How the Navy’s First Fighter Jet Went to War with MiGs over North Korea

How the Navy’s First Fighter Jet Went to War with MiGs over North Korea

And it might have been the first jet to shoot down another jet. 

After World War II, the U.S. Navy scrambled to field its own jet fighters—but designing a warplane that could fly dramatically faster while still landing on a short carrier deck proved a challenge. The Navy’s first operational jet, the underpowered FH Phantom, was retired after only two years of service.

Naval aircraft manufacture Grumman received funding in 1946 to develop a four-turbojet G-75 prototype based on the twin piston engine F7F Tigercat. However, the concept proved so unpromising the firm used creative accounting to use the funds for a single-engine project called the G-79. This XF9F prototype first flew in November 1947 from the production facility in Bethpage, New York.

Like the P-80 Shooting Star, the U.S. Air Force’s first jet fighter in operational service, Grumman’s new design retained a traditional straight-wing configuration that limited its performance when approaching the speed of sound. The Grumman designers appreciated the need for naval aircraft to be rugged to withstand harsh flattop landings and condition at sea. The Panther had folding wings to ease stowage on crowded decks, and introduced new pilot-pleasing features such as ejection seats and a pressurized cockpit.

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Grumman developed an F9F-2 model powered by a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, and an F9F-3 using an Allison J33 turbojet in case the British engine wasn’t available. However, the license-built J42 Nene proved so much better that most of the F-3s were converted to use them. The Panther proved easy to handle and maneuverable, and could attain a respectable 575 miles per hour and range of 1,300 miles thanks to its wingtip-mounted fuel tanks. However, it also included a weak tail-hook unit that rattled excessively while landing.

The Panther entered service with the Navy and Marine Corps in 1949—and was promptly inducted as the first jet to fly on their Blue Angels aerobatics team.

First Air-to-Air Kills of the Korean War

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Air Force used a fleet of around a hundred Soviet-supplied Yak-9 fighters and Il-10 Shturmovik attack planes to wipe out the half dozen trainers and utility planes of the South Korean “air force” on the ground and pound its retreating army.

Once President Truman authorized U.S. forces to intervene in the conflict, one their first objectives was obtaining air superiority. On the morning of July 3, the Navy dispatched piston-engine Skyraider and Corsair fighters from the carrier Valley to destroy the NKPAF’s aircraft at the airfield in Pyongyang. Flying their first combat mission, F9F-3 jets of VF-51 swept ahead of the main force to clear the skies of any North Korean fighters that made into the air.

As the blue jets screamed over the airfield, a handful of North Korean Yak-9s scrambled to meet them. In the ensuing tussle, Ensign Eldon Brown and Lt. Jg. Leonard Plog each shot down one of the compact piston-engine fighters—the first aerial victories of the Korean War. Plog recalled that one of the Yaks “had a perfect run on me, but evidently had never shot anything moving so fast.”

In a matter of days, the North Korean air force was swept from the skies. Four months later, Soviet pilots began harrying U.N. forces using MiG-15 jets based across the Yalu River in China. The MiG-15 was a lighter, swept-wing design—and happened also to use a souped-up Soviet derivative of the Nene turbojet. The MiG had better high-altitude performance than the Panther and P-80, and was faster by a hundred miles per hour.

Though clearly outclassed, the Panther was more maneuverable at certain altitudes and possessed a superior armament of four twenty-millimeter M3 Hispano cannons in the nose. The rapid-firing guns could spit out sixteen pounds of high explosive shells a second, with ammunition for thirteen seconds of sustained fire. The MiG-15 was a more unstable gun platform with two twenty-three-millimeter cannons and one thirty-seven-millimeter; the latter was exceptionally hard hitting, but its low velocity limited its accuracy versus nimble fighters.

On November 9, Panthers were providing top cover for a strike on a bridge at Sinuiju, on the border with China, when they were intercepted by MiG-15s of the 139th Guards Fighter Regiment led by Capt. Mikhail Grachev. The commanding officer of VF-111 “Sundowners” squadron, Lt. Cdr. William Amen, noticed Grachev’s MiG closing on his tail and turned around to engage. The Soviet fighter apparently lost track of the Panther’s position, and Amen and his wingman George Holloman fell behind the MiG and raked it with their cannons.

Zigzagging evasively, Grachev dove steeply downwards to shake off his pursuers, but Amen matched his maneuver and continued to fire bursts even as his airframe was buffeted by the stress of approaching terminal velocity. Amen finally pulled out of the dive with just two hundred feet to spare. Grachev’s MiG smashed into the side of a mountain.