Korean War's Ghost Pilots and Mystery Planes

By Mark Sauter

It was the sort of surprise no combat pilot wants to get. As his small, propeller-driven “Mosquito” spotter plane droned along over the Korean battlefield, the U.S. Air Force pilot spotted a far faster enemy jet roaring in for a kill. Only quick action allowed him to escape by executing “several 360-degree turns” to shake off his less agile adversary. But when the report of the encounter made it to Air Force intelligence, what analysts found most remarkable was not their pilot’s skill, but the identification of the attacker – a “hostile F-84,” an American fighter jet.

This was no isolated case of mistaken “friendly fire,” officers feared. In late 1951 and 1952, numerous American pilots reported sighting, and even being attacked by, several types of “hostile” U.S. fighters, sometimes spotted flying in formation with enemy MiG-15s. Previously classified records obtained by Korean Confidential detail these incidents and that Air Force intelligence believed even its new, top-of-the line jet fighter was involved, reporting indications in 1952 that the Soviet “enemy has put an F-86 aircraft into operation in Korea.”

These reports represent more than the potential need to update a chapter of history; evidence of Soviet acquisition of American technology raises again the far more important issue of American pilots captured and never returned by Moscow during the Korean War. Additional documents and interviews obtained by KorCon – from Soviet veterans to CIA documents possibly never shared with previous congressional investigations - provide additional evidence that dozens of U.S. pilots were shipped to the Soviet Union. The records also make clear that Washington essentially abandoned serious efforts to recover the men or their remains in the face of Russian intransigence and deceit in recent years. (This report does not deal with related reports of hundreds of other Americans, including Army soldiers, shipped to Siberia in trains or the Americans known to be in North Korean and Chinese hands but never returned; for more on them see www.kpows.com). 

The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs (USRJC), a Presidential commission supported by the Pentagon, produced important information in the 1990s, but is now essentially defunct due to Russian foot-dragging and an absence of U.S. resolve. The former senior staff member for the American side of the Commission says the Pentagon simply dropped the most recent plan to restart the process, proposed in 2010. "Why does the (2010) work plan that was developed - by the way, at the Russians' suggestion and with their full concurrence - continue to lie fallow even though it offers the only serious, agreed-upon way of moving forward?" asked Norm Kass, former head of the U.S. Joint Commission Support Directorate (JCSD).

“Another 20 years have passed and we are no closer to answers than we were 20 or 60 years ago,” said Lynn O’Shea, Director of Research for the National Alliance of Families, which represents the families of Americans missing from conflicts since WWII. Rick Downes, President of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, urged President Obama to step forward and focus the attention of his administration on the fates of the pilots and similar cases, including reaching out to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We're not after recrimination. We only want answers,” Downes said.

KorCon asked the Pentagon to provide an update on its efforts and issues raised in this report, but no response was received by deadline. We’ve posted declassified documents, video and pictures from this report at www.koreanconfidential.com.

 

Mystery Aircraft

Information on the mysterious “hostile” American fighters and fate of U.S. pilots comes from more than 4,000 pages of previously secret Air Force intelligence records reviewed by KorCon; CIA documents declassified in recent years; and now-public files from Pentagon investigators in the 1990s, including a declassified report provided by POW/MIA researcher John Zimmerlee, an official of POW/MIA family groups whose father is missing in the war. 

During the Korean War, the U.S. and Soviet Air Forces were effectively at war over the skies of Korea. Spectacular dogfights raged in the so-called “MIG Alley” near the northwestern border of North Korea with China’s Manchuria region. The Soviets, who pretended to be North Korean or Chinese, flew MiG-15 fighters from sanctuaries in China, protected by a border with North Korea that American pilots were generally forbidden to cross. The Soviets and Americans believed global war with one another was quite possible, so each side scrambled to get its hands on the technology and pilots of the other. Moscow later confirmed, during a 1990s period of cooperation with the U.S., that it dispatched special teams designed to capture an advanced American F-86 and gather all sorts of other American technology. 

