In the early morning of January 2, 1967, F-4 Phantom IIs of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (8 TFW) waited on the tarmac at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) for orders to launch a mission over Phuc Yen Airfield in North Vietnam. It was a meticulously planned operation that sought to deceive Northern air assets into engaging Air Force F-4Cs which they had generally sought to avoid. As time dragged on, the crews waited for the weather over the target area to clear to begin what became known as Operation Bolo.
The story of this famous event began in 1965, when the 8 TFW arrived in Thailand. That first year, they shot down six MiGs, a rarity since, most often, enemy MiGs avoided combat with F-4s. MiGs engaged slower U.S. combat aircraft such as the F-105 Thunderchiefs which could fight off older MiG-17s or, later, MiG-19s. When the enemy received MiG-21 Fishbeds in the mid-1960s, the risk increased. (1)
In March 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated a tightly controlled air campaign against the North Vietnamese. The Air Force and Navy conducted this large-scale, offensive air operation mainly against the Northern capital of Hanoi and the major port city of Haiphong. Designated Operation Rolling Thunder, it grew in intensity during 1965 and 1966.
The President sought to have this sustained bombing campaign increase the "quotient of pain" on the enemy to the extent it would persuade the North Vietnamese regime to cease support for the Communist insurgency in the South and negotiate a peace settlement. At the very least, they hoped it would halt or slow the flow of Communist men and materiel into South Vietnam. (2)
Rolling Thunder sorties targeted Northern industry, storage facilities, transshipment points, lines of communication, and, later, air defenses. Air Force and Navy aircraft struck at the core of the Hanoi's infrastructure, with ever increasing frequency, aiming to destroy its capacity to make war. As effective as these raids proved to be on the infrastructure, the enemy survived with ever growing resupplies of essential materials from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC). The largest portion of missions was flown by the F-105Ds referred to as "Thuds." They operated from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. (3)
To counter America's air war, Communist leaders worked to bolster and expand their air defenses. Chinese and Soviet leaders dispatched powerful, modern air defense systems to their Communist cousins in order to challenge U.S. air superiority. The major aspects of these defenses was a network of early warning radars and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, armed with the deadly S-75s, better known as SA-2 Guideline missiles. They defended high value targets with an array of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) that ranged from 100mm radar-directed guns to rapid fire 23 mm, multi-barrel, automatic cannons and heavy machine guns. They also, gradually, built up their MiG interceptors. (4)
The Competing Air Forces
As U.S. aircraft attacks gained momentum, officials in Hanoi sought to construct a fighter-interceptor force using aircraft, equipment, and pilot training afforded them by their Soviet and Chinese allies. In February 1964, the Vietnamese People's Air Force (VPAF) received its first jet aircraft. They were Soviet-built, Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG)-17s, also known in China as J-5s. At first, they were stationed at bases in the PRC These aging fighters made up the 921st Sao Do or Red Star Fighter Regiment (921 FR) and comprised the VPAF's first operational jet fighter unit. While the MiG-17 was an upgrade from the VPAF's propeller fighters, they were not comparable to U.S. fighter aircraft. They were a post-Korean War design that flew at subsonic speeds and did not possess air-to-air missile capability. They were very maneuverable, and armed with "powerful 23 and 37 mm cannons, it was a force to be reckoned with in close air combat." From 1964 to 1966, the PRC and Soviets further upgraded the VPAF's aircraft by sending Hanoi supersonic MiG-19 or Chinese J-6 fighters. Things changed in 1966, when the Soviets sent them MiG-21 interceptors. By mid-1966, the 921 FR was flying "the second generation MiG-21PF all-weather variant, equipped with short range air-to-air guided missiles." More than 10,000 of these quality fighters were built for 50 different nations. (5)
Throughout the early days of the air war, VPAF crews conducted defensive operations in order to preserve these precious air assets. Their MiG pilots generally engaged only slower, bomb-laden, American fighter-bombers employing "hit and run" tactics over friendly territory. They consistently shunned contact with powerful F-4 fighters. Even though U.S. airpower enjoyed an advantage in terms of numbers and quality, the VPAF's tactics proved effective in shooting down many F-105s, thus "reducing bombing effectiveness and diverting U.S. combat aircraft resources from strike missions to defend against the MiG threat." (6)
