One kill away from ace status… but up against 50 MiGs

Until May 20, 1951, the world had never seen a jet ace. Of course, jets had been around in some form or another for 20 years by this point, but never had they become so advanced that a pilot could officially claim the status of jet ace. Nobody, that is, until Captain James Jabara was scrambled to join a massive dog fight in his F-86 Sabre during the Korean War.

Up until this point, Jabara had totalled four MiG-15 kills. His first confirmed kill had been awarded to him in April 1951. Now he had scored four, which meant he was just one crucial kill away from becoming the first ever jet ace. So, when he was called to join the 30 other F-86 Sabres in a dog fight against 50 MiGs in MiG Alley, he saw it as his chance.

As was – and still is – commonplace during aerial combat, the F-86 Sabres dropped their external fuel tanks to maximise their performance. One of Jabara’s however, was jammed; his right fuel tank failed to detach from his wing. Instead of pulling out of the fight due to risk of lower performance, Jabara continued. Despite being aware that protocol required he return to base as the aircraft would be impeded by the extra weight and imbalance, he was determined to follow in the footsteps of other aces – but this time in a jet.

He turned his Sabre to chase after a group of three MiGs. With one in his sights, he released a stream of bullets from his machine guns. His .50 caliber machine gun fire ripped through the fuselages of the MiG-15 and he watched as the aeroplane began to break up; it was the embodiment of his newly acquired ace status. But he wasn’t going to stop there. Turning on another of the MiGs, he fired again. At the last minute, he saw his sixth victory go into a tailspin. Without time to gloat, he raced away from the third MiG that was now hot on his tail.

Returning to base, Jabara’s Sabre became so low on fuel that he decided to glide the aircraft down. The mission was his 63rd of the Korean war and earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Against Jabara’s wishes, he was discharged from duties to attend a publicity tour. Of his achievement, he simply stated: "That was my bag for the day, and it made me feel pretty good to know that I was the first jet ace in the history of aerial warfare”.