Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shoot at your Fuel Tank before Landing

The air war over Korea is often thought of as shiny F-86 Sabres dogfighting MiG-15s flown by inept pilots high above the Yalu River. However, the air war saw many types of actions, and included many types of aircraft, from the old propeller-driven Polikarpov U-2 biplane to the F-51 Mustang and the most modern jets of the early 1950s.

The Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star is somewhat of an unsung design of the Korean War. The first American jet fighter had been deployed to the Far East Air Force (FEAF) before the Korean War, and in May 1950 365 of the 553 operational aircraft in the FEAF were F-80Cs. After some initial successes, the MiG-15 proved to be superior to the F-80, and the latter was mainly assigned ground attack missions. It served very well in that role, carrying bombs and rockets in thousands of sorties against North Korean and Chinese troops until May 1, 1953, when the F-80s stood down in a fighter-bomber role. A few F-80s remained in the interceptor role up to the ceasefire on July 27 that same year.

As opposed to today’s Koreas, North Korea was the industrialized part of the peninsula, while South Korea remained agrarian. The short and rough airfields in South Korea initially limited the use of jet aircraft, and the F-80s had to fly from bases in Japan. This highlighted one of the big problems with early jets: short range. The F-80s could make it from Japan to Korea, but there was little or no time to loiter or search for targets.

However, this was to be addressed before the Korean War broke out by the two lieutenants of the 9th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, Robert Eckman and Edward R. “Rabbit” Johnston. They had just finished the Far East Gunnery Meet of 1949 with top honors, and they wanted to fly their own F-80s to the Nellis Air Force Base to compete against other USAF pilots.

They simply added two middle sections from Fletcher tanks to the standard Lockheed tanks by extending the bolts that held the sections together, thus creating the so-called Misawa tanks, named after the air base in Japan where the unit was stationed. The added middle section increased the tanks capacity from 165 gallons (624,6 liters) to 265 gallons (1003,1 liters), and this meant that the combat radius was increased from 225 miles with Lockheed tanks to some 350 miles, depending on the mission. Time over target was likewise increased from about fifteen minutes to approximately forty-five minutes.

F-80 with Misawa tanks on a rainy airfield. <>

The Fletcher tank was mainly used on the T-33 trainer, which was based o the Shooting Star. <>

The tanks were tested by Johnston and Eckman, but the USAF Air Materiel Command was initially unwilling to approve of the installation of Misawa tanks, since the Materiel Command deemed that the heavier tanks placed dangerously high loads at the wingtips, and the project was ordered to be shut down.

This was to change as North Korea invaded the south on June 25, 1950, the situation became increasingly desperate. General Earle Partridge, the commander of the 5th Air Force, overrode previous decisions and ordered full-scale manufacturing of the Misawa tanks so that all F-80s of the FEAF could be equipped with the tanks. However, new problems materialized: the tanks were in short supply for several months. Also, the first tanks made were lacking internal baffles to prevent the fuel from sloshing back and forth in the tank. This was not a problem in normal flight, but the stresses of combat maneuvers, especially when pulling up from a steep dive, could make the sloshing cause a Misawa tank to tear off a from the wingtip, which did cause damage to some F-80s as well as losses.

Further, pulling up and otherwise placing stress on the tank could make the tank feed malfunction, and then the Misawa tank couldn’t be jettisoned. Landing with one empty tank and one full was extremely difficult at best, so some unique solutions had to be devised. Lieutenant Ed Jones of the 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron recalls dealing with this particular issue: “On one mission, we were heading north towards the bomb line and I could not get either of my tip tanks to feed. After relaying the problem to my flight leader via the radio, he told me to jettison my bombs and external tanks and head back to base. Upon punching the jettison button, all of the right side let go, but nothing happened on the left side! I was heading south at the time, and getting close to our base at Suwon. We had been told that you could not land the F-80 with full tanks on one side and empty on the other because the jet could not be trimmed out enough to make it safe. I decided to use my .45 pistol and try to shoot a hole in the left tank. I cranked the canopy back and got my pistol out. I shot two holes in the front of the tank and fuel began to stream out. After a short while, enough had leaked out to trim the aircraft out. I lined up with the runway and made a smooth landing, and after rolling down the strip for about 2,000 feet, the control tower came on the radio and told me that my left tip tank had just come off, and that it was bouncing down the runway behind my aircraft!”


Warren Thompson. F-80 Shooting Star units over Korea. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001

William T. Y’Blood. Down in the weeds : close air support in Korea. Air Force History and Museums Program, 2002