F-4 pilot, MiG-21 Destroyer visits Holloman, tells story

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Matthew McGovern
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
Two F-4 Phantom IIs flew in a triangular pattern behind a Douglass B-66 Destroyer, escorting the slow-moving light bomber on a radar jamming mission. During the operation, the skies were clear with a few scattered clouds 35 miles north of Hanoi, Vietnam on Nov. 5, 1966.

The F-4 pilots nervously scanned the skies ahead of them a mile apart, armed with sidewinder missiles and the knowledge that MiG-21s were in the area.

“We got attacked from 6 o’clock, and instead of trying to take us out first, they went right for the B-66,” said, then a 1st Lt., Joe Latham, an F-4 Phantom pilot from the 366th Wing, deployed from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. “They launched a missile, which missed, and the B-66 broke off and spiraled down from 30,000 feet to 10,000, and ducked into a little cloud.”

Latham had a front row seat for the action and, then a 1st Lt., Klaus Klause was in the back of the two-seater. The other F-4, the flight leader, was piloted by Capt. Jim Tuck and 1st Lt. John Rabeni, also from the 366th Wing.

“As the MiGs tried to re-attack, we became daisy chained; it was the B-66 with the MiG-21 behind it,” said Latham. “Jim Tuck was chasing that MiG, on his tail was the second MiG, and right behind him was me.”

The Russian MiG-21 behind Tuck was too close and out of missile range. The enemy pilot had to maneuver to create some distance.

“As the MiG started rolling in to get some space, I was able to get a lock on him and fire a side-winder that blew off part of his tail, and he immediately ejected,” said Latham. “Tuck chased the lead MiG-21 and fired three Sparrow Missiles that didn’t hit him. But, at the very last moment, the lead MiG pilot ejected. It was later surmised that he had a compressor stall or something like that.”

After the mission, Latham discovered that two other MiG-21s were on their way to the dogfight but were misdirected.

“The scary part for me was if the other two MiGs found us five minutes later, we would’ve been shot down, run out of fuel and either captured or killed,” said Latham.

Now retired Col. Latham describes this dogfight and reminisces about his other 119 Vietnam F-4 missions, with veterans and enthusiasts during his visits to Holloman AFB as part of the annual Phantom Society Tour on Sept. 13 -15.

This year’s tour, consisted of 160 aircraft enthusiasts including veterans and non-veterans with aviation backgrounds.

“I’ve been here for three of these tours at Holloman and talking with Latham is electrifying,” said Alan Clish, an F-4 Phantom enthusiast. “These stories are our history, and it’s important to know; they fought for us, and I owe everyone in uniform a debt of gratitude.”

The tour also included an F-16 Fighting Falcon static display and briefing, travel to Holloman’s High Speed Test Track, the opportunity to view QF-4 Phantom IIs and F-16s in flight, and a visit to the base’s heritage park to view static displays of various aircraft historically stationed at Holloman AFB.

One aircraft, specifically, means a lot to Latham - the F-4 with white letters that spell out 1st Lt. Joe Latham under the canopy. Latham stopped to reminisce next this aircraft, parked in his honor and adorned with his name. As he shared his story with his fellow veterans, the skies were clear with a few scattered clouds -- like the day over Hanoi a half-century ago -- Latham will never forget the proud service of the F-4 Phantom and the Airmen he served with.