12 June 1976: The London Gazette announced that The Queen would confer the Honour of Knighthood on Group Captain Robert Steuart Bader, C.B.E., D.S.O., D.F.C., “For services to disabled people.”
Pilot Officer Douglas Bader had lost both of his legs in an airplane crash, 14 December 1931. He was medically retired from the Royal Air Force as medically unfit for service.
With World War II approaching, Bader applied to the Air Ministry for reinstatement but was initially refused. Later, after revaluation, Bader was accepted, sent to refresher flight training, and then on to a fighter squadron.
Bader quickly rose to Section Leader, Flight Commander, Squadron Leader and Wing Commander. Flying Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, he shot down at least 20 enemy airplanes. He had twice been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and twice, the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On 9 March 1941, Douglas Bader was himself shot down over France. With difficulty he was able to parachute from his Spitfire, and was quickly captured. Initially held in a hospital, Bader escaped. Recaptured, he was taken to a series of prisoner of war camps, where he continued his escape attempts. Finally the Germans imprisoned him in the notorious Colditz Castle where he remained for the rest of the war. He retired from the Royal Air Force in 1946 with the rank of Group Captain.
After the war, Douglas Bader flew for the Shell Oil Company. But he also worked unceasingly to better the lives of other disabled persons. He would tell them, “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”
For his services to the disabled, Group Captain Bader received the honor, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.). Twenty years later he was invested Knight Bachelor.
Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, FRAeS, DL, passed away 5 September 1982, at the age of 72 years.
2 June 1957: At 6:23 a.m., Central Daylight Time (11:23 UTC), Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force, lifted off from Richard E. Fleming Field (SGS), South Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the gondola of a helium balloon designed and built by Winzen Research Inc.
At 8:04 a.m. (13:04 UTC), Captain Kittinger reached a pressure altitude of 95,000 feet (28,956 meters). This was only 400 feet (122 meters) short of the balloon’s theoretical pressure ceiling. Using U.S. Weather Bureau data, the linear altitude of the balloon was calculated to have been 97,000 feet (29,566 meters).¹
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) was not asked to certify this flight, so an official record was not set.
Project MANHIGH I was intended to test various equipment and human physiology in a near-space condition. Cosmic radiation was a particular concern. This was the first of many high-altitude research balloon flights that Kittinger would make.
“… A Winzen crew conducted the launching, as provided by the Man-High contract, in collaboration with members of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory and other units at Holloman. The 475th Air Base Squadron, Minneapolis, provided additional helicopter support. The vehicle was a two-million-cubic-foot plastic balloon, 172.6 feet in diameter, which quickly reached the planned ceiling altitude of 95,000 feet, setting a new record for manned balloons. Test specifications called for a twelve-hour flight. However, because of an oxygen leak (due to an improperly connected valve) and also certain communications difficulties, Colonel Stapp and Mr. Winzen decided that Captain Kittinger should come down after not quite two hours at altitude. The balloon pilot was not happy with the decision, replying by radio, “Come and get me.” But he did come down, and landed successfully at 1257 hours none the worse for his experience.“
— History of Research in Space Biology and Biodynamics, Part II, Chapter 3, NASA History Office, December 1958.
Kittinger landed next to a stream approximately 7 miles (11 kilometers) south-southwest of Alma, Minnesota. The total duration of his flight was 6 hours, 36 minutes. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first of six he would receive during his career in the Air Force.
The Project MANHIGH balloon and gondola were designed and built by Winzen Research, Inc., South St. Paul, Minnesota. The gondola was used in all three MANHIGH flights (Kittinger, June 1957; Simons, August 1957; McClure, October 1958).
The balloon was constructed of polyethelene sheet with a thickness of 2 mils (0.002 inch/0.051 millimeter). The seams were bonded using a heat-sealing technique which had been developed by Otto Winzen. When fully inflated with helium, the envelope had a volume of 2,000,000 cubic feet (56,634 cubic meters) and diameter of 172.6 feet (52.6 meters).
The gondola is 8 feet high and 3 feet in diameter (2.4 × 0.9 meters). It consisted of a cast aluminum section with 6 portholes which served as the primary load-bearing unit of the gondola. The rest of the gondola consisted of an aluminum alloy cylinder and two hemispherical end caps. The capsule was pressurized and filled with a 60-20-20 mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium.
The gondola was suspended from an open 40.4 foot (12.3 meter) diameter parachute, which was, in turn, attached the gas balloon’s suspension rigging. Four explosive devices could sever the attachments and release the gondola and parachute.
