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MiG Madness: The Air War over Korea

By Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta 
Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: January 03, 2008 
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"Jabara, you're shooting at me!" screamed Lieutenant Dick Frailey in a desperate attempt to get Major James Jabara, the third ranking American ace of the Korean War, to break off his attack. But his frantic radio transmission came too late. Jabara had opened up with his .50-caliber machine guns from a range of 3,000 feet and then followed up his initial trigger squeeze with eight more bursts. His bullets smashed into the left wing, engine and canopy of Frailey's North American F-86 Sabre. Several rounds passed between Frailey's arm and chest, ripping through his instrument panel.

Frailey's engine started to smoke, and his jet rolled over into a dive. He managed to temporarily recover control of the fatally damaged plane and point it toward the Yellow Sea, where he thought he might have a better chance of being rescued.

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With 64 missions over Korea under his belt, Frailey was an ex­perienced combat veteran. Ironically, he was flying Jabara's usual aircraft on this mission and often flew as his wingman.

Frailey had purchased an expensive camera on a recent trip to Japan, intent on becoming the first American pilot to take a still photograph (other than gun camera footage) of a MiG-15 in flight. "I don't want to eject," Frailey announced to his flight mates. "I've got my new camera with me." Jabara replied, "Screw the camera, I'll buy you a new one."

Frailey had difficulty getting out of his seat in the course of bailing out, but he managed to deploy his parachute just before his feet hit the water. His chute promptly landed on top of him, and he escaped from the web of tangled shroud lines only to discover that one of Jabara's bullets had punctured his one-man life raft. To make matters worse, he had ejected within range of Communist shore artillery. Fortu­nately for Frailey, a U.S. Air Force Grumman SA-16 amphibian pilot braved the ensuing barrage and plucked him from the water.

The Air Force tried to keep the incident secret because it reflected poorly on Jabara, a celebrated war hero. Moreover, Air Force officials didn't want the public to know about one of the factors that had contributed to this case of mistaken identity: American pilots frequently violated the rules of engagement prohibiting flight into Chinese airspace. Frailey's flight leader had taken his four Sabres north of the Yalu River on a MiG sweep. Jabara saw the flight's contrails tracking from the north across the border to the south and assumed they were a formation of MiGs. His pursuit curve put him on Frailey's tail.

Jabara was known for his aggressiveness. During one World War II mission on May 28, 1944, his flight of four North American P-51D Mustangs was escorting Allied bombers to targets deep in the heart of Germany when 50 Messerschmitt Me-109s swarmed the bomber formation. Undaunted by the overwhelming odds, Jabara plunged into the furball with reckless abandon. A Luftwaffe pilot shot off Jabara's canopy during the ensuing melee, yet the Mustang pilot re­mained unfazed. He continued his attack and managed to claim a probable victory despite the fact that he was flying a "convertible" at that point.

"Jabara was the ultimate warrior when it came to going to the sound of the guns without orders," recalled Lt. Gen. Earl Brown, a Sabre pilot who flew 125 combat missions with the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing in Korea. "He would go wherever the guns were sounding, looking for some; if you're with him in a bar fight, he's just looking for a guy to punch—but if you're not careful, he might, in his excitement, punch you."

Many of the top aces in Korea, including Jabara, seemingly suffered from an affliction known as "MiG Madness." They obsessed over their MiG tallies and worked themselves into a frenzy whenever they saw another aircraft airborne. In the heat of the moment, they sometimes saw what they wanted to see. Hal Fischer, the 25th ranking Korean War ace, wrote about another friendly fire incident in which he observed his wing commander, a man with a "visual problem and a great desire for shooting down MiGs," fire on two Sabres heading south across the Yalu despite repeated calls over the radio explaining that they were friendly aircraft.

No official Air Force record chronicles the number of friendly fire incidents, but plenty of anecdotal evidence exists to suggest it occurred more than one would expect. On a few occasions, pilots who returned from a mission claiming a kill had their celebrations cut short when their gun camera footage clearly showed an F-86's identification markings. A senior officer in the 4th Wing, for example, was transferred after a review of his gun camera film from a mission on June 22, 1951, conclusively showed that he had shot down Lieutenant Howard Miller, a pilot in the wing's 336th Squadron.