The American military entered the war possessing weapon systems and equipment which had been aimed at fighting a war against the Soviet Union in Europe. U.S. doctrine, tactics, and training were designed for a "Cold War" battle. As one author put it, "The U.S. defense posture was optimized to deter or defeat Soviet aggression in the form of nuclear attacks on the continental United States or a large-scale invasion of Europe with conventional/tactical nuclear weapons. As a consequence, the U.S. was not well prepared to fight a long-term, counter-insurgency campaign in the jungles of Southeast Asia." (7)
Initially, given these circumstances, instead of inventing new weapons, they adapted their tactics to the unique aspects of this kind of war. Various types of aircraft were employed as air superiority and/or air interdiction fighters, including the supersonic F-100, F-102, and F-104s. Finally, the Air Force introduced the F-4 Phantom IPs and the Navy F-8 Crusader. They proved very effective against VPAF fighters. The other heavily used U.S. aircraft was the F-105 fighter-bomber. While they scored a significant number of aerial victories against MiGs, armed with a powerful internal 20 mm Vulcan cannon and, on occasion, air-to-air missiles for self-defense during strike missions up North, they also had weaknesses. Most early Rolling Thunder sorties were flown by F-105s stuffed to the gills with ordnance. They were the largest US. fighters ever built and capable of carrying a nuclear payload. When they carried such a massive payload, they were hard to maneuver. While they could deal with the earlier model MiGs, the MiG-21s feasted on the slower F-105s until they dropped their bombs. Even then, on the way back, they were low on fuel and could not afford to expend fuel in a dogfight. (8)
Among the other problems faced by U.S. pilots were rules of engagement (ROEs) which hampered their freedom of action. Specifically, Americans could not fire on targets beyond their visual range or attack airfields for fear of harming Soviet advisers. During these early days, American pilots were plagued by unreliable air-to-air missiles. More than 50 percent malfunctioned, and less than 15 percent hit their targets. In addition, these fighter pilots received less training in air-to-air combat maneuvers. Thus, unlike the Korean War, when U.S. pilots scored a 10-to-1 kill ratio during jet dogfights, during Vietnam the air combat ratio shrank dramatically! This occurred, even though they received the best fighter of war, the F-4. It did not have an internal gun. Later, gun pods were attached under the fuselage, but by late 1968, fighter combat had effectively ended until 1972. The lack of a gun accentuated their problems during air-to-air combat. In short, new tactics and new leadership were needed. These soon arrived in the person of leaders like Robin Olds and in tactics like those used in Operation Bolo. (9)
The 8 TFW and the Arrival of Colonel Olds
By the time Rolling Thunder was in full swing in mid-1966, the air war over Vietnam had fallen into a routine involving pre-authorized strikes from the White House. Air Force crews stationed in Thailand and Navy Alpha aircrews stationed on carriers of Task Force 77 in the South China Sea attacked targets in North Vietnam mostly the same way, every time. Air Force Close Air Support (CAS) missions were flown by a variety of aircraft stationed at many different locations. Starting in June 1965, this included B-52 Arc Light raids against ground targets. Most Air Force attacks against infrastructure and industrial targets were launched from bases in Thailand. Initially, many Air Force and Navy service members assumed they were fighting an enemy without sophisticated weapons and developed some bad habits. Being predictable was the worst of these. (10)
In September 1966, these flaws began to be repaired with the arrival of Colonel Robin Olds as the new commander of the 8th TFW. Having served in Europe during World War II, he became an ace by shooting down thirteen German aircraft. Olds was a no-nonsense professional who told his pilots he was going to perfect flying his F--4 nicknamed "Scat XXVII" and, within a few weeks, he would be able to outfly them all. Being an ace gave him credibility; fulfilling his promise to become the best pilot in the wing made him their undisputed leader. Eventually, his daring and ability to think outside the box made him a legend. (11)
Olds had graduated from West Point in June 1943 where, at 6'2" and 205 pounds, he was an All-American football player. During the 1942 Army-Navy game, he had both front teeth knocked out but kept on playing. Upon graduation, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Air Forces and was assigned to a P-38 Lightning squadron where he flew his famed "Scat II" aircraft. On 25 August 1944, he scored his first of 13 kills when he shot down two German aircraft, the second while gliding with two dead...