Vietnamese Fighter Ace Nguyễn Văn Cốc – The Highest Scoring Pilot in Vietnam War

anil chopra, air power asia, Fighter Ace. Nguyễn Văn Cốc, Vietnam War

Nguyễn Văn Cốc  is a former North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighter ace of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force’s (VPAF) 921st Fighter Regiment. Van Coc was shot down before scoring his first kill on Jan. 2, 1967 in Operation Bolo, a U.S. aerial ambush. He ejected and survived, and then went on to destroy an F-105 in an attack out of the sun on April 30, and then scored eight more kills through December 1969. Of nine victories, two were drones, and for the aircraft, six of the seven can be confirmed in U.S. records — making him the top-scoring pilot of the war no matter how you count it. All of them flying the MiG-21, and in all cases using the heat-seeking R-3S Atoll missile. Undoubtedly he was the “Tiger on the prowl over Vietnam’s Jungle”.

Capt. Nguyễn Văn Cốc, 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. Image Source: lyonairmuseum.org

Young Day – Early Family Tragedies

          Nguyễn Văn Cốc was born in 1943, in the Việt Yên District of the province of Bac Giang in French Indochina, north of Hanoi. He had his first birthday the same year Lt. Robin Olds scored his first aerial victory over the Luftwaffe. When he was 5 years old, his father, Nguyen Van Bay, Chairman of the Viet Minh in the district, and his uncle (also a member of the Viet Minh), were executed by the French. Fearing further trouble with the French, his mother moved the family.

Bac Giang in French Indochina, north of Hanoi. Image Source: Wikipedia

Joins Air Force – MiG 17 and MiG 21 Conversion

          Nguyễn spent the rest of his childhood near Chu air base, which kindled an interest in aircraft. He attended Ngô Sĩ Liên school in Bắc Giang, and upon completion of his schooling, enlisted in the VPAF in 1961 at the age of 18 and underwent his initial training at Cat Bi Airbase in Haiphong. At this point in his life he had never driven a car, graduating directly from bicycle to aircraft as a mode of transportation. Nguyễn subsequently spent four years undergoing pilot training in the Soviet Union at Bataysk and Krasnodar Soviet Air Force bases. Of the 120 trainees in Nguyễn’s batch, he was one of the seven who graduated as a MiG-17 pilot. After a brief spell back in North Vietnam serving with the 921st Red Star” Fighter Regiment, Nguyen Van Coc belonged to the group of 13 Vietnamese MiG-17 pilots who were selected to convert to the best fighter in the Soviet inventory, the MiG-21. He returned to the Soviet Union and underwent conversion training on the MiG-21before returning to the 921st Fighter Regiment in June 1965. He began operational flying in December 1965. Being 26 years old, Coc was older than the average Vietnamese prentice.

MiG-21PFs of the 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. Image Source: lyonairmuseum.org

Daunting Odds

          The pilots of the 921st faced daunting odds as they attempted to blunt the massive American air offensive. They were outnumbered and outclassed in nearly every regard, including aircraft, weapons, training and combat experience. Because their numbers were so few, the VPAF had no “rotation” program like their American counterparts, who were able to go home after 100 combat missions. They were already home and they “flew till they died”. He was assigned to flew his first combat sorties in December 1966, without scoring victories at that time, but acquiring a valuable experience.

Discussing Combat. Image Source: congnghe.vn

The Trap– An Early Ejection

          On 2 January 1967, he was among a group of pilots who fell into an aerial tarp set up by the United States Air Force’s (USAF) F-4s of 8th Tactical Fighter Wing the “Wolf Pack”. The American air defence fighters flew a mission to Hanoi using the same flight patterns and radio call-signs than the fighter-bomber F-105 formations. VPAF MiG-21 who came to intercept the so-called bombers, actually faced interceptors armed with air-to-air missiles. In a matter few seconds, the five MiG-21s were shot. Nguyễn Văn Cốc and four other Vietnamese pilots, all managed to eject safely. Coc learned that one should be always alert and to expect the unexpected. Two more MiG-21s were downed by American Phantoms four days later. VPAF couldn’t sustain such high losses. The MiG-21 operations were reduced for several months (January — March) until new tactics were evolved.

