F-86 in Korea

Last revised October 30, 1999






On June 25, 1950, the forces of North Korea invaded the South. The South Korean army was poorly organized and badly led, and the initial North Korean advance was quite rapid. The United Nations Security Council immediately met in emergency session and ordered the North Koreans to cease their invasion and withdraw from the South, but these demands were ignored. On June 27, President Harry Truman authorized American forces to oppose the invasion, and General MacArthur ordered the Far East Air Force (FEAF) into immediate action against the attackers.

At that time, the combat units of the FEAF were equipped with the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star fighter, the North American F-82 Twin Mustang all weather escort fighter, the Douglas B-26 Invader light attack bomber, the Lockheed RF-80A tactical reconnaissance aircraft, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber. These were later supplemented by North American F-51 Mustang fighters transferred in great haste from the USA.

These US aircraft rapidly gained control of the air from the Korean People's Armed Forces Air Corps (KPAFAC), which was equipped with an assortment of Russian-built equipment such as the Yakovlev Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-ll fighters, the Ilyushin Il-10 ground attack aircraft and a smattering of Yak-18 and Po-2 trainers. Having largely eliminated the KPAFAC, the FEAF now turned to the task of ground attack in trying to halt the rapid North Korean advance.

Despite repeated air attacks by UN aircraft on the advancing North Korean troops, by early September the UN armies had been squeezed down into a small area south of the Naktong River, and there was a very real fear that the hard-pressed UN troops might be forced to evacuate the entire Korean peninsula.

General MacArthur's invasion of Inchon on September 15, 1950 suddenly reversed the fortunes of the UN forces in Korea, and by the end of the month North Korean forces had been driven entirely out of South Korea. At that time, the UN decided to enforce its prewar intention of reuniting all of Korea under one government, and UN forces advanced across the 38th Parallel and headed north, in spite of stern warnings from China of possible intervention if UN troops approached their border.

By the end of October, UN forces were up near the Chinese frontier and some forward units were actually on the southern banks of the Yalu River. On November 1, 1950, a group of F-51s and B-26s were beating up an airfield near Sinuiju (just across the Yalu from China) when they encountered six swept-wing jets coming across the Yalu at them, firing as they approached. The Mustangs were able to escape the attack and return to base to report that the MiG-15 had appeared in Korea.

The Russian-built MiG-15 was a product of the Mikoyan/Gurevich design bureau, and was originally designed as a high-altitude interceptor to counter the US B-29 and B-36 long-range bombers. The prototype, designated I-310, made its first flight on December 30, 1947 powered by an imported Rolls-Royce Nene-1 centrifugal flow turbojet. The Nene turbojet was placed into production in the Soviet Union as the RD-45. The first production MiG-15s reached operational units in early 1949. The RD-45 engine was not very reliable and had excessively high fuel consumption. In later production batches, this engine was replaced by the Klimov VK-1, which was an improved version of the RD-45 offering 5957 lb.st. Versions of the MiG-15 powered by the VK-1 became known as MiG-15bis. These entered operational service in early 1950, and eventually became the most widely produced MiG version. Armament consisted of one NS-37 or N-37 37-mm cannon with 40 rounds and two NS-23 23-mm machine guns with 80 rpg.

It is now known that these MiGs were not actually flown by Chinese or North Korean pilots but by experienced Russians, many with considerable World War 2 experience. In February of 1950, the 29th Fighter Aviation Regiment had been transferred from Moscow to China. It was later joined by the 151st Fighter Aviation Division to form the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps. The unit was committed to combat in November of 1950. The pilots wore Chinese uniforms and were not allowed to speak Russian over their radios. This deception continued until the summer of 1951, after which Chinese and North Korean pilots began to participate.

In these early encounters, MiG pilots would cross the border at high altitude, dive down and attack American aircraft, then duck back over the Yalu. For political reasons, US aircraft were forbidden to pursue.

On November 8, history's first jet-vs-jet battle took place when Lieut. Russell J. Brown flying a F-80C shot down a single MiG-15 out of a flight of four which had dashed across the Yalu. Even though the F-80C drew first blood, the MiG was a hundred miles per hour faster than the Shooting Star and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the MiG-15 was a deadly threat and could soon wrest control of the air from the UN forces unless checked. Chinese-based MiGs soon began to attack B-29 bombers flying near the Chinese border, and the F-80s were too slow to provide any effective protection.

