My MIG-21

By: James C. Wheeler MSgt Ret. U.S. Air Force

The day had started out like so many before. Up at 04:00 to catch the Crew Shuttle Bus to the base at 04:30. An 05:00 mission briefing for an 07:00 takeoff time. And as usual, not knowing where we were going, nor how long the mission would be. Most of the missions were fragged out for a full 7 hours but a few were only 5 1/2.

The old Chevy Step Van weaved and bounced it's way along the narrow, potholed streets. The driver had his hands full, trying to miss the potholes and the bicycles. The passengers were being tossed around like marbles in a shoebox.

We arrived at the briefing room about 5 minutes early, so we had time for one last smoke before the briefing. And as usual, everyone was trying to outguess the others on what mission we had drawn. Well time to go in an find out.

Meanwhile, Edward, Howard and Dave, the Back End crew as they were so often referred, were attending their own briefing, which for the most part would remain unknown to us, the Aircraft flight crew or Front End crew. The Navigator was usually the only one with considerable mission knowledge. We were not usually privilaged to at least a part of the mission information. This was I assume, two fold, to protect the information by need to know only access, and to protect us, heaven forbid something go wrong and we were taken captive, we could not have anything of value to the enemy.

And yes, you guessed it, we drew another 7 hour today. And if that wasn't bad enough, we drew the southern coastline of North Vietnam again. Seem's there were activities either going on or suspected in that area. But we would not be alone today, there would be another bird working just south or our area.

Still I was always more uncomfortable working up there. True, you were not exposed to as much groundfire, but there was always the threat of those little fast moving birds with a big ball of fire in their tail. True, we had been there before and had yet to even see one, let alone be threatened by one, but 'someday' could come any day.

Well so much for a good start, lets go see what's cooking at the mess hall. As the crew gathered around the table with trays full of scrambled eggs and bacon, the conversation was, as usual, what we were up against today. It centered around a collection of everyones thoughts and the part they would play in the case of the different and varied situations that could arise.

We were fortunate in the fact that we flew together as a crew, all the time. We knew what each of us, not only ourselve could do, but what each member could do and how they would react in any emergency situation. We were each one, capable of performing the duties of any one of the other flight crew positions. Maybe not to the point of professionalism, but well enough to have a chance to get us home.

Okay, been here long enough. While the officer crew went to squadron operations for another briefing and get another load of paperwork, I would pick up a couple gallons of Mess Hall Coffee and a box of M-16's and ammo to take along with us. We always carried a small footlocker type box with 5 M-16's and a load of ammo tied down in the floor of the airplane near the back. These were supposed to make you feel you had a better chance of survival if you went down someplace beside home base. And the coffee would only last about 3 hours, then it would be to putrefied to drink and would be used as defoliant.

I had just completed a quick pre-flight inspection of the airplane when the officer crew, Lt. Col. Hinkle, Maj. Lagasse and Capt. Harris arrived. As we climbed aboard, Col. Hinkle as he usually did on one of these missions up north said, "Well maybe this is the day Jim, (meaning me), will get him a Mig. This was standard procedure, a joke about getting a Mig with an M-16. The box of M-16's and the rear door insert removed and both secured, I guess we are ready. The door insert was removed for a number of reasons, primarily for air circulation. It was HOT over there, but it also gave you a chance to really get a view of what lay below and what was coming UP at you.

Oh well, all preflight and before starting engines checklist procedures performed with no problems. Cough, Belch, Wheez, the little 1830 engines roared to life, belching a cloud of bluish white smoke. This was normal as with all radial engines. (For you Fairly New Guys, a radial engine is one that still burns gasoline. It has cylinders in a radial pattern encircling the crankcase. The crankcase does not hold the engine oil, it is considered a dry sump engine, meaning the oil is held in a seperate tank.) Even though a scavange pump is used to return the lubricating engine oil to the seperate tank, via an oil cooler, some residual oil will remain clinging to the enternal engine parts on engine shut down.

Guess where this residual oil ends up. You guessed it, at the lowest point in the engine it can find, that usually being easing past the piston rings of the lower cylinders, thus it is in the combustion chambers of the lower cylinders for the next engine start, given enough time to settle there. It is burned off along with the fuel charge for the first few seconds on start up, Waa-Laa, bluish white smoke.

So far, so good. Everything is checking within limits, looks like we will make an on time takeoff. Chocks removed and we slowly ease out of our own little room, a steel, sandbag reinforced revetment, used to protect our birds from predators called among other names, "Charlie", sneeking around like Sylvester the Cat after Tweety Bird.

As we taxi towards the runup area at the end of the runway, most of the checklist items are run up front while the backend crew is head over heels doublechecking their equipment. Without their equipment, we don't even need to worry about our aircraft systems working cause, "we ain't goin no where".

If their equipment is not 100 percent, we have no mission, at least for that bird, that day. If that happens, we usually have to really hustle and prepare another bird for a quick mission. There is always a backup bird that has been preflighted by the ground crew, but the thing is the time involved in another aircrew preflight, which in most cases is very brief, thus the possibility of overlooking something that could be very vital. And this usually means a late take-off, which also means a late return, thus a very long day. It also means at times, we will not be in our target area at the prescribed time. The timing on some missions is vital to the successful gathering of intelligence.