Senior Lieutenant Nguyễn Văn Cốc, at right, with two other pilots. A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 21PF is in the background. (VPAF). Image Source: thisdayinaviation.com

Aerial Victories

          Nine air-to-air combat kills of United States aircraft and two AQM-34 Firebee UAV kills were credited to him during the Vietnam War. Of these, seven have currently been acknowledged by the United States Air Force. While sometimes U.S. forces may have attributed aircraft losses to surface-to-air missiles, since it was considered “less embarrassing”, there was often doubt about cause of the loss. Coc also claimed an F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief in November and 17 December 1967 but there are no corresponding American losses. Flying the MIG-21PF, Nguyễn Văn Cốc normally flew as a wingman. He scored all his victories using the heat-seeking R-3S Atoll missile. The kills, credited to Van Coc by the VPAF are described below.

Vietnam – Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PFM. Image Source: airliners.net

30 April 1967 – First Air Victory 

         USAF F-105D piloted by Robert A. Abbott of the USAF 355th TFW, was his first air victory and occurred while he was acting as a wingman to Nguyen Ngoc Do, who also downed an aircraft. They took off from Noi Bai and due to the superb controlling by the VPAF ground controllers they could place in an excellent attack position. The events started to happen very fast. 1st Lt. Robert A. Abbott, pilot of one out of 40 °F-105D Thunderchiefs of the 354th TFS/355th TFW in course to attack a power station in Hanoi, heard in the radio that the crew of one of the F-105 °F Wild Weasels of the formation (responsible of the SAM suppression) reported that they had been hit by a missile fired by a North Vietnamese MiG-21 appeared out of nowhere, and that they were ejecting. He tried to see where the MiGs are in an attempt for avoid the attack, but it was too late. So sudden as the previous attack, his airplane was violently shaken by an explosion and Abbott couldn’t control it anymore: another MiG-21 pilot, coming from the sun (where the Americans hardly could see him), had fired an R-3 infrared missile which struck the fuselage of his F-105D BuNo 59–1726. Abbott could eject, but only for being captured by North Vietnamese soldiers as soon as he touched the ground. It was the evening of April 30 1967, and even when Abbott didn’t knew at that time, he became the first victim of the pilot who would be the leading ace of the Vietnam War: Senior Lieutenant Nguyen Van Coc.

Senior Lieutenant Nguyen Van Coc. with other air and Ground Crew. Image Source: zingnews.vn

          Nguyen Van Coc recalled the battle: “I was scrambled as wingman of Nguyen Ngoc Do. I noticed F-105s flying beneath us at an altitude of 2500 m, at 30 to our course. My leader also saw the Thunderchiefs. We both increased our speed and dived at the US fighter-bombers, which were unaware of our presence. My leader shot down the second airplane of a group of four F-105s. Until now, I had been protecting my leader, but with an enemy fighter filling my sights, I also opened fire, downing another Thunderchief. We received an order to return to base and made a successful landing, while the eight F-105s dropped their bombs and started a search for the lost pilots”.

          The victim of Coc’s leader Nguyen Ngoc Do was the F-105 °F Bu No 62–4447 flown by Leonard K. Thorness and Harold E. Johnson (357th TFS/355th TFW, both of them were captured), followed seconds later by Coc’s first kill. That was an outstanding day for the VPAF. A third Thunderchief fell destroyed by the MiG-21 pilot Le Trong Huyen few minutes later, the American pilot, Joseph S. Abbott (333rd TFS), perished- and there was no MiG losses that day.

F-105 D Thunderchief. Image Source: nationalmuseum.af.mil

VPAF Increased Losses Again

          Despite the fact that during May 1967 the VPAF could engage the US combat planes with a high degree of success, their losses also began to increase again, forcing it to reduce its operations during June and the first half of July. Since that point the MiG-21s of the 921st Fighter Regiment became pretty active again, and so did Senior Lieutenant Coc.

