F-80 pilot 1st Lt Russell J. Brown identified the plumes of burning kerosene from the falling tanks as the MiG catching fire, an illusion in the haze that reinforced his belief he had mortally wounded his adversary.
During the B-29 strike against Sinuiju on Nov. 8, 1950, 1st Lt Russell J. Brown, flying an F-8oC of the 16th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, was one of a flight of four Shooting Star pilots in a four-flight mission to attack the North Korean airfield in support of the bombers. As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book Holding the Line, The Naval Air Campaign in Korea, Brown was assigned as wingman to his element leader, 16th FIS commander Major Evans G. Stephens. After flying cover for the other three flights as they strafed the field, Stephens would lead his flight down on a “clean up” attack.
Smith recalled that when they finally executed their strafing run, the defending flak was heavy, and that most was coming from the Manchurian side. “We could have got out and walked on it.” After Brown and Major Stephens completed their run, they climbed to cover 1st lieutenants Ralph N. Giel and Richard D. Escola on their attack. Miajor Stephens quickly spotted 8—12 MiG-15s approaching from the south and above, on the Korean side of the river, and ordered Giel and Escola to break off and join up.
The four F-80s rejoined at 20,000 feet, at which time Major Stephens saw two MiG-15s pull out of a dive and head toward the Antung complex at their same altitude. As Stephens banked sharp left to pursue them, Brown had not spotted them. “I was looking around like mad and flying formation at the same time.” As they completed their turn, Brown saw the two MiGs; the leader broke directly in front of Stephens as the wingman turned in front of Brown.
The wingman climbed to the left, but Brown stayed tight inside the turn. Three of his six .50-caliber guns had jammed on the strafing run, but he managed to fire four short bursts that missed. The enemy pilot then winged over into a dive and Brown went after him. As the two fighters hurtled straight down, Brown closed to within 1,000 feet of the MiG and fired one long burst, followed by three short bursts. Brown saw what he thought was the MiG catch fire near the engine. “It Was now or never, I squeezed the trigger and held it down.” Brown later reported that the MiG caught fire only 2,000ft above the hills below. As the jet exploded, Brown — his Shooting Star buffeting at more than 600mph — reduced the throttle and pulled back hard on the stick. G-force streamers spread from the wing tips as the F-80C managed to pull out of the wild dive a hundred feet above the ground and head back for altitude.
Brown’s claim was credited as the first jet-vs-jet victory. In fact, the MiGs that had attacked his flight were part of a group from the 28th, 72nd, and 139th GvIAPs tasked with intercepting the bombers. Launched too late to hit the B-29s before they had dropped their loads, the Soviet pilots had chosen to go after the fighter-bombers engaged in attacking antiaircraft positions. Brown’s opponent was Lt Kharitonov, who in fact was not splattered across the Korean countryside. He had topped his two underwing tanks in the dive. In the light haze at the lower altitude, Brown had mistaken the falling drop tanks for pieces from the enemy fighter. He then identified the plumes of burning kerosene from the falling tanks as the MiG catching fire, an illusion in the haze that reinforced his belief he had mortally wounded his adversary. However, the MiG was constructed so strongly that the weight of fire of one .50-caliber machine gun could have been fatal only if there been a “golden BB” hit on something vital. As Brown pulled up, Kharitonov pulled out so low his exhaust rippled the trees immediately below. He stayed low as he streaked across the Yalu and was dropping onto the main runway at Antung while Brown was dimbing to rejoin the others reporting his success. Brown’s “victory” remains in official USAF history as the first jet-vs-jet kill. He would remain in theater until the summer of 1951, but this was his only score. That he had even gotten close was due to luck, since Kharitonov could have easily outrun Brown’s Shooting Star had he spotted the American and applied throttle in time.
It was the Navy’s turn to test the Panther against the MiG the next day. VF-111 commander Lt Cdr William T. “Tom” Amen was leading 12 F9F-2 Panthers from VF-111 and VF-112 to escort a strike against the Yalu bridge at Sinuiju. He later reported:
“We could clearly see the big runway at Antung across the river in Manchuria but were too far away to ascertain what type of aircraft were parked along the runway. As the bomb-laden ADs started their dives on the bridge, I radioed the leader to find out if any of them had sighted MiGs. Ten seconds later a voice came on the radio to say there was a fast-moving jet coming up behind our formation. I looked over my shoulder and there it was, a shiny swept-wing aircraft banking toward me from my seven o’clock position. I immediately turned to meet him head-on. The MiG pilot raised his nose and started a steep, almost vertical climb to about 15,000 feet, where he leveled off. Just as he started his climb, my wingman and I got off a burst of 20mm. It was ineffective. We stayed on his tail. If we’d hesitated the MiG pilot would have gained the advantage since he already had a 100-knot speed advantage. If he’d chosen to remain straight and level he could easily have outdistanced us, but every time he turned we closed the gap.
“We were firing short bursts as we closed in, and the other two Panthers of our division were firing long bursts as they tried to close in Evidently that scared the MiG pilot into a dive and I got on his tail.
“We were heading almost straight down and my airspeed hit 500 knots as I was firing all the way. Suddenly my Panther started to buffet as the nose was trying to tuck under and I hit my dive brakes and stopped firing. The MiG’s dive angle had increased to about 40 degrees. As we passed through 3,000 feet the MiG flipped over on its back. I thought the pilot was either crazy or had one of the best fighters ever built! A second later I could see mountains coming up fast. Then I saw trees and rocks. Pulling hard, I bottomed out with no more than 200 feet to spare. As I turned the nose up, my wingman called to report I had gotten the MiG, which had gone straight in and exploded, starting a forest fire.”
Following the end of the Cold War, Amen’s opponent was identified as Captain Mijael Grachev of the 29th IAP. Since his victory was confirmed by the Russians, Amen is actually the first American pilot to shoot down a MiG-15.
Holding the Line, The Naval Air Campaign in Korea is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy