How the Navy’s First Fighter Went to War with MiGs over North Korea

How the Navy’s First Fighter Went to War with MiGs over North Korea

By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest

After World War II, the U.S. Navy scrambled to field its own jet fighters—but designing a warplane that could fly dramatically faster while still landing on a short carrier deck proved a challenge. The Navy’s first operational jet, the underpowered FH Phantom, was retired after only two years of service.

Naval aircraft manufacture Grumman received funding in 1946 to develop a four-turbojet G-75 prototype based on the twin piston engine F7F Tigercat. However, the concept proved so unpromising the firm used creative accounting to use the funds for a single-engine project called the G-79. This XF9F prototype first flew in November 1947 from the production facility in Bethpage, New York.

Like the P-80 Shooting Star, the U.S. Air Force’s first jet fighter [3] in operational service, Grumman’s new design retained a traditional straight-wing configuration that limited its performance when approaching the speed of sound. The Grumman designers appreciated the need for naval aircraft to be rugged to withstand harsh flattop landings and condition at sea. The Panther had folding wings to ease stowage on crowded decks, and introduced new pilot-pleasing features such as ejection seats and a pressurized cockpit.

Grumman developed an F9F-2 model powered by a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, and an F9F-3 using an Allison J33 turbojet in case the British engine wasn’t available. However, the license-built J42 Nene proved so much better that most of the F-3s were converted to use them. The Panther proved easy to handle and maneuverable, and could attain a respectable 575 miles per hour and range of 1,300 miles thanks to its wingtip-mounted fuel tanks. However, it also included a weak tail-hook unit that rattled excessively while landing.

The Panther entered service with the Navy and Marine Corps in 1949—and was promptly inducted as the first jet to fly on their Blue Angels aerobatics team.

First Air-to-Air Kills of the Korean War

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Air Force used a fleet of around a hundred Soviet-supplied Yak-9 fighters and Il-10 Shturmovik attack planes [7] to wipe out the half dozen trainers and utility planes of the South Korean “air force” on the ground and pound its retreating army.

Once President Truman authorized U.S. forces to intervene in the conflict, one their first objectives was obtaining air superiority. On the morning of July 3, the Navy dispatched piston-engine Skyraider and Corsair fighters from the carrier Valley to destroy the NKPAF’s aircraft at the airfield in Pyongyang. Flying their first combat mission, F9F-3 jets of VF-51 swept ahead of the main force to clear the skies of any North Korean fighters that made into the air.

As the blue jets screamed over the airfield, a handful of North Korean Yak-9s scrambled to meet them. In the ensuing tussle, Ensign Eldon Brown and Lt. Jg. Leonard Plog each shot down one of the compact piston-engine fighters—the first aerial victories of the Korean War. Plog recalled that one of the Yaks “had a perfect run on me, but evidently had never shot anything moving so fast.”

In a matter of days, the North Korean air force was swept from the skies. Four months later, Soviet pilots began harrying U.N. forces using MiG-15 jets based across the Yalu River in China. The MiG-15 was a lighter, swept-wing design—and happened also to use a souped-up Soviet derivative of the Nene turbojet. The MiG had better high-altitude performance than the Panther and P-80, and was faster by a hundred miles per hour.

Though clearly outclassed, the Panther was more maneuverable at certain altitudes and possessed a superior armament of four twenty-millimeter M3 Hispano cannons in the nose. The rapid-firing guns could spit out sixteen pounds of high explosive shells a second, with ammunition for thirteen seconds of sustained fire. The MiG-15 was a more unstable gun platform with two twenty-three-millimeter cannons and one thirty-seven-millimeter; the latter was exceptionally hard hitting, but its low velocity limited its accuracy versus nimble fighters.

On November 9, Panthers were providing top cover for a strike on a bridge at Sinuiju, on the border with China, when they were intercepted by MiG-15s of the 139th Guards Fighter Regiment led by Capt. Mikhail Grachev. The commanding officer of VF-111 “Sundowners” squadron, Lt. Cdr. William Amen, noticed Grachev’s MiG closing on his tail and turned around to engage. The Soviet fighter apparently lost track of the Panther’s position, and Amen and his wingman George Holloman fell behind the MiG and raked it with their cannons.

Zigzagging evasively, Grachev dove steeply downwards to shake off his pursuers, but Amen matched his maneuver and continued to fire bursts even as his airframe was buffeted by the stress of approaching terminal velocity. Amen finally pulled out of the dive with just two hundred feet to spare. Grachev’s MiG smashed into the side of a mountain.

This likely made the Panther the first jet to shoot down another in combat. The day before, P-80s had clashed with MiG-15s [3] in the first battle between jet fighters. However, Soviet and U.S. records don’t confirm kills claimed by either side, but do concur regarding the engagement on November 9.

Panthers shot down two more MiGs on November 18, 1950—but the next aerial battle did not occur until exactly two years later. The Navy and Marines knew their fighters were outclassed by the MiGs and focused on coastal operations while the Air Force’s new F-86 Sabre jets tackled “Mig Alley” on the Chinese border.

Rugged Star of Hollywood’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri

This didn’t mean Panther pilots were out of danger. Most of the eighty-seven thousand sorties flown by Panthers over Korea were ground-attack missions targeting bridges or logistical centers. The F9F-2 was modified to lug up to two thousand pounds of bombs and 127-millimeter rockets on six outer-wing pylons and two racks under the fuselage, though lighter loads were usually carried.

