The Korean War was the first conflict in which jets fought for the control of the skies. The Soviet-designed MiG-15 and the USAF’s F-86 Sabre were the best fighters committed to war, and they went head-to-head over the Yalu River from late 1950 through to the ceasefire in July 1953. When the communists rushed more than 500 MiG-15s into bases in Manchuria in an effort to seize aerial supremacy over North Korea from the USAF-dominated United Nations Forces, they were opposed by just 140 Sabres from the 51st and 4th Wings.
On paper, the rules and regulations for US pilots about flying north of the Yalu River were pretty rigid, and many squadron commanders had no tolerance for violations. However, far more MiGs went down in their ‘safe zone’ than will ever be known. Scores of communist jets limped back to base with heavy damage after the F-86 pilots broke off the pursuit at the river and were never able to make it back.
As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book MiG Alley, perhaps the most egregious violation of the border was by eight-victory ace Captain Robinson “Robbie” Risner, who would later be a prominent Hanoi Hilton POW during the Vietnam War. Known as one of the most aggressive pilots in the Air Force, Risner had originally come to Korea as a recon pilot and had managed to convince the assignment officer in Seoul to send him to the 51st Wing, where he was at first not accepted as a “real” fighter pilot. On Oct. 22, 1952, he demonstrated his qualifications as a fighter pilot by becoming an ace during a wild fight.
That day, while assigned to escort fighter-bombers on a mission near the Yalu, Risner chased four MiGs across the river and finally caught the fourth deep in Manchuria, firing a burst that shattered the enemy’s canopy. Attempting to escape, the MiG pilot entered a split-S and managed to pull out 10 feet above a dry riverbed, so low that Risner saw the exhaust kick up dust.
Risner later described the fight. “He was not in very good shape, but he was a great pilot, and he was fighting like a cornered rat!” The MiG pilot pulled his throttle to idle and extended his air brakes to get Risner to overshoot, but he rolled over the enemy fighter and came down on the other side next to his wingtip.
‘We were both at idle with our speed brakes out, just coasting. 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 chase continued with the enemy pilot valiantly evading Risner all the way back to Tatung-kou airfield, which was 35 miles inside Manchuria. Once over the field, Risner and his wingman, 1st Lt Joe Logan, doggedly pursued the MiG as it flew between two hangars. Finally, Risner got in a shot and blasted off part of the enemy’s wing; it crashed alongside the runway.
During the high-speed pass between the hangars, Logan’s fuel tank was punctured by Chinese antiaircraft fire. With jet fuel pouring out of his Sabre, Risner told him to shut down his engine and tried to push the Sabre to safety by putting the nose of his F-86 into Logan’s jet pipe. Risner was forced to back off after two attempts when venting fuel and hydraulic fluid covered his canopy. Logan ejected near Cho-do Island, but, drowned when the wind entangled him in his parachute.
Returning to Kimpo, Risner ran out of gas, but he managed to glide home and make a successful dead-stick landing.
MiG Alley is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Top image from ‘F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15’ by Doug Dildy and Warren Thompson © Osprey Publishing
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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