James Robinson “Robbie” Risner was born in 1925 in Arkansas, to a sharecropping family struggling to make ends meet. He worked a series of jobs during his school years, contributing his earnings to the family funds. As soon as he was eligible, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, having been accepted as an aviation cadet. In May of 1944, Risner was commissioned as a second lieutenant, given his pilot’s wings, and assigned to the 30th Fighter Squadron, based in Panama. By the end of World War II, he was a capable flyer in the P-38 Lightning, P-39 Airacobra, and P-40 Warhawk. When the war ended, he was released from service, although he soon joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard as a means to continue flying, and became an expert in the P-51 Mustang.
In early 1951, Risner was recalled to active duty as part of a massive expansion of the air war in Korea. He was quickly trained in the newest jet airplane in the U.S. Air Force, the F-80 Shooting Star. He lobbied for assignment to a combat unit, but a horse-riding accident nearly derailed his plans. He had to conceal the fact that he had broken his hand and wrist so that he would not be discharged from service, and maneuvered his way into a combat role. Although his first assignment in Korea was as a reconnaissance pilot, within a month he arranged a transfer to the 4th Fighter Wing, flying an F-86 Sabre. On August 5, 1952, he and three other members of his squadron encountered 14 enemy MiG-15 fighters. Despite the numerical odds, Risner managed to shoot down one of the enemy jets in a dogfight.
The following month, Risner was on escort duty for a bombing mission, when Chinese MiGs intercepted the flight. Risner engaged in a dogfight at nearly the speed of sound, conducted only a few feet above the ground. When the MiG pilot realized he was outclassed and attempted to escape, Risner pursued him across the international border to Antung Airfield, where he managed to not only shoot down the enemy, but destroy nearly a dozen more Chinese aircraft parked at the airfield.
As Risner and his wingman, Lieutenant Joseph Logan, turned back toward their base, Logan’s aircraft came under artillery fire, puncturing his aircraft’s fuel tanks and rendering it impossible to fly. It seemed that Logan would have to eject over North Korea, a decision that many equated with a death sentence. But, Risner ordered Logan to shut down his engine and concentrate on maintaining level flight, while he maneuvered into position to attempt an incredibly daring rescue. While Logan struggled to maintain control of his aircraft, Risner flew directly behind his wingman, and inserted the nose of his aircraft into the tailpipe of Logan’s F-86. His plan was to essentially push Logan’s aircraft out to sea, where he might be able to eject and be rescued by a combat search-and-rescue unit.
Risner’s maneuver was extremely dangerous—Logan’s aircraft was leaking jet fuel and hydraulic fluid, directly onto Risner’s canopy. Not only did it make it extremely difficult to see where he was flying, there was the real possibility of the fluids igniting and destroying both aircraft. Such a push configuration had never been attempted with jet aircraft—but Risner’s gut instinct to save his wingman proved sound. He managed to push Logan’s aircraft over the coastline and close to the island of Cho Do, where the Air Force maintained a helicopter rescue unit. Logan bailed out of his aircraft, telling Risner “I’ll see you at the base tonight.” Risner continued on alone, until his jet ran out of fuel just short of his airbase at Kimpo. Rather that ditching his airplane and ejecting, Risner managed to glide his aircraft into a deadstick landing at Kimpo, where he awaited the return of his wingman. Unfortunately, despite his heroic efforts, Logan became tangled in his parachute cords, and drowned before he could be reached by the rescue aircraft. Risner’s war continued—on September 21, he shot down his fifth enemy aircraft, earning the designation of an “ace,” only the twentieth pilot to do so in a jet aircraft.
After the Korean Armistice, Risner remained on active duty, and in 1964, he assumed command of a fighter squadron of F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers at Kadena Airbase in Okinawa. By early 1965, he was flying combat missions in Vietnam, including the first Rolling Thunder strike of the war. On April 23, 1965, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine after being awarded the Air Force Cross. On September 16, 1965, Risner was leading a team of F-105s in a strike against North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles when his aircraft came under heavy fire. He was unable to fly the crippled aircraft out to sea, and had to eject over North Vietnam. Before he had even released his parachute, Risner was captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the Hoa Lo Prison (called the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs held there.) Soon, he was transferred to Cu Loc (which Americans called the Zoo), and assumed command of the POWs as the highest-ranking officer.
His coordination of resistance to the enemy triggered a period of five weeks of torture, followed by three years in solitary confinement. Yet, Risner remained a source of optimism and support for the other prisoners, many of whom credited his leadership for their survival of captivity. Risner was held by North Vietnam for more than seven years before finally being released in early 1973 as part of the armistice negotiations. While his story is not familiar to most Americans outside of the military, within the Air Force, he is revered as one of the greatest airmen in the history of the service, one of only four members who have won the Air Force Cross twice. Visitors to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs can view a nine-foot bronze statue of Risner, where it stands as an example for Air Force cadets to emulate in their careers.