On the morning of 15 September 1952, Captain James Robinson Risner sat in the cockpit of an F-86A Sabre and scrutinized the clear azure skies. He was leader of a flight of four Sabres tasked to escort F-84 Thunderjets to bomb the kimchi out of a North Korean chemical factory on the Yuan River. His squinty perseverance paid off when he spotted a flight of enemy jet fighters⁠— MiG-15s⁠—making a run for his Thunderjets. CPTN Risner’s opening salvo hit one MiG so hard it took the canopy off and sent the other 3 MiGs running, but Risner didn’t let it end there. The injured enemy took it low, flying hard and dirty along a dry riverbed to escape. Risner and his wingman gave chase, eating the dust and rocks kicked up by the MiG’s wash. Risner told “Aces in Combat”:

“He was not in very good shape, but he was a great pilot – and he was fighting like a cornered rat!

He chopped the throttle and threw his speed brakes out. I coasted up, afraid that I’d overshoot him. I did a roll over the top of him, and when I came down on the other side, I was right on his wing tip. We were both at Idle with our speed brakes out, just coasting.

He looked over at me, raised his hand, and shook his fist. I thought ‘This is like a movie. This can’t be happening!’ He had on a leather helmet and I could see the stitching in it.”

The wily chase took the trio into Chinese airspace. Low altitude and high speed conspired to keep the US pilots from seeing an airfield until they were right on top of it. The MiG pilot must have radioed ahead, however, because the field’s anti-aircraft guns were manned and firing.

The MiG darted, desperate to make a landing. Risner waited for his moment and hammered him with the last of his 50 CAL rounds. The MiG slammed into the tarmac and burst into flame. As they turned to hurry out of China and back into compliance with official US policy, the wingman, 1st Lieutenant Joe Logan, took a flak shell to the underside of his plane. The Sabre held together and stayed airborne, but her fuel tank was gutted, and her hydraulic fluid was bleeding out.

Bailing the crippled craft guaranteed Logan’s capture, but there was no hope of making it 60 miles over anti-aircraft gun infested territory to the nearest rescue detachment. Risner couldn’t desert his friend, so instead he did the only possible thing: he attempted the craziest and most daring rescue maneuver in aviation history.

A MiG-15 and F-86, respectively.
A MiG-15 and F-86, respectively.

James Robinson Risner earned his wings in 1944, and served with the Air Force in Panama. The air base suffered a lack of discipline due to the low threat of attack. The lax oversight, however, allowed Risner to hop into a plane most anytime and rack up extraneous flying time, and to hone his skill through the end of World War II. After war’s end, Risner went into the Oklahoma Air Guard until the Air Force unreserved him to join the Korean Conflict. Originally assigned to a tactical wing, Risner applied excessive charm and charisma to wrangle an assignment with the 4th Fighter Wing. Shortly before he shipped out in May 1952, he made the classic rookie blunder of horseback riding, and ended up breaking his wrist and hand. Fearing that the impairment would jeopardize his flight status, Risner concealed his injury in transit, had the cast cut off early, and convinced a flight surgeon that it was “fine”. Indeed, in his first few months in Korea, Risner saw little contact with MiGs, but by September, Risner became the 20th US jet ace.

With jet acedom and hours of practice time fueling his Fighter Pilot Ego, Risner vowed not to let Logan go down. Risner radioed instructions to his wingman: shut down the engine, and jetman jargon for “hang on to your butt”. Risner carefully positioned himself behind Logan, and gave the throttle a gentle nudge. He closed in on the damaged Sabre. The injured plane leaked fuel and hydraulic fluid into Risner’s engine, and smeared his canopy with a gooey patina. He kept on until the nose of his aircraft collided with Logan’s tail. The planes bucked unsteadily. “[the plane] stayed sort of locked there as long as we both maintained stable flight,” Risner explained, “but the turbulence created by Joe’s aircraft made stable flight for me very difficult. There was a point at which I was between the updraft and the downdraft. A change of a few inches ejected me either up or down.”

The unorthodox maneuver kept Logan at 190 knots, and imparted sufficient force to stay beyond the reach of AA guns below. Risner broke off after a few minutes when his own plane threatened to choke on the unwelcome juices in its intake. They glided for a time, but Risner had to push him again to get him out over the sea.

Sixty miles later, the pair arrived at the ocean near Cho Do. Two rescue helicopters were on the way. After a high-speed chase into China, and pushing another plane while sucking slurry through the engine, Risner was dangerously low on fuel. Logan radioed “I’ll see you at base tonight” and ejected. Risner turned toward an airbase at Kimpo. En route he shut his own engine down and glided for a time to save fuel, but it wasn’t enough. As he approached the runway, fuel ran out. Risner had to land deadstick⁠—meaning without thrust or maneuvering power and pretty much at the whim of Newtonian physics. Sir Isaac was in a good mood that day, and Risner walked away from a totaled aircraft.

Bronze statue of Risner at the US Air Force Academy
Bronze statue of Risner at the US Air Force Academy

Logan, on the other hand, pulled the ejection handle and punched out of his crippled aircraft before it careened into the sea. One of the nearby rescue helicopters attempted to use their propeller wash to urge the descending parachute farther out to sea. The ejection seat hit the water, and the two rescue crews waited for him to bob up so they could snag him. And they waited. Upon deciding that it had been too long, a team of rescuers were lowered into the water. They found that despite Captain Risner’s extraordinary effort, two trained rescue teams near at hand, and Logan’s own reputation as a skilled swimmer, he’d somehow became entangled in his parachute’s cables, and couldn’t reach the surface in time.

In October, Risner was promoted to Major and served through the end of that war. He was awarded the US Air Force Cross, and was on the cover of the April 1965 Time Magazine for, presumably, the Brass Balls of the Year issue. His notoriety came back to haunt him in another South Asian conflict during September 1965. Lt Col Risner was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. After a couple of weeks at the Vietnamese prison affectionately nicknamed “The Hanoi Hilton” he was moved to Cu Loc Prison, where his captors confronted him with his own magazine cover. Risner was tortured for over a month, and coerced into signing an apologetic confession for war crimes. He remained a prisoner of war for seven years and sometimes spent months at a time in solitary confinement. As one of the highest ranking officers in Hoa Lo Prison, Risner coordinated his fellow guests via elaborate codes to maximum resistance. Risner was freed with Operation Homecoming in 1973, and went back to work with the Air Force until he retired in 1976. Risner details his POW experience in his autobiography The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese.

Time Magazine does not publish a Brass Balls of the Year issue, since the 9 foot tall, bronze statue of Risner erected at the Air Force Academy in 2001 renders further entries into that category moot.