasel had never been used in combat and our learning curve was very steep! Each crew flew their first few combat missions with the F-105 Weasels to get acclimatised – the first of which took place on September 25, 1972.

The motto of the Wild Weasels is ‘First In…last out’. We typically preceded the strike force, remained within the threat environment and flew out after they departed.

The anti-radiation missile we used was the AGM-45 Shrike. It flew at Mach 2 and used a passive radar homing guidance system. One major limitation of the Shrike was that once you were airborne you were limited to a specific frequency spectrum, so other radar systems could not be engaged.

Also, if the target radar was turned off, an inbound Shrike would miss the target since it was not able to compute the last known location. The effective range of the Shrike was between 7 and 10 miles, requiring you to be well within the SA-2 missile’s range of 5 to 19 miles and 60,000ft.

When North Vietnamese radar operators heard our ‘Iron Hand’ callsign over the radio they would often turn off the SA-2 radar so the Bears could not locate their electronic location. If we could protect the strike aircraft from the SA-2s we considered that a success.

f 4 phantom push in vietnam


Operation Linebacker II was a maximumeffort bombing campaign to destroy major target complexes in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas, which could only be accomplished by B-52s. It was the largest heavy bomber strikes by the USAF since the end of World War Two and designed to end the Vietnam War.

It began on the evening of December 18, 1972 and is often referred to by participants as the ‘11 days of Christmas’. This was the first time B-52s were used to fly directly over Hanoi.

Night-time bombing was preferred, giving the B-52s extra protection under the cover of darkness. During Linebacker II the Air Force flew 729 night sorties over North Vietnam.

Over and around Hanoi on the first night there were 231 aircraft consisting of 129 B-52s, 17 suppression of enemy defence (SEAD) aircraft (Wild Weasel and frequency jamming ’planes), 63 escort/combat air patrol aircraft (air-to-air protection) and 22 dropping chaff that would hopefully jam and confuse the North Vietnamese radar systems. John and I flew six of the night missions during Linebacker II to suppress the SA-2 threat.

I recall our first mission on December 20. John and I took off as part of a four-ship, rendezvousing with tankers for fuel before entering the threat area. Our tactics at night were to split up and work a quadrant each, over and around Hanoi. We typically flew between 10,000 and 25,000ft, eager to get good SA-2 radar signals.

My biggest fear was a mid-air collision with another ’plane or B-52 bombs raining down on top of me due to the thick concentration of aircraft within a 50-mile radius of downtown Hanoi during the raid. At night, every ’plane turned off their exterior lights so they could not be seen.

Radio chatter was frantic – MiG and SAM warnings over the radio were constant. The anti-aircraft artillery fired frantically, each with a stream of tracers coming upward, afterburners were lighting up the sky, bombs were exploding everywhere. It all seemed surreal.

Each of the five succeeding Linebacker II missions we flew became less of a threat. The North Vietnamese were slowly running out of weapons, ’planes and munitions.

On December 30, 1972 the North Vietnamese agreed to resume talks, culminating in the peace agreement on January 27, 1973. In February we deployed back to Okinawa with John and I having chalked up 62 Wild Weasel missions.

Flying the F-4 Wild Weasel in the Vietnam confiict taught us a lot about what tactics worked and those that didn’t. We passed all our combat experiences on to future generation Wild Weasels. It was the outstanding combat leadership from Lt Col Parkhurst that got all of us through safe and sound.


Originally published in Aviation News Magazine

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F-4 Phantoms: The Strategic Secret Weapon U.S. Readers Should Know About – Part 1

T he U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps utilized the F-4 “Phantom,” which made its maiden flight in 1958, a formidable force in aerial warfare during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The introduction of the F-4 to Korea was led by heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the 1968 North Korean armed invasion of the Blue House and the USS Pueblo incident.

Subsequently, The Korean Peninsula would find it difficult to defend itself against North Korean attacks, South Korea claimed after deciding to send a large number of troops to the Vietnam War, managing to get the U.S.’s agreement for the introduction of the F-4 during the Honolulu summit and the second U.S.-Korea defense ministers’ meeting.

Finally, on August 29, 1969, six Air Force pilots flew the fighter jets across the Pacific to the Daegu Base, marking the establishment of the 151st Fighter Squadron (Phantom Squadron) and the beginning of the Air Force’s “Phantom Era.” It has since been known as the “Mig Killer” and the “Goblin of the Sky,” protecting the skies over the Korean Peninsula for over 50 years.

The first model introduced was the F-4D Phantom, a powerful asset capable of taking on North Korea’s latest MiG-21 fighters and IL-28 bombers. The Korean Air Force was the first to introduce the F-4 Phantom in Asia. Subsequently, by 1989, 80 F-4Ds (Block 26–28) had been deployed, five of which had been provided by the national defense fund that the public had raised. They served on the front lines of national air defense.

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It has a brilliant record, including identifying and intercepting Soviet TU-16s in 1983, Soviet TU-95s and nuclear submarines in 1984, a spy ship off Busan in 1985, and a Russian reconnaissance aircraft (IL-20) that appeared in the East Sea in 1998. The F-4D Phantom fighter jets were decommissioned from the Daegu base on June 16, 2010, after 41 years of service.

The F-4E, another model with an improved engine, electronic equipment, and radar performance, was introduced in 1979, and over 100 units were brought in on several occasions. Over 170 F-4Ds and F-4Es introduced to the Air Force were the core force in air defense and ground support until the KF-16 fighter was deployed in the 1990s.

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An F-4E Phantom fighter jet is taking off from the runway. Photo provided by the Air Force


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