Authors’ Note: Soon after originally publishing a previous piece about the Mohawk vs MiG engagement I was able to get in touch with Army Mohawk pilot Ken Lee. I worked with him to bring the details of his Vietnam experiences to light. This expanded version of the original story includes Ken’s perspective. It has been reviewed and approved by Ken Lee.
Captain Lee Shares His Account of One of the Most Famous Mohawk Missions Ever
The Grumman Light Attack Fighter?
The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk was developed for use as a battlefield surveillance, reconnaissance, and light strike aircraft beginning in 1956. The aircraft was first flown in 1959 and entered service with the US Army in 1960. Tangling with North Vietnamese MiGs was probably the last thing the designers ever thought the Mohawk be required to do, but tangle with a MiG one did, and this is the story.
Nobody Was More Surprised Than the Pilot…
The US Army flew all kinds of aircraft in Vietnam. From light observation aircraft to transports and of course thousands of helicopters, the Army flew just about everywhere the Air Force, Navy, and Marines did and lots of places they couldn’t. Despite the aerial victories scored by the other armed services, the Army just didn’t get many opportunities to mix it up with MiGs. But an OV-1 Mohawk somehow achieved the only U.S. Army air-to-air victory during the Vietnam War.
Some background: Ken Lee began flying Mohawks with the Army in early 1964 and completed type transition training during September of 1964. Ken’s first tour in Vietnam began during November of 1964. During that tour he flew with the 23rd Special Warfare Aviation Detachment (SWAD) and with the 73rd Surveillance Aviation Company (SAC) callsign Uptight. Ken returned home to CONUS at the end of his first tour during November of 1965.
Not His First Go-Round
27 year old Ken Lee began his second tour flying Mohawks in August of 1967. He was assigned to the 131st Aviation Company Nighthawks callsign Spud out of Phu Bai Air Base. Ken (personal callsign Martini) and his fellow pilots flew a mix of OV-1A (visual and photo recon), OV-1B (side looking airborne radar [SLAR]), and OV-1C (Infrared [IR]) Mohawk variants. Their missions during this tour were focused on target acquisition in Laos and southern North Vietnam.
Out of Commission Then Back in the Saddle
Ken had been wounded before his encounter with the MiG. As he tells it, “I was wounded the first of October 1967 at the border between South Vietnam and Laos. 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 and the MiG incident came on about the second mission I flew after I began flying again.”
That Dreaded Valley Again
Ken and another Mohawk pilot were transiting to Laos above South Vietnam’s A Shau valley, located just south of the DMZ and close to the Laotian border. Air Force Major Bernie Fisher flew a heroic rescue mission in that valley, landing under heavy fire to pick up a downed pilot. A Shau was still and would remain a hotbed of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activity. It was up to the two Mohawks, to use their infrared (IR) and other sensors to try and get the gouge on enemy activity west of the area.
Instinct Takes Over
Flying just a couple of thousand feet above the valley floor with low ceiling and heavy clouds overhead, Captain Ken Lee’s Mohawk was suddenly “bounced” by a North Vietnamese MiG-17 Fresco jet fighter. The MiG scored hits on Lee’s empennage and rear fuselage but overshot the relatively slow Mohawks. As the MiG pilot turned to engage the Mohawks again he got in front of the two 19 shot M159 rocket pods with 2.75 inch unguided rockets and two XM14 .50 caliber gun pods mounted on Lee’s underwing racks. Lee realized his best chance to stay alive was to fire everything at the MiG while it was in front of him, and fire (almost) everything he did.