The Korean War (June 25th, 1950 – July 27th, 1953) fought between the Communist North (later with their ally China along with aid from the Soviet Union) and the South supported by UN forces started out as a war where piston engined fighters such as the North American P-51D Mustang and Yakovlev Yak-9 fought in the skies above the battlefields, to one where the jet engined fighters ruled supreme. UN forces soon had air superiority over the North but they got a rude awakening On November 1st, 1950 when Communist forces started flying the jet powered Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 against their fighters and bombers (North Korean, Chinese and unofficially Soviet Union pilots flew these fighters during the war).
The MiG-15 was fast (top speed 1,059 kmh / 658 mph) and had a lot of firepower (2 x 23mm cannons and 1 x 37mm cannon). Although they managed to achieve air to air victories over the MiG-15 most of the UN jets such as the Gloster Meteor, Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and Grumman F9F Panther could not truly compete in combat with it and were soon relegated to different roles such as ground attack missions. Despite this the MiG-15 was mainly introduced by the Communists to intercept the high-flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers that were turning the North into rubble. How did the UN forces deal with the MiG threat?
In December 1950 the USAF introduced the ace in their sleeve. The North American F-86 Sabre jet fighter which was fast, maneuverable and had plenty of firepower (6 x 0.50 caliber machine guns). In performance the MiG was mostly superior to the early Sabre fighters but the F-86F introduced in 1953 was pretty much an equal match for the Communist MiG-15 (the F-86F had a top speed of 1,107 kph / 688 mph).
The Korean War pilots of the USAF were mostly World War Two veterans who had plenty of combat experience, something the North Korean and Chinese pilots did not have. The Soviet pilots on the other hand (whose identity was unknown back then – in the early part of the war they flew aircraft in North Korean markings and even wore North Korean pilots gear) were a different story as they included veterans and numerous aces.
In April 1951 the first Soviet “volunteer” squadron of the 324th IAD (Fighter Air Division) was deployed with MiG-15’s to Antung Airfield in China near North Korean border under the command of Colonel Ivan Kozhedub (June 8th, 1920 — August 8th, 1991) who was the top Soviet/Allied air ace of World War Two with 62 air to air victories (predominately German fighters he shot down: 16 Bf-109’s and 21 FW-190’s fighters plus 1 Me-262 jet fighter along with 18 Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, 2 He-111 bombers, 3 Hs-129 close support aircraft plus a Polish PZL P.24 fighter). Due to his Hero of the Soviet Union status (awarded 3 times – twice in 1944 and again in 1945), the Soviet leadership would not permit Kozhedub to fly combat missions in Korea (who knows though, he may have?).
The 324th IAD was manned by elite Soviet pilots of the 196th IAP and 176th GIAP, many of whom were World War Two veterans. Initially their mission was to train Chinese pilots but it was soon decided that the Soviet pilots would also need to fly combat missions to counter the threat of well trained United Nations pilots. These elite Soviet pilots were known to the USAF as “Honchos” and under Kozhedub are said to have achieved 239 air to air victories for the loss of 27 MiG-15’s and 9 pilots in combat. Kozhedub continued to serve in the Soviet Air Force and became an Aviation Marshal in 1985.
China and the Soviets more or less used the Korean War as a training ground for jet pilots. 12 Soviet air divisions were rotated through the war zone from 1951-1953.
An Air Force Magazine article in 1991 reported that there were at least 23 Soviet aces from the Korean War (other sources quote over 30 -50 aces) with the highest being Colonel Yevgeny Pepelyayev with 23 air to air victories and Captain Nikolay Sutyagin with 21-22 victories. These pilots had the highest victory tally of any nation in the conflict. By 1952 the air war was mostly being operated by Chinese and North Korean air divisions.
The top North Korean and Chinese aces had no more than 8 to 9 victories. The top ace of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was Zhao Baotong of the 3rd Fighter Division flying the MiG-15 with 9 air to air victories including at least 2 F-86 Sabre jets (he was also the first Chinese air ace).
