Decades after winning the world's first jet-powered dogfights, US fighter pilots are still flexing their muscles over Korea
- By late 1950, US pilots were frequently battling North Korean and Soviet pilots over Korea.
- That November, US Air Force and Navy pilots notched the first victories between jet-powered aircraft.
November marked the 72nd anniversary of the first dogfight between jet-powered fighter aircraft in history.
The specific date of that first dogfight is still hotly debated, with both the US Air Force and US Navy taking credit for the milestone in two Korean War air battles.
The first, involving an Air Force Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star piloted by Lt. Russel Brown, occurred on November 8, 1950. The second, involving a Navy Grumman F9F Panther piloted by Lt. Cmdr. William Amen, took place on November 9.
Both took place in the same area and involved the same opponents — MiG-15 fighter jets flown by Soviet pilots who had been secretly deployed to aid North Korea's military.
While the date of the first dogfight still isn't clear, the battles were the beginning of a new era of aerial warfare.
United Nations forces, led by the US, quickly established air superiority after the Korean war started on June 25, 1950.
The North Korean People's Air Force (KPAF) was considerably smaller than those of the US and its allies, had almost no combat experience, and was mainly equipped with Soviet-made propeller planes, mostly Yak-9s, Yak-11s, La-7s, and Il-10s.
US and UN forces, on the other hand, had aviators and mechanics with combat experience from World War II, better propeller planes, and, most importantly, new jet aircraft. The backbone of the US Air Force's fighter fleet was the F-80C Shooting Star, while the US Navy relied on the carrier-based F9F Panther.
The war was the first major engagement for the US Air Force, which had been formed in September 1947, and it would be the first time that jet-powered aircraft were major players.
American aircraft based in Japan were scoring kills within a day of the war's start, and on June 27, the F-80C scored its first kill when 1st Lt. Robert H. Dewald shot down a KPAF Il-10.
Air Force F-80Cs conducted more than 15,000 sorties in the first four months of the war. Along with Navy carrier aircraft, they engaged in dogfights, assisted long-range bomber raids, and intercepted KPAF fighters wherever and whenever they appeared.
Allied air supremacy helped reverse the tide of the war on the ground, and on October 1, UN forces had crossed the 38th Parallel, taking the war into North Korea itself.
Unnerved by those developments, China and the Soviet Union stepped up their support for North Korea. China entered the war on October 19 with hundreds of thousands of troops who clashed with UN forces. The Soviets sent dozens of their newest fighter jet, the MiG-15, and pilots to fly them.
Operating from Chinese bases across the Yalu River, the Soviet MiGs had Chinese or North Korean markings and engaged in dogfights with US and allied aircraft.
On November 1, the first day MiG-15s fought allied aircraft, the Soviets claimed to have shot down an American F-51 Mustang and an F-80C fighter jet, but Air Force records for that day do not show any losses to enemy aircraft.
The Air Force's 'first'
According to the Air Force, the first real jet vs. jet dogfight occurred seven days later, on November 8.
During a large bombing raid on the KPAF airfield at Sinuiju, four F-80Cs were finishing strafing attacks on anti-aircraft guns when the lead jet, piloted by Lt. Col. Evans Stephens, noticed 12 MiG-15s approaching from nearby Chinese territory.
Two of the MiGs dove for Stephens and Lt. Russel Brown, breaking right in front of them as the Americans turned to meet them. Stephens trailed the first MiG while Brown trailed the second. Stephens managed to fire on his MiG and damaged its left wing, causing it to head back to China.
Brown, meanwhile, was in hot pursuit, but the MiG was a faster aircraft. Brown's F-80 began buffeting as it exceeded 0.80 Mach. As the MiG attempted to turn, Brown fired four busts, causing the MiG pilot to roll over and dive.
Brown continued his pursuit. Going as fast as 600 mph, the MiG was still about 1,000 feet away. Brown fired another four bursts, causing the MiG's fuselage to spew black smoke. A final burst exploded the MiG in mid-air.
Just 2,000 feet off the ground, Brown pulled out of the dive. The dogfight had lasted about 60 seconds.
The Navy's 'first'
For decades, Brown's engagement was believed to be the first kill in a jet vs. jet dogfight.
After the Cold War, Russian documents claimed that the MiG engaged by Brown had actually returned to its base. If this is true, then the first kill in a jet vs. jet dogfight belongs to a Navy jet flying in the same place just a day later.
On November 9, fighter-bombers and attack aircraft launched from the carriers USS Valley Forge and USS Philippine Sea to strike bridges on the Yalu River between Sinuiju and China. The strike aircraft were escorted by F9F Panthers, which conducted combat patrols during the bombing missions.
As the US aircraft began their attack, a squadron of Soviet MiG-15s attempted to intercept them. Aware of the approaching MiGs, Lt. Cmdr. William Amen ordered his Panthers to join the fray.
Amen soon found himself trailing a lone MiG-15. Although faster than the Panther, the MiG inadvertently allowed Amen and his wingman to close the gap by turning and yawing in an attempt to shake them. As a result, the US Navy pilots hit the MiG with their 20mm guns.
The MiG then went into a steep dive. Amen followed. Despite the Panther buffeting as it approached its maximum velocity, Amen managed to fire more rounds into the MiG-15. At about 3,000 feet, Amen broke off and began to pull up, leveling off and turning upward with just 200 feet to spare.
The damaged MiG was not as lucky and smashed into the side of a hill. It was piloted by Capt. Mikhail F. Grachev, the leader of the Soviet squadron, and was the first MiG-15 loss acknowledged by the Soviets.
Importance of airpower
Despite the early victories by UN pilots, the MiGs became a significant problem as they arrived in force, causing the US Air Force to cease daylight bombing raids almost entirely.
UN forces began to check the MiG menace when the US introduced the F-86 Saber in December 1950. The F-86 soon became the primary fighter aircraft for US and allied air forces in Korea, with other jet fighters moving to attack or reconnaissance roles.
The area along the North Korea-China border where Brown's and Amen's engagements occurred continued to see intense dogfights until the end of the war, earning it the nickname "MiG Alley."
Seventy-two years later, military planners still value airpower on the Korean Peninsula.
US and South Korean forces recently conducted their largest air exercise ever, reflecting their ongoing reliance on air superiority as well as recent tensions.
The exercise, called Vigilant Storm, involved roughly 100 US aircraft and some 140 South Korean aircraft flying more than 1,600 sorties. Attack aircraft, fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets, and strategic bombers took part.
Vigilant Storm was extended in response to North Korean missile tests in November. It included mock attacks, aerial maneuvers, close air support drills, and emergency air operations, which were conducted 24 hours a day for almost a week.
In December, US B-52 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters flew alongside South Korean F-15s and F-35s in a show of force. It was the first time F-22s had been deployed to South Korea in four years.
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