Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland recently became the Air Force’s newest fighter ace. But it took a long time—55 years—and tremendous effort for Cleveland to receive credit for his fifth kill, joining the ranks of the world's greatest combat pilots.
As a young fighter pilot in Korea, Cleveland quickly proved his mettle. Flying F-85 Sabres from Kimpo Airbase near Seoul, then-Lieutenant Cleveland shot down four Russian-built MiG-15s in his first eight weeks of combat.
"Each of those dogfights is burned in my brain," he told Staff Sergeant Matthew Bates of the Air Force News Agency. "I can remember every minute of those battles like it happened yesterday."
Equally vivid is another encounter with enemy MiGs, on September 21, 1952. Cleveland and the rest of his flight found themselves in a swirling dogfight against a similar number of MiG-15s. Cleveland positioned his F-86 behind the North Korean jet and opened fire with the Sabre’s 50-caliber machineguns. Some of the rounds clearly struck the MiG-15, which began trailing smoke and descended rapidly.
Unfortunately, Cleveland couldn’t confirm the crash of the enemy fighter. To receive credit for a confirmed kill, U.S. flyers had to see “a fire that wouldn’t go out, watch the enemy plane crash, or observe the enemy pilot eject.” As the MiG-15 began its descent, Cleveland’s wingman called a break, to avoid being targeted by other enemy jets.
Cleveland lost sight of the damaged MiG and claimed a “probable kill” during his debrief. He finished his Korea tour with four confirmed kills, two probables and four damaged—“a record any pilot would be proud of,” the general observed.
The subject of the “missing MiG” surfaced again years later, when General Cleveland attended a gathering of the American Fighter Aces Association. At the meeting, he ran into a fellow West Point graduate, Dolph Overton, who also served as an F-86 pilot during the Korean War. Overton owns the distinction of becoming an ace in near-record time, shooting down five North Korean aircraft in only four days—during his second combat tour of the war.
After hearing Cleveland’s story about the unconfirmed kill, Overton took it upon himself to verify the claim. The Air Force Board for Military Corrections initially rejected Overton’s appeal, claiming that personal accounts from General Cleveland, his wingman and the unit’s operations officer (legendary fighter ace Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse) were not sufficient to change existing records.
Then, Overton made a crucial discovery. While it was no secret that many North Korean MiGs were flown by Russian pilots, records of their missions were unavailable for many years. But in 2003, Overton learned that thousands of pages of Russian flight records from the war had been released, and copies were available in the National Archives. Researching the new information, Overton found an account of a downed MiG that seemed to match that of General Cleveland.
With the new information, Overton, General Blesse and General Cleveland appeared again before the corrections board last year. In January, Cleveland received a call at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, informing him that the board had changed its mind. Almost 56 years after that dogfight over Korea, Charles Cleveland finally got his fifth kill, and officially became an ace.
And, there’s an outside chance that General Cleveland will enter the history books as our last fighter ace. The days of titanic dogfights are largely past; the Vietnam War produced only five aces (three Air Force, two Navy). In recent years, only a handful of pilots have earned multiple kills, with most adversaries electing not to challenge our control of the skies. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Cesar Rodriguez, an F-15 pilot, shot down two Iraqi jets during Operation Desert Storm, and Serbian MiG during the allied air campaign against Serbia in 1999.
An F-16 pilot, Captain Robert Wright matched Rodriguez’s total in a single day (28 February 1994), shooting down three Serb attack jets as they bombed a Muslim facility in Bosnia. There’s some belief that Wright might have downed all six aircraft in the Serb flight, had AWACS been quicker in authorizing him to fire, and if the F-16 pilot had not been required to read a warning to the enemy pilots before launching his missiles.
As air combat victories become increasingly rare—and pilots from World War II and Korea pass on—the number of living aces continues to decline. With confirmation of his fifth kill, General Cleveland becomes a belated member of a very elite--but dwindling--fraternity.