The Hunt concludes as two ACE Pilots battle for Air Supremacy.
|"Sir, time to wake-up," Technical Sergeant Reynolds repeated as he shook Captain McCormick's shoulder.
The young Officer strained to open his eyes as he caught the blurry image of a well known senior enlisted maintenance crew member standing over him.
"Sorry sir, but you asked for a reminder wake-up call in the event we didn't hear from you by 7 am."
"What time is it?" the Captain asked, half asleep and slightly hungover after returning late the previous evening, several hours spent at, 'MiG Alley,' the squadron's makeshift pub.
It's "7:10 sir."
The young Captain mumbled quietly as he sat up, attempting to rub the sleep out of his eyes before finally looking up with a half focused stare at Reynolds. "Have the crew chief meet me in the maintenance hanger at 9."
"Yes sir," the Tech Sergeant replied, exiting the Officer's Quarters and returning to the hanger.
Captain McCormick reached under his pillow where he kept another wallet size picture of his wife, managing a grin as he simultaneously massaged his throbbing forehead. He stared achingly at the photograph of his young wife Katherine, her beautiful smile accentuating further his profound feelings of loneliness for her.
It was a mixture of ambivalent feelings, his love and longing for her versus the intense sorrow he continued to feel over the loss of his two wingmen a little over three weeks ago, the gin and tonic consumed earlier at 'MiG Alley' used in medicinal fashion to preclude dreaming of either.
Captain McCormick climbed out of bed, shaved and showered, afterwards changing into his flight uniform before commandeering a squadron jeep as he drove to the Officers' Mess. He ordered and ate a light breakfast, then hopped back into the jeep and drove in the direction of the maintenance hanger. The breakfast and early morning air revived him, and by the time he arrived at the hanger, his head had stopped throbbing. He was ready, focused, determined to get back in the game and do what he did best, destroy MiGs.
The Crew Chief walked in front of a row of six Sabres parked in a straight line approximately 25 feet from each other, all undergoing inspection, maintenance, repair, and rearmament. Maintenance crew personnel scurried like worker ants as they pushed and wheeled carts loaded with tools and parts between the aircraft, zig zagging and weaving between the lined-up jets, several mobile hydraulic lifts at the ready to remove or re-install the Sabres' General Electric J47 turbo jet engine. Other non-operational Sabres were secured behind the rear doors of the hanger on a scavenger ramp, being used temporarily for parts that were unavailable until received by shipment from the mainland. Sabres deemed ready for immediate combat, escort, or reconnaissance were parked and secured on the operational tarmac approximately 100 feet outside the front of the maintenance hanger.
Captain McCormack quickly spotted his plane and made a beeline toward it, his name and squadron logo just below the canopy on the fuselage -- six red North Korean 'kill' stars painted behind the gun muzzles.
"Your aircraft is ready sir," the Crew Chief shouted over the hanger noise as he walked from behind the aircraft and toward the Captain. The Chief and Sergeant Reynolds engaged the Ace Pilot in small talk regarding the particularities of his Sabre known only to him, much like the owner of a private auto who knows and understands every aspect of his or her own vehicle.
Captain McCormick was aware the F-86E was due to become operational later in the year, intended to correct many of the undesirable transonic characteristics of the original F-86A. All agreed the upgrades were long overdue, changes designed to enhance the maneuverability, speed, and ceiling characteristics of which the MiG-15 was already capable. Better training and the rapid transition of experienced pilots from WWII propeller driven aircraft to jets allowed the allied forces to maintain air superiority.
"Keep her at the ready," Captain McCormick directed the Crew Chief, acknowledging the Captain's order by saluting as he added, "all she needs is refueling sir, and you're good to go." The Captain turned and climbed back into the Jeep and drove in the direction of Mission Planning. He was scheduled to meet with the squadron and base CO's, his new wingmen, six other Sabre pilots, and Bomber crews for the operational briefing regarding the mission scheduled to begin in the early afternoon.
