The Buzz

America's First Jet Fighters Went to War Against North Korea. It Wasn't Pretty.

The Shooting Star proved more than a match for the Yak-9 fighters and armored Il-10 Sturmovik attack planes operated by the North Korean People’s Air Force in the initial months of the Korean War—but the MiG-15 was another matter.

A sleeker, more modern design than the F-80, the Soviet jet had swept wings and was powered by a reverse-engineered and uprated VK-1 turbojet based on Rolls-Royce Nene engines that the British government had incredibly agreed to sell to the Soviet Union in 1946. Not only could the communist fighters easily outrun the Shooting Stars at 670 miles per hour, but they had heavier armament in the form of two twenty-three-millimeter cannons and a huge thirty-seven-millimeter gun.

The MiGs first saw action in the closing stages of the Chinese Civil War, and made their presence known in Korea on November 1, 1950 when they flew over from China to ambush a squadron of U.S. F-51 Mustangs, shooting down one. While Soviet instructors endeavored to train North Korean pilots, Russian World War II veterans ended up flying most of the jets’ early combat missions over Korea.

In the encounter with P-80s on November 8, only two of the Soviet fighters persisted on an intercept course. Stephens and Brown banked sharply to the left and maneuvered into a firing position on the approaching fighters. Though four of Brown’s six M3 machine guns had jammed, he managed to fire several short bursts at his chosen target. The MiG rolled over and dove—and Brown followed, hurtling towards the ground at six hundred miles per hour. Holding down the trigger, he raked the jet until he saw it burst into flames, then pulled back up at the last possible moment.

The American pilot had claimed the kill in the first duel of jet fighters.

However, Soviet records for November 8 tell a different story. MiG pilot Lt. Vladimir Kharitonov reported he was ambushed by an American jet—but that he successfully evaded in a dive while ditching his external fuel tanks. In fact, Russian histories claim the first jet-on-jet battle occurred on November 1, in which a MiG piloted by Lt. Semyon Khominich shot down the F-80 of Lt. Frank Van Sickle. However, U.S. records list Van Sickle as falling to ground fire. In any event, the day after Brown’s engagement, the MiG-15 of Capt. Mikhail Grachev was shot down by a U.S. Navy F9F Panther jet—a kill upon which both side’s records agree.

While credit for the first jet-on-jet kill may remain disputed, the fact that the MiG-15 could outrun, outmaneuver and outgun the F-80 is not. U.S. records show that a total of seventeen Shooting Stars were lost in air-to-air combat, while claiming six MiG-15s in return, in addition to eleven propeller planes. When a formation of huge B-29 bombers escorted by one hundred F-80s and F-84s was ambushed thirty MiGs on April 12, 1951, three B-29s went down in flames without a single attacking fighter lost.

The Air Force rushed to Korea a handful of its most advanced fighters, the F-86 Sabre, which could meet the MiG-15 on equal footing. These proceeded to rack up a favorable kill ratio in frequent air battles over “MiG Alley” near the Chinese border. The F-80s were reassigned to ground-attack duty, a role they were not especially well designed for, though they could carry eight five-inch rockets or two one-thousand-pound bombs underwing.

Over the course of the war, 113 Shooting Stars were lost to ground fire. For example, on November 22, 1952, Maj. Charles Loring’s aircraft was struck by Chinese antiaircraft guns while attacking an artillery position near Kunhwa that had pinned down UN troops. Ignoring his wingman’s radio messages to abort the mission, he deliberately plunged his stricken aircraft into a gun emplacement, a deed for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Of the ten F-80 squadrons in Korea, all had transitioned to F-86 Sabre fighters or F-84 ground attack planes by 1953—except one squadron that even reverted to old Mustang fighters. As the Shooting Star was phased out of U.S. service, dozens were passed on to South American air forces such as that of Brazil, where they served into the sixties and seventies.

While the Shooting Star was too outdated to shine over Korea, it did spawn two successors. The more obscure was the F-94 Starfire, a two-seat radar-equipped night fighter that claimed six kills over Korea, including the first jet-on-jet engagement at night versus a MiG-15.

The other was the legendary T-33 two-seat trainer jet. More than 6,500 were built—and another 650 license-built in Canada—and these served the Air Forces of more than forty countries ranging as widely as Burma, France and Yugoslavia. Cuban T-33s even combated CIA-sponsored anti-Castro forces during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, shooting down three B-26 bombers and sinking several ships.

In the second half of the twentieth century, thousands of fighter pilots across the world received their jet training in T-33s. Only in 2017 did Bolivia retire the last T-33s in military service, ending the type’s operational career.

Hastily designed to counter Nazis superfighters in the early 1940s, America’s first operational fighter jet would have an unexpected and long-lasting legacy.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.