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Air war over Korea II

Written by Sakhal

First part of this article: Air war over Korea I

The MiG Alley

In the summer 1951, the 303rd Fighter Division, commanded by General Georgi Lobov, an ace from the Second World War with 24 victories in his record, was based in Miao Kun, while the 324th Fighter Division was based in Antung. The association of these two divisions supposed a formidable threat for the Americans, who baptized this zone of north-western Korea as the "MiG Alley". Aerial oppostion became so effective that United Nations fighter-bombers only ventured into enemy airspace with a strong escort. For example, the 9th May, it took place a large attack against the airfield at Sinuiju, the most well defended target in North Korea. The enemy had 38 aircraft deployed there, all of them piston-engined, but special walls had been built around the perimeter of the airfield and there were signs that turbojet fighters would be soon housed there. In the afternoon, the operation started, with the Shooting Star from the 49th and 51st Fighter Wings, the Mustang from the 18th Fighter Wing and the Corsair from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing bombing Sinuiju during 45 minutes, while the Sabre from the 4th Fighter Wing, the Thunderjet from the 27th Fighter Wing and the Panther from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing provided cover. The Shooting Star entered the first to suppress the anti-aircraft artillery; the following attacks destroyed a fuel deposit and 26 ammunition and supply storages, 106 buildings and all the enemy aviation in the ground. 18 aircraft MiG-15 were sighted crossing the Yalu, but most of them avoided to engage in combat and the American pilots only managed to damage two of them. All the American aircraft returned intact to their bases.

In the combats occurred in May 1951 emerged the first ace of the Sabre, Captain James Jabara from the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. The 7th May, when Jabara was ascribed to the 335th Fighter Interceptor Wing based at Suwon, he had already four victories in his record. The 20th May a large number of aircraft MiG-15 crossed the Yalu to engage 12 aircraft Sabre from the 12th Fighter Wing. Quickly other two Sabre squadrons joined them, being Jabara in one of them. He managed to approach the rear of one of the MiG-15 and hit with his projectiles both its wings and its fuselage. Jabara continued descending up to 3000 meters and saw the pilot ejecting from the aircraft. Then he climbed again up to 7600 meters and after a couple of minutes he was fighting another MiG-15, which he set ablaze, seeing it falling in a spin. In that moment Jabara noticed a third MiG-15 positioned behind him, and he broke contact abruptly in a long dive, leaving behind the enemy fighters and returning to base. These two victories were more meritory by the fact that Jabara could not drop one of the fuel tanks hanging under the wings, circumstance that would convince the average pilot to abandon the engagement immediately. Other pilots of Sabre claimed the downing of one MiG-15, with another one probable and five damaged. Jabara would not achieve more victories during this stage of the war, but later he would return to the Korean War, increasing his record up to 15 victories.

Air war over Korea II

Veteran from the campaigns in the Pacific during the Second World War, the Vought F4U Corsair was very used in Korea. Lieutenant Neil Armstrong, the very first man that walked on the Moon, flew in one of them.

Air war over Korea II

Another veteran from the Second World War, the North American F-51 Mustang saw service during the Korean War in both ground attack and offensive reconnaissance missions, suffering many losses.

New tactics

A sign of the agressive and confident attitude of the MiG-15 pilots was that, occassionally, their aircraft fitted with fuel tanks under the wings moved to the south almost up to the 38th Parallel, flying alone or in pairs. It seemed that they were, at last, exploiting the advantages of their aircraft, particularly the capability of the MiG-15B to climb faster and maneuver better at high altitude than the Sabre. During this period, some United Nations pilots noticed that the enemy was testing new tactics, including one that the pilots of the Sabre called the "yo-yo"; a large formation of MiG-15 moved in circles in the combat zone at maximum altitude, whith small groups of them diving to pass at high speed upon the United Nations aircraft before flying off upwards again. The MiG-15 was a high-altitude interceptor and its best qualities flourished at an altitude above 7000 meters, where its climbing rate and maneuverability could surpass the ones of the F-86. However, the MiG-15 showed dangerous tendencies; in several occassions, United Nations pilots were puzzled of seeing how an intact MiG-15 would start to fall in a spin during a combat maneuver, forcing the pilot to ejection due to being unable to control the aircraft. Later, when a MiG-15 arrived to American hands thanks to the defection of a North Korean pilot, it was seen that the cockpit had a white line painted beneath the instruments panel; if the aircraft started a spin, the pilots should push with strenght the control stick against the line; if after three turns the aircraft did not recover, the standard procedure was ejection. It happened as well that the MiG-15 had a dangerous tendency to stall without previous notice, for no warning indicators were provided to warn about this situation. Pressurization in the cockpit worked inconsistently and the emergency fuel pump was prone to explode when activating it, tearing apart the rear fuselage. Despite these inconveniences, the MiG-15 was an excellent aircraft, much more robust and easier to fly than the F-86, and it was dangerously close to achieve air superiority in north-western Korea in the summer 1951.

