The legendary ice hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, was once asked what his secret to connecting with a speeding puck every time was, to which he famously replied that the trick was not only to be able to see the puck right then, but also to anticipate where it would be next. To Lt. Zhao Baotung (Zao Bao to his swarm-mates) Wayne Gretzky’s mantra was very much his own, except that it was which way an F86 Sabre would roll that he anticipated.
By early 1952, Mig Alley had turned into an ugly slug-fest. That earlier understanding (the don’t-cross-the-Yalu rule) had frayed at the edges. Incursions were becoming more and more frequent and brazen. One day a bunch of Migs was chasing a hapless limping F86 across the line and the next, it was the F86s screeching into Manchuria in hot pursuit.
When, on one single day, nine swarms of 36 Migs crossed the Yalu and massacred a flight of 12 slow-moving B-29s, General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Strategic Air Command, reportedly thumped his table in anger and screamed at his aides, “That’s it! To hell with the Yalu. Go in and get those bastards!”
The gloves were now off. Jets began chasing each other across the Yalu regularly. The Americans, worried that an intact F86 might fall into commie hands, planned incursions into Chinese airspace with only their best pilots to carry out across-the-Yalu raids. Those raids came to be known as Maple Specials (because they were anything but sweet and easy).
It was one such Maple Special that Zao Bao’s Mig along with his three other buddies in the swarm had chanced upon that day. Baotung had managed to glue himself to the tail of an F86, 37000 feet over the Yalu, when the American pilot yelled into his mouthpiece,” That’s it I’m Winchester” (being or going Winchester was a term American pilots used, to mean running out of ammo, a life-threatening situation requiring an immediate drop-out and return to base. Likewise, I’m Bingo meant that a pilot had just enough gas to get back home).
“Roger that, see you at dinner, Mitty, watch out, Bogey right behind……..&%$@!!” crackled his wingman, Yanky Doodle and the headset went silent as his words got cut off suddenly. The American turned sharply just in time to see a fireball where his wingman had just disintegrated. Mitty was short for Yosemite Sam, the bushy bearded, glowering but lovable Disney cartoon character, that was emblazoned on both sides of the American’s F86, below the canopy.
The F86 dove and Baotung dove with it, his altimeter needle winding down so fast, it looked like it would produce it’s own sonic boom. With 15 dogfights already under his belt, the young Chinese was well aware that F86s could dive faster and come out of a dive more quickly. “He’ll go into a roll right about now”, Baotung said to himself and sure enough, the American rolled into a tight banking curve, climbing and rolling over 360̊, his maneuver slowing him down suddenly, in an effort to get the Mig to overshoot and come up in front, turning him from the pursuer to the pursued. The Americans called the maneuver a High G Barrel Roll.
The High G Barrel Roll. Blue – Pursued, Red – Pursuer. Note how Red starts off chasing Blue and then after they come out of the roll, Blue is chasing Red.
An inexperienced pursuer would indeed have moved forward, but Baotung had sensed which way the F86 was going and had already begun going into a roll of his own so he stayed locked on, behind the American. To anyone watching from the ground, the two jets might have seemed like a team in an aerobatics display.
The American finished his maneuver and leveled out at 1000 feet, praying that he wouldn’t smash into some stupid hillock or some other obstruction. Fortunately this was Mig Alley, close to the estuary of the Yalu and the terrain was bushy but flat. The American quickly turned east, lucky to be alive, yelling out to no one in particular, “Phew! That was close!”
Hardly had the Yank done breathing out those words when he felt hot Chinese breath on the nape of his neck – .50 rounds puncturing the control surfaces of the swept-back wings and then again somewhere in the rear of the F86. Immediately after the second cannon burst, the controls of the F86 began feeling sluggish and heavy and the instrument panel lit up.
Besides his wings, the F86 had suffered damage to its vertical stabilizer (the fin you see sticking up at the rear end of a plane). His wingman, Doodle, was gone. In aerial combat, losing your wingman is like a death sentence. The wingman flies slightly behind, to the left or right and watches your back. The American also realized that he had strayed. When you’re doing 1000 feet every second, it’s easy to get disoriented and stray. He was on his own.
