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U.S. Jetfighter Ace of Korea

U.S. Jetfighter Ace of Korea



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Get to know Colonel Ralph Parr, one of the greatest jetfighter aces in American history, whose three-decade Air Force career encompassed three wars and five combat tours.


The Influence of History

A military history blog with a focus on 20th century naval warfare and a particular emphasis is on the interplay between strategy and technology. The name comes from my belief that the only way we can truly understand the present is by studying the past. Therefore, most of the content is geared towards comparison and analysis in search of lessons from history that can be applied to current affairs.

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USN Carrier Aircraft of the Korean War (1950-1953)

During the Korean War, military technology was in a transitional state. While a whole generation of more modern weapons had been developed, the large inventory of World War II weapons and the post-war Truman budget cuts meant that old and new operated side by side throughout the conflict. This can be clearly seen in the Navy's aircraft, where WWII propellor planes operated with jets and helicopters. This post will provide a brief overview of every aircraft variant that served aboard the newly redesignated attack carriers during the Korean War.

An F4U-4 Corsair armed with eight 5" rockets

The F4U-4 Corsair was the single most common carrier aircraft in the Korean War. Designed as a high-performance fighter during World War II, by 1950 its top speed of 390 knots and service ceiling of 41,000 feet was decidedly outclassed by the jet fighters that were then in service. However, large numbers were available and its six internal .50 machine guns with 2400 rounds of ammo as well as its provisions for two 1000-pound bombs and eight 5" rockets, the F4U-4 was well equipped for ground attack. With a single 150 gallon external tank and eight 5” rockets, a Corsair had a 285 nautical mile combat radius with 20 minutes on station - substantially more than the new jets. A sub-variant, the F4U-4B, had its machine guns replaced with four 20mm cannon and 924 rounds.

Special purpose variants of the Corsair were also in common service. The F4U-5N, was a dedicated night fighter. The base F4U-5 was a post-war upgrade of the Corsair, incorporating a 10% more powerful engine as well as improvements to performance and pilot interface. All F4U-5 Corsairs also had the 20mm cannon armament. Together, these changes resulted in a plane that was almost 20 knots faster and had another 4,000 feet of ceiling. However, few were built and many of them were converted to the F4U-5N night fighter, which carried a large AN/APS-19 radar under the starboard wing. With a maximum detection range against fighters of no more than 10 miles the system was fairly limited, but it was a vast improvement over 4 mile AN/APS-6 on the WWII-era F4U-4N. Generally, night fighters were not expected to find their own targets, but to use their radar to pinpoint the location of targets detected by surface radars. There was also the F4U-5NL sub-variant that included additional deicing measures to allow operations in the freezing Korean winters.

An F4U-5N displaying its prominent AN/APS-19 radar

There were also the F4U-4P and F4U-5P photo reconnaissance planes. These had a single oblique camera built into the fuselage behind the pilot. Although often neglected by history, photo recon planes were critical to identifying targets and performing battle damage assessment, as the camera would often catch things that pilots under fire would overlook. Since the only way to get recon photographs to strike pilots was to physically deliver them (remember, communication between ships was limited to voice radio or signal flags and lights), it was essential that every airwing had its own photo recon aircraft to ensure timely circulation of intelligence to pilots.

An F9F-2 Panther with its common loadout of tip tanks and six 5" rockets

The next most common carrier aircraft was the F9F-2 Panther, a single-engine jet fighter. When configured for air to air combat with its four 20mm cannon and 760 rounds of ammo, it had a top speed of 500 knots and a service ceiling of 43,000 feet. But while this was far superior to the legacy propellor-driven fighters, it was nearly 100 knots slower than the new swept-wing jet fighters such as the F-86 and MiG-15. Thus, although it did score some air to air kills, the Panther spent most of its time in Korea in the ground attack role. Configured for air to ground, it could carry up to two 1000-pound bombs and six 5” rockets, although actual loads were generally lighter. But while its payload was comparable to that of the Corsair, its range was far less. When armed with just the six 5” rockets and internal guns, the F9F had a combat radius of only 130 nautical miles with 10 minutes on station.

Like the F4U, the F9F came in several variants. The F9F-3 and F9F-5 differed only in their engines and appeared in small numbers. The F9F-2B was the designation for Panthers equipped to carry bombs and rockets, but this was designation was dropped as that modification became universal. The F9F-2P was the primary photo recon plane of the war and quickly supplanted the F4U-4P and F4U-5P. Unlike the photo recon Corsairs, the F9F-2P sacrificed its guns for a oblique nose-mounted camera, with some mounting a second downward-facing camera as well. However, the F9F-2P was an interim measure to cover until the F9F-5P could enter service. Armed with two oblique and two downward-facing cameras, the F9F-5P was a far superior aircraft that also incorporated a special camera sight for the pilot and the option of recording video as well as still photos.

An AD-4 Skyraider loaded with twelve 250-pound bombs and two 300 gallon drop tanks

The third most common plane was the AD-4 Skyraider, a large single-seat, single-engine, attack plane. Originally designed as a dive-bomber to replace the WWII-era SB2C Helldiver, the Skyraider proved powerful enough to take over the torpedo bomber role as well. Armed with four wing-mounted 20mm cannon with 800 rounds, the AD-4 had hardpoints for three 2000-poud bombs and twelve 500-pound bombs or 5” rockets. However, when operating off a carrier it was limited to a bomb load of 6500-pound. In addition to this phenomenal armament (nearly equal to that of a B-17 bomber), the Skyraider had an impressive range. Loaded with two 150 gallon external tanks, a single 1000-pound bomb, and twelve 5” rockets, an AD-4 had a combat radius of 520 nautical miles with 15 minutes on station.

The large size of the Skyraider also made it extremely versatile, and a large number of variants were in service. The AD-2 and AD-3 were the predecessors of the AD-4 and showed up occasionally during the Korean War. These were powered by a slightly less powerful engine and had only two 20mm cannon with 400 rounds, but the actual performance difference was minor. The AD-4L, like the F4U-4L, incorporated various modifications for winter operations. The AD-2Q, AD-3Q, and AD-4Q were electronic warfare aircraft. While structurally identical to the standard Skyraiders, the “Q” variants had a small compartment in the fuselage to house a second crew member and was equipped with a variety of ESM and ECM equipment. The also commonly carried the same AN/APS-19 radar found on the Corsair night fighters (which could technically be fitted to any Skyraider), as it had surface search and ESM capabilities. The “Q” variants also had the collateral duty of towing targets during drills and so played an important role in maintaining readiness.


The Last Ace

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F󈚺—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.

Cesar Rodriguez, who retired with more air-to-air kills—three—than any active-duty Air Force pilot, stands beside an F-15.

This article has been corrected since it was published in the print magazine.


Video: "The View from the Cockpit"
Pilots at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base share their views on how to maintain American air superiority.

O ver Cesar Rodriguez’s desk hangs a macabre souvenir of his decades as a fighter pilot. It is a large framed picture, a panoramic cockpit view of open sky and desert. A small F‑15 Eagle is visible in the distance, but larger and more immediate, filling the center of the shot, staring right at the viewer, is an incoming missile.

It is a startling picture, memorializing a moment of air-to-air combat from January 19, 1991, over Iraq. Air-to-air combat has become exceedingly rare. Even when it happens, modern fighter pilots are rarely close enough to actually see the person they are shooting at. This image recalls a kill registered by Rodriguez, who goes by Rico, and his wingman, Craig Underhill, known as Mole, during the Gulf War.

A special-operations team combed the Iraqi MiG’s crash site, and this was one of the items salvaged, the last millisecond of incoming data from the doomed Iraqi pilot’s HUD , or head-up display. It was the final splash of light on his retinas, probably arriving too late for his brain to process before being vaporized with the rest of his corporeal frame. Pilots like Rodriguez don’t romanticize such exploits. These are strictly matter-of-fact men from a world where war is work, and life and death hang on a rapidly and precisely calibrated reality, an attitude captured by the flat caption mounted on the frame: This is an AIM-7 air-to-air missile shot from an F‑15 Eagle detonating on an Iraqi MiG‑29 Fulcrum during Operation Desert Storm .

A snapshot from the doorstep of oblivion, the photo is a reminder that the game of single combat played by Rico and Mole, and by fighter pilots ever since the First World War, is the ultimate one. It may have come to resemble a video game, but it is one with no reset button, no next level. It is played for keeps.

When Rodriguez retired two years ago from the Air Force as a colonel, his three air-to-air kills (two over Iraq in 1991 and one over Kosovo) were the most of any American fighter pilot on active duty. That number may seem paltry alongside the 26 enemy planes downed by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I, or the 40 notched by Richard Bong in World War II, or the 34 by Francis Gabreski across World War II and Korea. Rodriguez’s total was two shy of the threshold number for the honorific ace, yet his three made him the closest thing to an ace in the modern U.S. Air Force.

This says more, of course, about the nature of American air power than it does about the skills of our pilots. It’s hard to call what happens in the sky over a battlefield today “single combat.” More than ever, an air war is a group effort involving skilled professionals and technological marvels, from the ground to Earth orbit. But within the world of military aviation there remains a hierarchy of cool, and fighter jocks still own the highest rung. The word ace denotes singularity, the number one, he who stands alone at the top. Its mystique still attracts the most-ambitious young aviators, even if nowadays the greatest danger most of them face is simply flying the aircraft at supersonic speed.

American pilots haven’t shot down many enemy jets in modern times, because few nations have dared rise to the challenge of trying to fight them. The F‑15, the backbone of America’s air power for more than a quarter century, may just be the most successful weapon in history. It is certainly the most successful fighter jet. In combat, its kill ratio over more than 30 years is 107 to zero. Zero. In three decades of flying, no F‑15 has ever been shot down by an enemy plane—and that includes F‑15s flown by air forces other than America’s. Rival fighters rarely test those odds. Many of Saddam Hussein’s MiGs fled into Iran when the U.S. attacked during the Gulf War. Of those who did fight the F-15, like the unfortunate pilot framed on Rodriguez’s wall, every last one was shot down. The lesson was remembered. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam didn’t just ground his air force, he buried it.

That complete dominance is eroding. Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F‑15 in aerial combat, and given the changing nature of the threats our country is facing and the dizzying costs of maintaining our advantage, America is choosing to give up some of the edge we’ve long enjoyed, rather than pay the price to preserve it. The next great fighter, the F‑22 Raptor, is every bit as much a marvel today as the F‑15 was 25 years ago, and if we produced the F-22 in sufficient numbers we could move the goalposts out of reach again. But we are building fewer than a third of the number needed to replace the older fighters in service. After losing hope of upgrading the whole F‑15 fleet, the Air Force requested 381 F‑22s, the minimum number that independent analysts said it needs to retain its current edge. Congress is buying 183, and has authorized the manufacture of parts for 20 more at the front end of the production line, enough to at least keep it working until President Obama decides whether or not to continue building F-22s. Like so many presidential dilemmas, it’s a Scylla-and-Charybdis choice: a decision to save money and not build more would deliver a severe blow to a sprawling and vital U.S. industry at a time when the nation is mired in recession. And once the production line for the F-22 begins to shut down, restarting it will not be easy or cheap, even in reaction to a new threat. Each plane consists of about 1,000 parts, manufactured in 44 states, and because of the elaborate network of highly specialized subcontractors needed to fashion its unique airframe and avionics, assembling one F-22 can take as long as three years. Modern aerial wars are usually over in days, if not hours. Once those 183 to 203 new Raptors are built, they will have to do. Our end of the fight will still be borne primarily by the current fleet of aged F‑15s.

When Obama unveiled his national-security team in December, he remarked that he intended “to maintain the strongest military on the planet.” That goal will continue to require the biggest bill in the world, but the portion that bought aerial dominance for so long may have become too dear. (The team’s lone holdover from the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has not been an advocate for the F-22.) If Obama opts to shut down production on the aircraft, it will certainly be a defensible decision. After all, our impressive arsenals did not stop one of the most damaging attacks in our history seven years ago, mounted by men armed with box cutters. There are various ways of computing the cost of a fighter, from “unit flyaway cost,” which is the price tag as the plane rolls off the line, to “program acquisition unit cost,” which adds in the cost of the research, development, and testing. The former for the F‑22 is about $178 million, and the latter about $350 million. Either way, the F-22 is the most expensive fighter ever built.

But even reasonable decisions can have harsh consequences. Without a full complement of Raptors, America’s aging fighters are more vulnerable, and hence more likely to be challenged. Complaints from the Air Force tend to be dismissed as the laments of spoiled fighter jocks denied the newest, hottest toy. But the picture on Rodriguez’s wall reminds us of the stakes for the men and women in the cockpit. Countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will be more likely to take on the U.S. Air Force if their pilots stand a fighting chance. This could well mean more air battles, more old-style aces—and more downed American pilots.