Captain McCormick parked the jeep outside Operational Planning Headquarters, a light gray building previously used as a warehouse for the South Korean Army. Navy Seabees and civilian contractors converted it into a makeshift nerve center for mission planning, logistical and administrative support. Other buildings and quonset huts were refurbished into a military hospital, barracks, latrines, medical and dental offices, isolation wards, housing, and mess halls. McCormick walked into the OP building, military surplus style metal desks occupied by airmen clerical staff behind a very worn counter constructed out of re-used plywood.
"Can I help you, Captain?" one of the airmen quietly asked as he stood and approached the counter.
"I'm here for the pre-op briefing," the Captain announced.
"Yes sir," follow me," as the airman walked around the end of the counter and unlocked a spring loaded half gate, the Captain swinging the door open and following the airman down the hallway to the mission planning briefing room, the last man to arrive. The briefing lasted a little over an hour -- mission code named, 'Galant Thunder.'
Captain McCormick was named flight and squadron leader. He would personally command eight Sabres and pilots assigned to fly escort for twenty two B-29 Superfortresses. Their mission would take them over Kusong in North Korea to bomb supply lines, a railroad depot, munitions factory, and a make-shift MiG runway partially obscured via camouflaged support hangers. He had flown several sorties with new lead and element wingmen subsequent to the mission in which he had lost batman and t-rex, hoping to spot and engage the North Korean Ace previously encountered in which they were the only two surviving fighter pilots. No luck, although Captain McCormick had correctly surmised his chances of encountering Major Kim Yeong-Jin would be greatly enhanced by flying escort for another massive, high altitude bombing mission. As it turned out, he was correct. As the bombers approached the target area, MiGs quickly appeared, their point of origin Red China as they seemingly materialized without warning from behind cover of the mountains just over the Yalu, their flight leader spotted and his fuselage number relayed via radio transmission to Captain McCormick.
"That's him, that's the bastard," the Captain thought to himself.
Prior to the start of the mission, and over the objections of his new wingmen, Captain McCormick was determined to separately engage the North Korean Ace, if spotted.
'It's too risky sir, at least let one of us act as your lead wingman," the element wingman pleaded.
"How will you watch your six?" the lead wingman asked.
Captain McCormick smiled; he appreciated the concern of his new wingmen, and from a tactical standpoint they were correct. The experienced squadron leader was aware dogfighting carried the inherent risk of sometimes going it alone, the result of havoc arising from an ongoing air battle. In this particular case he believed it was necessary to call out the MiG Ace from the onset before the enemy's considerable experience resulted in the loss of any bombers or Sabres.
"We all have an expansive view due to the design of the Sabre's canopy, a virtual 360 degree view, and I have eyes like an eagle," he explained. "Oh, and I sit up higher in the cockpit than you two," he added as he continued to embellish his physical attributes, all laughing as the Captain whimsically described he was taller and would use those additional characteristics to his visual advantage.
The North Korean Major was in the lead position as he executed his pre-flight battle plan. He ordered half his squadron to attack and pin down the American Sabres, the remaining MiGs to accelerate and climb high over the B-29's in preparation for a diving attack as the North Korean Ace received similar confirmation from one of his wingmen that the American Ace previously encountered was leading the escort Sabres. "I see him," Major Kim acknowledged.
The North Korean pilot sneered, he's a dead man, as he visually followed the lead Sabre.
One formation of four Sabres continued with the bombers as the remaining four, led by Captain McCormick, dove in the direction of the opposing MiGs. Taking note of the lead plane, Captain McCormick shouted into his oxygen mask, "midnight -- midnight, I say again -- midnight," the pre-mission order to break formation and single out individual MiGs as the Sabres began the process of initiating dog fights, forcing the MiGs to either flee or fight.
