The ‘Last Gunfighter’: F-8 Crusader over North Vietnam
By Louis S. Gundlach, Senior Air Warfare Analyst, Retired Marine Corps Fighter Pilot and Denver Bronco fan.
Prior to the Vietnam War, leadership in the US Air Force and US Navy felt that superior technology, in aircraft and weapons, would lead to air supremacy over any enemy. Fighter aircraft like the F-4, with powerful radars and beyond visual range missiles would sweep the sky of enemy fighters. Older fighters, it was thought, would not fair as well as the F-4. The air-war over North Vietnam, especially the fight against the North Vietnamese MiG aircraft, drew much media and military leadership attention because it would put this theory to the test, albeit against a drastically inferior foe. From 1965 to 1968 and then again in 1972 United States aircraft flew into an almost daily battle over North Vietnam against a much smaller and vastly technologically inferior foe. The United States air forces found that its reliance on technology was not up to the task of providing air superiority over North Vietnam and the U.S. air forces tallied a disappointing 2 kills for every U.S. aircraft shot down by Vietnamese fighters. This was much lower than the 14 to 1 kill ratio claimed in the Korean War. (Historians have recently disputed this claim and some of estimated the kill ratio in Korea to be closer to 8 to 1). This poor kill ratio greatly distressed the leadership of the U.S. Military. The Vietnamese Air Force, purportedly poorly trained and equipped with mostly antiquated fighters, was proving itself capable of defending itself against the a vastly more well-equipped foe. The U.S. fighters and pilots, equipped with advanced technology and weapons, found that their training, tactics, and aircraft were not up to the task in Vietnam, save one aircraft. The Navy’s F-8 Crusader, made by Vought, racked up a much more respectable 6 to 1 kill ratio and with probable claims added into the equation a 7 to 1 kill ratio was achieved in the first three years of the Vietnam War.1 How did the Crusader pilots achieve such a drastic difference in success when compared to newer and more advanced American fighters? A comparison between the F-8 and its two adversaries of the Vietnam War, the MiG-17 and MiG-21 shows that the F-8 was fairly evenly matched against the two MiGs. The F-8 was a proven aircraft by 1965 with fair maneuverability along with a respectable weapons suite and mature training program. The F-8’s tactics and training were based on its lack of a beyond visual range weapons and it reliance on rear quarter IR missiles and four 20-mm cannon. The nature of the air war over Vietnam handcuffed the American forces with many disadvantages. Stringent rules of engagement, weather, and long flight distances were some of the disadvantages that enabled the North Vietnamese MiG pilots to pick the opportune time to attack. This led to the air battles becoming a visual maneuvering affair, an affair that the F-8 pilots were knowledgeable with. The proper experience, one that could translate easily into a wartime situation, was instrumental in the success of the F-8 over North Vietnam.
Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader
The Vought F-8 Crusader entered service in the United States Navy in 1957.2 It was a single seat and single engine air superiority fighter. Capable of speeds approaching Mach-2,3 the F-8 was built with one goal in mind: find enemy aircraft and shoot them down. The Crusader was armed with four Colt Mark-12 twenty-millimetre cannon and could also carry four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. The Mark-12 cannon were capable of firing 660 rounds per minute but were prone to jamming.4 F-8 squadrons found that consistent use and maintenance of the Mark-12 would reduce jamming incidents in training. Unfortunately, the training environment, whether shooting at a target on the ground or shooting a target banner at 30,000 feet, did not simulate the rigours of a dogfight over North Vietnam. F-8 pilots often practiced air-to-air gunnery by shooting a cloth banner, impregnated with some radar receptive material, which was towed by another fighter. The pattern was usually flown at 20,000 feet and the supersonic pattern was flown at 30,000 feet.5 To score hits on the banner a pilot needs to fly a smooth and precise pattern through the air. While G-forces during the firing run can approach 6G, the G-force is usually applied with a smooth, consistent pull. Contrast this with a dogfight in which a fighter is trying get into a firing situation on another aircraft that is manoeuvring in three dimensions. The fight is characterised by rapid onset of G-forces followed by rapid un-loads or negative G-forces. This difference between shooting situations in training and combat caused the cannon-jamming problem to return during missions over North Vietnam.