The impact will not be felt only by aviators. Owning the sky is the first prerequisite of the way we fight wars today. Air supremacy is what enables us to send an elaborate fleet of machinery caterwauling over a targeted nation, such as Afghanistan or Iraq: the orchestrating AWACS (“ Airborne Warning and Control System,” the flying surveillance-and-command center ) precision bombers attack planes, helicopters, and drones ground support rescue choppers and the great flying tankers that keep them all fueled. This aerial juggernaut enables modern ground-fighting tactics that rely on the rapid movement of relatively small units, because lightly armed, fast-moving forces can quickly summon devastating air support if they encounter a heavy threat. Wounded soldiers can count on speedy evacuation and sophisticated emergency medical care. Accomplishing all this with anything like the efficiency American forces have enjoyed since the Vietnam War depends on owning the sky, which means having air-to-air hunter-killers that can shoot down enemy planes and destroy surface-to-air missile ( SAM ) sites before the rest of the fleet takes to the sky. Superior fighters are the linchpin of our modern war tactics. Having owned the high ground for so long, we tend to forget that it is not a birthright.

Unless the 21st century is the first in human history to somehow transcend geopolitical strife, our military will face severe tests in the coming years. The United States will be expected to take the lead in any showdown against a sophisticated air force. So it is worth examining the nature of air-to-air combat today, and the possible consequences of not building a full fleet of F-22s.

At the center of this question is that most romantic of modern warriors, the ace.

The skills that make a fighter pilot great have, like aircraft, evolved. Japan’s celebrated World War II ace, Saburo Sakai, who shot down more than 60 planes in aerial combat, described in his memoir, Samurai!, the extensive acrobatic training he and his fellow recruits received in pilot school to improve their strength and balance even before they flew. They worked on reducing their reaction time and perfecting their hand-eye coordination by swiping flies out of the air. Balance, coordination, reaction time, a feel for the airplane, gunnery, the ability to calmly perform complex aerobatic maneuvers while under fire, a talent for thinking and acting quickly even while upside down or tumbling or out of control—these were all vitally important. But the paramount skill, Sakai recalled, was something the recruits had at the start: exceptional vision.

All of the young pilots had been selected for their perfect eyesight, but even more important was how broadly they could see, how wide a horizon they commanded, and how quickly they could focus in on the faintest off-center visual cue. They competed to locate stars in daylight. Sakai wrote:

Gradually, and with much more practice, we became quite adept at our star-hunting. Then we went further. When we had sighted and fixed the position of a particular star, we jerked our eyes away ninety degrees, and snapped back again to see if we could locate the star immediately. Of such things are fighter pilots made.

I personally cannot too highly commend this particular activity, inane as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the split-second, life-or-death movements of aerial warfare. I know that during my 200 air engagements with enemy planes, except for two minor errors I was never caught in a surprise attack.

Surprise attack—seeing the enemy before he sees you—is still the killing edge, which is why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the fighter pilot and author, described dogfighting as less combat than “murder.” Getting the jump on an enemy, hitting him before he sees you, is the best-case scenario, or the worst, depending on where you sit. As the air war over Japan turned increasingly one-sided, in 1945, Sakai’s eyes kept him alive only two other pilots in his unit survived.

Today, of course, electronic systems extend a fighter’s vision well beyond the range of the most acute eyeball. Aerial combat is no longer a matter of fixing your sights on a dodging enemy. Most of the maneuvering in air-to-air combat today takes place BVR, or beyond visual range. The modern fighter pilot flies strapped into the center of a moving electronic cocoon. His speeding jet emits a field of photons* that can find, identify, and target an enemy long before he will ever see it. At the same time, his electromagnetic aura defends him by thwarting the enemy’s radar. American pilots strive to find and shoot down enemy aircraft from outside what they call the WEZ , or “weapons engagement zone,” which means safely beyond range of the enemy’s missiles. Traveling faster than sound, the fighter pilot is part of a network that can spot an enemy over the horizon, sometimes before he even leaves the ground that can attack multiple targets simultaneously and that in an emergency can react to an incoming threat before the pilot is even aware of it. Today’s jet is a machine so powerful, so smart, and so fast that the fighter jock’s biggest challenge is to safely fly and land it.

Combat in this arena has become virtual in every way except in its consequences. Tactics in a world of dueling electrons can be best understood in the abstract. Pilots speak of the need to extend their “timeline.”

“When cavemen fought they had their fists, first of all,” F‑15 pilot Colonel Terrence “Skins” Fornof explained to me last year in Alaska. “Then someone came up with the sling, which meant he could attack his enemy before he could get close enough to take a swing. The history of warfare technology has all boiled down to increasing the distance between you and your enemy’s fist. Distance means time, and you gain the advantage by extending that timeline. Our goal is the same as it ever was: to kill the enemy before he even has a chance to employ his weapon. War is not fair. You don’t want him to even get close enough to fight.”

The best flier in the world stands little chance against a superior aircraft, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can be a good fighter pilot. The skills required today are related to those of the early aces, but different. Perhaps the best way to explain is to take a closer look at Rodriguez.

A lifelong military man, he is of average height with a bullish torso, a round face, brown eyes, and thinning gray hair. The house in Tucson where the picture hangs has been his home for two years—longer than any other place he has ever lived. He exudes brisk, straightforward confidence, without pretense or misgiving. Asked to name his single most important flying skill, the modern equivalent of Sakai’s peripheral vision, Rodriguez struggles for an answer. It is something harder to grasp. It boils down to a talent for processing multiple information streams simultaneously.

“A World War II pilot would look at all of the things going on in the cockpit today, and his first reaction would be, ‘You guys have too many things going on here at once.’ You know, it is sensory overload,” he said when we talked at his home. “When you put one of those old pilots in a modern simulator, he can fly the airplane. The airplane is as easy to fly today as it was back then, maybe actually easier, because now it has aerodynamic features that make it more forgiving from the standpoint of taking off and landing. But they will very quickly say, ‘I can’t keep up with all the sensors that are buzzing into my brain right now.’ And every sensor that talks to you has a different frequency, a different tone, a different format, and some of them you are only picking up audio, others it’s a visual, some a combination of the two.”

Rodriguez began pilot training in 1981, after graduating from the Citadel. He knew going in that, of the class of 70 pilot trainees, only about five would qualify to fly fighters. Most would graduate and play vital roles in the great air-war machine, but only the cream would win coveted fighter seats. The first wave of washouts came during simple maneuvers on the training jets. According to Rodriguez, “You start maneuvering and they’d get violently airsick. That was the biggest cut.”

In the group that reached the next level, the academic workload sorted out the most-intense players from the wannabes. Rodriguez was used to the cloistered atmosphere and grinding academic pace of a military school, so he excelled in that area, too.

Those who excelled with him faced a new test: going acro.

“Suddenly acro was not just a cool thing you’d watch at the air show anymore,” Rodriguez says. “You were acro. You were part of it and you had to be able to think on your back, on your head, at zero G and then at high Gs, depending on the maneuver.” Avoiding G- LOC, or “gravity-induced loss of consciousness,” during aggressive acrobatics is a physical struggle. As the force of gravity intensifies, blood drains rapidly from the brain unless the pilot fights back. The pressurized suit helps, tightening on the extremities and lower body, but the pilot learns to flex his legs, buttocks, and stomach muscles and to control his breath. He emerges from such maneuvers wrung out and drenched with sweat.

It is a literal gut check. Rodriguez was lucky. He had the constitution for it. The only time he ever got airsick was one morning when the flying conditions looked unpromising and, assuming that his flight would be scrapped, he “proceeded to power down on two big, huge breakfast burritos.” Then he had to fly after all.

“I was told we were going to go up and actually do some advanced handling, which was a fairly physically challenging event because it was putting the airplane to the extreme aerodynamic limits … falling down and getting into spins and stuff like that, so it was one of those things where I go, ‘Okay, stand by one.’ I reached down and grabbed my barf bag, filled it up, put it back in my Gsuit, and said, ‘Okay, let’s keep going.’”

Complex exercises required rapid mental calculations: if you entered a loop 10 knots slower than anticipated, that meant your airspeed would be too slow to complete the entire maneuver, so you would have to make an adjustment, quite literally, on the fly.

“These were the kind of things that you could do sitting on your chair in your room, but when you have an airplane strapped to your back and you’re sweating and you’re pulling Gs, then it’s another matter,” he said. “You had to do the math in your head.” Needless to say, some people were better at this than others. Some pilots seemed to be able to do it intuitively, by the seat of their pants. Rodriguez was not one of them. But patient instructors and long hours in simulators, combined with a kind of desperation to succeed, eventually earned him a chance to fly the Air Force’s hottest jets.

Only then did his real training begin, in Tucson and at Holloman Air Force Base, in New Mexico, and finally at the Air Force’s “top gun” school, Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, where he flew training missions against a faux enemy, a dedicated force of experienced pilots trying hard to shoot him down. Technology is only part of what gives American pilots their advantage. As hugely expensive as it is to design, produce, fly, and maintain vanguard fighters, it takes far more effort and money to hone pilots’ skills, to keep squadrons of pilots like Rodriguez constantly flying, practicing, and getting better. Even if other nations had the know-how, few could afford to build a fleet of advanced modern fighters, and fewer still could afford to sustain an up-tempo environment for the men and women who fly and maintain it.

Being the best means learning to fully inhabit that screaming node, high above the slow curve of the Earth, strapped down in a bubble where the only real things are the sound of your own breathing and the feel of sweat rolling down the center of your back. You are alone but not alone. You cope with constant, multiple streams of data, everything from basic flight information—airspeed, altitude, attitude, fuel levels—to incoming radar images displayed on small, glowing green screens stacked in rows before you and to both sides. In your helmet are three or four radio links, with the AWACS , with the ground, with your wingman, and with your flight leader. It is a little bit like trying to navigate at high speed with four or five different people talking to you at once, each with a slightly different set of directions. It is not for amateurs. By the time Rodriguez flew into combat for the first time, he had hundreds of hours of training behind him, and being in the jet was second nature. With him were his wingman, his formation, and the superhuman reach of America’s technological eyes and ears.

Hurling a few dozen jets into the sky against this, as Saddam did in 1991, was most unwise.

Rodriguez and his wingman, Craig “Mole” Underhill, confronted their first Iraqi MiG‑29s early on the third morning of the war that took back Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. They were leading a helicopter assault on Saddam’s early-warning radar sites on the border with Saudi Arabia, clearing the way for devastating bombing runs on Iraqi airfields.

The air battle in this conflict was brief, decisive, and more intense than most Americans realized. By the time the Pentagon began showing off publicity videos of “smart bombs” pulverizing Iraqi targets, America and its allies owned the sky, but in getting there, 38 allied aircraft were destroyed. On this early sortie, Rodriguez and Underhill were flying out of Tabuk, an air base in northwestern Saudi Arabia, near the border with Jordan. As often happened in this fast-moving arena, they were initially tasked with one objective and then reassigned when they were airborne. They moved out at the head of a 36-aircraft strike force bearing down on a target 40 miles southwest of Baghdad. As they approached, several MiG‑29s came up to challenge them.

The MiG‑29, like the F‑15, is considered a “fourth generation” fighter. (Since the first jet fighters started flying, there have been four great evolutionary advances, each representing a quantum leap in technology.) The Soviets began deploying the MiG‑29 about nine years after the F‑15s went on line, and the plane itself is comparable to its American counterpart. But given all the other advantages enjoyed by the allied pilots, the brave, outnumbered Iraqi pilots launching themselves at the approaching juggernaut might as well have been committing suicide.

“From Western eyes, it’s a suicide mission,” Rodriguez told me. “From the eyes of the guy being invaded, he’s protecting the homeland.”

Even greatly disadvantaged, the Iraqi fighters were dangerous, and as it happened the large American force made a potentially fatal mistake that Saturday morning. The incoming MiGs were spotted, of course, but in the confusion of the moment either tactical errors were made by the strikers, or the Iraqi pilots exploited a seam in the American defenses. The AWACS command had spotted the MiGs immediately when they took off, and had handed them off to a Navy formation of F‑14s, which failed to intercept them. When Rodriguez and Underhill were alerted to the approaching threat, it came as a jolting surprise. The MiGs were just 13 miles out and closing at a speed of more than 1,000 nautical mph. Both pilots immediately began evasive maneuvers.

Rodriguez dove steeply, getting below the lead MiG, where he would be harder to find on its radar—pointing down, the radar’s signal can get confused by all the signals* bouncing back up from the ground. Then Rodriguez began flying in a low arc, keeping the MiG on his wing line, making himself “skinny,” presenting as small a radar target as possible. Within minutes the two fighters would be in a visual turning fight, a situation familiar to many experienced pilots from earlier wars, but one that is not supposed to happen in modern air warfare. The biggest difference between this fight and the old ones was speed. It would unfold not in minutes but in seconds. Rodriguez’s posture was strictly defensive: he could not target and shoot at the Iraqi plane, but it could shoot at him.

