Looking Back and Looking Forward for the Future of Airpower: A Discussion with Chuck DeBellevue About the Air War in Vietnam


2014-10-18 By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

In considering the future of airpower, the inevitable return of air to air combat faces US and allied pilots.

The uncontested skies of Afghanistan are not the definer of the future, but dealing with the dangers and threats from enemy defenses whether launched from the sea, the ground or operating in the sky is clearly on offer

But one really has to go back to the Vietnam War to appreciate fully what air-to-air combat is all about.

To gain a sense of what is entailed in this experience, Ed Timperlake, a Marine F-4 Pilot who flew out of Nam Phong Thailand AKA “The Rose Garden” led a discussion with Col. DeBellevue about his experiences and his thoughts about the foundational elements of successful air combat.

Chuck was a key victorious warrior in the last peer air-to-air combat engagements that the American Air Force was engaged in.

Chuck can tell all about his experiences, from command and control systems, crew coordination, situational awareness, electronic war, radars in the cockpit, weaponry, formations to see how air combat evolves to today.

This is not about simulation; this about real world experience.

“In 1972, DeBellevue became one of only five Americans to achieve flying ace status within the Vietnam War and the first Air Force Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) to earn ace status.

He was credited with a total of six MiG kills, the most earned by any U.S. aviator during the Vietnam War and is a recipient of the Air Force Cross.”

Captain and then Col. Chuck DeBellevue in his combat days in Vietnam. Credit: USAF
Captain and then Col. Chuck DeBellevue in his combat days in Vietnam. Credit: USAF

Question: How did you get to Vietnam and start your combat career?

Answer: Flying combat is not always easy. You’re never sure what you’re going to do until you get there.

And it is – well, you grow up pretty fast if you walk in as a young kid.

My experiences in fighters – well, before I got to Southeast Asia, I was assigned to 335th squadron and flying F-4s at Seymour Johnson. And I spent 18 months doing that and I got pretty good. Because of what I had done there – and I was a brand new captain when I left – because of what I’d done there, one of the flight commanders from Udorn, and the Triple Nickel squadron wrote the commander, a guy named Joe Kittenger to tell him that I was a keeper and don’t trade me; make sure I stay in the squadron.

And because of that I did.

Otherwise, all my buddies who were in a 13th squadron – the other squadron at Udorn and they wanted to trade me for another guy when I arrived at Udorn with. We both had about the same experience about 18 months in the airplanes and roughly 556 hundred hours.

Question: You were very proficient in the F-4 before you went to Vietnam?

Answer I was.

Question: What is the difference between intense training and intense combat?

You go into combat, you’re prepared, you train, which is obviously important. But what’s your first experience about – the training is nice, but combat’s a little bit different.

Answer: Well, at the time I was in the F-4 as a new guy, we weren’t allowed to fly any air combat against other airplanes. You could only fly against F-4s.

F-4D Phantom II marked as 555th TFS 66-7463, flown by Ritchie and DeBellevue for their first of 4 kills together and Ritchie's 5th kill which was DeBellevue's 4th killAn F-4D owned by the Collings Foundation taxis at Selfridge ANGB, Michigan in May 2005. The plane has the markings of the Steve Ritchie / Chuck DeBellevue fighter from the Vietnam War.Credit: Wikepedia
F-4D Phantom II marked as 555th TFS 66-7463, flown by Ritchie and DeBellevue for their first of 4 kills together and Ritchie’s 5th kill which was DeBellevue’s 4th killAn F-4D owned by the Collings Foundation taxis at Selfridge ANGB, Michigan in May 2005. The plane has the markings of the Steve Ritchie / Chuck DeBellevue fighter from the Vietnam War.Credit: Wikepedia

Well, you get pretty good at that because it’s not the airplanes that are making a difference; it’s the pilots.

And you don’t have to worry about the airplane because it’s just like yours.Well, you get pretty good at that because it’s not the airplanes that are making a difference; it’s the pilots. And you don’t have to worry about the airplane because it’s just like yours.

You put another type of airplane in there, now you got a different situation. You’re not just flying against the pilot; you’re flying against a different fighter with different capabilities.

You have to understand where your jet is, the better airplane. And where you have to be careful, when you get into an area where he’s the best, his airplane can beat yours.

So now you got a different equation there. And it makes a big difference knowing his airplane, what he’s good at, and then knowing what kind of pilot he is.

Question: When you went into that situation, did you feel that you’re getting your information about say the MiG-21 or your peer adversary was it word of mouth; was it intelligence? How did you as an aircrew understands the nature and the dynamic advantages and disadvantages of flying against a very capable aircraft was it just trial and error?

Answer: It’s a combination.

One, we know about the jets. The MiG-21s, the MiG-17s, MiG-19s, they’re capable. They’re old but still very capable and flown by the right pilot were very deadly. That came from a combination of Intel, self-study, and then flying in North Vietnam, in the environment.

Initial Combat

Question: Chuck, can I start kind of you’re now with Triple Nickel but you get fragged – I guess that’s what you guys called it. Right. You have a mission. When you guys all went out as a squadron were all the airplanes all up and out? How was the material readiness of the aircraft that you flew into combat?

Did the systems all work or did a lot go down?

The general environment of getting a strike package airborne and into a combat engagement how did you feel about the maintenance the aircraft – how did that work for you?

Answer: When I first got over there, all the maintenance belongs to the op squadron commander so everybody worked for the old man – the squadron commander. And things were pretty good.

Now, when I first got over there, it was mainly an air-to-ground war. What I did in the states was a lot of air-to-ground. So I was very comfortable in an airplane doing that.

I arrived in country at about 1:00-1:30 in the afternoon. I walked into the squadron, introduced myself to the squadron commander, and then walked in and talked to the scheduler. He needed to know who I was if he doesn’t know you don’t get on the schedule. And the only question he asked was how much time do you have in the airplane because all coming in were so brand new out of training.

And here I was instead of having 80 hours in the jet; I had 600 hours in the jet.

And he looked at his watch and said damn, the afternoon we have already have the schedule, you can’t fly today.

And I said well, I wasn’t planning on it. Where do I process in? He said are you getting paid? I said yes. You got a year if you live.

So I was in the air the next morning.

And that was the first of December, my first flight. By the end of December I had 28 combat missions; I had seven missions or eight missions in North Vietnam; I had taken a flight check on– we had to take a combat readiness check on the tenth mission.

Well I took mine on my 25th mission. I just couldn’t find a seat. And that was Christmas morning.

At that point I was certified in the airplane to do anything we could do and also certified as an instructor.

Question: Chuck, when you planned your strikes and then launched, was it four-ship, two-ship – how did you all think through the process of formations?

Answer: Our primary formation is a four-ship formation, so the air-to-air; in fact everything we did was four ships. If it was a big strike, a big push in the   North Vietnam, then we flew in four ships.