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The AIM-9 sidewinder used by the F-8, was a short-range infra-red homing missile. The F-8s used two different variants of the AIM-9 during the first part of the Vietnam War, the AIM-9B and the AIM-9D. The AIM-9B/D during the Vietnam War was limited in the fact that they had poor IR sensitivity, which led to susceptibility to track a heat source on the ground vice the target aircraft. The AIM-9s during this period had to be fired at the rear quarter of an enemy aircraft and it also was severely limited in its ability to track and hit a maneuvering target. The AIM-9B could only be effective at less than 20 degrees angle of the tail (AOT) of the enemy aircraft. The AIM-9B also could only be launched effectively with less than 2 Gs on the launching aircraft. The AIM-9D had a cooled seeker head that gave it better heat discrimination and a better motor for better performance.6 The AIM-9D could be effective out to 40 degrees AOT, but the F-8 Tactical Manual (TACMAN) stated it could be effective out to 90 degrees AOT.7 The AIM-9D could also be fired with more Gs applied to the launching aircraft and had better effectiveness against a maneuvering target. Effective range for a missile is altitude dependant but below 10,000 feet, where almost all of the air-to-air engagements over North Vietnam took place, the AIM-9 had an effective range envelope from a quarter of a mile out to just over 2 miles at 10,000 feet.
F-8 pilots practiced during the 1960’s with captive carry AIM-9s, which gave all the indications of a valid track, but the missile did not have a motor or warhead. This gave the pilots the knowledge of the missiles envelope and enabled the F-8 pilots in combat to have a better success rate than their US counterparts. The F-8 did have the ability to carry the AIM-9C, a short-range, semi-active radar homing missile, which had the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft head on out to 6 miles at 10,000 feet. A semi-active missile would guide on a radar return. For the AIM-9C to guide, the F-8s radar had to be fully operational and locked on a target. The AIM-9C did have some success in training exercises and was carried occasionally in combat over Vietnam, but the opportunity to be used never arose.8
The F-8 carried Air-Intercept (AI) pulse radars, the APQ-84 and the APQ-134.9 The APQ radars provided rough range, altitude, and bearing out to about 20 miles with the APQ-134 against a fighter sized target.10 The pulse radar did not have a look-down capability so the F-8s radar could not see a target much below its own altitude. F-8s pilot practiced acquiring aircraft with its radar and using the information to enter the visual arena in an advantageous position. The transition to the visual maneuvering arena was always part of the F-8 pilots training package and this separated it from the training that the F-4 aircrews received. Due to the limited capability, range, and reliability of the F-8s radar the Crusader was dependant on good GCI or AIC (Ground Controlled Intercept or Airborne Intercept Control, controllers on the ground or airborne, who monitored powerful radars and directed the fighters) and a good visual lookout doctrine.
F-8, MiG-17, MiG-21 comparison
During the air war over North Vietnam, air-to-air engagements, especially those that took place in the visual arena, depended on three dominant characteristics to be successful. The ability to pick up another aircraft visually usually was the first precursor to a successful attack. Visual pick -ups could be dependant on the visual acuity of the individual pilot, but cockpit visibility played an important role. Also, the ability to see an attack could enable a pilot to survive to fight another day. Visibility had an added importance to a pilot’s situational awareness due to unreliable ground control radars and unreliable or non-existent (for the MiG-17) fighter radars. Aircraft maneuverability is an important performance factor in a visual dogfight when both adversaries see each other and are manoeuvring. Altitude and airspeed play a role in this factor, one aircraft might be superior at low altitude and sub-sonic speeds while another might be superior at high altitude and super-sonic speeds. For combat over Vietnam, the comparison is made where the combat mostly took place, below 10,000 feet and subsonic airspeeds. The last factor to compare for successful air combat in the visual arena is weapons and the systems that control those weapons. If a fighter can sight another aircraft, manoeuvre into a position to shoot down that aircraft, but the weapons and associated systems are incapable of finishing the job, the fighter is impotent. A comparison of the F-8 to the two North Vietnamese fighters it faced will show that each aircraft had weaknesses that were exploitable by the other aircraft.