A cockpit alarm warned him when the MiG’s radar locked on him. The threat was still just a blip on his screen he hadn’t actually seen it yet. He was frightened and thinking furiously when in his headset he heard Underhill shout, “Fox!”—the code word for I have just fired a missile.

Rodriguez looked back over his shoulder, following the smoke trail of Underhill’s missile, and then, looking out ahead of it, caught his first and only glimpse of the MiG. This is the precise instant captured from the Iraqi pilot’s perspective in the photo on Rodriguez’s wall. It turns out that the picture does not preserve a moment of personal triumph for him, as I had originally supposed, but one of intense fear and vulnerability. Rodriguez’s little F‑15 in the distance was not predator but prey, trapped and awaiting a kill shot that would never come, because in the next instant the MiG became a huge fireball in the sky. The whole encounter lasted a little more than 10 seconds.

“Mole saves my bacon because he kills this guy before he can take a shot at me,” Rodriguez said as we sat in his office.

There was no time to celebrate, because the destroyed MiG’s wingman was now closing in on them, just seven miles out. Underhill and Rodriguez split their planes wide apart and assumed different altitudes. That way, the incoming MiG might spot one of them, but probably not both, and they improved their chances of eyeballing it. Before shooting at it, they had to make sure it was Iraqi—many planes were in the air that morning—but they wouldn’t have time to run the normal electronic matrix used to distinguish friend from foe.

They both saw the MiG at the same time. It had an Iraqi flag painted on it. Rodriguez passed the enemy fighter about 300 feet off its wing.

“He notices that I am there,” Rodriguez said. “He also notices that Mole’s about 20,000 feet above us. But at no point do I think he correlates the two of us as a formation.”

If the MiG pilot went for Underhill, then Rodriguez could shoot him down if he came for Rodriguez, “then Mole eats him up.” Confused, the angling MiG started up, and then down, which gave Rodriguez time to fly inside his turning circle, putting himself into roughly the same attack position the earlier MiG had had on him.

The Iraqi pilot, no doubt hearing an alarm telling him that an F‑15 had locked him in its radar, attempted a classic split‑S maneuver, which is the quickest way to reverse direction in the air. Flying parallel to the ground, he flipped his aircraft upside down and then attempted to fly a half circle, diving down, pulling up, and leveling off to head in the opposite direction. It was the right escape maneuver for an altitude of at least 5,000 feet, but the pilot, in his alarm and haste, neglected to compute one vital bit of data: he was only 600 feet up. He flew his jet straight into the desert floor.

“He had lost his situational awareness,” Rodriguez explained. “He was trying to perform a maneuver that he can do comfortably at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, and doesn’t realize that the fight, which started at 8,000 feet, had degraded and degraded closer to the desert floor. It’s a lack of training, a lack of experience, but given the situation he was in against two F‑15s, my argument is that no one would have done much better. He’s already seen his flight lead explode. He might not have hit the desert floor, but he was going to die anyway.”

T hese air kills were among the first by American pilots since Vietnam. An entire generation of fighters had come and gone without encountering an enemy in the sky. Three dozen Iraqi jets were shot down in the war, and Rodriguez was one of six pilots in his squadron who got two.

The second of his aerial kills was what he called “more routine,” more typical of modern aerial combat. A week after the first episode, he was flying in what the Air Force calls a “wall of Eagles,” a formation of four F‑15s spread out in the sky over roughly five to eight miles at 33,000 feet to maximize their visibility and radar range. Beneath them was thick undercast, a carpet of clouds opaque to their eyes but transparent to electronic surveillance systems. At that point, the remaining Iraqi air force was so vulnerable that the AWACS plane assisting the F‑15s picked up the enemy jets the minute they started their engines, while they were still on the ground. Rodriguez and the other pilots watched three radar blips form on their screens as the MiGs took off and climbed. Rodriguez assumed that the planes were, like the rest of Saddam’s air force, escaping into Iran.

“They were basically running scared,” he says. “Extremely scared.”

It took a few moments to identify the jets as MiG‑23s, and then the wall of Eagles began preparing to launch missiles at them.

“We think we’re going to have to stay above the clouds and we’re never going to see the missiles do their job, and all of a sudden there’s a big sucker hole, an opening in the clouds below,” he says. “The F‑15s dove to about 13,000 feet. The fleeing MiGs were hugging the terrain, flying just 300 to 400 feet above the ground, when we started launching AIM -7 missiles at them.

“And, sure enough, the missiles did their job.”

The Iraqi flight leader took the first hit. An American missile sliced through his plane, taking out the engine but leaving the shell of the plane intact. Trailing a thick cloud of smoke, the pilot began turning to the north, apparently trying to return to his base. Rodriguez’s flight leader fired a Sidewinder, a heat-seeking missile that lit up the sky when it hit, turning the unfortunate Iraqi pilot and his plane into an enormous fireball.

Rodriguez’s missile ripped straight through his target. The MiG apparently flew right into it. There was no large explosion. The missile just tore the jet to pieces, turning it into what Rodriguez called “a ground-level sparkler,” scattering debris across a wide swath of desert.

R odriguez’s third and last kill came eight years later, on March 24, 1999, when he flew his F‑15 as part of the NATO force attacking Serbian positions during the Kosovo campaign. Rodriguez’s squadron was assigned to lead an attack on a Serbian SAM site in Montenegro. On the way they would pass over an airfield in Pristina, Kosovo, where the Serbs had carved hangars for their fighters inside a mountain. No one was sure what kinds of planes, if any, were hidden there.

He took off from Cervia, Italy, on a clear night. As he ascended, Rodriguez could see the Italian coast to the west, lit up like a throbbing discotheque. He was pointed east, toward what was then still called Yugoslavia.

“It was pitch black,” he recalls. “You know, here’s a region of the world that has been at war, and where every light at night is a potential target. So everything below was just pitch black. You go, ‘Man, it’s two different worlds here.’”

The plan was for the multinational formation to fly lights-out, but the different levels of training and experience began to tell. American pilots fly black all the time, so when the order came to turn off lights, it was just another night’s work. But for some of the Dutch, German, British, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish pilots, this wasn’t so easy.

“The first time we tried it, as I looked behind me, I could see a train of fighters spread out over 100 miles behind me, and when the ‘lights out’ order came, they all went black,” said Rodriguez. “Then, sure enough, the comfort factor for some of these guys started to go. They started getting a little antsy and then, all of a sudden, pooh, pooh, pooh, the lights started coming back on. And we go, ‘Okay, guys, we really need to do this completely lights-out. If we don’t do this, we’re not going to be ready.’ But we got everybody into the train.”

A measure of confusion persisted, however. When the target was reached, the squadron commenced an air assault that would have taken an all-American unit five to eight minutes. This one took nearly an hour. Feeling increasingly vulnerable to attack by ground or air threats, Rodriguez circled and waited, trying to make his flight pattern unpredictable. As Rodriguez and his wingman, Bill Denham, turned back toward Italy, they picked up an aircraft coming up from the airfield in Pristina. At first it bore north, away from them, but then it turned.

The American planes began to conduct the standard series of checks to identify the plane. The F‑15 is equipped with a full range of instruments to, in effect, interrogate an unidentified plane in the air. They were coordinating with an AWACS , working through some language difficulties (the controllers spoke accented English). A process that would normally take 20 seconds took three times as long, which is a huge difference when you’re traveling hundreds of miles per hour. Rodriguez and his wingman were rapidly approaching the weapons engagement zone, where they would lose the advantage of their longer-range missiles.

They were on the edge of the WEZ as the ID was completed, and Rodriguez launched an AMRAAM , or “advanced medium-range air-to-air missile,” a new element of his arsenal added after the Gulf War. In the Air Force, they call it the Slammer. One advantage it affords is a “fire and forget” feature because the missile has its own homing and guidance system, the pilot need not stay pointed at the target. He is free to turn and evade the incoming jet in case his shot for some reason misses. Rodriguez stayed with his missile for as long as he could.

“It all went into slow motion, and I felt like the missile and I were kind of flying in formation for a while,” he recalls. “It just seemed to stay there for a couple of seconds and then, whoosh! It disappears. You see that glow [the missile’s exhaust], and that becomes just a little ember, and then it’s gone. And of course at night you can’t follow it anymore. The smoke trail goes away. But I could see it start to curve, and I go, ‘Okay, it looks like it’s doing the right lead-pursuit tracking.’ And the missile did everything it was advertised to do. We have a little counter display inside the cockpit that ticks down the time to intercept, and when the counter said zero, I looked outside through my canopy to the general vicinity of where I knew the target was going to be. I mean, that fireball was huge.”

Rodriguez said it was as though three or four giant sports stadiums had turned on all their lights at the same time.

“The reason it was so magnificent,” he said, “was because everything was covered in snow. So the fireball reflected off the snow, causing an even bigger illumination of the sky and everything around it.”

It was the first air kill of the Kosovo campaign, and the last of Rodriguez’s career. He gave little thought to the person he had just incinerated.

“I’m sure he had been a Yugoslav air-force pilot, which was a good air force for what they have,” he said. “I don’t personalize the war. He was doing what I was doing for my country.”

Manufactured by McDonnell Douglas starting in the early 1970s, the twin-engine, supersonic F‑15 was the first aircraft built with the understanding that a plane’s avionics, or electronic guts, were as important as its aeronautics, its flying capabilities. It was designed and built around an enormous radar disk.

“When it came on line 30 years ago, it had the best radar, the best weapons-employment displays ever, and the best maneuverability of any aircraft out there,” Brigadier General Thomas “Pugs” Tinsley told me when I visited him in Alaska last spring, a few weeks before his death. At the time, Tinsley commanded the Air Force’s Third Wing out of Elmendorf Air Force Base, in Anchorage. “The F‑15’s thrust-to-weight ratio was way ahead of anything else, and its flight-control system was much smarter and more stable. It could go out there and just fly circles around the F‑4 [the Phantom, its immediate predecessor] and have its way with MiG‑23s [the Soviets’ best fighter], just eat them up.”

For more than a quarter century, the speed and sound of a formation of F‑15s or F‑16s has made a commanding statement about American power, as anyone who has ever stood under one can attest. You feel its approach before you can hear or see it, a low vibration that starts in your toes and rises until the gray jets flick past overhead. Only then comes the roar. They are gone before your eyes focus on them, leaving behind the orange glow of their afterburners and a wash of energy that hammers your ears and rattles your spine. As a patriotic display it is impressive, something to stir pride and admiration—but imagine being on the receiving end of such power, to have it shooting at you. It is one of the most convincing arguments ever made for surrender.

Despite the romantic leather-helmet, silk-scarf legend of the fighter pilot, aerial combat has always been more about engineering than flying. Considering that the first tentative Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk took place just over a century ago, the evolution of aerial combat has been astonishing. Inside of 40 years, from World War I to the Korean conflict, pilots went from shooting at each other with pistols from propeller-driven biplanes to dueling with cannons and missiles in jet aircraft moving faster than sound. At the start of World War II, American fighter and bomber pilots were adapting their tactics to cope with superior German and Japanese fighters, and by the end they had aircraft that could fly so high, so fast, and for so long, that few enemy fighters could even get close enough to shoot at them. Sakai noted, sadly, that the B-29 Superfortress was simply “insuperable.” By Korea, “air breathers,” or jets, had replaced the finely crafted propeller-driven fighters of lore, and aerial duels between American F‑86 Sabres and Soviet-built MiG‑15s were fleeting visual encounters where the biggest challenge was to get close enough to fire.

Today the fight has moved beyond visual range, into the realm of electromagnetic waves*, and involves what fighter pilots call “look-down, shoot-down” capability. The air war is a contest between radar systems, countermeasures, and missiles. American pilots have long enjoyed the advantages of seeing an enemy first, and of having missiles with the range and speed to hit the enemy from beyond the WEZ . But those advantages have gradually eroded. A fighter jet’s theoretical “kill ratio” is based on projections of how many enemy fighters it could shoot down before getting shot down itself when faced with an unlimited number of attackers at once. The F-15’s kill ratio of 8‑to‑1, which is what it enjoyed throughout most of its history and which reflected more than anything the finite capability to carry munitions, is now closer to 3‑to‑1.

“If the enemy has radar-guided missiles, now we’re shooting at each other,” Lieutenant Colonel Chuck “Corky” Corcoran told me last year at Elmendorf. Corcoran is a former F‑15 pilot who now commands the 525th Fighter Squadron, the Bulldogs, one of the three F‑22 squadrons just now getting planes. “If those enemy weapons have similar capabilities to ours, I’ve got to employ some sort of tactic to gain an advantage, whether it’s getting higher and faster so I can shoot first, or checking away [shifting slightly off course] to increase his missile’s time of flight.”

Drawing out that time, even by a split second, can mean everything, because it allows your missile to strike first. Once the enemy’s plane is destroyed, its radar can no longer steer his missile.

“His missile is looking for reflected radar energy that he’s pointing at you, so if your missile gets to him and blows him up and kills his radar before his missile gets to you, then you are going to live,” Corcoran explained.