The strikers did that with the bombs. The escorts that escorted the strikers in were in four ships. Us as the air-to-air guys always flew in four ships.

The only time we went in two ships was at night guarding the Buf (B-52).

We used two-ships doing that.

Question: I don’t want to jump ahead of you. I will walk through the whole process of the mission but once an engagement started, did the formations break up and then kind of develop mutual support by just finding another F-4 to team up with or how did you guys handle the complexities of a swirling really confusing engagement process?

Did your formations break up and you just grabbed a wingman?

Answer: In flying our formations we found that early on everybody could shoot. Everybody tried to and nobody checked six. And we were getting hammered. We were starting to lose guys.

We changed our formation. We went to a Navy loose duce type formation in a four-ship. One and three were the shooters. One was a primary shooter; two was supporting three was a shooter and two and four checked six.

They went on a welded wing position – fighting wing about 1,500 feet back. And their job was to make sure nobody got between him and me.

And so we went to the Navy system.

We hard-scheduled our crews and consistently married them up. For about eight weeks we had the same eight guys flying with us. We didn’t have to worry about them. We knew exactly what they were going to do. They knew what we were going to do. It made life a lot easier and it made our combat flying a lot better.

Question: So using the Navy formation philosophy it was useful to have kind of the services reinforcing each other in combat learning from this point of view?

Answer: It was. Now, you have to realize we were doing air traffic management (OJT) in air-to-air.

The older guys had experience, especially if they went to fighter weapon school in the Air Force, but for us young guys, I’ve never seen another airplane until I saw a MiG-21 behind me and I wasn’t smart enough to be scared, at least not in the solo fight.

But usually when we went into a fight everybody was supporting us. The lead would fly in and we had a code word, we called it “honeymooning, “ which meant press on your six is clear, I’ve got you

Question: Chuck, as you flew the engagement, when you’re going into a potential hostile engagement, there was always a discussion on the way in which the Air Force and the Navy even used command and control.

You got “bogey dope” to the your headset. But your radars would also show your aggressor coming at you whereas the opponent was originally slaved to a ground control system but indications were that the Vietnamese tended to break away from that a little bit.

Could you discuss that dynamic?

Answer: The more experienced Vietnamese pilots had more experience and more liberty. The young kids did not.

So that was one of the keys. When you merged with them, if it felt very aggressive, it was an old guy. If weren’t very aggressive it was an inexperienced pilot.

Combat Tool Sets, Tactics and Instincts

Question: When you all were flying in was “com jamming” and you’re on the scope and you also got your head out of the cockpit. It’s a very demanding workload, and you’re also getting information from ground control.

How did that all work for you?

Answer: We worked with Red Crown. USS Chicago and Chief Knowles was a controller– we knew him by voice.[ref] “On PIRAZ duty for the May 1972, aerial mining of Hai Phong harbor, USS Chicago’s air controllers guided Navy and Air Force fighter pilots to intercepts downing 12 MiG fighters while a RIM-8 Talos missile destroyed a 13th MiG fighter.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PIRAZ[/ref]

But we didn’t take close control.

They didn’t control us like they would an interceptor; they functioned as another sensor.[ref] “When Operation Linebacker began on 10 May 1972, Disco was one of two principal GCI radars used by U.S. forces,[N 1] although it continued to be handicapped by poor radio communications. In addition, its slow turning radar limited its value as a controller of fighters during MiG engagements, while the size of USAF raids during Linebacker nearly saturated its capabilities. However the improvements made in the systems since 1968 enabled the radar operators to distinguish MiG types, and a color code system for them entered the air operations vernacular: “Red Bandits” (Mig-17s); “White Bandits” (MiG-19s); “Blue Bandits” (MiG-21)s, and “Black bandits” (MiGs low on fuel).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_EC-121_Warning_Star[/ref]

Usually when I flew I had a combat tree bird, which was a modification to the radar on the old F-4D that allowed us to interrogate the MiG-21. And that worked in standby.

So I could turn the radar to standby and I would have been able to get information. And for long-range work, that’s what I did.

As we got in closer I’d turn the radar – I flipped the radar to operate and affect the control of the intercept.

Question: Chuck, when you were engaging could you discuss the issue of BVR shots (Beyond Visual Range) versus VID (Visual Identification) shots.

What was the quality assurance that allowed a missile leaving the aircraft that you really did have an enemy bogey targeted?

How did you guys handle that?

Answer: We had three different MiG caps and it all centered on time of the strike.

We would send in a four-ship 15 minutes early to sweep the skies before the strikers came in.

At that point, since we were the first guys into the area, or wherever we were going, we had a high level of confidence that anything we saw was enemy.

And if I picked up something that came back as an enemy return I didn’t have to talk to anybody. That was my clearance to shoot.

We shot BVR, yes but it was with a high level of confidence in what we had.

And during my first combat mission we shot BVR and got three kills.

Question: I assume that they were all Sparrow shots.

You didn’t shoot the Sidewinder BVR in those days.

They were all Sparrows.

Answer: The range of the Aim-9 (Sidewinder) was limited if, you couldn’t see the target it did not have the range. You had to be in pretty close – or a lot closer and to use always in visual range.

But for the Aim-7 (Sparrow) yes, my first kill actually we shot BVR, and the guy saw the missile.

One of the bad things about the A7 was that it smoked. One of the good things about the A7 was it smoked.

If he’s in range– if he’s just outside of range turning, shoot the first missile at him. He has to react to it.

He is going to react – now instead of being one aircraft you’re now two. And he’s going to commit to that missile. The next missile is in range.

Or if for example he’s at max range, and all you’re seeing is contrails, and he looks under his cockpit, which is what happened, his contrail did a 180. But at max range we hadn’t even seen him.

All we saw was the contrail and it did a 180 and he put the missile out of range.

It’s good and it’s bad.

Question: As you got into this situation and say you got a merged plot, would you all blow through that or reverse turn back into the fight?

What were your tactics as they started to merge into the process where now you have VID problems and you have crew coordination problems?

You have the whole instantaneous few seconds to make life and death decisions.

Was it tactics; was it instincts?

What worked for you?

Answer: Yes it was; you got it.

It’s tactics, it was instincts, and it was crew coordination.

It was knowing the situation.

We were intercepting – we were – going into Hanoi we were early so we were just killing time most of the ways. Two guys – the strikes were in Hanoi. Two guys called with “fire lights.”-aircraft on fire.

One of the things you don’t want to do is to draw attention so I just got the SAR (Search and rescue) ready, hear a fire light, get the rescue forces moving.

Air to Air Combat Arena Over Vietnam
Air to Air Combat Arena Over Vietnam

The Tale of Two Bridges

We had Blue (MIG-21) bandits 30 miles northeast of Hanoi and 30 miles east of Hanoi. They’re heading in for the kill. So we start heading east. And we ended up 35 miles southwest of Hanoi and all of a sudden, DISCO – our controller on DISCO says you’re merged.

