Leutenant Colonel Henry "Hank" Buttelmann is currently the president of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, an outstanding group dedicated to maintaining contacts with other Sabre pilots. They currenily have over 600 members. while your editor was researching the background information for our Sabre Society, I had the opportunity to interview Hank about his F-86 experiences in Korea.
Hank graduated from the aviation cadet program in August 1952. He flew T-6s.T-28s and T-33s while in training. He went to advanced gunnery school at Nellis Air Force Base where he first flew F-80s and then both the F-86A and and the "E". A month before he finished training at Nellis, Hank was assigned to go to Korea at age 23. On June 30, 1953, Hank shot down his fifth MiG-15 and became the war's 36th Sabre ace. He bagged two more MiGs in Korea before the truce was called. Later during the Vietnam War Hank returned to combat in om 1965 and flew 47 missions in the F-l05. His second tour in southeast Asia in I969 added 234 more missions, but this time in the F-100.
As Hank told us, "I have yet to meet any F-86 pilot that did not say that his one year in Korea was probably the high point of his life." Here then we present some of the highlights from our discussion wfth Hank Buttelmann...
Q: Were you with the 25th Fighter Squadron when you were in Korea?
Q: Was that an exciting time?
A: Yes! Of course, the more we got into the fighter business, the more we beeame attached to it, and the more it became a part of us. It was pretty good! Fighters were aircraft with a mission that bound guys cosely together. For most people I know who went to Nellis and Korea, it was the high point of their lives.
Q: When did you arrive in Korea?
A: December 23, 1952.
Q: Where were you based?
A: I went to Suwon, about twenty miles south of Seoul.
Q: When did you fly your first mission?
A: We had five or six local, rides in the F-86. Then I flew my first mission the 15th of January, 1953.
Q: Was that as a wingman?
A: Yes. We flew wing from Suwon for 55 to 57 misions. We had to fly a number of missions and work our way up the ladder. When we becme more senior with enough time and number of missions in the theatre, then we moved into a number three slot, a shooting position.
Q: Which model Sabre did you fly?
A: We flew the F-86E
Q: What briefings were you given about the MiG-15?
A: We knew they flew higher and were lighter than us. We knew what armament they had. We kmew the MiG accelerated faster because it was lighter, but we also knew it could not go through the Mach like the F-86. But as far as other comparisons with the F-86, we had nothing.
Q: When was your first combat with a MiG-15?
A: When I was checked out as the number three man by my operations officer. It was around my 57th mission when I was fortunate enough to get my first MiG. Our mission was a MiG sweep. We were in MiG Alley on a normal patrol when I noticed a flight of MiGs. They were very low. Most of their flying during that time was usually at lower altitudes. We patrolled at altitude sImply hecause we were 220 miles from home and had drop tanks. After we punched our tanks off, I saw these MiGs heading home. I called the leader, and he rolled in after them. We were high and they were low. Iwas behind the leader as he went in on his bounce. He had his speed brakes down and came in fast. Unfortunately, he misjudged and rolled out way behind the MIGs. He obviously was not closing on them. I poped my speed brakes in and slid behind one MiG. I gave several short bursts when suddenly his canopy blew off. He was still flying. Then I gave him two more short bursts, and the pilot ejected. I was very fortunate.
Q: Did they see you attack?
A: I never believed they saw us.The odd part about the kill was that after we rolled in, the MiG pilot never rolled his wings more than ten or fifteen degrees from straight and level. We came in behind in that kill, and I hit him with several bursts. I saw an explosion which must have been in a critical area. Even with that, the guy never made a single turn! It was an easy kill.
Q: When did this occur?
A: June 19, 1953.
Q: Did you have your fifth kill by June 30, 1953?
A: That is right.
Q: So from mid-June through the end of the war in July, this was another very concentrated period for you?
A: Yes, it was. I was checked out as an element leader with 57 missions on June 19,1953. June and July '53 turned out to be the two months where more MiGs were shot down than any other time in the war. From January '53, when I flew my first mission, until mid-June, I saw the MiGs only twice, and on both cases, there were no engagements. From mid-June through July 1953, I saw MiGs on 80% of my missions.
