Sabres over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea.
This one is a crowd pleaser. Ken Werrell, a highly respected air power historian, has turned his attention towards one of the more glorious chapters in Air Force history. The battle for air superiority over Korea was a great success story for both the American fighter pilots who flew in "MiG Alley" and the remarkable airplane that bore them there.
The North American F-86 "Sabre" was conceived during World War II but did not fly until late 1947. Originally designed as a straight-wing fighter sporting a jet engine, the influx of captured German aeronautical data at the end of the war suggested that a swept-wing design would be more successful. It most certainly was.
The F-86, an air superiority fighter, was deployed initially to Europe to counter the Soviet threat. However, the appearance of Soviet-built jet fighters over North Korea in November 1950 forced a reassessment.
The MiG-15, another swept-wing fighter that first flew in 1947, was an unpleasant surprise both to American intelligence experts and USAF fighter pilots. Small, light, agile and heavily armed, the MiG-15 was roughly equal to the F-86 in performance. Pilots of both planes would acknowledge that the MiG was slightly faster and had better climb characteristics, but the Sabre could turn tighter, especially at low to mid altitudes. The Soviet fighter was better armed--its cannon was more effective and powerful than the .50 caliber machine guns on the Sabre. On the other hand, Werrell notes that the "auxiliary equipment" on the American jet--the gunsight, g-suit, helmet and cockpit defroster--were distinct advantages. Despite their roughly comparable performance, the kill ratio of the F-86 over the MiG exceeded 8-to-1 over the course of the war and was 13-to-1 during the final year.
What accounted for this remarkable superiority? Werrell attributes Sabre success to the excellence of its pilots. The USAF fighter pilots who went to war in Korea were an unusually experienced and well-trained group. In fact, the average F-86 ace was around 30 years old an old man by fighter-pilot standards. Many of these men had flown in World War II and had thousands of hours in the air. In addition, these pilots--at least the most successful ones--had an unusual and undiluted aggressiveness and self-confidence. Their job was to hunt: to find MiGs wherever they were located and to shoot them down.
This last comment is relevant, and Werrell notes that despite official policy and public statements at the time, F-86 pilots routinely crossed over the Yalu River into Chinese airspace to find their quarry. Almost without exception, these incursions were well known to Air Force superiors who condoned and in some cases encouraged such behavior. Indeed, several American aces seem to have scored most of their victories in prohibited airspace.
Werrell also notes some of the other less publicized aspects of the air war over North Korea: the problems of fratricide, "reluctant warriors" who seldom sought combat, and exaggerated victory claims. In addition, some chapters focus on the stories of well-known American aces. Although most of these are positive depictions, he notes that some of these men were self-serving glory hounds who inspired little friendship or respect among their colleagues. The numerous "there I was" stories presented are both candid and entertaining.
Despite the glitz and glamour surrounding this air campaign, the combat story of the F-86 and its pilots is a deadly serious one. The achievement of air superiority, indeed, air supremacy over the entire Korean peninsula was of enormous importance. Throughout the war the communists attempted to build airfields in North Korea from which to launch airstrikes against United Nations positions and troops. These airfields were repeatedly bombed and strafed and never became operational. Enemy aircraft seldom strayed south and played no significant role in the war--they were never allowed to get that close. American air dominance, largely granted by the F-86 and its pilots, was a decisive factor in UN success.
Regrettably, this story of the USAF efforts in MiG Alley remains largely one-dimensional. Werrell states that the Soviets flew most of the MiG sorties over North Korea, but Soviet sources detailing that involvement are scanty and unreliable--the Soviets claimed, for example, nearly eight times the number of air victories than aircraft actually lost by the U.S. Chinese sources are even less illuminating. Somewhat surprisingly, Werrell does not mention John Boyd and his theory of "fast transient maneuvers" (which evolved into his famous OODA Loop) that sought to explain F-86 success as being more attributable to technological factors than pilot prowess.
Even so, this is an excellent and enjoyable book that puts a personal face on the decisive air battles over Korea in what has often been labeled America's "forgotten war."
Col. Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF (Ret.), Northrop Grumman Corporation