So on his scope, he can’t help us anymore. The F-4 is easy to see. If you’re not [in afterburner it smokes bad. So we’re moving around, there are eight of us for about two minutes with heads on swivels looking for two little-bitty MiGs – at least we thought there were two.

We turned south and at that point I had a premonition that they were in front of us. Didn’t know for sure, but I had a premonition and I looked to the left. Being in the back seat, you got to look around the front seat.

So I looked at about 11:00 from the airplane and there was a black fly speck on a white cloud. That was our visual. I called it out to Steve. He changed a little left to align with that – I think he saw it about the same time I did. Our announcement to the flight that we were getting ready to fight was when we blew the tanks off the airplane and jumped out in front.

It didn’t take long when you’re closing at 1,200 miles an hour. You’re close with this guy. We come close aboard with the MIG. It’s a MiG-21. It’s a brand new shiny MiG.

And as we cross, instead of turning in behind us like we would have done to get to -He’s got to see my engines to shoot.

Instead of turning into us like we would have done, he made a level turn away from us.

Now the F-4 is not an F-16. It is not a nimble airplane and you’re low on gas. We always were low on gas.

You can roll the airplane over to 135 degrees at 500 knots, put the stick in your lap and 17 seconds later you’re doing 500 knots in the opposite direction, if you know how to fly it well.

But we did not do that because we knew this guy didn’t fly solo. This was a classic Soviet tactic. I read his book. He was the bait. His job was to get us to follow him.

And then the shooter comes by behind us and shoots us now.

We knew that and we waited.

And pretty soon here comes the second MiG, turns away from us on a level turn. Well, the Delta wing, which is essentially what a MiG-21 is, bleeds air speed in a level turn.

So he’s slowing down in this tight turn. We cut the circle. Instead of having to go all the way around the circle to get in – had he turned into us, we’d now cut the circle.

Ritchie and Debellevue Aces
Ritchie and Debellevue Aces

And the radar has to have two seconds once you lock onto the target. Settle down and have good data. It takes more than two seconds for the missiles to get programmed. If you fire that Aim-7 at two-and-a-half seconds from lock-on it has no brain. So you’ve got to be careful about timing.

Timing was extremely important in a fight like that because timing has no meaning. The planes are going so fast, you’re so full of adrenaline; time doesn’t mean anything.

As soon as we locked onto the guy, what you heard from in the back seat was 1001, 1002, 1003, and I screamed 1005. And Steve fired two missiles.

The first one cut the airplane in two and burned both ends. This was the shooter.

And the second missile went through the fireball.

At that point we rolled out of the fight because usually if it was a two-ship and one of them blew up the other one did roll out of the fight and left.

This guy stayed – he’s now bring guns to bare on our number four guy, Tommy Piesel . So Tommy calls out that’s he on him.

We come back into the fight. We ended up 4,000 feet from the MiG. We fired one A7 at him, it exited our wingtip area and I think the missile motor have still been burning when it hit him.

It hit him right behind the cockpit, cut him in two and burned both ends. That flight took one minute and 29 seconds.

At that point they would not commit the two MiGs coming down from the north to help out and two coming up from the south to help out.

We found out later that these are green bandits, red, white, and blue, a 17, 19, 21; a black bandit was bingo bandit was an ace. We were going to make them aces. These guys had come together every day for a month to meet us. And they trained.

Question: What you’re really describing is a peer-to-peer air war.

They were as accomplished and had – different type of aircraft with wing loading and all that – but it was peer-to-peer every – even though it was a third-world country, this is a first world peer-to-peer air war.

Answer: The MiGs they were using were brand new MiG-21Js, which were very capable.

Question: And they were as good as us from an equipment point of view?

Answer: They were.

The Air-to-Air War

Question: You said when you first got there, you were doing air-to-ground missions and you trained a lot on air-to-ground missions.

When did this become an air-to-air battle for you?

How long – in December you were describing your robust combat December, which is largely air-to-ground.

When did this transition for you?

Answer: On the 16th of April.

Now we were shooting – we were flying intercept missions.

We were flying escort for the BUFs and staying on air-to-air alert, but there wasn’t a lot of action.

For us to escort the bus they’re up at 38 or 40,000 feet flying at 230 or 240 indicated, and we’re down at probably 20,000 feet flying at 350 and “S” turning on them so we keep air speed on the airplane.

And as soon as a Bufs went into a turn, it was its own; we couldn’t cut the turn unless you planned the S turns so you could– you were heading in that direction. They never told us when they were turning so we didn’t know.

Around the 16th of April when President Nixon put us back in North Vietnam, that’s when we started our integrated strikes and got better after that as we became more experienced.

But it was around the 16th of April 1972 the air war heated up again and we started attacking targets in North Vietnam.[ref] April 1972 was the Easter Offensive when the North Vietnamese tried the first time to come south[/ref]

Question: Not only did it evolve back into an air-to-air engagements but you also had a ground-to-air threats, SA2s slamming through your flight, and maybe even “triple A” reaching you if you got low enough.

Could you describe the complexity that that both AA and Sam threats added to your mission and your need for SA, the stuff coming off the ground to kill you just like a MiG-21 slashing out of the sun or the cloud.

Answer: They had a very good integrated air defense system that included triple A, and SAMs. And if there were MiGs in the area that included AAA or SAMs they recognized that didn’t want to get one of their own guys shot down.

But as soon as the MiGs flew out of the picture, then it’s a different story. The triple A – they used tracer in their guns so you could see that a little bit during the day.

At night it got scary.

Question: Chuck, did your raw gear and did your “tron” warfare (short for all electronic warfare capabilities) in those early days, useful both for a warning and in other ways such as disabling SA-2s and other missiles as far as a tracking solution?

Can you talk a little bit about that and what you had available in those days?

Answer: In the F-4 D model we had a 107. It provided good warning and it also saved my life a couple times.[ref] “There were two F-4Ds modified for the Wild Weasel mission under Project Wild Weasel IV-B. Both aircraft (65-657 and 65-660), were used to test the Bendix APS-107 Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) system with an ER-142 panoramic receiver. Although the APS-107 gear was more sophisticated and accurate than the APR-25/-26 units and finally gave the (E)F-4 the ability to use the AGM-78 Standard ARM, it proved unreliable and erratic under combat conditions – at least for the Wild Weasel mission.

Several standard F-4Ds were used to test other programs relative to the Wild Weasel mission. One aircraft (65-0644) was used to test the AGM-78 Standard ARM missile, and several F-4Ds were used to perfect the AGM-65 Maverick missile”


Question: Was it visual and audio?

Answer: On the raw gear, it was yes. Audio gave me a rattlesnake in my headset.

If the missile was in the air the raw gear itself would start flashing at you.

And then we had a scope and if it was a missile in the air, you’d get a moving break in the strobe.