The balloon, parachute and associated equipment weighed 1,012 pounds (459 kilograms). The gondola and installed equipment weighed 598 pounds (271 kilograms) and carried another 246 pounds (112 kilograms) of used lead-acid batteries as ballast. Kittinger, with his personal equipment, food and water, added 240 pounds (109 kilograms) to the payload. Finally, there was 70 pounds (32 kilograms) of equipment for experiments, cameras and film. The total weight came to 2,166 pounds (982 kilograms).
The Project MANHIGH gondola is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Joe Kittinger flew three combat tours during the Vietnam War for a total of 483 combat missions. On 1 March 1972, flying a McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, he shot down an enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21. He was himself shot down on 11 May 1972. He and his Weapons System Officer, 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich, were captured and spent 11 months at the Hanoi Hilton.
Joe Kittenger holds six Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records for distance set with balloons. Three are still current.² In 2012, he was technical advisor for Felix Baumgartner as he set a new world record for the highest parachute jump from the Red Bull Stratos balloon and gondola.
Winzen Research, Inc. was formed in 1949 by Otto Christian Winzen, an aeronautical engineer, and his wife, Vera M. Habrecht Winzen. Both were immigrants from Germany. Mr. Winzen had previously worked for the gas balloon laboratory of General Mills, Inc. Mrs. Winzen had borrowed money from her parents to start the company and held a 2/3 ownership of the company. She ran the factory and trained its workers. She also had four U.S. patents related to balloon construction.
Otto Christian Winzen was born 24 October 1917, at Cologne, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. He was the son of Christian Winzen and Lilly Lerche Winzen. At the age of 19, Winzen sailed from Bremen, Germany, aboard the Norddeutsche Lloyd passenger liner S.S. Europa, on 29 June 1937. He arrived at New York City, New York, United States of America, on 5 July 1937.
Winzen studied aeronautical engineering at University of Detroit Mercy, a private Roman Catholic university in Detroit, Michigan. It was the first university to offer a complete 5-year degree program in aeronautical engineering. While there, he met the world famous aeronaut, Jean Felix Picard, and his future wife, Vera Habracht.
Reportedly, during World War II, Otto Winzen was interred as an enemy alien.
Otto Winzen later married Marion Grzyll. He committed suicide 23 November 1979 (the first Mrs. Winzen’s 59th birthday).
Wera Maria Habrecht was born 23 November 1920 at Heidenheim, Germany. She was the first of two children of Max Theodore Habrecht, a commercial photographer, and Maya Widenmann Habrecht. The family emigrated to the United States in 1923, with Mr. Habrecht traveling there first. Mrs. Habrecht followed later with her children, Wera and Roland. They first sailed from Hamburg, Germany, 13 November 1923, to the British seaport of Grimsby, Lincolnshire, aboard the passenger/cargo ship S.S. Dewsbury. On 16 Novemberl the family boarded S.S. Montlaurier at Liverpool, England, and then sailed for New York City. The Habrecht family settled in Detroit, Michigan.
With her first name “americanized,” Vera M. Habrecht attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan, graduating in 1939. She then studied art at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis School of Art, both in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Miss Habrecht was introduced to Mr. Winzer by Professor Picard. They were married 1 February 1941, in Detroit.³ They divorced in 1958.
Mrs. Winzer was herself an aeronaut. In 1957 she competed in the 30th Annual International Gas Balloon Races in Holland.
During Project MANHIGH, she met Major David G. Simons, M.D., U.S.A.F. Major Simons flew the MANHIGH II mission, 19–20 August 1957. They were married 12 June 1959. It was the second marriage for both. This marriage also ended in divorce, 5 May 1969. Dr. Simons died 5 April 2010.
On 26 May 1975, she married her third husband, Clifford Charles La Plante, at Arlington, Virginia.
While conducting pollution research Mrs. La Plante, under the name Vera M. Simons, set a Comité International d’Aérostation (the FAI Ballooning Commission, or CIA, world record for the Longest Flight for a Female Pilot, at 133 hours, 45 minutes, 1 October 1979.⁴
Vera Maria Habrecht Winzer Simons La Plante died at Austin, Texas, 31 July 2012, at the age of 91 years.