Air war over Korea II

A F-86 Sabre lands in a Korean airfield after a combat mission over the Yalu. Note the open aerodynamic brake behind the wing.

Surprise attacks

A careful study about the order of battle of the Republic of China Air Force revealed that existed in Manchuria a large number of experienced Soviet aviators, and this pointed to the possibility of the Communists planning surprise attacks against the Allied airbases in Korea and Japan, in a new attempt to achieve air superiority. The 10th June 1951, General Otto P. Weyland urgently requested from the Pentagon the delivery of four wings equipped with turbojet fighters, two of them as reinforcement for the forces in Japan and another two for deploying in Korea. When this request was made there were only 89 aircraft Sabre in the Far East, 44 of them in Korea; Weyland did not want only more Sabre, but the new models F-86E to replace the F-86A which then equipped the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing. Actually the USAF had started the replacement of the older models by the procedure of changing one by one, but this process could take many months. The objection given by the USAF was that it would be impossible to deliver an entire wing of F-86E without depriving the Air Defense Command, which was under minimums and efforting for carrying their commitment. The self- complacency of the immediate post-war years was having effect; it would pass some time before the technical level of United States could match the mass-production of air superiority fighters achieved by the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the best remedy would be to increase the amount of aircraft F-84 in the theater of operations, something that General Stratemeyer, predecessor of Weyland, had strongly asked. The 1st June 1951, the 2nd Fighter Escort Wing started the process to reconvert the pilots from the 49th and 136th Wings, who had been piloting aircraft F-80, to adapt them to the new F-84E. As the pilots were getting familiar with this aircraft, the Thunderjet from the 27th Wing were delivered to the 136th Wing, squadron by squadron, until the personnel from the 27th Wing was relieved from their destination in the Far East. Besides, the USAF authorized the deployment of the aircraft Thunderjet from the 116th Wing in Japan; those 75 aircraft arrived the 24th July and the wing was distributed between the airbases at Chitose and Misawa.

Air war over Korea II

Two Panther, from the VF-721 Fighter Squadron operating in the USS Boxer, fly to join the attacks on Wonsan, North Korea, the 15th July 1951.

Air war over Korea II

North American F-86F-30-NA Sabre "Dottie" (number 52-4701) piloted by Captain D.R. Hall during the Korean War. This aircraft holds the distinctive of the 336th Squadron from the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, based in the K-14 airbase at Kimpo, about 40 kilometers north-west of Seoul. The yellow bands were reglamentary identification marks in every aircraft F-86 operated by the Far East Air Force. The F-86F were much better than the F-86A that had been fighting in the "MiG Alley" during the Korean War: the latter model had more powerful engine, increased range and larger wing without leading edge slats.

The Meteor enter into action

During the summer 1951, entered combat in Korea another type of turbojet fighter, the Gloster Meteor F Mk 8, which in that time constituted the first line of defense in Britain of the Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force, and replaced the aircraft F-51 Mustang from the 77th Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force in Korea. The Meteor had been tested against a Sabre in a simulated combat in a series of tests during two days and, among the conclusions that were extracted, was that the Sabre surpassed the Meteor in swooping or in a prolongued flight in straight line and horizontal; conversely the Meteor was superior in turns, accelerations and sustained climbings. This seemed to indicate that the Meteor could defend itself against the MiG-15 in most combat situations. After some preliminary sorties from Kimbo, the first real test occurred the 20th August 1951, when eight aircraft Meteor were sent to escort a group of B-29 bombers and another eight to effectuate a diversion patrol north of Sinanju. At 11:20 AM this squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wilson, sighted six MiG-15 at 12200 meters over Chongju, about 1500 meters above themselves. Without losing sight of the enemy, Wilson ordered to maneuver his formation to put it against the sun, but then another two MiG-15 appeared about 1200 meters below. Wilson decided to attack, starting a swooping, followed by his second in command, Pilot Officer Woodroffe. But, when both aircraft leveled, the one of Woodroffe suddenly entered into a spin - an unpleasant tendency of the Meteor Mk 8, due to the effects of compression when the aircraft surpassed Mach 0.8 - and started to fall. Woodroffe managed to recover control about 1500 meters below, but Wilson had nobody to cover his rear. When he started his approximation to attack, another MiG-15 emerged in backlighting, which he did not see due to the blind spot produced by the duralumin structure on the rear part of the Meteor's canopy. The first warning that Wilson had of the danger were a bunch of cannon projectiles passing over his wing; immediately he effectuated a tight turn to escape the haunter. He was rescued by Pilot Lieutenant Cedric Wilson and by Flying Officer Ken Blight, who took him off the hook shooing the MiG-15, but not before this one had managed to tear away the larboard aileron of Lieutenant Colonel Wilson, open a hole almost one meter in diameter in the starboard wing and cause damage in a fuel deposit. Despite this, Wilson arrived to the base, landing at about 50 kilometers/hour above the normal landing speed. Meanwhile, an acerbated combat was in course over Chongju, when the other aircraft Meteor were furiously attacked by 30 aircraft MiG-15. One of the Meteor was downed and his pilot, Non-Commissioned Officer Don Guthrie, had to spend the rest of the war in a prisoner camp. After some other violent encounters with the MiG-15, the Meteor were assigned to ground attack missions, in which they worked very well.

