20 December 1969: Senior Lieutenant Nguyễn Văn Cốc, of the 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam Peoples’ Air Force, flying a Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig 21PFL supersonic interceptor, shot down his final enemy aircraft of the Vietnam War, a U.S. Air Force Ryan AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drone.
Nguyễn Văn Cốc entered the Không quân Nhân dân Việt Nam (Vietnamese People’s Air Force) in 1961. He spent four years in the Soviet Union training as a fighter pilot. He was qualified on both the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 17 and MiG 21.
Nguyễn was credited by the VPAF with nine aerial combat victories. Seven of these were also confirmed by the United States. Between 30 April 1967 and 20 December 1969, he shot down a Convair F-102A Delta Dart, a Republic F-105D Thunderchief, two F-105F Thunderchiefs, a McDonnell F-4B Phantom II, two F-4D Phantoms and the Firebee. (Some sources speculate that this drone was actually a North American Aviation OV-10A Bronco.)
All of Nguyễn’s victories were scored while flying the MiG 21PFL, with R-3S infrared-homing air-to-air missiles.
The R-3S (also known as the K-13, and identified as “AA-2A Atoll” by NATO forces) was reverse-engineered by the Turopov Design Bureau, Tushino, Russia, from a Raytheon AIM-9B Sidewinder which had been captured by the People’s Republic of China during the 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis. Fired by a Republic of China Air Force F-86 Sabre, the missile hit a People’s Liberation Army Air Force MiG 17, but its warhead did not detonate. The PLAAF turned the Sidewinder over to the Soviet Union.
Nguyễn remained in the VPAF until retiring in 2002 with the rank of chief inspector. He is the highest-scoring fighter pilot of the Vietnam War.
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.