MY FAVAORITE SABRE STORY
Lon Walter is one of our Sabre Society's technical advisors. We asked him to write an artcle for our new column, "My Favorite Sabre Story," to lead off this new feature section in Sabre Jet Classics. Here is what Lon told us...
I went to Korea in November 1950 as part of the original contingent from the Fourth Fighter Group sent to counteract the new MiG-15 threat. I was a Second Leiutenant with the 335th Fighter Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base when we were ordered to North Island Naval Air Station, California, where our F-86A-5 Sabres were to be loaded onto small "jeep" carriers for the journey. We crossed the Paciflc on the USS Cape Esperance. The USS Boxer carried other squadrons, as did a large cargo ship which departed San Francisco. Our intended base was Pyongyang, the captured capital of North Korea, but while we were en route, the Chinese forces overran that area. We went instead to Johnson Air Base, Irumagawa, Japan, which is near Tokyo. This served as our heavy maintenance base and was always home for one of our three fighter squadrons from the Fourth while they rotated to and from K-13 at Suwon, Korea throughout my tour, which ended in August 1951. The Fourth later moved from Suwon to Kimpo in late August 1951. I flew 48 combat missions and was a wingman throughout my tour in Korea. Aside from being credited with one MiG15 damaged (more about that later-in my heart I believe that MiG went down), my main claim to fame was having flown and been associated with many of the great aces of that time. Jim Jabara was my tent mate when he got his fifth and sixth kills on the same mission. I flew with J. C. Meyer, Glenn Fagleston, Billy Hovde, Gabby Gabreski, Jim Brooks, Hoot Gibson, Dick Becker, and many others from time to time. I believe one aspect about our pilots from this era is generally misunderstood. One reads frequent references to the superior training and experience of the F-86 pilots from the United States. This was true of the old timers who were the flight and element leaders. But virtually every wingman, such as myself, was fresh out of flying school. I had 75 hours flying the F-86, the first jet I flew, but I NEVER FIRED THE GUNS until my first combat mission. We had faith and dicipline, however, and the "old heads" were great teachers. They were the "shooters" while we were the "lookers" who watched their tails in combat.
We all loved the F-86, and we quickly recognized there was only one advantage the MIG-15 possessed. The MiG could outclimb us above 28,000 feet. But we never would have traded that feature for our precious ability to outdive, and thereby out accelerate, the MiG. This gave us the ability to disengage at will when things turned sour and come back to fight another day. This saved many American pilots' lives. There was literally nothing we yearned for. We knew we had the better aircraft by far. Furthermore, the MiG pilots did some incredibly stupid things in combat, although there were a few very good ones which I personally never encountered. During my tour in Korea, however, I saw no change in MiG aggressiveness. Most of all, they were unpredictable. This led us to believe we were encountering a mix of "instructors" and "students". We felt the North Korean and/or Chinese pilots were being trained by the Russians, and when a new class was ready for its final exam, their instructors brought them south of the Yalu River for a fight. We were often frustrated during those days because they came over so infrequentiy.
I would like to share with you my two most memorable missions. These were the only times I saw MiG-15s extremely close up. The first was in early May 1951, possibly on the 5th or 6th. I was flying with "Awning Blue" flight ("Awning" implying our 335th Squadron) as their number two man, "Awning Blue Two". My element leader, who was also my flight leader, was Major Ernest W. Mack. At the time, we patrolled as four flights of four. This made maneuvering at higher altitudes very demanding. We maintained our sixteen ship integrity until a fight began, and then each flight of four broke off on its own. Elements would often be unable to remain as a flight of four, and instead they would fight as two-ship teams. It was RARE, however, that a wingman lost his element leader. Our orders were to disengage and return home immediately, if we found ourselves alone for any reason.
As we patrolled back and forth along the Yalu River at 35,000 feet, we observed a formation of more than sixteen MiG-15s slighily below flying in the opposite direction. Our squadron leader called for a descending left turn so that we could drop in behind the MiGs, but he cautioned that there may be another formation waiting for us. He was correct. As we began our attack, we were jumped by a second group of MiGs, and a melee ensued. At one point, I observed an F-86 shooting at a MiG, with another MiG on his tail, followed by still another '86 behind that MiG! It was a huge, deadly, four aircraft "Lulberry Circle", all firing at one another.