In addition to fostering friendly fire incidents, MiG Madness sometimes caused pilots to take unnecessary chances in combat, and consequently resulted in the death of many talented aviators. MiG Madness claimed the life of Major George Davis, then the leading American ace of the war (12 victories), on February 10, 1952. "George's main goal in life was to shoot down MiGs," reminisced squadron mate Charlie Mitson. Just prior to Davis' death, Mitson remembered him "dwelling on his score a lot." The ace's quest to build his victory total undoubtedly clouded his judgment during that last fateful mission.

Davis was leading 18 F-86s with orders to screen out any MiGs that attempted to intercept U.N. fighter-bombers attacking targets at Kunu-ri. Perhaps out of boredom, Davis broke away from the formation and took a four-ship flight up to the Yalu looking for action. His decision to embark on a MiG-hunting lark is pretty remarkable, especially since he was the mission commander for the Sabre screen. Moreover, MiGs frequently flew in large formations (often in trains of 60 to 80 aircraft), so Davis should have expected to be outnumbered if his flight encountered any enemy jets.

Sometime later Davis spotted 10 MiGs heading southeast at high speed. Unfortunately for the mission commander, his element leader (No. 3 in the formation) had run out of oxygen and returned to base with his wingman (No. 4). Davis decided to bounce the MiGs even though he and his wingman were outnumbered 5-to-1. He waded into the enemy formation, blasting away. The MiGs scattered, but one hesitated just long enough for Davis to rack up his 13th kill.

A slashing attack at that juncture would have guaranteed an escape option, but Davis was not satisfied with just one victory. He elected to immediately pursue another MiG, which meant he would have to sacrifice his energy advantage. Davis expertly maneuvered his jet behind the fleeing enemy plane and squeezed the trigger. Thick black smoke immediately poured from the MiG's engine, and the jet entered a steep dive. The Communist pilot never recovered from the hit, and Davis claimed his 14th and final victory.

But Davis had bled away his speed while maneuvering to achieve his two kills in rapid succession, and as a result he was a sitting duck. At 32,000 feet a slow-moving F-86's turning performance is marginal. Even so, the Sabre ace was attempting to turn to engage a third MiG when a fourth drilled his cockpit with cannon fire. Davis' jet spun out of control. His wingman repeatedly yelled for him to bail out, but there was no answer, and the F-86 smashed into a Korean mountain.

The Air Force posthumously promoted Davis to lieutenant colonel and awarded him the Medal of Honor for his "indomitable fighting spirit, heroic aggressiveness, and superb courage in engaging the enemy against formidable odds." His citation observed: "Rather than maintain his superior speed and evade the enemy fire being concentrated on him, he elected to reduce his speed and sought out still a third MiG-15. During this latest attack his aircraft sustained a direct hit, went out of control, then crashed into a mountain 30 miles south of the Yalu River."

Davis' refusal to break off his attack even after scoring a kill may have been motivated by a desire to achieve greater public notoriety. The American press treated the first aces of the jet age as knights of the air. They became household names, rivaling in popularity even sports stars of the day. The media piled praise on Sabre pilots in part because they were achieving tangible victories over the Communists during a period when the ground war stagnated.

The Communists chose to challenge American air power principally in "MiG Alley," the northwestern quarter of North Korea bounded on the west by the Korea Bay and on the east by a line running roughly between the Sui-ho Reservoir and the town of Huichon. MiGs could launch from the Antung complex of airfields in Chinese Manchuria and be ready to fight within a few minutes, whereas Sabre pilots needed to fly a considerable distance just to make it to MiG Alley, let alone fight there. Basically, MiG Alley was at the edge of the F-86's endurance. Sabre pilots often had less than 20 minutes' on-station time before they had to return to base.

In an effort to stretch their time on station, many pilots would fly past "bingo" (the minimum fuel required for a safe return to base). To get home, they had to shut down the Sabre's engine and glide part of the way. The F-86 could glide 69 miles from an altitude of 30,000 feet. The idea was to hopefully arrive over home base with enough fuel to restart the engine and land. But the Sabre's engine did not always cooperate. The practice was so widespread that one squadron commander noted his unit made a dozen dead-stick landings each week in 1951-52. Squadron, group and wing leaders generally did not punish pilots for flying past bingo fuel. Instead they tended to celebrate it as a sign of an aggressive fighter pilot who pushed the flight envelope.

