Tag Archives: Aerial Combat

29 April 1918

Lieutenant Edward V. Rickenbacker, 94th Aero Squadron, with a Nieuport 28 C.1 fighter. (U.S. Air Force)

29 April 1918: Lieutenant Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, 94th Aero Squadron, Air Service, American Expeditionary Force, while flying a Nieuport 28 C.1, scored his first aerial victory when he shot down a Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte Pfalz D.III fighter near Saint-Baussant, France. He was awarded the first of eight Distinguished Service Crosses. By the end of World War I, he had destroyed 26 enemy aircraft.

1st Lieutenant Edward V. Rickenbacker in the cockpit of a Nieuport 28 C.1 fighter, France, 1918. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Edward V. Rickenbacker in the cockpit of a Nieuport 28 C.1 fighter, France, 1918. (U.S. Air Force)

The Nieuport 28 C.1¹ was a single-place, single-engine, single-bay biplane fighter built by Société Anonyme des Éstablissements Nieuport for the French military. It was rejected, however, in favor of the SPAD S.XIII C.1. The new United States’ Air Service was in great need of fighters. There were none available of American manufacture, and because the new SPAD was in great demand, 297 Nieuport 28s were acquired by the American Expeditionary Force and assigned to the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons.

U.S. Air Service Nieuport 28 C.1, N6215. (U.S. Air Force)
U.S. Air Service Nieuport 28 C.1, N6215. (U.S. Air Force)

The Nieuport 28 C.1 was 6.30 meters (20 feet, 8 inches) long with an upper wingspan of 8.160 meters (26 feet, 9¼ inches), lower wingspan of 7.79 meters ( 25 feet, 6-2/3 inches)  and height of 2.30 meters (7 feet, 6½ inches). The upper wing had a chord of 1.30 meters (4 feet, 3.2 inches), and the lower, which was staggered behind the upper, had a chord of 1.00 meters (3 feet, 3.4). The upper wing had very slight dihedral, while the lower wing had none. Its empty weight was 399 kilograms (880 pounds) and loaded weight was 626 kilograms (1,380 pounds).

Nieuport 28 C.1, serial number 6215.

The Nieuport 28 C.1 was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 15.892 liter (969.786-cubic-inch-displacement) Gnome Monosoupape 9 Type N nine-cylinder rotary engine with a compression ratio of 5.45:1. The Monosoupape had a single overhead exhaust valve actuated by a pushrod and rocker arm. As the pistons reached the bottom of their exhaust strokes, a series of intake ports near the bottom of the cylinder were uncovered. The intake charge was drawn from the engine crankcase. The Type N produced 160 horsepower at 1,300 r.p.m. and turned a two-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller with a diameter of 2.50 meters (8 feet, 2.4 inches). The engine weighed 330 pounds (150 kilograms).

The Nieuport 28 had a top speed of 198 kilometers per hour (123 miles per hour) at 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) and 1,380 r.p.m., a range of 290 kilometers (180 miles) and a service ceiling of 5,300 meters (17,388 feet). Duration at full power was 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Two .303-caliber Vickers machine guns were mounted on the cowling, firing forward through the propeller arc.

Pfalz D.III (SDASM)
Pfalz D.IIIa 8413/17
Pfalz D.IIIa 8413/17

The Pfalz D.III was a single-seat, single-engine, single-bay biplane fighter built by Pfalz Flugzeugwerke. The fuselage was built of two layers of plywood strips laid over a mold to form one half. The two halves were glued together. This was then covered with doped fabric. The wings were made of fabric-covered wood spars and ribs, with wooden ailerons.

It was 6.95 meters (22 feet, 9½ inches) long with a wingspan of 9.4 meters (30 feet, 0 inches) and height of 2.67 meters (8 feet, 9 inches). Empty weight was 695 kilograms (1,532 pounds) and gross weight was 933 kilograms (2,057 pounds).

The fighter was powered by a 14.778 liter (901.812 cubic inches) water-cooled Mercedes D.IIIa single overhead cam inline six-cylinder engine with two valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 4.64:1. It produced 174 horsepower at 1,400 r.p.m. The D.IIIa weighed 660.0 pounds (299.4 kilograms).

The maximum speed of the Pfalz D.III was 185 kilometers per hour (115 miles per hour) at Sea Level, and the service ceiling was 5,200 meters (17,060 feet).

It was armed with two 7.92 mm LMG 08/15 Spandau machine guns.

Approximately 1,010 Pfalz D.IIIs were built.

