January 12, 1968 An Air Combat First

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns.

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.  Like bantamweight boxers, each attempting to strike the winning blow.

The Snoopy story is fun but in the real world, Manfred von Richthofen was killed by a single bullet from the ground, while pursuing a Canadian pilot behind Allied lines.  The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died mere moments later. He was buried with full military honors.  By his enemies.

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Manfred von Richtofen

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 modified to hunt submarines, in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns, but these three entered a full-on dogfight.

02b_am2015_milcoll_xviii_maxwell_5_live-ct.jpgStripped 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 ablaze. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber, shredding hydraulic systems and setting the right wing ablaze.

Rear-gunners returned fire as crew members frantically jettisoned depth charges.  With engines #3 and 4 dead, Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. kicked in full right rudder, throwing the massive aircraft into a skid and crash landing in the water, the aircraft breaking into three pieces.02d_am2015_b24_flak_live.jpgMaxwell had dubbed 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 from resuming the fight, on the decks of the destroyer.

The “Brass” got into the action in November 1942, when general Eisenhower and a high ranking entourage left London destined for Gibraltar in a fleet of 6 converted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Five made the crossing without incident but one turned back due to mechanical problems.  Sure enough, the lone American bomber was lumbering overhead the following day when set upon by a flight of four German long-range fighters.c01d0637794c357f99670b25d4224b7f.jpgWith crew reduced to a minimum it was one-star General Jimmy Doolittle (yeah, That Jimmy Doolittle), who took the stick from a wounded pilot.  A Colonel, a Major and two senior civilian officials pitched in while one-star general Lyman Lemnitzer manned a machine gun, holding the fighters at bay.

The German squadron peeled off, probably low on fuel.  The B-17 made it with what must have been the most senior combat team, in aviation history.

The final air-to-air combat of WW2 took place on April 12 1945, between unarmed spotter aircraft. Two Americans were flying low near Berlin when the pair spotted a German Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft, even lower. Having the better air position the Americans opened fire with service pistols. As the Storch attempted to escape, the aircraft brushed a wing on the ground, and it was over.

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Last air-to-air combat of WW2

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, a single 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 anyone saw of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed into that hillside.

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Low Level, terrain-following radar

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 so spooked he bailed out of a perfectly good aircraft, before a single 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 a base in North Vietnam headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain was long used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerrilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800-foot massif.

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Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi 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 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 contact was over in less than 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.

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Ann Holland holds a 2017 calendar — “Secret Ops of the CIA” — that represents the place where her husband’s unit was overrun in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Mel Holland was on a mountaintop radar station that guided B-52 bombers toward targets in North Vietnam. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

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.

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An Air combat First.  H/T artist Keith Woodcock