Sabre Pilot Pickup: Unconventional Contributions to Air Superiority in Korea

Article excerpt

In an interview with the air component commander of NATO's "air effort" against Serbia in 1999, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short described the tense hours on the war's fourth night. (1) During those hours, the fate of a downed American F--117 pilot hung in the balance and, perhaps with it, the support of a somewhat divided American populace. General Short stated, "I remember a senior officer from another nation who had sat with us most of that night when it was over saying to me, 'I can't tell you how impressed I was with what you were willing to do to get that pilot back, and the clear message being sent that this happened to be an American pilot, but if it had been a Spanish or a Canadian or Italian or German or a Frenchman or a Brit, it wouldn't have mattered, that you were gonna spend everything you had to go in and get him. And me as a member of another NATO air force, I'm impressed by that.' And I remember saying to him: 'It has always been that way in my air force....' And that was a legacy of Vietnam and a legacy of the Gulf War, that we will go and get a fellow [airman] if it's at all possible." Although the general's remarks were quite insightful, he was wrong on one point: the legacy dated not from Vietnam, but from Korea. (2)

Much has been written on air superiority during the Korean War, focused mainly on the aerial combat between F--86 and MiG--15. Some attention has been devoted to air-sea rescue, but one gap in the historiography of the "forgotten war" has been the contributions made to U.S./UN air superiority by the USAF aircraft that picked up downed fighter pilots. Sikorsky-built helicopters, mainly the newer H--19 but to some degree the older, less-capable H--5, and the amphibious Grumman SA--16, contributed in three ways to the air superiority mission in Korea. First, they recovered key components of MiG aircraft, increasing U.S./U.N. technical knowledge of the enemy's new and formidable let fighter. Second, by returning Sabre pilots from behind enemy lines or the hostile waters of the Yellow Sea, the pilots could "fly and fight" again. Third, they improved the morale of every fighter pilot who realized that if the unthinkable happened to him, the USAF would "spend everything...to go in and get him."

In 1951, within nine months of the MiG--15's appearance in Korean skies, two U.S./U.N. recovery efforts led to increased technical knowledge of the advanced enemy fighter. By March 10, 1951, Lt. Gen. Earle E. Partridge, Fifth Air Force Commander, had decided to make the salvage of a crashed MiG--15 a top priority. Years later he recalled:

General Ben Chidlaw, head of the Air Materiel Command...told me that we really didn't have any intelligence on the MiG--15, on the physical structure of it and what hind of guns it had and what the ammunition was like, and he said, "Why don't you get one?" And I said, "Why didn't you tell me your Foreign Intelligence Section needed one?" (3)

Partridge delegated the task to an enigmatic intelligence genius named Donald Nichols, whom the general described as "an incredible man," one who "could do almost anything," and a "one-man war." Nichols was an Air Force intelligence officer in charge of Special Activities Unit Number One. Three weeks later, Nichols began a training program including parachute jumping, salvaging of aircraft parts, and concealment in enemy territory. Operational plans were still incomplete on April 13, when an F--80 Shooting Star pilot of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing reported the location of a crashed enemy swept-wing fighter south of Sinanju, North Korea. Word reached Fifth Air Force Headquarters the next morning. After several unsuccessful photo reconnaissance flights to locate the crashed fighter, success came a day later and photo interpretation confirmed the aircraft as a MiG-15. The jet appeared to be unguarded and in relatively good condition, making it an attractive target. The salvage mission was on. …