Talking Proud Archives --- Military

MiG Alley Korea War, the first jet vs. jet aerial warfare

February 20, 2012

So this is MiG Alley: Pilot Stories

Lt. Colonel Bruce Hinton, USAF, was the first to engage the MiG-15 with the F-86. Hinton commanded the 336th FIS. John Wellington Ennis presents a graphic representation of the fight, with excellent background descriptions, and spots of interviews with Hinton. I commend his work to you. I’ll summarize what happened.

On December 17, 1950, Lt. Colonel Bruce Hinton, flying his F-86 engaged and shot down a MiG-15 piloted by a Russian. It was the very first combat mission for the F-86.

F-86s approach, from Ennis presentation

Hinton led a flight of four at a time when the enemy did not know the F-86s were in theater. Hinton said he took his flight in at low air speeds to entice the MiGs to attack. One might say, “In aerial combat if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

The MiGs took the bait. Hinton’s leading wingman called out “Bogeys crossing the Yalu River at nine o’clock and closing fast.” Four MiG-15s came in on the attack. Hinton’s strategy was to lure the MiGs in close and attack first. He told his men never to let a MiG-15 on his flight’s tail, he said, “at all, (n)ever.”

The enemy GCI ordered the MiGs to get in close and identify what they were up against. They passed underneath the F-86s and saw the swept wing design. As the MiGs passed underneath, Hinton ordered his flight to drop tanks. The Sabres then broke right and hit the throttle. He said he had to pick up speed, hitting 0.85 Mach or so. They then swung down and came at the enemy’s five o’clock and closed fast.

After just a bit, just about all the aircraft were at about 0.94 Mach, which meant that whoever could turn the best now had the advantage, since there was no longer a speed advantage.

The MiG flight split defensively. One of the lead MiGs and his wingman broke to a hard left, which experts say was a fatal error, because he reversed his turn. This enabled Hinton to sneak in behind him for a gun kill. Hinton wanted the lead, but decided to fire at the one to whom he could get closest.

The fight was now at about 1500 ft. and Hinton had his man and fired. But he said he thought his rounds were either bouncing off the MiG or just appearing that way. He kept firing, and the enemy pilot popped his speed brakes. No doubt, he wanted the Sabre to pass him by, but Hinton was able to slow down. Nonetheless, Hinton came right up to and underneath the MiG, close enough to see the rivets. The MiG then decided to dive. Hinton followed and gave the MiG a long burst of .50 caliber. He hit him. The MiG crashed into the land below. The rest of the MiGs used their climbing speed advantage to get out of the fight and escape back to Manchuria.

In January 1951, the B-29s were told to stay away from MiG-Alley where they were proving vulnerable to Antung based MiG-15s. They were withdrawn after the Chinese captured Kimpo and Suwon airfields, which also caused the F-86s to have to return to Japan. The MiGs had enough numbers among them to attack Allied airfields. The F-86As, which are what were there initially, were not of much use in the area of the Yalu from bases in Japan.


On January 14, 1951, an F-86A detachment arrived at Taegu in the south to try to halt the Chinese advance; the airfield at Taegu in 1951 is shown here. But it was not a good fighter bomber; endurance and range were way too low, and it could not carry a large load. By March the UN forces had pushed the enemy back to the north.


Suwon was now open for F-86 use. Here you see a lineup at Suwon. The 334 FIS began Yalu patrols on March 6, 1951 with the rest of the squadron arriving four days later.

No F-86As were lost in action during the first five months of 1951. They flew 3,550 sorties and scored 22 victories. Most of the attrition was caused by accidents rather than by losses in actual combat.

The F-86s arrived in MiG-Alley usually able to stay in the area for about 20 minutes because of fuel. MiG pilots were told to stay over land which their friendly forces controlled so they did not lose a pilot to the Americans. This generally restricted them to North Korean airspace. As mentioned earlier, the F-86 pilots officially were prevented from flying into Chinese airspace, which is where the MiGs were based, though they did go in there, which I will address in a moment. But overall, most meetings between the two occurred south of the Yalu in MiG Alley.

