Frederick C. 'Boots' Blesse
Korean War Fighter Pilot Ace
"I saw four MiGs coming at us, up high, over a mile back. It was just my wingman and me. I called him, "Close it up." But he didn't close it up very well. He drifted back further, and I repeated, "Close it up, nose over, close it up, pick up your air speed." And that didn’t happen quickly enough.
The MiG flight leader, a pretty smart guy, took a long range shot at him with his 37-mm cannon. He couldn’t hit my wingman, but he probably thought he might get him to turn, and that’s what he did.
"The MiG pilot fired several rounds, and my wingman broke without telling me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The first two MiGs came around to cut us off. I checked my fuel gauge and said to myself, "Oh man, this one thing I don’t need." - - Boots Blesse, in a 1997 interview for SECRETS OF WAR
Frederick C. Blesse was born in the Panama Canal Zone in . His father was a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. 'Boots' graduated from American High School of Manila, in 1939. He graduated from West Point in 1945 with a rating as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
For the next three years he flew P-40, P-51, P-47 and F-80 fighter planes. In 1949 he went to Selfridge Air Force Base, as a jet fighter pilot. During the Korean War, he flew two volunteer combat tours, November 1950-May 1951 and April 1952-October 1952, flying over 200 missions in F-51 Mustangs, F-80 Shooting Stars, and F-86 Sabres. During his second combat tour, he was officially credited with destroying nine Mig-15s and one LA-9 aircraft; one 'probable' and three 'damaged' Mig-15s. He was the top American jet ace when he came home in October 1952.
Boots Blesse 1997 Interview for SECRETS OF WAR
All rights reserved.
© 1998 The Documedia Group.
Edited by Stephen Sherman
Blesse: My name is Major General Frederick C. Blesse, but nobody’s ever called me Frederick. My name, my nick name is "Boots," and everybody calls me that. Boots Blesse. It means "wounded" in French.
Q: Tell me about Korea. What was your assignment and your squadron?
Blesse: In my second tour in Korea (April-October, 1952) I flew the F-86. I wanted some air-to-air combat experience. I had been back from my first tour in Korea for about eight months, and in March of 1952 I got another assignment to Korea, to an F-86 outfit. That’s exactly what I wanted because I had a fairly good background in air-to-ground work with the P-51 and the F-80. I wanted to do some air-to-air stuff.
I went to the Fourth Group (4th FIW), the 334 squadron of the Fourth, at Kimpo (airbase K-14). Its commander was Colonel Bud Mahurin. I knew him when he got out of the Pentagon and was getting up to speed in jets. He had had a marvelous career in Europe in W.W.II., but he wasn’t up to speed in jets. Fortunately I got the job of transitioning him. He and I did a lot of dogfighting in F-86’s over the California desert. When he went to Korea on a 90-day assignment as a commander, I asked him if he could get me over there. He said, "I can’t get you over, but if you can get in the theater I’ll get you up to the Fourth Group." And that’s the way it worked out.
At first there was no place for me in the 334 squadron. They made me an engineering officer, and allowed me to fly with the squadron. I did that for about thirty days until they fired the operations officer. The squadron was not doing too well, and they fired the operations officer, one commander, and the other commander rotated out. We started with a whole new group in May of 1952.
Q: What was your mandate? What were you supposed to be doing? What were your orders?
Blesse: The whole purpose of the Fourth Wing was counter-air. The MiG-15s were supposed to interrupt the air to ground strikes by the F-80’s, P-51’s, and our other ground attack planes. Our role was to counter the MiGs, to prevent them from shooting down any of our aircraft. It was an interesting time because George Davis (who had downed twelve aircraft) got killed himself, shot down in combat. When I joined the 334 squadron it seemed that his death had really hurt morale. Many guys just wanted to fly their hundred missions and go home. I had worked hard to get over there. To me it was a great privilege to be assigned to a fighter squadron in Korea at that time, and get some air-to-air experience. I really couldn’t understand their viewpoint. After I got to be operations officer we made a lot of changes. I flew with all four of the flight commanders. Two of them I flipped off some place. I took younger guys in the squadron and made them flight commanders. They had already exhibited a lot of moxy up in the air and were going to be serious about getting MiGs.
Q: What do you have to be, to be serious about getting MiGs? What kind of character does it take?