The Black Tuesday

The 23rd October 1951, known as the "Black Tuesday", the expert pilots of the MiG-15 from the 324th and 303rd Fighter Divisions, were close to give an end to the American efforts of strategic bombing over North Korea. At 9 AM, eight bombers B-29 from the 307th Bomber Wing together with 55 escorting aircraft Thunderjet from the 49th and 136th Wings departed towards the airfield at Namsi. Ahead and above, cover was given by 34 interceptors Sabre from the 4th Fighter Wing. Suddenly, at 9:15, a large formation of MiG-15 - allegedly about a hundred - attacked the American formation. The F-86, numerically inferior, were fighting for survival, in a combat in which two MiG-15 were shot down. But at the same time, about 50 interceptors MiG-15 approached the B-29 and the Thunderjet, surrounding them in an attempt to lure the F-86. But these refused to fall into the trap and, after a while, the MiG-15, coming from all directions, started to attack. Benefiting from their superior agility, the MiG-15 passed within the escorting F-84, attacking the B-29 in several passades. Two B-29 fell quickly after launching their bombs; a third one, set ablaze, performed a vacillating flight towards the coast, where the crew parachuted, with the exception of the pilot, Captain Thomas L. Shield, who sacrificed his life to keep the damaged bomber in flight until the rest of the crew could be safe. Also one of the Thunderjet was lost in this mission. It was claimed the downing of four MiG-15, three by the machine guns of the B-29 and one by a Thunderjet. Of the surviving bombers, all but one suffered damages, having to perform emergency landings in Korea and Japan, with dead and wounded aboard. That had been the darkest day of the Bomber Command since the beginning of the war. Albeit the report about the mission praised the efforts of the F-84, it was stated that from then onwards the bombers could not be protected with less than 150 aircraft F-86. According to General Georgi Lobov, commander of the 303rd Fighter Division, this date "signified, neither more nor less, than the total collapse of the strategic bombing effort of the USAF". He was not far from the truth. In a sole week, the USAF had lost five B-29 bombers, another eight were severely damaged and 55 crew members were dead or missing. Thereafter, the B-29 bomber formations were limited to nocturnal bombings.

Reinforcements of Sabre

Fortunately for the United Nations campaign, the 324th and 303rd Fighter Divisions returned to the Soviet Union in January and February 1952, leaving their aircraft to the 97th Fighter Division (16th and 148th Guards Fighter Regiments) and the 190th Fighter Division (156th and 821st Fighter Regiments). This latter was inexpert, but no time was dedicated to combat training or transmission of tactical experience, and a notable descent in effectiveness took place, to the point that the 64th Army Air Corps lost the initiative that the 324th and 303rd Fighter Divisions had stablished, being forced to go on the defensive. In this period operated in Korea two wings equipped with aircraft Sabre, one of them the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, which had started to replace their aircraft F-80 by the F-86 in the former November. The unit was commanded by Colonel Francis S. Gabreski, an ace of the aircraft P-47 in the Second World War with 28 victories in his record. The 5th Air Force had now 165 aircraft Sabre in the theater of operations, of which 127 were in Korea, being the rest dedicated to defense missions in Japan. With the Sabre F-86E, the Americans had the means to engage the MiG-15B at high altitude in equality; the number of victories of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing started to increase constantly. In the spring 1952, the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing started as well to change their F-86A by the new model.

Air war over Korea II

North American F-86E Sabre, piloted by Colonel Francis S. Gabreski, commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing of the USAF, in South Korea.

