The First air-to-air kills in Vietnam

First encounters

First encounters between the U.S. military pilots and the Vietnam People’s Air Force employing Soviet-made MiG-17 fighters happened in the spring of 1965. On April 3, a pair of MiGs harassed F-8E Crusader fighter-bombers with cannon fire, seriously damaging one of them.

The North Vietnamese claimed that to be a kill and even established their Air Force Day to be celebrated on April 3 based on that. The next day, MiG-17s downed two F-105 Thunderchiefs. Those were first confirmed air-to-air kills in the aerial warfare between the U.S. and North Vietnam.

Republic F-105D-30-RE
Republic F-105D-30-RE (S/N 62-4234) in flight with full bomb load. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Most probably U.S. pilots scored their first victory over MiGs in that war on the same date, April 4. This was when Air Force Capt. Don Kilgus flying an F-100 Super Sabre downed a MiG-17 using 20 mm cannons. Kilgus saw the lethal damage incurred on the enemy aircraft, but as he then lost the sight of his target in the haze and none of his fellow pilots saw it crash or the VPAF pilot eject, that kill could not be officially confirmed.

A MiG-17 performing a low pass

Avengers assemble

American fighter pilots managed to officially avenge the April losses only two months later, when F-4B Phantoms operating from USS Midway in the Tonkin Gulf shot down two North Vietnamese MiGs using air-to-air missiles. On June 17, pilots from Fighter Squadron 21 (VF-21) Freelancers flying two F-4B Phantom II aircraft engaged four MiG-17s. Despite being outnumbered, U.S. pilots took advantage of their aircraft’s brilliant capabilities – Phantoms were way more advanced in comparison to MiG-17s designed in late 1940s – and downed two of them using AIM-7S Sparrow III air-to air missiles.

In fact, the North Vietnamese Air Force probably lost three aircraft that day, as one of the Phantom pilots, Lt. Batson, reported seeing debris from a MiG destroyed by Sparrow missile hit its wingman. That kill was not confirmed at the time, although documents unclassified years later provided some evidence to support that theory.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II


Three days later pilots flying from the USS Midway scored two more confirmed MiG kills. While one of them was again done using a Sparrow missile fired by a Phantom, the other Mig-17 was downed using gunfire by a Douglas A-1H Skyraider, a piston-engine propeller aircraft, which entered service back in 1946.

Those wins were followed in July by aerial victories scored by USAF F-4Cs stationed at Ubon Air Base in Thailand. They shot down two MiG-17s using AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

A U.S. Air Force Douglas A-1H Skyraider
A U.S. Air Force Douglas A-1H Skyraider