North Korean ace claims are shrouded in controversy and it is disputed as to whether they achieved more than 5 victories or not. Potentially the top North Korean ace was Kam Den Dek of the Korean Peoples Air Force (KPAF) 1st Air Division with an alleged 8 air to air victories flying the MiG-15.
Veteran combat skills attained during World War Two often gave the USAF pilots the edge they needed to defeat their Communist opponents. Captain Joseph McConnell was the leading USAF ace in Korea with 16 air to air victories. Interestingly McConnell served as a B-24 bomber navigator in World War Two rather than a pilot but today he remains the top US jet ace! He commenced pilot training post war.
On August 25th, 1954 McConnell was testing the fifth production North American F-86H-1-NA Sabre (serial number 52-1981) at Edwards Air Force Base, California and died in a crash near the base following a control malfunction. The cause? It seems ridiculous that a man who survived aerial combat would suffer this fate all because of a missing aircraft bolt! A sad way to go for an all American hero.
McConnell was closely followed by Major James Jabara of the USAF with 15 air to air victories. Jabara was the first US jet ace. He flew a North American P-51D Mustang during tow tours of duty in Europe during World War Two but was not an ace in that conflict (1.5 German air to air victories). In Korea he got his first victory on April 3rd, 1951 and had his 5th victory a month later.
Jabara later flew combat missions in Vietnam flying the North American F-100 Super Sabre but given he was flying ground attack missions he did not add to his air to air victory tally. Despite surviving 3 wars he sadly died following a car accident in 1966.
The USAF claimed a 8:1 kill ratio with the Sabre over Communist fighters during the Korean War. Later studies by independent researchers have apparently put the figure at being 2:1 (note: the USAF maintains the original ratio). Either way in the hands of skilled pilots the Sabre proved to be the difference in the air battle over Korea.
39 USAF F-86 pilots (and one US Marine Corps exchange pilot) became air aces with 5 or more air to air victories during the Korean War. That is not only an attest to the pilots themselves but also the magnificent jet fighter they flew into combat each day.
“MiG Alley” in the northern section of North Korea along the Chinese border was where many jet on jet air battles occurred in large numbers. It is considered the birthplace of combat between jet fighters. Large groups of Communist fighters would wait on the Chinese side of the border to attack UN aircraft. For political reasons (to avoid World War Three) UN pilots were not meant to cross over the Chinese border to pursue MiG fighters back to their bases, but of course they often would.
UN gun camera footage that showed combat over China would apparently often simply go “missing” to avoid pilots getting into strife when they returned to base! Communist losses may have been much higher if this restriction was not in place as many pilots from the North could easily escape a losing situation by high tailing it over the border!
During the Korean War the US Government was very keen to obtain an operational MiG-15 to fully evaluate its performance and capability. In 1951 they had obtained parts from crashed examples and then in March 1953 a Polish pilot, Franciszek Jarecki defected to Denmark in a MiG-15. US authorities were able to inspect the aircraft but due to international regulations had to return it to Poland. This lead to Operation Moolah being launched in April 1953 where $100,000 and political asylum was offered to any Communist pilot who would defect to the west and deliver a MiG-15.
Operation Moolah didn’t prove overly effective though and no MiG-15 was delivered before an armistice was signed to end the Korean War in July 1953. Then surprisingly on September 21st, 1953 a North Korean pilot, No Kum Sok defected to South Korea in his MiG-15. He claimed to know nothing about the reward before he defected but received the $100,000 anyway! After his defection No Kum Sok resettled in the United States, changed his name to Ken Rowe, became a US citizen and worked as an aviation engineer.
The MiG-15 aircraft flown by No Kum Sok was taken to Japan and then the United States for considerable testing. Following testing the aircraft was offered to be returned to North Korea. This offer was ignored and today the MiG-15 resides in the National Museum of the USAF.
The Korean War armistice was signed on July 27th, 1953. It was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” but alas even today no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved between North and South Korea and a tense DMZ remains!