An AMRAAM missile like the one Rodriguez used over Kosovo was a major step forward because it frees the attacking plane from having to keep its radar pointed at the target. The American plane can launch a missile from outside the WEZ , turn, and kick on its afterburners before the target has a chance to even shoot.

These tools rely, of course, on radar, which can be jammed.

“If you can’t match your enemy’s technology, you can always subtract from it,” says Wayne Waller, a Virginia contractor who designs radar systems for the F‑15. “You may invent something that gives you an advantage, but you can’t hang on to it for very long. Our radar used to be difficult to jam, but the capability to do that has improved geometrically. That knowledge is out there. And the jamming advances cost a lot less than improving the radar.”

Countries that cannot afford to build fleets of the most advanced supersonic fighters can afford to build pods with clever software to mount on older airframes. This was brought home dramatically in Cope India 2004, a large aerial-combat training exercise that pitted F‑15 pilots from Elmendorf against India’s air force, which is made up of the MiG‑21 and MiG‑29, and the newer Mirage 2000 and Russian-built Su‑30. The exercises were conducted high over north-central India, near the city of Gwalior.

“We came rolling in, like, ‘Beep-beep, superpower coming through,’” Colonel Fornof told me. “And we had our eyes opened. We learned a lot. By the third week, we were facing a threat that we weren’t prepared to face, because we had underestimated them. They had figured out how to take Russian-built equipment and improve upon it.”

A small country can buy a MiG‑21 on the world weapons market for about $100,000, put in a better engine, add more-sophisticated radar and jamming systems, improve the cockpit design, and outfit it with “launch and leave” missiles comparable to the AMRAAM . These hybrid threats are more dangerous than any rival fighters America has seen in generations, and they cost much less than building a competitive fourth-generation fighter from scratch. The lower expense enables rival air forces to put more of them in the air, and because the F‑15 can carry only so many munitions, American pilots found themselves overwhelmed by both technology and sheer numbers during the exercises over India.

Today the average age of the F‑15s in use is 24 years, which in the world of modern electronics means they were born several geological ages ago. When the F‑15 started flying missions, Jimmy Carter was president and the Cold War was shaping geopolitics. Most Americans didn’t own a home computer. People were still buying music on vinyl albums and cassette tapes. The first F‑15s had roughly the computer capability of the video game Pong. If anything, the pace of innovation is even faster in the military than in the civilian world, and as better look-down, shoot-down capabilities have come on line, they have been systematically layered and squeezed into the aging airframe of the F‑15. This has led to the dizzying complexity of the fighter’s cockpit. But no matter how many gizmos the wizards can squeeze into the F‑15, it remains an old fighter.

“If you take a Pinto and put really nice tires on it, it’s still a Pinto,” Colonel Corcoran says. His choice of the unlovely, pedestrian Ford sedan as a metaphor is telling: pilots like Corcoran see the F‑22 as a Formula One racer by comparison. “You can put a bigger engine in the Pinto, but the frame is not built to handle the higher speeds,” he said. “To build a fifth-generation fighter, you have to start from the ground up.”

Some of the pilots I spoke to described the F‑22 as such a huge leap in capability that it ought to be considered not a fifth-generation fighter, one step up from the F‑15, but sixth-generation.

“It is really two big steps ahead of anything else out there,” Corcoran told me. “All of the data from all the different sensors in the aircraft are fused. The F‑22 has one big display in the middle of the cockpit, so you are kind of sitting in the middle of that display, and all of the sensors run on their own. And tracks show up all around you, 360 degrees, and all of it in color. So the red guys are bad, the green guys are good, and the yellow guys—we don’t know who the yellow guys are yet. So without the pilot doing anything, you have this 360-degree picture of the battle space around you. With the F‑15, after a couple of years of training, you might be able to achieve that level of awareness.”

Major Derek Routt and Lieutenant Colonel Murray Nance have a unique perspective on the new fighter. They both fly for the Air Force’s 65th Aggressor Squadron, mimicking the tactics and capabilities of enemy air forces in war games. I met them last summer at Elmendorf, where they were in the middle of Red Flag exercises—realistic war games carried out every few years—featuring “battling” F‑15s and F‑22s.

“I saw a Raptor just yesterday,” Routt said. “It was way above me. I was just being called dead at the time. You usually don’t see it until it’s done with you, flying overhead, rocking its wings, saying, ‘Thanks for playing, fellows.’

“I flew in a comparison test with both the F‑15 and the F‑22,” he continued. “You flew against the F‑22 one day, and the next day we took the same profile and flew against the F‑15. I fought both of those, and there was absolutely no comparison. This is not a paid advertisement for the F‑22. You talk to any aviator in the world, ask what they would like to fly, and if they don’t say the F‑22, then they are lying. I would kill to fly it.”

“It is hard to kill what you can’t see,” Nance said. “It’s eye-watering, the kind of turning it can do.”

“Makes you cry. I mean, you realize, ‘How did he just do that?’”

L ast summer at Elmendorf, Corcoran sat me down in the cockpits of both an F‑15 and an F‑22 to show me just how different they are. As the F‑22 is to a modern point-and-click laptop—user-friendly—the F‑15 is to the first clunky personal computers, the ones where you had to type instructions in basic computer language to perform the simplest of tasks. All of the avionics on the F‑22 were designed from the ground up, and are fully integrated. The big central screen makes situational awareness intuitive. Better still, it is linked with all the other Raptors in its formation, and with the AWACS command. There is now only one page, and everyone is on it.

“It’s all there in front of you,” General Tinsley explained. “Where am I? Where are you? Who is out there? Who is locking on to me? It gives you a God’s-eye view that is simply a thing of beauty. I have sensors in the F‑22 that don’t just look out the front of the airplane, they are spread all over the aircraft. I can see somebody anywhere. It is easier on the pilot, which makes him a more efficient killing machine.”

The improvement is so great that some of the older F‑15 pilots tend to look down their noses at the youngsters flying the F‑22.

“To be good in the F‑15, you have to work at it,” Corcoran told me. “It’s easier to separate the men from the boys and identify the real talent. But the way I see it, the less time my F‑22 pilots have to spend sorting out all this data, the more time they have to think tactically and react to what is happening around them. That means our entire force, from top to bottom, is more effective.”

The F‑22’s most remarkable quality is that it is “combat-coated,” which means it is painted with material that absorbs rather than deflects the signals* beamed out by the enemy’s defense systems, making it virtually invisible to radar. Talking about it, Tinsley grew gruffly animated.

“Now I have stealth!” he said. “The F‑15 is a big airplane you can see that thing outside of 10 nautical miles. The F‑16 is a little bit better in a dogfight, visually, because it’s a smaller aircraft. I might not be able to see it turning until about seven or eight nautical miles. The F‑22, the bad guys can’t even see me on their radar, and even in visual range the Raptor is small. My missiles hit them before they even know I am there. And I’m not just talking about air-to-air, I’m talking about air-to-ground.”

The biggest threat to American fighters during the first wave of an assault is from surface-to-air missiles. They are much cheaper to build and maintain than a fleet of supersonic fighters, so smaller countries such as Iran have invested heavily in them. Attacking SAM sites in an F‑15 is risky work. But with the F‑22, pilots are back to shooting fish in a barrel.

“The F‑22 avionics allow me to be a better battle-space manager and efficient killer,” Tinsley explained. “I have stealth, so I have the surprise piece. And then on top of all that, I can do it at supercruise. I can climb higher than other fighters, I can go faster with lower fuel consumption, so I can cover a larger space. And no one can see me. Now we’re getting that 8-to-1 kill ratio I need to maintain superiority.”

The Air Force fears that the dominance of U.S. airpower has been so complete for so long that it is taken for granted. The ability of the United States to own the skies over any battlefield has transformed the way we fight. The last American soldier killed on the ground by an enemy air attack died in Korea, on April 15, 1953.

Russia, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and others are now flying fourth-generation fighters with avionics that match or exceed the F‑15’s. Ideally, from the standpoint of the U.S. Air Force, the F‑22 would gradually replace most of the F‑15s in the U.S. fleet over the next 15 years, and two or three more generations of American pilots, soldiers, and marines would fight without worrying about attacks from the sky. But that isn’t going to happen.

“It means a step down from air dominance,” Richard Aboulafia, an air-warfare analyst for the Teal Group, which conducts assessments for the defense industry, told me. “The decision not to replace the F‑15 fleet with the F‑22 ultimately means that we will accept air casualties. We will lose more pilots. We will still achieve air superiority, but we will get hurt achieving it.”

General Tinsley suggested that there will be a deeper consequence: other countries will be more tempted to challenge us in the air. The dominance of the F‑15 had already begun to erode before the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991. The last fighter the Soviets produced, the MiG‑29, had similar aeronautic capabilities, and its radar and weapons systems gave it look-down, shoot-down tools on a par with the F‑15’s. Today, Russia is equipping its air force with Su‑35s, and has offered them for sale. Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is a customer of the plane’s close cousin, the Su‑30. These fighters are every bit the match of the F‑15. Combine that with the hybrid threat posed by revamped older fighters, and the fight in the air begins to look fair for the first time in a half century.

It was fashionable in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union to argue that the threat of conventional warfare was no longer relevant, because no other nation could compete with the United States on conventional terms. The attacks of September 11, 2001, underlined that argument the new threat was “asymmetrical”—small cells of sophisticated terrorists against whom our huge arsenals were useless.

Conventional weaponry may be useless against terrorists, but that doesn’t mean the old threats have disappeared. Russia’s incursion into Georgia and threatening gestures against the Baltic states Iran’s persistence in pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles North Korea’s decision to ignore its agreement to cease building nuclear weapons—all are reminders that the threat posed by belligerent nation-states is still real. If Georgia is admitted to NATO , the United States and other member nations will be obliged by treaty to defend it from Russia. China continues to rapidly expand its air force. Conflict with these nations isn’t inevitable or even necessarily probable, but as we become more vulnerable in the air, it may well become more likely.

“What happens when we no longer own that advantage in the air?” Tinsley asked me. “Are our enemies going to feel a little froggy and push the limits? Why haven’t we fought that many wars? If America hadn’t built the F‑15, would it have been the same story? How much did our fleet of F‑15s keep other countries at bay? If we had been stuck with the F‑4 and someone had come along with a MiG‑29, would they have stepped out and done some damage? We have to replace all the F‑15s with F‑22s.”

This is the position you would expect from an Air Force general, whose job was to make sure America continues its unquestioned ownership of the sky. One might just as easily argue that lack of such complete superiority will act as a healthy restraint on American military aggression. After all, the latest big war, in Iraq, was one we started. If we are more likely to bleed, perhaps we will be slower to fight.

But fights will come. The squadron Colonel Corcoran is pulling together at Elmendorf will consist of an elite few. The 525th Bulldogs have a tradition reaching back to World War II, when its pilots flew P‑51 Mustangs and P‑47 Thunderbolts over Europe. Such squadrons are small, close-knit clubs and, especially when based in such remote outposts as Elmendorf, define their pilots’ personal, social, and professional lives. Their members sit at the pinnacle of their profession, every bit as much an elite (perhaps more so) as professional athletes, only without the pay or celebrity. Photos of the Bulldog squadron’s decorated exploits and heroes line the walls of its bar—or, as one happy pilot told me with a shot glass in one hand and a beer in the other, “Not a bar, a ‘Heritage Room!’”—where pilots gather for ritualized bouts of drinking, roasting, and storytelling. There are already two operational F‑22 squadrons at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia, and eventually Corcoran’s will be one of two in Alaska. If and when a conflict arises, they will be stretched wide and far.

The good news is that the Air Force has had some success integrating the newer fighter with its older ones. Part of its argument for the F‑22s was that they were too sophisticated to be teamed with older, lesser planes. But early results in Red Flag competitions suggest otherwise.

“When the F‑15s are up doing their tactics, we’re kind of back behind them a little bit and helping them out if they have trouble,” Colonel Jim Hecker, the operations-group commander at Elmendorf, told me. “If an F‑15 is having some trouble dealing with electronic countermeasures where he can’t shoot, that’s when we’ll go in and get rid of that guy for him. I think the synergistic effect of having a couple of F‑22s in with those fourth-generation fighters is great. Based on the buy, I think we’re going to have to do that if we stay at the same number of F‑22s. We simply don’t have enough, so we have to find ways to integrate like this to optimize our capability.”

So America’s fighter fleet is likely to remain F‑15-based, backed up by the F‑22 and F‑35, a fifth-generation fighter that resembles the Raptor but without the same maneuverability and speed. It means that the days when the Air Force’s leading “ace” has only three kills may be coming to an end. If more vulnerability means more challenges—and it usually does—then more fighters will be seeing action. If the cost of air supremacy is not paid in dollars, it may be paid in blood.

