Brig. Gen. James R. Risner was the kind of pilot every fighter pilot wanted to be. He became a fighter ace in the skies during two wars, served in three wars, became one of only four airmen to receive more than one Air Force Cross and was the first airman to receive the award while alive.
Risner also led a squadron of F-105 Thunderchiefs in Vietnam, leading his men in 55 air combat missions. On his 55th, he was shot down over North Vietnam and was captured. He spent the rest of the Vietnam War, from 1965 to 1973, as a prisoner of war.
Although his exploits in Vietnam gave him national attention, what he did in the Korean War was so spectacular that it will live forever in aviation history. He had first joined the Army Air Forces in 1944 as an aviation cadet, but he never saw combat during World War II. After spending some time as a civilian, he joined the Oklahoma National Guard, where he took to the skies once more.
After the Korean War broke out, Risner was called up to active duty in the newest branch of the armed forces, the U.S. Air Force. This time, he was dead-set on seeing some action. Risner arrived in Korea in May 1952, flying the F-86 Sabre out of Kimpo. His first few months of duty in Korea were light on combat, but things soon picked up. There’s a reason they called the area “MiG Alley.”
Risner shot down his first enemy MiG in August 1952, and the tempo of intercepting communist aircraft began to rise steadily. On the night of Sept. 15, 1952, Risner’s squadron was escorting a bombing run near the North Korean border with China when he engaged in a low-altitude, supersonic dogfight with an enemy as it tried to flee to its airbase inside China. Risner followed the MiG home.
As the aircraft began to head for the base, Risner’s Sabre tore it to pieces and the aircraft went down, through a hanger full of parked airplanes. After scoring the kill and setting the hangar on fire, Risner turned to head home with his wingman, Lt. Joseph Logan. As they flew over Antung, a Chinese city on the banks of the Yalu River, Logan’s Sabre took heavy anti-aircraft fire and began to dump fuel.
It was clear that Logan would not make it back to their home base at Kimpo, more than 100 miles away. To help his wingman, Risner attempted a maneuver that never had been attempted before in aviation. He told Logan to cut his engine, then positioned the nose of his plane into his wingman’s tailpipe.
Risner was trying to give Logan’s Sabre enough lift to make it close to Cho-do Island in the Yellow Sea. Technically, the island belonged to North Korea, but the Air Force maintained an air rescue unit on the island. If he could get Logan close enough to the island to either bail out in the Yellow Sea or on the island itself, it could keep him from being captured by the Communists.
Engine fluids poured over Risner's canopy as the planes flew in tandem. They flew like this until the gasoline and other engine liquids began to threaten the safety of Risner’s own plane. Still, they made it close enough to Cho-do that Logan could bail out and Risner could head home.
He almost didn’t. As he approached the air base at Kimpo, his engine flamed out, and unable to restart it, he was forced to perform a deadstick landing, gliding it down safely onto the runway. Logan had come down close to the shoreline at Cho-do, but he became tangled in his own parachute and drowned before he could be rescued.
Risner’s last words to his wingman as he bailed were, "I'll see you at the base tonight." He would go on to shoot down eight enemy fighters in the Korean War.
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