"I've got their leader," Captain McCormick announced as his Sabre flew directly over Major Kim's MiG flying in the opposite direction. Captain McCormick immediately executed a 180 degree turn, the MiG Pilot anticipating the Sabre's move as he accelerated and climbed out of sight, executing a 180 degree turning loop, now flying in the same direction as the Sabre, but at a higher altitude.
"There he is," Major Kim thought to himself, smiling as he scanned downward through his canopy, catching the silhouette of the Sabre below as it pulled slightly ahead, creating the perfect scenario for an angled diving attack.
Major Kim pushed the control stick forward, his MiG accelerating as he dove at an attack angle of 30 degrees, attempting to close within 2000 meters, the F-86 appearing in his gun sight as the MiG pilot fired a canon burst. Captain McCormick pulled hard on the control stick as he simultaneously moved the Sabre's engine throttle control to it's limits, his aircraft now in a 90 degree vertical climb, Major Kim momentarily caught off guard before pulling hard on the stick in an attempt to pursue the Sabre as it soared upward at full power, the North Korean pilot increasing the MiG's power to its limits, confident the MiG's more powerful engine would allow his aircraft to quickly overtake the F-86.
Captain McCormick could feel his g-suit inflating as it tightened around his legs and abdomen. He knew the MiG pilots flew without g-suits and would be unable to sustain the climb without blacking out. His assumption was correct, the MiG Pilot was into the climb less than 20 seconds when he began to experience tunnel vision, the symptom before black out and loss of control of the aircraft. Major Kim immediately pulled back on the throttle, deployed the speed brakes, and cartwheeled the aircraft 180 degrees as he began a nose first descent. Captain McCormick immediately replicated the MiG's maneuver, placing the F-86 into a nose first dive behind the MiG-15 as Major Kim pushed the throttle forward in an attempt to outrun the now pursuing Sabre, mindful the F-86 could dive faster than the MiG. Major Kim was was aware any further evasive maneuvers would slow his aircraft, allowing the Sabre to close the distance as he opted to head for ground level where he could use the MiG's more powerful engine and maneuverability to escape his pursuer.
Captain McCormick had no intention of allowing the MiG Ace to gain the advantage a second time as he closed the distance to 3000 meters, then 2500 meters as he placed the gunsight's pipper on the MiG at 2000 meters and squeezed the firing trigger, the Sabre's six .50 Caliber Machine guns lighting up in a staccato rhythm. Major Kim snap rolled the MiG in an attempt to force the Sabre to overshoot his aircraft, Captain McCormick instantly replicating the maneuver as he continued to gain on his enemy, both rapidly approaching the terrain below. Captain McCormick fired a second, longer burst of the Sabre's machine guns, most of the rounds making direct hits to the rear of the MiG's engine, smoke and flames now exiting the exhaust like a fireworks barrage gone berserk, the MiG spiraling downward before slamming into the hillside of a wooded area in North Korea.
The American ace pilot deflected the stick to the left as he began a wide 180 degree turn, confirming the wreckage before leveling the Sabre and heading in the direction of his squadron. He was eager to rejoin the fight in progress, instead finding his colleagues and B-29 gunners had shot down three MiGs while sustaining only light damage to four B-29's. The Bombers completed the mission and released their payloads on all designated targets, the remaining MiGs fleeing across the Yalu river and back into the safety of Chinese airspace. Captain McCormick ordered the Sabres to fly perimeter escort for the B-29's as the bombers returned to their bases in Japan, Okinawa, and Pusan, followed by his squadron of eight Sabres returning to their air base in South Korea.
It was loud and cheerful hoopla as Captain McCormick's crew exchanged celebratory high fives on the tarmac just outside the hanger. Maintenance personnel towed the Sabres through the open hanger bay doors and into the large, half barrel shaped structure.
"Congrats, Captain," his wingmen shouted happily, joined by the other Sabre pilots as they reveled in the satisfaction the bombers completed their mission. The pilots recounted how they splashed three MiGs of their own, returned with no loss of life, and most importantly, the downing of the MiG-15 Ace.
