"MiG Alley" is the name given by United Nations (UN) pilots to the northwestern portion of North Korea, where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea. During the Korean War, it was the site of numerous dogfights between UN fighter pilots and their opponents from North Korea (including some unofficially crewed by Soviet airmen) and the People's Republic of China.
Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 were the aircraft used during most of the conflict, and the area's nickname was derived from them. It was the site of the first large-scale jet-vs-jet air battles, with the North American F-86 Sabre.
MiGs enter the scene
The North Koreans began their war against South Korea on June 25, 1950 with small numbers of Soviet aircraft retained from the Second World War. These were flown by under-trained and inexperienced pilots. Once the UN, led by the United States, committed its air power to the war, the North Korean force was rapidly depleted. For several months U.S. built B-29s, P-51 Mustangs and the early jet F-80 Shooting Stars and F-84 Thunderjets flew the skies over North Korea virtually unopposed, while the North Koreans and their Soviet and Chinese advisors argued behind the scenes over the best course of counter-action to take.
By October 1950 the Soviet Union agreed to provide their air regiments to the conflict, equipped with high performance MiG-15 fighters along with their Soviet air crews and maintenance teams. At the same time the Kremlin committed to supply the Chinese and North Koreans with MiG-15 aircraft, and would train Chinese and Korean pilots to fly them.
The first encounters between Soviet MiGs and U.N. aircraft occurred on November 1, 1950, when eight MiG-15s intercepted about 15 United States Air Force P-51 Mustangs flying a ground support mission. Soviet pilot First Lieutenant Fiodor Chizh shot down and killed American pilot Aaron Abercrombie. Later that day three MiG-15s attacked about 10 American F-80C fighters, with the F-80C of American pilot Frank Van Sickle shot down (listed in American records as killed by flak). Soviet pilot First Lieutenant Semyon Jominich (also spelled Khominich) was the first pilot in history to be credited with a jet-versus-jet kill. One week later, November 9, 1950, the Soviets suffered their first MiG loss when Lieutenant Commander William T. Amen shot down and killed Captain Mijael Grachev.
On December 17 a F-86 Sabre patrol (in a Finger-four formation) led by Lieutenant Colonel Bruce H. Hinton flew over the Yalu River. Each aircraft carried two 120-gallon drop tanks to provide enough fuel for adequate patrolling time as the 485-mile round trip. The American pilots were not allowed to cross the Chinese border, and cruising speed was limited to 475mph—partly to conserve fuel, but also to give an image on Communist radar screens like that of a slower aircraft and so tempt up the MIGs. Forty minutes after take-off the Sabres were approaching the Yalu at 32,000ft. Four MIGs were spotted flying straight towards them 7,000ft lower down. The Americans jettisoned their drop tanks. As the MIGs passed below, the Sabres pulled round to the left and hurtled down behind the Russian jets, which bore Red Chinese Air Force markings. Too late the MIGs pilots realized that their adversaries were not the older F80s or F84s which could be easily outdistanced. As they frantically split up and headed back for the safety of the border, Hinton pulled in behind the Chinese leader's wingman and fired 1,500 rounds of .50 caliber at the MIG. Smoke belched from its jet pipe and flames enveloped the tail section. It rolled on its back to spin down and crash about 10 miles south of the Yalu. The Sabre had opened its score.
On the morning of December 22 the MIGs claimed their first Sabre victim, Captain Lawrence V. Bach's aircraft was hit in the wing root by cannon fire and was sent spinning down in flames. The 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing forward-based at K-14, Kimpo took their revenge that afternoon when eight Sabres took on over 15 MIGs at 30,000ft and chased them down to the Yalu River, destroying six without loss. The Communist pilots were not keen to risk another hiding during the closing weeks of 1950. On New Year's Day a new Communist invasion of South Korea drove the UN forces back. The air base at Kimpo was quickly overrun and the Sabres had to withdrawn to Japan.
