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Air Superiority: Controlling the Skies

"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
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
Dr. Kenneth P. Werrell: "The Fight for Air Superiority over Korea" (00:48:30)