¹ Air Force Missile Development Center Technical Report MANHIGH I, AFMDC-TR-59-24, Pages 33 and 35
² FAI Record File Numbers 1045, 1046, 1047
³ Some sources state that Mrs. Winzen had been married previously, and that she had a daughter from that marriage. TDiA has not found any information to support this claim.
25 April 1956: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, test pilot Lieutenant Colonel Frank Kendall (“Pete”) Everest, United States Air Force, was airdropped from a Boeing EB-50D Superfortress in the Bell X-2 supersonic research rocket plane, serial number 46-674. This was the tenth flight of the X-2 program, and only the third powered flight.
For the first time, Everest fired both chambers of the Curtiss-Wright XLR25 rocket engine. On this flight, the X-2 reached Mach 1.40 and 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). It was the first time an X-2 had gone supersonic.
The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.
In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from stainless steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.
The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).
The X-2 was powered by a throttleable two-chamber Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons)
Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50D-95-BO Superfortress bomber, serial number 48-096, was modified as the drop ship and redesignated EB-50D.
The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.
Two X-2 rocketplanes were built. The second X-2, 46-675, was destroyed during a captive flight, 12 May 1953. The explosion killed Bell test pilot Skip Ziegler and Frank Wolko, an engineer aboard the B-50A mothership. The B-50 made an emergency landing but was so badly damaged that it never flew again.
The X-2 reached a maximum speed of Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour/3,370 kilometers per hour) and maximum altitude of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters).
The EB-50D was a highly modified four-engine Boeing B-50D-95-BO Superfortress long range heavy bomber, engineered to carry research aircraft to high altitudes before releasing them for a test flight. The B-50 was an improved version of the World War II B-29A Superfortress.
Frank Kendall (“Pete”) Everest, Jr., was born 10 Aug 1920, at Fairmont, Marion County, West Virginia. He was the first of two children of Frank Kendall Everest, an electrical contractor, and Phyllis Gail Walker Everest. Attended Fairmont Senior High School, Fairmont, West Virginia, graduating in 1939. He studied at Fairmont State Teachers College, also in Fairmont, West Virginia, and then studied engineering at teh University of Wesst Virginia in Morgantown.
Pete Everest enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Corps at Fort Hayes, Columbus, Ohio, 7 November 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II. His enlistment records indicate that he was 5 feet, 7 inches (1.703 meters) tall and weighed 132 pounds (59.9 kilograms). He graduated from pilot training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve, 3 July 1942.
Everest married Miss Avis June Mason in Marion, West Virginia, in 1942.
He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, Army of the United States, 11 November 1942. He was assigned as a Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk pilot, flying 94 combat missions in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He was credited with shooting down two German airplanes and damaging a third. Everest was promoted to the rank of Captain, 17 August 1943.
In 1944, Everest was returned to the United States to serve as a flight instructor. He requested a return to combat and was then sent to the China-Burma-India theater of operations where he flew 67 missions and shot down four Japanese airplanes. He was himself shot down by ground fire in May 1945. Everest was captured by the Japanese and suffered torture and inhumane conditions before being freed at the end of the war. He was promoted to the rank of major, 1 July 1945. He was returned to the United States military 3 October 1945.
After the war, Everest was assigned as a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, before going west to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Everest was returned to the permanent rank of first lieutenant, Air Corps, 19 June 1947, with date of rank retroactive to 3 July 1945.
At Edwards, he was involved in nearly every flight test program, flying the F-88, F-92, F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104 and F-105 fighters, the XB-51, YB-52, B-57 and B-66 bombers. He also flew the pure research aircraft, the “X planes:” the X-1, X-1B, X-2, X-3, X-4 and X-5. Pete Everest flew the X-1B to Mach 2.3, and he set a world speed record with the X-2 at Mach 2.9 (1,957 miles per hour, 3,149.5 kilometers per hour) which earned him the title, “The Fastest Man Alive.” He was the test pilot on thirteen of the twenty X-2 flights.
Frank Everest returned to operational assignments and commanded a fighter squadron, two combat crew training wings, and was assigned staff positions at the Pentagon. On 20 November 1963, Colonel Everest, commanding the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Squadron, flew one of the first two operational McDonnell F-4C Phantom II fighters from the factory in St. Louis to MacDill Air Force Base.
In 1965, Pete Everest was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He was commander of the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service. He retired from the Air Force in 1973 after 33 years of service. He later worked as a test pilot for Sikorsky Aircraft.
