Generation Gap

Article By Walter Boyne
Photos By Katsuhiko Tokunaga

This article appeared in the 4th Quarter 2005 issue of Code One Magazine.

Maj. George A. Davis and his wingman, 1st Lt. William Littlefield, patrolled alone in MiG Alley on 10 February 1952. Below them flew twelve Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s about to pounce on Republic F-84 fighter bombers attacking railroad lines near Kunuri. The thirty-year-old Davis, commander of the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing and the leading American ace with twelve victories, was on his sixtieth mission over North Korea.

The first American to be an ace in two wars, Davis dove his North American F-86 Sabre through the MiG formation, blowing up one MiG on his first pass and then quickly shooting down a second. Ignoring the cascade of fire coming from two flights of MiGs to his rear, he decelerated and maneuvered behind a third MiG. A hurricane of enemy 23 mm and 30 mm shells exploded into Davis’ Sabre, sending it out of control and crashing him into a hillock thirty miles south of the Yalu.

Davis’ attack completely disrupted the MiGs’ attack and allowed the F-84s to complete their interdiction mission. For that valor, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to slieutenant colonel.

Davis’ heroic fight in the Korean War underscores the importance of skill and training. It also shows that, in a fight between two aircraft, each representing the peak of second-generation jet fighter technology, the final outcome depends on such variables as surprise, position, numbers, and altitude. These same concepts, true through the first four generations of jet fighters, explain how nations with vastly different resources often managed to produce highly competitive aircraft. The Meteor offset the Me 262; the Sabre matched the MiG-15; the Mystere compared with the North American F-100; the MiG-21 countered the McDonnell Douglas F-4; and the Rafale battles the Sukhoi Su-27.

The fifth generation of fighters, the Lockheed Martin F/A-22 and F-35, fundamentally changes the concept of operations for combat. A review of the first four generations of fighter aircraft around the world shows why.

The First Generation: Early Jets

The first generation of jets included experimental aircraft not intended for combat. Germany was the first country to enter the jet age with the first flight of the Heinkel He 178. Flown on 27 August 1939, the He 178 was powered by an engine developed by Dr. Hans von Ohain and built by a special department of the Heinkel aircraft company. Earlier in Great Britain, Frank Whittle had begun work on the jet engine but failed to receive sufficient government support to complete his design before the flight of the He 178. Once government support became available, Whittle’s engine powered the flight of the first Allied jet, the Gloster E. 28/39 on 15 May 1941.

While both early flights furthered jet aviation, the first flight of a third experimental aircraft received credit for being the first jet flight. This aircraft, Italy’s Caproni-Campini CC-2, was first flown on 27 August 1940. A hybrid, it used a 900 hp Isotta Fraschini L.121/R.C.40 internal combustion engine to drive a compressor with a primitive afterburner fitted aft of the compressor. The Caproni-Campini flight was recognized as the first jet to fly by the F