23 August 1967 the “Double Attack”

         On August 23 1967 the USAF launched a mid-day raid against Hanoi with about 40 aircraft, and in response, four MiG-17s of 923rd Fighter Regiment were scrambled. They were followed at 1345 h by two MiG-21PF  of 921st Fighter Regiment piloted by Nguyen Nhat Chieu (leader) and Nguyen Van Coc (wingman). At that time the favorite Vietnamese tactic was the “double attack”. It was essentially a classic coordinated attack from different directions. The MiG-17s acted as a bait performing an head-on pass and distracting the escort, while the MiG-21s attacked from the rear, catching the fighter-bombers and escorts by surprise. Nguyen Van Coc shot down one USAF’s F-4D over Nghia Lo. The “double attack” had been perfectly executed, shooting down no less than three USAF jets.

McDonnell F-4D Phantom II. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

          Nguyen Van Coc, recollects “My leader Nguyen Nhat Chieu and I went the long way round to get into a better attacking position behind the enemy formation. He fired an AAM, bringing down a Thunderchief, while I also successfully attacked a Phantom with an R-3S AAM. In the meantime, my leader began another attack with his second missile but it missed. He went into a cloud overhead, only to reappear moments later firing with his cannon. I also attacked the Phantom, using a missile, but I was too close, and I stayed into Nguyen Nhat Chieu’s line of fire as he dived from above. My airplane was damaged, but all the controls were working normally so I asked permission to carry on the engagement with the damaged aircraft. However, ground control ordered to return to base. Because of the damage, my MiG-21 was only able to do a maximum speed of 600 km/h”.

          Nguyen Van Coc’s prey was the F-4D BuNo 66–0238 flown by Major Charles R. Tyler and Captain R. N. Sittner (555th TFS/8th TFW, Tyler was captured and Sittner was killed), Chieu shot down the F-105D of Elmo Baker (who was taken POW), and one of the MiG-17 °F fliers -Nguyen Van Tho- bagged the F-4D BuNo 66–0247 — Captain Larry E. Carrigan (pilot) was captured and 1st Lt. Charles Lane (radarist) perished.

Fourth Victory

          At 1348h on October 3 1967 Nguyen Van Coc and another pilot were scrambled in their MiG-21s. Their targets were two radar contacts over Hai Duong towards Hanoi at an altitude of 7,000 meters, most likely reconnaissance aircraft. The actual numbers of enemy planes was three. An RF-4 and an escort of two F-4Ds, one of them had been hit by the Vietnamese AAA and lost one engine. The task of finding the US planes was not easy. American EB-66 Destroyers were effectively jamming of the Vietnamese radars, so sufficient intercept information was not coming. Van Coc climbed to 7,500 meters to perform a visual search for the targets, and about 1354 h (only six minutes after takeoff) he spotted enemy planes on a southwesterly course. He stealthily approached the trailing F-4, which was the one damaged by the AAA, and fired an R-3 Atoll. The Phantom crew were forced to eject. Both could be rescued. This victory was considered only “probable” by the VPAF and that time, as credit was also given the AAA battery. This was followed few days later (October 7) by Coc’s fourth kill the F-105 BuNo 63–8330 (13th TFS/388th TFW) whose pilots were captured after they bailed out.

R-3 Atoll. (K-13) Image Source: Wikipedia

Becomes An Ace – Great month for VPAF

          Next month was very busy for the MiG-21 pilots of 921st Fighter Regiment: they shot down an F-4D on November 8, two F-105s on November 18, two F-4Bs downed by MiG-17 pilots of 923rd Fighter Regiment the next day and one more Thunderchief on the 20th. One of the Thunderchiefs destroyed on November 18 1967 was the fifth victory of Nguyen Van Coc, making him an ace — his prey was the F-105 BuNo 63–8295 of the 34th TFS/388th TFW, the crew (Oscar Dardeau, Edward Leinhoff) crashed to their death. The unknown Coc’s wingman shot down the second US jet (F-105D BuNo 60–0497 of 469th TFS/388th TFW). November was thus an excellent month for the Vietnamese, because besides these six confirmed victories, the VPAF lost only one MiG-17 to a Phantom on November 6.

