Starfighters "in action" in Vietnam 1965-1967

We thank late Tom Delashaw and also Mark Bovankovich who wrote this special story together for the International F-104 Society newsletter "ZIPPER". Lateron this story was spread around over the web and can be found on different websites nowadays.

F-104Cs served in SEA in 1965-66 and 1966-67 during two separate deployments. Over the course of these two deployments, seven F-104s were lost to enemy ground defenses; one F-104 was shot down by an enemy aircraft, and no enemy aircraft were engaged by F-104s while flying escort or CAP missions. It has been said that the F-104s "never had a mission and never made a mark" (*1) in SEA. Misconceptions, myth and misinformation about the F-104 have led to this impression. The facts tell a different story. By 1964, the USAF's only primary air superiority aircraft (*2) , the F-104C, had been forward deployed on several occasions (*3) to project US power and assure control of the air during world crises. The F-104 was widely regarded as the world's foremost daylight air-to-air platform (*4), and the pilots of TAC's 479th TFW, the only operators of the F-104C, had proven themselves to be masters of their trade in numerous mock air-to-air encounters (*5). It was therefore understood that the F-104Cs of the 479th's 435th, 436th or 476th TFSs would rapidly deploy to any troublespot where air superiority must be quickly established. Such a spot was SEA in 1965.