It was common for the MiGs to attack the F-86s below the Yalu. When the F-86 was in trouble, he would execute a very steep dive where he held a great advantage over the MiG, which would incur instability in such a dive. Usually the MiG would bang off a few rounds and then escape north of the Yalu. And, despite rules to the contrary, F-86 pilots would often chase them across the Yalu into China in “hot pursuit.”

In 1952, these “over the Yalu missions” were known as “Maple Special” missions, designed to lure the MiGs into a dogfight and then pursue them across the Yalu where some were shot down, some shot down on final approach and as they were landing.

Legend has it that Col. Francis Gabrieski, commander of the 51st FIW, instituted the Maple Special missions. Only the most experienced pilots went on these missions, and they worked hard to keep them secret from the brass at Suwon. These were not done only once in a while, but legend has it they became routine, and were well known to USAF superiors.

In both cases, the MiGs and Sabres employed WWII tactics, except the pilots’ lives were now racing by much faster. Each wanted a commanding position over the other, hold it, and fire from about 1,000 ft away. Both pilots liked having a wingman for protection. The F-86s worked to take down the MiGs one at a time.


The F-86s developed tactics where they would fly in what they called a “jet stream” of 16 aircraft divided into four-aircraft flights. Each flight would enter MiG Alley at five minute intervals and at different altitudes ranging from 27,000 to 33,000 ft. They usually entered at high speeds. Their flights of four aircraft came to be known as “fluid four” tactical formations, each with a lead and a wingman. When attacked, the two aircraft pairs wold separate and get into the fight with a vigorous counterattack.

Bud Mahurin was a F-86 pilot. He also fought in WWII. The photo shows him after returning from a mission in 1943. He shot down two dozen enemy aircraft in two wars, one of our greatest aces. He said he might be flying his F-86 at 37,000 ft. when attacked. He would then fly “around and around down to the ground and back up to 26,000, before I shot him down.” He said it was very much like the way pilots flew in WWI and WWII. He said his slab tail enabled him to outperform a MiG especially when he caught him by surprise. The slab tail allowed him to turn faster than the MiG. He knew he could already dive faster than the MiG and pull out of the dive more quickly. He said he never tried to climb with the MiG, because he could not compete there. He tried to keep the fight at altitudes in which he was at his best. If the MiG gained an advantage, the F-86 would normally get out of there and leave.

BlesseBootsBoots Blesse, another F-86 driver, shown here in 1952, said he loved the way his Sabre could turn. He also said forget trying to out-climb the MiG, but instead work the turns to outmaneuver him. He said most of the aircraft he shot down were within 400-1,000 ft.

I started this report talking about how I was a kid and daily heard reports of MiG kills. I can tell you now two things. The USAF killed far more MiG-15s than F-86s lost, but the figures on the kill ratios are all over the place.

The USAF has claimed a 10:1 kill ratio in its favor, while the Soviets have claimed a kill ratio of 3 or 4 to one in the Soviet favor. The Soviets claim to have shot down 650 Sabres while the USAF says it lost less than 200 in air combat. The F-86 pilots claim 792 MiG-15s shot down and B-29 gunners claim another 16. The Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) claimed 85 kills. More than 30 American and British pilots are claimed to have been shot down behind enemy lines and their fate has never been established. Only 15 captured F-86 pilots were returned.

Bert Kortegaard, writing “Sabre vs. MiG,” commented:


F-86 gun camera photo shooting down a MiG-15

“The Sabre's combat record in Korea was, by any standards, impressive. Of the 900 aerial victories claimed by USAF pilots during the war, 792 were MiG-15s shot down by Sabres. The MiGs in their turn managed to knock down only 78 Sabres. American fighter pilots thus established a ten-to-one kill/loss ration in their favor.

“Documented postwar research indicates there were actually only about 379 US victories. The Soviets claimed to have shot down more than 650 Sabres, while USAF records show 224 F-86s lost to all causes, including non-combat.”

On May 22, 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent a message to the Chinese through Indian diplomatic means warning that if the Chinese continued obstructing an armistice agreement, the US would employ the atomic bomb, Within 11 days, the Chinese accepted the armistice plans with minor changes.