Visibility for the pilot in the F-8 was poor by modern standards, with a large blind spot behind the pilot and multiple canopy bows to the front. It did offer better visibility than most fighters of the time, with good visibility up, to the sides, and down.11 The MiG-17 had very poor visibility to the front of the fighter due to canopy bows and thick bulletproof glass. The MiG-17 pilot also sat very low in the cockpit, which hindered his downward and rear views. The MiG-17 pilot did have a good view up and to the sides.12 The MiG-21 had the worst visibility of the three fighters. The front glass also had very thick bulletproof glass with large canopy bows. The MiG-21’s rearward visibility was non-existent with a blind cone that extended 40 degrees from either side of the tail. Some MiG-21s had a rear looking periscope, but this was fairly ineffective in a combat situation. The MiG-21’s rearward visibility was so poor that US visual game plans developed in the late 1960’s through secret exploitation programs relied heavily on exploiting this weakness.13
The ability to manoeuvre a fighter plane into a position to shoot down another aircraft has been a hallmark of fighter design since the First World War. Fighter maneuverability is a wide-ranging concept that has to take into account different airspeeds, altitudes, and configurations. Since the combat over Vietnam took place at a relatively consistent altitude and airspeed, below 10,000 feet and subsonic airspeeds, a comparison can be made between the three fighters. Configurations in the fighter roles also remained fairly constant throughout the war for the three fighters. For an initial comparison of maneuverability, a fighter’s wing loading can be contrasted. Wing loading is the fighters weight divided by wing area.14 A low wing loading aircraft usually has a better turn performance than an aircraft with a high wing loading, especially at subsonic airspeeds. Instantaneous turn rate and radius at differing altitudes can offer a look at a first turn capability of a fighter aircraft, while sustained turn rate and radius focus on the fighters turn performance over time. Unfortunately, the F-8s turn rate and radius numbers remain classified at this time.15
The F-8 Crusader was built as a pure air superiority fighter with the Mark-12 20-mm cannon as the primary weapon. The ability to manoeuvre to achieve a weapons solution was an important consideration in the design. Although supersonic speed and high-altitude performance were also features that influenced the aircrafts design. Compared to other US fighters of the time, the F-8 had decent maneuverability with wing loading of 69 lbs per square foot. The F-8 would stall below 220 kts in a turn and could have some difficult departure characteristics.16 At supersonic, high subsonic airspeeds, and high altitude the F-8 had good turn performance. At low altitude, lower wing loaded aircraft had a definite turn advantage over the Crusader.
The MiG-17 was a very maneuverable aircraft. With a lightweight and a low stall speed, this swept wing aircraft had very impressive instantaneous turn and sustained turn rate and radius. The MiG-17 had a wing loading of 44 pounds be square foot.17 It had an instantaneous turn rate of 21 degrees per second and a sustained turn rate of 13 degrees per second.18 The MiG-17 also had a sustained turn radius of about 1800 feet at low altitude and a best turn speed of just over 300 knots. At slow airspeeds the MiG-17 could continue an impressive turn all the way down to a speed of 120 knots. At high airspeeds the MiG-17 turn rate and radius became less impressive. Above 450 knots the MiG-17s controls began to stiffen and the aircraft would begin to ‘arc’. ‘Arcing’ is a term used by fighter pilots to describe a turn that is characterized by a large turn radius and a low rate of turn. At slower airspeeds the MiG-17 could outturn any of the US fighter aircraft.
Interview with a Crusader pilot here.
The MiG-21C was designed for high altitude interception. It was capable of Mach 2 and had a delta wing design and a wing loading of 58 pounds per square foot. At high altitude the MiG-21C had good turn performance but as the altitude decreased its performance also decreased. At 5000 feet the MiG-21 C has an instantaneous turn rate of around 15 degrees per second and a sustained turn rate of 9 degrees per second. Its instantaneous radius was less than 2000 feet and its best airspeed was above 350 knots.19
Weapons and weapons control suite control a fighter’s ability to down another aircraft. Once that aircraft had been sighted and through maneuvering or surprise the aircraft brings its weapons to bear, the accuracy and reliability of the weapons become the last part of a visual arena kill in air to air combat. The weapons and weapon control systems were fairly similar and were consistent with the fighter technology developed in the 1950’s. The F-8’s weapons suite consisted of a pulse radar, two or four AIM-9 missiles, and four 20-mm cannon. The F-8s radar and weapons computer provided range and a computed gun solution for the gun sight. Unfortunately, the radar and computer had a 3 second settling time before it provided accurate information. What this meant was that an enemy aircraft had to fly the same course and airspeed for at least 3 seconds for the F-8 pilot to get accurate information for a radar guided gunshot. A non-maneuvering or steady state fighter in a visual engagement was a highly unlikely. The F-8s Mark-12 20-mm guns, as stated previously, were highly susceptible to jamming in a high G environment. The Mark-12s also were inaccurate with a 12-mil dispersion.20 This meant that bullets would land in a 12-foot wide circle when fired at 1000 feet. The 12-mil dispersion is fairly large when compared to the 3-mil dispersion of previous fighters. The AIM-9B and D were fairly reliable against non-maneuvering aircraft, but both had varying degrees of difficulty with maneuvering targets. The F-8’s radar was also temperamental and was frequently inoperative. The F-8 could operate and often did effectively without its radar operating. Due to unreliability of its guns and limitations of the AIM-9B/D, the F-8 could and did find itself in a position to shoot down an enemy fighter but unable to finish the job.