Operation Two Buck

Soon after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, TAC began deploying aircraft in Operation Two Buck, a TDY jet force buildup in SEA. At the time of the initial 1964 buildup, PACAF advocated deployment of an F-104 contingent to protect US air traffic over the Gulf of Tonkin from harassment by PRC and NVN aircraft. However, in January 1965 when TAC proposed sending F-104s to relieve TDY pressure on its overtaxed F-100 units, PACAF reversed its initial stance, citing the logistic complications of adding one more aircraft type to the SEA mix. PACAF was convinced the existing MiG threat in SEA did not warrant a unit dedicated to the air superiority role. Events in the following months would change PACAF's opinion. With the beginning of Rolling Thunder strikes in March 1965, the tempo of bombing over NVN escalated substantially. Unfortunately, the tempo and aggressiveness of NVN and PRC MiG also increased. Initially the heightened aggressiveness was felt primarily by the USN as PRC harassment of aircraft over the Gulf of Tonkin stepped up. NVN aircraft then began to dog US bombing missions over NVN. On 3 April 1965 three NVN MiG-17s attacked a USN strike on the Dong Phuong Thong bridge, damaged an F-8 Crusader, and escaped unharmed. The following day, two NVN MiG-17s attacked a flight of four F-105s that were waiting their turn to bomb the Than Hoa bridge. The MiGs approached without warning, shot down two of the F-105s, completely disrupted the strike, then evaded escorting F-100s to escape unscathed. Obviously, the existing early warning and fighter assets in SEA were insufficient to guarantee US air superiority in the region. Accordingly, an EC-121D College Eye unit was dispatched to extend radar warning coverage over NVN, and TAC was asked to deploy F-104s to escort the EC-121s over the Gulf of Tonkin and to provide a MiG screen for USAF strike aircraft over NVN. On 7 April, TAC issued the deployment order to the 479th TFW, and the first F-104Cs of the 476th TFS landed at Kung Kuan AB, Taiwan, on 11 April. Kung Kuan was to serve as the main operating base for the F-104s, with regular rotation of aircraft to the forward operating base at DaNang. Twenty-four F-104s were deployed to Kung Kuan, and of these, fourteen would be maintained at DaNang by rotation every ten days. This deployment scheme would be utilized throughout the F-104's Two Buck commitment. After a work-up period of seven days, fourteen F-104s arrived at DaNang on 19 April and flew their first escort mission the next day. EC-121 escort missions typically involved three flights of four F-104s, and two KC-135s. The escort sorties typically lasted from two to five hours and the operating area was normally between 250 and 300 miles NNW of DaNang. MiGCAP missions over NVN utilized one to three flights of four F-104s deployed at various altitudes between the strike area and the Hanoi-Haiphong area. CAP points were 225 to 275 miles NNW of DaNang and on-station times varied from forty to ninety minutes. Aerial refueling was only required for the longer duration missions. The effect of F-104 deployment upon NVN and PRC MiG operations was immediate and dramatic. NVN MiGs avoided contact with USAF strikes being covered by F-104s, and PRC MiGs gave the EC-121s a wide berth despite the proximity to Hainan island, from where PRC harassment flights had previously originated. Much to the frustration of the pilots of the F-104s, during the entire deployment of the 476th only two fleeting encounters between F-104s and enemy fighters occurred (*6).  As it became apparent that the MiG threat had decreased, PACAF sought to find other uses for the F-104s to supplement their air superiority role. Toward the end of the 476th's deployment, the F-104s began to be tasked for weather recce and ground attack missions. Weather recce missions normally involved two F-104s, which flew near enough a NVN strike target area to determine the pre-strike weather conditions without revealing the target's identity. Twenty-one strike and AAA-suppression sorties were flown against targets in NVN, but the great majority of the 476th's ground attack sorties were in-country CAS missions flown while under the control of airborne FACs. From these CAS missions, the F-104s quickly gained a reputation for accuracy with their cannon and bombs, and were specifically requested by FACs on numerous occasions because of their fast reaction time (*7). The CAS missions took their toll, however, when an F-104 went down during a sortie 100 nm SSW of DaNang on 29 June (*8). The pilot was rescued with minor injuries. On 11 July 1965, the 476th TFS completed its 96th day of TDY deployment. In all, 476th aircraft had flown 1182 combat sorties. 52% of these sorties were EC-121 escort; 24% were MiG screen; 5% were weather recce and 18% were ground attack missions. During this period, the 476th F-104s maintained an in-commission rate of 94.7%, a testimony both to the quality of 476th maintenance personnel and to the simplicity and maintainability of F-104 systems. Operation Cross Switch saw the 436th TFS assuming the 476th commitment in DaNang on 11 July, and the 436th began flying combat sorties the next day. From the outset however, the overall mission of the 436th was of a different flavor than the 476th's. Although a small number of MiGCAP and escort sorties were flown in July, the great majority of the sorties initially flown were of the CAS type. Beginning in late July, the 436th was fragged to maintain four F-104s on fifteen-minute alert to provide quick-reaction close support of friendly ground troops. This alert commitment was not dropped until the end of September when the escort missions again took precedence. Interdiction/strike and ResCAP missions in NVN were also flown.  By the end of their three-month deployment, 56% of the combat sorties flown by the 436th were of the ground attack type. Although the F-104's high speed and small size made it a difficult target for AAA gunners, questionable missions such as strafing AAA sites inevitably had an impact. Aircraft began returning from CAS missions with battle damage. On 23 July, Capt. Roy Blakely attempted to crash-land his battle-damaged F-104 at Chu Lai. Blakely successfully set his aircraft down gear-up, but died when his F-104 swerved off the runway into a sand dune. PACAF headquarters apparently took notice of Blakely's death, because mission fragging took a more realistic turn soon thereafter. The 436th's bad luck did not end with Blakely's death, nor with the return to escort missions. On 20 September, Capt. Philip Smith became lost while flying an EC-121 escort mission over the Gulf of Tonkin. After several equipment failures and numerous incorrect steering commands from DaNang and a tanker, his F-104 wandered over Hainan and was shot down by a PRC J-6 (MiG-19S) (*9). The day was not over though. Two F-104s returning from searching for Capt. Smith's F-104 collided while penetrating weather on a nighttime approach to DaNang. Both pilots ejected and were recovered unharmed (*10). The events of 20 September would have far-reaching effects on the employment and eventual removal of the F-104 from SEA service (*11). Despite its losses, the 436th's deployment was a success. PRC and NVN MiGs were never encountered during any of the escort or MiGCAP missions, a sign of the enemy's continued respect for the capabilities of the F-104. The 436th also expanded on the 476th's tradition of quick-response and accuracy while flying in-country CAS missions and NVN strike missions. During their deployment, 436th F-104s flew 1382 combat sorties, for a total of 3116 hours, while maintaining an in-commission rate of 88%. The first seven F-104s from the 435th TFS arrived at DaNang on 14 October 1965 to assume the mission commitments of the 436th TFS. The arrival of the 435th also marked the practical end of F-104 fragging for CAS missions in 1965. Only 12 CAS sorties were flown by the 435th; the other 407 combat sorties were of the escort or MiGCAP type, including 12 ResCAP sorties. The primary mission of the 435th was the escort of EC-121D and C-130E-II Silver Dawn aircraft over the Gulf of Tonkin. The aircraft were escorted separately, with flights of four F-104s rotating to cover the general area of the EC-121, and flights of two F-104s rotating to provide constant visual escort for the Silver Dawn aircraft. Coverage was maintained ten hours per day. The 435th's deployment was cut short when, on 21 November, its F-104s and personnel were recalled to Kung Kuan in preparation for re-deployment back to the US. TDY units were to be replaced by permanently based units, and the F-4Cs of the 390th TFS assumed the 435th's escort mission at DaNang. The 435th deployed back to George AFB, with the final equipment-carrying cargo aircraft landing on 25 December, the start of the 1965 Christmas bombing halt. During the F-104 Two Buck deployments, NVN and PRC MiG activity had decreased to the point where MiGs were not considered a primary threat to USAF aircraft in SEA. TAC and the State Department recognized the F-104's contribution to the decrease in MiG activity, but PACAF seemed only to dwell on the "waste" of maintaining single-mission aircraft in SEA. PACAF felt that the F-4C could effectively fill the F-104's MiGCAP and escort roles while also providing the capability of delivering larger tonnage (read: high bomb counts) in CAS missions (*12).

