From the time military aviators engaged in aerial combat during World War I, their exploits produced innumerable “firsts” in aviation history.
One such “first” occurred during the Korean War on Nov. 8, 1950. That’s when a 25-year old, first lieutenant flying with the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing) became the first pilot to shoot down a jet-powered aircraft in the first all-jet, air-to-air battle.
First Lt. Russell J. Brown, flying a F-80C Shooting Star, gained a position in aviation and military record books when he shot down a Soviet-made, swept-wing Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 near Sinuiju, a North Korean city that lay along the Yalu River.
His feat occurred during a Far East Air Forces campaign of B-29 Superfortress incendiary attacks on North Korean cities to eliminate military targets along the Yalu River, among which were the bridges crossing the river at Sinuiju.
Early in November 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the United Nations commander, authorized the bombing campaign after successfully convincing President Harry S. Truman and the Joint Chiefs that Chinese Communist Forces “in large force are pouring across all bridges over the Yalu from Manchuria.:” The only way to stop this flow was to destroy the international bridges and other installations supporting the enemy’s advance. Officials in Washington had feared international complications, but this concern was negated given the military situation.
Gen. George S. Stratemeyer, Far East Air Forces commander, ordered a series of B-29 strikes against four North Korean cities bordering the Yalu between Nov. 4 -7, 1950 with an attack on Sinuiju Nov. 7. Bad weather prevented the all-out attack on Sinuiju on this date; however, B-29s were to conduct their operation on the next day.
Before this B-29 bombing campaign, FEAF fighter aircraft and medium bombers already had attacked the North Korean airfield at Sinuiju. On Nov. 1, 1950, MiG-15s appeared for the first time in the war, and fired at F-51 fighters over Sinuiju before the MiG-15s returned to their safe haven of the Antung airfield complex across the Yalu River.
The appearance of the MiG-15 was an unexpected development for U.S. fighter pilots. Little was known about its capabilities; however, the B-29 raids continued as planned. On Nov. 8, 1950, the mission for the 51 FIW F-80 pilots was to knock out the antiaircraft artillery positions at Sinuiju before the Superfortresses conducted their attack shortly before noon.
Although the 51st FIW was based at Kimpo Air Base (K-14), it also staged flights from airfields at Pyongyang, North Korea (K-23 and K-24). During the morning of Nov. 8, 1950, the 16 FIS launched four flights of four F-80s each to attack the airfield at Sinuiju. Upon arrival over the airfield, as one flight completed several strafing runs at antiaircraft positions, it climbed up to fly top cover for the flight behind it. Lieutenant Brown was in the number two position of his flight following his element leader, Maj. Evans G. Stephens, 16 FIS commander. Their flight was the last of the squadron’s attack.
By the time Brown’s flight made its three strafing runs of the airfield, the ack-ack (sound) of antiaircraft fire was puffing everywhere. He later recounted, “We could have got out and walked on it.” He noted that most of the fire came from the Communist Chinese side of the Yalu River.
After Brown and Stephens completed their runs, they climbed to 20,000 feet to cover the second element of their flight –1st Lt. Ralph N. Giel and 1st Lt. Richard D. Escola — on their strafing runs.
As Brown and Stephens reached top cover, they began peering in all directions, searching for signs of enemy aircraft. Earlier, as the squadron began its strafing runs, four Yak fighters appeared on the Chinese side of the Yalu. Brown searched for them, but these aircraft apparently departed the area. However, Stephens soon spotted eight to 12 MiG-15s approaching their position from the south and above them about 30 miles away, on the Korean side of the border. He ordered Giels and Escola to “come on up” from their strafing runs.
With the four F-80s at 20,000 feet, Stephens saw two of the MiG-15s pull out in a dive, and heading toward the Antung complex at almost their same altitude. The two MiG-15s, though, also were heading the flight of F-80s.
Stephens banked sharply to the left with Brown closely behind. Lieutenant Brown still had not spotted the MiG-15s, and noted after the battle, “I was looking around like mad and flying formation at the same time.” However, as soon as Stephens completed his turn, Brown saw the two MiG-15s flying a loose formation. The lead MiG-15 broke directly in front of Major Stephens, and second one in front of Brown.
Stephens maneuvered his F-80 to get in a firing position on the first MiG-15. At the same time, Brown banked his F-80 into a firing position on the second MiG-15.
The second MiG-15 began a climbing turn to the left, but Brown stayed tight inside the MiG’s turn while he figured its lead. With only one of his four .50-caliber guns still working–the other three had jammed on the strafing runs — he fired four short bursts. They were misses.
The MiG-15 pilot then did a wingover and began a dive. Brown reacted instinctively, and dove after the MiG-15, saying to himself, “Damm, I’m going to get him.” In seconds, the two jet fighters “hurtled earthward,” and Brown quickly closed to within 1,000 feet of the MiG-15–straight down toward the earth.
Although he could not gain on the MiG-15, Brown set his sights, and fired one burst. Then he fired three short volleys.
Red flames puffed out of the right side of the MiG’s fuselage, near the engine section. Brown thought “it was now or never,” and “squeezed the trigger and held it down.” The MiG-15 then burst into flame. By now Brown was hurling in a 600-mph dive only 2,000 feet from the ground.
With the MiG-15 exploding, Brown hurriedly pulled the F-80 out of its dive as the aircraft shuddered dangerously close to the ground before he climbed back for altitude.
Although the aerial combat between Brown and his MiG-15 opponent took about 60 seconds, it earned him a unique stature in the annals of aviation history. It was also his only aerial combat victory.