The MiG-17 was a follow on to the MiG-15. It was to be operated from unimproved fields and carried rudimentary armament. The North Vietnamese operated two main variants of the MiG-17, the MiG-17F and the MiG-17PF. The MiG-17F was armed with two 23-mm cannon and one 37-mm cannon. The MiG-17PF had the same armament but also had a range only gun radar. Both MiGs had a slow rate of fire, carried very few rounds, and their cannon and gun sight were notoriously inaccurate. The cannon had tremendous killing power and one hit could bring down a US fighter. The MiG-17PF’s radar was hard to maintain and often was inoperable. The MiG-17 could carry two AA-2 Atoll missiles, copies of the AIM-9B, but most often this configuration was not seen.21
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The MiG-21C was a vastly more modern fighter than the MiG-17 and on paper it appeared to be much more of a threat than the MiG-17. The MiG-21C carried a range only ‘Sky Fix’ radar that had a lock-on range out to four miles. It provided the pilot with a missile and gun in-range cueing. The MiG-21C’s main armament was the AA-2B and it could carry 2 of the missiles. The AA-2B had an un-cooled seeker head and a range out to 1.5 miles at low altitude. The AA-2B was a rear quarter, 20 degrees AOT or less with limited manoeuvrability or ability to discern a target from ground heat.22 The MiG-21C also had a single Gsh-30 30-mm cannon. The radar and range computer were somewhat inaccurate, and a phenomenon known as ‘gun sight jitter’, where the gun sight pipper jumps about the gun sight when the gun is fired, was prevalent in the MiG-21C. Like the MiG-17, the MiG-21 C’s cannon did have a tremendous punch and could bring down a US fighter with a single hit.23
A comparison of the three fighters shows that each had its own advantages and disadvantages. The F-8 had better visibility from the cockpit than the two MiGs. This visibility would provide the F-8 pilots with an offensive entry or could provide them with a chance to see an attacker before it was too late. The F-8 and the MiG-21 were evenly matched at low altitude in terms of manoeuvrability. The MiG-21C’s delta wing limited some of its low altitude manoeuvrability, so the wing loading comparison is a little deceiving. The MiG-17 could out turn the F-8 by a wide margin at low altitude and slower than 450 knots, but the Crusaders much higher speed and acceleration meant a savvy pilot could stay out of range of the MiG-17’s powerful guns. A slow speed dogfight at low altitude against a MiG-17 could prove fatal to any US fighter. The three-fighter aircraft carried comparable weapons. All three had inaccurate cannon but the MiG’s killing power was superior. The F-8 had a distinct advantage starting in 1967 when the AIM-9D was introduced to the Navy fleet squadrons. The AIM-9D was superior in range and seeker head capability to the AA-2B and the AIM-9B.24 The F-8s radar was also superior to the MiG’s radar systems and its capability to detect and lock enemy aircraft could aid a pilot greatly in visual acquisition.