Pfalz D.IIIa 8413/17

¹ “C.1” was the French designation for a single-place chasseur, their World War I term for what we now consider to be a fighter.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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26 April 1966

Major Paul J. Gilmore and 1st Lieutenant William T. Smith with their McDonnell F-4C Phantom II, 26 April 1966. (Air Force Historical Foundation)

26 April 1966: Major Paul J. Gilmore, aircraft commander, and First Lieutenant William T. Smith, pilot, flying McDonnell F-4C-23-MC Phantom II 64-0752, shot down the first Vietnam People’s Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 of the Vietnam War.

Douglas RB-66B-DL Destroyer 53-422. (U.S. Air Force)
Douglas RB-66B-DL Destroyer 53-422. (U.S. Air Force)

“. . . on 26 April, Maj. Paul J. Gilmore, in the front seat of the lead F-4C, and 1st Lt. William T. Smith in the back, downed the first MiG-21 of the war. They were part of a flight of three F-4s flying escort for two RB-66s. Launching from Da Nang, they rendezvoused with the RB-66s and proceeded north to the Red River, where one RB-66 and one F-4 split off for a separate mission. Gilmore, flying the other F-4, and the other RB-66 proceeded north east of Hanoi. Almost at once they spotted two or three MiGs coming high in the 2 o’clock position and closing rapidly. Gilmore and his wingman jettisoned their external tanks, lit their afterburners, and broke into a hard left descending turn while the RB-66 departed the area.

“Gilmore pulled out of his vertical reversal at 12,000 feet [3,657.6 meters], with his wingman flying a tight wing position. They pulled up after the MiGs, which were in afterburner, heading northwest at 30,000 feet [9,144 meters].

A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 interceptor at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in the markings of the VPAF. (U.S. Air Force)

“The second MiG was descending very slowly, trailing white vapor toward the east. The F-4 aircrews lost sight of this aircraft as they closed rapidly on the first, which was making gentle clearing turns as he climbed away. Gilmore had several boresight lock-ons but was out of range for a good Sparrow shot. At a range of 3,000 feet [915 meters], Gilmore fired one Sidewinder with a good tone; he then maneuvered to the left to gain more separation and as a result did not see his first missile track.

“Later, Gilmore reported that he had not realized that he had scored a victory with his first missile: ‘My wingman, flying cover for me, told me later the MiG pilot had ejected after I fired the first missile. I didn’t realize I’d hit him the first time. My wingman wondered why I kept after him as I had hit him the first time and the pilot ejected.’ Because of radio difficulties, his wingman could not inform Gilmore of his success.

A U.S. Air Force ordnance technician prepares to load four AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-homing air-to-air missiles (top row) and four AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided air-to-air missiles (bottom row) aboard an F-4C. This aircraft, F-4C-23-MC Phantom II 64-0793, is from the same production block as the fighter flown by Major Gilmore and Lieutenant Smith, 26 April 1966. (U.S. Air Force)

“After his maneuver to gain separation, Gilmore pulled up behind the pilotless MiG-21 again and fired another Sidewinder without effect. He again rolled left, pulled up, and fired his third Sidewinder at a range of 3,000 feet. ‘After missing [he thought] twice,’ Gilmore later told a newsman, ‘I was quite disgusted. I started talking to myself. Then I got my gunsights on him and fired a third time. I observed the missile go directly in his tailpipe and explode his tail.’

“The two F-4 aircrews then descended to watch the debris impact. As Gilmore commenced his pull-up he spotted another MiG-21 tracking his wingman and called for a defensive split. He broke to the left and down while his wingman broke to the right and up.

“When Gilmore emerged from the roll, he sighted the MiG ahead, in afterburner and climbing away. He rolled in behind this aircraft and climbed in afterburner until he was directly behind. He fired his fourth Sidewinder, but the range was too short and the missile passed over the MiG’s left wing. Because of low fuel reserves, both F-4s then left the battle area. The 6-minute aerial battle was Gilmore’s first encounter with an enemy plane ‘after twelve years in the tactical fighter business.’ “

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 II at Pages 27–29.

According to Vietnam Peoples’ Air Force records, a fighter was lost 26 April 1966, though it is described as a MiG-17. The pilot, First Lieutenant Tràn Vặn Triém, ejected after being hit by friendly fire.

The Phantom II flown by Gilmore and Smith on that date was written off 6 August 1967.