Blesse: To be serious about air-to-air combat, first you gotta want to do it. Secondly you need some previous tactical experience in jets. You needed some dogfighting, some idea of closure rates and turn rates, how to kill air speed, and how to gain air speed. But most importantly, you had to be aggressive. A lot of guys started out without anything but aggressiveness and gained the experience they needed right there in Korea. Some got shot down trying to get it. Others were more successful and did very well. The key ingredients for a successful air-to-air pilot were previous experience in tactics, and the aggressiveness and the desire to really want to mix it up.
Q: Describe "mixing it up".
Blesse: By "mixing it up" I mean engaging the enemy. During my first month in Korea, I flew many missions when the controllers would call out MiGs, or we would hear other pilots engaging the MiGs, but strangely our flight commander never quite got us into them. We milled around; we flew here and there; but we never quite got to the MiGs. When we came home, other squadrons would talk about their kills and their big encounters that day. So if you’re a flight commander, "mixing it up" means hearing the action on the radio, pinpointing it through the controllers or the pilots involved, leading your flight up there, and getting into the fight.
If you don’t get your flight into combat you might as well not be there. You’re wasting a jet fighter plane, you’re wasting all that flying time, and you’re wasting the time and careers of the other pilots. Your mission, as designed by the Air Force, is counter-air. So if you’re up there flying around, skirting the area waiting for maybe one MiG to limp out of the fight, then you’re not doing the Air Force justice. You’re not doing the job they hired you to do.
Q: Was luck a factor?
Blesse: Every individual who flew in that air-to-air war really wanted to become an ace. Some were lucky enough to score five kills and some weren’t. It took more than just desire and ability and aggressiveness. It took a lot of luck. I first saw a MiG when I was flying with Colonel Mahurin on my second mission. We didn’t get him because our Sabres were almost out of fuel. But we got to fire the guns and that was a nice experience for me. I think that’s why he let me do it. But I didn’t see another MiG until my forty-eighth mission. I flew up and back, and up and back, and charged the guns, and a lot of that time I was kidding myself. The MiGs just weren’t flying, or they weren’t flying in my assigned areas. But Jim Low came in, without any experience, as aggressive as hell. One day, he broke off from his flight commander, went down and knocked down a MiG. It’s difficult to discipline a guy that comes back with a kill, even though he’s broken the rules. I watched these guys do this during that time, and nobody wanted to get into them any more than I did. But the MiGs just weren’t around. Occasionally somebody would get into one.
We usually flew three missions a day: we’d go up in the morning, then around noon, and then in the late afternoon. The MiGs usually only flew once -- so you could fly in the morning, and then MiGs were flying at noon. It was like a shell game, even if you were the operations officer and could pick your own flight. Suppose they flew in the morning yesterday, so you would guess they’d fly at noon today. You'd pick noon and they’d fly at four o’clock. It took an awful lot of luck to be flying when the MiGs were flying.
The other part of luck is their location when you see them. If you spot them down below at two o’clock, that’s a piece of cake. That’s really going to be great. But if you see them 5,000 feet above you and slightly behind, you’ve got a real problem. You need to turn that around in order to get on the offensive. So there’s a lot of luck involved. Many times luck kept you alive and it also gave you a few MiGs every now and then.
Q: How did members of a four plane flight work together?
Blesse:I made some important changes in our tactics at the 334 squadron. When I arrived, they were using defensive tactics. They flew widely spread out; to prevent the enemy from getting in between the planes. But that wasn’t very good. If somebody attacked you and your wingman’s sitting way out, you’re in deep trouble because a couple of quick turns and this guy’s gone forever. You would be lucky to see him at supper time. So we brought the wingman in close enough to read the small numbers on the tail of the leader's F-86. Then he was in the right place. We didn’t want him up even with the leader. Because if the flight leader made a quick turn into him, they’re going to collide. We put him back a little bit, and then we began to train him so he could stay to the inside. He’d pull into trail. The leader could do anything he wanted, and his wingman stayed in trail with him. He could look around all over the place, keeping the leader clear to make an attack.
But it was a four man team. There was a flight leader, and his wingman (number two). Then you had an element leader (number three) and his wingman (number four). The element leader usually rode high, so that he could stay with the flight leader, if the leader chose to keep his four ship flight as a unit.
Many times we broke them down from four to two, but we never broke them down from two to one. You’d attack a flight, and maybe two MiGs would break left and the other two would go right. It was a simple call: "Black three, take the two going to the right. I got the ones on the left." We'd split up, and hopefully I’d see him back in operations. Maybe somebody would get a kill that way. But the two and four men were not shooters, they were lookers. They protected the number one and the number three men. The leaders had the most experience, they could fight more successfully. The number two and four men were people who had just come into the squadron. In our squadron a new guy flew on wing. I did it when I came.
