Mike Hankins's Reviews > Sabres Over MIG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea

Sabres Over MIG Alley by Kenneth P. Werrell
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Apr 09, 2012

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bookshelves: aviation, military-history, korean-war
Read in April, 2012

The Korean conflict can hardly be considered a “forgotten” war any longer, with the rash of material devoted to it continuing to expand. It is, however, often regarded with a high degree of ambivalence. While considered a success, it is also regarded by many as a large misstep for the American Army. In some ways, the ground fighting can be seen to be a step backwards from the successes of World War Two. However, in the skies, the advent of the jet age marks the Korean conflict as a leap forward for military aviation. The war for air supremacy is often defined by romanticized tales of exciting dogfights reaching speeds barely shy of the sound barrier. Former USAF pilot Kenneth Werrell’s Sabres Over MiG Alley seeks to apply a much-needed scholarly treatment to this aspect of the conflict, arguing mainly that the efforts of the fighter pilots made the ground victories possible. Werrell’s exuberance for his subject notwithstanding, he is only partially convincing. While the book is well documented and highly entertaining, its problems limit its usefulness.

Immediately noticeable from the start of the work is Werrell’s excitement for his subject. While any author is likely enamored with their area of study, Werrell’s diction often betrays a biased tone is his praise for the F-86. He consistently refers to the aircraft’s physical beauty, noting that it is “good-looking” and “beautiful,” and even concludes his study with the revealing passage, “The F-86 was truly a great aircraft and a classic fighter. Hail to the Sabre!” These are hardly the words of a detached, impartial scholar. The enthusiastic tone of the work does not necessarily work against him, in fact it does provide for an entertaining read. However, it betrays a potential bias in his arguments.

The second glaring element that jumps out to the reader is Werrell’s penchant for detail and statistics. He opens the work with an in depth look at the development of both the F-86 Sabre and its variants, as well as the development of its rival, the MiG-15. Werrell details engineering tests, maintenance procedures, design specifications, safety records and other engineering minutia. In all these sections, Werrell relies on swaths of statistics, comparing percentages and ratios in a detailed analysis. While much of this information is valuable, the reader is left with two impressions. One, that a few tables could have replaced dozens of pages of choppy prose, and two, that statistics are notoriously easy to manipulate. Often, by changing the limiting factors or conditions of sets of data, statistics can be made to show contradictory or misleading results, and while some of Werrell’s data appears conclusive, at times it appears heavily manipulated. For example referring to the important issue of pilot training—crucial in the transition from propellor based craft to jets—Werrell states: “During the period July 1949 until June 1950, the 290 pilots who earned their wings in 1949 comprised 25 percent of the fighter pilots, flew 27 percent of the jet time, and yet accounted for 37 percent of the jet accidents… Between 1 December 1949 and the end of April 1950, six of sixteen fatal F-80 accidents and three of eight fatal F-84 accidents, (although neither of two F-86 fatal accidents) involved graduates of 49C.” Likely part of his limitations result from his sources, but the narrow focus of many statistical studies raises the question of whether the forest is being lost through the trees. The first half of the book is replete with similar passages, and while they are incredibly interesting to readers with engineering or statistical proclivities, others may find them difficult or tedious.