F-4C 64-0752. Ngày 06/08/67 chiếc F-4C này bị PK bắn rơi ở Quảng Bình.
F-4C 64-0752. Ngày 06/08/67 chiếc F-4C này bị PK bắn rơi ở Quảng Bình. (vnmilitaryhistory.net) [A Vietnamese historical website describes the aircraft in this photograph as Major Gilmore’s F-4C.]
© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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24–25 April 1945

First Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight, United States Army Air Corps, (U.S. Air Force)
Aviation Cadet Raymond L. Knight, United States Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

RAYMOND L. KNIGHT

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Place and date: In Northern Po Valley, Italy, 24-25 April 1945.

Entered service at: Houston, Texas. Born: Texas.

G.O. No.: 81, 24 September 1945.

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

Citation: First Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight on 24 and 25 April 1945 in the northern Po Valley, Italy, piloted a fighter-bomber aircraft in a series of low-level strafing missions, destroying 14 grounded enemy aircraft and leading attacks which wrecked 10 others during a critical period of the Allied drive in northern Italy. On the morning of 24 April, he volunteered to lead two other aircraft against the strongly defended enemy airdrome at Ghedi. Ordering his fellow pilots to remain aloft, he skimmed the ground through a deadly curtain of antiaircraft fire to reconnoiter the field, locating eight German aircraft hidden beneath heavy camouflage. He rejoined his flight, briefed them by radio, and then led them with consummate skill through the hail of enemy fire in a low-level attack, destroying five aircraft, while his flight accounted for two others. Returning to his base, he volunteered to lead three other aircraft in reconnaissance of Bergamo Airfield, an enemy base near Ghedi and one known to be equally well defended. Again ordering his flight to remain out of range of antiaircraft fire, Lieutenant Knight flew through an exceptionally intense barrage, which heavily damaged his Thunderbolt, to observe the field at minimum altitude. He discovered a squadron of enemy aircraft under heavy camouflage and led his flight to the assault. Returning alone after this strafing, he made 10 deliberate passes against the field despite being hit twice more by antiaircraft fire, destroying six fully loaded enemy twin-engine aircraft and two fighters. His skillfully led attack enabled his flight to destroy four other twin-engine aircraft and a fighter airplane. He then returned to his base in his seriously damaged airplane. Early the next morning, when he again attacked Bergamo, he sighted an enemy plane on the runway. Again he led three other American pilots in a blistering low-level sweep through vicious antiaircraft fire that damaged his airplane so severely that it was virtually nonflyable. Three of the few remaining enemy twin-engine aircraft at that base were destroyed. Realizing the critical need for aircraft in his unit, he declined to parachute to safety over friendly territory and unhesitatingly attempted to return his shattered airplane to his home field. With great skill and strength, he flew homeward until caught by treacherous air conditions in the Apennine Mountains, where he crashed and was killed. The gallant action of Lieutenant Knight eliminated the German aircraft which were poised to wreak havoc on Allied forces pressing to establish the first firm bridgehead across the Po River. His fearless daring and voluntary self-sacrifice averted possible heavy casualties among ground forces and the resultant slowing of the drive which culminated in the collapse of German resistance in Italy.

1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight with a battle-damaged Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight with a battle-damaged Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber. (U.S. Air Force)

Raymond Larry Knight was born 15 June 1922 in Houston, Texas. He was the third child of John Franklin Knight, a clerk, and Sarah Francis Kelly Knight. He attended John H. Reagan Senior High School in Houston, graduating in 1940.

Knight married Miss Johnnie Lee Kinchloe, also a 1940 graduate of Reagan High School, 5 June 1942. They had one son, Raymond Jr.

Knight enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Corps, 10 Oct 1942, and trained as a fighter pilot at various airfields in Texas. He graduated from flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, May 1944. After advanced training, Knight was assigned to the 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th Air Force, at Tarquinia Airfield, Italy, in November 1944. He was promoted to first lieutenant in March 1945.

Lieutenant Knight flew 82 combat missions. He is credited with 14 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The Medal of Honor was presented to Mrs. Knight by Major General James Pratt Hodges at a ceremony at John H. Reagan Senior High School, 23 October 1945.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Lieutenant Knight was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters (six awards).

The remains of 1st Lieutenant Raymond Larry Knight, United States Army Air Corps, are interred at the Houston National Cemetery, Houston, Texas.