F-8 Pilot Training
The first F-8 models were pure air superiority fighters. Until the F-8E was introduced in the early 1960’s, the F-8 did not have a bomb carrying capability. The F-8 was also designed with the four Colt Mark-12 20-mm cannon as the primary weapon. F-8 pilots all report that the aircraft was fun to fly and was an honest aircraft. It would let you know when it was going to depart, but it could have some nasty post stall gyrations and departure characteristics. US Navy and Marine Corps F-8 training in the late 1950s and early 1960s revolved around the air superiority mission. F-8 pilots racked up large amounts of flight hours and experience. Rules during this time were not very stringent and F-8 pilots would practice their trade on any aircraft they could find. Un-briefed dogfights were the norm and in the absence of different aircraft, the F-8s would fight against each other. Even with the introduction of the F-8E and the air-to-ground mission, the F-8 pilots reported that they would continue to fight against each other at the end of each mission. A large number of pilots had vast experience in dogfighting and knew the capabilities and limitations of the F-8.25
F-8 pilot’s experiences with air-to-air gunnery differed although all did have some experience with shooting at the banner. Like much of Navy and Marine Corps training at the time, individual F-8 squadrons drove the training syllabus and events. One squadron might conduct air-to-air gunnery shoots on a regular basis while other might do it during an operational inspection. The air-to-air gunnery pattern had three positive effects on F-8 capabilities. By exercising the guns in an environment that they may be shot in combat, maintenance and reliability would improve. Pilots would gain valuable experience on how the jet reacted to the 20-mm guns being fired. The last thing a pilot would want is to be startled by his own guns in a combat situation. Lastly, the pilots would learn how to score hits and overcome the limitations of the gun and gun sight system. Reliance on the gun system would drive tactics that would force the F-8 into close visual maneuvering situations, much like the situations they would find over North Vietnam.26
The F-8 community in the 1960s added an important facet to its training, the captive carry AIM-9 missiles. These missiles had the seeker head of a regular AIM-9 but without the warhead or motor. The captive carry missiles could lock other aircraft and give the pilot all of the indications he would see in combat. Since combat simulators for aircraft were non-existent at this time, the ability to train with the differing tones and indications of an air-to-air missile was invaluable. The F-8 pilots could point to this use of the captive carry missile as another part of their success in Vietnam. Although the overall success of the AIM-9s fired by F-8s in combat was not drastically different than that of other fighters, the AIM-9 was the dominant weapon used by F-8s in combat over Vietnam.
By its nature, dogfights, especially ones involving many aircraft, are complex three-dimensional affairs that require experience for a pilot to become effective at surviving and killing enemy aircraft. A pilot needs to be able to recognize what the enemy aircraft is doing, its energy state and position as well as his own aircrafts position in a fight. In a multi-plane engagement, a pilot will learn to know where to find aircraft after taking his eyes off of one to evaluate or attack another. Though people like to romanticize that some pilots are naturally born fighter pilots, the truth is that only through experience and training is an effective fighter pilot developed. While some pilots are better than their peers at maneuvering their aircraft and some can quickly learn to beat more experienced pilots in one on one combat. Only experience in engaging differing aircraft in different numbers can a pilot become effective in the multi-fighter engagement. By becoming a master of one’s own aircraft and participating in hundreds or thousands of aerial engagements, a pilot can become the master of his domain. F-8 pilots, by the nature of their mission and training focus, unknowingly prepared for the engagements over Vietnam by fighting day after day. While other US aircraft worked on techniques for nuclear bomb delivery or all-weather radar attack procedures, F-8 pilots practiced the mission that their aircraft was developed for. This experience would pay dividends over North Vietnam.
Environment over North Vietnam
The North Vietnamese Air Force, on paper, did not match up well against the air forces of the United States. They did not have the numbers of aircraft and many were technologically inferior. Most of their pilots had very limited experience and they did not have the training opportunities that the US pilots had. The North Vietnamese Air Force did have many advantages though. They were defending their home country and their fighters did not have to fly far to engage the US fighters. The North Vietnamese Ground Control and Early Warning Radars could see the US aircraft forming up and gave their fighters plenty of time to launch and prepare to attach. The North Vietnamese fighters were only a part of the air defense system with the US aircraft having to concern themselves with Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and Anti-Aircraft-Artillery (AAA), along with the MiGs. The United States engaged in a limited bombing campaign where the North Vietnamese MiG bases were off limits most of the time. This enabled the MiGs to have a safe haven and the ability to choose the time and place of their attacks. If the MiGs did not have a positive tactical situation they could leave and fight another day because their aircraft were mostly immune to attack while on the ground.26
The US fighters and bombers faced a daunting task over North Vietnam. Attack timing, routes, and targets were often picked in Washington D.C. by non-aviators, not for attack results or sound tactics, but for avoidance of collateral damage. Often unsound tactics were ordered by planners, which often put US pilots in extreme danger, for targets that often did not have significant value. North Vietnamese defenses were often left alone to threaten US aircraft day in and day out. Weather often played a role over North Vietnam. Poor weather would limit the ability of the pilots to see their targets or any threats until it was too late. Vietnam was characterized by a long monsoon season and heavy thunderstorms at other times. This weather also put US aircraft in danger. The fact that US pilots of all services continued to fly over North Vietnam when they could quit at any time speaks volumes for the courage and dedication to duty.