How a guy started out largely determined the kind of a tour he flew. If you put him with Captain Milquetoast and let him fly with him for ten missions, and then put him with a guy who was really into it, he’d come back thinking that this other guy’s crazy, taking all these chances. The new pilot would think, "I don’t want to fly with him anymore." But if you let the new guy fly his first ten missions with an aggressive pilot, somebody who is really into them and knows what he’s doing, and then you put the new guy with Captain Milquetoast he’d come back and say, "Geez, don’t put me with that guy again."
After about fifteen missions, we would usually see how a new pilot did as a leader. If he was doing pretty well, if he hadn’t gotten lost or separated from his leader or anything like that, we would see whether he had leadership characteristics. We would put him in the number three position for a while and find out whether he was flight leader material. The number two man had the responsibility of keeping that leader alive. We told the flight leaders: "Once you sight an enemy airplane you do not have time to look around for your wingman, or your element leader, or your number four. If you take your eyes off a MiG, you’ll probably never see it again."
Q: What about the term "Padlock"?
Blesse: The leader used "Padlock" to inform his flight that he had spotted an enemy airplane and was going to maneuver with it. When the leader called "Padlock, two o’clock high," that told the number two man to expect some pretty stern maneuvering. The leader will do all these turns, he may do loops or whatever he needs to do to gain an advantage on the enemy airplane. Once the leader gains an advantage on the MiG, and they steady down, the wingman slides out to the right, checks the rear, and calls, "Red lead, you’re clear." It was mandatory that he made that call about every fifteen seconds. If he didn’t, it usually meant that he got shot down, or was lost, or got thrown out on one of the turns, and he didn’t know where the leader was. So it was very important for the wingman and the element leader to know that the flight leader had called "Padlock." That meant he was going to exert a hundred percent of his effort in shooting down the airplane that he saw. Those other guys had to go into a one hundred percent defensive role.
When I first got into the squadron, I was very unhappy with their formation flying, so I went flying with each flight commander.I didn’t give him any instructions as to how to fly. I just said, "Come on Tom, you and I are going to go fly. You’re going to be my wingman and we’re gonna mill around a little bit."
The guy went up and he was way out to the side, and then when I saw everything, I said "You okay?" . . . "Yah, Rog, okay."
I pulled about a four "G" turn into him. He’d go
down, I’d come around, he’d come back, I’d reverse my turn, come
around, and I’d end up right behind him.
Then I asked, "You got me inside?" . . . "No." I had lost him.
I said, "Make a right turn, I’m right behind you."
So he’d make a right turn and then I’d do it again, and this time he’s in a little closer and he gets back a little bit.
To teach him what I wanted to teach him I didn’t
turn quite as tight on the second turn. And I’d turn it around and he
still would shudder when I went by and go over the top, come around and
end up right behind him.
"You got me inside?" I'd say again. And he'd reply "No, I lost you."
We did that about three times and pretty soon he’s
locked in close, right where I want him. Then we did a couple of nice
gentle turns and rolls and things because the guy’s a good pilot. But
being a good pilot wasn’t enough if you weren’t in the right position.
Pretty soon he’s doing great. He’s doing rolls with me and everything,
we’re pulling tight turns, and when we landed I said, "Tom, that was a
pretty good flight there towards the end. But why were you so close to
And he said, "My God, You don’t expect me to be able to stay with you if I’m staying way out. I couldn’t stay with you the way you were turning."
I said, "Now remember what you just said. You have four days to fly with every one of the people in your flight. You teach them what you just learned this morning, because that’s the way we’re going to fly from now on. The two man is going to be in close right where you were, and the three man and four man are going to be that way on the element leader."
I asked Colonel Mahurin, the group commander, for a stand-down of five or six days because we needed to revamp our flying tactics. We hadn’t shot down a single MiG since George Davis had been killed about a month before. The other squadrons were getting kills. We just weren’t doing it. In part, I came over into Ops was because things were not going well in the squadron. Colonel Mahurin was great about it. He said, "Okay, I can give you five or six days, but this better produce something." I said, "Trust me Colonel, I want it to just as bad as you do."