Return Engagement

In the early months of 1966, MiG operations in SEA again began to increase. In addition, NVN MiG-21s began to be spotted in recon photos in March, and were first seen flying over NVN on 23 April. On 26 April, two MiG-21s attacked a pair of F-4Cs that were escorting an EB-66C over NVN. One of the MiGs was shot down by one of the F-4s, and the other MiG escaped, but the limitations of the F-4C and its missile-only armament soon became of great concern to 7th AF. Air superiority in SEA was again in jeopardy. On 29 April, 7th AF's request for more F-104s was met with approval by the Air Staff. PACAF then explained the need for an F-104 re-deployment to CINCPAC, and received concurrence on 14 May. After granting of JCS approval, eight F-104Cs of the 435th TFS landed at Udorn, Thailand on 6 June 1966. At the time of the F-104's second deployment to SEA, TAC was in the process of phasing-out the type. The 479th TFW was converting to F-4 aircraft and when the 435th's F-104s crossed the international dateline, they were attached to PACAF's 8th TFW. On 7 June, the eight F-104s began flying missions in concert with 8th TFW F-4C aircraft, escorting F-105 strikes over NVN. Special tactics (*13) were employed which exploited the unique capabilities of the F-104s and the F-4s. Unfortunately, no MiGs were encountered. These missions also involved close coordination with the F-105 strike aircraft, the Thuds providing SAM warnings for the F-104s, which lacked RHAW gear. Soon after the F-104s arrived at Udorn, the Wild Weasel III EF-105Fs deployed to Korat, Thailand. After some unsatisfactory attempts at using F-4s to escort the Wild Weasels (*14), it was decided to give that mission to the F-104s. The F-104's range and speed was superior to the F-4's in the Weasel escort mission. The Weasels appreciated the F-104's ability to stay with their Thuds, often tailoring missions to the availability of F-104s for escort. F-104 availability was enhanced on 22 July, when an additional twelve F-104s deployed to Udorn and joined the 8th TFW. 1 August brought tragedy to the 435th when two F-104s were lost to SAMs within one hour. Their pilots, Lt. Col. Arthur Finney and Capt. John Kwortnik, were both killed.  The loss of one-tenth of the USAF's remaining combat F-104C force in one day led to a re-assessment of the need to escort Wild Weasel missions. It was reasoned that at the speeds and altitudes at which Weasel F-105s operated, the MiG threat was negligible. Furthermore, the Weasels were regularly exposed to intense target defenses, and it was judged a reckless utilization of very limited F-104 assets to place them in harm's way if a viable MiG threat could not be demonstrated. The F-104s were therefore withdrawn from strike escort missions over NVN until they could be fitted with ECM gear, and until the MiG threat increased -- because, once again NVN MiG activity dropped perceptibly when F-104s entered the theater. By late August 1966, F-104s had been shifted to a primary ground-attack role. Missions in the lower RPs, in Laos and SVN were deemed safe enough for F-104s. However, losses continued to mount. On 1 September, an F-104 was shot down by AAA while conducting a road recce mission over northern Laos. Its pilot, Maj. Norman Schmidt, was captured and died in captivity. On 2 October, another F-104 went down over northern Laos; this time to a SAM. The pilot, Capt. Norman Lockhard, was rescued. The final blow was struck on 20 October when Capt. Charles Tofferi, 1962 William Tell winner (*15), was shot down and killed by AAA over northern Laos. Although the Air Staff had repeatedly questioned F-104 use in the ground attack role, there was no mission change until Tofferi's death. In early December, the F-104s were assigned exclusively to escort missions. By late 1966, all F-104s in SEA had received APR-25/26 RHAW gear under Project Pronto. So equipped, the F-104s once again began flying missions over NVN. Sixteen F-104s took part in Operation Bolo on 2 January 1967. Notably however, the F-104s were not used to actively entice and engage MiGs, but were fragged instead to protect the egressing F-4 force (*16). The F-104s of the 435th continued flying escort missions over the Gulf of Tonkin until 19 July 1967, when they were withdrawn from the theater and replaced by F-4Ds of the 4th TFS. The official reasons for the withdrawal were the need to shepherd remaining F-104C assets in case the MiG threat increased in SEA or elsewhere in the world, the imminent phase-out of the F-104 from active USAF service (*17), and the deficiency in air-to-ground load (*18) that could be carried by the F-104 (*19) . During their second deployment to SEA, the F-104s of the 435th TFS had flown a total of 5306 combat sorties, for a total of 14,393 combat flight hours. Due to increasing parts shortages (*20) and unrelenting sortie rates (*21), aircraft in-commission rate dropped from a high of 85% to a low of 62%. Nevertheless, despite their tired birds, the 435th maintained the reputation of the F-104 among the warriors in SEA. If the F-104C is judged against other US aircraft for its ability to sustain battle damage, to deliver large bombloads or to conduct operations in bad weather, the 104 rates as an also-ran. If, however, the F-104C is judged for its ability to deter MiGs, to ensure the safety of the aircraft entrusted to its escort, or to out-perform any aircraft in existence at the time, the Zip4 is unrivaled.  The F-104 had a mission in SEA: air superiority -- a mission it performed brilliantly.