Question: All of this was coming into your eyes and ears. And then did you have to physically do something in a cockpit to activate any kind of countermeasures or was it just visual – calls to make turns break hard, break – how did you handle the engagement process? 

How did the airplane handle it?

How did the “trons” handle it?

Answer: We usually kept our jamming pods in standby. There were repeater pods and they would talk if they heard anything. I didn’t want anybody to know where I was. So we kept them in standby.

We had an occasion to go up to Yen Bai about 70 miles north of Hanoi. We used that as a holding point because Intel said there were no SAM sites there so you could see – on a clear day you could see the river.

One night, there was loop in the river that you could see it pretty easy. So we used to use that as our holding fix. And we loosened up the formation a little bit for me to kill ten minutes. So we loosened up the formation in this holding pattern and as soon as you rolled out going away the raw gear lit up – when I was sitting down in the cockpit doing something – probably planning on the next moves into Hanoi.

And all of a sudden I got a rattlesnake in my headset, raw gear was flashing, and instead of looking up I reached down and turned both jammers from standby to on as I’m looking up.

And had I done it the other way around looking up first I wouldn’t have been here, in between me and three, and there was just about enough room to put a missile between us.

It was an SA2; and that missile was followed by his buddy. And you know how things slow down in combat–Well, I could see their designation on the side of the missile. I couldn’t read it but I could see it.

Question: Are you saying you’re over an area that Intel said that there were no active SAMs?

Answer: Yes but they had mobile SAMs back then. They moved two mobile SAM sites in the bay area and they locked them optically and kept them close to the ground. The missile is non-guided for the first six seconds.

After that the booster falls off and then the antenna is now able to receive signals. And at that point, they fished them up into us. And at that point they were right under us too.

But the decision time was in nanoseconds.

Question: And that made the difference between life and death and it was the sequence in how your warning came. You did the right thing.

By the way, is the jamming pod airframe limited? It didn’t hurt your flight performance or was it something that you guys debated carrying?

Answer: We didn’t care what these limits were on it.

Question: It went with the airplane.

Answer: The guys that dropped chaff– and some of the guys in the squadron they would go in and “drop” chaff bombs. They were in pods but you didn’t drop them. When you wanted to drop chaff you’d open up orifices in the front and the back of the pod and just the air would just come through and take out all the chaff.

So the guys were walking up to the jets we were told the limits on the pods are 3Gs and 500 knots or something like that. Only half the pods came home.

The rest of them got yanked off the airplanes.

Question: You had to do what you do.

Answer: In combat? YES- Back on my first combat mission, we came out of Hanoi – chased out of Hanoi by the 21Js we figured out later, and we were above 1,000 miles an hour.

Last time I looked at the airstream indicator we were passing 850. The limit on the airplane was 714.

We were just clearing the trees and the plane was so hot we couldn’t touch – I couldn’t touch the sides of it. And you didn’t have to look at the airspeed and computer to listen to the shrill noise as we cut through the air.

The Combat Learning CurveL The Key Role of the Ready Room

Question: Could you describe the combat learning curve for the pilots and the combat crew?

Can you discuss the importance of the ready room and the pilots talking to each other to adapt tactics and training?

How important is that?

Answer: One of the things we noticed is if they got a kill, they always flew the next day. They had done something right. If they got a kill, we’d always fly with the A team the next day.

If we got a kill, you could send the B team in because they’re going to sit down and try to figure out what the hell went wrong – even if the only thing that went wrong was they took off.

I think the ready learning is crucial. I don’t think we have that as much today. It’s over a beer, usually, talking about what happened and how to make it better – what mistakes were made – what things worked well – and that cross tell – since we were going to Hanoi every day, intel wouldn’t talk to us very much.

We might get shot down, you know. Most of our intel was self-discovered. Our cross tell between each other was very important to keeping everybody up to speed on what was going on.

That all started, for me, when I started F-4 training at Davis-Monthan – because every Friday night, on a Friday afternoon, we’d have a flying safety meeting at the bar. That’s where we learned the comradery and the bonding that we acquired.

As a young nav going into the F-4, that’s where I learned about crew coordination and being part of a crew – because I had a student front-seater who spent three and a half years in the pit of the F-4. I had to be close to him because I had to learn all of his techniques – because that’s all he understood.

Then I had to learn the book answers to pass the test, which is – might be why I did so well over there, because I had adapted all that to Chuck DeBellevue’s way of flying the airplane.

I think the camaraderie, the cross tells – and the ready rooms – the bar – you might think, “You’re just getting drunk” – you’re not. You’re going over there – it’s a bunch of very boisterous, very aggressive guys talking and learning from one another.

Question: What we discovered when were at Yuma is that the F-35B pilots are working with the F-35A pilots at Nellis exactly this way – how should we fly the plane?

How do we do air-to-air?

How do we do air-to-ground?

These are the guys who are going to shape this new fleet – not the non-aviators inside the beltway.

Answer: Having flown the F-35 sim just a couple times, I was impressed at how easy that airplane was to land on a ship. Even hovering in the Marine Corps version I found was extremely easy. Granted the sim doesn’t give that ability to kill yourself, but it’s a good learning environment.

One of the things that Sims can’t simulate is the possibility of dying. That’s when push comes to shove, it’s a good procedural trainer, but in the end game, if you don’t have the cojones to go against the enemy in a gray, dense air defense environment – where your chances of getting shot down are 100%, and you do that day after day, you got to have that perception of the ability to understand what fear is – to understand how the adrenaline affects you, because it will.

When they fire a SAM at you, what are you going to do – freeze?

You do that, and you’re dead. You got to look at the missile. If it’s a dot on your canopy, it’s yours. You got to do something. If it’s moving on your canopy, you can relax – it’s not yours. That’s hard to train.

Question: I think the point is that we’re going from simulation to actual operations – and the good news for the country is that those B pilots are going to Japan – those A pilots are going to Japan – and they’ll be flying missions in the Pacific. I think they can find some bogies out there.

Answer: There’ll be plenty of them. I’m not sure if they have enough airplanes to focus to the Pacific, but it’s one of those things.

Question: The point is that those pilots that are going to be teaching – showing people how to use the aircraft – that’s the point.

Answer: I agree – and because there’s a lot of cross tell, they’re going to see different ways of employing the airplane – different ways of making sure they stay alive.

Question: Chuck, one of the things we tried to do in the Vietnam era, in the Navy Marine team, was as individual came back successful, we’d get them in a TOPGUN or they’d get them out to our – what we called “gun squaderns” – even though we didn’t have guns – guys like Duke Cunningham and Bear Lasseter came back – and they would personally brief and brief, and brief.

Did you have a chance – because you were the most experienced guy living– how did you – when you returned, how did they capture your experience?

What did you do?

Answer: I had a unique situation.