I did that with each one of my four flight commanders. Two of them were never going to be able to do this. So I got two replacements: another captain and a lieutenant, a guy named Chick Cleveland, who eventually rose to be a three-star general. He was a very good pilot, and although he was a first lieutenant, he was a better pilot than some captains. Guys that are flying into combat deserve the best leadership they can get, regardless of rank. I made him a flight commander and he did great. Later on, we inducted him into the American Flighter Ace’s Association as an honorary ace because he got four kills, three probables, and four damaged. We called him the Honorary Ivory Ace because he got as close to getting five as anybody could ever get and not get them. We called him the Ivory Ace, "ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent pure."
Q: Compare the MiG-15 to the F-86 Sabre.
Blesse: Air-to-air fight was like a game. You had to know the rules. You had to know what you could do and what he could do. We had pretty good information on the MiG. It was a point defense airplane, smaller and lighter than the Sabre; it didn’t carry as much fuel. Consequently it could out-climb us at any altitude and had more than double our rate of climb above 25,000 feet. It could outrun us at any altitude. So a MiG pilot had a lot to work with. But if you’re an F-86 pilot you had a couple of things you could try with this gopher, and one of them is turn. You don’t want to try to outclimb him if he’s behind you. So you measure these things into the fact. When you first sight him you hope to get an advantage by getting in his rear quarter. You know that he’s immediately gonna turn into you, and you need to know how to respond. You close in as close as you can. With fifty caliber machine guns you gotta get within 1200 feet to do any good. Most of the airplanes I shot down were within 400 to 1000 feet.
It’s a matter of training and practice. What if he turns into you and gets too close, and you can't make that turn? You gotta know what to do. You gotta know that the nose goes up, and let him come down, and then when you come around you’ll still be behind him. If you try to stay on his plane, you’re gonna stall your aircraft. Pretty soon you’re in trouble because he’s gonna reverse his turn, and you’re gonna be on the outside going away from him, and you’re going to have him behind you. That's what we tried to teach. We tried to make sure that our people didn’t unnecessarily expose themselves to a disadvantageous position in combat.
Q: How did a four-plane flight operate as a team? What were the rules?
Blesse: The tactical situations in air-to-air fighting required you to follow certain rules. For example, when the leader calls "Padlock," the wingman must be 100 percent, eyeball-to-eyeball, looking for enemy planes behind, making sure that the leader doesn’t get surprised. That’s part of the rules.
But suppose you’re just looking around for enemy airplanes, and suddenly the number four man saw the enemy but no one else did. Number four would say, "He’s over there, he’s at three o’clock high, two MiGs." Now, you’re at a decision point. The rule says number four continues to call the leader and tell him where they are. "Crank it around to the right. Okay now, directly up, he’s right ahead of you, twelve o’clock, about two miles." And eventually the leader says, "Okay, I got him." Then three and four continue. Four maintains his position, and does his assigned job. That’s one way to handle it.
The other way -- breaking the rules -- number four sees the MiG. He hasn’t seen one before; he thinks he can get a kill right away; he doesn’t want to waste the opportunity; he doesn’t give a damn about the rules, and off he goes. Maybe he gets shot down doing that. But if the guy is a pretty good pilot, if he is aggressive, he can drive on in there and get a kill. He goes home by himself and gets his fanny chewed about flight discipline.
You break the rules by not performing as a team member. The leader is the shooter, and the number three man is the shooter if a pair breaks off. And the leader will decide when that happens. If for instance, number three had seen the MiGs and called them in, and the leader didn’t see them, the leader would say, "Take 'em three. You got 'em. I’ll cover you." As number three goes up, the lead will cover the attacking element. They can switch leads. The element leader usually is a very dependable guy with enough experience to attack without exposing other people.
Usually the number two and four men do not have the experience to jump into the lead without unnecessarily exposing the number three man or the leader. Everything would get all screwed up. You'd have plumbers doing electricians’ jobs, and electricians doing plumber’s job, because the leader is not used to flying wing. He can fly wing, but he’s not practicing that every day like number two and number four. That’s their livelihood -- being good wing men. The livelihood of the leader, and the number three man, is to be a good hunter, to seek out the enemy and shoot him down. And to make sure they come home with a full flight.
Q: What about crossing the Yalu River?
Blesse: Patrolling along the Yalu River, seeing MiGs on the other side was extremely frustrating. Especially at the first part of the war, we were absolutely forbidden to cross the Yalu. They didn’t want to involve the Chinese, and those airplanes over there were Chinese. . . .
In the rest of the interview he describes missions that took him across the Yalu, his last mission - when he bailed out over the East China Sea, the time he hit a truck in his P-51, and lots more. Check it out.