1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight and crew chief Sergeant Marvin Childers, with Republic P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 42-26785. This is the fighter bomber that he flew on the final mission. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight (at right) and crew chief Sergeant Marvin Childers, with Republic P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 42-26785, marked 6D5. This is the fighter bomber that he flew on the final mission. It was named “OH JOHNNIE” after his wife. (U.S. Air Force)

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter that had yet been built. The first P-47D variant was very similar to the preceding P-47C. The Thunderbolt which Raymond Knight flew on his final mission was a P-47D-27-RE, serial number 42-26785. He had named it OH JOHNNIE after his wife. The Thunderbolt’s bubble canopy had been introduced with the Block 25 series, and Block 27 added a dorsal fillet to improve longitudinal stability which had been diminished with the new aft fuselage configuration.

The P-47D-27-RE was 36 feet, 1¾ inches (11.017 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 9-3/8 inches (12.430 meters) The overall height was 14 feet, 7 inches (4.445 meters). The fighter’s empty weight was 10,700 pounds (4,853 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 17,500 pounds (7,938 kilograms).

The P-47D-27-RE was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged and turbocharged 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter) Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp TSB1-G (R-2800-59) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The R-2800-59 had a Normal Power rating of 1,625 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and a Takeoff/Military Power rating of  2,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).¹ A large General Electric turbosupercharger was mounted in the rear of the fuselage. Internal ducts carried exhaust gases from the engine to drive the turbocharger. This supercharged air was then carried forward through an intercooler and then on to the carburetor to supply the engine. The engine’s mechanical supercharger further pressurized the air-fuel charge. The engine drove a 13 foot, 0 inch (3.962 meter) diameter four-bladed Curtiss Electric or Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The R-2800-59 was 6 feet, 3.72 inches (1.923 meters) long, 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.340 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,290 pounds (1,039 kilograms).

A flight of three Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-47D had a maximum speed in level flight of 444 miles per hour (715 kilometers per hour) at 23,200 feet (7,071 meters) with 70 inches Hg manifold pressure (2.37 Bar), using water injection. The service ceiling was 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). It had a maximum range of 950 miles (1,529 kilometers) with internal fuel, and 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers) with external tanks.

The Thunderbolt was armed with eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing, with 3,400 rounds of ammunition. It could also carry external fuel tanks, rockets and bombs. The structure of the P-47 could be described as “robust” and it was heavily armored. The amount of damage that the airplane could absorb and still return was remarkable.

A total of 15,683 Thunderbolts were built; more than any other Allied fighter type. In aerial combat, it had a kill-to-loss ratio of 4.6:1. The P-47, though, really made its name as a ground attack fighter, destroying aircraft, locomotives, rail cars, and tanks by the many thousands. It was one of the most successful aircraft of World War II.

¹  A rebuilt R-2800-63 was run at War Emergency Power (2,600 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m.) for 7½ hours on a test stand, and was in running condition when the test was completed.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 April 1967

Lieutenant Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

LIEUTENANT COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Major), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.

Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.

Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.

Medal of HonorCitation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F- 105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MiGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)

AIR FORCE CROSS

CAPTAIN HAROLD EUGENE JOHNSON

Air Force Cross
Air Force Cross

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Captain Harold Eugene Johnson (AFSN: 0-3116556/42372A), United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism as Electronics Warfare Officer of an F-105 aircraft of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, engaged in a pre-strike, missile suppression mission over North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, Captain Johnson guided his pilot in attacking and destroying a surface-to-air missile installation with an air-to-ground missile. Through his technical skill, he immediately detected a second missile complex and guided the pilot into visual contact. Diving into a deadly barrage of anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft bombed and successfully destroyed this site. In the attack on this second missile site, a wingman was shot down by the intense anti-aircraft fire, and the crew members were forced to abandon their aircraft. Flying through hostile missile threats, Captain Johnson’s aircraft engaged and destroyed a MiG-17 while attacking a superior MiG force. He aided in the rescue efforts for the downed crew, engaged additional MiGs, and damaged one in the encounter. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Captain Johnson has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-363 (April 19, 1967)

Action Date: 19-Apr-67

Service: Air Force

Rank: Captain

Company: 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Regiment: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing

Division: Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam

Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)

A description of the air battle follows:

The first MiG kill of the day was recorded by Maj. Leo K. Thorsness, pilot, and Capt. Harold E. Johnson, Electronic Warfare officer (EWO), flying an F-105F. Thorsness’ flight consisted of four F-105F Wild Weasel aircraft, each plane being manned by a pilot and EWO and being specially equipped to locate and attack SAM sites. The flight was ahead of the main strike force and was committed to suppress SAM activity in the target area. About 8 to 10 MiG-17s attacked as the flight prepared to strike a SAM radar site with Shrike air-to-ground missiles. The Thorsness flight split up into three parts: the third and fourth aircraft entered into separate MiG engagements while Thorsness and his wingman continued the attack against the radar. The time was then about 4:55 p.m. Johnson provides an account of the encounter:

“We found and delivered our ordnance on an occupied SAM site. As we pulled off the site heading west, Kingfish 02¹ called that he had an overheat light. He also headed west, and the crew, Majors Thomas M. Madison, pilot, and Thomas J. Sterling, EWO, had to eject from their aircraft. We headed toward them by following the UHF-DF steer we received from their electronic beepers and saw them in the chutes. . .

“As we circled the descending crew, we were on a southerly heading when I spotted a MiG-17 heading east, low at out 9 o’clock position. I called him to the attention of Major Thorsness. . . .”

Thorsness continued the story:

“The MiG was heading east and was approximately 2,500 feet mean sea level. We were heading southeast and at 8,000 feet MSL. I began “S” turning to get behind the MiG. After one and a half “S” turns the MiG had progressed from the foothills over the delta southwest of Hanoi. The MiG turned to a northerly heading, maintaining approximately the same altitude and airspeed. Captain Johnson continued to give me SAM bearings, SAM-PRF [pulse recurrence frequency] status and launch indications as I continued to maneuver to attain a 6 o’clock position on the MiG.

“The first burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm was fired from an estimated 2,000–1,500 feet in a right hand shallow pursuit curve, firing with a cased sight reticle. No impacts were observed on the MiG. Within a few seconds we were in the 6 o’clock position with approximately 75 to 100 knots overtake speed. I fired another burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm. I pulled up to avoid both the debris and the MiG. While pulling up I rolled slightly to the right, then left. The MiG was approximately 100 feet low and to our left, rolling to the right. The two red stars were clearly discernible, one on top of each wing, and several rips were noted on the battered left wing. We continued to turn to the left and after turning approximately 130° again sighted the MiG, still in a right descending spiral. Just prior to the MiG’s impacting the ground, Captain Johnson sighted a MiG-17 at our 6:30 position approximately 2,000 feet back. I pulled into a tighter left turn, selected afterburner, and lowered the nose. I again looked at the crippled MiG, saw it impact the ground in what appeared to be a rice field. After confirming the MiG had in fact impacted the ground I made a hard reversal and descended very near the ground, heading generally westerly into the foothills.”

Thorsness then left the battle area, but returned after refueling to provide rescue combat air patrol during the search for his wingman’s aircrew. Thorsness and Johnson attacked another MiG and scored some damaging hits before they were themselves attacked by other MiG-17s. Although it is highly probable that Thorsness and Johnson destroyed a second MiG, this kill was not confirmed.

— 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 II at Pages 46 and 47.

Eleven days later, 30 April 1967, Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were shot down by an AA-2A Atoll heat-seeking missile fired by a MiG-21 fighter piloted by Vũ Ngọc Đỉnh, 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. They ejected but were captured. Both men were held as Prisoners of War until 4 March 1973.

Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force (Retired) died Tuesday, 2 May 2017, at St. Augustine, Florida. He was 85 years of age.

¹ Radio call sign for aircraft 2.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 April 1943

Lockheed P-38G-1-LO Lightning 42-12723 at Wayne County Airport, Detroit, Michigan, September 1942. (Library of Congress)

18 April 1943: Acting on Top Secret decrypted radio traffic, eighteen Lockheed P-38G Lightning twin-engine fighters of the 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, 13th Air Force, flew the longest interception mission of World War II—over 600 miles (966 kilometers)—from their base at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to Bougainville.

A Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” twin-engine medium bomber takes off from Rabaul, 1942.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, IJN

Arriving at the planned intercept point at 0934, they were just in time to see two Japanese Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” long range bombers escorted by Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters.

The Americans engaged the Japanese in a massive aerial dog fight. Both Bettys were shot down. One crashed on the island and another went into the sea.

One of the the two bombers, T1-323, carried Admiral (Kaigun Taishō) Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet. The admiral and several of his senior staff were killed in the attack.

Admiral Yamamoto had planned the attack on the United States bases at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. His death was a serious blow to the Empire of Japan.

Pilots of the 339th Fighter Squadron with Lockheed P-38G Lightning, Guadalcanal, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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