Fighter Pilot. Over Korea and a Very Long Way from Home.
On this day in 1952, as a young fighter pilot, my dad was involved struck by ground fire while flying his Meteor fighter in Korea. Wounded and with his canopy shattered and his flying goggles buckled, he flew back to 77 Squadron’s base at Kimpo. It was an event that would ultimately see him decorated posthumously in 2018.
I thought I’d share the first chapter of his biography, “Without Precedent” here which recalls the event. (It is covered in more detail later in the book)
Rest In Peace, Dad.
A very long way from home.
Once referred to as the ‘land of the morning calm’, the modern Korean Peninsula exists on a knife’s edge. Extending south from a common border with Manchuria, it is a region divided politically, philosophically and physically. The nations of North and South Korea continuously stalk each other across the narrow ‘no man’s land’ and spar in an intricate dance of confrontations. It is an uneasy peace that exists only through ongoing diplomatic efforts interspersed with ever-sobering threats and exchanges of fire.
Yet as Phil Zupp looked down upon the Peninsula from his fighter jet sixty years ago, such political jousting was a world away. Korea was a country at war and his business was not diplomacy. He did not see the nation below him as politically divided; to him, it was a land of dramatic terrain. The towering snow-covered mountains and deep valleys were in equally steep contrast to the pastoral undulations of the Queensland Darling Downs where he had been raised. Yet here he sat, a quiet 26-year-old bloke from the Australian bush strapped into a Gloster Meteor fighter jet, low on fuel and armed to the teeth.
The cockpit of the Meteor was a nightmare by modern standards with dials, gauges and controls filling every spare inch and in no particular order. Ahead was a central control stick to steer the machine, with a throttle on the left-hand wall to push it over 400 knots or take it to more than 40,000 feet in the stratosphere. Above, the clear dome, or ‘bubble canopy’, allowed a panoramic view of the world outside as well as a vantage point for those hostile aircraft that may penetrate the serenity.
It was a cramped workspace for a fighter pilot, but that never bothered him. He was short, only five feet, five inches, and to him the lack of space made him feel more at one with the machine. In fact, he would pull his harnesses so tight that he was almost welded to the aeroplane. And so he sat there, with snow-covered mountains below on what was planned to be a very routine mission, a ‘CAP’ or ‘Combat Air Patrol’. It involved a pair of Meteors loitering at a safe altitude, as a deterrent to would-be attackers, while their squadron mates made the ground strikes below. The patrol was little more than a standby mission and, more than likely, they would loiter without incident before turning for home base, K14 Kimpo Airfield.
It was February 6th, 1952 and, as ‘Airborne Alert Three’, Sergeant Phillip Zupp had been assigned to fly alongside a fellow fighter pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ray Taylor, over Haeju, while the experienced ‘Butch’ Hannan led a ground attack thousands of feet below and some miles away near Sibyon-ni. As his fighter bounced lazily in loose battle formation, Phil looked across at Taylor’s aircraft and checked his positioning; close enough for cover, far enough for comfort. Against the backdrop of the clear upper atmosphere, Taylor’s silver jet shone and the insignia on its flank seemed to capture a brighter shade of red, white and blue. He could see his leader’s head beneath the Perspex canopy, forever pivoting and scanning the sky for any hidden threat. Today there was nothing, not even the friendly contrails of the American jets.
Below, through layers of broken cloud lay the frozen jagged ranges twisting to form a maze of ravines, their edges softened by the blanket of snow. He often thought that the war-ravaged country almost looked peaceful from altitude, enveloped in its pure white shroud, until a devastated village or column of smoke indicated to the contrary. However, he appreciated that ‘Butch’ and the boys would not be sharing his philosophical moment at an altitude of relative safety. For the moment, only the hum of the two engines faintly permeated the serenity, gently amplified by the rush of air over the canopy at 300 knots as the pair of fighters combed the sky.
Moments earlier, ‘Butch’ had firmly squeezed his trigger and rained destruction upon the .50 calibre gun pits that dared point in his direction. The sense of satisfaction had been shattered shortly thereafter by his leader’s call of “Ventral Tank!”. Chock full of fuel and prominent on the jet’s belly, the tank was vulnerable to the hail of gunfire from below. His Meteor shuddered violently and the small world of the cockpit became a kaleidoscope of blurred dials. The North Koreans had landed a knock-out punch. Streaming fuel and flame, the fighter pilot knew his aircraft was in its death throes as he turned south towards friendly territory.