A fter 26 years of flying, Rodriguez is no longer in the fight. Pushing 50, he now works for Raytheon. One of his responsibilities is to sell the AMRAAM , an assignment that puts to good use the story of his killer sortie over Pristina, when he lit up the snowy night with that MiG. He hasn’t flown an airplane since 2004. After all those years of going acro in the F‑15, it’s hard for him to get a thrill in the cockpit of anything else.

“I’ve relinquished myself to business class,” he said.

He’s passed the baton. But no matter how different the demands on a fighter pilot have become, Rodriguez is convinced that the job itself hasn’t changed that much.

“It’s the same person,” he said. “He’s just introduced to technology. I mean, when you think about it, today kids are growing up exposed to multitasking, multisensory inputs when they play a video game. So that person is going to evolve into someone technically friendly with everything new that comes up. Back in World War I, World War II, the concept of flying itself was a leap, you know, a leap of faith in some cases. And that’s the same one that we want flying fighters today, the one willing to take the leap.”

Correction: The print version of this piece incorrectly referred to the particles emitted by radar as electrons. Radar's signals are electromagnetic waves made up of photons.


F-80 Shooting Star: America's First Fighter Jet Gave the Nazis a Run For Their Money

Hastily designed to counter Nazi superfighters in the early 1940s, America’s first operational fighter jet would have an unexpected and long-lasting legacy.

Here's What You Need to Remember: America’s first operational jet fighter soon started setting records. In 1946 a Shooting Star made the first jet-powered coast-to-coast flight across the United States from Long Beach California to New York. The same year, an F-80 unit flew across the Atlantic. A specially modified P-80R “racer” even set a (brief) world airspeed record of 623 miles per hour.

On November 8, 1950, a flight of four straight-winged jets swooped down on an airfield at Sinuiju, North Korea—on the Korean side of the border with China. The F-80 Shooting Stars raked the airfield with their six nose-mounted .50 caliber machine guns as black bursts of antiaircraft fire tore the sky around them.

The Shooting Stars had arrived a few months earlier, in response to North Korea’s overwhelming invasion of its southern neighbor using Soviet-supplied tanks, artillery, and aircraft. After a rough early period, a UN counterattack had turned the tables: these F-80s from the Fifty-First Fighter Wing were flying out of U.S.-occupied Pyongyang, striking the remaining North Korean forces near the border with China.

After completing their third pass, Maj. Evans Stephens and his wingman Lt. Russell Brown climbed to twenty thousand feet so they could cover their two wingmates. Suddenly, Brown spotted the silvery glint of around ten jet fighters streaking towards them from higher altitudes across the Chinese border. He radioed the other element to abort their attack run—MiGs were coming!

What followed was, debatably, the first air battle between jet fighters in history—and the American pilots were flying the slower planes.

America’s Plan to Counter Nazi Jets

The United States’ first jet plane, the Bell P-59 Airacomet, first flew in October 1942. Though sixty armed production models were eventually built, the Airacomets were never deployed operationally because their early, unreliable turbojets gave them a maximum speed of only around 410 miles per hour—slower than the P-51 Mustang piston-engine fighter then in service. But in 1943 Allied intelligence indicated that Nazi Me-262 jets capable of 540 miles per hour would soon join the fray. Lockheed was asked to produce its own jet fighter using a more powerful British turbojet—in just six months.

Legendary aviation engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, future designer of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, scratched out a clean design with elegant, almost art-deco lines and modern tricycle landing gear. A flyable prototype was designed and assembled in a mere 143 days under conditions of absolute secrecy—only a handful of the 130 personnel assigned to the project even knew they were building a jet plane!

The XP-80 prototype could exceed five hundred miles per hour—faster than any operational piston-engine fighter, and the de Havilland Goblin engine was eventually exchanged for a more powerful Allison J33 turbojet with two intakes just below the canopy.

However, the Shooting Star retained the straight wings and tail of World War II piston-engine fighters—design elements that impaired performance when approaching the speed of sound. Problems with the fuel pump on the XP-80 caused fatal accidents that killed Lockheed’s chief test pilot and later Richard Bong, the top-scoring U.S. ace of World War II.

As for the Nazi jets, though they were formidable adversaries, fuel shortages and a deteriorating industrial base prevented them from having a large impact. While the UK managed to deploy some of its own Meteor jets in response, they never encountered their German counterparts.

Just four preproduction YP-80As made it to Europe in 1945 before World War II ended. Two remained in England, where one suffered yet another fatal crash. The other two were deployed to Italy, where they flew a few missions before the end of the war but did not encounter enemy aircraft.

Lockheed nonetheless built more than 1,700 Shooting Stars in the years after World War II, redesignated F-80. A new F-80B model followed, which introduced an ejection seat, followed by the definitive F-80C, which added more powerful J33-A-35 engines boosting speed up to six hundred miles per hour and distinctive 260-gallon wingtip fuel tanks, extending the range to 1,200 miles. Dozens were even transferred to the Navy and Marines, modified with arrestor hooks so aviators could practice jet-powered carrier landings. An RF-80 photo-recon model that had a camera in a translucent nose panel also saw widespread service.

America’s first operational jet fighter soon started setting records. In 1946 a Shooting Star made the first jet-powered coast-to-coast flight across the United States from Long Beach California to New York. The same year, an F-80 unit flew across the Atlantic. A specially modified P-80R “racer” even set a (brief) world airspeed record of 623 miles per hour.

Air War over Korea

The Shooting Star proved more than a match for the Yak-9 fighters and armored Il-10 Sturmovik attack planes operated by the North Korean People’s Air Force in the initial months of the Korean War—but the MiG-15 was another matter.

A sleeker, more modern design than the F-80, the Soviet jet had swept wings and was powered by a reverse-engineered and uprated VK-1 turbojet based on Rolls-Royce Nene engines that the British government had incredibly agreed to sell to the Soviet Union in 1946. Not only could the communist fighters easily outrun the Shooting Stars at 670 miles per hour, but they had heavier armament in the form of two twenty-three-millimeter cannons and a huge thirty-seven-millimeter gun.

The MiGs first saw action in the closing stages of the Chinese Civil War and made their presence known in Korea on November 1, 1950, when they flew over from China to ambush a squadron of U.S. F-51 Mustangs, shooting down one. While Soviet instructors endeavored to train North Korean pilots, Russian World War II veterans ended up flying most of the jets’ early combat missions over Korea.

In the encounter with P-80s on November 8, only two of the Soviet fighters persisted on an intercept course. Stephens and Brown banked sharply to the left and maneuvered into a firing position on the approaching fighters. Though four of Brown’s six M3 machine guns had jammed, he managed to fire several short bursts at his chosen target. The MiG rolled over and dove—and Brown followed, hurtling towards the ground at six hundred miles per hour. Holding down the trigger, he raked the jet until he saw it burst into flames, then pulled back up at the last possible moment.

The American pilot had claimed the kill in the first duel of jet fighters.

However, Soviet records for November 8 tell a different story. MiG pilot Lt. Vladimir Kharitonov reported he was ambushed by an American jet—but that he successfully evaded in a dive while ditching his external fuel tanks. In fact, Russian histories claim the first jet-on-jet battle occurred on November 1, in which a MiG piloted by Lt. Semyon Khominich shot down the F-80 of Lt. Frank Van Sickle. However, U.S. records list Van Sickle as falling to ground fire. In any event, the day after Brown’s engagement, the MiG-15 of Capt. Mikhail Grachev was shot down by a U.S. Navy F9F Panther jet—a kill upon which both side’s records agree.

While credit for the first jet-on-jet kill may remain disputed, the fact that the MiG-15 could outrun, outmaneuver and outgun the F-80 is not. U.S. records show that a total of seventeen Shooting Stars were lost in air-to-air combat, while claiming six MiG-15s in return, in addition to eleven propeller planes. When a formation of huge B-29 bombers escorted by one hundred F-80s and F-84s was ambushed, thirty MiGs on April 12, 1951, three B-29s went down in flames without a single attacking fighter lost.

The Air Force rushed to Korea a handful of its most advanced fighters, the F-86 Sabre, which could meet the MiG-15 on equal footing. These proceeded to rack up a favorable kill ratio in frequent air battles over “MiG Alley” near the Chinese border. The F-80s were reassigned to ground-attack duty, a role they were not especially well designed for, though they could carry eight five-inch rockets or two one-thousand-pound bombs underwing.

Over the course of the war, 113 Shooting Stars were lost to ground fire. For example, on November 22, 1952, Maj. Charles Loring’s aircraft was struck by Chinese antiaircraft guns while attacking an artillery position near Kunhwa that had pinned down UN troops. Ignoring his wingman’s radio messages to abort the mission, he deliberately plunged his stricken aircraft into a gun emplacement, a deed for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Of the ten F-80 squadrons in Korea, all had transitioned to F-86 Sabre fighters or F-84 ground attack planes by 1953—except one squadron that even reverted to old Mustang fighters. As the Shooting Star was phased out of U.S. service, dozens were passed on to South American air forces such as that of Brazil, where they served into the sixties and seventies.

While the Shooting Star was too outdated to shine over Korea, it did spawn two successors. The more obscure was the F-94 Starfire, a two-seat radar-equipped night fighter that claimed six kills over Korea, including the first jet-on-jet engagement at night versus a MiG-15.

The other was the legendary T-33 two-seat trainer jet. More than 6,500 were built—and another 650 license-built in Canada—and these served the Air Forces of more than forty countries ranging as widely as Burma, France, and Yugoslavia. Cuban T-33s even combated CIA-sponsored anti-Castro forces during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, shooting down three B-26 bombers and sinking several ships.

In the second half of the twentieth century, thousands of fighter pilots across the world received their jet training in T-33s. Only in 2017 did Bolivia retire the last T-33s in military service, ending the type’s operational career.


A Battle for the Skies

During the three years of the Korean War, the UN forces fielded different jets.

The Republic F-84 Thunderjet served as a fighter-bomber. Its pilots took down several MiGs, the first after the MiGs interrupted a bombing attack on January 21, 1951.

The Royal Australian Air Force entered the war with American-made propeller-driven F-51 Mustangs. Finding themselves challenged by the MiGs, they switched to the Gloster Meteor F.8 a British jet fighter descended from the only jet to see action in WWII. However, it was no match for the MiGs.

A bomb-laden U.S. Air Force Republic F-84E-15-RE Thunderjet (s/n 49-2424) from the 9th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 49th Fighter-Bomber Wing/Group, taking off for a mission in Korea. This aircraft was shot down by flak on 29 August 1952.


Interview with Harold E. Fischer: Korean War Jet Ace and POW

The Korean War was the era of the jet ace. Among them, Iowa native Harold E. “Hal” Fischer, the 25th pilot to achieve ace status during the conflict, was one of the most remarkable. After flying 105 ground support missions in Lockheed F-80 fighter-bombers, he wangled a second combat tour in the North American F-86 and soon began racking up Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s. He became an ace on his 47th mission and got his 10th victory on his 66th. On his 70th mission, however, his luck ran out. In a fight over Manchuria, he damaged three MiGs before becoming the fifth victory for a Chinese pilot. He spent the next two years as a Chinese prisoner of war in Manchuria. Bob Bergin, who interviewed Han Decai, the MiG pilot credited with downing Fischer (Military History, December 2001), subsequently interviewed Fischer.

MH: What sparked your interest in aviation?

Fischer: I was given an allowance of 10 cents every Saturday night. I would spend it all on Flying Aces, a magazine about World War I. On a blackboard I could draw airplanes in different attitudes, turning and banking. Later I saved my money to buy model airplanes and then climb a windmill to fly them. My first contact with a real airplane was at the state fair in Des Moines. I saw a man named Frakes crash an airplane into a house and survive. Later I saved to take a ride in an airplane, an early Waco, I think.

MH: How did you enter the Air Force?

Fischer: I worked for my parents and then went to Iowa State. After a couple of years, I wanted to enlist, and only the Army was taking anyone. I went before the board for infantry officers, was sent to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, and trained as a platoon leader. In the meantime, I had applied for Air Force pilot training. I got my Army commission, and I had a paper that said I could go into Air Force pilot training. I took leave, got a hop to Washington and went to the Pentagon. I went to the Army Reserve office and said, “If you release me, the Air Force will take me.” Then I went to the Air Force and said, “The Army will release me if you take me.”

MH: Did you know you would be going into jets?

Fischer: I didn’t want jets. I wanted the North American F-51, an airplane that had class and a great history. You had to be a real pilot to fly it. I was headed for the F-51 class at Nellis Air Force Base when they canceled the F-51 program. Suddenly, there I was — with the F-80.

MH: You were sent to Japan. Did the country have any special appeal for you?

Fischer: I had studied history, the Japanese people and the war. I wanted to know as much about that as I could. I still remember arriving in Japan and then driving by the park where we were told the Doolittle Raiders were beheaded. Later I got a scooter, went everywhere and met the people. You can learn a lot if you’re friendly and go where no one else has gone. I was assigned to the 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, known as the “Headhunters,” based at Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu.