VPAF MiG-17. Image Source: jetphotos.com

The Sixth Victory

          Almost a month later (December 19) Coc claimed a sixth kill (another F-105) not confirmed by USAF loss records. The actual victory N 6 of this skillful flier occurred on 3 February 1968, when he shot the F-102A BuNo 56–1166, killing its pilot 1st Lt. Wallace L. Wiggins (509th FIS/405th FIW).

The Great Engagement of 7 May 1968 – Last Fighter Victory

          Nguyen Van Coc would wait three months for his next victory. Three flights of MiG-21 fighters from the VPAF 921st Regiment were flown to Tho Xuan Air Base, as part of redeployment in response to the U.S. bombing halt above the 19th Parallel. The flights were led by Dang Ngoc Ngu, Nguyen Van Minh and Nguyen Van Coc. On May 7 1968 he took off in his MiG-21PF  from Tho Xuan airfield (at that time in southern North Vietnam) as the wingman of Dang Ngoc Ngu, followed by other two MiG-21s. The original target of Ngu and Coc was an EKA-3B, but both MiGs were detected by an AEW plane E-1, and five F-4Bs of VF-92 were sent to the area. Nguyen Van Coc later recounted the mission, “My leader Dang Ngoc Ngu and I took off from Tho Xuan. A second pair of MiGs, flown by Nguyen Dang Kinh and Nguyen Van Lung, acted as our escorts. Because of poor coordination with local air defence forces, our MiGs were mistaken for American fighters, and the AAA opened up on us. This was not the only mistake — even Dang Ngoc Ngu initially mistook the escorting MiGs for Americans and dropped his fuel tanks in preparation for an attack, but he soon recognised them as North Vietnamese. We flew three more orbits over Do Luong before being told of fighters approaching from the sea, this time they were real Americans. (The U.S. flight detected were a formation of five F-4B Phantom II from Fighter Squadron 92 (VF-92), USS Enterprise, led by Lieutenant Commander Ejnar S. Christensen. Over North Vietnamese airspace, a U.S. Navy EKA-3A electronic warfare aircraft tried to jam North Vietnamese communications but failed, and Nhu’s flight of MiG-21 fighters was guided towards their target by ground controllers). Dang Ngoc Ngu noticed two F-4 Phantoms five kilometers to starboard. There was a lot of clouds, and he was unable to get into a firing position. I wanted to follow him, but I noticed I was running low on fuel. I was planning to land back at Tho Xuan when suddenly I spotted a Phantom ahead of me at an altitude of 2500 m. I went after him and launched two missiles from 1500 m. The Phantom crashed in flames into the sea.”

EKA-3B Skywarrior. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

         The action gave the VPAF their first aerial victory over the airspace above the Military Zone IV of North Vietnam and gave Nguyen Van Coc his seventh aerial victory. The U.S. Navy confirmed that the downed F-4B had been BuNo 151485, call-sign Silver Kite 210, of VF-92 launched from “Enterprise”. The pilot of BuNo 151485, Lieutenant Commander Ejnar S. Christenson, and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lieutenant (jg) Worth A. Kramer ejected safely from their aircraft before impact and were recovered a short time later. All the MiG pilots -Ngu, Coc, Kinh and Lung- landed safe and sound at Tho Xuan. That was the last kill of Coc that year. The end of the “Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign on October 31, as ordered by the then US President Lyndon B. Johnson- meant the end of Coc’s chances of shooting down more American combat planes.

RS AQM-34 Drone. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Last Victories UAVs

          However, the USAF kept on sending UAVs to perform recce flights over North Vietnam, and two of these drones became the last victories of Van Coc in December 1969. First  a USAF AQM-34 Firebee unmanned aerial vehicle. The second initially presumed a USAF AQM-34 Firebee. This could have been an OV-10 Bronco whose two crew died when it was shot down in the same area on December 20 1969. The USN reported that the OV-10 Bronco BuNo 155503 of the VAL-4 “Black Ponies” downed by a MiG near the DMZ. The Vietnamese pilots were not familiar with these type of airplanes. One thing is sure: with 8 enemy planes and 2 drones downed he was certainly the leading ace of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, 7 airplanes are fully confirmed by US sources, so he is admitted by both sides as the Top Ace of the Vietnam War, and that is something commendable. very unusual to see. Two out of his nine kills were UAV Firebees (not counted by USAF as losses in air combat). Among his remaining seven claims, an amazing amount of six had been fully confirmed by USAF loss records.

