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Air war over Korea I

Written by Sakhal

The combat over Korea begins

The 25th June 1950, North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, supported by United States, starting a war that would last three years and cost millions of lives. This war would witness as well the first combats between turbojets, already in the stratosphere. The main adversaries were the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15, but many other types of aircraft were involved. For example, the 26th June, five F-82 Twin Mustang from the 68th and 339th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons, which covered the evacuation of civilians leaving Seoul, intercepted seven Yak-9 fighter- bombers that were in their way to bomb the airfield at Kimpo. In a five-minute combat, five Yak-9 were downed; the first of them by Lieutenant William G. Hudson from the 68th Squadron, who had the honor of downing the first Communist aircraft over Korea. The other pilots that registered downings were Commander James W. Little and Lieutenant Charles B. Moran. Some hours later, North Korea launched a second attack with eight Il-10 fighter-bombers. The pilots of four aircraft F-80 Shooting Star from the 35th Fighter-Bomber Squadron sighted the intruders over Seoul and swooped against them. Lieutenant Robert E. Wayne downed two of them, while Captain Raymond E. Schilleref and Lieutenant Robert H. Dewald downed one each. The surviving enemies left the combat zone crossing the 38th Parallel, for the Americans had no orders to pursue them, retaking instead their patrol. During the rest of the day, there were no more attempts to interfere the evacuation.

In the following weeks, the Mustang, Shooting Star and Twin Mustang from the United States Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force joined the light bombers B-26 Marauder to attack the North Korean columns that advanced unceasingly towards the south, inflicting them huge losses, benumbing the attack until stopping it, which allowed the United Nations forces to carry reinforcements and, ultimately, launch a series of counter-attacks that made the North Koreans to retreat towards the Chinese border. During these operations, were the Shooting Star from the 5th Air Force, operating from Japanese bases, which carried the main weight on the ground attack missions, accounting for two third parts of all the combat departures that were made; the pilots achieved a high degree of experience, specially in the use of 127 millimeters high-velocity aerial rockets against the enemy armored forces. Each Shooting Star carried up to 16 of these rockets, apart from its standard armament of six 12.7-millimeter machine guns; with this configuration and a full fuel load on takeoff, their combat radius was 362 kilometers, with a time of permanence over the target of about 15 minutes. Pilots were unanimous in their praises towards the F-80 in the ground attack role. Its high speed facilitated the important element of surprise and, because it was exempt of the torque caused by a propeller, it was a much better artillery platform than any piston-engined aircraft. The F-80 could carry as well a couple of 454 kilograms bombs instead of the 625-liter external fuel tanks under the wings, but this configuration reduced the combat radius to about 160 kilometers. To solve this problem, the engineers from the 49th Fighter-Bomber Wing fitted the F-80 with an enlarged fuel tank with a capacity of 690 liters. At the end of July, the fourth part of the F-80 units based in Japan had received the modified fuel tanks, being so increased the time of permanence over the target.

Air war over Korea I

Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star 485467/FT-467 from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron of the US Air Force.

The naval fighters enter into action

When American and British aircraft carriers moved to combat positions in coastal waters in Korea, the activity of naval fighter-bombers increased. In the American side, ground-attack missions were carried by piston-engined aircraft, such as the veteran F4U Corsair and the robust AD Skyraider, to which joined in growing numbers the turbojet fighter-bombers F9F Panther. These had entered service in May 1949 with the VF-51 Fighter Squadron, and their first combat action was when the aircraft of the forementioned squadron, operating from the USS Valley Forge, flew to give cover to the attacks over the enemy airfields and supply lines next to Pyongyang. During this mission, two pilots from the VF-51 shot down two Yak-9, which would be the first downings effectuated by the US Navy in Korea. Later, another turbojet fighter-bomber would join the Panther in their missions: the F2H Banshee, which entered combat for the first time the 23rd August 1951, when the aircraft F2H-2 from the VF-172 Fighter Squadron aboard the USS Exeter attacked targets in north-western Korea. Unlike the US Navy, the Royal Navy had made no provision for adopting turbojet aircraft, for a few landing tests effectuated in 1945 with Vampire and Meteor aircraft convinced them that their landing speed was excessive for a safe landing in a carrier. Thus, when the Fleet Air Arm renovated their aircraft at the end of the Second World War, they choose piston-engined models, such as the Seafire, Firefly and Sea Fury. The Seafire was the Mk 47, the last design of a series that dated back to the prototype of the Spitfire from 1936, corresponding to the last model Spitfire Mk 24. The Firefly had been a wartime project, conceived in 1940 as an advanced two-seat fighter for the fleet; the Firefly FR 1 had entered action for the first time in July 1944, supporting air attacks against the German battleship Tirpitz, and serving as well with the Pacific Fleet in 1945. In Korea the Firefly Mk IV operated with considerable success in ground-attack missions. The HMS Triumph was the only carrier that used a combination of Seafire and Firefly; the air wings embarked in other carriers, that operated by turns in the Korean waters, were equipped with Firefly and Sea Fury. This latter had arrived too late for taking part in the Pacific War, but demonstrated to be a formidable attack aircraft, serving along the entire Korean War. Aircraft of incredible performance, the Sea Fury claimed as well some downings of MiG-15.