Even though the initial skirmishes with the MiGs had demonstrated that their pilots lacked experience and an aggressive approach, the MiG threat was very real and threw the USAF into a near panic. The USAF had nothing in Korea that could provide an effective counter if the MiG-15s were to intervene in large numbers.

In order to counter the MiG threat, on November 8 the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing (which consisted of the 334th 335th, and 336th Squadrons) based at Wilmington, Delaware and equipped with the F-86A Sabre was ordered to Korea. Most of their pilots were seasoned veterans of World War 2 and they had shot down over 1000 Germans during that conflict. Prior to flying to the West Coast, the 4th FIG exchanged their older '48 model F-86As for some of the best "low-time" F-86As taken from other Sabre units. The 334th and 335th FIS flew to San Diego and their planes were loaded aboard a Navy escort carrier. The 336th FIS went to San Francisco and was loaded aboard a tanker. Their F-86A aircraft arrived in Japan in mid-December. The aircraft were then unloaded and flown to Kimpo airfield in Korea.

However, before any of these Sabres could reach the front, on November 26, 1950, Chinese armies intervened with devastating force in Korea, breaking through the UN lines and throwing them back in utter confusion. The MiGs did not provide any effective support for this invasion, being unable to establish any effective intervention below a narrow strip up near the Yalu. The MiG pilots were relatively inexperienced and were poor marksmen. They would seldom risk more than one pass at their targets before they would dart back across the Yalu. Had the MiGs been able to establish and hold air superiority over the battle area, the UN forces may well have been thrown entirely out of Korea.

The first advanced detachment of 336th FIS F-86As arrived at Kimpo airfield south of Seoul on December 15. The first Sabre mission took place on December 17. It was an armed reconnaissance of the region just south of the Yalu. Lt. Col. Bruce H. Hinton, commander of the 336th Squadron, succeeding in shooting down one MiG-15 out of a flight of four, to score first blood for the Sabre. The rest of the MiGs fled back across the Yalu. On December 19, Col. Hinton led another four-plane flight up to the Yalu, where his flight met six MiGs who flew through his formation without firing a shot before dashing back across the Yalu. On December 22, the MiGs managed to shoot down a single Sabre out of a flight of eight without loss to themselves, but later that day the Sabres got their revenge by destroying six MiGs out a flight of 15. This loss spooked the MiG pilots, and they avoided combat for the rest of the month.

During December, the 4th Wing had flown 234 sorties, clashed with the enemy 76 times, scored eight victories, and lost one aircraft.

By the end of 1950, Chinese armies had driven UN forces out of North Korea and had begun to invade the South. The Sabres were forced to leave Kimpo and return to Japan which put them out of range of the action up at the Yalu.

Even though the Yalu was now out of range, on January 14, an F-86A detachment appeared at Taegu to participate as fighter bombers to try to halt the Chinese advance. The F-86A was not very successful in the fighter-bomber role, being judged much less effective than slower types such as the F-80 and the F-84. When carrying underwing ordinance, the F-86A's range and endurance were much too low, and it could not carry a sufficiently large offensive load to make it a really effective fighter bomber. In these attacks, the underwing armament was usually limited to only a pair of 5-inch rockets.

Eventually, the Chinese advance ground to a halt due to extended supply lines and the relentless UN air attacks. The Chinese advance was halted by the end of January, and the UN forces began pushing them back. Kimpo airfield was recovered on February 10. The halting of the Chinese advance can be blamed largely on the inability of the MiGs to provide any effective support for the Chinese attack. Not only had no Chinese bombers appeared to attack UN troops, but no MiGs had flown south of the Yalu region to provide any air support.

The Chinese apparently did have plans for a major spring offensive to complete the task of driving the UN out of Korea. This plan was to be based on the construction of a series of North Korean air bases and for Chinese MiGs to use these bases as forward landing strips to provide air superiority over the North, preventing UN aircraft from interfering with the advance.

In early March, the MiGs began to become more active in support of this offensive, On March 1, MiGs jumped a formation of nine B-29s and severely damaged three of them. Fortunately, by this time the UN base at Suwon was now ready, and the Sabres were now able to return to Korea and reenter the fray over the Yalu. The Sabres of the 334th Squadron began their first Yalu patrols on March 6th, and the rest of the squadron moved in four days later. At the same time, the 336th Squadron moved to Taegu from Japan, so that they could stage Sabres through Suwon. The 4th Wing's other squadron, the 335th, stayed in Japan until May 1.

