(With help from Bruce Hinton, Dick Becker, John Moorhead, and others)
After the end of World War Two, most new Air Force aircraft were being delivered in either a natural metal finish, or in the new gloss grey paint that was thought to be beneficial at speeds approaching the Sound Barrier, it wasn't of course, and as the paint peeled rapidly, it actually cost speed at the top end. The first jets were all delivered in the new gloss grey However, by 1947, the grey paint was being removed and again the aircraft were delivered in a natural metal finish.
This remained the standard for Air Force aircraft for the next eighteen years, with a few exceptions. One of those occured during the Korean War. In the summer of 1951, three F-86As made an appearance at Suwon AB with their upper surfaces painted an olive green color. Along with the three 4th Fighter Wing F-86As, several T-6 Mosquito aircraft, and a couple of RF-80A Shooting Stan, also wore the unorthodox camoflage.
Why were these aircraft camoflaged? Was it for a special mission? If so, what was it? And what effect did the camoflage paint have on the performance of the aircraft, especially the F-86s? Bruce Hinton, CO of the 336th Squadron at Suwon, Dick Becker, 2nd jet ace in Korea, and John Moorhead, another 4tb Wing pilot, plus several members of the 4th Wing ground crews, gave us some insight into an operation known as STOVE PIPE.
The three aircraft used for the STOVEPIPE were repainted during the late summer of 1951. All were -48 model F-86As, some of the oldest still flying combat with the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Suwon. Each aircraft had a distinctive olive green camoflage, and each aircraft was different from the others in the exact camoflage scheme. The olive green paint came from the local Amy depot, and was originally intended for use on Amy tanks.
One bird, 48-281, had the entire upper surfaces painted over, including the black and white combat stripes found on all F-86s in Korea at the time. A second aircraft had most of the upper surfaces carmflaged, but with the stripes retained. The third aircraft, 48-260, had only the top of the fuselage and the upper wing and stabilizer surfaces camoflaged. But they all stood out like sore thumbs when flown with the other Sabres at Suwon.
But the mission of the STOVEPIPE aircraft was not normally that of MiG hunting in northwest Korea. Yes, the STOVEPIPE aircraft flew into MiG Alley (and possibly beyond) almost every day that a mission was called for by 5th Air Force, always taking off before the main fighter force. The STOVEPIPE mission was one of dual capability - it was the last minute weather recon to determine if it was feasable or necessary for the Sabres to go to MiG Alley. If the weather was lousy along the Yalu River, the STOVEPIPE pilot would radio back and often cause the mission to be scrubbed.
The second mission flown on a regular basis by the STOVEPIPE Sabres was that of radio relay aircraft. The STOVEPIPE bird would perch along the Chodo/ Pyongyang line and relay information to the inbound Sabre flights, 5th AF monitoring stations, or the rescue facilties located on Chodo Island over the combat channel about weather, MiG traffic, ongoing fights, downed aircraft and other inflight emergencies. Most of these missions came about when the MiGCAP forces were flying at the furthest point from the Chodo facilities, beyond the Suiho Dam complex about midway up the Yalu River.
The STOVEPIPE pilot was constantly in touch with US listening sites that were operating as close to Antung as was possible. One such site was on a small boat operating near the mouth of the Yalu River. It was these guys (read that CIA) who would call out the bandit traiiins' leaving Antung. They were close enough that they could identify certain aircraft and pilots, such as the legendary 'Casey Jones'. The Y-Service' people had their own radio net with the US radar site at Chodo, which then forwarded the information to the STOVEPIPE pilot. He in turn would contact the inbound Sabre flights and hand off any pertinent information.
During the weather reconnaisance flights, the STOVEPIPE pilots would fly up the west coast of Korea at very low altitudes. The olive green paint would help hide the lone Sabre from the prying eyes of airborne MiGs that might be in the area. As a radio relay aircraft, the STOVEPIPE aircraft bad to fly at combat altitudes, above 35,000 feet. At this altitude, the dark green Sabre stood out quite clearly both from above and below.
However, during the late Fall of 1951, when the parts shortage in Korea caused a great many Sabres to be AOCP (Aircraft Out of Commission for Parts), the STOVEPIPE Sabres were often pressed into service with the rest of the Sabres. Any pilot flying a STOVEPIPE Sabre on a regular combat mission would be at a very distinct disadvantage. The STOVEPIPE airplanes, with their green paint, were at least twenty miles per hour slower than a standard F-86 in natural metal. It meant an entire flight had to slow their ingress speed to that of the STOVEPIPE airplane.
Normally, a combat flight wanted to enter MiG Alley with their speed at about .92 Mach or higher. But the STOVEPIPE Sabres had a top speed of only about .85 Mach. And twenty mph at combat altitudes, with a MiG on your butt, could be disastrous. Even "ratting the tailpipe" for increased thrust, could not bring the 'painted ladies' up to speed with the rest of a flight. With this in mind, 4th Wing Headquarters would endeavor to pair up a STOVEPIPE Sabre with the next slowest airplane as an element during the mission.
By late 1952, the camoflaged F 86As were gone. Or at least the paint was. Indeed, most of the remaining F86As were completely withdrawn from combat by late Fall 1952. The STOVEPIPE mission in the 4th FIW was taken over by later model F-86E and F Sabres and armed T-33A aircraft. The T-33 aircraft could also act as airborne mission director. When the 51st Wing transitioned into the F-86E during late 1951, they also had a STOVEPIPE mission similar to that of the 4th Wing. However, they used an armed T-33 for their relay aircraft from the beginning.
One of the STOVEPIPE aircraft remains today. And a very conspicuous one at that. F-86A #48-260 has been restored in the combat markings it wore with the 4th FIW at Suwon prior to the STOVEPIPE mission. The F86A is on permanent display as pact of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and will be one of the first aircraft visitors will see when they enter the new Udvar-Hazy facility at Dulles Airport.
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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