The Army’s only air to air kill since WWII was done with a .50 cal in Vietnam
Ever since the formation of the US Air Force and the subsequent Key West Agreement, the Army has only been allowed fixed-wing aircraft for a limited scope of uses, namely reconnaissance, and medical evacuation purposes.
While rotary aviation has filled many of the roles concerning transport, attack and Close Air Support (CAS), the fixed-wing pilots of the Army have often been a forgotten shadow in the organization’s massive aviation spotlight.
Despite this, some Army fixed-wing aviators have managed to pull off amazing feats in combat- including shooting down a jet fighter with a propeller-driven scout aircraft.
Known as the “Mohawk,” the Grumman OV-1 was an ugly plane by most accounts. With twin turboprops, a bulbous nose and side-by-side seating, it was a far cry from more beautiful prop aircraft of the era like the A-1 Skyraider or OV-10 Bronco.
Despite the aesthetic deficiencies, the Mohawk was able to take off in a short distance and could use rather austere conditions, making it a perfect aircraft for artillery spotting or coordinating Close Air Support.
Despite air combat being the game of the US Air Force and Navy during the Vietnam War, the Mohawk managed to get the only US Army air-to-air victory- and it was kept a formal secret for a long time.
First learning to fly the OV-1 in early 1964, Army Aviator Ken Lee would head to Vietnam for his first tour in September of the same year, returning in November of 1965.
In 1967, a 27-year-old Captain Lee would head back to Vietnam, performing a series of reconnaissance missions over Laos and North Vietnam. During his time there, he had been wounded by a .51 caliber round and had to take some time off of flying.
“I was wounded the first of October 1967 at the border between South Vietnam and Laos,” he told AVGeekery. “A .51 caliber round came through the side skin of the aircraft and went through my flak jacket, damaged my .45 caliber side arm, through my survival radio and survival kit. I was next in the bullet’s path. I was not able to fly again for three weeks “
On his second mission after returning to combat duty in early 1968, Lee was thrown into a strange situation that would alter his life forever.
Flying over the now-famous A Shau Valley, Lee and a second Mohawk were heading towards Laos when the terrifyingly-familiar sound of gunfire tearing through the aircraft filled the cockpit.
Seconds later, a MiG-17 “Fresco” fighter jet surpassed Lee’s slow-moving prop plane, having
scored several hits.
“When I felt the hits on the aircraft I told my wingman to break south as there was no point in both of us getting shot down,” he recounted. “I was still a bit jumpy in that area- I didn’t want another .51 caliber round in my side, so I started a right turn to put some distance between me and the AAA batteries in the valley. I looked out the right side of the airplane to clear my turn and then just as I began the turn the MiG flew past me. I had only 170 knots of airspeed as we were heavy.”
In response to the passing MiG, Lee’s observer in the right seat threw up into his helmet bag, ruining a new camera and an oxygen mask.
Knowing his wingman was in danger and accepting that the only way to survive this encounter was to fight back, Lee quickly took advantage of the MiG’s overtaking maneuver, lining the aircraft up with his gunsight and unleashing the XM14 .50 caliber gun pods, as well as two M159 unguided rocket pods.
“When he passed me he just about lined himself up,” he recounted. “He just happened to be right on my pipper, so I have to say there was no great skill involved in leading him or anything. I just started shooting.”
Humble as Lee’s account was, the task was no easy feat.
Tracer rounds and rockets poured into the MiG, setting the aircraft ablaze. While he never saw the aircraft hit the ground, the plane had entered a valley that was experiencing weather so foul, there was no way it would have survived.
In a flash of a second, Lee became the only Army Aviator to down a MiG.
Upon landing back at his base, Lee -who had taken a moment to look at the 23mm holes that filled his plane- was ordered to keep his mouth shut about the incident.
Due to the Key West Agreement, the Army wanted to avoid potentially losing the Mohawks and were concerned the USAF would have them yanked from service due to the air-to-air kill.
However, two legends of USAF combat aviation in Vietnam were more than happy to initiate him- then-Colonels Robin Olds and Daniel “Chappie” James, known affectionately as “Blackman and Robin.”
“I actually knew both of them,” Lee recalled warmly. “Colonel Olds would meet me on the flight line and pick me, and only me, up and take me up to the debrief room. He would have a case of Bud iced down and I would give him targets that I had been working on in Laos the week before. So he was not a stranger. He was a very warm and personable man. I respected him and he knew it. I was not afraid to just sit and talk to him.”
Upon hearing of Lee’s hushed victory, the two Colonels demanded a celebration.
“When I met him at the club the next time I went to Ubon, he and Colonel James put me in the center of a line for a MiG Sweep,” he said. “Drinks and food, on the house. The MiG Sweep was a real thrill. I still think of them both. You would never know that he was a genuine hero. He did not show any weakness in his character and did not allow you to show any weakness either. He brought out your strengths in a way that made you feel you had done it yourself. He was a national hero and treated me, an Army captain, as an equal. I never saw them acting like they were as beat down from flying missions as we were. He did not seem to be too taxed at the time. Always relaxed and no pressure.”
Olds and James effectively told Lee that his kill was confirmed by ranking officers of the very organization that wasn’t supposed to find out about it, despite what the US Army had previously said.
Lee would return from his second tour in September of 1968, and he is reported to be alive and well, living out his early 80s. His kill was formally recognized by the Army in 2007.
Beginning its service with the Army in 1959, the Mohawk would serve until 1996, when it was formally retired from the US Army’s inventory.