Our radios were filled with chatter as they always were when a fight started, whereas our radio discipline was excellent while we were patrolling. Our group commander, Colonel Johnny Meyer, made certain of that. As a wingman, I was hanging on to Ernie Mack. He was tracking a lone MiG at long range. I was on his left wing scanning his three to six o'clock area. Ernie fired at his MIG while at long range. I, however, must have watched him shooting for too long. When I awoke after fifteen to twenty seconds at most, I looked over my left shoulder, and there, on my left wing with his sppe brakes open, was another MiG not more than fifteen feet from us!He looked as if he was trying to join our flight! As I watched, it was clear he was unable to slow down and would overshoot our formation. He closed his speed brakes and accelerated up and away to our left (remember the MiG could out-climb us handily at this altitude). As he did, I yelled, "Awning Blue Lead, we have a bandit at ten o'clock. He is really close! Take him" But by the time Ernie shifted from his first target, my MiG "wingman" was long gone.
Ernie and I still discuss this story at our reunions, and we both wonder what that MiG was doing? He could easily have shot one or both of us down. Were his guns jammed? Maybe he had forgotten to arm his switches, or was he trying to defect? We will never know, but I did get a very close look at that MiG-15. Its pilot was wearing a black leather helmet with a black oxygen mask, and his eyes were as big as saucers, just like mine! I should mention that it would have been a simple task for me to open my speed brakes, slide in behind that MiG, and shoot at him at point blank range. I did not because we wingmen were ingrained to call targets to our leaders, and not shoot unless it was a question of safety or we had been instructed to do so by our leaders.
My second memorable mission occurred on July ll, 1951.My call sign that day was "Dignity White Two" ("Dignity" meaning our group commander, J. C. Meyer, was leading the mission), and I was flying with Captain Bruce Cunningham. We were at 28,000 feet listening to radio chatter that indicated a fight was going on nearby. We were trying to find the fight, but as sometimes happened, we became separated from the other participants shortly after the fight began. I was flying almost line abreast off White Lead's right wing in an absolutely clear blue sky. We were flying at about Mach .85. Suddenly I saw what looked like pink roman candle balls flashing between our two Sabres! These were, of course, 37mm tracers. I followed the tracers back to their source, which was a MiG-15 firing away, but he was too far out of range. He was alone. I called, "Dignity White Lead, we have one shooting at us at six o'clock, but he is way out." Bruce replied, "I do not have him, but keep him in sight."
The MiG continued firing, and he was closing on us much faster than I thought. l also realized he had now shifted his aim in my direction! I called again, "White Lead, break left! He is firing at ME! Bruce Cunningham broke so hard that later we found he popped rivets in his ailerons, and I thought I would blackout trying to stay with him. As I pulled into my hard turn, the MiG passed between us! He overshot badly. This MiG had North Korean markings with a red nose. Then he made a second mistake: he headed down. Since Bruce was turning away from the MiG, he could not see this, but I was in the perfect position to take the MiG. I called Bruce, "White Lead, I am on the MiG. We are headed down!" Bruce replied, "Okay, White Two, you take him. I will cover your wing."
This was my first, and as it turned out, only chance in Korea to be a "shooter". It was easy to stay close behind the MiG as he stayed in a descending left turn. I actually had to reduce power and use my speed brakes toavoid overrunning him. But unfortunately, my lack of training hindered me. I could not find the gunsight image in my windscreen! In later years, became an excellent aerial gunner, and I have often reviewed my engagement with this MIG with deep regret. I was so close, however, and I began blasting away with my six .50s, but as I now know, I was shooting behind the MiG. He was obviously scared, and he kept turning tighter and tighter as we picked up speed in our diving turn. Suddenly, and with great quickness, the MiG snaprolled and went into a flat spin! This happened so rapidly that I almost collided with the MiG, which seemed to have stopped in front of me. Instinctively, I squeezed the trigger and pulled hard on the stick. This corrected my previously poor shooting, and I "walked" my machine gun fire across the MiG immediately behind his cockpit as I zoomed past him barely avoiding a midair collision. I observed several AFI (armor piercing - incendiary) strikes, but I was now so low on fuel that I could not stay any longer, and so I returned to Suwon.
Later during our debriefing, I claimed the damage I observed on that MiG-15. Two MiGs were shot down that day and were confirmed by other pilots. Strangely, another pilot reported that as he returned, he observed a single MiG heading north, and he saw the pilot bail out for no apparent reason. One of our debriefers asked me if I was sure I had not seen my MiG pilot bail out? I had to reply I did not. Bruce Cunningham said he watched the MIG recover from its spin and head north, but he was not able to give chase. I have always felt the odds were good that the "unforced" bail out was my MiG target, but I will never be able to prove it. The damage I inflicted, orthe damage caused by the high-speed snaproll, or both, most likely convinced the MiG pilot that his aircraft was too badly damaged to land. It should also be noted that later during the testing of a MiG-15 after the Korean War, it was revealed that the MiG's controls became extremely heavy at high speeds, and that the MiG-15 had a tendency to snaproll and spin at high angles of attack around Mach .8.
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