Then, something made the American pilot turn his head for a micro-second to the right. The Mig had crept up on him, unseen. It kept pace at barely 50 feet, wing tip to wing tip, slightly above and very close, so close that the American could count the rivets on the Mig’s underbelly. He noticed another thing. On its side just below the cockpit, at a location similar to where his Yosemite Sam was, the Mig had an insignia. It was a red star with a blue jagged lighting flash nestled inside it.
There was no space to dive and he could never beat the Mig in a climb. A gradual change in terrain precluded any sudden turns. The American knew he was cornered.
There was no more panic, just resignation. As this thought raced through his mind, movement to the right caught his eye and made him turn to identify the new threat. It was his new found pal, the Mig, which had now moved a couple of hundred feet away, waggling his wings in smooth 20 ̊ arcs. Between hostile aircraft, wing-waggling is a universally known signal – follow me.
In spite of himself, the American felt a surge of relief. His first thought was that he was not going to die, only be captured alive with his F86 intact. And then, just as soon, a picture invaded his brain – he saw his father, Medal-of-Honor awardee Rear Admiral Jimmy Higgins, ramrod straight on the bridge of his 45000 ton flagship, the USS Missouri, five miles off North Korea’s eastern coast, pounding Chongjin with its 8” guns right at that very minute. And he knew what he had to do. In one fluid motion, he reached for the throttle and floored the flaps.
For the first time, Lt. Zhao Baotung was left gaping. The F86 pilot first raised his right hand, with a finger sticking straight up from a balled fist. If Baotung had been American, he might have guessed it was the middle finger. The F86 then plunged toward the terrain below, making contact within seconds and bursting into flames. Baotung executed a tight circle, just to check if the American had bailed out, even though he was certain that the crash had been deliberate. He would have done exactly the same thing under similar circumstances. There was no sign of a parachute. He pushed the throttle forward and streaked up into the sky with a thunderous roar, disappearing into a bank of clouds in a minute.
The flight back to Antung was uneventful, the dogfight having long waned, the way tornadoes form, wreak havoc and then just dissipate away into nothingness. The skies were once again turquoise and did not afford any hint of the pandemonium in the preceding half hour.
Including the F86 that day, Baotung now had 9 confirmed kills and was officially an ace, the youngest to become one, in the Chinese Air Force. And the American? Fighter pilots are a fraternity, friend or foe. Baotung only felt sadness at the loss of the American’s life and yes, admiration at his sacrifice. In a corner of his mind he strangely hoped that the pilot would be posthumously decorated, chances of which were slim since none of his compatriots, including his wingman, had been around to witness the pursuit, the wing waggles and the subsequent crash.
“It’s a life we have chosen,” he said out aloud to no one in particular, as he set course for home.
Lt. Zhao Baotung would say those words one more time, 17 years later, this time as Da Xiao (Commodore) Zhao Baotung, head of Beijing Military Division’s air defense command, based at the Tongxian Air Field. In fact those were the last words that he would ever speak, as his Chengdu J-7 fighter closed in on the advancing Tu-95 Bear at two and a half times the speed of sound. Out of ammunition, there was one last weapon remaining – the fighter itself, a 5 ton supersonic projectile ……
I have a problem. I have no idea how to end this series, which seems to have gotten a life of it’s own and won’t let up. I am tiring of it. Wasn’t even born in that period. Never met a Korean even. Except Kim, the depanneur owner round the corner from where we live. He escaped from North Korea four decades back and still jumps if you come up behind him unnoticed.
Should I somehow set off Kuzkina Tetya or should she settle down in some obscure Chinese paddy field north of Beijing, where she breaks up and contaminates a large swathe of land and generations of Chinese are born looking like mutant ninja turtles who then proceed to migrate to other parts of the world and shtup and by the end of the millennium, the world is uniformly ninja turtl-ish??
Like I said, in story-telling, the possibilities are infinite.