The Top Air Ace of the Vietnam War

During the years of US combat in Vietnam from 1965 to 1972, there were only two American ace pilots, both with five aerial victories. (Three other non-pilot Weapons Officers were also credited with five victories.) The North Vietnamese, however, despite their inferior training and the limitations of their Soviet-built fighter jets, had 16 ace pilots with five or more victories. The highest-scoring of these was Nguyen Van Coc.

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MiG 21

Like every other Vietnamese who fought the Americans, Nguyen Van Coc grew up in the midst of rebellion and war. His father and uncle were both fighters for the Viet Minh, the guerrila group that was fighting through the 40’s and 50’s to free Vietnam from French colonial rule. Both were captured, tortured, and killed by the French. His mother took the young Nguyen to a remote rural area away from the fighting, and when Vietnam was partitioned by the UN, they found themselves in the North Vietnamese section.

In 1960, Nguyen enlisted in the Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF). There were only a few dozen VPAF pilots at this time, flying Soviet-built MiG-17 “Fresco” fighters (updated versions of the Mig-15 flown during the Korean War). Nguyen proved to be an able pilot, and was selected for a four-year training program in the Soviet Union, designed to produce a core of experienced Vietnamese pilots who could then go on to train their countrymen and produce a respectable Air Force. In 1965, Nguyen was again selected for training in the USSR: now he would transition from the MiG-17 to the newer MiG-21 “Fishbed”, the most advanced Soviet fighter of the time. Just a few months later, the United States began its military involvement in Vietnam, with ground troops, naval forces, and aerial bombing raids.

The North Vietnamese pilots had been trained in the Soviet air-defense system of “Ground-Controlled Intercept”. The pilots would be vectored to an assigned target by radar operators on the ground until they had attained a favorable position, when the ground controllers would then give the interceptors permission to fire. Most of these intercepts took the form of temporarily concentrating a large number of MiGs around an American bomber formation, and while the Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) kept the American fighters away, the Vietnamese MiGs would dash in to fire at the bombers and then streak away without engaging the US fighter escorts.

For the American fighter pilots, these hit-and-run engagements were frustrating, since they never got the chance to mix it up with the MiGs. So in January 1967, American planners set up a ruse to trap the Vietnamese fighters. A flight of F-4 Phantom fighters was sent in to Vietnamese airspace, carefully mimicking the radio callsigns, frequencies and flight profiles usually used by the F-105 bombers, which fooled the North Vietnamese ground controllers into sending a group of seven MiG-21s at them. One of these was piloted by Nguyen Van Coc. In the ensuing dogfight, the MiG-21s and the relatively poorly-trained Vietnamese pilots were no match for the American F-4’s, and all seven were shot down. (All seven Vietnamese pilots, however, successfully bailed out and were back in combat shortly later.)

Both the Soviets and the Vietnamese soon realized that the system of strict ground control was vulnerable, and modified their training to give more discretion to the pilot. It was just what Nguyen Van Coc needed. Five months after being shot down, he was assigned as wingman to one of the VPAF’s top pilots, Nguyen Ngoc Do. When the two were scrambled to intercept an incoming group of F-105’s, both scored victories: Van Coc shot down an American pilot named Robert Abbott.

In August 1967, Nguyen scored his second air victory by shooting down an F-4 Phantom from the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron piloted by Major Charles Tyler. By November, he had shot down three more F-105s to reach “ace” status.

In February 1968, Nguyen encountered a type of plane he had never seen before, an American F-102 interceptor. The F-102 was not designed for dogfighting, and Nguyen, in his nimble MiG-21, scored a hit on it with his Atoll air-to-air missile. Since no one saw the American plane crash, it was listed only as a “probable” victory. After the war, American records confirmed that the plane, piloted by First Lt Wallace Wiggins, had in fact been destroyed. Another victory followed two weeks later, over an American F-4. By now, Nguyen was one of the war’s highest-scoring aces.

Shortly afterwards, in May, Nguyen’s flight was running low on fuel and was about to turn back to base when they encountered a group of five F-4’s from the American carrier USS Enterprise. When the Phantoms turned for their carrier, the MiGs pursued, and Nguyen scored his eighth official victory on the flight leader.

Nguyen Van Coc’s final victory of the Vietnam War was on December 20, 1969, against what he thought was an unmanned American reconnaissance drone called the AQM-34 Firebee, a type he had shot down before. Wartime records, however, indicate that it was actually a manned OV-10 Bronco, used for forward air control. It brought Nguyen’s total official score to nine (including the unmanned Firebee drone and not counting the “probable” that he was not given credit for), making him the top ace in the Vietnam War.

After this, Nguyen was removed from frontline service and sent to North Vietnam as a training instructor. He spent the rest of his career in the Vietnamese Air Force.

During the Vietnam War, however, there were press reports of another higher-scoring ace, a colonel named “Nguyen Toon” and nicknamed “Colonel Tomb” by American press and pilots. According to the reports, Toon flew a MiG-17 and had as many as fifteen or sixteen air victories. “Colonel Tomb” was reportedly shot down in a dogfight with American F-4 pilot Randy Cunningham in May 1972 (which gave Cunningham his fifth victory and “ace” status).

After the war ended, however, Vietnamese records showed that there was no “Nguyen Toon”. There were indeed three MiG-17 pilots who had reached “ace”, but the highest-scoring of these was Nguyen Van Bay with seven victories. The Americans had apparently conflated two or three different Vietnamese pilots together and created the myth of a “Vietnamese Von Richthofen” who did not actually exist.

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