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An F-84E attacks a ground target with rockets. In Korea, the F-84 was outclassed by the MiG-15 in dogfights, but was prized for bombing rail lines, troops, and vehicles. (National Museum of the USAF)

Thunderjet

It had the body of a fighter and a bomber’s soul.

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“Republic made a hell of an airplane. They knew what to do for the people who flew them and the people who worked on them, and with what tools,” says Douglas Danforth, who was an F-84 crew chief with the 27th Fighter-Escort Wing during the Korean War. “You could change an engine on an F-84 in under a half-hour and have the aircraft ready to fly.” Danforth also worked on the F-86 Sabre and found that legendary fighter much more difficult to maintain. “Republic had it all over the F-86 as far as maintainability. The F-86 was a royal pain in the ass.” A well-thought-out system of engine mounts, quick-disconnect couplings, and rolling stands made the F-84 a mechanic’s friend.

Guy Razzeto flew with the 27th. He found the F-84 lived up to its Republic reputation for survivability. “It was very effective,” he says. “We dropped napalm and did air-to-ground with eight .50-caliber guns. A lot of guys got hit and it pretty much flew on. I saw a guy get hit in the wing with a good-size [round]—I guess it was a 37-millimeter—and a booster pump in one of the fuel cells was hanging out by three wires. You could stand up in the hole.”

“For its time, it was a capable jet aircraft,” says Salvatore Stassi, also with the 27th Squadron, who had previously worked on the F-82 Twin Mustang. “It was built like a tank. The pilots liked it. It did go into air-to-air combat with MiGs...and the airplanes I crewed always came back. In those days we had no hangars [at Taegu], so we were out in the elements. And working on the F-84 was definitely different compared to a prop engine. The maintenance was less with an F-84 than an F-82—the F-82 had a lot of hydraulic problems.”

But for some, the inevitable comparison to the ruggedness of the P-47 Thunderbolt somewhat overstated the F-84’s status. Jacob Kratt, a 27th Squadron pilot whose career extended from propeller-driven fighters to the McDonnell F-4 Phantom and Convair F-106, found the F-84 to be dependable and capable, but somewhat unremarkable. “I didn’t think it was all that superior to the F-80 or the jets the Navy flew,” he says. “I flew the P-47 and the F-84, and the P-47 was a lot more rugged than the F-84,” he says. “But it held its own with any other jets that were flown in Korea. But when the jets came along, I preferred the jets—a lot more speed, altitude, climb rates...it was a much more powerful machine.”

Razzeto, who flew the F-84E, knew his upgraded jet came at the expense of hard lessons. “The first F-84s used the same main wing spar [design] as the P-47. Some of the early F-84s—like the D model—would fail if you pulled too many Gs,” he says. “But the E model -84 had a beefed-up main [wing] spar, so it was really rugged.”

The G model, the first production fighter that could be refueled in flight, participated in every major air operation in the final two years of the Korean War, says Stoff, including the 1952 dam raids that cut all electrical power to North Korea.

With a cease-fire on the Korean peninsula in 1953, F-84 production turned exclusively to the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak, the only Air Force fighter to trade straight wings for swept ones. (The Navy followed the same path with the Grumman F9F Panther, which, by sweeping its wings, Grumman turned into the F9F Cougar.) The F-84F was essentially a new design, but Congressional funding restrictions argued for retaining the -84 designation to avoid the appearance that the Air Force was buying a completely new jet. The F-84F led to the RF-84F Thunderflash, a high-speed reconnaissance jet that flew missions in Vietnam.

“The F-84F was kind of a different airplane,” Kratt says. “It was faster, and it had no limitations. You could take it up to 40,000 or 44,000 feet, point the nose down, and go supersonic. You couldn’t do that in a straight-wing [F-84]—the E or G [models] would come apart.”

But for supporting ground forces—in what was becoming a Republic hallmark—newer wasn’t necessarily going to be better. “As a gun platform, the E and G were much more stable than the F,” says Kratt. “The F was more susceptible to yawing—it wasn’t rock-stable like the straight-wing was. You’d shoot good scores, but not as good as a straight-wing.” Kratt likened the earlier Thunderjets to his first experience with a Republic aircraft. “I was in Europe when I got into the P-47, and after the war we had [gunnery] ranges so we could shoot air-to-ground,” he says. “They were very similar—both were very stable airplanes.”

After Korea, the F-84G took a turn in 1953 as the first aircraft of the 3600th Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Thunderbirds. The team switched to F-84Fs in 1955.

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