North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Operation “Bolo” – Clash of Generations Over North Vietnam

          The exploits of the legendary Col. Robin Olds and the “Wolf Pack” of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Vietnam War are well known among military aviation enthusiasts.  Col. Olds’ skill as a fighter pilot and reputation as an effective combat leader, earned during three decades of distinguished military service, are held in high regard by peers and historians alike.  The story of his principal adversaries in Southeast Asia, the pilots of the fledgling VPAF, is not well known in the West.  Preeminent among these pilots was Capt. Nguyễn Văn Cốc of the 921st Fighter Regiment, the top scoring fighter ace of the Vietnam War.  On 2 January, 1967 the destinies of these two formidable air warriors came together during a brief and decisive air battle over North Vietnam.  This encounter ended in a lopsided victory for the “Wolf Pack,” but that was not the whole story.  The VPAF proved to be resilient and resourceful in recovering from this defeat, and lessons learned from this epic air battle shaped strategy and tactics employed by both opposing forces throughout the remainder of the war. This story has been beautifully documented by Lyon Air Museum Docent Jeff Erickson.

Operation “Rolling Thunder”

            In March, 1965, the United States commenced large-scale offensive air operations against North Vietnam. Operation “Rolling Thunder” was an intensive and sustained bombing campaign designed to halt the flow of men and materiel into South Vietnam and persuade the North Vietnamese regime to cease support for the communist insurgency in the south. Missions targeted industry, storage facilities, transshipment points, lines of communication and air defenses. U.S. Air Force and Navy combat aircraft struck at the heart of the Hanoi regime’s infrastructure with ever increasing frequency and devastating impact on its capacity to make war.  A large proportion of USAF bombing missions over North Vietnam were flown by the F-105D Thunderchief fighter/bomber (nicknamed “Thud”) operating from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand.

MiG 21s attacking F-4 Phantoms from Sun and Clouds. Imagw Source: http://www.quora.com

“Hit and Run” VPAF

          North Vietnam took steps to establish a force of fighter/interceptor aircraft, using equipment and pilot training provided by their Soviet and Chinese allies.  The VPAF received its first jet aircraft, the Soviet designed MiG-17 (Chinese J-5), in February, 1964.  Initially based in China, these aircraft equipped the first operational jet fighter unit, known as the 921st “Sao Do” (Red Star) Fighter Regiment.  During the next two years, the VPAF capability was upgraded substantially to include supersonic MiG-19 (Chinese J-6) and MiG-21 interceptors.  By 1966, the 921st Fighter Regiment was operating the second generation MiG-21PF all-weather variant, equipped with short range air-to-air guided missiles. 

          Operations conducted by fighter/interceptor aircraft of the VPAF were entirely defensive, and remained so throughout the war.  MiG pilots engaged U.S. bombers and strike aircraft in “hit and run” attacks over friendly territory and actively avoided contact with American escort fighters. Despite the vast numerical and qualitative superiority of U.S. air power, this “air insurgency” strategy met with some success, taking a toll on U.S. aircraft, reducing bombing effectiveness and diverting US combat aircraft resources from strike missions to defend against the MiG threat.

MiG 21s “Hit and Run”. Image Source: Pinterest

U.S. Armed Forces Overwhelming Superiority in Assets

          U.S. armed forces went to war with a number of fighter/interceptor aircraft such as the F-100, F-102 and F-104, but only the F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader achieved substantial success in air combat against the VPAF.  Combat effectiveness of U.S. fighters was hampered, to some degree, by rules of engagement that precluded firing on targets beyond visual range. Insufficient pilot training in air combat skills and lack of an internal gun in most versions of the F-4 had a negative impact on performance in air-to-air engagements. 

