MEET DICK BECKER,
KOREA'S SECOND JET ACE
On September 9, 1951, an estimated 70 MiG-15s attacked 22 F-86s from the Fourth Fighter Group's 334th and 335th Fighter Squadrons, but the Fourth prevailed. During these engagements, Captains Richard S. Becker of the 334th and Ralph D. "Hoot" Gibson of the 335th both achieved their fifth and final MiG kills to become the second and third jet aces of the Korean War; behind Captain James Jabara who had become the first Amerkan jet ace on May 20, 1951. (Jabara later died in an automobile accident in 1966) Sabre Jet Classics interviewed Dick Becker about his F-86 experiences, both in the United States as well as Korea. Here we present his complete interview describing what it was like to fly the early Sabres stateside as well as during the initial days ofthe Korean War when the Sabres were often greally outnumbered in combat...
Q: When did you receive your wings and what was your first assignment?
A: I graduated from flying school in February 1949.1 was assigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron, an Eagle Squadron, at Andrews Air Force Isase in Maryland where I flew the F-80 Shooting Star.
Q: How many hours did you fly the F-80?
A: About 150 to 200.
Q: Did you transition into the F-86 soon after that?
A: Yes. All three squadrons of the 4th Fghter Group moved to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia in summer 1949. We immediately received the F-86A. I flew to the factory in Los Angeles and picked up three.
Q: Was it difficult to transition into the Sabre?
A: Not at all.
Q: What training did you receive to transition into the Sabre?
A: To go from the F-80 to the F-86, I flew to North American, and George Welch checked me out in the Sabre. I read the pilot's handbook, got in the airplane, made one familiarization flight locally and then flew to Langley Field.
Q: You immediately did a cross-country trip in a new Sabre?
A: Absolutely, signed for it, and another pilot and I came back together. He did the same thing. He had not checked out in the Sabre, either. We both took one local flight and flew back to Langley in formation. We did not have droptanks. We skipped across the country with each leg of 450 miles.
Q: When the war broke out, when did your squadron's situation change from peacetime to preparing for Korea?
A: In July or August 1950, one squadron went to Andrews, one was transferred to New Castle County Airport, Delaware, and the last went to Dover, Delaware. I went to New Castle County with the 334th Squadron. One day in the middle of November 1950, a general visited our base. He came from the Pentagon to look the outfit over. I have no idea who he was. He talked to the 4th Fighter Group and the 4th Fighter Wing commanders who were also at New Castle. We were called together that evening. We were told to report to North Island in San Diego, Californla in 72 hours to board an aircraft carrier for Japan. The other squadrons were given the same instructions. We flew 75 F-86s west.The Navy had a small aircraft carrier waiting called the Cape Esperance. We arrived at North Island 72 hours later. We did not board the carrier immediately. It had been on a shakedown cruise and broke down. We had a five to ten day delay before starting for Japan. We were caught in a typhoon. It was a 15 day trip. We had aircraft below deck and the flight deck was completely filled. We docked at Yokohama Japan, and our aircraft were barged to Kisaazu to be cleaned and flown to Johnson Air Base. We then took a composite outfit to Korea consisting of 32 airplanes with pilots from each outfit. I was In Jim Jabara's flight. We and Lieutenant Colonel Eagleston were the only ones from the 334th. There were people from the 335th, the 336th and some Wing and Group personnel. We went to Kimpo Air Base south of Seoul. We soon flew our first combat. Our mission was to engage the MiG-15. We did not have any other assignment such as air-to-ground. We engaged the MiG-15, weather permitting every day, and generally at our convenience. Our missions were planned by our group commander, John C. Meyer, who was quite a Second World War ace. My squadron commander was a great World War Two ace named Glenn Eagleston. This was in early December. We flew combat from Kimpo until the Chinese communists overran the air base in early January 1951. Then we returned to Japan.
Q: What intelligence was available on the MiG-15?
