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Air Superiority: Controlling the Skies

DAYTON, Ohio -- Air superiority exhibit in the Korean War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- Air superiority exhibit in the Korean War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

All-weather F-82G fighters at an air base in Japan. The USAF was forced to base some of its fighter units in Japan when communist forces overran South Korean bases in 1950 and 1951. (U.S. Air Force photo)

All-weather F-82G fighters at an air base in Japan. The USAF was forced to base some of its fighter units in Japan when communist forces overran South Korean bases in 1950 and 1951. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The World War II-era F-51D initially fought the North Korean Air Force, but it was primarily used as a ground attack aircraft during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The World War II-era F-51D initially fought the North Korean Air Force, but it was primarily used as a ground attack aircraft during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After day raids became too costly, the communists resorted to dropping grenades and small bombs from old biplanes at night. This downed "Bedcheck Charlie" was a Japanese Tachikawa Ki-9 left over from World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After day raids became too costly, the communists resorted to dropping grenades and small bombs from old biplanes at night. This downed "Bedcheck Charlie" was a Japanese Tachikawa Ki-9 left over from World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-82G taking off from a rough airstrip in Korea. Although aviation engineers finished the first hard runways by the end of 1951, many of the "K" bases remained unpaved until the closing months of the war. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-82G taking off from a rough airstrip in Korea. Although aviation engineers finished the first hard runways by the end of 1951, many of the "K" bases remained unpaved until the closing months of the war. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The F-80C was more than a match for the propeller-driven fighters of the North Korean Air Force but suffered from short range when flying from Japanese air bases. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The F-80C was more than a match for the propeller-driven fighters of the North Korean Air Force but suffered from short range when flying from Japanese air bases. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The museum’s F-80C, pictured here, was based in Japan with the 8th Fighter-Bomber Group at the beginning of the Korean War, and it flew some of the earliest combat missions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The museum’s F-80C, pictured here, was based in Japan with the 8th Fighter-Bomber Group at the beginning of the Korean War, and it flew some of the earliest combat missions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In June 1950 the USAF’s primary day superiority fighter in the Far East was the straight-wing jet F-80 (upper left). The propeller-driven F-82 (upper right) was the primary night fighter. The faster, swept-wing F-86 Sabre (lower left) took over the day fighter role from the F-80 in late 1950, while the jet-powered F-94 (lower right) replaced the F-82 in 1951. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In June 1950 the USAF’s primary day superiority fighter in the Far East was the straight-wing jet F-80 (upper left). The propeller-driven F-82 (upper right) was the primary night fighter. The faster, swept-wing F-86 Sabre (lower left) took over the day fighter role from the F-80 in late 1950, while the jet-powered F-94 (lower right) replaced the F-82 in 1951. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In November 1950 the Air Force sent the highly-experienced 27th Fighter Escort Group to Korea to protect B-29 bombers from MiG-15 attacks. Pictured here are 27th FEG F-84s being loaded onto the carrier USS Bataan for shipment to Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In November 1950 the Air Force sent the highly-experienced 27th Fighter Escort Group to Korea to protect B-29 bombers from MiG-15 attacks. Pictured here are 27th FEG F-84s being loaded onto the carrier USS Bataan for shipment to Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-84s of the 27th FEG. Unfortunately, the straight-wing F-84 was not as capable as the swept-wing MiG-15 in air-to-air combat.  Still, the F-84 saw widespread use as an effective ground attack aircraft in Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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F-84s of the 27th FEG. Unfortunately, the straight-wing F-84 was not as capable as the swept-wing MiG-15 in air-to-air combat. Still, the F-84 saw widespread use as an effective ground attack aircraft in Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On Jan. 23, 1951, 1st Lt. Jacob Kratt of the 27th Fighter Escort Group performed the remarkable feat of downing two MiG-15s while flying an F-84. Three days later, he shot down a Yak-3, becoming the highest-scoring F-84 pilot of the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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On Jan. 23, 1951, 1st Lt. Jacob Kratt of the 27th Fighter Escort Group performed the remarkable feat of downing two MiG-15s while flying an F-84. Three days later, he shot down a Yak-3, becoming the highest-scoring F-84 pilot of the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The first F-86As arrived in Korea in November 1950 aboard the carrier USS Cape Esperance. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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The first F-86As arrived in Korea in November 1950 aboard the carrier USS Cape Esperance. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-86s parked in sandbag revetments on an air base in Korea. The sandbags protected aircraft from bomb fragments. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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F-86s parked in sandbag revetments on an air base in Korea. The sandbags protected aircraft from bomb fragments. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-86Es in April 1952. In late 1951 F-86 units applied yellow bands on the fuselage and wings as a recognition aid. Previously, these markings were black and white stripes. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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F-86Es in April 1952. In late 1951 F-86 units applied yellow bands on the fuselage and wings as a recognition aid. Previously, these markings were black and white stripes. (U.S. Air Force photo)