When I first came in the service in ’68, I went to pilot training. I was at Craig in Selma, Alabama. They looked at their numbers – I think I was on the wrong side of the personnel curve – and to dig it up, they had too many pilots, I think – because they were getting ready to get rid of the pilots in the backseat of the F-4 and all of a sudden, I went from all good grades – and all of a sudden, a week later, I was in a different school. I wasn’t even sure what happened.

I get in the F-4 when I come out of Southeast Asia. My first assignment out of Southeast Asia was the Soesterberg – flying with the air defense guys out of Soesterberg.

They were going to send me to weapon school, which is what I wanted to do. In fact, I volunteered to leave Southeast Asia early – go to weapon school – then come back and spend another year.

But they closed our weapon school and shipped all the guys to Southeast Asia when the big war started up north.

My first assignment was the Soesterberg. My second assignment was at the request of General Dixon, who was commander of TAC at the time, to go to analysis of air-to-air instructor. I was in hog heaven.

When Steve and I came back to the States, we had to go see General Ryan, Chief of Staff of the Air Force. They went in there with – there was four of us in there – General Ryan – Steve – I and General Gainsburg, two-star.

Steve says, “I’d like to go fly with the Thunderbirds, they’re doing their tryouts right now.” Ryan looked over at the two-star and said, “Make a note on that.”

Not bad when you’re the two-star note-taker and you got two captains in the room.

And then Ryan looked at me and said, “How would you like to go back to pilot training?” I go, “I didn’t think I could.” Well apparently, I could do anything the chief of staff said I could do.

I told him I wasn’t sure.

As I’m walking out, Gainsburg said, “Don’t wait too long. He retires in nine months.” I finally figured out that they were right. If I wanted to really be an instructor for the navs, I had to be in the front seat of the F-4. I sat down and wrote the chief a letter – “Dear Chief” – and by that time, I’d already called up the lady at air training command that made the pilot training assignments – “what base are you going to?”

I don’t know.

I told her I was leaving Southeast Asia on the 20th of November and when’s her next class starting after that? She said, “Williams Air Force Base and the class started in November.” I said, “I’ll take it.”

A painting of John Madden and Chuck DeBellevue's MiG-19 kill in September 1972. Painting by Lou Drendel. © 2010 Sundance. Site by Joragan.
A painting of John Madden and Chuck DeBellevue’s MiG-19 kill in September 1972. Painting by Lou Drendel. © 2010 Sundance. Site by Joragan.

She said, “Don’t you want more time?” No – I was ready to get on with it. I get to Willy. I get there early – a few days early just to get settled in before pilot training started – and they go, “where the hell have you been?”

I said, “I’m not supposed to be here for a few days” – “the orders have been changed.

You’re going to the Navy Fighter Symposium at Miramar.

I get to go with my roommate from Southeast Asia. He had three kills and spent 23 days on the ground Hanoi when they got shot down.

He was in the class ahead of me.

He flew us out and back in a 237 to Miramar also with his instructor. We got the instructors into all the briefings, which were classified. Bear Lasseter was there (USMC Mig Killer) – Cunningham (USN ACE) was there – Steve and I were there – all talking about our engagements. That’s November of ’72.

Question: That is ’72 – just before the Christmas bombing? They called you guys together to really, really learn from your experiences?

Answer: Right – just before the Christmas one. Cunningham was back in the States – Driscoll (USN RIO ACE) were back in the States and so were we. This was a weapons symposium to discuss tactics it was pretty interesting.

Looking Forward and Looking Backward

Question: What are the lessons learned for this generation of Fighter Pilots in air combat?

The air-to-air missions are going to get more important over this decade ahead – I know what the lessons are – what could we highlight, do you think, from all the experiences you had and clearly the operational realities – the fear factor – and allowing the pilots to shape where this air combat capability goes is crucial.

But what thoughts do you have about that that we might convey?

Answer: One of the things – you get into a tactics discussion – maybe at the bar – maybe in the ready room – whatever. You do ideas. You talk them out, seeing what works – you put flying in a training environment.

With the simulators we have today, you put them in this – program the Sims to look at things. You get to do some laps in a sterile environment so that when you get into a high-density air-to-air environment, going after people that are going after you; you’re better prepared for that.

It’s guys that have either been in there – expressing unhappiness with what’s going on or talking about some things that they did right – most experience comes from, living through your mistakes – so talking about your mistakes – trying to make sure you learn.

The F-22 is the greatest thing since sliced bread until it isn’t; now you got a problem.

The F-4 is a barn door on the radar set. You can see it with the radar set turned off.

How do you employ that in combat?

One of the jobs I had – when I came out of pilot training, I was in Holland. I went ahead to Europe – deployed to Europe nuclear – while the European squadrons got their conventional training, you’re sitting on the bomb, you figure, “it’s probably a one-way trip, but I’m not sure. I’ll give it a good shot.” Coming back through, what’s my biggest danger? It’s the Army Hawk batteries.

The Army is going to do a ground start, shoot them all down, and slow down on the ground attack. Instead of coming through the inner German border at a medium altitude – a slow air speed – I’m going to be on the deck going at the speed of stink trying to get through those guys. I run out of gas –I was going to die anyway.

It’s one of those things.

But you have to have that mentality. In fact, I’ll tell you what – what allowed me to survive – one, I was considered lucky – everybody considered to be lucky – everybody.

It’s always better to be lucky than good. Good guys have bad days. When you’re lucky, you’re lucky.

I guarantee you there was somebody looking out for me. I would not have turned the jammers on in time when those two missiles came into the formation – even the missile had a better even chance of just running into us – and both of them missed.

They threaded the needle. They couldn’t have been more perfect, being in the center of that formation – had they been a gnat’s ass off one side or the other, they’d have gotten either me or three – or both of us.

We took a 57-millimeter shot in the wing. The airplane rang when it hit. When I looked up, all I saw was yellow, long bolts of lightning going by the cockpit. 57 millimeters – that’s about the size of a Coke can. If that thing hits the airplane, you’re dead.

But we weren’t. As the last slug went by, I asked the guy I was flying with – Eddie Picrusson– “Eddie, are you OK,” in a very low voice – and he said, “yeah.” Come right you need to get out of there.

Question: It was the outer wing panel?

Answer: Yes. It was in the lead hinged flap.

I don’t know if we were so close to the shell getting on her – or it didn’t hit anything hard enough to stall – it made the airplane look like Swiss cheese. It riddled the airplane with holes.

Nothing critical was touched. As far as the airplane was concerned, it was almost normal. We flew it all the way back to Udorn, and went back to Udorn, primarily because we knew the bar was open.

Question: Was that the golden BB or did you know you were in a flack trap?

Answer: No, we were going after 100 millimeter AAA.

I was the high-speed target at the time.

Question: You were going after him?

Answer: Yes. And we lost enough guys to kill the program. And then in, I think it was March, they reconstituted it with three back seaters and three front seaters.

And then I was in the initial cadre.

