The Birth of the Jet Fighter Era

The first jet-versus-jet aerial combat did not happen during WWII, even though the world’s first jet fighter, the German Messerschmitt Me 262, and the first British jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, began combat operations in 1944. The Me 262 was mostly used to attack Allied bombers over Germany, and the Meteor began its military career shooting down German V-1 cruise missiles over Britain.

The Allied campaign to liberate Western Europe, which began with the D-Day landings in June of 1944, eventually led to the capture of most German missile launching sites, and in January of 1945 some Meteors were stationed at a British airbase in Belgium. But they never encountered any Me 262s, although their airfield was bombed by German Arado Ar 234 jet bombers in March.

The first U.S. jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, also began its military career during WWII. Four YP-80As, a preproduction version of the plane, were assembled in Europe in January of 1945. Two had been sent to Britain and two others to Italy. The planes sent to Britain never saw combat, but the ones sent to Italy may have been used to try and intercept Arado Ar 234 reconnaissance jets.

In 1947 the U.S. Army Air Forces became a separate branch of the U.S. military called the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The Air Force re-designated the prefix used to identify American fighter planes from P to F, and thus the P-80 became the F-80.

North Korean MiG-15

Jet fighters were among the planes the U.S. sent into combat when the Korean War began in June of 1950. Among them were the Air Force’s F-80 Shooting Stars and the Navy’s Grumman F9F Panther carrier-based fighters. American jets ruled the skies over Korean battlefields until the Communist forces surprised the U.N forces by introducing Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters in November.

The performance of the MiG-15 was superior to the F-80 and F9F, but that didn’t stop American pilots from engaging the MiGs in aerial combat. The world’s first claim for a jet-versus-jet aerial kill came on November 1, when a Soviet-flown North Korean MiG-15 shot down an F-80C. (The USAF credits the loss to anti-aircraft fire.) The U.S. Air Force’s first claim for a jet-versus-jet kill came a week later, on November 8, but Soviet records show the MiG-15 survived the fight. The U.S. Navy first claimed shooting down a MiG-15 with one of its F9Fs on November 9. Soviet records confirm this loss.

The advent of MiG-15s in Korea forced the USAF to send some squadrons of its newer Republic F-84 Thunderjet and North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters there in December. The F-84s were tasked with escorting Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, but their performance also proved to be inferior to that of the MiGs. The F-86s, however, had a swept wing design, like the MiG-15s, and the Communist pilots soon found the Sabres were formidable foes.

And so, at the start of 1951, the jet fighter era was finally fully under way.

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