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Post A MiG Encounter over Cuba, 1962
Created by John Eipper on 09/12/17 4:16 AM

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A MiG Encounter over Cuba, 1962 (Michael Sullivan, USA, 09/12/17 4:16 am)

In response to John E's question, the North Vietnamese flew MiG 17s, 19s and 21s. I never saw a MiG in Vietnam, though I flew several B-52 MiG escort missions around the Mu Gia Pass. The Marines had the mission of flying the night barrier combat air patrol (BARCAP) off Haiphong in our F-4s. Problem was, the NV didn't fly at night, but it allowed the carriers' F-4s in the Gulf to get some rest. We'd go round and round in oval patterns, air-refueling about every 35 minutes. Every now and then we would be vectored on an actual target that would turn out to be another US aircraft or a false target.

The only time I ever saw MiGs for real except during training, I intercepted two MiG 17s during the Cuban Missile crisis aftermath and that was a flight I'll never forget. I was on the alert "hot pad" (must be airborne in 5 minutes) at NAS Key West. When the scramble bell went off we'd run to our aircraft. The starboard engine would already be at 10%, as the troops started the starting units as soon as they heard the bell so we could hit the right engine igniter switch and it'd start immediately while getting help to strap in. All this took about 2 and 1/2 minutes to get both engines running and fully strapped in. We were only 50 yards from the end of the runway, so we'd add power, go around a 45-degree turn onto the runway getting a green light from the tower meaning we were cleared for take-off, light the afterburners and take off on RWY 31. We had no radios, radar or navigational aids as it took about 5-7 minutes for them to come on line after engine start.

We immediately turned to 120 degrees, which was the closest vector toward Cuba and the 28th degrees N latitude in the Florida Straits. When the radios came on line we could then talk to the ground radar site (GCI) and they'd tell us what heading to fly to intercept the unknown target. The criteria was to launch our fighters if any unidentified aircraft crossed 28th deg. North. GCI then told me to go "Gate," which is max speed terminology for using full afterburner power. My target was 47 NM on the nose when we got a radar contact. They were heading SE and it's only about 90 miles to Cuba from Key West. I leveled off at 800 ft. and was doing 700kts indicated airspeed, or right around 1.1 Mach, which was the fastest I'd ever been.  However, at 40,000 feet, Mach 2 is only about 610 kts. indicated.

My intake ramps and hydraulic gauges were cycling but we caught the MiGs just north of the Cuban cays. The GCI site communicated with me via my wingman, who was at 10,000 ft. relaying the instructions, as we were too low to be able to hear the GCI instructions ourselves. My wingman said to maintain 5-mile trail but by then I was into three miles with a 470 kts. overtake in speed! A few seconds later I got a "break X," where a big "X" come up on the radar scope and the target is lost! This is done to keep you from running into the target at night or bad weather. I did a high G barrel roll, reduced the power to idle and put the speed brakes out to dissipate airspeed ASAP. I slowed to around 350 kts. fairly quickly, but I didn't see the two MiGs so I thought I flew out in front of them and was thinking, "Oh s---t, I'm in trouble now," when luckily I spotted them 30 degree high at about 3,000 ft. and about a half a mile.

The MiGs went into a port turn, so I thought the game was on. I immediately rolled right into lag pursuit with my Sidewinder missile screaming a loud tone, indicating I was in the perfect position to fire but I noticed the MiGs weren't pulling any Gs in the turn and the wingman looked like he was practicing flying formation as he was pretty shaky. Then I realized they'd never seen me and their GCI (if they had any) didn't know I was there. The MiGs pretty soon set a course for Santa Clara de Las Banos which was a Cuban MiG base. I broke it off, flying over the outer cays and dove down to the water to stay out of their SAM envelope.  I stayed there till North of the 28th and climbed to altitude to make an idle descent into Key West. I landed with about 600-800 lbs. of gas which is low for an F-4 as the fuel "low level" light comes on at 2,000 lbs.

The F-4 in full afterburner burns 70,000 lbs. of fuel per hour at sea level and we only take off with about 12,500. My flight lasted 24 minutes as I remember. Both my Sidewinders, which had half-round seeker heads, had gone from clear glass prior to flight to frosted glass after the flight because of the friction on the heads, but they still worked as I had a good, solid tone. However, after the data from that flight was analyzed the Sidewinder was modified to have a mostly pointed seeker head vice half round and it's still that way today!

Great times, great memories!

JE comments:  You have given us 24 minutes of adrenaline, Michael!  What a ride, and what a close call at the end.  Doesn't an F-4 drop like a rock if you run out of fuel?

A naive question:  were the pilots of those MiGs Cuban, Soviet, or could they have been either?