Air war over Korea I

Hawker Sea Fury FB Mk 11 from the 802nd Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, piloted by Lieutenant Peter Carmichael the 9th August 1952. This particular aircraft, serialized VR 943, had the letter O painted in the vertical tail and also the distinctive with white and black stripes, this last detail being common to all the aircraft operated by the British and Commonwealth carriers during the Korean War.

Air war over Korea I

Lieutenant Peter Carmichael (second from right) with the three pilots from the 802nd Squadron that composed his flight group when he shot down a MiG-15 over Korea. The Hawker Sea Fury achieved several victories against the MiG-15 in Korea, but in that war it was seen that the golden days of the piston-engined aircraft were already over.

Russian pilots enter into scene

The success of the United Nations offensives in Korea provoked a direct intervention of Chinese forces in large scale; it was then when Soviet fighter pilots entered the scene, operating from bases in China. The Russians were not newcomers in China; much before the Korean War had started, the 29th Guards Fighter Regiment firstly and the entire 106th Fighter Division later, both equipped with MiG-15, were already operating in support of the Chinese Communists in their civil war against the Nationalists. The Russians had few chances to engage against Nationalist aircraft, albeit the 28th April 1950 Commander Kelenikov shot down a P-38 Lightning and the 11th May Captain Sinkarenko downed a B-24 Liberator in the night. From the summer 1950, the 351st Night Fighter Regiment, equipped with aircraft La-11, was operating in the area of Shanghai; this unit was transferred to Manchuria in June 1951, where it started to operate against the United Nations night bombers. During 1950 Soviet fighter units had been accumulating in Manchuria, namely the 151st Guards Fighter Division (28th and 72nd Guards Fighter Regiments) and the 28th Fighter Division (671st and 139th Guards Fighter Regiments). The first operative missions of these divisions were carried the 1st November 1950, when the MiG-15 crossed the river Yalu, border between China and Korea, claiming later the downing of one F-51 Mustang and one F-80 Shooting Star, albeit the Americans denied such losses.

At the dawn of the 8th November, 70 bombers B-29 Superfortress dropped 580 tonnes of incendiary bombs over Sinuiju, while the F-51 and the F-80 suppressed the anti-aircraft artillery placed around the city. Upper cover for this mission was given by two squadrons of Shooting Star from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing; the pilots had a sense of impotence when they saw the MiG-15 taking off from the airfield in Antung, at the other side of the Yalu, unauthorized to intervene. There were six MiG-15 that climbed above 9000 meters, diving then in pairs against the F-80, whose pilots turned back to repel the attack. Five of the MiG-15, after firing some imprecise bursts, broke contact and took altitude to return to the other side of the Yalu, but the sixth one effectuated a light dive; one of the pilots of the F-80, Lieutenant Russell J. Brown, took the chance. The F-80 was heavier than the MiG-15 so Brown reached it quickly, firing a five-second burst against it when it was taking impulse to climb. The MiG-15, in flames, fell and crashed in the riverbank. This one was the first documented combat between turbojet aircraft in the History. The 9th November, the bridges in the Yalu between Sinuiju and Hyesanjin, about 200 miles upstream, were attacked by aircraft from the 77th Combat Group, that operated from the carriers USS Valley Forge, USS Philippine Sea and USS Leyte. The attacks by the Skyraider, which carried 454 kilograms bombs, and the Corsair, armed with bombs or rockets, were supported by the F9F Panther. The MiG-15 approached to defy the US Navy's aircraft; in the combat, Lieutenant Colonel W.T. Amen, commander of the VF-11 Fighter Squadron aboard the USS Philippine Sea, downed one of them, being so the first US Navy's pilot that claimed the downing of a turbojet aircraft.