A few more stories.

The summer 2004 edition of Sabre Jet Classics, a publication of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, had a story about Capt. Manuel J. “Pete” Fernandez, “The Unknown Ace,” written by Larry Davis. The story caught my attention because Fernandez liked to engage the MiG-15 at higher altitudes, while most of the others preferred to do it down lower. He was with the 334th FIS of the 51st FIW, Suwon. He got most of his kills at high altitude. He would cruise at 0.9 Mach at 45-48,090 ft. Then his flight would turn off the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system and speed into Manchuria for a few miles before heading back out.

What he learned was that by doing this, he would end up in the six o’clock position to the MiGs coming out of Antung. The MiGs would be climbing out and heading south. They did not know Pete was even there until he attacked. Sometimes he’d fly within the MiG formations. The MiG’s top speed was about 0.92 Mach so seldom could get on his tail. He was credited with 14.5 kills.

I found another story that is kind of opposite from the previous one. Lt. Colonel Bruce Hinton commanded the 336th FIS of the 4th FIW. On December 17, 1950, he led a flight of four F-86s into MiG Alley. They flew at the same altitudes as the F-80s when they came in to attack ground targets and also used F-80 callsigns. All of a sudden, they spotted four MiGs at a lower altitude, and he led the attack. Hinton got one of them.

Capt. Joe McConnell has a wild story to tell. On April 12, 1953, McConnell was chasing a MiG. Soviet pilot Semen Fedorets had just shot down Lt. Robert Niemann, and now spotted McConnell. Fedorets got on McConnell’s tail and slightly below him. McConnell’s wingman told him to break left, which he did, and Fedorets fired and hit McConnell’s aircraft. McConnell’s F-86 had been hurt badly, but he put it into a high G-barrel roll, causing Fedorets to overtake him. McConnell fired his .50 calls and forced Fedorets to eject. McConnell’s aircraft was smoking, he had lost most of his power, but he was able to stay in control and get her to the coast where he bailed out and was rescued within minutes.


For those unfamiliar with it, when a pilot conducts a high G barrel roll, usually his attacker is directly behind him. The pilot then climbs and turns, let’s say to the right, and rolls his aircraft over 360 degrees. The attacker, seeing his prey break right, does the same but the barrel roll eats up time and the attacker flies past the prey and now, in this case, McConnell, is right on his tail ready to fire. McConnell might have been a bit lucky, since an experienced pilot, if he sees what is happening, can effectively counter the maneuver without great hardship. Like we have been saying, the American pilots were much better trained. has a good explanation which I commend to you.

I read a story about Soviet Colonel Yevgeny Georgievich Pepelyayev, one of the Soviets’ top MiG-15 pilots and top aces. I had mentioned earlier in my report that the MiGs would fly in formations of 50-100 aircraft. On May 20, 1951, there was an aerial battle between 50 MiGs and 28 Sabres. While each side claimed multiple kills, each side lost only one. But what struck my imagination was 50 against 28 in an aerial battle. Reminds me of the Battle of Britain in WWII. Another story says that on April 12, 1951, thirty-six MiG-15s intercepted a formation of 48 B-29s escorted by 34 F-86s and 18 F-86s. The B-29s were on their way to attack Yalu bridges. Three B-29s were lost, seven seriously damaged, and one MiG shot down.

Colonel John Lowery, USAF was an F-86 plot in Korea with the 334 FIS of the 4th FIW, and a F-4 pilot in Vietnam. His commentary is interesting. I took a few excerpts.

Of his F-86 in Korea, he said,“"Fighter versus fighter, as I knew it in Korea, was the greatest sport that I've ever participated in." Like many others of all ranks who were in Korea, the first thing he noticed was the smell of Koreans using human waste in the rice paddies. He said, “the whole place smelled like an outdoor toilet.” But then he saw a squadron of F-86s take off, two at a time, and commented, “I was awed, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was like walking into a movie... just like a movie set. I was really impressed." He spoke lovingly of his F-86:

"The F-86 had absolutely no flaws. We even had a song - - Just give me an F-86, the airplane that knows all the tricks. She'll loop, roll and spin, but she'll never auger in."

