To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky, each attempting to get the other in his sights.
In the real world, Manfred von Richthofen, the most prolific ace of WWI with 80 confirmed kills, was killed by a single bullet fired from the ground, while pursuing Canadian pilot Wilfred May behind Allied lines. The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died moments later, and was buried with full military honors, by his enemies.
Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.
Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns. It must have looked like a motocross race between cement mixers.
Stripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns firing. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber. Rear-gunners returned fire, as Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. crash landed in the water, his aircraft breaking into three pieces.
Maxwell had named his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked, seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.
Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do, to keep the soaking wet combatants apart on the decks of the destroyer.
On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, an Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops, while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems. The last that was seen of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed his aircraft into that same hillside.
Later in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got spooked, bailing out of a perfectly good aircraft before a shot was fired in his direction.
The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from their base in North Vietnam, headed west toward Laos.
Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain had long been used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800′ mountain.
CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the
time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 rifle down from above.
Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire chase had taken about 20 minutes.
Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.
On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.