So far, so good. All the backend equipment is fine they are ready to go. We had only to clean out the spark plugs after a slightly higher than normal mag drop on number one engine. This was caused by the residual oil which had caused at least one sparkplug to carbon over and not properly fire. (Again, for you Fairly New Guys, each cylinder has two ignition systems, or two magnetos on each engine and two sparkplugs in each cylinder. The left magneto fires one set of sparkplugs and the right magneto fires the other set of sparkplugs. On the magneto check, you shut off one magneto at a time, thus one set of sparkplugs. You do this for the left and right magnetos. The difference in the engine RPM drop from all sparkplugs firing and only one set is limited to 100 RPM MAXIMUM.)

I usually got to perform this function with a procedure that worked 95 percent of the time, but was not according to the bible, the Dash-1 handbook. Of course the aircraft commander and co-pilot were never aware of this, because they were always distracted by something outside while I performed the magic.

I am sure I am not alone in knowing and performing this procedure which is done by leaving the fuel mixture control in lean and running the cylinder head temp up to the red line, then retard the throttle, put the mixture in auto- rich and then performing the mag check again. Usually works fine, but it is definately not according to the book so no one else need know about it.

Tide 62, taxi into position and hold, helicopters departing mid-field, came the call over the radio. Then, Tide 62, you are cleared for immediate takeoff. Power up, engines check normal, brakes released and rolling; maximum power, all systems check ok, engines check ok. Lift off; gear up. METO power (METO is for Maximum except Take Off, thus 'METO'; all systems check ok, engines check ok; flaps up. Now to get enought altitude to clear all small arms fire, Quickly.

Once airborne, it was out over the big blue waters of the South China Sea, away from the concealed enemy watching from below. They would shoot at you with anything including ancient weapon known as the crossbow if you were close enough.

Since it would be some time before we reached our target area, we could sort of relax and drink the coffee before it went bad. We would, and did have a couple of maritime targets, surface vessels, to work on the way up the coast to make the trip time seem a little shorter. But then who the heck was in such a big hurry to get where we were going anyhow? They neither one would be seen on our return trip that afternoon, who knows what happend to them.

Then all to soon really, we were in our assigned target area. Not only were we there, we were immediately busy. There was indeed something going on along the coastline and just inland. We would hardly complete one target before the operator would have another.

We got so busy, that I would spend a good bit of the time in the target area helping the navigator, calculate and plot targets and make doppler sets. These, the doppler sets, none of us really cared for. It necessitated that we go in over the landscape to a well defined landmark and reset our navigation equipment.

Not only did we have to pass directly over the landmark to reset the doppler, we had to make a ninety degree turn followed by a two hundred and seventy degree turn in the opposite direction to bring us back over the landmark for the second time, going in the opposite direction. This was a double check, that the first run, or the set run was a good doppler set. And of course, the lower in altitude you could have for this proceedure, generally the more accurate you equipment would be set. (This procedure became quite apparant to the enemy after a short time, he could be waiting for us on our second pass.) This is believed, at least by some, to have been the cause of at least one of our aircraft and crew being shot down by groundfire.

We had some of the most sophisticated equipment available at that time, but it still needed to be reset or at least rechecked periodically in order to maintain the close tolerances we used in plotting and reporting our targets. The systems were none the same either. Some required twice as much resetting as others. We, I mean our crew on another day, with one of the birds that had what was considered to be THE BEST equipment, had one target fix that the Navigator insisted that the co-ordinance he had plotted was in fact exactly correct. NO tolerance he said.

Suddenly we were stunned by a noise none of us had heard before, and the pilot said, "What the hell was that?" A jet fighter had approached from head on, unseen until he passed just above the cockpit windshield. He had passed so close above us that the aircraft was felt to tremble from the shockwave.

I scurried to the door to have a look behind us. I could not see any aircraft, he was so far gone. I could see, what appeared as a faint whisp of black smoke, common to a jet engine with a little power on. The smoke seemed to be making a turn. Just that quickly, I could no longer see the smoke. Then I was able to make out why I could no longer see it. It was hidden behind the nose of a jet fighter that was rapidly approaching us from the rear. As yet I could not make out what it was, but we were not in friendly territory.

Then I saw what a poor minnow sees when the ALL Mouth, Largemouth Bass is after him. That thing that had pulled up behind us was all mouth, a hole in the nose of it, the jet intake, looked like it could enhale the tail section of the EC-47.

It had slowed considerably but could not maintain such a slow speed as we were flying, and naturally we could not attain enough speed to do anything, so why even try. I called out over the interphone, "That thing is a MIG-21 and he is coming up on our right wing." He passed by us just off our right wing, so close you could see the stupid grin on the little scrawny face of the pilot.

Having to fly so much faster than we, he soon passed on by and made a large circle to the right. Again approaching as before, first from the rear, and we knew we were goners this time, but then again, up along side us and again on the right side. He was really giving us the once over, and he was enjoying ever moment of it.