He was one of the F-86s on alert to scramble against North Korean Lt. No who was defecting. He said they did not see him until he entered the traffic and taxied.

He described something I have not yet seen, “coffin corner.” He described it this way:

"As you climb above 20,000 feet your stall speed goes with you. So at 45,000 feet, 0.8 Mach, you're at 205 indicated and your stall speed might be 175. Now you're getting to 51,000 feet, and 0.8 Mach is 185 indicated, and your stall speed is 175. It's like flying on the edge of a ball bearing and you're just ready to fall off at any moment." It was apparently a time when a high speed stall buffet and low speed stall buffet converged.

Lowery said he'd been in mission debriefings and heard other F-86 pilots say they'd been following a flight of four MiG-15s when one of them would suddenly stall and start spinning . "Once they get into a spin, a MiG-15 won't recover. It has a flat spin mode, too. An F-86 pilot could go into a spin at 45,000 feet and spin to 10,000 and recover like a T-34. It's just a wonderful airplane."

As a side note, during late 1952, twenty percent of Sabre victories over the MiG-15 occurred without firing a shot. During the last four months of 1952, thirty-two MiGs went into sudden and uncontrollable spins while being chased. Only two pilots were able to recover. The rest ejected or crashed. It took until 1953 for the MiG pilots to better acquit themselves to handle these spins.

Lowery said the majority of the enemy pilots he saw shot down during his tour were young North Koreans or Chinese, explaining why in most cases when F-86s bounced MiGs, the victims flew straight and level, and they were knocked from the sky:

"What the Russians would do is bring them over on training flights at 51,000 feet, above the altitudes we'd be able to reach,and they'd fly a box pattern - - south of Antung, China, right at the mouth of the Yalu River where it empties into the Yellow Sea; then they'd come down almost to Pyongyang; then they would go eastbound to a certain point, then they'd go back to China. We'd try to catch them when they descended for landing into China.”

Lt. No noted that sometime in 1952 the rules seemed to have changed, so that the Yalu River was no longer a barrier. And the Sabre jets were shooting down MiGs that were in their traffic pattern for landing. General Barcus was apparently in charge, and legend has it he said: “To hell with the Yalu River. Go where they are and get 'em.' “

General Anderson took over in June of 1953 and wanted to make an example of those who went across. Lowery said, “The first guy he caught was one of the aces who was, just finishing his tour. But he went home very swiftly."

Then there was James “Jabby” Jabara. At least some among his colleagues felt he worried more about himself getting a kill than worrying about his wingman. Whatever the case, he was part of a formation led by Colonel Hinton with 1st Lt. Salvadore Kemp on his wing. Nearing Sinuiju, they spotted MiGs, and were told to jettison tanks. One of Jabbara’s tanks would not cut loose. He was supposed to abort. But he decided to stay as it looked like they were being attacked by about 50 MiGs, about 3,000 ft above the 14 Sabres, which were at 27,000 ft. The MiGs conducted a head-on pass, fired, but caused no damage. Jabbara tried to reverse and hop on a MiG’s tail but his hung tank stopped him from doing so. Then his formation broke into elements, leaving Jabara and Kemp to take on about a dozen MiGs. Three MiGs attacked but overshot their targets. Jabara maneuvered behind one and after going around three times he got within firing range and hit the cockpit and the left wing. The MiG burst into flames. The pilot ejected at about 10,000 ft and his MiG exploded.

Jabara and Kemp began to climb, but separated, Jabara accusing Kemp of flying too slow. In any event, Jabara saw six MiGs and pulled in behind the trailing one and chased him. The MiG tried to climb away but dove to the left, Jabara caught up to him and hit the MiG in the wings and tail. Almost overshooting his prey, he hit the speed brakes, and pulled in behind him and watched him flame out.

Bruno Giordano said one way he was able to identify MiG-15s was by the distinctive spaced puffs from the three slow firing cannons. One day he saw those intermittent puffs, and prepared to attack, only to see it was a F-86 testing his 20 mm cannon. He spotted the yellow identification stripes on the wings we mentioned in another section! Giodano also flew as Jabara’s wingman. Jabara, in the lead, crossed at a 90 degree angle with his opponents, almost catching Giodano in a collision.