Foot Notes:

(*1) Quote of unknown origin. Commonly attributed to the pilot of another fighter type in SEA.

(*2) Contrary to popular opinion, the F-104 was not designed as a high-altitude bomber interceptor. The F-104 was designed as a daylight air superiority fighter, with secondary ground attack capability, to replace the F-86. The source of the interceptor misconception is probably the fact that the F-104 first entered service in February 1958 as an interim interceptor with the ADC in the form of the F-104A. The F-104C air superiority fighter did not enter service with TAC until October 1958.

(*3) Bitburg, Hahn and Ramstein in 1961; Hahn and Key West in 1962; Homestead in 1964.

(*4) By 1962, the F-104 had established a reputation as almost unbeatable in ACM. This reputation was later justified during the USAF's Project Featherduster evaluations, the USN's F-4/F-104 maneuvering target testing, and numerous F-104 wildcard appearances at the USAF-FWS. Notably, the F-104's ACM capability was assessed by the USAF as "superior to all other aircraft evaluated at altitudes below 20,000 ft."

(*5) The reputation of the 479th TFW was well known even before the introduction of the F-104C. Somewhat akin to the USN's F-8 community, the 479th continued to regularly develop ACM skills even when this practice became politically incorrect in the late '50s thru early '60s. Furthermore, the 479th was the first USAF wing to adopt Riccioni's "Double-Attack" tactics, which proved ideally suited to the F-104, and were instrumental in the performance of the 479th's F-104s against other aircraft in ACM practice.