Image Source: http://www.quora.com

Vietnamese Aggression

          Most U.S. strike missions were flown by F-105 fighter/bombers. Heavy loads of air-to-ground ordnance severely limited F-105 flight performance and they were vulnerable to attack by faster and more maneuverable interceptors. MiGs flew ground-controlled intercepts (GCI) against U.S. bomber formations, with guidance provided by a network of Soviet-built radar stations and command centers.  These installations were “off-limits” to U.S. strike aircraft due to concerns about killing Russian or Chinese advisors.  As a consequence, ground controllers were able to position interceptors optimally for “hit-and-run” attacks against the bomber formations while minimizing exposure to threats from U.S. combat air patrols.  MiG-17s often engaged in frontal attacks with guns, while MiG-21s generally attacked from the rear to take advantage of their greater speed and heat-seeking missile armament.  The MiGs attacked aggressively, usually from multiple directions, and often with devastating effects. Bombers were frequently forced to jettison ordnance prematurely to evade destruction. 

Col Olds and New Tactics

          US corrective action came the form of “Operation Bolo.”  With the consent of Gen. William Momyer, 7th Air Force Commander, Col. Olds and the senior staff of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing conceived and planned an elaborate deception, designed to lure North Vietnamese MiGs into an engagement with a superior force of U.S. fighters.  The plan was assigned the code name “Bolo” in reference to the fearsome Filipino edged weapon that is readily concealed, but lethal at close range.

Col Olds. Image Source: lyonairmuseum.org

          The plan called for a “West Force,” composed of seven flights of F-4Cs from the 8th TFW based at Ubon Air Base, Thailand to simulate an F-105 strike against a target in North Vietnam.  The Phantoms of the West Force would employ ingress routes, altitudes, speeds, formations, call signs and communications jargon typical of an F-105 strike package.  The F-4s were also equipped with the QRC-160 jamming pod normally carried by the F-105s, enabling them to mimic the Thud’s electronic signature.  An “East Force” of seven additional flights of F-4Cs from the 366th TFW, based at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam would cover avenues of escape for the MiGs, including alternate VPAF airfields and routes to sanctuaries in China.  Arrival times over target airfields were spaced at intervals to maintain continuous coverage, preventing surviving MiGs from landing and forcing them to exhaust fuel.  The plan also called for radar surveillance by Lockheed EC-121 airborne early warning aircraft, six flights of F-105s to provide SAM suppression, and stand-off radar jamming by EB-66s, escorted by F-104s of the 435th TFS.  The plan specified that the target area would be clear of other U.S. aircraft, enabling F-4 crews to engage hostile targets without the positive visual ID normally required by 7th Air Force rules of engagement.

Lockheed EC-121 airborne early warning aircraft. Image Source: Wikipedia

Col. Robin Olds Vs Nguyễn Văn Cốc

          Op Bolo commenced on 2 January 1967.  F-4 flights were identified using radio call signs based on names of contemporary auto manufacturers, including Ford, Olds and Rambler.  Leading the Olds flight, Col. Robin Olds arrived first over the target area near Phúc Yên Air Base at 1500 local time.  After some delay due to overcast, VPAF ground controllers took the bait and directed MiG-21s of the 921st Fighter Regiment to the intercept.  Among the pilots dispatched on this mission was Nguyễn Văn Cốc, flying as wingman to a more senior pilot.  Expecting to encounter a bomber formation, the MiGs employed familiar tactics, emerging from cloud cover sequentially to approach the formation from multiple directions.  Much to their surprise and dismay, they were confronted by deadly Phantoms with a full complement of air-to-air weapons and ready for a stand-up fight. The number 2 aircraft of Olds flight, piloted by Lt. Ralph Wetterhahn, scored the first victory with an AIM-7 Sparrow missile.  After several missiles failed to launch or guide, Col. Olds and his WSO, 1st Lt. Charles Clifton, scored a second kill shortly thereafter with an AIM-9 Sidewinder.  A third victory was scored with an AIM-9 fired by the flight’s number 4 aircraft, piloted by Capt. Walter Radeker III.

AIM-7 Sparrow missile. Imgae Source: military-today.com

          The battle was over in a matter of minutes.  Two other flights from the 8th TFW also scored aerial victories over MiG-21s, and the wing claimed a total of seven aircraft destroyed and two probable kills during Operation Bolo with no losses.  Among the North Vietnamese aircraft destroyed was the MiG-21 flown by Nguyễn Văn Cốc and another piloted by a future VPAF, ace, Vu Ngọc Đỉnh.  Both pilots escaped their damaged aircraft and survived. 