A note on our losses --- the MiG-15 was a formidable foe

The story of the F-86 vs. the MiG-15 is an important one for a wide variety of reasons. One of the most important was that the F-86 was able to maintain air superiority over North Korea, and South Korea for that matter. USAF General Curt Lemay would brag that not one US soldier on the ground was every shot by an enemy aircraft. Many times the enemy tried to build air bases in North Korea from which to attack the ROK, but persistently these fields were strafed and destroyed. The enemy air force was really never able to get south once the F-86 showed up. American air dominance was crucial.

I do not want to leave the impression, however, that our F-86s and their able pilots were invincible. They were not. The Soviet piloted MiG-15 was a formidable foe. I’ve browsed some records of our losses and wanted to briefly describe problems our guys ran into with their Sabres. I’m drawing much of my information from work done by the
National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen. Their stories are about men still carried as MIAs.

On August 1, 1952 Major Felix Asla, USAF, commanded the 336th FIS at K-14. He got separated from his wingman and lost visual contact. He and the others decided he should leave the area. After a bit, another pilot spotted a MiG engaging him, taking out his left wing. Asla’s aircraft was spinning downward from 23,000 feet about 15 miles southeast of Sakchu, North Korea. Asla was known to his fellows as a huge teacher, in flight asking the others all kinds of questions about their gauge readings and telling them to break one way or the other during a fight, or back off your triggers, stop shooting, even in a fight, worried his guys would melt their gun barrels, which was a problem. Asla had an interesting habit when being saddled into the cockpit by his crew chief. When the signal was given that it was time to leave, he made his crew chief tap his helmet three times. The chief would ask him why, to which he would respond, “My little secret Chief.” Forty two years later, a BBC team traveled to Russia to do a story about their participation in the Korean War. During its research, they found a “trophy photo” of an F-86 crash site with a damaged tail section and the body of the pilot, which the USAF could not identify. They also found photos Asla had taken showing nine Russian stars stenciled on the fuselage, one for each MiG he had destroyed or damaged. The USAF would later confirm the tail number was that of Asla’s aircraft

Major Deltis H. Fincher, USANG, was on patrol at 37,000 ft. and became engaged with a group of MiGs. One of them attacked him and he took his F-86 into violent maneuvers. He thought he got away, asking others for any damage assessments they might have on his aircraft. It looked like he squeezed out of trouble, but then his wingman lost visual contact with him and he was never heard from again.

Capt. Troy G. Cope, USAFR, encountered the enemy a few times on September 16, 1952 during fighter sweep operations along the Yalu. He and his wingman took on six MiG-15s. He radioed that he had exhausted his ammo. Another F-86 came up to him and together they headed downstream on a course south of Manchuria and parallel to the Yalu. About 10 miles south of Antung, two flights of MiGs were spotted, and while the Sabres were preparing to attack, three more aircraft showed up. Given that Cope had no ammo, the two F-86s separated. Contact was lost with him as well. Interestingly, Warren Sessler, an American businessman, visited a museum in Dandong, China, just across the Yalu and saw a dog tag stamped with Troy Cope’s name. He took a rubbing of the tags. The Chinese said they could not help track Cope, but Soviet records revealed exactly where his F-86 had crashed. An American team went to the site, found bones, a watch similar to that which Cope wore, and a boot that fit him. The bones were taken for DNA which proved they belonged to Cope. His remains were returned to the US and he was buried in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Cemetery 52 years after the incident.

2nd Lt Jack Turbeville, USAF had completed his combat patrol over the Chong Chong River, North Korea on November 18, 1952, and was with two other F-86s all headed for home at flight level 40,000 ft. As Turbeville closed on the Han River, he reported having trouble with his oxygen system, then went radio silent. The others watched his plane take a sharp nose dive and he was lost at about 36,000 ft. in the overcast. His flight leader followed him into the overcast and emerged in the clear at about 25,000 ft. No trace of Turbeville or his aircraft.