MH: What were the F-80 missions like?

Fischer: From Japan it was a long way. We could make a few passes, and then we’d refuel at Taegu. It was all ground support, attacking Communist troops, vehicles, trains if you could catch them. Actually, during the day the trains went into tunnels, and we would try to close the entrances. We carried 500-pound bombs, napalm and rockets, and we had our six .50-caliber machine guns. The most effective was napalm — you didn’t exactly have to hit the target.

MH: Where did you go after your tour ended?

Fischer: I volunteered to go back to Headquarters, Far East Air Force, in Tokyo to work in combat crew assignments. To get another combat tour, you had to go back to the United States first or go to a squadron and wait a year. I got one of the 80th pilots assigned as commander to a squadron in Japan. We agreed that if I got this done, he would recommend that I go back to combat.

MH: You were assigned to the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. Did you find life in an F-86 squadron different from your previous assignment?

Fischer: In my F-80 squadron there was a lot of experience, even people who flew original jets, but they hardly talked. With the F-86 squadron it was different. You could evaluate who was successful and who was not, who wanted to fight and who did not, and who was there for political reasons — to do the thing you needed to do for your career. You learn from other people. You could learn a lot at the bar. I didn’t always know enough to ask.

MH: You became a flight leader after only a few missions. Why?

Fischer: Because I had a combat tour where I was assigned to Douglas Lindsay, an exchange officer from the Royal Canadian Air Force. Doug taught me everything I knew about combat flying. He flew Super­marine Spitfires in Britain during World War II and became an ace. He was an outstanding flight leader. He ignored all the rules that really did not have much to do with combat and concentrated on what got the job done.

MH: What was your first victory like?

Fischer: I moved up into lead, and when I saw the MiGs — they were everywhere — I called that I was going to make a bounce. So I took this bounce, and actually I didn’t have a target in sight. Then two MiGs started going north. They were a long distance away, and I used Kentucky windage and tracers, and just fired short bursts. Eventually, one of the two started a descent to the left. So I fired again, and then moved up beside the aircraft. I saw the canopy gone and no pilot. I turned around and started climbing out, and there was the pilot in a parachute. I didn’t have time to pull the circuit breakers to deactivate the guns, so I just moved to the right and fired a few rounds to activate the camera. I flew right by him and waved. He had a ribbon parachute like the Germans used in World War II, and a lot of cold weather flying equipment. Doug had told me you’ll never sleep the first night you get a kill. And he was right — you keep reliving it.

MH: How did you score your ace-making fifth victory?

Fischer: When I first fired on him, the MiG was a long distance away, flying toward China. He started to burn. He slowed, and I was able to go up alongside. I saw the pilot, beating on the canopy. He couldn’t get out. I didn’t want him to burn to death, so I dropped back, intending to shoot him down. I was behind and very close. The burning MiG was streaming molten metal back on my aircraft and caused one of the rounds in my guns to explode. That severed the rudder cable, and I thought I’d been hit. I lost pressurization. It became a question of whether I could get back or not. I came back at 43,000 feet, as high as the F-86 could get, and I got the bends because there was no pressurization. I felt sad about the MiG pilot. I had felt no animosity toward him.

MH: Was there much speculation about who was flying the MiGs?

Fischer: There was speculation, but that was mostly for the public. There were security services monitoring enemy pilot conversations, and they knew who was flying. That information was never passed on to our pilots. We knew the Russians were the ones who had the MiGs. The North Koreans didn’t have them, and initially the Chinese weren’t trained in MiGs. There were North Korean aces, but they were mostly flying Yaks.

MH: Which of your opponents was the most dangerous?

Fischer: I started an attack on a MiG, and my wingman called me free. You’re clear, he said. Suddenly I had all these golf balls going by my cockpit. I guess the MiG behind me was too close. If I had been farther out he would have hit me. He couldn’t get me without hitting the guy in front, but he kept firing and they were going all around me. Finally we went through a cloud. The MiG in front turned left, and I followed. When I finally thought I was clear, I fired and he went down burning. The pilot bailed out. When I got back I had some words with the wingman for calling me free.

MH: When you headed out on what was to become your last mission, you had a problem before it started.

Fischer: Yes, I accepted an airplane I shouldn’t have. It hadn’t been bore sighted after its last mission. When I made my first attack on four aircraft, I fired at about 1,000 feet and found I was about 100 feet to the left. Then I saw four other airplanes and initiated an attack on them. I allowed for the problem with the guns and hit two of the MiGs, both Russians. Years later I talked with the Russian pilots. One of them said I had hit him 14 times, right behind the cockpit in the wing root. He had to land with his wheels up. The second MiG I hit was also a Russian aircraft. And there was a third MiG that I hit really hard, and it crashed. When I bailed out there was this one MiG that was floating around. He had no power and was burning. I thought he was coming toward me, and all I had was my .45. I think he was Chinese, but I’m not sure.

MH: You had hit three MiGs, then in the middle of this fight you suddenly found yourself with a dead airplane.

Fischer: Here was the thing. With the MiG where I saw the numbers 341 on its side, I had this bad feeling about getting ahead of the target. In this case, all kinds of debris was coming off the MiG in front of me — the third one — and I pulled up through it. And there, right over the top of him, my engine died, the throttle came back in my hand and the warning lights came on. We were told that when you have fire warning lights, you’ve got 30 seconds to bail out. I was just high enough so there was an opening shock when I ejected. I came down on the side of a hill. I didn’t have a hard landing because my parachute got caught up on some shrubbery.

MH: What kind of shape were you in when you landed? What did you do?

Fischer: I lost my helmet, and my ear was bleeding. I just walked and walked. Finally I sat down, and here came an old Chinese. I had a choice, I could shoot him, but I didn’t know — there were insurgents there who worked with us. I didn’t know if he was on their side or our side. Anyway, he motioned me to follow him, and I followed, right into a group of Chinese with hatchets and farm implements. I tried to play the part of a Russian and just walk away, but then the Chinese soldiers came.

MH: You were held for two years in Manchuria. You managed to get in contact with other POWs, and at one point you actually escaped. Tell us about that.

Fischer: They tried to keep us from knowing it, but through manipulating a guard, I found out other POWs were being held in the same place and made contact with them. Two were in a room next to me. I had also made contact with Andy McKenzie, who claimed he had been accidentally shot down by an F-86. Andy was saying he was going home, but we thought they were going to do away with him. To protect him, we told the Chinese that we knew there was another prisoner. Through a code system I had also made contact with Ed Heller. Because of this, I was declared an “activist” and placed in a separate cell where I could have no contact with anyone. After a while, I decided to become a model prisoner so they wouldn’t watch me as closely. At the end of the bed I had found an outside wall. I started digging with a nail until I had a brick I could push out. I chose the holidays to do it, when the guards were not looking in on me as much. I pushed out feet first, and it was a really great feeling. I headed for the MiG base to steal a MiG. I meant to play a Russian, but the guard stopped me. So I just turned around and walked away. My next plan was to reach the water, maybe steal a boat. Crossing a river I got wet and froze my feet. Then I drank dirty water and got really sick. I followed the railroad to town. My idea was to get on a rail car headed south. But reports of my escape were out. I got grabbed and really hurt, put in handcuffs and taken back. The guards were really hostile then. For at least a month I was forced to stay in one place and not move. Finally I was taken back with the other prisoners.

MH: You were not released until May 1955. Looking back, how do you feel about your time in China?

Fischer: I feel I was lucky to be a prisoner of the Chinese. They treat their prisoners the way they treat their troops, in the way they feed and house them. It was not the way the North Koreans did it.

MH: Official credit for shooting you down was given to the Chinese ace Han Decai, as his fifth victory. How did you feel about the claims?

Fischer: I found out only years later that Han Decai was credited with shooting me down. I took a lot of time to contact the Russian pilots and talk with them. I got to know them and respect them. When I found out that Han had been given credit for me, I tried to contact him through Chinese embassies. In 1996 I joined a group of AVG Flying Tiger pilots who had been invited to visit China. There, I met General Han and presented him with an F-86 model. We’ve met again since then. And we have become friends.

This article was written by Bob Bergin and originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!


Top Russian MiG-15 Aces of Korean War

Top Russian Aces Kills (*) Comments Medal (**) Unit
Nikolai V. Sutyagin 21 (12) 9 F-86s, 1 F-84, 1 Meteor. Shot-up Glenn Eagleston HSU 17 IAP, 303 IAD
Yevgeni G. Pepelyayev 19 (12) shot down F-86A #49-1319, brought to USSR HSU CO of 196 IAP, 324 IAD
Lev Kirilovich Shchukin 17 (10) shot-up the F-86E of Francis Gabreski, downed 2 times HSU 18 GIAP, 303 IAD
Sergei M. Kramarenko 13 (7) shot down 5 F-86s, 1 F-84 and 1 Meteor, downed once HSU 176 GIAP, 324 IAD
Ivan V. Suchkov 12 (2) 2 B-29s HSU 176 GIAP, 324 IAD
Stepan A. Bahayev 11 (5) - HSU 523 IAP, 303 IAD
Konstantin N. Sheberstov 11 (2) 1 B-29A, 1 F-86A HSU 176 GIAP, 324 IAD
Grigorii U. Ohay 11 (3) 2 Meteors, 1 F-80C HSU 523 IAP, 303 IAD
Mikhail S. Ponomaryev 11 (2) - HSU 17 IAP, 303 IAD
Dmitri A. Samoylov 10 (4) 3 F-86s, 1 B-29 conf. by USAF HSU 523 IAP, 303 IAD
Pavel S. Milaushkin 10 (2) 1 F-86, 1 B-29 conf. by USAF HSU 176 GIAP, 324 IAD
Dmitri P. Oskin 9 (2) 2 B-29s on Oct 23 '51 HSU 523 IAP, 303 IAD
Mikhail I. Mihin 9 (3) all F-86E/Fs - 518 IAP, 216 IAD
Aleksandr P. Smorchkov 8 (4) 3 B-29s on October 1951 HSU 18 GIAP, 303 IAD
Grigorii I. Pulov 8 (2) 1 F-86A, 1 RF-80A HSU CO of 17 IAP, 303 IAD
Serafim P. Subbotin 8 (4) 2 F-86s, 1 B-29, 1 Meteor HSU 176 GIAP, 324 IAD
Semen A. Fedorets 8 (5) shot down by Joseph McConnell April 12 '53 LO 913 IAP, 32 IAD
V. N. Alfeyev 7 (2) on May 20 1951 shot-up the F-86A of James Jabara RB 196 IAP, 324 IAD
Fiodor A. Shebanov 6 (2) 1 F-86A, 1 B-29A, KIA Oct '51 HSU 196 IAP, 324 IAD
Grigorii I. Ges 6 (3) 1 B-29A, 1 B-26B, 1 F-51D HSU 176 GIAP, 324 IAD
Anatoly M. Karelin 6 (5) all B-29s at night HSU 351 IAP
Arkadii S. Boitsov 6 (3) 2 F-86s, 1 F-80 conf. by USAF - 16 IAP, 97 IAD
Nikolai I. Ivanov 6 (4) 3 F-86Es, 1 RF-86A LO 726 IAP, 133 IAD
Nikolai M. Zameskin 6 (2) 2 F-86E/F HSU 878 IAP, 216 IAD
Boris S. Abakumov 5 (3) 1 F-86A, 1 B-29A, 1 Phanter HSU 196 IAP, 324 IAD
Grigorii N. Berelidze 5 (3) shot down Harold Fischer on April 7 1953 RB 224 IAP, 32 IAD
(*) The number between parenthesis indicate how many of his claims match with UN losses so far.
(**) Key: HSU = Hero of the Soviet Union, LO = Lenin's Order, RB = Red Banner.

Summarizing, the Russian aces dominated the struggle for air superiority over "MiG Alley" in the April 1951-January 1952 period, and earned the respect of their Americans adversaries (the nicknames "Honcho" and "Casey Jones"). From February 1952, when the crack pilots of the 303rd and 324th IAD were largely replaced by rookies, the Sabre pilots ruled over "MiG Alley," and the well-trained US pilots kept the edge until the end of the war. It during this later phase that the tallies of the greatest US Aces -Joseph McConnell, James Jabara and Manuel Fernández Jr. - began to rise quickly. But even then, there were Russian MiG-15 pilots who proved to be dangerous adversaries, like Nikolai Ivanov and Semen Fedorets.

Russian MiG-15 Aces in Korea, from left to right: Aleksandr P. Smorchkov (8 kills), Nikolai Ivanovich Ivanov (6), Semen Alexeievich Fedorets (8), Yevgeni G. Pepelyayev (19) and Sergei Makarovich Kramarenko (13).