In response to North Korea's deployment of jets, P-51 squadrons from the UN air forces converted to jet fighters: the F-86 in the case of USAF and South African Air Force (SAAF) and the Gloster Meteor by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Early in March two Sabre squadrons of the 4th Wing returned to Korea, just in time to meet a new build-up of Communist air strength designed to secure air superiority over NW Korea as a prelude to a spring offensive.
In the first five months of 1951 the 4th Wing flew 3,550 sorties and claimed 22 victories. Not a single F-86 Sabre was shot down by MIGs, although a number were lost due to accidents.
April 12, 1951 was nicknamed "Black Thursday" by USAF pilots after three MiG-15 squadrons with 30 aircraft attacked three squadrons of B-29 Superfortress bombers (36 planes) protected by about a hundred F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderjet fighters. The MiGs were fast enough to fly past the non-swept wing escorts and engage the B-29s. Three B-29s were shot down and seven more were damaged, with no casualties on the Soviet side. Following this US sorties over Korea were halted for approximately three months. US Bomber command was forced to discontinue daylight attacks on Korea, and changed to night missions using small groups of bomber aircraft.
On July 10 1951 the long-drawn-out truce talks between Communists and United Nations representatives had opened at Kaesong. The ground forces were virtually stalemated at the 38th parallel, but in the air less than a hundred F-86 Sabres faced an ever-growing Communist air force that now included nearly 500 MIGs.
The Soviets kept the participation of their aircrews in the Korean War secret for many years, though it was widely suspected by UN forces. Soviet aircraft were adorned with North Korean or Chinese markings and pilots wore either North Korean uniforms or civilian clothes, to disguise their origins. For radio communication, they were given cards with common Korean words for various flying terms spelled out phonetically in Cyrillic characters. These subterfuges did not long survive the fury of air-to-air combat, however, and pilots were soon heard communicating in Russian.
Soviet MiG-15 regiments were based on Chinese fields in Manchuria, where, according to existing UN rules of engagement, they could not be attacked. Many Soviet regiments underwent preliminary training at Soviet bases in the neighboring Soviet Maritime Military District. Soviet air defense troops also began to arrive along the Yalu, setting up radar installations, ground control centers, searchlights and large numbers of anti-aircraft guns to deter any attacks on the Chinese airfields.
While UN pilots chafed at the restrictions imposed on attacking the MiG's Chinese airfields, it wasn't known until many years later that the MiG pilots themselves operated under tight restrictions. To preserve the impression that Soviet pilots were not fighting in Korea, they were prohibited from flying over non-Communist-controlled territory or within 30 to 50 miles of the Allied front lines. One Soviet pilot who was shot down in UN-controlled territory shot himself with his pistol rather than be taken captive. Another pilot who bailed out into the Yellow Sea was strafed to prevent him from being captured. Soviet pilots were not allowed to pursue UN aircraft over the UN-controlled Yellow Sea.
In spite of the restrictions, many US pilots took advantage of a "hot pursuit" exception to flying over China to pursue MiGs across the Yalu River. Later, "hot pursuit" became active MiG hunting over Manchuria, with US pilots maintaining a "code of silence" about the patrols. Flight leaders chose wingmen who would keep quiet, and many rolls of incriminating gun camera footage "mysteriously" disappeared.[better source needed]
The UN conducted Operation Moolah to entice Communist pilots, especially Russian pilots, to defect to South Korea with a MiG-15. The operation was intended to gain an analysis of the MiG-15's flight performance, as well as serve a psychological purpose undermining the Soviet pilots.
The MiG Alley battles produced many fighter aces. The top aces were Russian. Nikolay Sutyagin claimed 21 kills, including nine F-86s, one F-84 and one Gloster Meteor (operated by No. 77 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force) in less than seven months. His first kill was the F-86A of Robert H. Laier on 19 June 1951 (listed by the Americans as missing in action), and his last was on 11 January 1952, when he shot down and killed Thiel M. Reeves, who was flying an F-86E (Reeves is also listed as MIA). Other famous Soviet aces include Yevgeni G. Pepelyayev, who was credited with 19 kills, and Lev Kirilovich Shchukin, who was credited with 17 kills, despite being shot down twice himself.
