America's First Jet Fighters Battled North Korea in the Sky

America's First Jet Fighters Battled North Korea in the Sky. It was almost a total disaster

By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest

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 altitude 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 on 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 [6], 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 deteriorating industrial base [7] prevented them from having a large impact. While the UK managed to deploy some 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 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 [8] 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.

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

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring [9].

Image [10]: Wikimedia Commons

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