Caught up in the largest air battle ever waged over North Vietnam on May 10, 1972, Showtime 106 was a blur in motion in a sky full of aircraft.
Showtime 106 was an F-4J Phantom II of squadron VF-96, “Fighting Falcons,” operating from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA 64) in the Gulf of Tonkin. In the front seat was pilot Lt. Matthew Joseph “Matt” Connelly III, 28, the flight leader of a section – meaning two aircraft.
Pushed through the sky by two 17,900-pound afterburning General Electric J79-GE-10 axial-flow turbojet engines, the Phantom weighed 10 times as much as the nimble MiG-17, but a pilot like Connelly could fling it around the sky like a hotrod and a RIO like Blonski could turn the magnificent AWG-10 radar system into a secret weapon to give Showtime 106’s crew better situational awareness than their foes.
In the back seat was radar intercept officer (RIO) Lt. Thomas Joseph John “Tom” Blonski, 29. Both men were graduates of the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, called TOPGUN. As an official report later stated, while Showtime 106 flew combat air patrol (CAP) to protect warplanes withdrawing from a target near Hanoi, Blonski “maintained visual contact with a formation of approximately sixteen enemy fighter aircraft and warned the retiring strike force of the oncoming threat.”
The North Vietnamese had scrambled several dozen MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters. The MiG-17 was a generation behind the Phantom in age, but some Americans feared it more than the newer MiG-21. Pushed through the sky by two 17,900-pound afterburning General Electric J79-GE-10 axial-flow turbojet engines, the Phantom weighed 10 times as much as the nimble MiG-17, but a pilot like Connelly could fling it around the sky like a hotrod and a RIO like Blonski could turn the magnificent AWG-10 radar system into a secret weapon to give Showtime 106’s crew better situational awareness than their foes.
Today, two other Navy flyers, Lt. Randall Cunningham and Lt. William “Willie” Driscoll, in a companion aircraft dubbed Showtime 100, would shoot down three MiGs to become aces, but would have to bail out and get wet in the process.
Not much of this was on their minds when Connelly and Blonski – who’d been flying together for two years and were both on their second combat cruise – found themselves in the middle of a fight while attempting to protect a withdrawing strike force of F-4s, A-6 Intruders, and A-7E Corsair IIs.
What Connelly noticed, early on, was that no surface-to-air missiles were coming up at them. That meant MiGs. The North Vietnamese had positioned MiGs on airborne alert – by coincidence – over the target for the day, a Hanoi outskirt known as Hai Duoung. Connelly led their wingman, Lt. Aaron Campbell, into what was evolving into a complex, high-speed dogfight – a “furball,” naval aviators called it. Connelly looked down to see a withdrawing Corsair II with two MiG-17s pressing in on its vulnerable six o’clock position.
Campbell rolled in on the two MiGs. At just that instant, Blonski’s radar screen went blank. He fired off an AIM-9 Sidewinder, which did not need radar guidance. One of the two MiG-17s pulled up, avoided the Sidewinder by a considerable distance, and narrowly avoided colliding with Connelly and Campbell. Amid this confusion, the wingmen became separated and Showtime 106 was alone near the center of the furball.
The Navy wrote that Connelly “engaged the numerically superior aircraft, pressing home hard-fought attacks.” Connelly found himself behind a different MiG-17. The MiG leveled off and Connelly fired an infrared missile for the second time.
The Sidewinder departed its rail under the Phantom’s wing, leapt ahead in a blur of white exhaust, flew straight and true stabilized by its tandem set of cruciform fins, and traveled just a short distance to go straight up the MiG’s tailpipe. At exactly the instant the MiG-17 erupted into red-orange flames, its pilot was hurled up and out like a cork from a wine bottle. Connelly didn’t know whether the North Vietnamese airman ejected or was simply blown out of his MiG by the force of the Sidewinder’s annular blast fragmentation warhead detonating. No one saw a parachute.
Connelly engaged yet another MiG-17 in what he later termed a carbon copy of the previous engagement. He latched onto the MiG’s six o’clock position and watched his adversary repeat his previous foe’s maneuver – rolling into wings-level position. For the third time, Connelly fired a Sidewinder. It appeared at first to fly wide but it detonated just close enough to blow the MiG’s tail off. Connelly and Blonski watched the pilot bail out.
With two confirmed aerial victories, Connelly and Blonski tore into yet another MiG-17 until the fuel gauge warned them that they were at “bingo” fuel – time to return to Constellation’s pitching angled deck. Connelly and Blonski were on afterburner, crossing the coast and heading for the aircraft carrier, shortly before Cunningham and Driscoll completed their fight for the day and were being plucked from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Phantom crews returned to the carrier deck in time to watch Cunningham and Driscoll – downed by a SAM after becoming aces – very wet, returning to Constellation via CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. The naval total for the day was nine MiGs downed, two Phantoms lost, with one of the two crews rescued. The Navy commander of the mission that day, Cmdr. Gus Eggert, joined Connelly, Blonski, Cunningham, and Driscoll in receiving the Navy Cross – the second-highest American award for valor.
This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.