However, Soviet kill claims were highly exaggerated, based upon inherent flaws in their film grading procedures. For instance, the S-13 gun camera was not aligned with either the gunsight or either cannons' ballistics. It ran only while the firing buttons were depressed. Film graders commonly included unit commanders and political commisars who would confirm a "kill"—sometimes even if one had not been claimed by a pilot—when the camera's crosshairs touched the target for two movie frames. During the first 16 months of combat Soviet V-VS units claimed 218 F-86s destroyed when only 36 (35 to the two elite IADs and one to the 50th IAD) had been lost. This results in a 600 per cent inflation rate in victory credits over actual Sabres destroyed.
A thorough, individual review of USAF Korean War F-86 loss records results in the conclusion that 224 Fifth Air Force Sabres were lost during the conflict. Forty-seven pilots were killed, 65 listed as missing and 26 captured, with another six wounded but able to return to friendly territory. Of the 224 F-86s lost, 40 were in non-operation accidents, 61 to non-enemy causes during operation sorties, 18 to AAA and one to an enemy bombing (night Po-2) attack. This leaves a maximum of 104 lost as a result of aerial combat.
Soviet archival records state that 335 MiG-15s and 120 pilots were lost in Korea, with 319 of these aircraft and 110 pilots being shot down in combat. All but ten of the downed MiGs fell to F-86s. The PLAAF admits the loss of 399 aircraft in Korea, of which 224 MiGs were destroyed in combat - all exclusively by the Sabre - with the loss of 77 pilots. The North Korean losses are not yet known with certainty, but in 1953 a defector estimated that KPAF MiG losses numbered at least 100 jets. Overall then, during the course of the conflict approximately 566 MiG-15s had been destroyed by Sabres. Of all these, only 49 were flown by members of the two elite V-VS divisions that fought over the Yalu primarily during 1951. Accepting USAF losses as above, this generates an overall "kill ratio" of 5.835 MiG-15s destroyed for each Sabre lost.
However, against the Soviet’s best – the crack 303rd and 324th IADs – the ratio nears parity at 1.4-to-1. Interestingly, when the 324th IAD was flying the early model MiG, the “kill ratio” was 8-to-1 in favour of the F-86A. Once the MiG-15bis was used, it dropped to 1.2-to-1, indicating that the two variants, and the men flying them, were nearly equal in capabilities. The aerial battles of 1951 in terms of “kill ratio” alone were essentially a draw. But against the other Soviet, Chinese and Korean MiG divisions, the F-86A/E/F reigned supreme with a “kill ratio” of 9.07-to-1.
The top UN ace of the war, Capt. Joseph C. McConnell, claimed 16 MiGs, including three on one day. His story featured in a film called The McConnell Story, starring Alan Ladd and June Allyson. The second-highest-scoring UN ace, Maj. James Jabara, was the first UN jet-vs.-jet ace. Another ace, Frederick C. "Boots" Blesse, claimed nine MiG-15s in his F-86 Sabre and later wrote No Guts, No Glory, a manual of air fighter combat that is still studied today. James P. Hagerstrom claimed 8.5 kills.
George Andrew Davis, Jr. became one of the first members of the new U.S. Air Force to receive the Medal of Honor after being killed while leading his section of two F-86s against 12 MiG-15s when he was trying to shoot them all down. Over thirty Sabre pilots were claimed to have been shot down behind enemy lines and their fate has never been definitively established. Surviving pilots, captured and later repatriated after the armistice, reported being interrogated by Koreans, Russians, and Chinese. For years after the Korean War ended in 1953, rumours persisted of pilots held captive by the Soviets.
- List of Korean War air aces
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- "Korean War Aces" website.
- "The B-29 in MiG Alley," by Bud Farrell
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