And we would operate in North Vietnam for a six-hour or so time period, and then four to six hours going after the tanker, back in until we ran out of rockets and then we’d go home.

So, operating in North Vietnam, if you do it only once in awhile, it’s very scary.

And fear has a big part of that.

If you live in the air over North Vietnam, you know what to look for; you’re always on the lookout. You’re watching out for everything.

You don’t have that same fear factor.

And somebody asked me how much time I spent inside the cockpit on my missions. 85 percent of the time is spent inside. “How much do you spend outside?” 85 percent of the time spent outside.

You’re multitasking; you’re doing everything all the time.

We had one radio frequency for in the air, all of us, one radio frequency for the ground. And so, if you had to use the radios to make your mission a success, you just failed.

You had to be able to operate in a high-density calm environment, visually.

We had our four ship when Richie wanted to maneuver the formation we became two elements, two “two ships”. He would roll into a weave; three would roll into the weave, which rolled out on a heading, three rolled out on a heading. He was with them. It was like a mind meld between the two of them.

And we never had to ask. We never had to ask, where are you? He was there.

The Final Combat Mission

Question: Could you describe your last combat mission?

Answer: We were up by, and I didn’t know it in my last combat mission until we were on the way home. We were up by Thud Ridge. “T-Ball” said go down.

Nobody in his right mind would do that.

Of course, being sane was not a requirement for us.

Being a little crazy was.

If you’re a little crazy and you’re flying fighters, it’s probably better.

So we started heading down toward Hanoi. We ended up just north of Hanoi. And Brian Tibbets , the number three back seater called up SAM lock-on inbound.

And we look over there and it’s not a Sam. It’s a Mig 21. We knew there was a black bandit, a bingo fuel airplane coming into boot camp, that’s what they sent us down there for. There’s the airplane.

I locked onto it with the radar. We fired two aim sevens. Now, we were above the target, looking down at him. And this is analog radar. It automatically gained to the biggest return it saw. And we got two kills.

But earth kills don’t count.

Now, by that time, we’re getting ready to turn final with the Mig. So, like I said, being sane was never a requirement for what we did.

As we turned final, the F4, if you’re below 200 knots in an F4, with the gear up close to the ground, that’s not good. And we slipped past this guy. He was geared, flaps down, on glide slope, on glide path.

On air speed, everything, he had it wired. And when we passed him at 180 knots, it was like he was standing still. And as we passed him, I realized, I saw the black dial electric on top of the rudder and the vertical vent.

And I knew, we had the latest type Mig-21 in our sites and that scared me because the Mig had four pylons and he had on missile left and his gas tank, that was gone. He had a 30-millimeter cannon in the nose.

All this – and we ended up out in front of him at 200 – at 180 knots trying to get behind him in.

And all he had to do was level the airplane over to me and pull the trigger.

And I wouldn’t be talking to you guys today.

He didn’t do that. He turned into us. So now we’re in a horizontal rolling scissors, which in training, they told us if you try that in an F4, it would kill you.

But we’re going to die anyway, so might as well try it.

We were in harm’s way in a big way.

So we’re in this horizontal rolling scissors with this guy and we hear “honeymoon”. It’s Brian Tibbets, our number three guy talking the flight thing, thinks it’s clear, press on, I got your back.

Tell me when you’re ready.

North Vietnamese pilots run towards their MiG-17s to take off and engage US aircraft.  Credit Photo: Acepilots.com
North Vietnamese pilots run towards their MiG-17s to take off and engage US aircraft. Credit Photo: Acepilots.com

We do about three leaves, the MIG driver pulls up, now I’ve got enough air speed and he now pulls up out of the flight and we clear Brian’s in. And Brian had an F-4E with a nose gun in it; at 100 feet behind him he empties the gun into him.

If I had a camera with me, that picture would’ve been worth a million dollars. Because it was a blue sky, F-4 right behind him with shells coming out of the gun. And all of a sudden, the canopy comes up and the MIG driver punches out and the F4 almost hit him, he was that close.

At that point, we’ve got our air speed back.

We now circle up towards the bridge again, to get the four ships back joined up, you cross the river of a valley, 15 miles for us to Hanoi.

And I get one radar blip. Had I not been looking at the radar at the right time, I never would’ve seen him. He was eight miles away, eleven o’clock.

And we’re cruising out about 500 or so. As we get to where they should be. We see them before they see us. And we get a call – we actually didn’t have gas to run, we had to fight, kill them quick and then go home.

So we turn on, we’ve got many ways to turn on them before they see us. And we know they saw us when they and did a break turn into us.

The airplane (MIG 19) can turn on a dime.

We fired two Aim-9Js at the trailer. One of them got close enough to work. All of a sudden, he wasn’t there. But the other guy was a threat.

He was making angles on us. I figured about 15-20 seconds he was going to be bringing guns to bear.

And we had a growl in the headset, the Aim-9J had just come out of developmental test and instead of sending it to operational test, they sent it to us.

We did the operational test in combat.

We had no tech data on it. All we had was a tech rep and missiles. So we asked him, how do you tell when you’re in range? He said, if you can track the guy with six g’s or less from the airplane, you’re in range.

And it had 40g capability with a four to one guidance system on it. So if he was only pulling 10 g’s, he was in range.

And I don’t know about the six g’s. There’s some discussion on when we pulled it, we get nine and a half g’s on the jet, somewhere during that flight.

The first thing the missile did was look like it went for the sun. And we go, “This is not good.” We’re in harm’s way, and John was pulling on the stick a lot. He was trying to get his nose to bear on us.

And the missile comes up, pulls lead, the next thing and goes out of our peripheral. And the next thing you see, it’s inbound. It hits the midnight team in the eyelids. And I could see them, the midnight team above the Kennedy boat in the backseat.

Question: Could you see any of the puffs from the canyon? Was he starting to get a tracking solution?

Answer: He was not quite to a tracking solution yet.

The missile hit him – he went from his high G turn, low wings level, rolled inverted, and did a split S, a very nice split S At least the first 90 degree. And then it hit the ground.

We were flying about, at 1200-1500 feet, something like that. It wasn’t very high.

And as soon as he was out of the picture, the triple A came up, 23s, 37s, 57s, 85s, you could tell. Three of us were low enough to get under it. Number four was not. He took a hit in the fuel cells and left head on. It was 1800 pounds. Didn’t destroy him, but he was leaking gas.

And he left with 1800 pounds. And we had about five, I think. And – but nearest base was 285 miles away or thereabouts. And so we went three and four straight ahead.

And when four got to 1000 pounds, by that time, you had cleared off everything you can get rid of. And at 1000 pounds, you level the airplane out and you ran down the gas.

But these two guys in the airplane had a fight in the airplane. If the front seater punches out, the back seater goes first.

The back seater has the option He can either punch himself out or have the pilot follow him out. And they had a fight in the cockpit because both of them wanted to pull the handle.

