The Hunters become the hunted in the skies over Korea
|"Tally ho, four bandits just popped over the mountain.”
Captain Wendell “Midnight” McCormick was in his seventh year of Military Service and Flight Leader of the 394th Fighter Squadron based approximately 25 miles Northwest of Seoul, South Korea. It was late December, 1950, two months after three hundred thousand Chinese, "volunteers" had crossed the Yalu River, the border with China, and were pushing UN and US forces back toward the 38th parallel, the demarcation line separating North and South Korea. The newly promoted Captain was an early fighter ace with six kills to his credit. His only job in this war was to hunt and kill MiGs, and pass those skills along to other pilots.
"Lets take these guys, they haven't seen us,” the Captain continued, his voice muffled by the attached oxygen mask, his two wingmen acknowledging with a short, "LEFT, RIGHT" reply as they broke formation in an attempt to encircle the group of MiGs spotted by their flight leader. The MiGs had employed a new, 'hit and run strategy' of surprising, or attempting to surprise the more experieced Sabre crews from across the safety and obscurity of the mountains, just on their side of the Yalu. Captain McCormick pushed the control stick forward slightly, descending toward the center cluster of four MiG-15 fighters as his wingmen attempted to flank the bandits; it was his plan to scatter their formation, much like the opening break in a pool game, with his Sabre acting as the cue ball. The confused MiGs could then be singled out and herded away from the border with China, and left with no option but to flee or fight.
The F-86 Sabre Jet was the allied response to the more maneuverable MiG-15, but Russian, Chinese, and North Korean pilots soon discovered the Sabre was razor sharp. It couldn't fly as high, climb as fast or maneuver as quickly as its Soviet made counterpart, but it could dive faster, was more aerodynamically stable, and had a radar gunsight which was superior to that of the MiG, although the MiG upped the odds again with its armaments, two 23mm cannons and one 37mm cannon vs the Sabre's six .50 cal machine guns.
"Midnight, they spotted you," the flight wingman shouted into his facemark.
"They're breaking up," radioed the element wingman as he descended and turned sharply left, attempting to get behind one of two MiGs who had broken to the right and were attempting to make it back across the Yalu River and over Chinese territory. “Damn," Captain McCormick thought to himself. "We're ALL too close to the border, and we cannot pursue them across the Yalu.” The flight leader pushed the control stick forward and to the right, moving the Sabre's throttle forward simultaneously in an attempt to prevent their escape, but it was too late, those two lucky birds just making it across the river as Captain McCormick turned sharply left, flying parallel to the border; he didn't have enough time to lock them in the crosshairs of his gunsight, but his wingmen had managed to chase the other two MiGs further south over North Korean territory, and were now engaged in a desperate attempt to escape back across the border and into the safety of Chinese airspace.
Captain McCormick quickly turned left again as he flew in the direction of his two wingmen. "Batman, T-Rex, you got this?" he radioed.
"We're on these two like a duck on a junebug," T-Rex responded, "no need for any help."
The Flight Leader smiled; he deliberately maintained his distance, letting his, ‘younger lions’ go in for the kill. The MiG Pilots were not interested in fighting, only in escaping made more difficult by taking no evasive action, allowing both Sabre wingmen to maneuver behind their prey, locking the two bandits in the their gunsights, followed by the final fatal squeeze of the firing trigger on the aircraft's control stick; several bursts later, both MiGs were in a vertical spin with a thick plume of black smoke following them all the way to the ground - splash two MiGs. While it was obvious these were green pilots, it wasn’t lost on Captain McCormick that in the hands of someone more skilled and battle tested, the MiG-15 was actually the more dangerous aircraft.
"GREAT JOB, GUYS!" the Captain yelled proudly into his mask, as all three Sabres turned south and toward their airbase. The ace flight leader could now boast his two wingmen had racked up another kill of their own - it would be a good debriefing, followed by a later celebration at 'MiG Alley' their makeshift pub hurriedly constructed by Navy Seabees.
Captain McCormick unzipped a pocket on the left arm of his flight suit and removed a black and white wallet sized photo, gazing at it for several seconds before returning it to the safety of his pocket - he smiled again.
Click to read "MiG Alley, Part II"