(*6) The first encounter involved a pair of F-104s, which were vectored after a MiG-21 that had just departed Hainan island. Directed by Red Crown, the two F-104s engaged in a supersonic chase over NVN before the MiG ran across the Chinese border. One of the F-104 pilots, Capt. George Wells, related how his flight was rapidly closing on the MiG at Mach 1.4 when they entered the buffer zone and were forced to turn back before crossing the Chinese border. The second encounter occurred during the return from a MiGCAP mission approximately 30-35 miles south of Hanoi. Four F-104s were proceeding back to DaNang, low on fuel, when a PRC J-6 popped out of the undercast only 1-1.5 miles in front of the flight, facing away. Before the Starfighter pilots could react, the J-6 lit both of its afterburners (confirming its ID as a Farmer) and dove into the clouds. It is the opinion of one of the pilots, Capt. Thomas Delashaw, that the J-6 had been under GCI control, and had been warned of the F-104s' approach by ground radar.

(*7) The F-104's high speed and simplicity of systems allowed it to reach targets 250 nm from DaNang within forty minutes of alert -- including the ten minutes required for the pilot to travel the 1/4 mile to his aircraft.

(*8) The official cause of this loss was AAA fire received during roll-in for a dive bomb pass. However, it is the opinion of several 479th pilots that the loss was due to pitch-up and departure, caused by error on the part of this F-104's inexperienced pilot.

(*9) It should be noted that Capt. Smith's shootdown was in no way his fault. Smith was an experienced and accomplished pilot, and was one of only two F-104 USAF-FWS graduates. Smith got lost because of a series of equipment failures (primarily his IFF transponder and his standby compass) and bad luck. The J-6 that shot him down was GCI vectored from within a cloud layer to attack position. It is testimony to Smith's nature that after being hit by the J-6, he cleared a compressor stall, selected his remaining Sidewinder (the other had been shot off along with a wingtip), and was maneuvering into firing position against the J-6 when his hydraulics failed and he was forced to eject. For more details of Smith's shootdown and subsequent imprisonment, the author highly recommends "Journey Into Darkness," by Col. Philip E. Smith (ret) and Peggy Herz, Simon and Schuster, 1992.

(*10) Again, it should be noted that the pilots, Capts. Harvey Quackenbush and Dale Carlson, were not at fault. Quackenbush had only two formation lights and Carlson had no instrument lights; the frenzied pace of F-104 operations at DaNang had precluded maintenance of such "non-essential" equipment as that required for night flying.

(*11) Following Smith's loss, there was official concern about the F-104's lack of advanced navigational gear. It was feared that F-104s would be susceptible to border violations because they did not have a doppler, INS, or even a UHF/ADF system. Such equipment did not guarantee against wayward aircraft however, as was stressed when two USN A-6Es with INSs and navigators wandered over China and were shot down in 1967. F-104C pilots were very adept at navigation and beside Capt. Smith's loss -- which was due to equipment failure and bad luck -- there were no instances of F-104s unknowingly violating buffer zones, bombing the wrong target, getting lost on the way to a target, etc.

(*12) While PACAF expressed great confidence in the F-4C's ability to successfully engage MiG's with AIM-7s, TAC had misgivings. Experience with SEA RoE and the F-4C's weapon system was to prove TAC's concerns well justified. The JCS agreed, and directed that F-104 assets be carefully utilized and conserved until the internal-gun-armed F-4E entered service and proved itself capable to handle all projected threats.

(*13) Looker-shooter tactics. F-104s would accelerate ahead to obtain visual ID on targets located by F-4 radar. If possible, the targets would then be engaged by the F-4s' AIM-7s. If Sparrow engagement was not successful, the F-104s would then re-engage the targets and shoot them down with cannon or AIM-9.

(*14) "In-Country and Out-Country Strike Operations in Southeast Asia, 1 Jan 65 - 31 Dec 69, Volume 2 - Hardware, Strike Aircraft," HQ PACAF. It is a common myth that F-104s have a short range. In the low-altitude Weasel escort mission, the F-104C has approximately 1.15 times the range of the F-4C. In the medium-altitude strike escort mission, the F-104 has approximately 1.05 times the range of the F-4C. 1F-104A-1 and 1F-4C-1-1.

(*15) Tofferi had won the 1962 William Tell meet in the F-104C's second appearance, collecting a total of 19,018 pts. His performance included perfect scores in air-to-air gunnery (Tofferi destroyed the dart in only 63 seconds with 86 rounds), air-to-ground rocket, strafing and napalm attacks.