Captain Robinson "Robbie" Risner, a Korean War ace with eight victories, was one of those celebrated aggressive pilots. On October 22, 1952, he chased four MiGs across the Yalu while escorting a flight of fighter-bombers. Risner finally caught the tail-end Charlie deep inside Man­churia and fired a burst that shattered the MiG's canopy. The enemy pilot, trying to escape, performed a split-S and managed to pull out of the maneuver 10 feet from the ground. The MiG was so low at that point that Risner saw its jet engine exhaust kick up dust from a dry riverbed. "He was not in very good shape," recalled Risner, "but he was a great pilot—and he was fighting like a cornered rat!" The MiG pilot pulled his throttle to idle and put out his speed brake in an effort to get the Sabre to overshoot. Risner rolled over the top of the MiG and came down on the other side next to his wingtip. "We were both at idle with our speed brakes out, just coasting," Risner recalled. "He looked over at me, raised his hand, and shook his fist. I thought, 'This is like a movie. This can't be happening!' He had on a leather helmet, and I could see the stitching in it." The MiG valiantly evaded his pursuer all the way back to Ta-tung-kou airfield, 35 miles into China. Risner and his wingman, Lieutenant Joe Logan, doggedly pursued him even as the enemy jet flew at 300 knots between two of the airfield's hangars. Risner eventually got in an opportune shot and peppered the enemy with bullets until he blasted off part of the MiG's wing. The MiG crashed alongside the runway.

During the high-speed pass between the hangars, Chinese anti-aircraft artillery punctured Lieutenant Logan's fuel tank. Jet fuel was pouring out of his Sabre, and Risner told him to shut down his engine to save gas and then attempted to push Logan's aircraft to safety using the nose of his F-86. He had to back off after two attempts, though, because venting fuel and hydraulic fluid from Logan's crippled jet covered his canopy. Logan bailed out near Cho-do and drowned after becoming entangled in his parachute risers. On his way home, Risner's F-86 ran out of gas, but he managed to glide back to base and make a successful dead-stick landing.

Many senior Air Force leaders not only condoned but encouraged pilots like Risner to break the rule that prohibited pursuit of MiGs into China. In fact, the top pilots routinely crossed the border. They did so both in hot pursuit and as part of preplanned missions that flagrantly broke the rules. Two-thirds of the 39 American jet aces crossed the Yalu, including the three leading aces. Eight of 11 pilots who scored 10 or more kills admitted after the war that they had crossed into Manchuria. General John Roberts remarked, "There were a lot of airplanes shot down in Korea by guys who…[did] not necessarily play by the rules."

Sabre pilots were encouraged by the lax attitude of senior leaders, whom they expected would wink at border violations. For the most part their assumption was correct. After watching a radar display that showed two F-86 pilots twice circling a Chinese airfield 100 miles beyond the border, General Frank Everest, commander of the Fifth Air Force from June 1951 to May 1952, pretended to angrily storm into the postflight debrief and threaten the two pilots with court-martial. He then stomped out of the room and slammed the door. Moments later, he poked his head back in the room and said, "And furthermore, if you are going to violate the Manchurian border, for Dog's sake turn off the damn IFF [identification friend or foe]." Likewise, General Glenn Barcus, the Fifth Air Force commander after Everest, told pilots during one premission brief to "Screw the Yalu!"

Many commanders not only permitted and encouraged border violations but also engaged in the practice themselves. Lieutenant Michael DeArmond, a young F-86 pilot, recalled one commander telling the squadron before a mission that any pilot caught north of the border would face court-martial. On that same mission, the commander led a flight of four Sabres deep into Manchuria and shot down a MiG. Wanting to keep the rules of engagement violation a secret, the officer quizzed DeArmond on the location of the shootdown. DeArmond answered, "Somewhere around the mouth of the Yalu." The colonel responded, "Son, you have a bright future in the Air Force."

