America's First Jet Ace Displayed His Flying Skills in Three Wars

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James Jabara stands on a F-86 Sabre in an Air Force photo from April 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)
James Jabara stands on a F-86 Sabre in an Air Force photo from April 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As a high school student, James Jabara's eyesight was so weak that he had to wear glasses. For most students, this might not rankle beyond the occasional taunt of "four eyes," but young Jabara wanted more than anything to be a pilot. To improve his eyes, he ate 20 carrots a day for "a considerable time," according to Prof. Craig Miner of Wichita State University. This literally homegrown remedy must have succeeded, because today we remember Col. James Jabara as the world's first jet-vs.-jet ace.

Jabara flew more than 100 European missions during World War II, all before he was 20. His courage was legendary, even then. Miner recounts the day when Jabara attacked a German plane, and the two craft collided in the air. The pilots floated to the ground and shook hands in recognition of each other's bravery.

A veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Jabara attributed his heroism to early discipline learned in his Lebanese grocer father's store and through the Boy Scouts of America. He was not, he once told Parade magazine, a "killer by instinct." He believed that air combat was a business that he was trained for, and he used his three "As" of aerial discipline -- air discipline, aggressiveness and aerial gunnery -- with both his students and himself.

Jabara also said that the best pilots in Korea tended to be older men who combined discipline and savvy with energy and enthusiasm. Famous for his modesty, he might have been describing himself.

On April 3, 1951, he scored his first victory and was singled out to become a jet ace by his superiors, making his fifth and sixth kills on May 20. That day, two flights of Sabre jets -- 28 planes -- engaged 50 MiGs near Sinuiju in northwest Korea. One of Jabara's wing fuel tanks failed to release, and he had to fly with both hands on the stick. Rather than disengaging and returning to base, Jabara attacked a group of MiGs and took one of them out.

Separated from his wingman, Jabara again should have disengaged and returned to base, but again attacked a group of MiGs. They were shooting at him with a "noise that sounded like a popcorn machine right in my cockpit" when Jabara heard two colleagues and was able to identify himself and allow that he could use some help. Approaching Sabres drove off the MiGs.

Jabara was hailed as America's first jet ace, and by some as the world's first. Many sources remind us that there were many German aces during World War II, but the Messerschmitts they piloted were not jets. Miner points out that, no matter how you look at Jabara's honorary title, for the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking ace, it was just business as usual. Jabara downed two planes in a day on at least two other occasions during his 163 missions in Korea.

In 1966, Jabara, then the youngest colonel in the Air Force at 42, was preparing to leave for a combat tour in Vietnam when he was killed in an automobile accident in Florida.

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