50 km stretch of the Yalu River
Between Uiju and Sinuiju
North Korean border with China
When the Korean War began in 1950, the North Koreans did not have an air force worth its name. Their pals, the Chinese did, but they hadn’t yet waded in and even if they had, they could not have done much to help since they themselves had a pitiful air force consisting of hand-me-down Yak1Bs, Mig-9s and assorted World War II planes that the Soviets had been about to mothball.
Besides, China was itself a paraplegic by then, decimated and sucked dry by its Japanese occupiers for four decades. As to Stalin’s Russia, it was still reeling from the devastation of the war and just beginning to wake up and provide moral support to the North Koreans.
North Korea was wide open.
For one country though, the Second World War had turned out to be a boon which saw unparalleled economic prosperity, of the kind that is especially reserved for nations that fight wars in other lands far from their own – The United States of America.
American factories that were churning out military aircraft had never been bombed. When the war came to an end in 1945, it was business as usual for the Grummans, the North Americans and the Lockheeds. They just kept on developing newer, faster and deadlier aircraft, helped in no small measure by the import of Nazi War Criminals through a covert program that air-lifted 1500 Nazi scientists with blood on their hands to the US.
Once the Germans came over, the Americans did everything, short of getting into bed with them, settling the Nazis into comfy suburban homes with manicured lawns and Studebakers. And the Nazis, in gratitude for being saved from the noose, got down to some serious defense research and development, with their bags of tricks – chemical and biological weapons, rockets and jet fighters.
The peacenik nation of the 1920s and 30s was unrecognizable now. It had just discovered that it loved making war. The world’s first military superpower was born.
And that is how, in the initial stages of the Korean War, American P51 Mustangs, F80s and F86 Sabre jets (and later on, F100s and F104s) came to own the skies over North Korea. Shock and awe? For North Korea, it was more like shtup and hump. Bridges, railway sidings, workshops, army barracks, civilian settlements, large built-up areas…nothing was spared. North Korean ground forces were clobbered, bombed and strafed mercilessly. It was a turkey shoot.
Until strange things began happening. Pilots in the F86s started sighting and engaging hostile jet aircraft that looked a lot like their own flying machines, but were heavier armed and could climb faster. They would appear out of nowhere in tight boxes of four, from the west, evidently from across the border in China. Frequently they would zoom right through a formation of F86s, leaving the Americans gaping, like ‘What the…&???? What were those?’
At first, some imagined them to be rogue American pilots in aircraft that had either been stolen or reverse engineered from the F86s. Given that the F86 Sabre was just a year into service then, the appearance of enemy hardware that strongly resembled and even outperformed F86s, was disquieting to the Americans.
Quickly the American supremacy over the North Korean skies disappeared. The Americans were now fighting the North Koreans as equals. Only, these were not North Koreans actually. They were Soviet and a handful of Chinese pilots in Mig-15 jet fighters that had been loaned by the Soviets to the Chinese. Mig-15s just happened to look a lot like the F86s.
As per the mandates of the farce that we all now know as the UN, it was important to maintain the illusion that the North and the South Koreans were fighting each other and not the Soviets & the Chinese, against the US & UK. Barring the Chinese who were still at the developmental phase, the others were nuclear powers at a time when the rules of nuclear engagement had not even begun to be written. Nuclear holocaust was just a trigger-happy pinkie away. Neither side wanted to risk expanding the war beyond the Korean peninsula.
The Mig-15s and the F86s had to engage in dogfights and skirmishes only along a stretch of the border between North Korea and China where the Yalu River empties out into the Yellow Sea, taking care not to stray into the other side’s airspace. The Migs launched from Antung Air Field, close to the border on the Chinese side and the Americans, from Kimpo and Suwon, 350kms away, in South Korea. That stretch of the border, where the two sides slugged it out 30000 feet above the ground, came to be known among the US pilots as Mig Alley. (Check out the box shown in the map above).
Mig Alley, marked by a box on the map above
Since the Americans had a greater distance to cover, they came to the party, equipped with drop-tanks and were therefore heavier and slower, a distinct disadvantage, especially when trying to maneuver or climb out of a tight situation. On the plus side, the American pilots were better trained and the F86 Sabres were more user-friendly and comfy, with a heated cockpit that was spacious and a large bubble canopy that afforded the pilot a panoramic view.
But by far the greatest advantage that the Americans had was the invention of the G-suit, a sterling example of American ingenuity. The G-suit was a set of inflatable bladders that connected with a compressed air outlet inside the cockpit.
Imagine you are diving to get away from a Mig, pulling more than 4-5 Gs. At that speed, blood fails to reach your brain and your eyes, preferring to remain around your ankles. You develop tunnel vision and black out within minutes. Not a good situation to be in when the ground is rushing up at you at close to Mach1.
The G-suit’s bladders inflate and squeeze tight against your lower body parts , preventing blood from going down, allowing it to circulate to your brain. Many Migs were lost in dives or tight maneuvers, without a single shot being fired. To the Sabre pilots, this was a huge advantage.
Even so, a Mig-Sabre party in Mig Alley usually lasted only 20-30 minutes max. But that half-hour looked like the Battle of Britain, the famous 1941 air battle for Britain’s skies where hundreds of British Spitfires and Mosquitos buzzed around hundreds of German Messershmitts and Stukas inside a restricted airspace, often colliding with each other and breaking apart in mid-air. In the Korean skies, at one point in the spring of 1951, a dogfight recorded 50 Mig-15s, 48 B-29s and 54 F86s at the same time.
Mig Alley saw the dawn of a new kind of air warfare – aerial dogfights with jets zipping around at 600mph. Soon pilots on both sides realized that they needed far swifter reflexes in order to come out of a dogfight unscathed. Dogfights create aces and within weeks of the start of the aerial skirmishes, Mig Alley began producing aces on both sides.
A wiry young 23-year old Chinese, the eldest of three children of a carpenter from Anshan in the far eastern province of Liaoning, became the first Chinese ace of the Korean War – Flight Lt. Zhao Baotong, Zao Bao to his mates in the 4-aircraft Mig-15 swarm that he lead………
(to be continued…)
Looks as if we’ll have to have a Part-4 for me to be able to connect Zao Bao and his Mig-15 to Anton Babayev and his Tu-95.
I haven’t yet figured out how to merge Mig Alley into the story of Kuzkina Tetya but I’ll find the connection. This keen intellect of mine is at work trying to weld the two together.
Hey, that’s what story-telling is all about, okay? You can make anything happen. I could have Lt. Baotung fall in love with Col. Babayev and get the two into a rollicking same-sex marriage, if I wanted ta.
Meanwhile, I still have four of the sextuplets in my fridge.
Have beer, will write.