Every fighter pilot out there just wants to fly an aircraft so badass that nobody dares tangle with it (or them by extension). But there’s a secret part of them that hungers for the fight that their jet was built for. Naval aviators privileged with flying the F-8 Crusader were given a fairly badass jet, albeit one with an astonishingly high mishap rate. By the end of its production, 1261 F-8s were churned off the line, and all but 155 of them were involved in some mishap or another, varying in severity. To be fair, the F-8 entered service at a time when the Navy (and Marine Corps) was still learning its way around having jets as primary air/strike fighters in place of piston-powered propeller planes. Civilian defense contractors were still in their infant stages with jet production and design, so it wouldn’t be out of place to expect that aircraft that came about during that period in history were flawed in some way or another, but all because of the learning process.
In all honesty, though it was anything but easy to fly, the Crusader was actually a very well-liked fighter. It was fast, agile, and extremely versatile, able to function as both an air-to-air fighter or a bomb truck to fit the needs of the Navy and Marine Corps, especially during Vietnam years. Not to mention, it came with an awesome Sergio Leone-esque nickname, “the last of the gunfighters”, due to the fact that it was the last American fighter aircraft in history to be built with guns (four 20mm cannons, specifically) as its primary armament over missiles. And come Vietnam, the Crusader more than proved itself as a worthy adversary to the North Vietnamese Air Force’s export MiG fighters. By 1975 when the US completely pulled out of Vietnam, it had the highest kill ratio of any American fighter involved in the conflict: a staggering 19:3, meaning that for 19 Vietnamese MiGs downed, only 3 Crusaders were lost. The North Vietnamese were especially cognizant of the F-8’s capabilities as a dogfighter, and were thus somewhat hesitant to throw down the gauntlet against such aircraft if encountered. The last F-8 kill of the war, occurring on May 23rd, 1972, was probably the best example of that attitude towards the Crusader.
VF-211, officially called “The Fighting Checkmates”, was one of the Navy’s most successful Crusader squadrons during the Vietnam era with eight confirmed kills to its name. Flying out of NAS Miramar in California, they were more commonly known across the Navy as “The MiG Killers” due to their achievements over seven deployments to Vietnam. Lieutenant Junior Grade Gerald “Jerry” Tucker, an F-8J pilot, was attached to VF-211 aboard the USS John Hancock (CVA-19) for a lengthy deployment that would see him and the rest of VF-211 drop bombs and fire rockets on North Vietnamese ground positions in support of embattled American and South Vietnamese troops. This more than likely wasn’t what Tucker and his Checkmates compatriots thought they were in for when they were informed by the Navy that they’d be flying Crusaders, but things were about to change for them mid-deployment.
The last MiG kill VF-211 officially claimed was in July, 1967, when LCDR Ray Hubbard Jr. took down a MiG-17 with a pair of Zuni rockets after forcing the MiG pilot to overshoot using some very tricky flying. VF-211’s next kill would be Jerry Tucker’s to claim, though considerably less violent than Hubbard’s. In late May, Tucker and his wingman, LCDR Frank Bachman, were flying a Target Combat Air Patrol (TARCAP), screening for an alpha strike coming off an aircraft parked near the Vietnamese coast. The strike birds would hit predesignated targets on and around Vinh airfield, and to that end, they accomplished their mission quickly and efficiently with no aerial response from the NVAF. Bachman and Tucker were, by that point, very bored and likely itching for a fight. Their radios came alive, and it seemed as though they might potentially get the dogfight they were hankering for.
As it turned out, a lone MiG-17 was feet wet (meaning that it transitioned from flight over land to flight over water) and zipping towards the returning alpha strike flight, presumably as a response to the previous ground attacks they just effected on the North Vietnamese targets. The Red Crown crew observing the Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone around the carrier battle group off the coast called up two VF-161 Chargers F-4 Phantom IIs to deal with the MiG, though they quickly radioed back, stating that they were lost in the bubble (i.e. they were confused). Red Crown sent the Phantoms back to “Mother” (the carrier they originated from), and Tucker seized the chance to get into the fight by calling in his position to Red Crown, stating that he and Bachman were armed and ready to rock. Since they were closest to the NVAF jet, they were vectored to the aircraft and Tucker took the lead.
The MiG’s pilot maintained a low altitude, and Tucker readied his AIM-9C Sidewinder for a shot. The instrumentation in the cockpit indicated that the missile was already seeking out its prey, and within seconds, it would be ready to be mailed towards its hapless target. But Tucker would never get that chance to fire, since all of a sudden, the MiG’s canopy flew off and barreled away, while a flash indicated that the NVAF pilot had opted to eject rather than face Tucker. Understandably upset at the fact that he came so close to engaging an enemy fighter but couldn’t, Tucker pulled back on the throttle and made a few passes by the visibly anxious MiG driver, now gently floating down to earth under his parachute’s canopy.
While we don’t know what his reasons were for ejecting, many former F-8 pilots love to say that he would’ve probably stayed in his cockpit if he faced the Phantoms instead of the Crusaders. What attests to this is the fact that after most NVAF pilots engaged Crusaders head-on, they’d generally attempt to leave the fight after F-8 pilots fired a burst from their cannons. This would put them in solid positions for a missile kill for the F-8s. Though it was a noticeable trend, the number of pilots who stayed in the furball with American jets was generally marginally more than the number who left right away. The Navy, at first, refused to count it as a kill for Tucker, though historians and fellow naval aviators argued in his favor. It’s kind of a stretch, but I’d imagine that it was a mighty reassuring feeling to Tucker, Bachman and the rest of VF-211 that they were flying jets so fearsome that NVAF pilots would rather punch out than face them in air-to-air combat.