During his military career General Everest was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters (three awards); Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters (three awards); Purple Heart; Air Medal with one silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters (seven awards); Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster (two awards); Presidential Unit Citation with two bronze oak leaf clusters (three awards); Air Force Gallant Unit Citation; Prisoner of War Medal; American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal with four bronze stars; Asiatic-Pacific campaign Medal with two bronze stars; World War II Victory Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; Air Force Longevity Service Award with one silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters (seven awards); Air Force Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960– device. General Everest was rated as a Command Pilot, and a Basic Parachutist.
Brigadier General Frank Kendall Everest, Jr. United States Air Force (Retired), died at Tucson, Arizona, 1 October 2004 at the age of 84 years.
23 April 1918: at 09:55 a.m., near Saint-Gobain, France, 1st Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer, 103rd Aero Squadron (Pursuit), shot down an enemy Albatross C two-place biplane. This was Baer’s fifth victory in aerial combat, making him the first American “ace.” ¹
Paul Frank Baer was born 29 January 1894 at Fort Wayne, Indiana, the fourth of four children of Alvin E. Baer, a railroad engineer, and Emma B. Parent Baer.
In 1916, Paul Baer served under Brigadier John J. General Pershing during the Mexican Expedition to capture the outlaw and revolutionary Francisco (“Pancho”) Villa.
He then went to France and enlisted the Aéronautique Militaire, in 20 February 1917. He was sent for flight training at the Avord Groupemant des Divisions d’Entrainment (G.D.E.). He graduated as a pilot, 15 June 1917, with the rank of corporal. After flight training, Corporal Baer was assigned to Escadrille SPA 80, under the command of Capitaine Paul Ferrand, 14 August 1917 to 20 January 1918, flying the SPAD S.VII C.1 and SPAD S.XIII C.1. Baer was next transferred to Escadrille N. 124, the EscadrilleAméricaine, under Georges Thénault. This unit was equipped with the Nieuport-Delâge Ni-D 29 C1.
After the United States entered the War, Baer was transferred to the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Forces, and commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant with a date of rank retroactive to 5 November 1917. At that time, the 103rd was under the command of Major William Thaw II, and was operating near La Cheppe, France, flying the SPAD S.VII C.1 chasseur.
Lieutenant Baer is officially credited with 9 victories, and claimed an additional 7. After shooting down his ninth enemy airplane on 22 May 1918, Baer and his SPAD S.XIII C.1 were also shot down. He was seriously injured and was captured by the enemy near Armentières and held as a Prisoner of War. At one point, Baer was able to escape for several days before being recaptured.
For his service in World War I, 1st Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer was awarded the United States’ Distinguished Service Cross with one oak leaf cluster (a second award). He was appointed Chevalier de laLégion d’honneur by Raymond Poincaré, the President of France. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre with seven palms.
After World War I, Baer, as a “soldier of fortune,” organized a group of pilots to fight against “the Bolsheviks” in Poland. He returned to the United States, departing Boulogne-sur-mer aboard T.S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, and arriving at New York City, 4 November 1919. He then flew as a test pilot, an air mail pilot in South America, and worked as an aeronautical inspector for the U.S. Department of Commerce, based at Brownsville Airport, Texas. In 1930, he was employed as a pilot for the China National Aviation Corporation.
Baer was flying from Nanking to Shanghai for with an amphibious Loening Air Yacht biplane, named Shanghai. The airplane crashed after striking the mast of a boat on the Huanpu River. He died at the Red Cross Hospital at Shanghai, China, at 9:00 a.m., 9 December 1930. A Chinese pilot, K. F. Pan, and an unidentified female passenger were also killed. General Hsiung Shih-hui and four other passengers on board were seriously injured.
Paul Baer’s remains were returned to the United States aboard S.S. President McKinley and were buried at the Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In 1925 a new airport was opened in Fort Wayne and named Paul Baer Municipal Airport. During World War II, the airport was taken over by the military and designated Baer Army Airfield. It is now Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA).
¹ TDiA would like to thank CMSgt Bob Laymon USAF (Ret.) (AKA, “Scatback Scribe”) for pointing out that while Lt. Baer was the first American to become an ace flying in the American service, that,
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.
Citation: 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.
AIR FORCE CROSS
CAPTAIN HAROLD EUGENE JOHNSON
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
Company: 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron
Regiment: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing
Division: Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam
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.
¹ Radio call sign for aircraft 2.
UPDATE: Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force (Retired) died Tuesday, 2 May 2017, at St. Augustine, Florida. He was 85 years of age.