All the while we tried to figure out what he was up to. Why had he not shot us down already. Then someone yelled, "He's thinking we are PUFF all bristled out with guns on the left side, that's why he is staying to the right, and he is just toying with us before finishing us off".

Then Col. Hinkle breaks in, "Jim, get your M-16, this is your chance of a lifetime, as slim as it is, to get your MIG and save our butts, "Maybe".

As the MIG again moved on past us and into another of the wide right circling turns, I dug out one of the M-16's, slapped in a full clip of the potent little .223 cartridges, meant to shoot Charlie, not his TIN HORSE. All the while, everyone was hoping and preying he wanted at least one more good look at us before the proverbial Fat Lady sang.

As I crouched at the open window on the right side of the fuselage, just back of the wing, M-16 ready and on full automatic, Dave, one of the Back End crew, was at the door keeping everyone informed as to what was going on in back of us. When he told us the MIG was again approaching the tail, you could hear everyone stop breathing. Then Dave said, "He's coming up on the right side again", everyone again began to breath, at least for the time.

As I sat there crouched, at the ready, only the sited end of the barrel of my Baby Cannon, thrust out the window opening, he pulled up to within sight. Then in one quick move, like trying to get the first shot at a covy of quail that you had to step into to flush, I thrust the M-16 out the window, aimed quickly at the nose of our unwanted escort and squeezed the trigger. Almost before it started spitting out those small fragments of 55 grain pills, my M-16 was empty.

I will never forget the last look I had of that scrawny little face. It was not one with an ear to ear grin, like he had displayed on his first two looks at our slow flying Queen of the Sky. I had ripped off a clip full of .223's at him before he had a chance to react.

Immediately, there was a burst of fire and smoke billowed from just behind the cockpit, and something must have exploded because I could swear I saw the MIG sort of expand as the fire and smoke errupted, like a dying animal gasping it's last breath.

This time the pilot of the MIG again made a turn to the right. But this time he was also on his way to kiss mother earth. I asked Col. Hinkle to make a left turn so I could look out the door to see if I could tell what happened.

Sure enough, we got turned just in time to see a parachute open as he left his TIN HORSE, now a crippled stud. I do not know if any of the little .223 pills hit him or not, kinda hoped that I had only took his mount from under him. The open parachute was at least some indication.

After all this excitement, we decided enough was enough and it was time to get out of that area for now even though we still had about 30 minutes of on target time scheduled before returning home. We all agreed that we had had our "BREAK TODAY" and were going to call our own shots from here back to Nha Trang.

The trip back was so much more jubilant than the trip up. Everyone was singing and laughing as if they had just cheated the grim reaper. Surely, we were all very fortunate to have gotten away from this one. We all gave thanks to the pilot of that fateful MIG-21 for being so cruel in his deed of making us sweat before he took us out. Guess he never heard the old saying, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". For this we were all truly grateful. I only wish I could have had a photo of the last look I saw on the pilot's face.

Back at home base, Nha Trang, seemed like the whole base was waiting for us. Naturally they were aware of the situation we had been in as we had reported to them via radio shortly after the incident and as we began our journey home. Everyone had more questions than hair on their heads and were firing them as fast as my Baby Cannon had emptied is ration of .223 pills.

This was to say the least, an occasion to celebrate and celebrate we did. We were not allowed to even put our hands in out pockets, let alone spend money for a beer, nor did we have to worry about the last drop in the one in hand.

We, the entire crew, Front End and Back End were given a week to just lay around and relax without the worries of haveing to fly another mission tomorrow. This was time appreciated and accepted by everyone. It did mean someone would have to pick up the slack while we were so relaxing but there seemed no end to volunteers.

This seemed a unique event in more ways than one, with the most unique being a supersonic jet fighter, being shot down by a supposedly, "Unarmed Cargo type aircraft". It most certainly was a unique event with me, and it fullfilled the prophecy of Col. Hinkle, "Well, this may be the day that Jim gets him a MIG". I hope the prophecy and fullfillment are never to be repeated.

Now, just a mere ten days after the experience with the MIG, I stand here, before all these fellow crewmembers of the squadron, and those of the 6994th and all maintenance people that are not flying another mission or essential to the immediate ground needs. Standing facing me is the Wing Commander, with the Distinguished Flying Cross in hand. He is awarding me this Medal for my accomplishments during that memoriable mission.

The citation to accompany the Distinguished Flying Cross is read by none other than my Aircraft Commander, Lt. Col. Hinkle. Standing on either side of Col. Hinkle are Maj. Lagasse and Capt. Harris, the other two members of my flight crew. As the Wing Commander attempts to pin the medal on my shirt the pin pricks my skin. I jump up, rub my eyes, now sitting full upright in my bunk, I wonder, "What the heck, how did I get here"?

Oh well, at least Col. Hinkle made the prophecy, and joked about me having a chance to get a MIG with one of the M-16's. I do have that and many other events and times to remember that no-one can take away from me. If you read this, please let me know. To make sure you know what you read, please, closely re-read the preceeding paragraph again.

James C. Wheeler MSgt Retired US Air Force 361st Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadron, Nha Trang AB, Vietnam, 1966/67.