Notes:

The F-14 has become one of the most recognisable jet aircraft of all time. Featuring in many films, games, and so forth, the Tomcat is certainly a familiar sight, and many are aware of its combat roles throughout the 80s and 90s, from the Libya incident in 1989, to the Gulf War. But what few are aware of is that the F-14 – however briefly – had the opportunity to serve in the Vietnam War, marking its first deployment.

DEPLOYMENT

The situation was simple; the United States had begun pulling troops out of Vietnam beginning in 1971, effectively ending the war in any large scale sense. However the conflict was not over. The Australians – for example – stayed and fought on alongside the ARVN, and so too did the US air force, who aided the smaller remaining US presence still on the ground. By 1973, the war effectively ended in a technical sense, as Australia pulled out, a ceasefire was put in place, and the US force in the region was reduced even moreso. Everyone knew in some sense that the south would eventually fall, and in 1975, the NVA began a spring offensive. No one was prepared for just how quickly the northern forces ended up advancing towards Saigon.

Despite the fact that the majority of US personnel, agents, and allies had been pulled out of the country, many individuals and families remained who would be in serious trouble if they fell into north Vietnamese hands. A mass evacuation began in March 1975, with aircraft taking off from Tan Son Nhat airport. Over 50000 people were evacuated. US C-5 Galaxies and C-141 Starlifters flew consistent flights. Australia and other allied nations were also involved; a fleet of RAAF C-130s were sent to various air strips, in one case – at Phan Rang Air Base – rescuing 1500 civilians in one day whilst under rocket fire. During the first two weeks of April, RAAF, US, and other allied forces were simultaneously airlifting orphaned children in what was known as Operation Babylift, while Marine helicopter crews were sent into neighbouring Cambodia – which was also collapsing – to pull out friendly personnel and civilians, known as Operation Eagle Pull.

But on April 28th, strong artillery fire began to hit Tan Son Nhat airport. Evacuations were under threat, and a new contingency plan was put into action, known as Operation Frequent Wind. The plan was simple; rather than continuing the increasingly dangerous fixed wing flights out of Vietnam, a helicopter force would be used to extract as many people as possible before northern forces entered Saigon.

F-14 DEPLOYMENT

During this same period, the US Navy had begun receiving its first orders of F-14A Tomcats. Among the first to operate the aircraft were fighter squadrons VF-1 and VF-2. Both were then assigned to Carrier Air Wing 14, operating off of the USS Enterprise.

US Navy Task Force 76 had been assigned with primary duties during the evacuation of Saigon, however, many other ships were needed for various tasks. As such, ships from Task Force 77 were requested to help with air support. Among the task force were the USS Coral Sea, and the Enterprise. With F-14s onboard, this would mark the beginning of what could be considered the Tomcats first wartime deployment.

In the months leading up to this, F-14 pilots and RIOs had been training on the new aircraft, whilst the Enterprise was momentarily undergoing refitting at port. Among the new modifications were larger, stronger jet blast deflectors specifically for the Tomcats.

F-14 crews were tasked with Combat Air Patrol over Saigon. It was noted that the north had used captured A-37 Dragonflys from Da Nang Air Base to assist in the attack on Tan Son Nhat airport, thus US helicopters were technically at risk of attack, however unlikely. An F-14 presence in the sky would nullify any such threat.

The Tomcats – according to what pilot testimony of the event remains – they were armed with two Aim-9 sidewinders, and two or four Aim-7 Sparrows when on patrol. Their combat air patrols would include supporting any slow flying aircraft needing escort, as well as standing ready for air support of ground troops, should they come under fire.

Many of the specifics surrounding the F-14s use in Frequent Wind remain the subject of debate. Claims exist stating that – in one instance – approval was given for a gun strafing run against ground targets, whilst another story claims that MiGs were picked up and tracked on radar by one of the F-14 flights. Another story also insinuates light ground fire damage being received by a Tomcat. However, most of these stories come from testimonies, and cannot be properly verified.

