9 September 1972: Captain Charles Barbin DeBellevue, United States Air Force, a Weapons System Officer flying on F-4D and F-4E Phantom II fighters, became the high-scoring American Ace of the Vietnam War when he and his pilot, Captain John A. Madden, Jr., shot down two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 19¹ fighters of the Không Quân Nhân Dân Việt Nam (Vietnam People’s Air Force), west of Hanoi.
Captain DeBellevue was assigned to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. With Captain Richard S. Ritchie, he had previously shot down four MiG 21 fighters using AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles. Then while flying a combat air patrol in support of Operation Linebacker, he and Captain Madden, aboard F-4D-29-MC Phantom II 66-0267, call sign OLDS 01, used two AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles to destroy the MiG 19s. These were Madden’s first two aerial victories, but for DeBellevue, they were number 5 and 6.
Madden and DeBellevue had fired two AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles at a MiG-21 which was on approach to land at the Phúc Yên Yen air base northwest of Hanoi, but both missiles missed. The MiG was then shot down by gunfire from an F-4E flown by Captain Calvin B. Tibbett and 1st Lieutenant William S. Hargrove (after two of their missiles also missed). The flight of Phantoms was then attacked by MiG 19s. DeBellevue reported:
We acquired the MiGs on radar and positioned as we picked them up visually. We used a slicing low-speed yo-yo to position behind the MiG-19s and started turning hard with them. We fired one AIM-9 missile, which detonated 25 feet from one of the MiG-19s. We then switched the attack to the other MiG-19 and one turn later we fired an AIM-9 at him.
I observed the missile impact the tail of the MiG. The MiG continued normally for the next few seconds, then began a slow roll and spiraled downward, impacting the ground with a large fireball. Our altitude was approximately 1,500 feet at the moment of the MiG’s impact.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Pages 104–105.
The first MiG-19, damaged by the Sidewinder’s close detonation, crashed on the runway at Phuc Yen.
After becoming the war’s highest-scoring American ace, Chuck DeBellevue was sent to Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, for pilot training. He became an aircraft commander of F-4E Phantom IIs. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1998, after 30 years of service.
DeBellevue’s F-4D, 66-0267, was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It was reassembled with parts from other damaged Phantoms and is on display as a “gate guard” at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida.
F-4D-29-MC 66-7463, in which he scored his first and fourth kills with Steve Ritchie, is on display at the United States Air Force Academy. Like DeBellevue, this airplane is also credited with 6 victories. DeBellevue’s F-4E-36-MC, 67-0362, in which he and Ritchie shot down their second and third MiG 21s, was sold to Israel in 1973.
¹ Many VPAF MiG 19s were the Chinese-built Shenyang J-6 variant.
12 March 1967: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Missouri, delivered the 2,000th F-4 Phantom II to the United States Air Force. F-4D-30-MC 66-7533, c/n 2062, was assigned to the 40th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
On 26 May 1967, the personnel and equipment of the 40th TFS were transferred to the 8th Fighter Wing based in Thailand. The aircraft were deployed across the Pacific Ocean, 26–28 May, with flights to Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, Hawaii; Anderson Air Force Base, Guam; and Ubon-Rachitani Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. On 25 July 1967, an additional twenty F-4Ds arrived at Ubon RTAFB, having been transferred from the 4th TFS. 66-7533 was included in this later group of Phantoms.¹
On 19 September 1967, the 2,000th Phantom II was being flown by Major Lloyd Warren Boothby and 1st Lieutenant George H. McKinney, Jr., of the 435th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Following a Rolling Thunder attack on railroad sidings at Trung Quang, about 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) north of Phúc Yên, 66-7533 was hit in the right wing by a 57 mm anti-aircraft cannon shell. The airplane was badly damaged but “Boots” Boothby fought to keep it under control for as long as possible. Finally, he and McKinney were forced to eject, having come within about 35 miles (56.3 kilometers) of their base.
At the time of its loss, 66-7533 had accumulated 155 flight hours on its airframe (TTAF).
For their airmanship in trying to save their airplane, Major Boothby and Lieutenant McKinney were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was presented to them by President Lyndon B. Johnson, 23 December 1967, in a pre-dawn ceremony at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base.
Lieutenant McKinney is quoted in USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killer 1965–1968:
“In the hail of AAA over the target seven miles north of Hanoi on that day was a ‘Golden BB’ which opened a three-foot hole in the Phantom II’s right wing, froze the right spoiler full up, immediately drained two of the three hydraulic systems and generally turned the day to crap! I mumbled an egress heading (and a few dozen prayers) while ‘Boots’ used every increment of incredible aviation instincts, honed by countless hours at the edge of the envelope, to keep the F-4 airborne and headed away from the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’ Doing so required full manual depression of the left rudder pedal, and holding the stick within one inch of the left limit of travel.
“Despite the physical exertion, coupled with the precise touch necessary to remain airborne as the Black River receded behind the crippled Phantom II and rescue became at least a possibility, ‘Boots” managed to announce to the world on ‘Guard’ channel that they had so many warning lights lit up that it ‘looks like we’ve won a free game at the arcade.’ “
—USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killer 1965–1968, by Peter E. Davies, Osprey Publishing, 2004, at Page 75.
[A number of sources state that Lt. McKinney did not survive the ejection, but this is incorrect. Both pilots were rescued by helicopter. McKinney went on to earn credit for 2.5 kills as a Weapons System Officer, and returned for another combat tour as an F-4 aircraft commander.]
