To Snatch a Sabre
Fifty years ago, North Korea's secret allies plotted to heist from the United States a North American F-86.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, July 2003
(Page 3 of 5)
According to Yakovlev’s Eugenji Adler, only one engineer dissented: V.V. Kondratyev, from the Central Aero-Hydrodynamics Institute. For his trouble, Kondratyev was tasked with the project of reverse-engineering the Sabre, but the design bureau that was to be created for the purpose never came to be, the effort lost among the many projects jockeying for attention and funding in the final years of Stalin’s regime. (Stalin died in 1953.)
Meanwhile, the Air Force Research Flight-Test Institute proceeded with its analysis of the F-86’s systems. A team of engineers removed each item and measured, photographed, and drew wiring and engineering diagrams of it. One of the systems that most interested the Russian engineers was the gunsight. Senior Lieutenant Vadim Matskevic, who worked in the air force engineering department, got the job of comparing the F-86 gunsight system with the one on the MiG-15.
The F-86 had a Sperry APG-30 radar gunsight, which was extremely accurate up to a range of about 3,000 feet and able to measure the range and compute the lead time required even while the target was maneuvering. The MiG-15, on the other hand, had a manual system that had been designed in 1939. In Korea, many Sabre pilots credited their gunsight with the advantage they had over MiGs. Matskevic said as much in his report, concluding that the F-86 sight was better than the Soviet design. But questioning a decision in Stalinist Russia—the decision, in this case, to field a fighter with an inferior system—was a dangerous business. Matskevic’s opinion earned him some 30 denunciations from other engineers.
Matskevic is still proud of the work that evolved from his report. Today a retired engineer with horn-rimmed glasses living on a pension in Moscow, he talks about the pressure he felt while he was at the institute. Believing he could be kicked out of the service, sent to Siberia, or worse, Matskevic says he worked feverishly to develop a counter to the F-86 gunsight. Matskevic is excitable, especially when describing his achievement; he puffs out his chest, his voice rises in triumph, and he perhaps overemphasizes his own importance. But he is one of the few from the era who was denounced and still saved his own neck, so his immodesty is understandable.
He designed a warning system that detected the signal from the Sabre’s gunsight and alerted the pilot that his aircraft was reflecting the signal back to a pursuer. Based on the same technology as today’s police-radar detectors, the system was a simple receiver, mounted on the tail.
Flight testing the device became the chore of Lieutenant Colonel Stepan Mikoyan, nephew of the renowned Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau chief, Artem I. Mikoyan. Mikoyan had fought in Moscow and Stalingrad during World War II. He then attended the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in Moscow, graduating with honors in 1951 to become a test pilot at the Research Flight-Test Institute.
Mikoyan, now 81, is an elegant, accomplished man with a full mane of silver hair and a mustache. He smiles often, his face showing the crow’s feet of a man who has spent many, many hours squinting into the sun from beneath a fighter canopy. Though retired with the rank of lieutenant general, he still goes to work at the institute every day.
One of Mikoyan’s responsibilities was testing Sabre systems and avionics. He recalled for me how he and test pilot Igor Sokolov tested Matskevic’s warning device. To prove his concept, Matskevic set up the radar emitter from the captured Sabre on the roof of one of the institute’s tall buildings and mounted his warning device on a MiG. Every time Mikoyan and Sokolov flew the MiG over the building, “we heard a low-pitched ‘howling’ in the earphones,” Mikoyan recalled. “As the distance from it grew, the noise became higher in pitch, but lower in volume. Even so, it remained perfectly distinct within seven or eight kilometers [four to five miles].”