The US Navy lost three F-8 Crusaders in aerial combat over North Vietnam. All three loses had many of the same characteristics. When the F-8s were attacked the MiGs had a significant tactical advantage. Some or all of the MiGs had an altitude advantage and gained an unobserved entry into the dogfight. All three of the engagements were multi-plane engagements with multiple MiGs in the area. The weather for all three had cloud cover that could hide enemy airplanes and make ‘Tallies’ (visual acquisition of enemy aircraft) difficult. The nature of a multi-aircraft visual turning engagement makes it difficult for a pilot to keep track of all of the turning opponents. This is where the experience mentioned in the previous paragraph on training becomes so important. Poor weather will limit the ability of a pilot to maintain tally of all of the enemy aircraft and some will invariably become lost in the mix. This was the case on all three of the F-8 shoot downs. One F-8 pilot claimed that AAA damaged his aircraft and the MiGs finished him off.27 His aircraft did not have the ability to defend himself. Another F-8 was shot down without every seeing his attacker who dropped out of the clouds right behind the Navy pilot was prosecuting an attack against anther MiG.28 The last F-8 shot down was jumped by a flight of four MiG-17s and the pilot’s defensive reaction was too little, too late.29 The F-8s tactics and training drove it into to close proximity of enemy fighters and invariably the enemy fighters could find itself with a weapons employment opportunity on the American fighters. Because the tactical situation over North Vietnam was so disadvantaged for the US aircraft, it speaks highly of the F-8 pilots experience and ability that more F-8s were not lost to MiGs over North Vietnam.
The F-8s achieved 18 or 19 kills, depending on which resource you check, over North Vietnam during the first three years of the war. Much of the combat was multi-aircraft visual dogfights, often with the F-8s fighting an in-close dogfight with MiG-17s, a situation that should have greatly favored the MiG-17s. The first MiG kill of the war was by a very experienced Navy Commander with 1,400 hours in the F-8 and over 5,000 hours in fighters. The dogfight was a four versus four visual turning engagement down at 2,000 to 3,000 feet. The F-8s outmaneuvered the MiGs with the Commander achieving a kill with an AIM-9B. More kills would probably have been achieved by the F-8s, but weapon failures were rampant in the flight. Three F-8s had gun failures when the American fighters were in firing solutions on MiGs. Eight AIM-9s failed to hit targets when launched with the failures either being missile failures or pilot error.30
Interview with a Crusader pilot here.
The next MiG kills were achieved by two second cruise Lieutenants with about 1,000 hours each in F-8s. Their flight lead was shot down at the beginning of the engagement by either AAA and/or MiGs. The F-8s out maneuvered the MiG-17s; one was shot down by an AIM-9B and the other by the F-8s 20MM cannon. Of note, this kill was the only gun exclusive kill credited to the F-8 during the Vietnam War.31
A Commander with 15 years of fighter experience and over 1,000 hours in the F-8 scored the first MiG-21 kill by a Navy aircraft. The flight of F-8s had good radar vectors and an early tally on the flight of four MiG-21s. The Commander maneuvered to an offensive position and dropped the MiG-21 with an AIM-9B and an AIM-9D. The combat took place below 4,000 feet. This Commander had been shot down by MiG-17s four months earlier.32
In spring 1967, F-8s were involved in multiple engagements with North Vietnamese MiGs. A Lieutenant Commander with 10 years of experience and over 3,000 hours in the F-8 damaged a MiG with 20 MM hits and a Zuni rocket hit. (The Zuni was an unguided air to ground rocket with a warhead and an AIM-9 motor) The Lieutenant Commanders guns jammed while he was in a gun solution at 3,000 feet. Later another experienced Lieutenant Commander would gain a tally on a low flying MiG-17 and maneuver to kill it with an AIM-9D. The F-8 then outmaneuvered another MiG-17 and damaged it with his 20 MM cannon.33
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A large dogfight ensued in May 1967 with three MiG-17s being shot down and another being a probable kill by F-8 pilots. A Commander maneuvered behind a MiG-17 and dropped it with two AIM-9D missiles. Two experienced Lieutenants outmaneuvered two different MiG-17s and hit them with AIM-9Ds. One of the Lieutenants found his MiG behind him and was hit by the MiGs cannon but managed to outmaneuver the North Vietnamese pilot and shoot him down. Lastly a Lieutenant Junior Grade downed the final MiG with an AIM-9D. All of the combat took place below 5,000 feet.34