"End of the line for the North Korean Ace," Captain McCormick described, the squadron leader maneuvering and twisting his hand downward in a makeshift demonstration to the other pilots as he described the final moments of the MiG and its pilot.
"Game over for him," his lead wingman blurted out.
"Like blackjack -- ace busted," another pilot quipped.
"Don't sell yourselves short," the Captain commended his squadron pilots. You guys did a helluva job up their today," smiling but exhausted as he requested a, 'moment of silence' for batman and t-rex, expressions turning solemn as they bowed their heads in quiet reverence, briefly acknowledging their memory. "Thanks," the Captain voiced appreciatively as they completed their tribute. "Grab a bite to eat and some coffee in the Officer's mess. I'll notify the Squadron CO and we'll meet at OP in an hour."
Following the congratulatory debriefing, Captain McCormick's Squadron CO motioned to follow him into his Office.
"Have a seat, Captain," the Squadron Commander gestured as he sat behind his desk and opened the middle drawer, pulling out a 9 x 12 manila envelope and tossing it gently on the desk in front of Captain McCormick. "Take a look at what's in there -- tell me what you think."
Captain McCormick slowly reached for the envelope, removed the paperwork and carefully perused the contents, finally lowering the documents as he gazed upward, making eye contact with his Commanding Officer.
"Are these PCS Orders directing me to report to Nellis AFB?" he asked rhetorically?
"They are, Captain; you're transferring to flight instructor school. As the first American fighter Ace of the Korean War, you'll be head tactical instructor training a new generation of Sabre pilots flying the F-86E. Those pilots need your fighter experience on the ground and in the sky above Nellis before they reach the aerial battlefield." The CO paused, then smiled as he continued in a somewhat facetious tone, "hope you and your wife enjoy living in Nevada," before adding, "oh, I almost forgot, there's a 30 day leave concealed somewhere in that paperwork."
The Captain glanced at the orders again, jubilation emerging on his face as he thankfully gazed in the direction of his Squadron Commander. "I believe my wife will be very happy in Nevada."
Katherine McCormick whispered into her husband's ear as she leaned seductively over him. "Wake-up, wake-up," she teasingly repeated, smiling in response to the soothing sound of the early morning ocean splashing its way toward Waikiki Beach.
It was day six of his 30 day leave after she had flown in from the mainland the day before her husband's arrival from Seoul, rushing to greet him as he exited a U.S. Navy Douglas Liftmaster transport which only minutes before had finished taxiing to its destination hanger at Hickam AFB. She literally leapt into his arms the moment his foot hit the ground after exiting the aircraft's stairway, the momentum propelling both into a twirling embrace, hugs and kisses slowing their spin to a stop as they simultaneously talked over one another, finally laughing at the awkwardness they had inadvertently, but happily created.
Katy as her husband always called her had made arrangements prior to leaving the mainland for both to stay at the Halekulani Hotel, their room and balcony overlooking Waikiki Beach. She loved the magnificent, unencumbered view of beautiful, vintage Hawaii in all its previous and postwar glory as her husband, feigning sleep, playfully grabbed and gently flipped Katy over himself, landing face up next to him, shrieking softly, laughing and smiling as he kissed her again.
"You're so beautiful, Katy," he told her as she looked upward into his piercing, soft blue eyes, her husband gently stroking her hair and face. "I've missed you so much," he told over and over.
"I've missed you," she responded, a gentle seriousness appearing on her face, a smile confirming what she knew -- the war was over, her husband was home.
Less than 30 days after reassignment to Nellis AFB, Major McCormick received a photograph of his Squadron pilots, all beaming as they stood in front of his F-86 Sabre outside the Maintenance Hanger in South Korea, his two wingmen proudly pointing to a seventh, "red star" on the fuselage.