Long ago, I picked the minds of a few USAF fighter jocks and used their expertise to write The First Ace, a novel about a man who sought that title in the Vietnam War. In the book—spoiler alert!—he didn’t succeed. But in real life, five American flyers did attain ace status. My biggest failure in writing the novel was overlooking pilots who flew for the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force who also had the goal of ace status in mind.
With MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 96 pp; $23, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dr. István Toperczer, a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon in the Hungarian Air Force, describes part of the air war over North Vietnam that I never imagined. Toperczer has written four other books about VPAF operations, including Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. During the past twenty years, he has traveled to Vietnam to research files and interview VPAF pilots. Relationships that began when Hungarian and VPAF pilots trained together in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s helped Toperczer to gain access to newly released North Vietnamese archive files.
The air war over the North took place from April 1965 to November 1968 when America ended Operation Rolling Thunder. It resumed in 1972-73 with Operation Linebacker. During the lull, MiG-17s flew intercept missions against American AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones.
MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War highlights seven men who achieved ace status as MiG-17 pilots, one of whom also flew the MiG-21. The book devotes a lone chapter to the pilots of the supersonic, but short-lived, MiG-19 Farmer.
The story line follows air battles—often on a day-to-day basis—across North Vietnam as reported by VPAF pilots. Toperczer presents the high and low points of the air war without taking sides and provides interesting explanations of the MiGs’ ever-evolving tactics to outwit USAF and USN attackers.
For example, MiG pilots initially had to be taught that it was more important to hit bombers, rather than take part in dogfights with escort aircraft. Self-survival instinct taught MiG pilots to develop and refine maneuvers to dodge air-to-air missiles. Toperczer recreates the spring of 1967 when the Vietnamese lost ten of their best pilots in seven aerial battles and had few aircraft to fly during the summer after many had been damaged on the ground.
Toperczer cites additional disadvantages under which the enemy operated. To begin, North Vietnam started from scratch in 1956 when the first pilot candidates entered training in China and the Soviet Union. Candidates were small in stature with limited technical knowledge and skills. To finally take shape in 1959, VPAF principally relied on a Soviet gift of MiG-17s. During the war, American aircraft far outnumbered the enemy’s fleet.
On the ground, VPAF aircraft found their safest sanctuaries in mountain caves distant from airfields, to where Mi-6 “Hook” helicopters airlifted them. In battle, MiG pilots had limited autonomy and often broke off attacks at the command of ground controllers. The MiG-17 lacked air-to-air missiles, and its pilots depended entirely on cannon fire, preferring to dogfight at low altitudes in the horizontal plane because the aircraft’s major advantage was unequaled low-speed maneuverability.
Aerial victories discussed by Toperczer are debatable. His summary of accomplishments of MiG-17 aces shows that many kills listed in VPAF records are contradicted by United States records that call them “loss attributed to anti-aircraft artillery.” Similarly, a high percentage of MiG-17 kill claims are “not confirmed by U.S. records.” Statements such as “U.S. records show no loss as a result of aerial combat on that day” conclude several accounts. In a reversal of misfortune, Toperczer points out that some USAF and USN kill claims are not substantiated by North Vietnamese records.
Along with ten pages of color plates of MiG-17/19 aircraft and several color maps, black and white photographs of crewmen and aircraft appear on almost every page. I would have appreciated, however, a page of data that summarized MiG-17 /19 specifications and performance.
Otherwise, Toperczer taught me that my novel lacked dimension by failing to spell out that North Vietnam’s pilots fought with the same degree of intensity and bravery as American Air Force and Navy jocks did.