54 - MiG-21 vs F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom II vs MiG-21 MF

The clash between the Giant and the Midget

over Vietnam

models and diorama by Bjørn Jacobsen

In any conflict, all parties exaggerate

heir own victories and minimized their

own losses. So also in Vietnam.

There was often no documented proof

of the “kill”. F-4 crews often believed

they were hit by 37mm AAA or a SAM

when they, in fact, were shot down by

an Atoll missile from a MiG

Smoking or visibly damaged MiG

diving for safety after being hit was

often claimed as a victory when the

plane actually managed to limp home.

The enormous propaganda and morale

value associated with a “kill” also

made over-claiming a great temptation.

There were no traditional “dogfights”

as we know from WW2.

The North Vietnamese pilots had no

interest in air-to-air combat with US


They had one goal: To protect their

motherland by stopping the US

bombers before they reach their targets.

Therefore, the MiGs made fast and devastating attacks against US fighter-bomber formations.  After shooting down a few American planes and forcing the F-105s (and other bombers) to drop their bombs prematurely, the MiGs did not wait for retaliation but disengaged rapidly.

This "guerrilla warfare in the air" proved very successful against several thousand of the worlds most advanced fighters.

The overwhelming US numerical superiority meant that the Vietnamese pilots operated in a “target rich environment."

For the American fighter pilots, on the other hand, Vietnam was a "target poor environment."

The Americans could not find enough enemy aircraft to pile up large scores simply because there were not that many MiGs around. Besides, the supersonic MiGs had often disappeared before the US fighters could react!

You should, therefore, be a little sceptical to all victory/loss-numbers, which for the Vietnam Air-War look something like this:

US fighters flying over Vietnam claimed: 193 VPAF kills and 91 own losses (Note; Many of the real losses to MiG-fighters were in fact credited SAMs and 37mm AAA. Partly because the MiGs were gone long before the Phantoms could counter-attack, partly because it was very bad propaganda to be shot down by a MiG)

VPAF, with never more than a hundred operational fighters (of which most was old MiG-17), claimed: 320 US kills and 131 own losses

Regardless of all the unreliable and confusing numbers: At the end of the war, it was clear that the tiny North Vietnamese Air Force had managed remarkably well against the mighty US.

How did the Phantom manage against the MiG ?

Among fixed-wing aircraft, more F-4 Phantom II

were lost than any other type.

A total of 529 Phantoms were lost in combat.

In comparison, North Vietnam lost altogether

131 MiG-fighters in combat (63 MiG-17s,

8 MiG-19s and 60 MiG-21s)

Only two American pilots became aces in the

Vietnam War (5 or more enemy aircraft


In the North Vietnamese Air Force (VPAF -

Vietnam People's Air Force), sixteen

Vietnamese pilots became aces. 

Nguyen Van Coc was the Top Ace of Vietnam

War with 9 kills

Why did the VPAF pilots do so well?

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 

at least 200 F-4 Phantom II,140 F-105

Thunderchiefs and150 USN fighters.

Considering such odds, it is almost

unbelievable that the VPAF-fighters not only

survived, but also scored much more than

their American counterparts.

The VPAF pilots were much busier than the

US pilots, 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.

One of the reasons for the Vietnamese

success was that the US did not attack the

main radar installations and command centres

(it worried about killing Russian or Chinese advisers).

The result was that the Vietnamese flew their interceptors with superb guidance from ground controllers, who positioned the MiGs in perfect ambush battle stations.


In the mid-1960s the American pilots were focused on the use of air-to-air missiles to win the air battles.They had obviously forgotten that a skilful 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.


When it comes to armament, the MiG-21 was actually better equipped than the F-4.

They both relied very much on the Sidewinder missiles (the Russian Atoll was an exact replica of the American Sidewinder). In addition, many of the Mig-21 had a 23mm canon.

Only in 1972, when the F-4E appeared with a 20 mm Vulcan cannon, could the Americans neutralize the North Vietnamese edge.