2nd Lt. Bill Stauffer, USAFR, was jumped by six MiGs on February 12, 1953 and during the battle his aircraft was observed inverted, crashing into a small hill.

1st Lt Paul J. Jacobson, USAFR was over the North Korean town of Sinuiju and he too became engaged with six MiGs. He stayed in the fight and was seen at 36,000 ft, but he failed to rejoin his flight. An air search could not find him. Intelligence concluded he was captured and taken to Antung, never to be heard from again.

1st Lt. John E. Sutherland, USAFR, was preparing to attack an enemy target on June 6, 1953 but radioed his wingman he had engine trouble. He asked to maintain a high altitude until the attack was complete. Shortly thereafter, his Sabre was seen in flames and then violently rolled to the left and headed to the ground. Those flying with him saw him bail out at 12,000 ft. He landed in the Kumsong area, behind enemy lines, his parachute was seen, and then it disappeared.

1st Lt. Allan K. Rudolph had just arrived in the Yalu area on June 19, 1953 and he too reported engine problems. He decided to abort and as he turned south, a ball of flame was seen coming from his tail pipe. He radioed his engine was no longer operational and was told to head toward water. He managed to pull up to 16,000 ft. into the overcast, his wingman followed, but when he broke into the clear, he could not find Rudolph.


This report must conclude with the matter of F-86 pilot POWs. As I indicated in this report, the Soviets not only wanted a F-86 in good shape, they wanted F-86 pilots. Many of our pilots were shot down, and many captured, and some ultimately released.

However, there are many good reasons to believe the Chinese took some away from the North Koreans, and the Soviets in turn took them away from the Chinese. Why they would take some and not all is a mystery.

A report of August 26, 1993, “The Transfer of US Korean War POWs to the Soviet Union” prepared by the Joint Commission Support Branch, Research and Analaysis Division, DPMO (Defense POW/MIA Office) said this:

“U.S. Korean War POWs were transferred to the Soviet Union and never repatriated … The range of eyewitness testimony as to the presence of U.S. Korean War POWs in the GULAG is so broad and convincing that we cannot dismiss it.

“Living U.S. witnesses have testified that captured U.S. pilots were, upon occasion, taken directly to Soviet-staffed interrogation centers. A former Chinese officer stated he turned U.S. pilot POWs directly over to the Soviets as a matter of policy.

“Missing F-86 pilots, whose captivity was never acknowledged by the Communists in Korea, were identified in recent interviews with former Soviet intelligence officers who served in Korea. Captured F-86 aircraft were taken to at least three Moscow aircraft design bureaus for exploitation. Pilots accompanied the aircraft to enrich and accelerate the exploitation process.”

One of those F-86 pilots thought sure to have been in Soviet hands was 1st lt. Robert Frank Niemann, USAF, a West Point graduate born in 1928. He was a fairly new pilot with the 4th FIW. He was shot down while on patrol in the Sui Ho reservoir area by a MiG-15, about 20 miles south of the reservoir. His wingman was Capt. Manuel Fernandez. There is some dispute as to whether he was shot down over North Korea or China, but there seems little dispute that he landed alive and was captured. Former Soviet documents show that he was alive and in their custody. Soviet veterans have confirmed this, remembering Niemann as one very resistant top interrogation. The Soviet documents say he died in captivity in Siodvio (Sinuiju) North Korea. Sinuiju, on the Yalu, was believed to be on of the top interrogation centers.

Lieutenant Niemann's name appears on the "List of 59" entitled "A List of United States Air Force Personnel Shot Down in Aerial Combat and by Anti-Aircraft Artillery During Military Operations in Korea, Who Transited Through an Interrogation Point." Additionally, The Joint Commission Support Branch believes that further information on Lieutenant Niemann exists in
the Russian archives as concluded in its "Preliminary Analysis of Korean War Interrogation Material" report dated June 1993.


The setting for Mig-Alley’s creation

The push to China, China invades

The MiG-15 and F-86 make their debut

The B-29 Superfortress and MiG Alley

So this is MiG Alley: Pilot Stories