So they made individual injections. And John and I went to combat spread and we did weaves behind them so that nobody could follow them out. And then when we got out of the target area, we went to the heavens and just went to men fuel flight heading to Udorn. We weren’t going to try for a tanker.

We had enough gas, just enough gas to get home. So we went to 40,000 feet. And therefore, when you’re ready for your descent, if you pump up the nozzles, the engines are pulling back, actually pulling back to where the nozzle is half of this area.

You can come out of the heavens. You’ll glide two miles for every thousand feel altitude and you’ll burn a couple hundred pounds of fuel.

Question: The F-4 bingo profiles really worked.

Answer: Yes, because if you ran your fuel down too much, they got a kill.

We turned final in Udorn on that mission with the gear up. And threw a sharp final, drop the gear, landed.

And I think John had to cut an engine off, not sure. Just to keep the other one running. I mean we were on fumes. The most important gauge in the airplane was the gas gauge. I mean, the F-4 is just a gas hog.

And so, if you’re not watching, paying attention to the gas gauge, you could be in harm’s way in a heartbeat. And that happened to a couple friends of mine when they ran out of gas.

Let me tell you what allowed me to fly into Hanoi everyday. I knew who my replacement was tomorrow. I knew who his replacement was the day after. The missions could go on with or without me.

The only reason I go to do what I did, because my roommate got shot down. He would’ve been the first ace, but they got shot down. They had three kills going out to kill number four on the 10th of May.

What allowed me to go up there every day was I was immortal. I couldn’t be killed.

And the golden BB, if it had my name on it, it was mine. Didn’t matter what I did. If it didn’t have my name on it, you could blow it off and not worry about it.

And fighter pilots as you know, we’re very focused and we operate in bins. So when those two missiles went through the formation, we were just killing time before we went downtown. That bin is over with; throw that aside, now we’re going to the attack bin.

You focus on what you have to do.

Some lost it in a fetal position, crying, “Oh God, I just got almost shot down.” Hell no. What are you worried about, they missed.

And I saw a guy that I thought was very macho when I first got to Udorn and he had been missed by a missile and there he is, in the bar, drunk, in the corner, in the fetal position crying.

I would not fly with him. I was very picky about who I flew with.

You got up that morning and you said, I don’t feel lucky today. You’re not going with me.

Or you said, you had a bad feeling, no, I ain’t flying with you. Or you were nervous about the mission, I ain’t going with you.

I’m sorry.

You had to be totally focused on what we were doing. Whether you came home or not, that depends on how well you do on your mission.

But don’t start the mission with the perception that you’re not coming back. I don’t need that. I never took off, thinking I was going to get shot down. Now halfway through the mission, it is a different story.

I always knew, my wing commander was Charlie Gabriel. And Gabe retired as Chief in the Air Force. And I always knew he would do his damndest to get us back.

In fact, he was one of the few colonels I didn’t mind flying with.

And he was a gentleman, and a great fighter pilot, he had our back all the time. He had some senior officers from our headquarters there were some things that they wanted to try that wore not worth much.

And our captain, weapons off just said, it’s not going to work.

They said if the general calls, Gabriel would convince them to do it. And Gabriel told him, well if my captain weapon’s officer says it’s going to kill people, we’re not going to do it. We ain’t doing it.

You couldn’t ask for a better guy.

Let me tell you, flying the F-4 is not an easy air thing to fly. It’s got a lot of mechanical parts in it that break. And so, the biggest part of a team was not just necessarily 8 guys flying the four airplanes; it’s all the maintenance guys.

The Key Role of Maintainers

Question: How important was the integration between the flight crews and the maintainers to your mission success?

F-4Cs and F-4Ds did not have an internal gun. Some were equipped with an external gun pod. Here, armorers load 20mm cannon rounds into an F-4 gun pod. In the upper right corner are several complete gun pods. (U.S. Air Force photo)
F-4Cs and F-4Ds did not have an internal gun. Some were equipped with an external gun pod. Here, armorers load 20mm cannon rounds into an F-4 gun pod. In the upper right corner are several complete gun pods. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Answer: The maintenance guys keep everything tweaked. I could walk up to my jet and right up to the airplane, for the inspection. They would still inspect, but it wasn’t center spec. I could write it up and they could center spec the airplane for me again. But there was no reason to work on it, because there’s still intolerance.

But I’d center spec. Because I flew the same airplane all the time, I could do that. The rear, I could get little things tweaked on it. And I’d walk through the airplane with the maintenance guys. The ammunitions guys got the missiles working.

The missiles got downloaded, they went to back to ammunitions maintenance, and they tweaked it up and put the same missiles back on my jet. And they were always guaranteed.

When I first got over there, all the maintenance work was with the Squadron commander. Every two weeks, we had a steak dinner–You get your steak, your pear, your salad or whatever. And you go sit down with your crew chief.

Here you are, talking to the guy – they didn’t call that fraternization. They called that taking care of business. It was part of the mission. Everybody had to understand what the focus of this mission was.

The Key Role of Search and Rescue

Question: One last point you made that I want to dwell on as we fade into the end of the interview is, you talked about flying and the confidence in the SAR coming to get you. That was the other very, often times, talked about, but not to the degree it should be appreciated.

The courage of the jolly greens and the Air Force SARs who were fearless provided a significant confidence factor gave to the aircrews.

Answer: You know, when my roommate got shot down on the 10th of May, there were no shoots out of the airplane, we didn’t see anything.

All I saw was the airplane turn on the side of the hill.

Three days later he calls up, his game plan was to walk 90 miles in 45 days to end of the ridgeline so he could get picked up. And about three weeks later, he calls up. We have a flight flying in that same area, finally again. And he calls up and says, “Where in the hell have you guys been?” SAR goes to pick him up. There was no decision to make, it was a given. The helicopter went to pick him up.

An HH-3E being refueled by an HC-130. Aerial refueling enabled the helicopters to rescue downed aircrew from any location in the Southeast Asia theater of operations. (U.S. Air Force photo)
An HH-3E being refueled by an HC-130. Aerial refueling enabled the helicopters to rescue downed aircrew from any location in the Southeast Asia theater of operations. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Dale was the aircraft commander. He had two minutes radio time, two minutes. So they had to know everything about him. Roger had picked out an IP for the Sandy’s. It was a 57 or 85 millimeter in the air, nice visuals. And so, they took that out.

All the guys, now Bob had to cancel the days he has strikes, the two days to do this. All the guys carrying bombs went up – still went up to Hanoi, I mean, up to North Vietnam. And they were waiting for targets to come up so they could dump on them. All the guys went in holding patterns around the helicopters.

And any MIGs that came up, they were going to play. It was a very coordinated, defensive rescue.

And when they got him in the airplane, the – PJ gave him a can – a coffee can. What the hell do I want a coffee can for? Cookies. The can was full of cookies. He opens it up, eats a few, and puts the rest of them in his flight suit. The PJ says, what the hell are you doing that for?

