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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.