(*16) In defense of the Operation Bolo planners, the 435th's F-104s were somewhat of an unknown quantity to the 8th TFW staff, so their inclusion in the plan in only a support role is understandable. The F-104s would have undoubtedly been useful if included in the MiG engagement force. Besides the performance and weapons advantages the F-104s could have offered, the F-104s also had a much smaller visual signature than the F-4s thus decreasing the range for positive visual ID by MiGs, and the F-104's RCS more closely resembled the Thud's.

(*17) It may seem contradictory that the F-104s were being shepherded to ensure their availability at the same time that they were due for phase-out. The plan was to retire the F-104Cs to ANG service once sufficient F-4Es were available to replace the Starfighter; however, F-104 retirement was accelerated because of the operational toll of sustaining operations in SEA. It was thought that F-104Cs could be safely managed by the 198th TFS of the PRANG, and could be returned to active service should the need arise.

(*18) Notably, the accuracy and effectiveness of the F-104 in the air-to-ground role were never questioned, only its ability to deliver large numbers of bombs.

(*19) "In-Country and Out-Country Strike Operations in Southeast Asia, 1 Jan 65 - 31 Dec 69, Volume 2 - Hardware, Strike Aircraft," HQ PACAF.

(*20) The rarity of the F-104C in the USAF, and its proximity to a planned phase-out date, led to numerous parts shortages. Even equipment common to other aircraft in SEA was not available to the 435th, and cannon spares were particularly scarce. The level of F-104 operations was only able to be maintained because of the quality of the 435th's maintenance personnel and the dedication of individuals such as Lockheed's Ben McAvoy.

(*21) In December 1966, the F-104s of the 435th flew 506 combat sorties for 1706.9 hours. Nine aircraft flew over 100 hours, and one flew 156.4 hours that month. Eight of the 435th's pilots flew over 100 hours, and one flew 127:25. When the State Department became aware of these facts, it sent a letter to Gen. Momeyer suggesting that the 435th be decorated for its outstanding achievement. Momeyer responded by directing an investigation of the 435th's records, apparently disbelieving that only eighteen single-engined fighter aircraft could fly such hours. The records were confirmed, but the unit decoration was never issued. When the records were finally released to the press after the F-104's withdrawal, the totals for the month of December 1966 were listed as the totals for the entire tour of the 435th in SEA, a mistake that endures in many publications to this day.

Tom Delashaw space Tom "Sharkbait" Delashaw. Tom had 6,000+ hrs. in fighters: F-84F; F-100A/D/F; F-104C/D/G/TF/CF; F-4C/D/E. He was one of only two active F-104 pilots to graduate from the USAF Fighter Weapons School. He completed two tours of duty in SEA, flying F-104s and F-4s. Tom maintained his ACM proficiency flying as an air combat instructor for the Texas Air Aces, Houston, TX. He was also flying civilian-owned F-104s as demo/instructor, F-100s, Hawker Hunters, and F4s. "Sharkbait" was the call sign of Tom's F-4 squadron in SEA. Tom was sadly killed during a Hawker Hunter ferry flight on July 23rd, 2003. It happened during take off at the Scranton-Wilkes Barre airport in Pennsylvania Apt. Sadly Tom did not have any time and chance to survive the accident.
Mark Bovankovich space Mark "Top Wop" Bovankovich. Mark is an engineer working for Lockheed Martin as a Operations Analyst. His expertise is in aero propulsion, aircraft performance, air combat tactics and history, and he has seven years experience in air combat simulation development. Mark is part owner of a MiG-21F-13 and is an avid sailplane pilot. The moniker "Top Wop" was bestowed upon him after he shot down two Su-27s while flying an Italian F-104S/ASA in an air combat simulation.


NOTE: As already stated above in the wonderful and historical correct story about the role of the F-104 Starfighter during the Vietnam war, there were two different deployments within the timeframe 1965 till 1967. There is one problem with the Vietnam history of the Starfighters since some of these these Tactical Air Command aircraft were already sent on deployment  to Da Nang on August 5th 1964, while the first official records are from 1965. Some people confirmed that indeed in that period aircraft were in SEA and not at George AFB. We are still looking for confirmations about this 1964 period.