J47 engine change on an F-86E at Kimpo Air Base in 1952. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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J47 engine change on an F-86E at Kimpo Air Base in 1952. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Armorers tend to the guns of an F-86. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Armorers tend to the guns of an F-86. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Rows of F-86Es being readied for a mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Rows of F-86Es being readied for a mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-86 fighter pilots at Suwon Air Base in Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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F-86 fighter pilots at Suwon Air Base in Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-86F sitting on PSP (Pierced Steel Planking). PSP was used to create temporary runways. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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F-86F sitting on PSP (Pierced Steel Planking). PSP was used to create temporary runways. (U.S. Air Force photo)

51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing F-86s, like the one pictured here, had black checkerboard tails. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing F-86s, like the one pictured here, had black checkerboard tails. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The F-94B replaced the propeller-driven F-82G and protected both Korea and Japan from night attacks. F-94 pilots also escorted B-29s on night raids against North Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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The F-94B replaced the propeller-driven F-82G and protected both Korea and Japan from night attacks. F-94 pilots also escorted B-29s on night raids against North Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Fighter aircraft often carried decorative “nose art” in Korea. Pictured here is Capt. Karl Dittmer Jr., an F-86 pilot with three MiG kills, at work. Dittmer painted nose art on many of the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron’s Sabres at Kimpo. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Fighter aircraft often carried decorative “nose art” in Korea. Pictured here is Capt. Karl Dittmer Jr., an F-86 pilot with three MiG kills, at work. Dittmer painted nose art on many of the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron’s Sabres at Kimpo. (U.S. Air Force photo)

"As it happened, the air battle was short and sweet. Air supremacy over Korea was quickly established."
- Lt. Gen. E. George Stratemeyer, Far East Air Forces Commander during the first year of war

Controlling the skies over Korea was the USAF's primary mission. After defeating the small North Korean Air Force, USAF pilots were challenged by Soviet -- and later Chinese and North Korean -- pilots in nimble, swept-wing MiG-15 jets. The winning combination of the F-86 Sabre and experienced USAF pilots, however, ensured UN ground forces need not fear the enemy's air power.

In Korea, the air superiority fight reflected the end of propeller-driven fighters and the supremacy of jet aircraft. At the beginning of the war in June 1950, the USAF Far East Air Forces had the piston-engine F-51D Mustang, the all-weather F-82 Twin Mustang, and the jet-propelled, straight-winged F-80 Shooting Star. Skilled USAF pilots overwhelmed the inexperienced pilots of the North Korean Air Force (NKAF), who were equipped with about 140 World War II-era piston-engine aircraft.

After defeating the NKAF, UN air forces enjoyed a period of air supremacy until the arrival of the MiG-15 in November 1950. Flown by Soviet pilots, the MiG-15 threatened to wrest control of the air away UN forces -- it seriously outclassed the best USAF fighter in Korea, the F-80C. Even so, F-80 pilots were able to turn inside the MiGs when attacked and scored some victories. The USAF counter to the MiG threat was the swept-wing, F-86 Sabre jet fighter. The F-86A entered combat in mid-December and quickly proved its worth.

The MiG-15 versus the F-86 in Korea has long been the subject of comparison. While the MiG-15 enjoyed some performance advantages against early model F-86s, it also suffered serious vices that killed a number of its pilots. The F-86 was a better gun platform and could dive faster. Ultimately, any MiG-15 performance advantages over the Sabre were more than offset by the superior training of American pilots. When the communists tried to challenge UN air superiority, they suffered heavy losses from USAF Sabres almost every time.

The combination of the F-86 Sabre and superior USAF pilots denied the communist armies air cover and gave protection to UN forces on the ground. Except on isolated occasions, UN ground troops seldom saw a communist aircraft, while enemy soldiers suffered under relentless UN air attack. In controlling the skies, the USAF performed brilliantly and successfully in its first combat test as a separate service.

Click on the following links to learn more about air superiority during the Korean War.

First Aerial Victories
Birth of Jet Combat
MiG Alley: Sabre vs. MiG
Lt. Col. Bruce Hinton: First F-86 MiG Kill
First Jet-Versus-Jet Ace: Capt. James Jabara
Leading Jet Ace: Capt. Joseph McConnell Jr.
USAF Aces of Two Wars
From Ace to Space: Iven C. Kincheloe Jr.
Master Fighter Tactician: Frederick "Boots" Blesse
Capt. Harold "Hal" Fischer: Double MiG Ace and POW
Flight to Freedom: The Story of the MiG-15bis on Display

Click here to return to the Korean War Gallery.

 

Find Out More
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Related Fact Sheets
Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star
North American F-82G Twin Mustang
North American F-86A Sabre
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15bis
North American P-51D Mustang
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Lectures
Dr. Kenneth P. Werrell: "The Fight for Air Superiority over Korea" (00:48:30)
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