In July of 1967 another large dogfight ensued with the F-8s once again getting the better of the North Vietnamese fighters. A Commander downed one MiG-17 and damaged a second with AIM-9Ds. (In some records the Commander is giving credit for the second MiG) A Lieutenant Commander damaged a MiG-17 with an AIM-9D and finished the MIG with the 20MM cannon. Anther Lieutenant Commander damaged a MiG-17 with the 20MM cannon and finished the job with a pair of Zuni rockets. A Lieutenant damaged a MiG-17 with an AIM-9D and was given a probable kill. The combat was once again at low altitude. The flight of F-8s had seven AIM-9 misses or failures during the fighting.35
A second cruise Lieutenant achieved a MiG-17 kill in December of 1967 when he outmaneuvered the MiG and downed it with an AIM-9D. A Lieutenant Commander also out flew a MiG in this flight but had two AIM-9 misses and a gun jam which denied him of his chance to down a MiG. This pilot out flew 4 MiG-17s at medium altitude for almost fifteen minutes. His actions kept the fighters off of an A-4 Skyhawk that was involved in the fight. This combat was unique since it took place at 10,000 to 20,000 feet. Another Lieutenant in the flight missed with an AIM-9D.36
Throughout the summer on 1968 the F-8 pilots continued to engage and kill MiGs without loss. A Commander with 2,500 hours in the F-8 out maneuvered a MiG-21 and downed it with an AIM-9D and his 20MM cannon. A Lieutenant Commander with 2,400 hours in the F-8 out fought a MIG-17 and downed the aircraft with the 20MM cannon and an AIM-9D. Another Commander was involved in a large dogfight at low altitude and downed a MiG-17 with an AIM-9D. His flight ran into weapons failures that inhibited more MiG kills. Four AIM-9 misses, and a jammed gun foiled the attacks of the rest of the F-8 pilots. Other flights also ran into armament problems. 11 AIM-9 misses and 2 gun jams in three engagements let some MiGs survive. The last three kills by F-8 pilots were against MiG-21s. Experienced pilots, below 10,000 feet, achieved these kills and the fights were characterised by the F-8s outmanoeuvring the MiGs. The MiG-21s were all downed by AIM-9Ds.37
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The F-8’s over North Vietnam started the war by losing 3 fighters and shooting down 3 MiGs. After that the Crusader pilots went on a 15 (or 16 depending on the source) to nothing tear. Most of the combat involved maneuvering multi-plane engagements at low altitude. The low altitude regime should have favored the MiG-17s. AIM-9s were involved in all but two of the kills. 11 of the MiG killers were either Commanders or Lieutenant Commanders. 6 Lieutenants and one Lieutenant Junior Grade rounded out the kill column for the F-8. Most of the Lieutenants were at least on their second cruise and had over a thousand hours in the F-8. The unreliability of the F-8s weapons was a cause of multiple missed kill opportunities. While it is doubtful that all or even a majority of these opportunities would have resulted in more MiG kills, at least a few would probably have resulted in a downed MiG.
Interview with a Crusader pilot here.
The air war over Vietnam was mismanaged by the United States at the highest levels. The deck was stacked against the US air forces. The F-8 Crusader was a mature aircraft at the time of the war with some very experienced pilots. The F-8 had visual weapons only had to rely on manoeuvrability and pilot skill to achieve a weapons solution. The nature of the combat that occurred over Vietnam, mostly visual turning engagements, was similar to the training that the F-8 community had practiced for the previous 10 years. The in close dogfight over hostile territory against aircraft that were more manoeuvrable should not have been to the F-8s advantage. The North Vietnamese MiGs had good radar coverage and control and could pick its engagements. When the MiGs did engage, it was often with an advantage, against aircraft that it could out turn. The F-8 pilots training over the previous ten years had more than evened the tables in the skies over North Vietnam. The countless dogfights, the dedication to aerial gunnery, and the experience that came with both were the deciding factor in the success of the F-8. Only 18 F-8 pilots were able to down MiGs over North Vietnam. Other pilots had the opportunity, but weapons failures or other unforeseen circumstances foiled their attempts. The vast majority of F-8 pilots never had the chance to see and engage the MiGs over North Vietnam. Many other F-8 pilots had the knowledge and experience to achieve MiG kills but were never in the right place at the right time. The F-8 was a good aircraft with some strong attributes and some faults, but it was the pilots training and experience level that led to air-to-air success over North Vietnam.