Q: Did you notice the quality of the communist pilots deteriorating toward the end of the war?
A: It is hard for me to evaluate this because all my encounters came in a short period, from mid June through July 1953. During this period, I had one encounter that I was more than happy with when it was all over. I got bounced by a MiG but I was able to get him to overshoot me, and I immediately wound up in a scissor with him. The scissor was not my favorite maneuver with a MiG but I had no choice. After four or five scissors, I was able to stay even with him, but we were loosing altitude and airspeed. This guy gave absolutely no sign of exiting the hassle, and while I still had enough altitude and airspeed to dive away, I exited the engagement feeling eventually he would be able to out turn me. The rest of my engagements were not this tough.
Q. Which one was the most difficult kill out of your seven?
A: The most difficult kill came when our flight got involved with two flights of MiGs. I had just shot down a MiG when I looked back and saw another MiG firing at me. I was lucky because he was a little out of range. I broke into him, and at that instant, I was hit underneath my fuselage about one foot behind my burner cans. I immediately got two fire warning lights. I pulled my power back to about 90% and kept turning into the MiG. At this point he broke off. Had he stayed, he would have done alright! As he broke, I rolled out. Again I was extremely fortunate because there were thunderstorms in the area I got into the weather and stayed there. That saved me. Had it not been for the poor weather, I would have been in real trouble! I climbed through the weather and worked my way home. I was fortunate enough to bring the aircraft back. That was also my most difficult mission.
Q: How many missions did you fly in Korea?
A: I had 65.
Q: Did the MiG-15s have the edge over the F-86 in maneuverability?
A: No. I never worried I was flying against a superior aircraft or one that had an edge. The F-86 was probably the most honest, easiest, most forgiving and the most fun aircraft I ever flew in the service. The MiG had certain advantages over the F-86, but the MiG pilots could not take those advantages in most cases because of poor training
Q: How did you feel when you got your fifth kill and were on ace?
A: When I got my fifth kill, it topped what eventually became the most memorable eleven months of my life. My three months at Nellis in advanced gunnery training was just great flying, and whenI left there, I knew I had passed a major milestone leading to starting my fighter career. Then the seven months in Korea were unbelievable! They had experienced to be fully understood. The combat flying, the parties, the rest and recreation, and the close relationships with my flight and squadron pilots developed into the tightest comraderie one could imagine. Then top that off with being in the right place at the right time, and I had a situation that generally only happens once in a lifetime.
Q: Do you have a favorite F-86 story?
A: Whenever I think about the F-86, I think of that one mission when we ran into a tremendous number of MiGs, and I got hit. I had both the forward and alt fire warning lights on, and it was the worst situation I ever had flying. It was a time when the F-86 held together and brought me away from a really tough situation. It also carried me 200 miles home. The F-86 was a super airplane. It was one of the first true day fighter aircraft. Many jets followed the F-86. They had more sophisticated equipment and flew faster, but none were the pure day fighter the F-86 was. On that one mission, that bird truly took care of me. That is the mission that will stick with me forever simply because the Sabre took a bad hit, got me out of there and back home again
Q: Do you have any final thoughts on the Sabre?
A: I flew the F-l00 after the F-86, but it did not compare with the F-86. I flew the F-l05 which was not a day fighter. Itwas a fighter-bomber, and in that respect, it did an excellent job. We have to go to the F-16 before we come across probably the next best day fighter aircraft. The F-16 is probably in the same class today as the F-86 was then. There was no aircraft that was as honest or as good as the F-86 was in the Air Force for a number of years after the F-86. Most of us have a a soft spot for it. Our feeling for the aircraft was more enhanced after we got into combat. There is nothing like combat that really brings guys or memories together, because we were out there laying our backsides on the line with other guys that had the job protecting us. There was a little organization within the flight, and there were certain rules we had to follow. Korea was a time when we were young, overseas and in combat, and we connect that with the F-86.. That combination left a deep impression on me that I never duplicated elsewhere. Flying the F-86 in combat was a major time in my life.
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