Veteran and noob pilots

The continuous presence of these two units in Korea signified that there was always a powerful core of experienced Sabre pilots, willing to share their knowledge with the newcomers. The Russians would have done well by doing the same, instead of rotating their entire divisions to and from the Soviet Union. Until January 1953 did not start the Russians to rotate squadrons instead of entire divisions, but those remained little time in China, being insufficient to give their pilots an adequate combat experience. The fact was that the Russians, at least until mid 1952, had believed that the Communist forces could win the war; now, with the perspective of an armistice in the horizon, they were decided to give a combat experience to so many pilots as possible. The new pilots were enthusiastic and agressive, but their lack of experience would cost them dearly. The mission of the Sabre from the 5th Air Force was now to seek and shoot down, instead of defending themselves, and according to that they modified their tactics. Between the 8th and the 31st May the pilots of the Sabre sighted 1507 aircraft MiG-15, attacked 537 of them and downed 56, with the loss of only one F-86. In seven occassions the MiG-15 entered in a sudden spin in combat maneuvers above 10700 meters and, in most cases, the pilots ejected. In other cases, the pilots parachuted as soon as a Sabre fired against their aircraft. The fighter pilots from the 5th Air Force started the hunt of the MiG-15 in May 1953 with every aircraft they disposed of and the veteran aces increased their scores. Captain Joseph McConnell achieved, with 16 victories, the absolute record of combat with turbojet fighters in Korea, followed by James Jabara with 15 victories and Captain Manuel J. Fernandez with 14 victories. McConnell had however the disgrace to die in an accident when testing a new F-86H Sabre the 24th August 1954.

In June 1953, the Sabre and the MiG-15 engaged in a series of acerbated combats that gave as result the downing of 77 aircraft MiG-15, with another 11 probable and 41 damaged, with no losses of Sabre. Later in July the Sabre would claim the downing of another 32 aircraft MiG-15. The 11th day Commander John F. Bolt, a pilot of the Marines that flew a Sabre from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, downed his fifth and sixth MiG-15, becoming the only ace in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. The 15th day James Jabara would achieve his 15th and last victory. In the evening of the 22nd, three aircraft Sabre from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, commanded by Lieutenant Sam P. Young, entered the "MiG Alley" at an altitude of 10700 meters in an offensive patrol. Young was somewhat depressed because in 34 combat missions he had not fired his weapons against the enemy and he was afraid that his chance would never come. But in that evening his "losing streak" would end. Ahead and beneath, four MiG-15 crossed his path in straight angle. Young descended in a dive, aimed his Sabre and shot down one of the enemies with a long burst. This was the last MiG-15 downed in the Korean War.

Night fighters into action

In the last months of the Korean War entered action a small number of aircraft F-94 Starfire, a two-seat night fighter whose origins can be traced to the P-80 Shooting Star. Operating in Korea in the role of escorting bombers, the F-94C effectuated barrier patrols flying in squadrons with four or six aircraft about 50 kilometers ahead the bomber formations, while the F3D Skynight would fly from 600 to 900 meters above the bombers. These tactics soon gave results, registering two downings the Skynight under the light of the moon, on the nights of the 28th and 31st January 1953. In the night of the 30th January, Captain Ben Fithian and Lieutenant Sam R. Lyons registered the first downing in Korea with the F-94: a piston-engine fighter La-9. The Skynight and Starfire shot down 15 enemy aircraft in the first half of 1953. It was a relatively small contribution in terms of number of enemy aircraft downed, but it helped the B-29 to survive during the last months of the conflict.

Air war over Korea II

Lockheed F-94B Starfire FA-408 (number 51-5408) operated by the 319th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Korea.

Air war over Korea II

The F-94 Starfire was initially deployed in Korea to fight against piston-engine night fighters, which were very hard to hunt. The percentage of F-94 aircraft in flight was very low.

Balance of losses

Controversy about the real losses of aircraft in the Korean War could last indefinitely. At the end of the war, the Americans claimed the downing of 792 aircraft MiG-15 and the loss of 79 aircraft Sabre, which gave a ratio of ten against one. Later, they revised these numbers, reducing to 379 the number of MiG-15 downed while increasing to 106 the number of Sabre lost. Russian reports admitted the loss of 335 aircraft MiG-15, which ascended to 550 if including Chinese and North Korean losses. But the Russians and their allies claimed to have shot down 181 aircraft Sabre from a total of 271 aircraft lost by United Nations, in which were included 27 Thunderjet and 30 Shooting Star. It was said that the sum of the Chinese and North Korean losses totalized 231 aircraft and 126 pilots. Albeit the reality of these numbers could never be demonstrated, it is a fact that the pilots with more victories in their records in the Korean War were the Russians and not the Americans. For example, Commander N. V. Sutagin, who flew with the 303rd and 324th Fighter Divisions, claimed 22 aircraft. In a second place figured Captain Yevgeni G. Pepelyayev, with 19 victories. There was a total of 33 pilots from the Soviet Air Force that downed five or more aircraft of the United Nations. The North Korean pilot with more victories was Lieutenant Colonel Kim Ki-oK, with 17 victories, while Tun Wen, from the Republic of China Air Force - where there were no ranks - achieved 10 victories. There was no doubt that the Communist fighter pilots that faced the pilots of the United Nations in north-western Korea were enemies of more worth than what many western historians wanted to admit.

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


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-11-28

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