In an attempt to provide a better transition for propeller-trained pilots, the Navy eventually offered more training for its prospective jet pilots and bought Lockheed F-80s from the Air Force. “Before I flew the Panther, they sent me down to Pensacola to fly the F-80,” says Neale Smith, who found his way into Navy fighter squadron VF-22, which had the F9F. “It was very exciting. I flew the first Panther, which had 5,000 pounds of thrust and the [license-built] British Nene engine, and then we got a new version that had about 300 more pounds of thrust.”
After flying Vought Corsairs, Smith, who would go on to log time at United Airlines flying everything from the DC-3 to the Boeing 727, was unwillingly assigned to a squadron that flew TBMs, hulking World War II torpedo bombers modified for electronic countermeasures missions. “My buddy and I went to the assignments officer at Norfolk and said ‘We’re fighter pilots and we don’t fly these things,’ ” he says. Smith’s frequent, and annoying, visits finally paid off. “Two pilots had just been killed in VF-22, and that’s how we got into VF-22,” he says. “I loved the speed and the ‘flat hatting’ [high-speed passes at low altitude]. What else was a 22-year-old supposed to do?”
The Korean War began in June 1950, and almost immediately the Panther was in combat. On July 3, a VF-51 Panther stationed aboard the USS Valley Forge shot down a North Korean piston-engine Yak-9, the first air-to-air kill by a Navy jet.
On November 18, 1952, the Panther had its greatest moment of glory. Under cold, overcast skies, a flight of four F9F-5s launched from the USS Oriskany on a combat air patrol near Chongjin, which was sufficiently close to the Soviet Union that the Panthers were needed to protect Task Force 77, which consisted of 25 ships, including three carriers and the famed battleship USS Missouri. At about the time the ship’s air controllers reported unidentified aircraft inbound from the north at 55,000 feet, a fuel pump warning light in the flight leader’s aircraft blinked on. As the flight leader and his wingman returned to the ship, circling until they could enter the next landing cycle, the other two Panthers, flown by Royce Williams and his wingman, David Rowlands, climbed in pursuit of the bogies. Breaking out of the overcast at 15,000 feet, Williams spotted seven MiG-15s, abreast, streaming contrails far above.
As the Panthers were climbing through 26,000 feet, the MiGs split into two groups—four in one, three in the other—and dove on them. In the ensuing melee, Williams would be credited with four kills, and after the shootdowns would bring his Panther back to the Oriskany stitched with holes from MiG cannon fire. Rowlands, whose guns were jammed, tried to harass the MiGs, and get good gun-camera film. “He got in behind the MiG that got me,” says Williams. “He explained he wanted to show my wife what happened.”
The MiGs were flown by Soviet pilots, and Williams was quickly sworn to secrecy about the pilots’ nationality. “A [National Security Agency] group was aboard a cruiser off the coast of Vladivostok listening and watching,” says Williams. “They didn’t want to reveal the NSA group, because this was their first operation.”
How did the Panther manage to outfight the faster, higher-flying MiG? Undoubtedly, some of the credit goes to the better-trained U.S. pilots. But the Panther was a deceptively capable dogfighter. “The F9F was clearly designed as a pilot’s airplane,” says former U.S. Air Force historian Richard Hallion. “With its straight wing, it could easily turn inside the MiG-15. The pilot was superbly positioned, with great visibility. And the Panther had better guns. If he wasn’t careful, a MiG pilot in a dogfight with a Panther could be in a world of hurt.”
Williams, the Navy’s top MiG killer, wasn’t the only Williams to make it home in a badly damaged F9F. Baseball icon Ted Williams, a Marine reservist called to duty from the Red Sox in 1952, had a very close call in Korea. “I always marveled at how good a plane it was,” Williams wrote in his autobiography, My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life. A combat rookie, he once got too low on a ground-attack mission and was hit by small arms fire. “All the red lights came on and the damn thing started to shake,” he wrote. Worried that an ejection would injure his kneecaps, Williams nursed the burning airplane 15 minutes back to a Marine base, where, trailing a 30-foot plume of fire, he bellied the aircraft onto the runway at 225 mph and slid 2,000 feet before stopping, engulfed in flames. Williams leapt from the cockpit and sprinted away unharmed. He went on to play seven more seasons with the Red Sox.
Ted Williams often flew as wingman for his squadron operations officer, a clean-cut young fellow named John Glenn. “I wouldn’t be here today if the Panther weren’t such a rugged, rugged plane,” recalls Glenn from his Columbus, Ohio office. (Now 91, the first American in orbit still regularly flies his twin-engine Beech Baron.) After one ground-attack mission, during which Glenn’s damaged Panther missed hitting a rice paddy embankment “by what seemed like inches,” Glenn flew the airplane home with a hole in the vertical tail “big enough to put my head and shoulders through.” A week later, Glenn came back with a two-foot hole in the wing.
Fellow astronaut-to-be Neil Armstrong, who died last year, also benefitted from the sturdiness of the F9F. During a bombing run launched from the USS Essex, Armstrong’s Panther struck a steel cable that had been strung across a valley to snag attacking aircraft. The 350-mph impact sheared off six feet of the right wing, but Armstrong was able to maintain control long enough to reach friendly territory, where he ejected and was rescued.
“I was fortunate in many respects [in my career]—not through any talent on my part—but I got to go all the way through training with Neil Armstrong, and then through an 11-month cruise in Korea with VF-51 with him,” said Bob Kaps, who spoke to Air & Space shortly before he died last December. “If you met him, he was just like the guy next door. After the decommissioning of VF-51 in 1995, we began having a reunion every two years. I ended up staying in the next room with him at the hotel. He had a rental car, and he chauffeured me around for two days. I’ll always cherish that memory, because I told his widow that he was one of the very few people I’ve known in my life who had no downside. All the famous men and kings throughout history had a dark side. Neil Armstrong was everyone’s friend.”
After Kaps and Armstrong returned from their missions aboard the Essex, they found Saturday Evening Post correspondent James Michener, notebook in hand, in the wardroom. Michener later based his novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which would be made into a movie in 1954, on his time spent aboard both the Essex and the USS Valley Forge. “In particular after important missions, we’d have a post-flight interview with him,” said Kaps. “I flew on a lot of the unique missions simply because I was the squadron commander’s wingman.”