The Korean War and the Phoenix of Flight Leadership: The Fighter Pilot, Part II


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I: “Leadership in the Air

During World War II, the U.S. Army sent psychologists to several combat units as observers. One psychologist, who spent months with a fighter squadron, observed that fighter pilots were like a tribe of combat elites who were self-reliant, flexible, and aggressive. But he also noted that this culture equally embraced loyalty to leaders, forbade abandoning wingmen, and was devoted to employing teamwork and cooperating with bombers, ground forces, and allies. The psychologist noted the extremism of this tribal culture:

The total social, economic, political, and educational world for the individual member…pervades everything he does, as there is no way to get away from it.

But what would happen if, after the war ended, these operators discounted their own leadership ideals in favor of a fixation on maintaining technological edge and individual fame and recognition? Unfortunately, we know.

This article presents a case study on the consequences of mindless subscription to the allure of game-changing technology at the expense of warfighting leadership—and what happens when that perceived technological superiority vanishes overnight.

Forgotten War, Forgotten Lessons

It is said that character and reputation are the sum of our experiences, including both successes and failures. When this happens in training, it is considered a valuable part of the developmental process. When this happens during execution of the mission, it can be the catalyst for changing an entire organization. For the fighter pilot, the Korean War was this catalyst—and the organization it changed was the U.S. Air Force.

By 1947, World War II was in the rearview mirror, the United States had established itself as a superpower, and the Air Force had grown into a powerful and separate service. Like all of the services, the Air Force was dealing with a rapid demobilization that was hemorrhaging wartime experience. After peaking in 1945 with a force of 20,000 bombers and 15,700 fighters, within four years this had dwindled to a mere 850 bombers and 1,500 fighters.

In May 1949, to consolidate the lessons fighter pilots had learned during World War II, the Air Force started an Aircraft Gunnery School at Las Vegas Air Force Base in Nevada. Unfortunately, the first iteration of the school was singularly focused on developing stick, throttle, and trigger mechanics—not leadership. This would prove to be a huge mistake.

Technological Parity…Again

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” —Bill Gates

Upon the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the lore of the B-29 Superfortress and the protection offered by brand-new jet fighters lulled the Air Force into a false sense of confidence in its technological advantage.

An engineering marvel, the B-29 had a pressurized cabin, carried 20,000 pounds of bombs, and used an exquisite centralized defensive weapons system that had four remote-controlled computer-aimed gun turrets. It was the most expensive weapons program in World War II, and was notably used for fire-bombing Tokyo and dropping the nuclear bombs that ended the war.

Over the skies of Korea, the B-29 was initially escorted by two jet fighters—the F-80 Shooting Star and the F-84 Thunderjet. These straight-winged fighters easily warded off enemy planes, and the Air Force didn’t see the need to deploy its premier fighter, the F-86 Sabre.

But in November 1950, the Russian-built MiG-15 was spotted in the skies and changed everything. The advanced B-29 and the brand-new straight-winged fighter escorts were no match for the speed, firepower, and agility of the swept-wing MiG-15. After MiG-15s shot down six B-29s on Oct. 23, 1951, bombers would be relegated to night missions for the rest of the war. There, they would remain threatened by another new technology—radar-aimed spotlight anti-aircraft artillery. The F-80 and F-84 fighter jets shifted from bomber escorts to flying daylight air-to-ground missions to fill the bomber void.

Shortly after news of the first MiG-15 sightings, the United States quickly reversed its decision and deployed the F-86, viewing this as a generally sufficient response to the Russian fighter. The Air Force remained technologically smug—until the two jets met in battle. While curiously well-matched, the F-86 couldn’t fly as high, climb as fast, and wasn’t as agile—yet it could dive faster and was more aerodynamically stable. But the most obvious thing F-86 pilots noticed was that the MiG-15 bore a striking resemblance to their own groundbreaking aircraft. This was no coincidence.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone at the time, much of the technology that went into the F-86 actually came from exploiting Nazi research under the highly classified Operation LUSTY (Luftwaffe Secret Technology). This research was adopted into the F-86 program and included the trademark 35-degree swept wings, a redesigned air foil shape, as well as automatic wing slats and an electrically adjustable stabilizer based on the engineering plans from the Luftwaffe’s Me-262.

The idea was brilliant—so brilliant that Russia had a similar exploitation program, which led to the MiG-15. Well before the information age, the adage that “a breakthrough anywhere is inevitably a breakthrough everywhere” still applied. (Even setting aside the shared lineage of the aircraft, eventually both sides captured one another’s planes, which quickly revealed their designs anyway). The planes were essentially equally matched. Technological superiority proved fleeting, making the deciding factor once again the human element.

Forgotten Lessons Relearned

What was needed in Korea was the almost tribal loyalty that the psychologist described during World War II. Instead, initially, the Air Force saw pilots seeking glory for themselves at the expense of their peers and the broader mission. This was highlighted by the formation the F-86s flew in during the early years of the Korean War. The planes formed a “fighter wall” that was meant to cover more area while preventing the enemy from getting around the fighter and attacking the aircraft performing air-to-ground missions.

While this is a viable formation today due to radar and sensors, in 1950, when a MiG-15 engaged one of these F-86s the rest of the formation was too far away to stay visual, let alone help. Despite this glaringly obvious flaw, this formation endured because it allowed more pilots the opportunity to “splash” (kill) a MiG. Fueled by a relentless desire to be the best of the best, in a large step backwards the hard-learned lessons of flight discipline and mutual support were supplanted by an obsession with MiG scores and the selfish race to become a famous ace.

