In-Box Review
F-86 Sabre Aces of the 51st Fighter Wing

by: Rowan Baylis [ MERLIN ]

Author: Warren Thompson
Artwork by Mark Styling
248 x 184mm, 96 pages, softbound
Colour artwork: 33 profiles spread over 11 pages with a further 3 pages of enlargements of the nose art to form collages.
Scale drawings: 3 pages of 1/48 scale profiles.

Number 70 in the Aircraft of the Aces series provides a very effective analysis of the development of jet combat in the Korean war, taking a detailed look at the development of combat between the two principal adversaries in the battle for air supremacy during the Korean war.

The opening chapters cover the increasingly urgent need for an increase in the number of Sabres in the FEAF to counter the growing threat of North Korean MiGs. At the time that the 51st FW was sent to the theatre, a force of just 89 Sabres faced over 400 enemy jets. Even the arrival of the new unit meant an increase of only 75 extra Sabres and the early operations were hampered by faulty systems caused by exposure to the elements during the long voyage from the USA, coupled with a critical shortage of spares.

Coincidental with the arrival of the 51st came the introduction of new version of the Sabre - the F-86E, which proved far superior over the earlier 'A models then in action. The new aircraft introduced the "all flying tail", which provided far better control at transonic speeds, but this advantage was in turn offset by the arrival of an improved foe - the MiG 15bis.

I like Warren Thompson's writing. There are a couple of point of repetition but, otherwise, he paints a vivid picture of the scale and nature of Korean War air fighting.

The book covers the unfolding tactics utilised by both sides in some detail. The pace of change is hard to imagine in this day and age where manoeuvres are planned and practised to the smallest degree. At one stage US intelligence had identified more than 30 specific tactics employed by the opposing MiGs and US pilots developed counters to each of them. As an anonymous 51st pilot wrote, "Tactics that are successful in the morning may be obsolete in the afternoon". The scale of combat is amazing to the modern reader - Korea provided the first and only occasion where dogfights involving over 100 jet fighters were a regular occurrence.

Much is made in the book of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the MiG 15 and the Sabre, with the former usually holding the initiative thanks to its superiority at high altitudes and vastly superior numbers. It was not uncommon for formations of 6-8 Sabres to face upwards of 100 MiGs - to the point where the risk of collision was very real and there were so many MiGs that they actually got in each others' way and hampered their chances in combat. In fact, a formation of 6 Sabres seems to have been something of a luxury; due to mechanical failures, many aircraft were forced to return to base. When an aircraft aborted, it was always accompanied by a wingman, so an operation that started at full strength regularly dropped from 8 to 6 aircraft, then 6 to 4 and so on...

One of the book's major strengths is that it includes a large number of first hand-hand accounts of dogfighting. One of the most vivid covers just such an occasion, where a formation of 6 Sabres dwindled to just 2, which carried on undaunted before encountering the enemy. In the ensuing action, 1st Lt. Abbot was flying wing to Capt. Joe McConnell and managed to call out over the radio that they were facing 30 MiGs. McConnell made the immortal reply "Yeah, and we've got them all to ourselves!" "Mac"s exploits in that action resulted in his becoming the first triple ace of the war.

Thanks to the outstanding kill-loss ratio of the Sabres in Korea, it's easy to get a false impression of the quality of both the MiG 15 and the pilots flying them. The book does a fine job in setting the record straight. As stated earlier, the MiG 15 was considered superior to the Sabre (even by some Sabre pilots) in significant aspects, but the enemy pilots fell into two distinct classes; while the average North Korean pilots were no match for the vastly more experienced USAF pilots - many of whom were WW2 veterans, there was another group of MiG pilots who matched the Americans in skill. Although the Sabre pilots didn't realise it at the time, the North Koreans were being trained by Soviet instructors and these "honchos", as the Sabre pilots called them, were easily identified by their prowess in combat, even if their nationality was unknown.

So where are the aces?
So, the book paints a clear picture of the opposing forces and the tactics they employed, but the more I read, the more confused I became. Despite its title, this really isn't a book about the aces . If anything, they serve more as a backdrop for a very interesting account of the unfolding conflict between Sabre pilots and their MiG 15 adversaries. Even the excellent eye-witness accounts are from the viewpoint of wingmen, describing the aces they flew alongside, often only in passing. Comparisons with earlier titles in the series are inevitable and anyone looking for individual stories and serious biographical detail on the aces themselves may feel somewhat disappointed by this volume.

Photos & Artwork
From a modeller's point of view, this book is useful in two principal ways - the photo coverage and the profiles and plans. The vintage photos are a real eye-opener! A large proportion of them are full colour and the sheer variety of n/m finishes will provide inspiration for years worth of models. Aircraft show everything from semi- factory fresh through to heavily oxidized aluminium and the subtle differences in tone will present a challenge to duplicate.

The profile section is quite useful with well drawn illustrations of a good variety of colourful nose art. In most cases, just one side is shown and there are no plan views. Since most of the interest is sure to be in the nose art, this is no great loss, but just one example to illustrate the placement of theatre markings would have been a nice addition. I have to say I'm not convinced by the way the nose art from the profiles is combined into a series of collages. They are quite quite attractive, but of questionable value as a modelling reference, being quite haphazard in their layout. Enlargements alongside the profiles would have been much more useful to anyone modelling the aircraft..

The scale plans are as frustrating as they are useful. 6 excellent 1/48 scale profiles are provided for the F-86A-5 through to the Project Gunval cannon-armed F-86F-1, but there are no plan views to complete the package, which is a real missed opportunity - particularly since the development of the "6-3" wing is well covered in the text. Profiles on their own are little use to modellers and what could have been a valuable reference is reduced to little more than a novelty "add-on".

Despite the fact that the book arguably doesn't live up to its title, I really enjoyed it. It provides one of the clearest accounts of Korean jet combat and tactics available and is a valuable primer for anyone interested in this aspect of the war or the development of early jets. But for me its the selection of photos that are the stars of the show. Well printed at an adequate size to reveal the details, they are a sure-fire inspiration for models of spectacular Sabres from this rather overlooked conflict. At just 12.99, Osprey's book is excellent value for money and deserves a place on the shelves of anyone interested in early jet combat.

Contact details
Osprey Direct
PO Box 140
Northants, NN8 2FA
United Kingdom

(01933) 443 863

Thank you to Osprey Publishing for kindly supplying the review sample.

Please remember, when contacting retailers or manufacturers, to mention that you saw their products highlighted here - on ARMORAMA
The Korean conflict is often unfairly overlooked by modellers despite being the scene of the first jet vs. jet air combats. Osprey's book provides a valuable account of the clash of two of the world's great aircraft - the F-86 Sabre and the MiG 15.
Percentage Rating
  Scale: Other
  Mfg. ID: 1 84176 995 9
  Suggested Retail: 12.99
  PUBLISHED: Jul 01, 2006
  NATIONALITY: United States

About Rowan Baylis (Merlin)

I've been modelling for about 40 years, on and off. While I'm happy to build anything, my interests lie primarily in 1/48 scale aircraft. I mostly concentrate on WW2 subjects, although I'm also interested in WW1, Golden Age aviation and the early Jet Age - and have even been known to build the occas...

Copyright 2021 text by Rowan Baylis [ MERLIN ]. Images also by copyright holder unless otherwise noted. Opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of AeroScale. All rights reserved.


Click image to enlarge
  • Osprey_F-86_Cover
  • Osprey_F-86_Back
  • Osprey_F-86_Content
  • Osprey_F-86_Colour