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F-100 Versus MiG-17: The Air Battle Nobody Told You About

One of the great fighters of the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict was the North American F-100 Super Sabre, from the same planemaker who gave us Mitchells, Mustangs, and Sabres. When new, the “Hun” flew faster, higher, and farther than its predecessors. It set speed records. It flew more individual sorties in Vietnam than any other fighter. It guarded against Soviet attack in times of tension. In fact, the F-100 Super Sabre did almost everything a modern fighter could do – except shoot down an enemy aircraft.

Incredibly, despite its decades on the cutting edge of combat aviation, the F-100 was never credited with an air-to-air victory. Since the high priests of the fighter profession regard a “kill” as sacred on the altar of their religion, the Super Sabre’s other achievements can never compensate for the fact that it was never a MiG killer.

As far as official records are concerned, the facts are clear. No F-100 ever shot down an enemy aircraft. No enemy aircraft ever shot down an F-100, either.

Or was it?

As far as official records are concerned, the facts are clear. No F-100 ever shot down an enemy aircraft. No enemy aircraft ever shot down an F-100, either.

F-100 Super Sabre

Don Kilgus took this photo of a wingman’s F-100D Super Sabre (serial no. 55-3712) of the 416th Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, in 1965. Don Kilgus photo courtesy of Robert F. Dorr

But veterans of the earliest days in Vietnam — a brief interval when the F-100 was employed as an escort fighter before being relegated to air-to-ground duty – say the official records are wrong.

They say U.S. Air Force Capt. Donald L. Kilgus shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17 on April 4, 1965.

They also say Kilgus was denied credit for an aerial victory that the Air Force should have placed in his record, not because the MiG didn’t fall out of the sky, but because errors were made,

Kilgus, a fighter pilot with the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Silver Knights” at Da Nang, South Vietnam, flew the first mission on March 2, 1965 when the United States launched Operation Rolling Thunder – a campaign against North Vietnam that eventually lasted three years. “In those early days, we were just beginning to see heavy air fighting in the region around Hanoi,” Kilgus said in an interview in 1990. “Big air battles would become familiar to us later, but in the beginning it was all new.”

“Big air battles would become familiar to us later, but in the beginning it was all new.”

 

Chicken Drumsticks

Kilgus remembered a briefing where another officer spread a map of North Vietnam across a table. “To me, it was the shape of one of Col. Sanders’ fried chicken drumsticks.”

Just a month into the Rolling Thunder campaign, the first air-to-air engagement of the Vietnam war took place on April 3, 1965, when Soviet-built MiG-17 fighters of the North Vietnamese Air Force fired on a U.S. Navy F-8 Crusader with no result. The next day marked a series of air-to-air battles, a tragic setback for the United States, and a controversial dogfight for Kilgus.

On April 4, 1965, numerous air strikes went into North Vietnam. The setback occurred when North Vietnamese MiG-17s popped out of heavy clouds and shot down two Air Force F-105 Thunderchiefs piloted by Capt. James A. Magnusson and Maj. Frank E. Bennett.

Both F-105 pilots lost their lives. Both were members of the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying from Korat Air Base, Thailand, operating that day as “Zinc flight.” Magnusson, at the controls of F-105D 59-1764, apparently was killed almost immediately by cannon fire that struck his cockpit. Bennett, however, who was piloting F-105D 59-1754, should have survived. He nursed his crippled aircraft out to the Gulf of Tonkin and ejected. For a moment, he appeared to be safe on the surface of the Gulf, ready to be picked up. But somehow Bennett but tangled in his parachute and drowned before help could reach him.

MiG-17 over Vietnam

U.S. Air Force gun camera still of a MiG-17 during a dogfight over Vietnam. U.S. Air Force photo

It was a terrible day for U.S air power. North Vietnamese gunfire also downed an A-1H Skyraider (its bureau number appears in no records), killing Capt. Walter Draeger. Another F-105 pilot, Capt. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, at the controls of aircraft 62-4217 of the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the “Vampires,” of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat was shot down, survived, and became one of the earliest American prisoners of war. He pioneered the “tap code” later used by prisoners to communicate from one North Vietnamese cell to another.

