Williams’ achievement was suppressed because of the political sensitivities about the long term effects of a direct conflict with Soviet based aircraft but the fight was at least a reminder that the Naval Aviators flying F9F Panthers were primarily fighter pilots.
The F9F Panther was one of the many fighters converted for ground-attack duties, following an established US tradition. Originally designed as a jet fighter, in April 1951 it became the first jet to launch from a carrier with bombs loaded, using them to destroy a crucial railway bridge at Songjin.
As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book F9F Panther vs Communist AAA Korea 1950–53, the Panther was initially seen as an air defense fighter in Korea, and its pilots had some successes against MiG-15s during CAP or escort missions, but the MiG’s unexpectedly superior performance made USAF F-86 Sabres the only UN interceptors capable of matching them in aerial combat. US Navy pilots scheduled for bomber escort were starkly informed in a Navy Jet Tactics notice that “The MiG-15 [has] superior performance characteristics over the F9F and F2H.” This duly meant that Panthers were primarily tasked with undertaking air to ground missions.
On the occasions when F9Fs were confronted by MiGs, their maneuverability and 20mm guns made them capable air to air fighters, despite the MiGs being 100mph faster and superior in a vertical fight.
Nov. 18, 1952 proved to be an unlucky date for MiG pilots. Oriskany’s air group, CVG-102, included VF-781 and VF-783 (later re designated VF-121 and VF-122, respectively), which were giving the F9F-5 its combat debut. That day, TF 77’s carriers were sailing off Chongjin, not far from Soviet bases at Vladivostok, and air strikes were to be flown against factory buildings at Hoeryong, on the Yalu River, which was well within range of Soviet fighters. Seeing the need for an F9F-5 CAP, TF 77 instructed CVG-102 to have Panthers patrol between its vessels and Vladivostok as a precaution.
Distances were crucial, as a Panther CAP needed a jet intruder such as an Ilyushin Il 28 bomber to be detected within 150 miles of the carrier in order to attempt an interception in time. Lt Claire Elwood’s division from VF-781 launched into a blizzard to intercept “bogies” heading for the carrier. Section leader Lt Royce Williams sighted the contrails of seven MiG-15s far above at 40,000ft. Shortly thereafter, Elwood and wingman Lt(jg) John Middleton withdrew to lower altitude with a fuel pump failure. As Williams and his wingman Lt(jg) David Rowlands reached 26,000ft, the silver MiGs dived on them in two groups, intending to box them in.
Williams turned behind the No. 4 jet and fired. It fell away, smoking. CVG 102’s After Action Report recorded that Rowlands, although having fired all of his ammunition at the aircraft, “followed the crippled MiG down to 8,000ft where it was last seen smoking in a steep, graveyard spiral. Gun camera film confirmed the kill.” Williams’ second victim was the flight leader’s wingman, whose jet went down in flames after a long burst of 20mm fire. He was then left to fight three MiGs, which were soon joined by the flight leader and his remaining two wingmen.
Williams repeatedly fired short bursts during the course of the wild dogfight that ensued, constantly turning towards his attackers while trying to protect his own “six o’clock” without a wingman. The MiGs, faster and more maneuverable, fired wildly from a distance and repeatedly overshot. Then the section leader was engaged and Williams saw parts flying off the aircraft as the MiG dived away with its airbrakes extended. One Soviet pilot managed to fire his cannon from behind the F9F, hitting its wing and knocking out all the hydraulics apart from the elevators. The jet followed Williams as he dived into clouds.
By now Rowlands and Middleton had entered the fray, firing on another MiG until its pilot ejected. Rowlands then drove away Williams’ pursuer as the latter emerged from cloud at 400ft, too low to eject and heading for the carrier while dodging AAA from US Navy destroyers that mis identified him. His jet was uncontrollable below 195mph, so he had to trap back aboard Oriskany at that speed. The Panther had 263 holes from 23mm and 37mm hits, and its battered remains were pushed overboard.
Although Williams was only credited with one MiG victory and a “probable” following the eight minute fight, US radar intelligence together with subsequent Russian revelations indicated that three Soviet MiGs were shot down and the fourth crash landed, killing the pilot, flight leader Capt Nikolai Belyakov. His wingman, Snr Lt Aleksandr Vandaev, was also killed, and Snr Lt Vladimir Pakhomkin’s MiG-15 lost so much fuel following combat damage that it eventually crashed into the sea along with its pilot.
Political sensitivities about the long term effects of a direct conflict with Soviet based aircraft meant that Williams’ achievement was suppressed.
The Nov. 18 fight was at least a reminder that the Naval Aviators flying Panthers were primarily fighter pilots.
F9F Panther vs Communist AAA Korea 1950–53 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force