It seemed far too low for the early model ejection seat, it was doubtful whether the ‘chute would have time to open, so Butch clawed for more altitude. He heard Wal Rivers tell him to eject, but there was no time to reply. He retracted the bulbous gunsight away from his face and rolled the aeroplane’s wings level. Straightening in his seat he reached above his head for the striped handle with both hands. Feet in the stirrups, chin on his chest, Hannan yanked down the ‘blind’ over his face and fired the seat. The world erupted beneath and his spine compressed under the force from below.
Blasted from the crippled aircraft, Hannan wasted no time in separating himself from the cumbersome ejection seat. As the parachute’s canopy filled, Butch made out the pillar of smoke that had previously been his Meteor A77-616. It was now little more than a black hole in the white Korean landscape. Below, his seat hurtled toward the snow under the ineffective brake of its drogue chute. Hannan’s fate promised to be only marginally better than the ejection seat’s at such a low altitude, hardly allowing time for the ‘chute to fill with the decelerating force of air. It was hard to ascertain his height against the featureless snow, but he knew it was coming up to meet him at a high rate of knots. There was little time to consider capture. There was little time to consider anything.
The radio broke the serenity in an instant as the call came from the controller, the ‘Dentist’, that Hannan was down. Zupp saw Taylor’s head pivot in his direction and the two pilot’s goggles locked on each other. There was no need for words between the two as Taylor rolled the Meteor over and pointed its nose earthwards.
Taylor acknowledged the radio call as the throttles were opened wide and the diving jets accelerated under the force of thrust and gravity. Zupp closed the gap and tucked in behind his leader’s wing as the speed roared through 400 knots and the Mach Meter flickered at 0.78; more than three-quarters the speed of sound. The serenity had been replaced by urgency and the rushing airflow by a roaring tide of air mass. It was one of their own and there was no time to waste.
Passing through a break in the cloud layer, the pair started raising their noses from the dive. Hannan’s location was only minutes away and Sibyon-ni was beginning to loom large in the gunsight. It was a hot spot heavily fortified with permanent anti-aircraft gun emplacements thick on the ground and the surrounding hillsides. The hail of enemy fire could strike from above and below.
As they roared toward the firestorm, Taylor warned his young wingman as the array of brightly coloured tracer bullets began to spit into the air, feeling for the newly-arrived Meteors. Their eyes were downcast, scanning for any sign of Hannan, amid the chaos. Nothing. Not even his aircraft.
The ‘Dentist’ steered the pair towards new co-ordinates for the search, unknowingly leading them towards more ground fire. The Meteors swept by, their cannon fire tearing a trench through the enemy gunners’ pits, sending dirt, snow and men into the air. But still, the search for Hannan was fruitless.
Taylor and Zupp then intercepted the remaining three Meteors of Hannan’s flight overhead where they had seen the aircraft, but not the pilot, hit the ground. Taylor began to orbit overhead as Zupp broke away in an attempt to meet and guide incoming aircraft under the callsign ‘Midas’. With 20mm flak bursts erupting in every direction, there was little chance of sighting the other searchers.
He turned back towards the crash site and raced his lone Meteor low along the road, past the ground fire for a second time. Where was Butch? Then, something. A fleeting glimpse of something red in his peripheral vision. Zupp strained against his shoulder harness, twisting his torso, to look back. Could it be a scarlet ‘marker scarf’ like the one wrapped around his own neck?
He wrenched the Meteor around, vapour streaming from its wingtips. Through his angular Mark V goggles, Zupp’s eyes struggled to recapture the red object by the roadside. His eyes darted from side to side as his Meteor whistled in at tree-top height. Nothing. Turning his head to enhance his field of view, he sensed movement ahead to his right. He unfroze his gyro and his trigger finger curled at the ready. No distress signal from Butch, but a barrel jutting up from the snow and it was pointing in his direction. Zupp’s brain sent the signal to co-ordinate his eyes, hands and feet in the direction of the target. That signal did not arrive in time.
“ROOAAR!!!” The sound of air blasting into his face overwhelmed the sound of the projectile hitting. Zupp’s world turned from controlled aggression to chaos in an instant. Below him the Meteor bucked and heaved, its wingtip almost ploughing a trench in the snow. One gloved hand tightened on the stick and hauled the column back into his guts while the other slammed the throttles forward to the limit of their travel. The disorientation was overwhelming as he aimed the jet away from the white ground toward the white sky, his vision misty as the buckled goggles sat twisted across his face and his oxygen mask now sat askew his mouth.
A whirlwind seemed to be enveloping his cockpit. Heaving in lungfuls of frigid air, the taste of blood filled his mouth. The G-forces of the pull up were kicking in and he tensed his stomach muscles to keep the blood from rushing to his feet. Even so, his world began to turn grey, slipping away as he was on the verge of losing consciousness….
He was a very long way from home.