(Some of this footage in the video shows the both the VF-1 Wolfpack and VF-2 Bounty Hunters onboard the Enterprise in March 1975.)

APRIL 29

Much of the air action occurred the next day – on April 29th – the most chaotic day of the evacuation. The day began with heavy artillery fire on the outskirts of Saigon, as NVA General Van Tien Dung began his advance into the city to defeat South Vietnamese General Nguyen Van Toan and his 60000 ARVN troops. Other retreating ARVN soldiers began pulling back to Saigon – almost 190000 of them. At the same time, Viet Cong were reported within the city.

By 6AM, the situation did not look good. Two South Vietnamese A1 Skyraiders had been sent out on patrol over Tan Son Nhat airfield, and immediately came under fire, with one aircraft being shot down by an SA-7 missile. At 7AM, another aircraft – a South Vietnamese AC-119 gunship which had been operating all night to hold back the NVA – was also been shot down. Tan Son Nhat was also in chaos; overnight a US C-130 trying to evacuate refugees had been hit by a 122mm rocket, exploding on the runway, whilst other C-130s had received heavy machine gun damage.

By 10AM, General Homer Smith – who was at Tan Son Nhat – reported to US Ambassador Martin at the embassy that they were under constant artillery and rocket fire, and that only one runway remained undamaged. Just a few minutes later, this runway was also destroyed, when a South Vietnamese fighter pilot – taking off under fire – decided to defect, jettisoning tanks and weapons onto the runway, effectively destroying any chance of fixed wing air escape. General Smith reported this to Ambassador Martin, who was himself in contact with Henry Kissinger, who ordered Martin to take a Huey to assess the situation himself. Half an hour later, Martin confirmed that helicopters would be the only way out, and at 10:51AM, the American radio station began broadcasting ‘White Christmas’, signalling to at risk personnel to get to the preplanned evacuation points. This was – technically – the official beginning of Operation Frequent Wind as it had been planned.

On the flight deck of the Enterprise, aircraft were constantly sent up, aware that AA guns and missiles had been moved within range of Saigon. Despite this, both F-14 squadrons operated throughout the day without having to engage the enemy. Although pilot testimonies vary, the general consensus is that the operation went smoothly, although the aircraft were in the air constantly for the next 24 hours given the severe nature of things.

Finally, at midday on the 30th of April 1975, Task Force 76, alongside all other friendly Navy boats, received the last of the evacuating choppers, and began to move away from the coast of Vung Tau, marking the final action of the Vietnam War.

These F-14s would go on serve again the next year, performing similar combat air patrols over Lebanon in July 1976, in which Americans and other foreign nationals were evacuated from Beirut as civil war waged, and likewise with little resistance.

It was not until 1980s that the Tomcat would first see combat; scoring their first kills in late 1980, when Iranian F-14s began fighting Iraqi aircraft during the outbreak of the Iran Iraq War, and in 1981, when US Navy Tomcats achieved their first victories against four Libyan aircraft.

CONCLUSION

Operation Frequent Wind was widely considered a success, all things considered. On top of the 50000 civilians and remaining military personnel evacuated beforehand by plane, over 1373 Americans and 5959 Vietnamese escaped on US helicopters. Not only that, but a literal all-hands-on-deck approach by US Navy personnel allowed many more South Vietnamese army and Air Force pilots to fly friends and family onto US ships, escape from their aircraft, and make room for the next one. On top of this, South Vietnamese military personnel took family, friends, and colleagues, loaded as many boats as they could, and sailed out to join the American fleet. By the end of the operation, over 138000 Vietnamese had escaped from the country, and were processed as refugees in America. Operation Babylift had also resulted in some 3300 Vietnamese orphans being airlifted to the west, where they were adopted.

Although the Tomcat did not engage the enemy in Vietnam, this operation marked the dawn of one era of air combat, and signalled the beginning of another; one in faster computers, better radars, and beyond visual range combat would win the fight.