1. Barrett Tillman, MiG Master, The Story of the F-8 Crusader (United States: Nautical Aviation Publishing Company of America 1980) page 130
2. Tillman, page 24
3. Michael O’Conner, MiG Killers of Yankee Station (Wisconsin, New Past Press, INC 2003) page 17
4. Tillman, page 68
5. Paul T. Gillcrist, Rear Admiral (USN ret) Crusader! Last of the Gunfighters (Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing LTD, 1995) page 74
6. Marshall Michel III, Clashes, Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972 (Annapolis, Maryland, Naval Institute Press 1997) page 54
7. Vought F-8 E/H/J Tactical Manual (Naval Publishing 1967) page 44
8. Tillman, page 75
9. F-8 E/H/K Tactical Manual, page 51
10. F-8 E/H/K Tactical Manual, page 55
11. Gillcrist, page 235
12. Gillcrist, page 237
13. Michel III, page 82
14. Website, Basic Aerodynamics. available [online]: http://220.127.116.11/aerodynamics1/Basics/wing_loading.html
15. Correspondence, Major Matt Taylor, Test Pilot VX-23, NAX Pax River, MD
16. Tillman, page 28
17. Michel III, page 82
18. Website, MiG-17, Home of a True Fighter. Available [online] http://www.mig17.com/specifications.html
19. Michel III, page 82
20. Tillman, page 66
21. Michel III, page 234
22. Michel III, page 78
23. Gillcrist, page 237
24. Michel III, page 54
25. Harold L. Marr, Commander USN, “We Will Get MiGs” Grumman Horizons, vol. 8 no1. pp. 4-11
26. Billy Phillips, Captain USN, “It Takes a Special Kind of Man” Grumman Horizons, vol 8 no 3. pp 3-12
27. O’Conner, page 39
28. O’Conner, page 42
29. O’Conner, page 49
30. O’Conner, page 38
31. O’Conner, page 42
32. O’Conner, page 52
33. O’Conner, page 68
34. O’Conner, page 70
35. O’Conner, page 81
36. O’Conner, page 101
37. O’Conner, page 133
Other Works Cited
Peter Mersky, F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War, (Osprey Publishing LTD, London, England 1997)
Robert K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, (Pocket Books, New York, NY 1990)
Ivan Rendall, Rolling Thunder, Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War, (The Free Press, New York, NY 1997)
Peter B. Mersky & Norman Polmar, The Naval Air War in Vietnam, (Kensington Publishing Co. New York, NY 1981)
Zalin Grant, Over the Beach, The Air War in Vietnam, (W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York, NY 1987)
John Darrell Sherwood, Fast Movers, Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience, ( The Free Press, New York, NY 1999)
Frank Harvey, Air War-Vietnam, (Bantam Books, New York, NY 1967)
Robert L. Shaw, Fighter Combat, Tactics and Maneuvering, (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD 1985)
VC-2 FLEET COMPOSITE SQUADRON TWO website, F-8 Crusader specifications, available online [http://home.earthlink.net/~dlee0005/F-8%20Crusader.htm]
Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Tom Corboy, April 11, 2005
Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Art Krause, April 3, 2005
Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Lou Pritchet, March 29, 2005
Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Orson Swindle, March 21, 2005
Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, James Hagen, March 21, 2005
Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, LtCol Stoney Mayock USMC (ret), March 19, 2005
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A very well researched & detailed article.
Did the F8 community ever get to train with & against the F4?
No mention of range or time on station, drop tanks or aerial refueling. It was not an issue?
Agree, its a very good background story.
The aerial refuelling probe was under the fuselage bubble just behind the pilot in some of the photos.
But, why on earth are the F-8’s instantaneous & sustained turn rates still classified?
I’ve read, elsewhere, that the F-8’s instantaneous turn rate was superior to the F-4’s, but its sustained turn rate was worse.
So, why can’t we be given the specifics?
The French might have flown the F-8 against the Mirage III, in DACT. If they have, that would make another outstanding article!
Some additional direct pilot information especially about the air to air tactics from this article in the UK Journal of Aeronautical History 2018
“An Examination of the F-8 Crusader through Archival Sources Professor Michael Weaver
Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base
“Pilots did not find the aircraft’s radar that useful. Over and near Vietnam, pilots used their
radars mainly to join up with other aircraft in the strike package or locate a tanker aircraft.
“Fighter pilots did not stick their heads into radar scopes over North Vietnam, ever!” Dave
Woltz explained, “When flying over N. Viet Nam I can’t think of any pilots who would
consider even looking inside the cockpit to look at a radar that was probably marginal at best.
The threat from SAMs and AA fire was always present and you needed to see it.”
It seemed that over the North the F-8s needed a ground controlled intercept to guide them close to the enemy fighters, the ground in this case being a radar equipped Cruiser in the Gulf of Tonkin at a station known as Red Crown
Theres also an interesting study of the F-8 and F-4 compared as air superiority fighters.