What did the Soviet veterans think about their American adversaries? In general terms, they felt sadness for being fighting against their old Allies against Hitler, and they respected very much their skills in combat. But let us read the Russian ace Aleksandr Pavlovich Smorchkov's own words :

"Our attitude towards the American pilots was complicated. During the Second World War, we had been allies against Hitler. Therefore, in Korea, we did not view the Americans as enemies, but only as opponents. Our motto in the air was 'Competition - with whomever.' . My opinions about the relative abilities of Soviet and American aircraft and pilots were as follows: I thought the American pilots were very good. This opinion was shared by other Soviet pilots including my friends Vladimir Voistinnych and Piotr Chourkin."

The respect that those men felt for our brave countrymen should be reciprocal, and a way to show respect for those honourable Russian airmen is to account their deeds, which also deserve recognition. What follow is a short biography of some of those MiG-15 pilots who bravely fought against our countrymen 50 years ago, in a long and bitter war that should have never happened.


Captain James Jabara: Ace of the Korean War

Major James Jabara, became the first jet ace of the Korean War, is shown standing in the cockpit of his F-86 "Sabre" in full combat fluing gear.

Sunday afternoon, May 20, 1951. Fourteen North American F-86A Sabre fighter jets from the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron lifted off from Suwon Air Base, South Korea, in response to a call for help from U.S. Air Force fighters under attack by Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters near the Yalu River, separating Korea and China. Flying in the second flight of the relief force was 27-year-old Captain James Jabara. He had already claimed four of the MiGs–he needed one more to become the first Korean War ace.

‘Jabara stood out among his group of fighter pilots almost as much as if he really had been a knight of yore on a quest for the Grail,’ wrote Wichita State University professor Craig Miner of the Oklahoma native who grew up in Wichita, Kan. ‘War provides many opportunities for the exercise of heroic courage air war creates added speed and intensity and air war was James Jabara’s chosen situation.’

The son of Lebanese immigrant John Jabara, James was born on October 10, 1923, in Muskogee, Okla. Soon after his birth, Jabara’s family moved to Wichita, where John Jabara opened a grocery store. Young Jabara helped in his father’s store while dreaming of loftier things. ‘I used to read articles about [Eddie] Rickenbacker and all these novels you read about air combat,’ he recalled, ‘and I guess from the sixth grade it was my ambition to be a fighter pilot.’

In May 1942, after graduating from Wichita’s North High School, Jabara enlisted in the aviation cadet program at Fort Riley, Kan. In October 1943, he received his pilot’s wings and a commission as second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Forces at Moore Field, Texas.

In January 1944, Jabara was sent to the 363rd Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force, stationed in England. Flying North American P-51 Mustang fighters, his first mission was attacking railroad targets in German-occupied Belgium.

In March 1944, Jabara was escorting American bombers to a target in Germany when his flight of four P-51 Mustangs was bounced by 50 Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters. During the dogfight Jabara’s canopy was shot off. Unhurt, Jabara went after one German and shot him down. ‘After I shot this guy down I figured I’d better get out of there,’ Jabara wrote. ‘I was all by myself, I was freezing…I guess the temperature was 35 degrees below zero.’

‘I had to fly around 10,000 feet,’ Jabara said, ‘and I’d never seen so much flak in all my life…I didn’t know whether to jump…or try to get back to England.’ He stayed in his Mustang and made it safely back to the 363rd’s base.

Jabara flew fighter-bomber missions over France and the Low Countries until October 1944, when he was sent back to the United States. He returned to combat in Europe in February 1945, again flying P-51s, and flew a total of 108 missions, during which he was credited with shooting down 1 1/2 German planes. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster and the Air Medal with 18 Oak Leaf Clusters for bravery.


Lt. James Jabara. with his P-51D "The Ceegar Kid". At the end of World War II he had down 1.5 German planes. (National Archives)

He returned to the United States in January 1946 and considered leaving the Air Force to attend college. ‘In fact, I was just ready to get out when the Air Force offered me a regular commission,’ he recalled. ‘So I accepted.’

Jabara attended the Tactical Air School at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., during the rest of 1946. After finishing in 1947, he volunteered for duty with the 53rd Fighter Group, stationed on Okinawa, where he worked in the group’s personnel department.

Jabara did not make his first jet flight until 1948, when he took the controls of a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. ‘It was entirely different,’ Jabara recalled. ‘I was at 10,000 feet before I remembered to raise my landing gear….It was so quiet and fast….I guess that was probably the happiest moment of my life.’

Jabara returned to the United States in 1949 and joined the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Langley Field, Va. While he was at Langley, he got to fly the Air Force’s first sweptwing fighter, the F-86, which came into service in 1949.

Jabara flew the F-86 in the United States for more than a year, including a tour of duty at New Castle County Airport in Delaware as a flight leader. Then on June 25, 1950, the Korean War began.

On November 1, 1950, six sweptwing MiG-15 jet fighters attacked a flight of American P-51 Mustangs patrolling over the Yalu River. Alert flying by the Mustang pilots–and poor marksmanship by the MiG pilots–allowed the P-51s to escape. On November 8, Chinese-flown MiG-15s attacked U.S. Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers during a bombing raid over North Korea.

The only American fighter that could match the Russian-built MiG-15 was the F-86 Sabre. In December 1950, F-86A Sabres of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing arrived at Kimpo Airfield near Seoul, South Korea, ready for action.

James Jabara arrived with the 4th Fighter Wing on December 13 and was assigned to the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. Jabara joined other 334th Squadron pilots patrolling the 100-mile-wide strip of airspace south of the Yalu River known as ‘MiG Alley.’

By the end of December 1950, the 4th Fighter Wing’s Sabres had run up a spectacular kill ratio of 8-to-1 over the MiGs. Then the 4th Wing’s Sabres were forced back to Japan by the Chinese winter offensive of January 1951, during which Kimpo Airfield was overrun. The distance from Japan to MiG Alley was beyond the Sabre’s range and put a brief stop to patrols over the Yalu. In March, after U.N. ground troops drove the Chinese back over the 38th parallel, the 4th Wing returned to South Korea, resuming its patrols from Suwon Air Base, 20 miles south of Seoul.

By April, Jabara had damaged one MiG-15 in combat. ‘I’ve always felt that the MiG was a better airplane above 30,000 feet, which was where most of our fighting was,’ Jabara later said. ‘The F-86 was a better airplane below 30,000 feet. As a fighting machine, we had better gunsights. Our airplanes were a little sturdier built.’


Jabara flew the early F-86A Sabre a relatively even match for the deadly Soviet built MiG-15. (U.S. Air Force)

On April 3, Jabara took off with 12 334th Sabres from Suwon and soon sighted a flight of 12 MiG-15s flying on the Chinese side of the Yalu–where the American aircraft were forbidden to fly. When the MiGs crossed over the Yalu into Korean airspace, Jabara and the other 11 Sabres in the patrol attacked them. ‘It wasn’t much of a problem: I latched onto the number 10 man in that flight and he made a big turn trying to go back to the Yalu River.’ Jabara got onto the MiG’s tail and fired his six .50-caliber machine guns. ‘He was at low altitude and I was able to really clobber him….He went right into the ground.’

Jabara’s success brought him to the attention of Colonel John C. Meyer, commander of the 4th Fighter Wing. Meyer, who had been credited with 24 German aircraft while flying Mustangs in World War II and who would add two MiGs to his score while flying the F-86, regarded Jabara as having ‘the characteristics and desire, and also having a start on the count’ to become an ace.

Colonel Meyer said as much to Lt. Gen. Earle E. Partridge, commander of the Fifth Air Force. ‘So he said, ‘Stick him out in front and see what you can do,” Meyer recalled. ‘So we started….Anything that was a milk run, he didn’t go anything that was up the Yalu, he did go….It didn’t take very long for him to get the other three.’ On April 10, Jabara downed another MiG-15 over MiG Alley. Two days later on April 12 he claimed a third. Then, on April 22, Jabara shot down his fourth MiG-15.

In early May, the 334th Squadron was rotated back to Japan. Not wanting to leave Korea before scoring his fifth kill, Jabara had himself transferred to the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, a fresh unit replacing the 334th.

May 20, 1951, was a day of good flying weather. Around 1700 hours, a call for help came over the radio from a Sabre patrol near Siniju in northwest Korea. They were under attack by MiGs.

Jabara took off with the second flight of seven F-86s, led by Captain James Roberts. Once airborne, Jabara was joined by his wingman, Lieutenant Salvadore Kemp, and flew north toward MiG Alley. As the 335th’s flight approached the battle area over the Yalu from the China Sea, Jabara looked up and sighted 30 MiG-15s flying above his flight. The MiGs peeled off to attack the newcomers.

Seeing that, Roberts ordered his flight to drop their wing tanks. When Jabara pulled the lever to release his drop tanks, he felt the Sabre roll to one side. He had to grab the control stick in both hands to keep the airplane under control. One of the wing tanks had failed to release and was still attached to his Sabre’s wing.

‘Orders were that if you had a hung tank, you were to beat it for home,’ Jabara later said. But he was not about to give up what might be his last shot at acedom. ‘I called my wingman and told him that we were joining the fight.’ Followed by Kemp, Jabara pulled his Sabre steeply up. He spotted three MiGs and made a firing pass at them. Three other MiGs attacked from above and behind. Jabara turned to face his new attackers, and two of the MiGs broke away.

Jabara latched onto the third MiG. ‘He tried everything in the book–diving and turning–to get rid of me,’ Jabara said, ‘but he couldn’t.’ Jabara closed to within 1,500 yards of the MiG’s tail and fired three bursts from his machine guns, hitting the MiG’s fuselage and left wing. ‘He did two violent snap rolls and started to spin down,’ Jabara remembered. The MiG spun from 27,000 feet to 10,000, with Jabara and Kemp following him. At 10,000 feet the pilot bailed out seconds later, the MiG-15 disintegrated. ‘All I could see was a whirl of fire,’ Jabara remembered.

Jabara and Kemp climbed back up to rejoin the fight. When he reached 20,000 feet, Jabara noticed that Kemp was not with him, having tangled with some MiGs on the way up. Jabara then spotted six MiG-15s. Without hesitation, he attacked the sixth MiG in the flight. The MiG burst into flames and began to spin. Jabara overshot the MiG, pulled back his throttle and popped out his speed brakes to slow down quickly and stay with the MiG.

‘I circled him outside his spiral and followed him down to about 6,500 feet to be sure he hit the ground,’ Jabara wrote. Unseen by Jabara, however, two MiGs had come up behind him and opened fire. Jabara closed his speed brakes, shoved his throttle forward and broke hard left. The MiGs followed him. ‘For about two minutes we went around and around,’ Jabara recalled. ‘They were shooting at me while I tried my best to get away.’

Then Jabara heard two of his friends, Morris Pitts and Gene Holley, talking over the radio. ‘There’s an F-86 being shot at down there,’ Pitts said.

‘Roger,’ Jabara radioed back. ‘I know it only too damned well.’

Pitts and Holley swooped down to help Jabara. The lead MiG’s wingman, seeing the approaching Sabres, turned tail and ran. Holley got on the other MiG’s tail, radioed Jabara to hold steady, then opened fire while Pitts protected Holley’s tail. After six .50-caliber bursts from Holley, the MiG-15 began smoking and broke off, but the Sabres did not have enough fuel to go after him. Jabara, Pitts and Holley formed up and started south. ‘Thanks for saving my neck,’ Jabara radioed Holley.

The fight near Siniju had lasted only 20 minutes, with 34 Sabres battling 50 MiG-15s. The Sabres scored two kills–both by Jabara–and one probable.

‘On the way back I was so low on fuel that I had to shut my engine off and glide,’ Jabara remembered. ‘Then, before I got back to the air base, I started the engine back up and landed.’


With telltale gun gas residue showing that his machine guns have been fired, Captain Jabara draws a crowd after returning from his historic May 20, 1951 mission. (U.S. Air Force)

The three pilots landed back at Suwon and taxied up to the parking area. To the cheers of his ground crew, Jabara calmly shoved back his Sabre’s cockpit canopy, removed his oxygen mask, and–like after every other mission–pushed a cigar into his mouth. Only then did he climb down and let Roberts and Kemp hoist him on their shoulders and carry him around the field.

The 335th’s pilots threw a party in his honor. During the festivities, Jabara used his hands to demonstrate how he shot down the MiGs, not forgetting his narrow escape after losing his wingman. ‘I made a bad mistake today. Never do what I did,’ he warned the others. ‘Never go after a MiG if you haven’t got your wingman there to cover you. When you’ve got your eye glued to that sight, you’re a sitting duck.’

The next day, Monday, May 21, 1951, Jabara was relieved of combat duty with the 335th. On May 22, before a group of senior Air Force officers in Tokyo, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Partridge.

Jabara soon returned to the States and was sent on a publicity tour as the U.S. Air Force’s first Korean War air hero. Films of his F-86 in Korea were shown on every movie newsreel. A song, ‘That Jabara Bird,’ was written about him, and his receiving of the Distinguished Service Cross was re-enacted at a baseball game in Boston. Back home, he and his father were featured on local and national radio and television shows, and Wichita held one of the best-attended parades in the city’s history for a returning son.

