When bombers take on fighters without help, five letters tend to describe their end status: T, O, A, S, T. That's what people tend to think. But that doesn't always happen. Maybe it's luck, maybe it's skill… but there are times when bomber crews accomplished the mission and came back to base, while the fighter jocks (if they were lucky) wondered WTF happened as they rode down in a parachute.
Here are a few times the lumbering bombers bested their fast moving adversaries.
1. May 8, 1942: SBD bomber vs. Zekes
During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States deployed Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in an effort to supplement the combat air patrol of Grumman F4F Wildcats. The plan was for the Wildcats to take on the Mitsubishi A6M Zeke and Aichi D3A Val dive bombers, while the SBDs took on the Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo bombers.
Like all plans, it's didn't survive first contact. The Zekes got at the SBDs, and a number of the American dive-bombers were shot down. One SBD pilot, Stanley Vejtasa, managed to kill three Zekes – two with the pair of .50-caliber machine guns in the nose of his plane, and the third by using his SBD to slice off the wing of the enemy fighter.
Vejtasa later flew Wildcats, got a seven kills in one day at the Battle of Santa Cruz, and ended up becoming a test pilot after World War II.
2. June 16, 1943: Old 666 vs. Zekes
On a reconnaissance mission around Bougainville, prior to the Allied campaign up the Solomon Islands, a B-17E Flying Fortress made a daring solo run to gather photo intel on enemy strength. Named "Old 666," and under the command of Capt. Jay Zeamer, the bomber got the photos, then was jumped by as many as 17 Zekes.
After a 45-minute engagement that saw at least three Zeros fall, and six of the nine men aboard Old 666 hit by enemy fire, the Zekes gave up. Zeamer and 2nd Lt. Joe Sarnoski both received the Medal of Honor (Sarnoski posthumously), while the other crewmen received Distinguished Service Crosses.
3. Spads bombers vs. MiG-17
The A-1 Skyraider was a solid naval strike plane in the Korean War, even carrying out one of America's last torpedo attacks (albeit on a dam) during that conflict. That said, while Skyraiders could drop just about anything on the enemy, they also had four 20mm cannon that could do bad things to a plane in front of them. One Marine Corps Skyraider even shot down a Po-2 transport plane during the Korean conflict.
But in the Vietnam War, Skyraiders covering rescue missions shot down MiG-17s on two occasions, according to TheAviationist.com. Both times, these strike planes were covering downed pilots. On June 20, 1965, two A-1s shared a MiG-17 kill. On Oct, 9, MiG-17s jumped a flight of Skyraiders, and were really on the wrong end of the fight – the Skyraiders had one confirmed kill, one probable, and heavily damaged a third.
4. April 19, 1967: F-105 bomber vs. MiG-17
Invented during the Vietnam War, the F-105G Wild Weasel took on the surface-to-air missile sites that were taking a heavy toll on American planes. The F-105 was more of a bomber – and a good one. But it also had a M61 Vulcan and over a thousand rounds of ammo. Joe Baugher notes that the F-105s shot down at least 27 MiGs during the Vietnam War, many using that gun.
On April 19, 1967, Leo Thorsness and Harold Johnson claimed at least one of those MiG-17s while covering efforts to rescue fellow Air Force personnel whose plane had been shot down. Thorsness received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the engagement, which lasted for nearly an hour.
5. Jan. 17, 1991: EF-111 vs. Mirage F-1
On the opening night of Operation Desert Storm, an EF-111 Raven (often called the "Spark Vark") was carrying out a jamming mission when an Iraqi Mirage F-1 tried to shoot it down. The Spark Vark's crew, Capts. James Denton and Brett Brandon, took the fight where the Varks excelled: a terrain-following, high-speed chase.
The Iraqi Mirage pilot made the mistake of trying to follow them, and flew into the ground. It was the first air-to-air kill of the 1991 conflict.