The strip of airspace in western Korea just south of the Yalu soon became known as "MiG Alley" to the Sabre pilots. The Sabres would arrive for their 25-minute patrols in five minute intervals. The MiGs would usually cruise back and forth at high altitude on the other side of the Yalu, looking for an opportune time to intervene. Very often they would remain on the north side of the river, tantalizingly out of reach. When the MiGs did choose to enter battle, the Sabres would usually have only a fleeting chance to fire at the enemy before the MiGs broke off and escaped back across the Yalu. The MiGs had the advantage of being able to choose the time and place of the battle. The MiG-15 had a better high-altitude performance than the F-86A. The MiG had a higher combat ceiling, a higher climb rate, and was faster at higher altitudes than the F-86A. Its superior high-altitude performance enabled the MiG to break off combat at will. Despite these handicaps, the F-86A pilots were far more experienced than their Chinese opponents and they were better marksmen. The Sabre was a more stable gun platform and had fewer high-speed instabilities than did the MiG-15. In addition, the F-86A was faster than the MiG-15 at lower altitudes, and an effective strategy was for the Sabre to force the battle down to lower altitudes where it had the advantage.

In April of 1951, the MiGs got a little bolder, and they would often make attempts to intercept B-29 formations that were attacking targets in the Sinuiju area up near the Yalu. The biggest air battle of that spring took place on April 12, when a formation of 39 B-29s escorted by F-84Es and F-86As were attacked by over 70 MiGs. Three B-29s were lost, whereas 14 MiGs were claimed destroyed, four by the escorting Sabres and ten by B-29 gunners.

On May 20, 1951, F-86A pilot Capain James Jabara became the world's first jet ace when he shot down a pair of MiGs to bring his total to six.

No F-86As were lost in action during the first five months of 1951, and they flew 3550 sorties and scored 22 victories. Most of the attrition was caused by accidents rather than by losses in actual combat.

In June of 1951, the MiGs began to show more aggressive behavior, and their pilots began to get somewhat better. In air battles on June 17th, 18th, and 19th, six MiGs were destroyed but two Sabres were lost. Another Sabre was lost on June 11 when the 4th Wing covering an F-80 attack on the Sinuiju airfield shot down two more MiGs.

As the first year of the Korean War came to an end, it was apparent that the Sabre had been instrumental in frustrating the MiG-15's bid for air superiority. Without control of the air, the Red Chinese were unable to establish their series of air bases and they were not able to carry out effective air support of their spring offensive, and the Korean War settled down to a stalemate on the ground.

The more-advanced F-86E began to enter action in Korea with the 4th Wing in July of 1951, replacing that unit's F-86As on a one-by-one basis. The conversion to the F-86E was rather slow, and the last F-86A was not replaced until July of 1952.

In September of 1951, the MiG-15bis began to appear. It was powered by a 6000 lb.s.t. engine.

In order to meet a new threat of MiG action against B-29 bombers over Korea, on October 22, 1951 seventy-five F-86Es were ordered shipped to Japan to replace the F-80Cs of the 51st Wing based at Suwon. The 51st Wing (consisting of the 16th and 25 FIS) began operations with its new F-86Es from Suwon on December 1, with the famous World War 2 ace Col. Francis S. Gabreski as wing commander. The first kill for the 51th FIS was scored by Lt. Paul Roach of the 25th FIS on December 2. Col. Gabreski had scored 31 kills over Europe in World War 2, and he added 6.5 victories to his score in Korea.

At any one time, only about 60 Sabres could be put into the air, assuming that everything was "right", with the rest of the force remaining at Kimpo or Suwon on alert or down for maintenance. Even when at maximum levels, the Sabre force was far outnumbered by the MiGs. By late 1951, there were enough MiGs available so that the Chinese forces attempted to move a couple of MiG squadrons into the base at Uiju, North Korea. UN air attacks soon made this base untenable, forcing the MiGs back across the Yalu.

A third squadron was added to the 51st FIG (the 39the FIS) in June of 1952. The number disparity still remained, with the MiGs outnumbering the Sabres about 1000 to 150 during late 1952.