WASHINGTON (AFPN) — I’d hate to see an epitaph on a fighter pilot’s tombstone that says, “I told you I needed training”. . . How do you train for the most dangerous game in the world by being as safe as possible? When you don’t let a guy train because it’s dangerous, you’re saying, “Go fight those lions with your bare hands in that arena, because we can’t teach you to learn how to use a spear. If we do, you might cut your finger while you’re learning.” And that’s just about the same as murder. —Lt. Col. Lloyd “Boots” Boothby, April 17, 1931, to Nov. 26, 2006
That quote may seem a little extreme, but Colonel Boothby was referring to the Air Force’s urgent need to improve fighter tactics training, balanced against safety, but not at the expense of effectiveness.
Colonel Boothby, who passed away Nov. 26, was an experienced combat pilot and an academic instructor in the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing in the early 1970s. He looked at the Air Force’s declining kill ratio from Korea to Vietnam which was 2.4 to 1 in Vietnam compared to 8 to 1 in the Korean War. He led the effort to fix it. This involved several key steps, starting with a thorough analysis of the engagements over Vietnam.
Colonel Boothby led a series of studies at the Tactical Fighter Weapons Center, which were part of Project Red Baron, examining each of the war’s air-to-air battles. While the subsequent reports noted many accomplishments and even more lessons learned, they highlighted several significant trends. The colonel’s team discovered that pilots of multi-role fighters tended to have such a diverse range of missions that they seldom had a chance to master air combat tactics. They also noted pilots who were shot down rarely saw the enemy aircraft or even knew they were being engaged.
Additionally, few U.S. pilots, before flying into combat, had any experience against the equipment, tactics or capabilities of the enemy’s smaller, highly maneuverable fighters.
In short, the Red Baron Reports called for “realistic training (that) can only be gained through study of, and actual engagements with, possessed enemy aircraft or realistic substitutes.”
Based on this report and Colonel Boothby’s persuasiveness to get himself and Capt. Roger Wells access to an intelligence organization’s restricted collection of Soviet equipment, training manuals and technical data, they developed the dissimilar air combat training, or DACT, program to meet the Tactical Air Command’s initiative of “Readiness through Realism.”
Under the DACT program, Air Force officials had some T-38s painted with Soviet-style paint schemes and flew them based on adopted Soviet tactics.
Because of his combat experience, academic instructor background, and involvement in Project Red Baron and in developing the DACT program, Colonel Boothby served as the first aggressor squadron’s commander when the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron activated Oct. 15, 1972.
As an instructor, Colonel Boothby proved himself an effective teacher who relished the attention of his captive audience. Ever-animated and quick with a joke or “fighter” story to make a point, he told the pilots he was instructing what they needed to know to succeed. These qualities ensured his students’ attention remained spellbound and eager.
One former student recalled one of the colonel’s more popular attention steps. In typical fighter pilot stance, using his hands to represent a dogfight, he would spray lighter fluid from his mouth across his right hand (palming a lighter at the time) and literally flame the left hand and wristwatch bogie. He generally walked away with a few singed hairs on his hand, but his students received a magnificent visual demonstration of the seriousness of air combat.
Such object lessons ensured this charismatic instructor’s students learned and retained the knowledge they might need to save their lives one day.
Upon learning of Colonel Boothby’s death recently, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley noted:
“He. . . had an impact on how we do business and how we think about this air combat work. Folks out there like [Colonel Richard] Moody Suter and Boots Boothby have left a true legacy. I know one Texas public school-educated, land grant college graduate, F-15 weapons officer, Fighter Weapons Instructor Course instructor and ex-57th Wing commander who has certainly benefited from folks like this.”
—Ellery Wallwork, Air Force History Office, 5 December 2006
¹ Mr. F.C. Straile informed me that he crewed McDonnell F-4D Phantom II 66-7533 with the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and transferred along with it to the 435th TFS at Ubon RTAFB. Thanks, Mr. Straile!
1 March 1972: Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force, and 1st Lieutenant Leigh A. Hodgdon, were flying McDonnell F-4D-29-MC Phantom II serial number 66-7463, call sign Falcon 54. Along with a second F-4, they were assigned to a combat air patrol (MiGCAP) mission over northern Laos.
At approximately 2000 hours, Disco, a Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star airborne early warning aircraft, alerted Kittinger to the presence of several Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 21 interceptors and gave him radar vectors toward the enemy aircraft.
Colonel Kittinger reported:
At approximately 18 miles the system broke lock but it was quickly reacquired. A slow left turn ensued to keep the dot centered. Altitudes were slowly increased from 8,200 feet to 11,500 feet. The Vc on the scope was extremely difficult to interpret; however, it appeared that we were not really overtaking the target, so the outboard tanks were dropped. Heading of the aircraft changed to approximately 360° at time of firing. At approximately 6 miles the “in-range” light illuminated, followed by an increase in the ASE circle. Trigger was squeezed and crew felt a thump as the missile was ejected; however, missile motor did not ignite. The trigger was squeezed again and held for approximately 3 seconds; however missile did not fire. Trigger was squeezed again and missile #3 fired. The missile made a small correction to the left then back to the right and guided straight away. Pilot maintained the dot centered.
Approximately 5 to 6 seconds after launch, detonation was observed. Almost simultaneously, two enemy missiles were observed coming from the vicinity of the detonation. Evasive action prevented more thorough observations of detonation. The flight turned to a heading of 210°, maintained 9,000 feet, airspeed 500 knots, and egressed the area.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Page 87.
Joe Kittinger is officially credited with the destruction of the MiG 21.
Joseph W. Kittinger II is best known for his participation in experimental high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, he ascended to 97,760 feet (29,490 meters) aboard the Project MAN-HIGH 1. On 16 August 1960, he reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) and then stepped off for the longest free-fall parachute jump—a record that would stand for 52 years.
Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. He was shot down 11 May 1972, when his F-4D, 66-0230, was struck by a missile fired by a MiG 21. (Kittinger’s wingman shot down the MiG.) He and Weapons System Officer 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich were captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for the next 11 months.