He flew fighter planes his entire career, and as a wingman during the Korean War in 1952 and 1953, he flew 100 missions and extended his tour to perform 25 more.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. William Earl Brown Jr. spent 34 years in the military, but his experiences as a young pilot in the Korean War left a lasting impression, he said in an interview with the Pentagon Channel.
In Korea, Brown said, he flew the F-86 Saber fighter jet, the first operational swept-wing aircraft in the Air Force inventory.
“Our mission was to prevent the MiGs from attacking the other aircraft. The MiG-15s were being flown by the Chinese communists and by active-duty Soviet fighter wings.”
A typical mission took up to two hours. “If we were lucky, we’d run into the MiGs and manage to down a few of them,” he added.
As a wingman, Brown flew with a more-experienced major or captain in the lead, many of whom had World War II experience. They flew in flights of four, in “fingertip” formation with a leader and a wingman, and an element leader and a wingman, he explained.
“The wingman’s job was to look to the rear and protect the leader from any aircraft closing [in] to shoot him,” Brown said. “And the second lieutenants were invariably assigned to the jobs as wingmen, while the captains and majors would shoot down the MiGs.”
Brown said he was fortunate to fly with some good aviators in the Korean War.
“I’d been flying maybe 10 or 15 missions and never saw a MiG,” he said, “Except one day, … I was No. 4 in a flight. A MiG-15 that was obviously flown by a guy who was superior to me in skill latched onto me.”
The MiG was so close, Brown said, he could hear the sound of its guns firing. It had two 23 mm cannons in addition to a larger one, compared to the Americans’ six machine guns – three on each side of the aircraft.
Brown said he is alive today because his element leader came in behind the MiG, and while it shot at Brown, the element leader poured bullets into the MiG and shot the aircraft down. “That encounter really got my attention,” he said. “Up until that point, I had no real understanding of what it meant to have some guy really try to kill you.”
Brown, an African-American, said he didn’t face any discrimination during the Korean War.
“I never ran into the kinds of discriminatory practices that the Tuskegee airmen had to face when they began flying in the Air Force,” he said. “One thing about flying in fighters [is] when you don the fighter pilot’s helmet and don the oxygen mask and pull down the visor, no one can see what color you are. All they can see is how you position your aircraft. Is it where it should be? Do you drop the weapons? Do they strike the target?
“I guess I was fortunate,” he said.