Colonel Francis Gabreski, the top American ace in the European theater during World War II, chased a MiG over the main runway at Antung. After shooting down the Soviet pilot, Gabreski interrupted his flak-dodging maneuver to execute a victory roll over the Chinese airfield. Gabreski admitted to Colonel David Jones, a Fifth Air Force staff officer and later Air Force chief of staff, that his unit frequently crossed into China. When Colonel Jones expressed his dismay, Gabreski suggested that the colonel or his general was free to fly up to the Yalu and write down tail numbers. Furthermore, he declared that if the Fifth Air Force wanted "to kick ass" for the border violations, they should start with his own. Colonel Harrison Thyng, commander of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing, or­dered a pilot to buzz Antung at an altitude of 10 to 15 feet at Mach .9. He reasoned that the sonic boom would infuriate the MiG pilots and entice them to rise to the bait.

Sabre pilots shied away from strafing MiGs on the ground, perhaps because two unlucky F-80 Shooting Star pilots were court-martialed after they became lost and shot up a Soviet airfield in October 1950. Even so, MiGs did not have to get too far off the ground before American airmen would shoot at them. Georgy Lobov, the first Soviet MiG commander of the war, complained, "Americans were constantly crossing the border." Lobov's unit, the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps, lost 26 aircraft over their own airfields during the first six months of 1952. American planes would often circle at high altitude over the mouth of the Yalu and swoop down on Communist pilots after seeing dust swirling on their airfields, an indication that MiGs were taking off. The Soviets were so frustrated by the aerial blockade that they simply kept their jets on the ground when Sabres were re­ported overhead.

Sabre gun camera footage sometimes showed MiG-15s with their landing gear extended, with other enemy planes plainly visible in the background, parked on the tarmac of Chinese airfields. Understandably, this type of incriminating evidence tended to get "lost" or destroyed.

Air Force officials mostly turned a blind eye to flights into Manchuria. But they did haphazardly and inconsistently enforce the restriction. Captain Joe McConnell, the highest-scoring American ace of the conflict, was grounded for two weeks for repeatedly crossing the border. The 51st Wing commander, Colonel John Mitchell, intervened and forced McConnell's superior to allow him to fly again. Usually Air Force leaders cracked down only after an embarrassing incident occurred that they could not ignore.

On January 23, 1953, cannon fire from a MiG broke the right arm of Lt. Col. Edwin Heller, commander of the 16th Fighter Squadron, during a sortie over Manchuria. Bullets also severed his Sabre's control stick and disabled its ejection system. Heller's F-86 went into an uncontrollable dive from 40,000 feet. He struggled to disconnect his seatbelt, stood up in his seat and started trying to claw his way through an eight-inch hole in the canopy—at which point the 650-mph wind stream sucked him right through the opening. Among other injuries he suffered during the bailout, Heller's left leg was fractured when it struck the horizontal stabilizer. Peasants captured the downed pilot, who endured 28 months in Chinese captivity.

Heller's shootdown over Chinese territory resulted in diplomatic protests that jeopardized ongoing peace talks. At about the same time, Swiss observers traveling through Manchuria to Panmunjon for the peace talks witnessed a dogfight well north of the Yalu. Their complaints finally forced senior Air Force officials to take action.

Captain Dolph Overton, an ace with possibly the hottest streak in Air Force history, became the scapegoat. Overton shot down five MiGs in just four days (January 21-24, 1953). During a visit to an Air Force radar site on Cho-do, he had learned where MiGs orbited while waiting to land, how long they stayed airborne and how they made their approach to landing. Overton positioned his jet above the MiGs' landing pattern, flying a racetrack pattern with minimal maneuvering to lessen the possibility that the sun's glint off his Sabre's wings would give away his position. Then he waited to pounce on his prey. He turned off his IFF, hoping to fool enemy radar operators into thinking his aircraft was just another MiG getting ready to land.

Overton also tried to keep his jet between the sun and the MiGs in order to arrive at their 6 o'clock position undetected. All of his kills were achieved at close range without the use of the radar-ranging feature of the Sabre's gunsight. "They never seemed to see us or recognize us until too late," he boasted.

The day after his fifth kill, Overton was called into Colonel Mitchell's office. He responded truthfully when asked, "Were you over the river yesterday?" Under pressure from higher headquarters, Mitchell grounded the ace. He also gave Overton a terrible efficiency report for his "inability to follow orders," took away his captain's bars and sent him home without decorations and without official recognition of his five victories. The Air Force eventually did bless Overton's claims, but it took almost a year (normally victory claims were processed, reviewed and confirmed within a month).

