A Tale from MIG Alley
It came just as he finished his third cup of coffee. My copilot, Noonan, also called R.I.O which stands for radio instrument operator, drank 10 cups of coffee a day. He had the biggest thermos I’d ever seen, and, despite his caffeine habit, Noonan was cooler than anybody I’d ever had in the back seat.
He saw it first. “2 o’clock.”
I didn’t see the MiG- 21 until it screamed 50 feet above our canopy at better than Mach One. Our F-4 Phantom pitched over like a bowling pin hit by a strike ball. We were subsonic and definitely taken by surprise. Several canon holes pierced our skin.
“Make that 8 o’clock” screamed Noonan. “MiG- 21. He’s coming around. Can’t get a lock at this angle”.
“I see him,” I countered. “You hit?”
“Don’t think so.”
It sounds stupid, but when the adrenaline’s pumping, sometimes you’re hit and you don’t know it. I’d find out soon enough if either of us had taken shrapnel or cannon fire.
“He’s coming back. What are you going to do?” screamed Noonan.
I didn’t want to waste time talking with a disadvantage in my lap. That was the whole game in MiG Alley - advantage, disadvantage. It meant the difference between living and dying. That crazy asshole had almost ripped my canopy off. He was a real cowboy. And he had the advantage of surprise. I decided to pretend I was just as frightened as he was cocky and sit tight until the last moment.
“We got a fire back here,” shrieked Noonan.
“Put it out,” I said. I wasn’t going to look back. If I took my eyes off that MiG for one second, he’d change course and fly right up my tailpipe.
“4000 yards and closing fast,” screamed Noonan.
“Put the fire out”, I barked at him, hoping he’d be more frightened of me in the MiG.
“2000 yards. I can see is cannons blazing.”
No missiles, I thought. He must be out. That’s fine. Just fine. I was going let him think I had no maneuverability until the last minute.
PING. PING. PING. The MiG cannons were shredding our Phantom’s steel skin like Swiss cheese. I slammed the joystick forward and dropped the F-4 to the deck. The MiG banked and followed, but I knew he had no chance to keep up. I had plenty of gas and, at full burner, the F-4 would do better than Mach 2. Nothing could catch me now.
“How’s that fire?”
“Looks like the fire’s under control,” Noonan commented sourly.
We were screaming 50 feet above the tree line at Mach 2.1. The MiG dropped back. He was a cowboy, but strictly amateur when it came to the kind of rodeos where we Top Gun boys played.
The trees ahead cleared and I saw the airstrip at Phen Loc. There were a couple of fire trucks moving towards the runway and men were leaping into action all across the airbase.
“What’s going on?” I asked Noonan.
“I guess the fire’s not under control after all.”
I slammed the gear lever. Nothing. I cut the throttle back and the nose dipped a little, but my speed was still too high for a landing. If I overshot the strip, it would be over. Hundred foot trees were waiting on the other side. I went for 40 degrees flaps, dropping the gear and then hit the landing chute. It snagged us nicely and cut the airspeed by about 50 knots before the fire cut it loose. Now I was down to 125 mph. The brakes would have to do the rest.
As we overshot the runway, I dumped the fuel. Just before we hit the trees, Noonan and I ejected. I heard the F-4 explode above the roar of my ejection seat, and dangling down, suspended by my chute, I saw it burning in the trees. Noonan and I both hit the upper canopy of the trees. We hung there for a couple of minutes until a Huey rescued us.
When we were both safely inside, Noonan pointed at my hand. It was covered in blood.
I scratched my hand getting out of the helicopter. I decided to let it bleed a while just to punish myself for losing my plane.