The MiG-21 tactics became so effective, that by early 1967, the USAF mounted an operation to deal with the MiG-21 threat once and for all;

Operation Bolo lured MiG-21s into the air, thinking they were intercepting an F-105 strike group, but instead found a sky full of missile armed F-4 Phantom II set for aerial combat. The USAF claimed to have shot down seven MiG-21 (VPAF reported a loss of five), at a cost of no US losses. This was a grave loss for the VPAF, and they parked their MiGs for additional training after this setback.

Typically, the MiGs would not engage unless it was to their advantage.

However, the facts remain that, in encounters with the lighter MiG-21, F-4 often suffer defeat.

From May to December 1966, the US lost 47 aircraft in air battles, destroying only 12 enemy's fighters. From April 1965 to November 1968, VPAF claimed to have shot down 244 US or ARVN's aircraft against their own losses of 85 MiGs

From August 1967 to the end of February 1968, MiG-21 pilots shot down 17 USAF aircraft for the loss of just two of their own

For 1972, North Vietnam claimed to have lost 34 Fishbeds and claimed to have shot down 89 US aircraft (scored together with the MiG-17 and MiG-19)

The story behind the Models:

The two models I am making are copies of two aircraft that met in

combat over North Vietnam in January 1972:

An RF-4C Phantom and a MiG-21 MF


The Phantom’s mission was to discover and photograph North

Vietnamese supply routes.

They were looking particularly for SA-2s, surface-to-air missiles

that could make a real difference in the war.

The MiG’s mission was to find and destroy American aircraft.

The RF-4C was part of the 14th TAC Recon Squadron.

The crews were pilot Bob Mock and Weapon System Officer

John Stiles.

The MiG-21 was piloted by Nguyen Hong My.

His MiG was armed with the Russian Atoll Air-to-Air missiles,

which was a copy of the American Sidewinder

The unarmed RF-4 was on its way to meet their F-4 escort when

they saw a very interesting target and wanted to have another look. 

Because of the SAM-threat, the Phantoms never fly over a target

twice, but the crew in the RF did it anyway.

They pulled up and when flying upside-down they saw several

AA-canons that opened fire.

They never saw the MiG.

Hong My in the MiG-21 saw the American plane climbed 6000 feet

and turn around.

He followed and when he was about 3000 feet (1000m) from the

Phantom, he fired two Atoll rockets at the enemy plane.

One of the rockets hit the Phantom and the tail was blown away.

(Hong My shot down two more US jets and was himself shot down

by an F-4 before the war ended)

The Phantom crew ejected and was picked up by a CIA helicopter

and flown back to their base.

The MiG landed safely at its base, almost out of fuel.

Mock and Stiles reported that they were hit by 37mm AAA and

discovered only years later that they actually were shot down by

a MiG-21

37 years later, John Stiles and Hong My met in Hanoi and became

best friends


You can read all about this story at several sites on the net, but the

most  comprehensive is undoubted:


A picture of the #573 just before they took off from the base January 1972


The MiG-21 #5018 drawn after directions from Hong My   

John Stiles USAF and Hong My VPAF

37 years later in Hanoi   Picture:©JohnMollison.com

The MiG-21

I used an Eduard- kit for the MiG.

This is a very good kit and a real pleasure to build.

I wanted the MiG to be as realistic as possible and decided to have some light in the nozzle to create the engine flames.

The wires coming from the model

are of course to the lamp in the nozzle.

I used a 7W 12V halogen lamp which would not emit much heat, but still give enough light.

The heat is always a problem with electrical lights in confined areas, and if you want to do something similar, please chose a low watt LED lamp if possible. It produces less heat that a halogen lamp.

Try also to use 9V or 12V current. Avoid 110 or 220V.

But whatever you choose as a light source, only use it for short intervals, and never leave it burning unattended.

The model was painted according to the description given by Hong My:  Unpainted aluminium with Green Patches painted on the upper part.

