Fighter pilot father, son recount ambush over Vietnam

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Gregory Ripps
  • 149th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
About 40 years ago, F-105 aircraft were bombing selected targets in North Vietnam as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. However, the slower, bomb-loaded Thunderchiefs were no match for the faster, lighter MiG-21s the enemy was flying. For weeks the MiGs were successful at picking off U.S. warplanes.

This had to stop, but the U.S. Air Force was restricted from attacking the North Vietnamese air bases because of the foreign advisors who might be on them. Theater leaders had to find another way to mitigate the MiG menace.

Enter Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Robin Olds, commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing operating out of Ubon Royal Tai air base, Thailand. He obtained approval to devise a plan to lure the MiGs from their bases into an ambush. He turned to Capt. (later Col.) John Stone, who developed a deception tactic to ambush the North Vietnamese MiGs. Colonel Stone became the mastermind of what became Operation Bolo.

Colonel Stone is the father of the 149th Fighter Wing's Maj. Jon Stone, a fighter pilot like his dad and granddad. Last spring, Digital Ranch Productions interviewed General Olds and both Stones for an episode of the "Dogfights" television series on The History Channel.

Major Stone said the producers wanted to interview a current fighter pilot, and when they learned Colonel Stone's son fit the requirement, they asked him to come to their Los Angeles studios and talk to them about jet fighter operations and his father's role in Operation Bolo. He explained that his on-camera interview lasted almost two hours, although his face time on the episode added up to only a few minutes. The one-hour program first aired Nov. 10.

Titled "Air Ambush," the episode focuses on General Olds, who would end up a triple-ace before his retirement, as well as Operation Bolo. According to Major Stone, the operation's success depended on the precise planning and coordination of the deception tactic that would ambush the MiGs.

"The plan was so classified that General Olds and my father went personally to brief the squadrons involved," Major Stone said. "Most participants didn't know about the mission until they arrived at their bases the day of the operation that they were going to be involved."

The operation would employ the F-4 Phantom, which used a weapons systems officer seated behind the pilot and was armed with four radar-guided and four heat-seeking missiles. The Phantoms would masquerade as F-105s and lure the MiGs into a trap.

The F-4s imitated the F-105s by their using their usual call signs, routes, altitudes, airspeeds, formations, "pilot lingo," code words and, most importantly, the use of a radar-jamming pod. The pod emitted a signal that the enemy surface-to-air missile operators had come to recognize as peculiar to the F-105. This time they would be surprised.

On Jan. 2, 1967, six flights of F-4s took off at five-minute intervals. When the MiGs came up to meet the expected F-105s, they encountered F-4s instead. Within 12 minutes, the F-4s had shot seven MiGs out of the sky.

Besides masterminding the operation, General Olds and Colonel Stone piloted their aircraft in the operation itself. "Olds" flight, led by General Olds, shot down three; "Ford" flight, led by then Col. (later Gen.) Daniel "Chappie" James shot down one; and "Rambler" flight, led by Colonel Stone, shot down three -- one of those credited to Colonel Stone.

Hailed as the biggest air victory of the Vietnam War, Operation Bolo consisted of several firsts:

-- It was the first time a "free fire zone" was established to shoot "beyond visual range" with the radar-guided Sparrow missile.

-- It was the first time AWACS aircraft exercised broadcast control, using the "bull's eye" format that is used today.

-- It was the first time F-4s were configured with the QRC-160 radar-jamming pod.

Most significantly, in the words of Colonel Stone, the successful operation "put a damper on MiG activity for quite a while." Or, as General Olds said shortly after the encounter with the MiGs: "We tangled; they lost."