A; Our group went because we had the Sabre about as long as any other outfit, and we were probably the best trained United States Air Force group. Four or five weeks before MiG-15s had engaged several F-51s and F-80s. The Air Force found that the combat capability of those aircraft was inferior. That is why they sent the F-86 as soon as possible. As far as intelligence, we knew very little about the MiG-15. What we learned was developed as we started air-to-air combat. Originally our tactics were similar to those used in the Second World War, but we made changes as we fought. Our first pilot to shoot down a MiG-15 was the squadron commander of the 336th, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hinton.
Q: Were the early flying tactics used by the F-86 similar to those flown by the F-80 to entice the MiGs to attack?
A: We never had more than 16 aircraft in the air at one time in the beginning. We were outnumbered five to one in a fight, and sometimes as high as ten to one. It was not unusual for a flight of four Sabres to take on 30 to 40 MiGs.
Q: So there was no need to lure the MiG-15s into combat?
A: Not at all. The minute we flew near the Yalu River, they came over from Antung, China.
Q: Please describe your first victory?
A: The first victory I caimed, which was not a victory because it was listed as a "probable" kill, was when I flew on Jim Jabara's wing. He later became our first jet ace. We took on at least 20 enemy aircraft. He took ten and they split, and I took the other ten. After a tremendous battle, we were separated. Neither had a wingman. I hit one of the MiGs between 800 to 1,400 feet. I had him burning in a flat spin. He went through an overcast sky estimated at 4,000 feet to 5,000 feet. Eight other pilots were coming to help and saw that MiG going down. I wrote the intelligence report that went to Fifth Air Force headquarters, but it was returned as a "probable" because we did not see the MIG hit the ground! There was no question he was gone. That was my first kill which ended as a "probable". I remember my third and fourth.I got two in one mission in August 1951. I had a flight of four. There were eight MiGs. We climbed behind them when they did not see us. We got within 1,200 feet before they turned. I cosed to 500 feet and hit the leader. He immediately snap rolled to the right and bailed out. His wingman turned straight and level. He was no problem. I hit him hard, and he blew up in my face. I remember my second victory. That happened in April or May 1951. I started at 47,000 feet and fought with him for at least ten minutes. We ended on the deck flying between the mountains. I finally hit him, and he crashed into a mountain within a mile of the Yalu river. For my last victory on September 9, 1951, I had a flight of four. We broke into two groups while engaging at least 40 aircraft. My element leader and I split the MiGs to eight aircraft ahead of me. They finally broke. One section turned left and the other right. I told my element leader to take those on the right while I took the ones on the left. We picked the last MiG and quickly closed on him. From then on, I had a horrible time returning to base because they were all over us. While I was in Korea from December 1950 until September 1951, we did not have a kill ratio of 14 to 1. That occurred later. When I was there, the communists had their absolutely best pilots flying. I believe they had mostly Russian pilots.
Q: What were the most difficult problems you encountered in combat?
A: We were constantly outnumbered. We never had all three squadrons in Korea at once during our first six months. We always kept at least one and sometimes two squadrons at Johnson Air Base in Japan. But we always had at least 24 Sabres in Korea. Probably by September or October 1951 we had all three squadrons there, but I am fairly certain we never had over 50 flyable aircraft.
Q: When you flew on a mission, did you feel overwhelmed by the opposition, or were you confident you would be successful?
A: The ultimate goal of a fighter pilot is combat. After our first four or five missions, combat became like a boxing match. It was either him or me while protecting my wingman, but it was a fight to the death. It was also a short fight. Sometimes during an entire day of combat, a dogfight may last only four to eight minutes, but it was so violent that we were exhausted when we landed.
Q: Mow may combat missions did you fly in Korea?
A: I flew 82. We had weather problems or waited for other pilots who were flying. After I got my fifth MiG, I was sent home. There was another pilot in the 335th named Ralph "Hoot" Gibson who got his fifth MiG that same day. Within an hour after we landed, we received telegrams from the Secretary of the Air Force stating we were returning to the United States. We did not have a choice. I guess the Air Force figured we were more valuable to the enemy if we were shot down. We were fighting over enemy territory the entire time. That is also what happened to Jim Jabara as well as our fourth jet ace, Dick Creighton.