Mitchell's actions were an extreme example of hypocrisy. The wing commander had not only condoned flights across the border, he had personally participated in them. Overton's treatment was particularly unfair because on the day in question he was flying as the No. 4 aircraft in a four-ship flight—in other words, he was just a wingman. Overton remarked, "I know that shit flows downhill, but it seemed to me that this was a long way down." Within a year he resigned his commission and left the service. The squadron was grounded for a short period, but no other pilot was individually punished—possibly because the ground crews threatened to mutiny after learning of Overton's fate.

Not all top pilots violated the rules of engagement in search of MiGs. In the foreword to MiG Alley to Mu Chia Pass: Memoirs of a Korean War Ace, which chronicles the air exploits of nine-victory ace Cecil Foster, Overton wrote: "Sometimes the MiGs just did not leave China. You cannot shoot a plane down if it does not fly when you are flying or does not fly into your combat zone. During those inactive times, some pilots ventured across the Yalu River into China hoping to engage in enemy activity. Cecil Foster never crossed the Yalu illegally." Just the fact that Overton celebrates Foster's disciplined adherence to the rules as a way to testify to his character suggests that the practice of crossing into Manchuria was widespread and routine. "[Our pilots] were coming back with blackened gun ports after every mission," recalled one officer. "That meant they were shooting at MiGs every time they were up there. That couldn't happen unless they were on the wrong side of the border."

The punitive actions taken against Overton failed to deter other F-86 pilots from continuing to break the rules of engagement. On April 7, 1953, Hal Fischer, a double ace, spotted four MiGs crossing the border into Korea. The enemy jets turned around and escaped back into China, but Fischer gave chase anyway. He cleared his wingman to return home without him after the latter reported that he was low on fuel. Flying alone, Fischer continued to press the attack even after three more MiGs appeared. Official Soviet records describe what happened next: "At 1640 upon approach to Danu airfield, Senior Lieutenant Berelidze's pair attacked one F-86 which was pursuing Senior Lieutenant Ugryumov at an altitude of 1,000-1,500 meters. Senior Lieutenant Berelidze shot down one F-86 from a distance of 400 meters at a 14 quartering angle. The pilot: Captain Harold Edward Fischer, service number A02204126, Flight Commander, 39th Air Squadron, 51st Wing, was taken prisoner." The Chinese held Fischer in solitary confinement until June 1955. He had more than two years to reflect on his bout of MiG Madness.

Undoubtedly, the aggressiveness of the leading American Korean War aces in pursuit of MiGs propelled them to the top of the pecking order and helped secure air superiority for U.N. forces. For that, they should be honored. But tales of friendly fire, rule-breaking and recklessness blemish the stellar combat records of these legendary airmen.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta is an F-15 pilot currently stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va. Spinetta, who flew 65 combat sorties over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, holds degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He serves on the board of directors for the Air Force Historical Foundation. As chief of safety for the 1st Fighter Wing, his office is normally at 50,000 feet going supersonic. For further reading, he recommends: Red Wings Over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union, and the Air War in Korea, by Xiaoming Zhang; and Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea, by Kenneth P. Werrell.


This article by Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta was originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!


3 Responses to “MiG Madness: The Air War over Korea”


  1. 1
  2. 2
    Nicolaj says:

    Very nice!
    I really enjoyed reading this.
    Only one thing to say. There is no such thing as a Messerschmitt Me-109. Do you mean Bf-109? Which was the most commonly used Luftwaffe fighter during ww2. Besides Fw-190.
    Bf-109 or Me-410? Both Messerschmitt planes.

  3. 3
    Joe Clark says:

    It was Interesting reading above,but I always wonder why instead of continuing to lie about and glorify the phony 10:1 kill:loss ratio and many fraudulent MiG kill claims that were made by F-86 pilots and dishonestly verified as \kills\ by venal \Claims Boards\, no one ever writes the truth about it all. Why does no one ever write about he Air Force's \Sabre Measures Charlie Study\ that reduced the number of MiGs claimed as kills by more than 50%, or the RAND Study (2008) that showed that the true kill:loss ratio, F-86 vs MiG, was 1.8 to 1–not 10 to 1. In light of all the lying that went on as revealed by these honest numbers–I wonder how many of our \aces\ were really aces at all–especially the great, multiple kill \aces\ that emerged late in the war?



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