North Vietnamese air force pilots confer in front of a MiG-21. (ADN-Bildarchiv/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images) through http://www.historynet.com

          With the loss of more than half of their operational MiG-21 force, the VPAF ceased intercept operations for several months to recover, re-equip and re-think strategy.  In the aftermath of the January debacle, senior North Vietnamese leaders undertook an intensive after-action review, surfacing a number of deficiencies in tactics, pilot training and decision-making within the chain of command.  The revamped VPAF strategy and tactics finally realized results on 30 April 1967, to the detriment of the American 355th TFW, when Nguyễn Văn Cốc and his flight leader both claimed victories over F-105s.  Other pilots of their squadron downed three more F-105s.

          As might be expected in any protracted conflict, both sides continued to evolve technology, strategy and tactics in pursuit of advantage and in response to initiatives by their adversary.  The North Vietnamese continued to exploit the “target-rich environment” presented by U.S. strike missions, claiming to have downed a total of 266 U.S. aircraft with no less than 17 VPAF pilots claiming status as “Ace”.  U.S. authorities acknowledge the loss of 89 aircraft in air-to-air engagements, while claiming 195 aerial victories, for a kill ratio of 2.2:1. Only two U.S. pilots qualified as aces, with three additional weapon systems officers achieving five or more victories.  The comparatively small number of U.S. aces can be attributed to the relative scarcity of targets for U.S. fighter crews and their shorter terms of service in the theater of operations. 

          As commander of the 8th TFW, Col. Olds remained active in the air, flying a total of 152 combat missions, 105 of them over North Vietnam.  He went on to destroy three more MiGs in combat, making him a “triple ace” with a total of 16 aerial victories during his illustrious career.  After ejection, Capt. Cốc returned to active duty with his regiment and went on to become the highest scoring fighter ace of the Vietnam War, with seven victories against US Air Force and Navy combat aircraft.  Among his victims were three F-4s, three F-105s and a single F-102.  Two of the Phantoms downed by Capt. Cốc were F-4Ds of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the same unit that inflicted the January 1967 disaster on the Sao Do Regiment.  He was also credited with shooting down several AQM-34 unmanned drones.  All of his air-to-air victories were achieved with the K-13 infrared guided missile.

Nguyễn Văn Cốc Proudly Holding a MiG 21 Modeel in 2015. Image Source: soha.vn

          In some respects, these two men stood in striking contrast to one-another.  At age 44, Col. Olds was a seasoned combat veteran, approaching the end of his career and seizing one last opportunity to apply his considerable talents as a fighter pilot.  Capt. Nguyễn Văn Cốc went to war as an inexperienced but aggressive and highly motivated rookie, anxious to prove himself in combat.  On further reflection, however, it appears that these men had a great deal in common, and that their differences are largely generational and cultural.  Robin Olds was a member of America’s “Greatest Generation,” raised during the Great Depression.  When his nation was threatened by axis aggression, he went to war as a volunteer and fulfilled his obligation with courage and skill. Nguyễn Văn Cốc was also raised in a time of adversity, during the French occupation of Indochina, and volunteered at an early age to risk his life in defense of his homeland.  Both men acquired a compelling desire to fly at an early age and pursued their careers as military aviators with zeal and commitment.  Their skills as pilots and combat leaders distinguished them among their peers, and they met the challenge from their adversaries with courage, tenacity and resilience.  Both men were patriots, and repeatedly demonstrated willingness to put their lives on the line in defense of the values they held dear.  These two fine aviators were held in high regard by their peers and have earned the respect and admiration of the nations they served.

Why so many Vietnamese Aces?