Luckily for these readers, the second half of the book is more accessible, consisting primarily of biographical sketches of individual pilots, mostly the top scoring aces. Werrell’s accounts of the high-speed dogfights which earned these pilots their status is often exciting and engaging, yet again he betrays perhaps too much enthusiasm and love for his subject. In recounting one of top ace Joe McConnell’s battles, he describes, “The ace broke hard into one flight… quickly rolled in behind the Red fighter to protect his wingman, fired, and ‘really clobbered him.’ The MiG pilot ejected… McConnell half rolled, got into position behind [another] MiG, and shot him off his wingman’s tail.” Werrell sums up McConnells distinguished career, noting “McConnell finished his combat career in a blaze of glory, for his last day was his best day in combat.” Such sentiments make for an engaging and at times refreshing read, although Werrell’s objectivity seems to dissolve.
However, Werrell does not hesitate to bring to light many controversial aspects of the fighter conflict. He clearly demonstrates how UN pilots often succumbed to “MiG Fever,” or “MiG Madness.” “Some American pilots thirsted for a MiG kill,” and “in the heat of the moment, saw what they wanted to see: an enemy aircraft ripe for the picking,” which in some cases led to incidents of friendly fire. He is also quick to point out that the profiles of the F-86 and MiG-15 are incredibly similar, and often indistinguishable when each is flying headlong at speeds approaching 700 miles per hour. Werrell also dispels myths of Communist numerical superiority, considered by some sources to outnumber UN aircraft eight to one. However, by looking at the number of sorties flown, Werrell demonstrates that “the numbers actually engaged was about 4 MiGs to 3 Sabres. Like many other sources, he notes that the MiG-15 was in some ways superior to the Sabre, and in other ways inferior, yet his extended discussions on the issue reveal that the two nearly physically identical fighters were incredibly well-matched. The key difference, then, was the individual in the cockpit. Werrell agrees with many others that “the USAF fought the battle in Korea with inferior numbers of an—at best—equivalent aircraft… The key to winning air superiority was a better-trained pilot.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the revelation that UN pilots routinely crossed the Yalu river to engage MiGs over Chinese airspace. This violation was technically a violation of direct orders, but Werrell demonstrates that there was tacit approval by some individuals in leadership for this action, which was an incredible risk to the international political situation. In fact, Werrell argues that many top scoring aces took this risk specifically for the opportunity to harass MiG bases and run up their scores. Werrell strongly confronts a previously common view that only a few accidental flights crossed the Yalu: “Wrong. Apparently, ‘many’ would be a more accurate estimate. A majority of the aces crossed the Yalu… Violation of the official orders [to remain south of the Yalu] played a role in the American success in the battle for air superiority.” Werrell raises the important questions of whether or not these excursions were worth the risk. Some viewed such brash disobedience as a result of glory-seeking pilots caught up in MiG Fever, other viewed it as necessary to create and maintain air superiority. Noting the risks, Werrell states that these actions “could have resulted in an international incident or pushed the Communists to widen the war. The fact that the Communists also restrained their actions is mostly overlooked by westerners.” Ultimately, Werrell leaves the judgement of these violations up to the reader.

The largest problem with Werrell’s work is one that the author freely admits, and is not at all his fault. There is simply no way for historians to accurately report statistics or official records from the Communist states involved in the Korean conflict. Werrell attempts to discuss the development of the MiG-15, the individual pilots, and note the number of active craft and their successes or losses. But he is forced to rely on only a small handful of English language secondary sources, which he notes are problematic at best. Werrell bemoans the fact that “The implosion of the Soviet Union did not bring forth the hoped-for access to Communist documents; thus far, much of the material that has emerged from the Communist side obscures rather than answers questions.” He also notes that what information we do have is “much more frustrating than illuminating. Information… does not match up well with American sources, and on a number of important points is in terrible disagreement.” The lack of comparative data regarding Communist air operations is a glaring hole in the book, but cannot be held against Werrell. In every other area, Werrell’s research and use of archival primary sources is commendable. His incredibly detailed notes and concluding bibliographic essay are valuable for anyone interested in further research into air power, fighter combat, and the Korean conflict.

The book’s largest problem is simply it’s organization. Eschewing a traditional chronological treatment of the conflict, Werrell instead organizes the book topically, first dealing with issues of engineering and training, then providing a brief synopsis of the conflict in the ground and the air (each treated separately, not integrated chronologically), then treats several individual issues separately before concluding with biographies of notable pilots and a look at the use of the Sabre after the Korean War. This organization forces him to constantly jump around in time, leaving the reader with an incredibly muddy picture of the situation. It forces the reader to often flip back through various pages and continually recontextualize the various subjects Werrell discusses at any given point. While the information and his level of research is of high quality, reordering the book to follow a chronological narrative would increase its value dramatically.

Despite Werrell’s detailed discussion of the Sabre’s conflicts in the skies of Korea, he ultimately fails to directly link the fighter’s role with the ground war, leaving his main thesis somewhat undefended. He does show that “the F-86 pilots won an important victory: Red aircraft did not venture far south of the Yalu River.. the clear fact is that UN forces essentially had air superiority over all of Korea.” He also argues that “air power provided what may very well have been the decisive edge to UN forces,” and that “Victory in the battle for air superiority was important to the overall action and helps explain the war’s outcome. Air superiority was one of the few advantages the UN had in the war, and it allowed the UN to apply air power to make the war much more costly for the enemy.” While Werrell is convincing in his assertion that the F-86 deserves credit for maintaining air superiority by keeping the MiGs at bay, he does nothing to demonstrate the effects this had on the ground war. One can infer that the Sabre’s role allowed additional air support to take place, but Werrell does not demonstrate how this was possible, and doing so would be beyond the scope of this work. Therefore, his claim that the F-86 was decisive in determining the war’s outcome appears as a justification for a narrow study of the Sabre, which is clearly a labor of love for Werrell. Nonetheless, it is an engaging and entertaining one.
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