Air war over Korea I

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 flown on 21st September 1953 by North Korean defector No Kum Sok to Kimpo, South Korea. The plane was captured by American troops and test flown in Okinawa, with American markings. Later it was permanently exhibited in the US Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson, Ohio.

The arrival of the Sabre

In the end of 1950, the only unit equipped with MiG-15 that had taken active part in the war had been the 50th Fighter Division, which comprised the 29th and 77th Fighter Regiments; this division was the first unit equipped with the MiG-15B in China, with which entered into action for the first time the 30th November 1950. The following month the unit was transferred to Antung, where its aircraft remained in land for a time due to problems in the ailerons. Meanwhile, arrived to Korea the F-86 Sabre, which would be the prime adversaries of the MiG-15. They were adscribed to the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, which stablished a first foothold in Japan, sending a detachment of Sabre to Kimbo, the only airfield in Korea suitable for operating the F-86. At the same time, the F-84 Thunderjet from the 27th Fighter Escort Wing, also just arrived, were transferred from Japan to Taegu, from where armed reconnaissance and close support missions were soon started. The 15th December 1950, the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing performed its first flight with the Sabre from Kimpo and the 17th day it effectuated its first patrol in the war; four Sabre from the 336th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, carrying each of them 450-liter droppable fuel tanks to increase their operational range up to 907 kilometers, headed to the north towards the Yalu. The American pilots had they all great experience; some had reached the condition of aces by downing five or more aircraft during the Second World War. They had been meditating a lot about the tactics that would be employed, eventually choosing the basic and well proved formation "finger-four", which divided the four aircraft in two groups of two aircraft. The idea was to enter the patrol zone at altitudes between 8200 and 10000 meters, which would allow to sight the enemy aircraft flying over them due to the visible contrails formed at such high altitudes.

In this first combat mission the pilots of the Sabre made a mistake that could have costed them dearly, for they were facing very skilled enemies. Since the distance between Kimpo and the Yalu was 690 kilometers and the pilots wanted to increase their patrol time, they entered the combat zone at the comfortable speed of 0.62 Mach to save fuel. At this speed were they flying when they sighted a formation of four MiG-15, which were below them and climbing; the pilots surely believed that the American aircraft were F-80, because otherwise, most surely they would have climbed to high altitude over the other bank of the Yalu. They were not aware of their mistake until the Sabre started to nosedive against them, gaining speed quickly, causing the MiG-15 to break contact and head towards Manchuria. Still, the Sabre piloted by Colonel Hinton approached the tail of one of the MiG-15; he fired three four-second bursts with the six 12.7-millimeter machine guns against the MiG- 15 piloted by Commander Yefromeyenko, who ejected himself while his aircraft fell ablaze in a slow spin. This was the first downing of a MiG-15 by a Sabre, of the hundreds that were claimed in the following two years and half.

Air war over Korea I

Upper aircraft: North American F-86F Sabre (number 55-006) from the Republic of Korea Air Force. Lower aircraft: North American F-86F Sabre FU-096 (number 49-1096) from the 116th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the United States Air Force.

Combat over the Yalu

In the following days, there were several engagements between the Sabre and the MiG-15, but without losses in either side. At that time, both sides were studying the tactics of the adversary, taking measures to counter them. The main defect of the Sabre was the short operational range; patrolling at speeds of 0.85 Mach or greater, the pilots of the Sabre could not spend more than 20 minutes in the vicinity of the Yalu before being forced to return to their bases with a safe margin of fuel. The pilots of the MiG-15 noticed this limitation and exploited it, climbing to high altitude north of the Yalu and descending then in a high speed nosedive to attack the Sabre when they were withdrawing from their patrol. In turn, the Americans started to mount patrols with 16 aircraft, operating in four squadrons of four aircraft, that arrived to the combat zone flying at diverse altitudes at intervals of five minutes. Thus, the withdrawn of every aircraft would be properly covered, with the exception of the last squadron.

