- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

William Blake

SEOUL — For a group of Americans landing at Inchon International Airport last week, the Korean skies were familiar. But the last time they flew them, it was not in a ponderous Boeing 747 but in the sleek fighters that fought the world’s first jet-versus-jet combat.

The 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force fell on Sept. 18. With Korea being the first war the service fought independently — during World War II, air units were part of the U.S. Army — eight veteran fighter pilots returned to tour their former battlefield, pay respects at the National Cemetery and visit serving airmen.

A lust to fly and strong patriotism were key qualities for the pilots.

“I certainly grew up with a strong desire to fly and began to have a curiosity about the big picture, the future of the nation,” said retired Col. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.

“You had to have good eyes and quick reactions. Good musicians make good pilots, as they are coordinated and have quick reflexes,” said retired Col. Ralph “Hoot” Gibson. “But motivation is the key.”

A more unusual case was that of retired Lt. Col. Harold Fischer, who believed he had in a past life been a German pilot with four kills — and wanted a fifth. He would realize his desire.

Supersonic duelists

Various instruments, including gun sights, were missing during early missions. In peacetime, flying conditions were “a 1,500-feet ceiling and three miles’ visibility” but once hostilities began, they changed to “a 200-feet ceiling and half-mile visibility — in the rain,” said retired Maj. Gen. Carl Schneider, who lost two comrades in an in-flight collision.

But they got results.

“Our Air Force destroyed the North Korean air force in three weeks,” said retired Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland. “After that, we had air superiority.”

Sterner opposition, however, was on the horizon. When the Chinese plunged into the war, so did MiG-15 jets and Russian pilots. The opposing aircraft flew at roughly the same speed; MiGs could climb higher, but the U.S. F-86 Sabers could dive more nimbly. A war of supersonic combat over a 100-mile strip of land along the Manchurian border that the Americans dubbed “MiG Alley” began.

Even 50 years later, the pilots’ eyes gleam and their hands mimic the motions of the dogfight as they recall their duels.

In his most successful encounter, Col. Gibson was leading eight Sabers when he spotted tiny specks and condensation trails at 3 o’clock: 50 MiGs.

“We met ‘em head-on. I started a right turn to maneuver behind one, I barrel rolled behind their tail-end Charlie. He was about 1,500 feet ahead; I engaged, and got a couple of bursts on him.”

His Saber vibrated as Col. Gibson fired. He kept one hand on the throttle, the other on the control stick, with its gun trigger. He could see his rounds impacting, pieces flying off the MiG, then his wingman joined the attack. The MiG fell.

Then Col. Gibson’s sights — a pattern of lights on the windscreen — failed. It was time to employ “Kentucky windage” — a visual estimate of range and speed. He lined up on another aircraft and opened up. His opponent bailed out.

“Things happened so fast, they were over before you knew it,” Col. Gibson said. He would be awarded five kills, making him, in fighter pilot parlance, an ace.

Heavy odds did not deter the aggressive pilots, who reckon they had superior tactics.

“The more there are, the more chances you’ve got” said Col. Fischer, one of the top guns; he chalked up 10 kills before being downed over the Yalu River.

Low altitude, high risk

The aces, fighting in the deep blue, got the glamour, but the ground-attack pilots had the riskier mission: An estimated 80 interceptors were shot down, compared with 700 fighter-bombers.

Their own munitions could imperil the F-80 and F-84 jet pilots.

“The guy in front dropped his bomb. It exploded, and there was a … wheel from a railroad car right in front of my cockpit,” said former Lt. Robert Moxley, recalling an attack on a train. “A guy could run into that.”

Chinese anti-aircraft measures were ingenious. Steel cables stretched from peak to peak could shred a jet flying along the valleys. Decoy trains, when attacked, fell apart to reveal flat cars bristling with anti-aircraft guns. Massed enemy troops put up deadly barrages from small arms. Pilots flashing down the valleys were sometimes under fire from the peaks above.

Many attacks went in at extreme low level. Running in at a North Korean headquarters building, retired Col. Wilbur “Pete” Carpenter recalled: “I could see the gates open — I was below the level of the building — and dropped my napalm. I pulled up and looked back — they were throwing everything at me.” Black smoke erupted from the windows. “It was a beautiful sight.”

Gen. Schneider flew one particularly risky mission to help surrounded GIs in a valley. “They said it was solid overcast, but I knew a power line in a gap in the mountains.” He led his flight, thundering, along the line, through the gap — as high as a hotel — and into the valley. The jets attacked the Chinese, then climbed out through the cloud.

Living on the edge

Operations were intense. Pilots went home after 100 missions; one achieved it in three months. That was exceptional, but three sorties a day was common.

Those who flew beyond their quota were pushing their luck. Gen. Schneider advised one pilot not to fly his 102nd mission. He was shot down, and spent two years as a POW. They met years later. “He told me, ‘I used to sit up there day after day, wishing I had listened to you,’ ” said Gen. Schneider. “He said, ‘If you’ve got any more advice, I’ll listen.’ ”

Combat was cold-blooded. Lt. Moxley gunned down an enemy column wading the Yalu. “Did I have adverse feelings? No. I knew what they’d do if they got hold of me and I don’t blame ‘em. It was a bare-knuckle fight.”

As for civilian casualties, “It’s rather ridiculous to expect a pilot to identify who’s good or bad,” Col. Carpenter said. “It’s war. It’s part of the game.”

Safe landings

Some of the pilots later flew in Vietnam. The MiGs were far less numerous than in Korea, Col. Gibson said.

Old enmities have softened. Col. Fischer has met Russian and Chinese adversaries, both who claim to have downed him. At a U.S. Air Force reunion in Las Vegas in 1997, the Russian air force chief of staff pinned his own airman’s medal onto Col. Gibson’s chest. “He knew I’d shot down five MiGs,” said Col. Gibson. “I thought that was pretty neat.”

U.S. data claim 800 MiGs downed; Soviet figures say 389. “It’s probably somewhere in between,” Gen. Schneider said.

The pilots were impressed at the strides Korea has taken. “To see the development along Western lines, indicates the improvements that can be made if they have the principles and support of free nations,” said Col. Aldrin, who later became the second man on the moon.

“It’s the only country we’ve defended where even cabdrivers shake your hand,” Gen. Schneider added.

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