You can’t guarantee we’re getting out of here that was his food supply.

Somebody asked, why are you spending so many resources to get one guy, to rescue one guy from deep inside North Vietnam?

And the answer was, because, there was nothing you could do to us, worse than putting us on the schedule. We went to Udorn every day. We were afraid of nothing. We were – my job was to make sure we got the prisoners out.

And the only way to do that was to be the very best at what you do. I was afraid of no man and no beast. The fact that we got him out, that’s a plus. What was really important was the fact that he went after him. And that shows commitment to what we were doing.


Chuck DeBellevue was born in 1945 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

He was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Southwestern Louisiana on January 26, 1968, and graduated from Undergraduate Navigator Training in July 1969.

After completing combat crew training as a Weapons System Officer in the F-4 Phantom II and a tour with the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, DeBellevue was assigned to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Udorn Royal Thai AFB, Thailand in October 1971.

Col. Charles B. DeBellevue, USAF, Ret., a member of the famed “Triple Nickel” 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War, is credited with downing six North Vietnamese MiGs. Here is seen as one of the honored guests Memorial Day 2010 in Columbia Mo.
Col. Charles B. DeBellevue, USAF, Ret., a member of the famed “Triple Nickel” 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War, is credited with downing six North Vietnamese MiGs. Here is seen as one of the honored guests Memorial Day 2010 in Columbia Mo.

He flew 220 combat missions as a Laredo High Speed Forward Air Controller and was credited with the destruction of 6 enemy fighters in aerial combat as a WSO during the Vietnam War.

He was awarded the MacKay Trophy for the most notable aerial achievement in 1972.

In November 1973, DeBellevue graduated from Undergraduate Pilot Training and was then assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

He next served as the assistant operations officer for the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and then served with the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB again.

Col DeBellevue held a variety of staff assignments including service with Alaskan Air Command, Headquarters Air Force at the Pentagon, and as Chief of Staff for Fifth Air Force at Yokota AB, Japan.

He served as commander of the 432nd Combat Support Group at Misawa AB, Japan, and the 95th Air Base Wing at Edwards AFB, California. His final assignment was as commander of Air Force ROTC Detachment 440 at the University of Missouri from 1995 until his retirement from the Air Force on February 1, 1998.

Col DeBellevue wears Command Pilot Wings and the Air Force Maintenance Badge, and accumulated over 3,000 flying hours during his Air Force career.

He was the highest scoring ace of the Vietnam War and the last American ace on active duty. Chuck is married to the former Sally Kanik of Rancho Cordova, California, and they have three children and two grandchildren.

His Air Force Cross Citation reads:

The Air Force Cross is presented to Charles B. DeBellevue, Captain, U.S. Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as an F-4D Weapon Systems Officer, 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, on 9 September 1972.

On that date, while protecting a large strike force attacking a high priority target deep in hostile territory, Captain DeBellevue engaged and destroyed a hostile aircraft.

Through superior judgment and use of aircraft capabilities, and in complete disregard for his own safety, Captain DeBellevue was successful in destroying his fifth hostile aircraft, a North Vietnamese MIG-19.

Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Captain DeBellevue reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.


The Legends Of Homestead Air Force Base! Robin Olds the “TRIPLE ACE” Olds had 16 confirmed kills ( 12 in world war 2 and 4 in Vietnam).

Vietnam MiG Killers! Chuck Debellevue is the first Air Force Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) to become a flying ACE.

Flying in a F-4D as the WSO with pilot Steve Ritchie. He and Ritchie scored four MiG kills together.

During Linebacker strikes. Pilot John A. Madden and his WSO during this operation was Debellevue they shot down Two MiGs together!

Making Debellevue the leading MiG killer of the war making him an “ACE”!

These pilots aircraft were all once stationed at Homestead Air Force Base. Robin Olds 93rd TFS, 482nd TFW. Steve Ritchie assigned to the 309th TFS, 31st TFW.

The Aircraft in which Debellevue flew when he got his sixth MiG kill and John Madden his two MiG kills is on display at Homestead ARB, Florida. F-4D AF serial No. 66-0267


In an article provided by the National Museum of the USAF entitled “Countering MIGS: Air-to-Air Combat Over North Vietnam”:

The key mission for U.S. Air Force fighter escorts (or MiGCAPs) over North Vietnam was to prevent enemy MiG fighters from interfering with American strike aircraft. The MiG pilots’ primary goal was to force strike aircrews to jettison their bombs early, thereby disrupting the bombing mission.

In 1965, the small North Vietnamese Air Force (also known as the Vietnam People’s Air Force or VPAF) was equipped with somewhat outdated, gun-armed MiG-17s. The entry of missile-armed, supersonic MiG-21s in early 1966, however, dramatically increased the VPAF threat. The USAF’s primary counter to the MiG was the F-4 Phantom II fighter.

Gun camera image of the MiG-17 victory by F-105 pilot Maj. Ralph Kuster Jr. on June 5, 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Gun camera image of the MiG-17 victory by F-105 pilot Maj. Ralph Kuster Jr. on June 5, 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Though outnumbered, VPAF MiGs had some significant advantages. Guided by ground controllers using early warning radar, MiG pilots only attacked under ideal circumstances, such as when USAF aircraft were bomb-laden, low on fuel, or damaged. The small, hard-to-see MiGs typically made one-pass attacks at high speed, then escaped to a sanctuary (either their airfields, which were not bombed until mid-1967, or to nearby communist China). Since they were always over friendly territory, MiG pilots could be back in action quickly if they survived being shot down.

USAF fighter pilots had better training and superior aircraft, but they endured several disadvantages. One serious issue was missile reliability and performance. Over one-half of the missiles fired by the USAF during the SEA War malfunctioned, and only about 1 in 11 fired scored a victory. The USAF rules of engagement dictated visual identification of an enemy aircraft before firing, which negated using the Sparrow missile at long range. USAF F-4s flown during ROLLING THUNDER did not have an internal gun to use when missiles failed. Although some F-4s carried external gun pods, it was not until the F-4E arrived in late 1968 that USAF Phantoms finally had an internal gun. Lastly, USAF pilots had to combat MiGs, SAMs and AAA over hostile North Vietnam, and if shot down, they were not always rescued.

Even so, enemy MiGs failed in their primary mission to stop US air attacks over North Vietnam during OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER. In fact, the VPAF fighter force sometimes retreated to China and stood down from combat operations due to heavy losses suffered at the hands of American fighter crews. 

MiG pilots did little better in December 1972 — by the end of OPERATION LINEBACKER II, USAF B-52s and tactical aircraft hit targets at will, forcing the North Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty. At the end of the Southeast Asia War in 1973, the VPAF had lost nearly 150 MiGs in combat to USAF fighter crews, while the USAF lost about 70 aircraft (of all types) to MiGs.