It is now known that there were Soviet fighter squadrons which participated in the air combat along the Yalu. They were rotated through the MiG bases on the northern side of the Yalu. Soviet Air Force MiGs operated from bases at Antung, Fengcheng, Tak Tung Kao, Takushan, Juantien, and others. At Mukden in Manchuria there were large numbers of MiGs waiting to replace those lost in battle or rotating home. Some Eastern Block units also participated. In addition, Soviet Units carried out extensive training of Chinese and North Korean pilots.

The rules of engagement initially laid down by UN order was that no UN aircraft were allowed to violate the Manchurian border for any reason. The Communist forces were well aware of this limitation and took full advantage of it. The MiGs would form up into attack position just across the Yalu, usually at an altitude well above that at which the Sabres could operate. The MiGs would dive on the UN aircraft, make their attack, then pop back across the Yalu to safety.

In late 1951, the rules of engagement were modified, making it possible for UN pilots to cross the Yalu when in "hot pursuit" of an enemy. However, there were lots of unofficial violations of this rule, and there were some occassions in which bombing and strafing attacks were carried out by UN aircraft on Communist facilities north of the Yalu, and F-86s did on occasions went north of the Yalu looking for MiGs. There were even some MiG kills scored on the "wrong" side of the Yalu. The Manchurian sanctuary was lifted in the second week of April of 1952.

The first F-86Fs reached Korea in June and July of 1952, and they were issued to the 51st Wing's new 39th Squadron. F-86Fs were provided to the 335th Squadron of the 4th Wing in September of 1952. The arrival of the F-86F quickly boosted Sabre victories in Korea. The 4th Wing's 335th Squadron scored a total of 81 victories during the remainder of 1952, while the other two 4th Wing squadrons (which were still operating F-86Es) got 41.

With a record like that, it now seemed that EVERYONE in Korea wanted an F-86F, and so to prevent the morale of F-86E pilots from declining, a decision was made to have F-86Fs distributed more or less equally among all the squadrons in the 4th Wing. To meet the increased demand, all the F-86Fs still in the US were immediately shipped to Korea and exchanged for F-86Es which were then returned home.

Fifty "6-3" wing conversion kits were shipped to Korea in high secrecy in September of 1952 to convert F-86F aircraft already there to the new configuration. Enough kits were eventually supplied to convert all Korean-based F-86Fs and some F-86Es to this new configuration. The "6-3" wing was an immediate success, quickly boosting Sabre victories in Korea. With the "6-3-wing" F-86F, the USAF now had a fighter which could match the maximum speed of the MiG at altitudes all the way up to the Sabre's service ceiling of 47,000 feet, could turn inside the MiG, and which had almost as great a rate of climb.

During late 1952, fully a fifth of Sabre victories over MiGs were obtained without the pilots having to fire their guns. During the last four months of 1952, thirty-two MiGs were observed to go in to sudden uncontrollable spins while being chased by Sabres. Only two of their pilots managed to recover. The rest either ejected or else crashed with their planes. Even though no guns were actually fired, the frightening of a MiG pilot into getting himself into an unrecoverable spin nevertheless still counted as a "kill". It seems that a large number of inexperienced MiG pilots were now entering the fray.

However, during the first four months of 1953, MiG pilot performance seemed to get a little better, since more of their pilots were able to recover from these involuntary spins.

F-86Fs would often fly in teams with F-86Es, with the Fs flying at 40,000 feet and the Es at a lower level to handle any MiGs which managed to come down to harass the fighter bombers.

It was with F-86F with the "6-3" wing that the Sabre was to rack up its biggest score during the Korean War. Between May 8, 1953 and May 31, 1953, F-86Fs with 6-3 wings accounted for 56 MiG kills vs only one lost, one of the most one-sided air battles ever fought, not to be surpassed until the early 1980s when Israeli F-15s and F-16s scored an 80-0 victory over Syrian aircraft over the Bekka Valley during the Lebanon incursion. On June 20, 1953 F-86F Sabres accounted for 16 victories, their biggest one-day score of the war.