Feeding this narcissism was a worldwide pop culture that glamorized the fighter pilot. Long before Top Gun, the 1930s had movies about the saga of the fighter pilot and leading men in the air. In World War II, popular fighter aces were sent on war bond tours. Even top-scoring World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker got in on the action—he started two national comic strips, one which was made into a mini-series. Fighter pilot comic books would remain popular well into the 1960s.

This selfishness led to clouded judgment and a breakdown of discipline. Hoping to have more time to find and kill a MiG, F-86 pilots became accustomed to flying past their “bingo fuel” (the minimum fuel needed to safely make it home). To get home, they would climb to altitude, shut the engine off to glide back to base, and then restart the engine once close to the field for landing. When the engine failed to restart, pilots performing dead-stick landings were celebrated, rather than reprimanded for their dangerous behavior.

Flagrant violations of the rules of engagement were quietly endorsed all the way up the chain of command and only one person was ever punished—in 1953, a few months before the armistice was signed. A scapegoat, this fighter pilot happened to have the fastest scoring streak for a jet pilot in Air Force history. The violating practices continued. Numerous blue-on-blue incidents happened, all of which were covered up at the time. These included a wing commander attacking a formation of F-86s, and even a famous ace who shot down his own squadron-mate.

This troublesome state of affairs was turned around thanks in large part to Fredrick “Boots” Blesse, a lowly major who had already completed a tour in Korea flying the F-51 and F-80. He returned for an F-86 assignment, where he would achieve fame back home for becoming an ace—and a legend in theater for reinvigorating flight leadership, discipline, and mutual support.

Upon his arrival, Blesse saw the deplorable state of fighter squadrons. Luckily, shortly after he arrived in Korea, his squadron operations officer was fired and he was selected to assume the role. Blesse soon developed what became known as the fighting wing—a formation in which wingmen flew much closer and further aft to the flight lead than they had with the fighter wall. No longer consumed with staying visual (too far away) or running into the flight lead (too close), this formation allowed the wingmen to be more fluid so they could scan the skies. The fighting wing was vitally important for something else Blesse implemented—shooter-cover roles. This concept once again made the formation a mutually supportive team in which every person played an important role.

By default, the wingman provided a 360-degree defensive lookout (the “cover”), freeing up the flight lead (the “shooter”) to focus on being offensive and setting the engagement geometry. Once the formation became engaged with an enemy fighter, the flight lead would direct his wingman to assume a supporting role from a more detached position. From here, the wingman could visually monitor the flight lead’s fight and still keep a lookout for other enemy fighters trying to enter the battle. After the flight lead won (or exited the fight), the wingman would talk to his leader to rejoin the formation. This maintained mutual support before, during, and after the engagement—a seemingly novel idea, but in fact just a return to the ethos cherished by fighter pilots who fought in previous wars.

This renaissance of flight leadership helped shift the tides of air superiority in 1952 over the most contested area over North Korea—MiG Alley. By the end of the war, Blesse’s squadron achieved 142.5 kills and the other two squadrons in the wing netted 116.5 kills and 218.5 kills by emphasizing the ethos of flight leadership.

Yet it wasn’t all good news. During the three-year war the U.S. Air Force lost 1,466 aircraft and sustained 1,198 deaths in combat. Of these casualties, 80 percent were fighter pilots. These scars, coupled with the positive lessons learned from the re-emergence of the ideals of mutually supportive teams and discipline, would heavily influence the culture of the fighter pilot and the Air Force’s approach to warfighting leadership.

From Gunnery to Leadership

The reliance on technological prowess and the focus on individual achievement were supplanted by a new ethos encapsulated by the young, scrappy, hard-nosed fighter.

Remember the fledging Aircraft Gunnery School? When Blesse left Korea in 1952, the Air Force assigned him to be a jet fighter gunnery instructor at the school. Again, once he arrived on the scene, things started to change. In November 1953, the Air Force changed the name to the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School. During this assignment Blesse wrote No Guts No Glory, one of the first widely publicized books on flight leadership and air tactics. He was soon joined by other influential fighter pilots who had experienced the same misgivings over the skies of Korea—including a young lieutenant named John Boyd.

Within a few years, the Fighter Weapons School had evolved from instructing towed banner gunnery to teaching decisive warfighting in the air, with a curriculum blending technology, tactics, and leadership. Knowing the equipment and its limits was important, but so too was thinking about new ways to use the equipment to create advantages in battle. Most important of all was developing educated leaders who were articulate, innovative, and aggressive to lead their formations when technology and tactics alone wouldn’t be enough to win—and courageous enough to challenge the status quo when necessary. Boyd would later sum this up with his quip: “People, ideas, things—in that order.”

The Fighter Weapons School set the standards for employment and professionalism for the entire operational Air Force—two decades before the Navy established a similar course, made famous in a 1986 blockbuster movie starring the F-14 Tomcat.

The Rejoin

Though the Air Force is young, it has forgotten that its operational leadership ethos can be largely traced to scars from the Korean War era. This is important because the conditions that changed the fighter pilot community and created the U.S. Fighter Weapons School closely resemble the challenges the military writ large faces today: rapidly eroding technological advantages and widespread calls to reinvigorate innovation and disruptive thinking. Tactically, money and equipment help but strategically the Air Force must think its way out of this problem.

Bold leadership is consistently necessary for an enduring strategic advantage. The weapon is disruption, and the required components are simple: courage, resourcefulness, self-reliance, innovation, and tenacity. This is true whether you wear your rank on your collar or your sleeve, fly a fighter or fly a desk, wear a flight suit or a business suit. Fredrick “Boots” Blesse just happened to be a fighter pilot – and he never stopped thinking innovatively. During the Vietnam War when designers thought that gun-less fighters were the future, who do you think had the disruptive idea to put gun pods on the F-4 Phantom and level the playing field?


Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a former Defense Advanced Research Agency fellow and a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force

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