These raids met withering antiaircraft fire—but the Panther proved exceptionally tough, a quality that saved the lives of numerous pilot that would make an indelible mark on American history.

Future astronaut Neil Armstrong flew seventy-eight combat missions on an F9F in 1951 from the USS Essex. On a raid against a logistics base in Majon-Ni, his plane collided with a cable strung between two mountains to snag low-flying aircraft. Though the collision sliced six feet off his wing, he managed to get his plane back to friendly lines and eject.

His future colleague John Glenn also flew the Panther with Marine squadron VMF-311 in 1953, where he was nicknamed “Magnet Ass” for all the flak he attracted. A huge eighty-five-millimeter shell punched a three-foot hole in the wing of Glenn’s Panther on one mission—but he still managed to navigate his plane back to base. His aircraft was holed again by a thirty-seven-millimeter flak gun a week later, but the Ohioan managed to limp home for landing. Glenn would later transfer to an F-86 unit and shoot down three MiGs.

One of Glenn’s buddies in VMF-311 was legendary Red Sox hitter Ted Williams. The ball player was called up by the Marine reserves and flew thirty-nine combat missions over Korea. Flak knocked out the hydraulics and electronics of his F9F while he was raiding a training camp south of Pyongyang. Unwilling to risk injury to his knees by ejecting, Williams piloted his flaming Panther all the way back to base. The Californian emerged unscathed from a fiery crash landing. and was playing ball again within a year.

Once, two Panthers returned from a mission with a damaged tail and fuselage respectively. The maintenance crew grafted the undamaged blue tail to the silver fuselage of the other to make a franken-Panther that flew twelve more missions.

Not everyone was so lucky— according to Richard Hallion’s The Naval Air War in Korea [8], a typical Carrier Air Group lost 10 percent of its flight crew on each combat deployment to Korea. The Navy recorded sixty-seven Panthers lost to enemy fire throughout the war—but carrier landings posed at least much as risk as enemy fire, as you can see from the sobering list of ejection records [9].

One squadron suffered only one bullet hole from enemy fire in its first two months of operations—and thirty-five noncombat accidents. Panthers that overshot their landings often collided with multiple aircraft on the flight deck. But undershooting and suffering a “ramp strike” was also a terrifying possibility, as you can see in this video [10]—which, remarkably, the pilot survived.

Many others fell into the ocean attempting to take off. Ejection or ditching at sea was also risky—pilots were likely to freeze to death in the cold waters of the Sea of Japan if the rescue helicopter did not arrive in time.

The routine yet terrifying risks assumed by Navy fliers attacking the North Korean bridges of Majon-Ni were described in the novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri by writer James Michener, and adapted into a film in 1954, which not only depicted the complexity of carrier operations, but explored the tragedy of men called upon to risk their lives in a conflict that few back home felt invested in. While Michener’s tale concerned an F2H Banshee squadron, the Hollywood picture used Panthers flown by the VF-192 “Golden Dragons” squadron. Mixed with real combat footage and model shots, the colorful flying and combat scenes remain breathtaking [11] sixty years later.

Panther Begets Cougar

The Panther’s relative lack of speed led Grumman to experiment with two reengined Panther variants: the F9F-4 mounted an Allison J-33, while the F-5 used the Rolls-Royce Tay, which mustered seven thousand pounds of thrust. Once again the British engine proved superior, boosting the Panther’s speed to 625 miles per hour and increasing maximum takeoff weight by 75 percent. Most F-4s were converted to F-5s.

The F9F-5 also boasted a new radar-ranging gunsight, a stretched fuselage to carry more fuel and a taller tail fin for improved low-speed handling. Grumman also experimented with producing Panthers with bare-metal finish, but these proved less resilient to corrosion.

The first of the improved Panthers made it to Korea late in 1952—just in time to participate in the Navy’s last great air battle of the war. In incident that remained classified until the fall of the Soviet Union, the F9F-5 piloted by Royce Williams engaged seven Soviet MiG-15s flying out of Vladivostok during a flurrying Siberian snow storm November 18.

Only three Soviet pilots made it back to base intact. Williams barely managed to land his own plane using just his elevators. Pocked with 263 shell holes, it was pitched overboard, and the pilot was treated to whiskey with President Eisenhower—and told to keep the dogfight with Soviet forces on the down low.

The Navy still saw further potential in the Panther, so Grumman built a swept-wing version called the F9F-6 Cougar. The Cougar was a bit faster and could fly significantly higher, but had shorter range due to added weight. Though it did not see action in the Korean War, it replaced the Panther soon afterwards. Though the Cougar was adapted to carry the first Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and even tactical nuclear weapons, it never saw combat except for a few Marine TF-9J trainers used as Forward Air Controllers in the Vietnam War.

Oddly, the Panther had one more battle to fight. Twenty-eight were transferred to the Argentine Navy in 1958. On April 2, 1963, a hard-line faction within the Navy attempted to overthrow the sitting government. When the Army dispatched the Eighth Tank Regiment to seize the naval air station at Punta Indio, the Panthers based there strafed and bombed the Sherman tanks, knocking out several [12] but losing one Panther to .50 caliber machine-gun fire. Punto Indio fell the next day.

The Panther may not have been the top jet fighter of its time, but its pilots matched skill and courage to the gleaming blue jet’s sheer reliability and survivability to carve out a remarkable record in aviation history.

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 [13].

Image [14]: Wikimedia Commons

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