The 22nd December, eight aircraft Sabre commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John C. Meyer, were in a patrol at 10000 meters of altitude south of the Yalu when they were attacked by more than 15 aircraft MiG-15. In a combat that lasted for 20 minutes and developed between high altitudes and the treetops, the pilots of the Sabre claimed the downing of six MiG-15 against the loss of one of their aircraft, manned by Captain L.V. Bach, downed by Captain Yurkevich from the 29th Guards Fighter Regiment. After such whipping, the MiG-15 were absent from the skies for a week and when they returned, the 30th December, their pilots were very cautious to engage in combat. In this occassion, 36 aircraft MiG-15 crossed the Yalu to engage 16 aircraft Sabre, but the Russians soon broke contact, returning to their bases. The pilots of the Sabre claimed two enemy aircraft hit. Both sides started to calibrate the prestations of the enemy aircraft; the Russians considered that the cannons mounted on the MiG-15 were more effective than the machine guns installed in the Sabre, and while they admitted that the Sabre was a superior aircraft in aerobatic combat, in climb they would not be half as good as the MiG-15B.

New fighter pilots

At the beginning of 1951, the 50th Guards Fighter Division was sent to the Soviet Union, being replaced by the 151st Guards Fighter Division, which took the MiG-15B from the 50th and yielded its older models of MiG aircraft to the 3rd Fighter Division of the Republic of China Air Force. In April 1951 the 151st Guards Fighter Division was transferred to Anshan, being replaced in Antung by the 324th Fighter Division, a very well trained unit, commanded by Ivan Kozhedub, the fighter pilot with more victories of the Soviet Union and of the Allies in the Second World War; put it simply, he had more victories in his record than any American pilot in service then. The division was equipped with 62 aircraft MiG-15B and soon it started to attack the B-29 bombers that were attacking bridges and another strategic targets. The 6th April 1951, the B-29 from the 98th and 307th Bomber Groups were sent to attack the railway bridges in Sinuiju and a road bridge in Uiju. The bombers were escorted by the 48 aircraft F-84 from the 27th Fighter Escort Wing, based in Itazuke; they had a severe encounter against 30 aircraft MiG-15 which attacked the B-29 when they were bombing their targets. The escorting Thunderjet were so effective that only one MiG-15 could pass, but it managed to shoot down one of the B-29. The F-84 claimed the downing of one MiG-15, without losses of their own. But the 12th April it was different, when the B-29 from the 19th, 98th and 307th Bomber Groups were sent again to attack the bridges in Sinuiju, which had not been completely destroyed despite the punishment received. The 27th Fighter Escort Wing sent that time 39 Thunderjet for the close escort, while the Sabre from the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing served as high- altitude escort. With its targets still several minutes far, the bomber formation was attacked by about 40 aircraft MiG-15 from the 324th Fighter Division, whose pilots employed a new tactic, descending at high speed across the escorting fighters to perform attacks against the eight bombers from the 19th Bomber Group. One B-29 was shot down and another five were damaged. Barely finished this attack, another 20 aircraft MiG-15 arrived, attacking the 12 bombers from the 307th Bomber Group, downing one of them and severely damaging another one, which would result destroyed later when crashing in an emergency landing in Suwon. Some MiG-15 attacked as well the aircraft from the 98th Bomber Group, but without any success. The pilots of the Sabre claimed four MiG-15 destroyed and six damaged, while the pilots of the Thunderjet claimed the possible downing of three. The gunners of the B-29 also claimed the downing of 10 aircraft MiG-15, but in the confusion there existed much exaggeration; Russian sources admitted no losses from the gunners aboard the B-29.

Air war over Korea I

Republic F-84E Thunderjet (number 49-2424) from the 9th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 49th Fighter-Bomber Wing/Group, taking off for a mission in Korea. This particular aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery on 29 August 1952.

Second part of this article: Air war over Korea II

Article updated: 2014-12-05

Categories: Aviation - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-11-28

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