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  • Running Out of Gas in an F-4 (Michael Sullivan, USA 09/14/17 4:18 AM)
    This is a followup to my post of September 12th. If you run the F-4 out of fuel and the engines quit, they will start to unwind and the RPM decreases immediately. Once the RPM drops below 53% the powered flight controls freeze and you're just along for the ride and must eject.

    However, you can keep a nose-down attitude to keep the air speed up and engine RPMs above 53% but you're approaching the ground or water fairly rapidly. Depending on the altitude, if the engines flame out you may be able to glide for several miles while still being able to steer the aircraft, which could get you from land to over water for rescue by the US Navy which was preferred for Vietnam, so you wouldn't become a POW.

    I have no idea of the nationality of the MiG pilots I mentioned earlier, but I believe the wingman was a "new guy." The Rules of Engagement stated you couldn't shoot unless you observed a hostile act or were cleared to shoot by GCI. There were only a few hostile acts ever committed by Cuban aircraft in all the years of US fighters were intercepting unknown aircraft above the 24 N. I remember one incident where a US fishing boat was dead in the water below 24 N, and Cuban jets made a couple of strafing passes on it but US fighters arrived too late to take any action.

    In my earlier post I stated 28 deg. N was the "scramble" line when actually it was the 24 deg. N line. It's been about 55 years, so this morning 24 N popped into my mind after reading John's response and I looked it up on the map and 24 N is what it was!

    JE comments: "You're just along for the ride"--what an example of USMC composure!  I would be saying something more along the lines of "Holy S#%$" or crying for Mommy.

    I noticed, Michael, that you spoke of "running out of gas" (not jet fuel).  Is this a common way for Marine pilots to refer to their fuel supply, or were you "translating" for us civilians?

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    • Mid-Air Refueling: a Tutorial (Michael Sullivan, USA 09/15/17 2:19 PM)
      In response to John E's question about "gas" vs. "jet fuel," we use the term "gas" most of the time as it's so casual. We're always air refueling but we still call it "gas"!

      The air refueling tanker would say to us as we approached the tanker to refuel, "How much gas do you need?" Then we'd respond in "X" amount of gallons which translates to pounds on the aircraft's fuel gauge. Sounds confusing but it's very simple, and many times we air refuel in EMCON conditions which is no radio transmissions. There are three lights on the back of the tanker's refueling pod.

      Green: You're cleared to plug in and gas is flowing once plugged in and moving the hose up about half way to open the tanker's fuel valve to permit gas to flow.

      Amber: You're cleared to the stabilized position 3-5 ft. behind the refueling basket on the end of the tanker's hose that we plug into. We start from that position.

      Red: Not cleared to plug in or make an emergency breakaway if refueling, as there's an emergency with the tanker aircraft or its hose and drogue system.

      Navy and Marine aircraft use the hose and drogue system, while the USAF uses a boom from the refueler aircraft to plug into the refueling receptacle located on top of the receiver aircraft. The receiver pilot just flies formation under the tanker and the boom operator in the tanker does all the work!

      Navy and Marine aircraft can refuel on USAF tankers if they attach a short hose to the end of the boom, but there is no takeup reel so you can't vary your formation flying hardly at all, as you'll slip out. We do it all the time so it isn't a big deal. The problem for the USAF tankers is that they can either refuel USAF aircraft with the boom or Navy/Marine aircraft with the short hose attached to the boom. The decision is made prior to the tanker's take-off so they can configure the aircraft correctly. USAF aircraft can't use our hose and drogue system as they don't have an in-flght refueling probe.

      You have just had "Air-to-Air Refueling 101," and we're launching you tomorrow on your first air refueling hop...at night!

      JE comments: One quick definition.  Drogue (in tanker aircraft): "a funnel-shaped part on the end of the hose
      into which a probe is inserted by an aircraft being refueled in flight."

      Now I'm ready, General!

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    • Some Praise for WAIS: from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 09/15/17 5:02 PM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      So many great posts appear on WAIS that, as I feel compelled to
      thank Michael Sullivan for that fantastic cockpit tour over the Florida Straits
      in Castro Standard Time, I realize I'm slighting all the other WAIS landmarks
      that it felt too disingenuous to keep congratulating.

      I hope all those authors,
      too, realize how much is absorbed from their expertise, and how much unspoken
      impact they have--with all of it, of course, redounding to the credit of the central force
      that makes it all happen: the Sage of Adrian.

      JE comments:  Adrian has a sage?  (Blush.)  Thank you, Gary.  Yours is the perfect post to set the tone for the weekend.  Here in Adrian it's promising to be a beautiful one:  sunny and in the upper 70s (24-25C).

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