The Comet Affair
Why the cold war forced the British government to choose between keeping a friend and arming an enemy.
- By Jeffrey A. Engel
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
Rolls Royce (SI Neg. #90-9560)
(Page 3 of 6)
Attlee’s decision soon had deadly consequences. Just 18 months after receiving their first shipment of Nene engines, Soviet technicians had produced and installed exact copies into the first MiG-15s, thus producing the Soviets’ first world-class jet fighter. Six months later, the Soviets were producing whole squadrons of MiG-15s, powered by Soviet copies of the Nene. By 1950, the year the Korean War began, the MiG-15 fleet numbered in the hundreds, and Soviet factories produced over 200 more each month.
The MiGs soon came to dominate Korean skies. “When MiGs break through our fighter screen,” the New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin told readers, “a B-29 [is] shot down or damaged nearly every time.” In the official Air Force history The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, author Robert Futrell dourly concluded, “the Soviet fighter’s performance rendered obsolete every U.S. plane in the Far East. The Russian fighter outclassed the [U.S. Air Force’s piston-driven] Mustang, whose pilots had no hope for survival when attacked by a MiG except to keep turning inside, to hit the deck, and to head for home as fast as possible.” The MiG bested every other propeller-driven U.S. fighter brought to battle in the war’s first months, and it went on to outpace America’s first-generation jets, the F-80 and F-84, as well. In level flight the MiG was fully 100 mph faster than the F-80C; recalls Futrell: “It could climb away from the old Shooting Star as if it were anchored in the sky.”
Part of the success was due to Soviet talent: The engine copies the Soviets had made were “a very marked improvement of the [Nene] jet engine that was sold to the Russians several years ago,” U.S. Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg admitted to a secret Senate hearing in 1951, adding that they were “superior to any jet engine we have today.” Only the U.S. F-86 had any chance of matching the MiG in speed and maneuverability. Today, aviation historians continue to argue over which was better: the F-86 or the MiG-15. The former was faster in level flight, the latter better at high altitudes. The Soviet airplane employed a powerful cannon; the U.S. craft, six rapid-fire machine guns. Most historians agree that the MiG lacked an adequate gunsight.
Even so, Sabre pilots were almost invariably outnumbered. “I personally counted more than 120 MiGs high above me on one flight,” recalls Robinson Risner, who bagged eight MiGs during his combat tour. “This was while we had no more than 75 F-86s for the whole of Korea.”
Not only were U.S. fliers outnumbered by MiGs, they were frequently outmatched as well, especially at high altitudes (see “To Snatch a Sabre,” June/July 2003). The Soviet airplanes were designed for speed and for swooping down on enemy bomber formations from well above 40,000 feet. “We couldn’t touch you if you wanted to get high enough, and you could outrun us,” Risner told a Soviet ace nearly 30 years after the war. “But if we got you below 20,000 feet, we’d eat your lunch.”
Comparisons are difficult to come to a conclusion about, as the two aircraft were designed for distinctly different purposes: the Soviet as a bomber-interceptor, the American as a dogfighter. “I could make ace in a day flying a MiG just by picking off stragglers trying to come and get me” at 50,000 feet, claims Colonel Stephen Bettinger, a Sabre pilot who did make ace during the war.
In the end, it may well have been better training and a stronger command that helped the U.S. pilots achieve a higher kill ratio.
One thing remains certain: The Soviet fighter would never have had a realistic chance of gaining air superiority over Korea had it not first gotten a British-built engine.