Academic journal article Air Power History

Why the U.S. Air Force Did Not Use the F-47 Thunderbolt in the Korean War

Academic journal article Air Power History

Why the U.S. Air Force Did Not Use the F-47 Thunderbolt in the Korean War

Article excerpt

During World War II, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt gained an enviable reputation for accomplishment and toughness. With a skilled pilot at its controls, it was a formidable fighter--the two highest-scoring American aces in the European Theater, Francis "Gabby" Gabreski, with 28 victories, and Robert S. Johnson, with 27 victories, flew Thunderbolts. However, the Thunderbolt gained its greatest fame and biggest numerical successes as a ground-attack aircraft. In Europe alone between D-Day on June 6, 1944 and the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, Thunderbolt groups claimed the destruction of 6,000 tanks and armored fighting vehicles, 9,000 locomotives, 86,000 items of rolling stock, 68,000 trucks, and huge numbers of enemy troops killed or wounded. According to air power historian W. A. Jacobs, "All authorities agreed that the P-47 was the best fighter-bomber." (1)

The P-47 equipped Air Force squadrons for a number of years after World War II and in 1948 was redesignated the F-47. (2) The F-47 was also used by Air National Guard squadrons and did not completely pass out of service until the mid-1950s. Nevertheless, after North Korean forces attacked the Republic of Korea on Sunday, June 25, 1950, the United States Air Force turned to the North American F-51 Mustang to fly close-support missions against the communist forces instead of the F-47. In fact, the Thunderbolt did not see combat during the Korean War even though it was a more effective and survivable close air support aircraft than the F-51. Why didn't the Air Force use the F-47 in Korea? There are several reasons, including budget limitations and shortages of spare parts, a nearly complete focus by the Air Force on strategic nuclear bombing in the post-World War II years, and the transition to jet-powered aircraft.

The Mustang was one of the best fighter planes of World War II because of its range, speed, and maneuverability. Rendered obsolete by the latest jet-powered fighters, the F-51 gained a new life during the Korean War as one of the Air Force's principal ground attack aircraft. The Mustang had better range and payload than the jet-powered Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star and could be operated from rough airstrips close to the front. As a result, a small number of Mustangs were retrieved from storage in Japan and more F-51s were shipped from Air National Guard units in the U.S. By August 11, 1950, six fighter units had transitioned from F-80s to F-51s. Many pilots were not excited about the change. The historian of the 8th Fighter-Bomber Group, the last of the six units to complete the conversion, wrote that "A lot of pilots had seen vivid demonstrations of why the F-51 was not a ground-support fighter in the last war, and weren't exactly intrigued by the thought of playing guinea pig to prove the same thing over again." (3)

The F-51's liquid-cooled engine, coolant lines, and radiator were extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. Edgar Schmued, chief designer of the F-51, explained that using the Mustang for ground attack was "absolutely hopeless, because a .30-caliber bullet can rip a hole in the radiator and you fly two more minutes before your engine freezes up." (4) Not surprisingly, more Eighth Air Force Mustangs were lost during strafing attacks than in air combat in World War II. (5) The Mustang suffered the highest combat losses of any Air Force warplane during the Korean War, with 172 F-51s shot down by enemy ground fire. A total of 164 Mustang pilots were either killed or declared missing during ground-attack operations. For World War II Thunderbolt pilots who flew the F-51 in Korea, the F-47 was definitely the better plane for ground attack. The F-51 was derisively nicknamed "Spam Can" and left many pilots in Korea wishing they were flying the Thunderbolt instead. Colonel Bill Myers, who flew Thunderbolts in World War II, admits that every time he took off on a mission in Korea in his Mustang, he would pray, "Please, God, make this a Thunderbolt. …

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