Mustangs, Meteors and MiGs: No. 77 Squadron RAAF in Korea

In Korea, air-to-air combat entered the jet age. But pilots of No. 77 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force started the war flying piston-engined American P-51 Mustang aircraft. Designed as a fighter during the Second World War, the Mustang had lost its technical edge by the time of the Korean War, and was more suited to ground-support roles. When the Soviet-built (and often piloted), MiG-15 jet fighters appeared in Korean skies after China entered the war, they soon demonstrated their superior performance.

Sergeant George Hale with his Meteor Mk 8 after a brush with MiG-15s over North Korea in March 1953. Hale scored several hits and is credited with one MiG probably destroyed and another damaged. AWM JK0683

In April 1951, 77 Squadron replaced its Mustangs with the British-built twin-jet Meteor Mk 8. Although also developed during the Second World War, the Meteor was thought to be more capable of surviving encounters with the MiGs. But when the jet adversaries first met in “MiG alley”in August, the Meteors did not fare well. Outnumbered four to one, one Meteor was badly damaged and another shot down; the pilot ejected over North Korea and was captured.

The forward fuselage of the Memorial’s MiG-15 is on display in Aircraft Hall.

Outclassed by the MiG’s superior speed (at 1,075 km/hour they were 113km/hour faster), rate of climb and manoeuverability at high altitudes, the Meteor’s role as a fighter was reconsidered at the end of 1951. It was withdrawn from interceptor duties and was used as a ground-attack aircraft, conducting strikes on North Korean railway lines, roads, military installations and vehicles in areas where MiGs were rarely encountered.

A MiG-15, blowing exhaust, under attack over the mountains of Korea: as seen from the gun camera of an American F-86 Sabre.

In three years of operations, 77 Squadron pilots flew almost 19,000 sorties and shot down five MiGs. Despite their successes, losses were heavy; 40 pilots were killed, seven were captured, and of the squadron's 90 Meteors, 54 were lost.

Ivor Hele, Return of the Meteor jets, Kimpo, Korea (1953, oil on hardboard, 79 x 122 cm).

Similar encounters occurred in “MiG alley” over the next few months, though there were successes too.  In December, fourteen Meteors were attacked by up to fifty MiG-15s high over North Korea. At least one MiG was shot down, the first victory by a Meteor, but three Australian pilots were downed.

Pilots of 77 Squadron are briefed by their commanding officer, Squadron Leader Dick Cresswell, before a mission over North Korea, August 1951.

by Danielle Cassar

Curator, Military Heraldry and Technology