Following his publicity tour, Jabara was transferred to the Air Training Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., where he helped train stateside fighter pilots through the rest of 1951 and 1952.

While the war continued in Korea, Jabara began asking his superiors to let him return to combat. ‘I just wanna go out and do some more shootin’,’ Jabara said. He had only flown 63 missions of his 100-mission tour of duty and was uncomfortable behind a desk.

In December 1952, the Air Force granted Major Jabara’s request for a second tour, and he returned to Korea in January 1953. He was again assigned to the 4th Fighter Wing, now commanded by Colonel James K. Johnson and equipped with an improved version of the Sabre, the F-86F. During the early part of 1953, Jabara flew support missions and patrols into MiG Alley with his old squadron, the 334th, often flying two missions a day.

During March and April 1953, while other Sabre pilots shot down 27 MiG-15s, and four F-86Fs were lost, Jabara did not shoot down any MiGs. Finally, on May 16, 1953, Jabara scored his seventh MiG kill. On May 26, he was leading four Sabres from the 334th on a patrol over MiG Alley when he sighted 16 MiG-15s crossing the Yalu. Punching off his wing tanks, Jabara led his Sabres through the center of the enemy flight. Surprised by the sudden attack, the MiGs scattered and hurried back across the river. A few minutes later, Jabara’s flight sighted two more MiGs and attacked. Jabara shot both down.

On June 10, in a single mission, Jabara forced down one MiG-15 and blasted another out of the sky.

On June 18, Jabara’s Sabre flight and the F-86F fighter-bombers they were escorting were harassed by MiGs attacking from out of the clouds. Jabara’s wingman noticed a flight of four MiG-15s, which ducked into the clouds. The two pilots went after them. Just as Jabara was about to fire on his MiG, he felt a ‘big explosion’ in his Sabre. ‘I pulled up into the overcast, trying to figure out what happened.’ Jabara quickly found that the problem had been his air conditioner: ‘It didn’t blow up on me, but it had been clogged up and let go all of a sudden.’

Jabara guided his Sabre back down. Breaking out of the overcast, he saw a hill right in front of him. ‘I thought I had had it.’ He missed the hill and climbed back up through the clouds. He and his wingman then sighted another flight of six MiGs and went after them. Jabara singled out a damaged MiG-15 in the flight and shot him down.

On June 30, 1953, Jabara had his best day. On a mission that morning, he downed a MiG-15. That afternoon he was on a second mission, escorting F-86F fighter-bombers, when they were attacked by large numbers of MiG-15s.

Jabara and his flight attacked six MiGs he closed on the sixth MiG and hit him in the tail section. The MiG burst into flames, forcing the pilot to eject. ‘All of a sudden my wingman started screaming to me to break,’ Jabara recalled, ‘…there were other MiGs coming in on us they were shooting at us.’

Jabara shoved the Sabre’s throttle forward ‘to get power and speed as fast as I could.’ Instead, his Sabre’s jet engine flamed out. At 20,000 feet, Jabara started to glide his Sabre toward the ocean, ‘where I could bail out if I couldn’t get the thing started and maybe be picked up by one of our helicopters or air-sea rescue boats.’ He was eventually able to get the Sabre’s engine restarted, however, and returned to Suwon Air Base.

For Jabara and other Sabre pilots, June 1953 was their greatest month. The Sabres sighted 1,268 MiGs, engaged 507 and destroyed 77.

Late on the afternoon of July 15, Jabara shot down his 15th MiG-15, making him a triple ace and the second-highest-scoring jet ace in Korea, next to Captain Joseph McConnell, who scored 16 MiG kills.

In all, Jabara flew 163 missions during his two tours of duty in Korea. Despite his many encounters with MiGs, Jabara was never wounded over Korea, nor were any of the Sabres he flew there damaged. In addition to his earlier decorations, Jabara received an Oak Leaf Cluster to his Distinguished Service Cross and a second Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.

In late July 1953, after completing his second Korean tour, Jabara returned to the United States. In August he was sent to Yuma, Ariz., for duty with the 4750th Training Squadron. In January 1957, Jabara was with the 3243rd Test Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where he flew Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. In February 1958, Jabara joined the 337th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Westover Air Force Base, Mass., again flying F-104s.

In August 1958, during the Quemoy and Matsu crisis with Red China, Jabara and the 337th went to Taiwan, where they flew their F-104s near the coast of mainland China for three months. ‘We used to fly up and down the Straits of Formosa at…twice the speed of sound,’ Jabara recalled, ‘and had the Chinese Communists take a look at us on their radar…I’m sure it shook them up a little.’

Jabara flew with the 337th until July 1960, when he returned to the United States and entered the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. After graduation in June 1961, he took command of the 43rd Bomb Wing at Carswell Air Force Base, Texas, where he flew supersonic Convair B-58 Hustler bombers. In July 1964, he took command of the 4540th Combat Crew Training Group at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., where pilots from NATO countries were trained to fly the F-104G Starfighter.

Colonel Jabara took command of the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., in 1965. In 1966, with his tour at Homestead coming to an end, Jabara volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. On November 17, 1966, he and his family were driving on Florida’s Sunshine State Parkway on their way to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where his family would wait out his planned Vietnam tour.

Jabara was in the back seat of a Volkswagen driven by his daughter, Carol Anne. Near Del Ray Beach, Fla., they came to a road construction site. Carol Anne lost control of the car, and the Volkswagen rolled over several times before stopping. Jabara and his daughter were rushed to a Del Rey hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival from head injuries. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on November 24, 1966.

‘Heroes die young,’ Professor Craig Miner wrote. ‘Jabara died in his fighting prime, ready and able as ever to enter the cockpit and follow the target….We do not remember him as an old man telling of distant exploits, but as a young man in the midst of them.’

This article originally published in the March 1995 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!


Routinely Tortured, Jet Fighter Ace & The Only Man To Be Awarded The Air Force Cross 3 Times

The Air Force Cross is the second highest decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Air Force for an act of valor. Of all the US military decorations, only the Medal of Honor ranks higher.

Since the medal’s inception, 197 men have been awarded the Air Force Cross. Three of those men were awarded it twice, but only one man ever received it three times. His name was Colonel James Helms Kasler.

James Kasler was born in 1926 in South Bend, Indiana. In the final years of WWII, while still a teenager, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces, and ended up flying eight missions as a B-29 tail gunner. After the war he went to college, but after he graduated he returned to the Air Force – just in time to fight in the Korean War.

American Boeing B-29

It was during the Korean War that Kasler’s extraordinary abilities as a pilot became obvious. He was assigned to the 335th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, and with this squadron he successfully piloted one hundred combat missions over the course of the war.

In his F-86E Saber fighter jet he was unstoppable. He scored a confirmed six air-to-air victories against enemy MiG-15s and damaged two more, becoming one of the Korean War’s first jet aces.

When the Korean War came to an end in 1953, Kasler may have thought that, after having fought in two wars already, he would finally be able to live a quiet and uneventful life. The most challenging and harrowing experiences of his life, however, were yet to come.

U.S. Air Force North American F-86 Sabre fighters from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing Checkertails are readied for combat during the Korean War at Suwon Air Base, South Korea.

The following decade saw the outbreak of the Vietnam War. When the first strike against Hanoi was authorized in 1966, the Air Force informed Kasler that he was the man they wanted to plan and lead the air assault.

Leading a squadron of F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter-bomber jets, Kasler – then a Major – managed to destroy 90 percent of the petroleum complex at Hanoi, despite withering anti-aircraft fire from the ground. Kasler personally destroyed five petrol tankers, and only pulled out of the attack when his fuel began to run out.

Republic F-105D-30-RE Thunderchief (SN 62-4234) in flight with a full bomb load of M117 750 lb bombs.

His first Air Force Cross was awarded for his success in this mission. He would earn another shortly after this, but the third would come after the most intense and prolonged suffering he would ever endure.

On 6 August 1966, Kasler led his squadron of Thunderchiefs against a heavily-defended ground target near Yen Bay, North Vietnam. One of his wingmen was shot down and forced to eject, and at great risk to himself, Kasler circled back and flew low-level cover until he started to run out of fuel.

Instead of returning to base, though, he got a KC-135 to refuel his F-105 in mid-air, and then he returned to search for his downed pilot. This was the action for which he was awarded his second Air Force Cross, but the events that would lead to his third Air Force Cross were about to unfold.

A U.S. B-66 Destroyer and four F-105 Thunderchiefs dropping bombs on North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder

When returning to the spot where his wingman was shot down, Kasler’s Thunderchief was hit by enemy fire and he was forced to eject. His right leg was shattered above the knee, but that wasn’t the worst thing to happen to him that day – for he fell into enemy hands. Little did he know, when his Vietcong captors dragged him into their prison camp that day, that he would spend the next seven years as a prisoner of war.

Major Kasler was taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, one of the most notorious of the war, where prisoners were routinely tortured and subjected to all manners of abuse. His captors knew exactly who he was, and for this reason singled him out for even more severe torture and deprivation than they inflicted on other prisoners.

The “Hanoi Hilton” POW Camp – 1970 aerial photo.

Realizing the propaganda value of holding such a renowned fighter captive, the Vietcong subjected Kasler to regular, prolonged sessions of intense torture to try to get him to cooperate with their propaganda film-makers. No matter what they did to him, though, Kasler stubbornly refused to capitulate to their demands or to give them any information.

He realized that as brutally as they tortured him, they weren’t going to kill him because they would then lose face and have to admit failure. This, and his faith in God, his country, and his family, he later said, kept him going through whatever they threw at him.

Exterior view of POW camp Hanoi Hilton.

On one occasion his captors became so desperate to get him to comply with the demands of the propaganda film-makers that they stripped him naked and deprived him of sleep, food and water for three days straight. This wasn’t the extent of this torture session, though, for they also beat him with a heavy truck fan belt every hour. He stubbornly refused to cave to their demands.

Throughout the almost seven years he was kept as a prisoner, he was subjected to similar torture sessions, sessions that would sometimes go on for weeks at a time, sessions that would leave him black and blue, with his skin hanging off his body and with broken bones – and he never gave in to their demands, not even once.

Commemorative war plaques at the Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi. Photo: dronepicr – CC BY 2.0

Finally, after the Paris Peace Accords ended America’s involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973, Major James Kasler was released and allowed to return home. He was awarded his third Air Force Cross for the steadfastness and courage he displayed in the hellish prison camp in Vietnam.

He retired from the Air Force in 1975 as a colonel, and was finally able to enjoy a life of peace and contentment for the rest of his years, until he passed away in 2014, aged 87.

Throughout his extraordinary career he earned a total of seventy-six awards and medals. In addition to his three Air Force Crosses, he received eleven Air Medals, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and a Legion of Merit, among other decorations.

A biography of his life, entitled Tempered Steel, was authored by Terry Luckett and Charles Byler. In the pages of this book, Kasler’s many deeds of valor live on to this day.


History of the American Fighter Ace: Vietnam War

The long war in Vietnam presented little opportunity for air-to-air scoring by fighter pilots, much less making a large number of Aces. All fighter operations took place under numerous restrictions and the number of enemy fighters available for encounters was quite limited. This, too, was a new type of operation.

The majority of combats took place at ranges that would have been impossible in earlier wars and the pilot had to rely greatly on his “guy in the back”, or GIB, in the F-4 Phantom.

A number of Air Force pilots did score in the single seat F-105 and F-8s but none became Aces. An Air Force World War II Ace, Robin Olds nearly became an ace of Vietnam, but he had to settle for four confirmed victories. There were only two fighter pilot Aces to emerge from the conflict in Vietnam. The first was Navy F-4 pilot Randall H. “Duke” Cunningham who, with Bill Driscoll as his rear seat man, became an Ace on May 10, 1972. Steve Ritchie, also flying the Phantom, became the one and only Air Force pilot Ace when he scored his fifth victory on August 28, 1972 with his GIB, Charles De Bellevue.

These two Aces brought the roll of America’s air Aces from all wars up to 1,442. While their number is few, these men accounted for a large percentage of the enemy aircraft destroyed by all fighter pilots. For years there have been numerous studies conducted in an attempt to determine what makes a fighter Ace. Many attributes have been named, but to date there seems to be no positive determination as to just what traits or qualities add up to a fighter Ace profile. Three factors must be present, however—flying skill, aggressiveness, and, perhaps most important, an opportunity to engage the enemy.

Perhaps a large percentage of the fighter Aces over the years will fall under the classification mentioned by one old professional fighter pilot and Ace who, himself, holds the Medal of Honor. He stated, “Give me ten young fighter pilots and we’ll take them into combat. Out of the ten one of them is going to be a hunter and not the hunted. This is the pilot that is going to become a fighter Ace if the opportunity presents itself.” And there can be no denying the fighter Ace is a hunter.