The SAAF’s Mustangs baptism of fire and the urgent need for jet powered fighters

Korean War and the urgent need for the South African Air Force participating in the war  to change from piston driven Mustangs to jet power.

Prior to the SAAF 2 Squadrons deployment to Korea the pilots of the ‘Flying Cheetahs’ underwent concentrated training on Spitfire Mk IXs. Before they were placed at the disposal of the United Nations. They converted to the F-51D Mustang at Johnson Air Force Base, Tokyo, and were attached to the USAF 18th fighter bomber wing at K-9, Pusan and K-24 Pyongyang.

The squadron flew into action to stem the Communist invasion swarming in from the North, the head-long advance forcing it to fall back to K-10 near Chinhae, which remained its permanent base for the next two years.

In this war the SAAF received its baptism of fire from Russian made MiG jets and intensive ground fire – this was party due to the nature of the SAAF sorties at the beginning of the war – close air support to ground troops – coming in low and relatively slow in a highly vulnerable position to ground anti aircraft fire to hit ground targets. Sarcastically these USAF and SAAF pilots were called “mud movers” by pilots and ground troops alike, as at times this is all they seemed to do when dropping bombs or rocketing well defended lines.

In operations using the Mustangs, the SAAF carried out 10 373 sorties, and lost 74 of its 95 aircraft. The high rate of loss is testament to the bravery and commitment of the pilots, but also testament that the SAAF had to convert to jet power to have a fighting chance.

It was this baptism of fire which required a change in tactics and it moved the SAAF from a piston-engined air force into the jet age – and from flying F-51D Mustangs to F-86 Sabre fighter jets.

Image of a crashed SAAF F51D Mustang in Korea – copyright ipmssa.za.org Cooke & Owen Collection

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