Q: Did you feel when you went into combat against much higher odds that your training and equipment were adequate for the mission?
A: I had total confidence in the F-86. It took anything the pilot could handle. We could not tear it apart no matter how we flew it, unless we hit the ground! My training was excellent with absolutely the best people in the 334th Squadron. My group commander, squadron commanders, flight commanders and operations officers were the best pilots in the Air Force. I had absolute, total confidence. When I became a flight commander, the pilots in my flight were excellent. When we went to Korea, and this is important to say, we were exceptionally good. Of course, this is something all fighter pilots do: boast about how great they are, and I think as we get older, we get better! But I can honestly say every pilot I flew with, especially in my squadron, was exceptional, although some were not as aggressive as others.
Q: What did you think of the MiG-15?
A: It was an excellent aircraft, but it had disadvantages. It had better fire power with a 37mm cannon and two 23mm cannons. It had a better rate of zoom. It turned better than we did, but we out dove it. Our speeds were about the same. The biggest problem was that we were outnumbered so greatly. When we split up, we had to watch our tail. Without knowing it, someone was on us.
Q: Did it take prolonged firing with your six .50 calibre machine guns to knock a MiG-15 down?
A: Not if we got close. I remember one MiG I shot down when I was within 300 feet with all six .50 calibre guns firing down his tailpipe, and in a short time, he blew up. It did not take a long burst. If we fired from 1,500 feet with a deflection shot, we had a problem. I never found the six .50s to be a problem. Some time after I left, they experimented with four 20mm cannons in several Sabres for a short period, but returned to the six .50s.
Q: Were the six .50 calibre machine guns effective?
A: They were all we had! If we wanted 20mm cannons, however, there was only room for four.
Q: Were you ever hit by cannon fire from a MiG?
A: No.1 did get quite a few pieces of a MiG in my face once as it blew up ahead of me. Its flying pieces broke my wind-screen and canopy. I struggled back with no hydraulic pressure.
Q: Was the return fire from the MiG's cannons more deadly although they fired fewer shots?
A: Yes, if the 37mm or 23mm cannons hit us, you are exactly right. Both had explosive shells. It only took one or two hits to be blown up, but I do know some pilots who were hit in the tail section who came back. If we were hit in the fuselage or near the engine with an explosive shell, it was the end. We were down. Q: What did MiG Alley look like?
A: We normally arrived over MiG Alley at 45,000 feet. It looked like flying over Tucson, the Midwest or over the Rockies. It was desolate. We saw the MiG air base at Antung across the Yalu river. Our fights went anywhere from 48,000 feet down to a hundred feet.
Q:Did the MiGs use their better rate of climb to leave when they knew they could not win?
A: Yes. They then popped straight across the Yalu River, and we had orders not to follow.
Q: Did your squadron support raids on dams or bridges?
A: We flew what we called "top cover" or a screen." It was not like the Second World War because we escorted B-29s and we were so much faster. We engaged as many MiGs as possible so they would not engage our B-29s. I remember, however, one mission where I watched three B-29s go down. I saw all three crews bail out. There must have been 90 to 100 MIG-15s attacking those B-29s, and we were only 16 Sabres. Our B-29s frequently bombed North Korea. They engaged the MiGs, but the B-29s could not defend against them. There was no comparison. Probably we should compare the German Me 262 jet fighter during the Second World War flying agaihst the B-17 or the B-24.That is a similar comparison with the B-29 and the MiG-15 over Korea. It shot down bombers with no problem.
Q: Did you ever attack the North Korean capital, Pyongyang?
