Sixty years ago, before dawn on a humid June morning, a massive North Korean ground army, and aircraft flown by Soviet pilots, pushed across the border into South Korea. Troops and tanks had obtained complete surprise and rapidly advanced deep into South Korea. Only a valiant defense by the Eighth Army to the north and west of the port of Pusan provided a toe-hold on the peninsula from which to mount a counter-offensive. Supported by the recently-made-independent U.S. Air Force tactical fighter planes and naval aircraft from Task Force 77, United Nations forces led by the United States were able to turn the initial tide and begin a brutal and costly attack that eventually reached as far north as the North Korean border with China. One of the most brutal confrontations of the Cold War, the struggle for Korea ended in stalemate.
But aviation technology was anything but stagnant during these years and changed dramatically and permanently during the Korean War. Piston driven fighter planes like the F-51 Mustang and F-82 Twin Mustang were rapidly phased out of service and replaced with turbine powered aircraft like the P-80 and F-86 Sabre. Jet powered, air-refuelable planes had great difficulty taking on gas behind the older, slower KC-97 aerial tanker. It was so slow that an up-and-down “toboggan” maneuver was necessary to ensure enough speed for the jets to hold on the refueling boom. As with most propeller-driven planes, the KC-97 would become another casualty of the Korean War, eventually replaced by the KC-135 (Boeing 707) Stratotanker.
By far the most famous American plane of the Korean War was the F-86 Sabre. Shortly after the MiG-15 arrived in Korea, the U.S. Air Force countered the move by deploying their own swept-wing air superiority fighter. The F-86 horizontal tail was constructed as a single piece (known as a “slab”). This design permitted greater maneuverability at near-supersonic speeds. With this advantage, coupled with skilled and experienced pilots, Sabre victories in aerial combat tallied 3 to 1.
While tactical aircraft were rapidly changing from props to jets and from straight wings to swept wings, the strategic force was also changing shape. With nuclear weapons now part of the U.S. arsenal, an airplane was needed to deliver such weapons against cities deep in Soviet territory. The B-36 Peacemaker, a massive 10 engine aircraft (6 piston driven propellers and 4 turbojets) became the strategic bomber that offered a deterrent capability against both the Soviets and the Chinese. The B-36 did not participate in the skies over Korea, rather, those aircraft served the purpose of keeping the war from expanding beyond very tight political boundaries.
Although the ground war became a stalemate, the changes in aviation technology during the early 1950s marked a permanent shift in the way air wars would be fought.
Dik Daso is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.