Most of the North Vietnamese MiGs were unpainted and I started by painting the MiG in its natural metal colour.

On the upper part, where the green patches should be, I mixed a little green in the aluminium colour.

Then I hand painted the green patches with thinned paint (airbrush quality).

I had to paint the patches two or three times before the green colour looked realistic.

When I had used the green patched MiG for photography, I repainted it in aluminium colour in order to have both variants on the pictures.

The MiG launched two missiles against the Phantom.

The Atoll missiles were glued to the end of a thin brass rod and cotton was glued to the rod.

The rod was then fixed at the underwing pylons and suddenly the model was firing missiles

The RF-4C

I used the RF (1/48) from Italeri which was a very good kit to build.

The plane was camouflage as most of the USAF Vietnam fighters: Two shades of green and a light brown colour.

The decals were a little tricky as no decals of the #573 were available as far as I could see.

I therefore had to put together bits and pieces from my scrap book to make the correct registration of the aircraft.

Looking at pictures and drawings, I am fairly satisfied with the result.

I wanted to have flames from the Phantom nozzles and inserted one 7W 12V lamp into each nozzle (see comments under the MiG section)

In addition, I had to create the explosion from the Atoll missile which exploded so close to the Phantom that part of the tail (may be the whole tail) was blown away.

This happened when the plane was in flight and I could not make an ordinary explosion with smoke, the speed would be far too fast for that.

The explosion was built around a chicken wire cage which I fixed to the tail.

Yellow cellophane was used to create some colour and cotton to illustrate the explosion fumes.

I used two 7W Halogen lamps (12V) which was more than sufficient to make the explosion.

In fact the light was so intense that I could only light it less than a second when I photographed the model.

A large part of the tail was blown off and I ripped off the vertical stabilisers and made some serious damages to the tail.

To make it look authentic, I used very thin metal sheets which I glued to the holes in the tail.

The crew ejected and was picked up by helicopter and brought unharmed back to base.

As a matter of fact they did not have a clue what hit them and the incident was logged as “hit by 37mm AA grenade)

To finish the story, I have tried to make the ejection.

This I did by help of a LED light, a brass rod and some cotton. Because of the speed. the smoke from the ejection rockets trailed backwards.

As far as I know, the RF did not started to burn, but it trailed smoke when going down.

This smoke was made with cotton glued to a rod and painted black.

And here is the story of what happened in the sky over North Vietnam

20th January 1972

The RF-4C #573 of the 14th TAC Recon Squadron gets ready for the recon mission over North Vietnam

# 573 on it's way. Piloted by Bob Mock and John Stiles as Weapon System Officer

On a North Viernamese airbase, the MiG-21s was ready to take on the US bombers and fighters on way to Hanoi.

The #5018 armed with K-13 "Atoll" missiles was piloted by Nguyen Hong My

The RF has seen an interesting target and turn around to have another look

Hong My in his MiG saw the RF climb 6000 feet and turn around. He gave full power and followed.

3000 feet (1000m) from the Phantom, he fired two Atoll missiles

The Phantom crew never saw the MiG. When a large part of the tail was blown away, they thought they was hit by AAA

There were only one thing for Mock and Stiles to do: Eject! Eject!

Luckily, nobody was hurt. They were shortly after picked up by a CIA helicopter and flown back to base

Nguyen Hong My landed safe at his base, almost out of fuel

37 years after...

Three men united by the Vietnam War.

On the left, John Stiles who was shot down by Hong My (to the right) and Dan Cherry (in the middle) who shot down Hong My some months later. Hong My had a total kill of three F-4 Phantoms

The picture to the right: Dan Cherry and Hong My in front of the F-4 that shot him down

I hope you enjoyed this story!


Thank you for visiting!




Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments





Bjørn Jacobsen


November 2016

A model or a diorama is not completed till it’s documented with pictures.

I really enjoy presenting my work with help from my camera.