A: On one mission and only one mission, and I have no idea why we flew this, we lined up 24 F-86s. We took off in the early morning. As the sun came up, we flew in from the east and strafed an air-field near Pyongyang. For the life of me, I do not know why we flew that mission, nor do I know what we accomplished. I never questioned it. It was a mission the Joint Operations Center asked us to perform I believe in April 1951. We were also restricted, because we had so few F-86s, from going after ground targets. We were air-to-air. I flew another mission, however, near the Yalu River where I shot rockets at tanks. I flew a third with a flight of four after we had been standing on alert. The communists brought troops south from the YaIu River along the west coast of Korea. Several B-26s saw lights early in the morning. We checked them because it was near Antung. I found probably 15,000 troops sitting in a canal near the Yellow Sea, and my flight strafed them. When I landed, I caught it because we were told not to attack ground targets. In this case, however, the Joint Operations Center controller told us to do it. I had to personally go the the JOC to explain why we attacked a ground target.
Q: Did you encounter enemy tactics known as MiG "trains"?
A: Yes. We started that term. They sent a group of MiGs which we called a "train." They may send 24, and we engaged. Then they sent another 24, and we said, "Another train left the station." It was used more as code. We had only so much fuel to engage in combat when we were near the Yalu River. When we departed, they sent another 8,12 or 16 more MiGs as we worked our way back. It was awfully hard each time when another group of aircraft or two came to meet us as we headed south. We kept turning so they did not shoot us down.
Q: It seems there were many missions where the flight home was not the easiest part of the trip?
A: The flight home was sometimes the hardest part of the trip! We just did not head south. We may begin heading south, but we would look above and see 24 more aircraft, and we might have four! Then we reengaged in combat, and then worked our way back. I remember once Bill Yancey and I were way north, and we landed 15 minutes after the rest of the squadron. We both ran out of fuel probably south of Pyongyang. Then we glided and deadsticked our Sabres into Suwon!
Q: Did you have a procedure to follow?
A: We had one great advantage in Korea. The jetstream always flowed from northwest to southeast We always had a 100 miles per hour tailwind going home which helped. We climbed and took all the altitude we could. We kept the throttle wide open until the engine quit. Then we set our best glide speed and started home. This happened several times. That trip home was a long way back without an engine!
Q: Was the F-86 a good "glider"?!
A: There is no jet aircraft I know of, except the U-2, that is a good gilder! But if we had enough altitude, it was no problem. We did not have much of an airfield at Suwon with 5,000 feet of runway and a small sidestrip. We landed on one side of the runway and taxied back on the other. We had two-way traffic on the same runway.
Q: How firm did your controls get when you flamed out?
A: Our controls got a little stiff, but we had no problem. I had dead sticked the F-86 before I went to Korea. I knew what it was like. We had procedures where we flew over the field perpendicular to the runway and then made a 270 degree turn into the runway. If we had a certain altitude, we worked our way in. I remember once bringing home a flight of four and everyone deadsticked in! Once we got down, our commander and operations officer did not appreciate it very much! Sometimes it was necessary. Often we got into fights with our flight of four, and we may be fighting against 30 to 40 MiGs. We may have been behind them but we did not want to let them go, because if we turned south and started home, they were on our tails. It was not always easy getting out of the area. And of course, we were fighting over enemy territory.
Q: Do you have a favorite F-86 story?
A: Every pilot will say the aircraft they believe was the best was the one they flew in combat, and I will always state the best aircraft I flew was the F-86. I think if you talk to Chuck Yeager, he will say the P-51 was the best aircraft, even considering the X-1. This is true of pilots who flew combat in Vietnam as well. I have great respect for the F-86. I had extensive time flying it. It was a tremendous aircraft.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts on the Sabre?
A: When the Sabre was built, it was absolutely the best aircraft the Air Force had. The "A", "E" and "F" models were their best air-to-air interceptors. I understand the "H" was built as an air-to-ground aircraft, but I never flew it. There was nothing better tha the Sabre as years went by. Undoubtedly, I felt the F-104 was probably our best interceptor as far as performance, but it was not an aircraft for younger pilots without tremendous experience. I am certain that to day the F-16 is considered the Cadillac of interceptors.
No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.
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