The arrival of the "6-3" winged Sabre in Korea was soon to be followed by the fighter-bomber Sabre. The first F-86F-30-NA fighter-bombers arrived in Korea on January 28, 1953, and they equipped the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing based at Osan. This Wing flew its first Yalu patrol on February 25, and scored its first MiG kill on the same day. By the end of March, there were enough F-86F-30s to equip the 12th Squadron and the attached 2nd Squadron of the South African Air Force. The SAAF 2nd Squadron flow 1427 Sabre sorties during the Korean War, and lost two enemy aircraft to ground fire. No. 2 Squadron returned their Sabres to the USAF after Korea, and purchased Canadair-built versions to supplement the fighter force in South Africa.

The 8th Fighter Bomber Wing based at Suwon began trading in its F-80C Shooting Stars for F-86F-30 Sabres in February of 1953, the conversion being finally completed at the end of April. The 8th Wing took their Sabres into action in a MiG Alley sweep on April 8, and on April 13 this Wing carried out its first ground attack mission by hitting an enemy troop concentration.

By this time, the USAF had five jet fighter-bomber wings, three with F-84G Thunderjets and two with F-86F-30s. The Thunderjets had a superior range, but the fighter-bomber Sabre proved itself eminently suitable for bombing work and, unlike the Thunderjet, was able to fend for itself in MiG-infested territory.

During June 1953, more Sabres were lost in ground attack missions than in air-to-air combat. They delivered 3044 tons of bombs during that month, fourteen being lost to enemy flak.

The Korean War finally ended on July 27, 1953, with a negotiated truce in which the country remained divided into two. The last Sabre/MiG fight of the Korean War took place on July 22, 1953, when Lt. Sam P. Young of the 31st Wing scored his first and only victory. The last kill of the Korean War took place on July 27, when Capt. Ralph S. Parr flying an F-86F-30 shot down an Il-12 twin-engined transport aircraft. At the end of the Korean War, the seven American fighter Wings in Korea had 297 Sabres on hand, with 132 of them being with fighter-bomber Wings.

The actual kill-to-loss ratio vis--vis the F-86 and the MiG-15 is still a matter of controversy. In an official Air Force publication issued shortly after the end of the Korean War listed 808 MiGs shot down for the loss of 58 Sabres, for a 14:1 ratio. Other official lists issued by the Air Force come up with somewhat different numbers. The USAF Historical Study #81, USAF Credits for the Destruction of Enemy Aircraft, Korean War, and the USAF Statistical Digest of FY 1953, all list a total of 792 MiGs as having been claimed by F-86s. A total of 78 Sabres were lost in air-to-air combat, with 19 additional Sabres being lost to ground fire, and 13 to unknown causes. So the overall superiority of the Sabre over the MiG was about ten to one.

Soviet archives that have only recently come to light officially list 345 Soviet-piloted MiG-15s having been lost to UN aircraft of all types during the Korean conflict. There are no comparable figures available for Chinese or North Korean losses. By the early spring of 1953, most of the Soviet units had been withdrawn from combat, and most of the MiGs were now being flown by Chinese or North Korean pilots. During April-July of 1953, Sabres claimed 191 MiGs destroyed, most of them being flown by Chinese or North Korean pilots. Soviet pilots from the era claimed a 2:1 kill ratio in their favor, but this claim must be treated with a considerable amount of skepticism.

There were 39 Korean War American jet aces, all of which flew Sabres. 305 of the 810 aircraft shot down by the Sabres in Korea were destroyed by aces. Capt. Joseph McConnell Jr. of the 16th Squadron, 51st Wing was the top ace with 16 kills. Col. Francis Gabreski added 6 1/2 MiGs to his 31 German kills of World War II.

Sources:



  1. F-86 Sabre in Action, Larry Davis, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992.

  2. The North American Sabre, Ray Wagner, MacDonald, 1963.

  3. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  4. Flash of the Sabre, Jack Dean, Wings Vol 22, No 5, 1992.

  5. MiG--A History of the Design Bureau and its Aircraft, Piotr Butowski and Jay Miller, Aerofax, 1991.

  6. Larry Davis and Warren Thompson, F-86 Sabre in Korea, Wings of Fame, Volume 11, 1998.

  7. Warren E. Thompson, Fighter Combat over Korea, Part 1: First Kills, Wings of Fame, Vol 1, 1995.

  8. Warren E. Thompson, Fighter Combat over Korea, Part 2: Jet Aces, Wings of Fame, Vol 2, 1995.