          Why did so many VPAF pilots score higher than their American adversaries? Mainly because of the numbers. In 1965 the VPAF had only 36 MiG-17s and a similar number of qualified pilots, which increased to 180 MiGs and 72 pilots by 1968. Those brave six dozen pilots confronted about 200 F-4s of the 8th, 35th and 366th TFW, about 140 Thunderchiefs of the 355th and 388th TFW, and about 100 USN aircraft (F-8s, A-4s and F-4s) which operated from the carriers on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin, plus scores of other support aircraft (EB-6Bs jamming, HH-53s rescuing downed pilots, Skyraiders covering them, etc). Considering such odds, it is clear why some Vietnamese pilots scored more than the Americans; the VPAF pilots simply were busier than their US counterparts, and they “flew till they died.” They had no rotation home after 100 combat sorties because they were already home. American pilots generally finished a tour of duty and rotated home for training, command, or flight test assignments. Some requested for a second combat tour, but they were the exceptions.

Book Cover. Nguyễn Văn Cốc on the right with one Knee down. Image Source: http://www.amazon.com

          In mid-1960’s the American pilots were focused on the use of air-to-air missiles (like the radar homing AIM-7 Sparrow and IR AIM-9) to win the air battles. However, they had forgotten that a skillful pilot in the cockpit was as important as the weapons he uses. The VPAF knew that, and trained its pilots to exploit the superb agility of the MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 – getting into close combat, where the heavy Phantoms and “Thuds” were at a disadvantage. Only in 1972, when the “Top Gun” program improved the skills in aerial combat of USN Phantom pilots, and the F-4E appeared with a 20 mm built-in Vulcan cannon, could the Americans neutralize that Vietnamese edge.

          Lastly, the overwhelming US numerical superiority meant that, from the point of view of the Vietnamese pilots, the aerial battlefield was a “target rich environment.” For the American airmen Vietnam was a “target poor environment.” The VPAF never had more than 200 combat aircraft. Officially, there were 16 VPAF Aces during Vietnam War (13 were MiG-21 pilots, and three were MiG-17, there were no MiG-19 aces. Americans had five Air Aces.

Cốc Moved out from Combat Flying

          The end of Operation Rolling Thunder on 31 October 1968 removed him from the opportunity for further air combat. In that year, Nguyễn Văn Cốc was transferred from operational duties so that his valuable combat experience could be put to use in training new pilots. Despite he did not participate in the furious battles of 1972, many of his aprentices did, showing that his skills were not lost when he stopped to fly combat sorties. His best student, Nguyen Duc Soat, learnt well from the master, because shot down five F-4s and one A-7 during 1972.

Flying Ace Nguyen Duc Soat. Image Source: vi.wikipedia.org

Honours and Awards

          In 1969, Nguyễn Văn Cốc was awarded the prestigious Huy Hiệu medal for each of his nine aerial victories and was recognized as a Hero of the Vietnamese People’s Armed Forces. 

Captain Nguyễn Văn Cốc is congratulated by Hồ Chí Minh, President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Image Source: thisdayinaviation.com

Post War Years

After the war, he remained in the Vietnamese National Air Force, retiring in 2002 as Chief Inspector with the rank of Lieutenant General, after declining health. Details on Nguyen’s current whereabouts are scarce, but reports from 2015 indicated that the retired ace was alive, but in poor health, suffering from an ailment involving paralysis.

Nguyễn Văn Cốc in 2015. Image Source: vietnamnet.vn/vn

If one looks past the controversy and different ideologies associated with the Vietnam War, Nguyen was simply a man who loved to fly. That said, as the most successful ace of the Vietnam War, he was certainly one of the ‘best of the best.’

Image Source: tintuc24.host

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

6 thoughts on “Vietnamese Fighter Ace Nguyễn Văn Cốc – The Highest Scoring Pilot in Vietnam War

  1. With regard to Soviet/Russian military hardware in comparison to US/American military hardware, during the Soviet times, yes, it was definitely much cheaper than anything made in the West, though also manufactured at lower quality. There’s still a similar technological lag nowadays, even if this is now slightly different: now it’s the Russian avionics that’s much heavier and not as advanced as Western. In turn, it’s not always cheaper to have: especially spares can get very expensive.

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  2. How many officers does a twin-seater fighter jet have? From this blog post, I can make out a Radar Intercept Officer, a Weapon Systems Officer and in the movie Behind Enemy Lines, the hero is shown as a Navigator seated behind the pilot in their fighter jet.

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