Because there were certain things the outside world did not know that day, the air battle was reported as a stunning defeat for the United States. Americans simply were not accustomed to coming out second best in fighter-versus-fighter combat. Press reports focused on the dramatic loss of the two F-105s to MiGs.

Many years later, when North Vietnam’s records became available, it became known that the North Vietnamese lost three MiG-17s that day. It appears that the North Vietnamese actually shot down two of their own MiGs with their own ground fire – possibly the same two MiGs that bagged the F-105s.

Neither side has ever confirmed the circumstances of the loss of the third MiG listed as a casualty in Hanoi’s records. The press did not immediately report a dogfight that day, between F-100 Super Sabre pilot Kilgus – assigned to escort the F-105s – and a MiG-17. Kilgus was certain he knew what happened, but it never became part of the record.

“We saw something come up out of the haze,” Kilgus said. “And one thousandth of a second later… it’s a MiG. I turned into him, jettisoned my auxiliary fuel tanks, and in that instant he turned 90 degrees to face me.”

 

MiG Kill — Maybe

“We saw something come up out of the haze,” Kilgus said. “And one thousandth of a second later…it’s a MiG. I turned into him, jettisoned my auxiliary fuel tanks, and in that instant he turned 90 degrees to face me.”

Kilgus spotted a second MiG. The first overshot and missed him. Kilgus shook off the second, maneuvered abruptly, and found himself behind the first.

“I said, ‘I’ll get in range.’ I pulled my nose up. All four guns are in the belly of the airplane, so I pulled up the nose and just fired enough so he’d see those 20-milimeter cannons winking.” The F-100 was armed with four 20 mm Pontiac M39E cannons with 1,200 rounds. Most aerial victories by other aircraft in Vietnam were achieved with air-to-air missiles.

“Knowing I was in an advantageous position because I was above him, I allowed him to get a little separation on me. I went on afterburner and saw 450 knots on my air speed indicator.

M-39E

On the hot flight line at Phu Cat Air Base, Airmen 2nd Class Francis Branch (left) and John Sellung remove a 20 mm cannon from an F-100 in October 1967. Kilgus engaged the MiG-17 he encountered with the four Pontiac 20 mm cannon carried by the F-100 Super Sabre. U.S. Air Force photo

“He was now going straight down and I was thinking, ‘He’s playing chicken,’ knowing that because his plane is lighter he can pull out of a dive faster than I can.

“I was preoccupied with my gunsight. This was while going straight down and turning the gun switch to hot. My mind was saying, ‘When are we going to pull out?’

“I fired a burst. Now, training comes into play. I tried to remember everything I’d learned, and began shooting seriously at him at [an altitude of] 7,100 feet. I said to myself, I wouldn’t worry about how much ammo I was using because this was my last chance to hit him.

“I saw puffs and sparks on the vertical tail of the MiG, and very shortly thereafter I didn’t see anything. I could have been at 580 knots. I won’t embroider the story by saying I got spray from the Gulf of Tonkin on my windshield, but I pulled out at the last minute.”

“I won’t embroider the story by saying I got spray from the Gulf of Tonkin on my windshield, but I pulled out at the last minute.”

Kilgus said he saw “sparks” on the MiG and “major pieces coming off it.” There was no other action that day that could explain North Vietnam’s confirmation that a third MiG-17 was shot down.

Don McCarthy, a Waterford. Conn., historian who has studied both American and North Vietnamese accounts of the battle, is “absolutely certain” Kilgus’s cannon shells brought down the MiG-17. “The Air Force only credited Kilgus with a ‘probable’ kill,” McCarthy said in a telephone interview. “The reason has never been clear.” Capt. (later Lt. Gen.) Ralph E. Havens, another member of the F-100D flight that day, substantiated Kilgus’s version of events.

Kilgus died in a traffic mishap in the Washington, D.C. area in 1995. In all he flew three tours in Vietnam, in the O-1 Bird Dog, F-100D Super Sabre, and F-105 Thunderchief. He never made an issue of his claim to have downed a MiG-17, but he believed the MiG went down and all available evidence – including North Vietnamese records – seems to confirm it.

Shortly after those early Rolling Thunder missions, the F-100 was shifted to air-to-ground duties. If Kilgus’s shootdown were to be made official, it would be the only aerial victory ever achieved by an F-100.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...