The Soviets were masters at “reverse-engineering” defense technology, in other words stealing and copying the technology of others. Their TU-4 bombers were based on American B-29 bombers obtained in World War II, and the MiG-15’s engine was from British design. On the Soviet’s Korean War shopping list were U.S. fighters, especially the F-86; RB-45 and other reconnaissance planes; updated versions of the B-29 and helicopters. At least one F-86 (by some reports two) was sent to the Soviet Union, the Russians admitted, and other planes and prizes such as U.S. G-suits and radar gun sights also went.

Could the Soviets actually have put captured American planes, or parts of planes on other platforms, back in the air over Korea? This would have required the Russians to obtain both technology and, for optimal performance, some level of operating expertise for the airplanes. Records reviewed by KorCon indicate the Soviets may have captured more American planes than previously believed and so might have had the capability. But did they?

Declassified Air Force war records, covering late 1951 and 1952, cannot resolve the issue with certainty, but they do list well over a dozen occasions when U.S. jet fighters reported seeing, or even being attacked by, what appeared to be other American aircraft. The sightings began as early as the fall of 1951 with claims of “hostile” F-80 Shooting Stars, America’s first operational jet fighter. “Unfriendly F-80s again appeared in the skies over North Korea … Previous sightings of unidentified F-80 types occurred on 5 September, 1 November, 3 December, and 10 December (1951),” the reports noted. 

The sightings continued and grew to include reports of hostile F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers and the advanced F-86 Sabre jets, whose swept wings could compete with the performance of the Soviet’s swept-wing MiG-15s. 

“The elusive red-nosed F-80 once more made its appearance. On 10 November (51), a flight of Thunderjets reported a red-nosed F-80 made passes at their formation in the vicinity of Kyomipo. This is the third incident reported in which an F-80 had committed a hostile act against friendly aircraft; it is the second time in which this type of nose marking has been seen. (No friendly F-80s were in the area.),” intelligence officers reported. In a January 1952 incident, “(U.S.) F-80 pilots observed three strange F-80s, one of which made four firing passes at the friendlies. One friendly followed one of the strange F-80s through a spilt “S”, firing from 1,500 feet to 600 feet range, but lost contract. One of the strange F-80s had a solid red vertical stabilizer.” Another attack occurred in February, “This is the seventh time hostile F-80s have been observed since 5 September 1951 …” In February “(o)ne (U.S.) F-86 reported sighting an F-86 with a yellow stripe and right wing tank retreating into enemy territory.” The next month there were at least three observations of “hostile” U.S. jets and in April an American RB-26 reported being attacked by two hostile F-80 types. 

In February 1952, a senior Air Force intelligence officer concluded: “Two sightings were made during the month which indicate that the enemy has put an F-86 aircraft into operation in Korea." Reports continued to arrive. ”This appearance of hostile USAF type aircraft in increased numbers indicates the enemy’s continued experimentation with methods of improving his ability to launch surprise attacks on friendly aircraft,” a September 1952 report concluded. 

To be sure, confusion in combat has been known to cause both accidental attacks on friendlies and misidentification of hostile jets. In November 1952, Air Force intelligence officers gathered a group of F-86 pilots to discuss the issue and most were skeptical of the reports. Their objections: the short duration of “hostile” F-86 sighting; the difficulty of repairing a crashed F-86; the unclear Soviet motive to risk a captured U.S. jet in combat rather than keep it safe for testing in China or the Soviet Union. Perhaps, it was suggested, the sightings were of a new Soviet fighter that resembled an F-86.

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Korean Confidential is produced by Mark Sauter, an investigative historian. A corporate strategy advisor and former investigative correspondent, Sauter has been pursuing the fate of U.S. POWs from the Korean War for more than 20 years. He has conducted research in North Korea, Russia and the U.S. National Archives. A volunteer researcher for POW/MIA family groups, he commanded a guard post in the Korean Demilitarized Zone while an Army officer in the 1980s. Sauter is co-author of "Homeland Security: a Complete Guide," the McGraw-Hill university textbook.

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