By John T Corell
In the beginning, the North Vietnamese air force was a rag-tag operation with obsolete, cast-off equipment. The first unit was formed in 1959. The first combat aircraft was a T-28 trainer whose pilot defected from the Laotian air force.
The Vietnamese Peoples’ Air Force—as it was officially called—sent pilots to the Soviet Union and China for training in MiG fighters but had no jet aircraft of its own until February 1964, when the Soviets donated 36 MiG-15s and -17s to the VPAF.
For reasons of security, the MiGs were based across the border in southern China and did not deploy to Phuc Yen Air Base near Hanoi until August 1964, after the buildup of US forces in Southeast Asia following an attack on US ships in the Tonkin Gulf.
The VPAF would not gain its first MiG-21s until November 1965, and the MiG-15s and -17s were not regarded as any real threat to late-model US fighters. Thus, it came as a surprise on April 3, 1965, when a pair of MiG-17s pounced on a US Navy strike flight south of Hanoi and raked the F-8E Crusader fighter-bombers with 23 mm cannon fire.
The North Vietnamese believed, erroneously, that they had destroyed two of the Crusaders. In fact, they inflicted significant damage on only one of them. However, they had better luck the next day.
On April 4, in the first confirmed aerial victories for either side, MiG-17s shot down two US Air Force F-105s that were attacking the “Dragon’s Jaw” bridge at Thanh Hoa. The MiGs came in through a thick layer of haze, eluding the F-100s flying protective air patrol. The Thuds, carrying heavy bomb loads, were unable to react.
The first US victories were in June 1965 by Navy F-4Bs operating from a carrier in the Tonkin Gulf. The first Air Force victories did not occur until July 10, when F-4Cs, flying from Ubon Air Base in Thailand, shot down two MiG-17s.
USAF and USN fighters confronted the MiGs in two phases: 1965-1968 and 1972-1973, separated by an interval when operations over North Vietnam were halted during negotiations attempting to end the war.
US pilots and aircraft were clearly superior, and they had an overwhelming advantage in numbers. Even so, the small, quick-turning MiGs proved to be formidable opponents. American airmen shot down 196 MiGs—137 by the Air Force, 59 by the Navy and the Marine Corps—and sustained 83 losses.
In historical context, it was a far cry from World War II, when the Army Air Forces awarded more than 15,000 aerial victory credits, or the Korean War, in which Air Force F-86s shot down 792 MiG-15s and achieved an exchange ratio of better than 10-to-1.
Vietnam was a different kind of war.