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 4 of 5)
In May 1952, Matskevic took 10 sets of his new invention to Korea and began installing them in MiG-15s. It took about three hours to complete each installation.
Because it occasionally gave false warnings, pilots initially distrusted the device. Many just turned it off, Matskevic said. But he was soon vindicated: A regimental commander flying over the Yalu heard the device give off a faint tone. He checked his six o’clock position and saw nothing. The tone grew louder, so the pilot craned his neck around to look again. Still nothing. He decided the system was acting up, so he shut it off. A minute later, feeling uneasy, he turned it back on. Now the tone was howling. He looked back in time to see two F-86s closing to gun range. As the Sabres opened fire, the MiG pilot banked sharply and escaped with only minor wing damage. From that point on, the word spread. “We saved a lot of pilots,” Matskevic said. The system also saved Matskevic’s career. He received the Soviet Red Banner, awarded for meritorious service, and a tribute from North Korea. His warning device and its derivatives became a standard equipment on all Soviet fighters.
As more components from the captured F-86 were removed and cataloged, they were installed on test bed aircraft at the Soviet test institute. As a result of the evaluations, several conducted by Mikoyan, the Soviets modified their existing fighters and incorporated some features into future models. The MiG-15bis, for example, already in production, was given a larger speed brake and new hydraulic systems to operate the elevator and ailerons. The larger brake and aileron boost system were also incorporated into the MiG-17. The small F-86 accelerometer, for measuring G forces, was adopted and installed on the MiG-19 and follow-ons.
While work on the F-86A continued in Moscow, an F-86E, serial number 51-2789, flown by World War II ace Walker H. Mahurin, was downed in Korea by flak in July 1952. Mahurin, then a wing commander, crash-landed. He sustained a broken wrist and was captured and remained a prisoner until just after the armistice in 1953.
His aircraft, though it was in worse condition than Garrett’s F-86A, was recovered and dismantled, and the parts were sent to Moscow. The evaluations of its systems were conducted after the war.
In the F-86A model, cables connected to hydraulic actuators moved the control surfaces, but the -E eliminated the cables in favor of a completely hydraulic system for operating control surfaces. The -E also used an all-moving horizontal stabilizer. The combination improved maneuverability at high speeds without the need for trim tabs. Artificial feel was built into the aircraft controls using weights and bungee springs, which let the pilot feel normal stick forces that were still light enough for superior combat control.
A prototype of the MiG-17, dubbed SI-10, was selected to evaluate the features of the new F-86E models. After the design bureau test pilots made several flights at Zhukovsky airfield, Mikoyan ferried it to the Chkalovskaya airfield and in June 1955 began testing it. One of the the F-86E’s modifications included the leading edge flap system. “The leading edge flaps improved maneuverability to some extent, but they were not adopted, I think because production of the MiG-17 was ceasing then,” Mikoyan told me. “They were not used on the MiG-19 either, probably because of the greater sweep angle of its wings [almost 60 degrees].”
The fully movable stabilizer was also tried on the MiG-17. When Mikoyan flight tested it, at a three-G load factor, he let go of the stick to test the aircraft’s dynamic stability. He expected the MiG to porpoise slightly and return to stable flight, but he got a surprise. “The aircraft pitched down so sharply that I was tossed up from my seat and bumped my head against the canopy,” he said. “Then it pitched up, and I was pressed down into the seat. After a series of such violent and hardly bearable jolts, I finally decided to get hold of the stick, and the aircraft steadied down. My head was booming like a church bell and ached—I was only wearing an ordinary leather helmet. When the instrument readings were studied afterward, it turned out that there had been nine up-and-down jolts in eight seconds, with the positive load—pressing me into the seat—up to 10 Gs and the negative up to –3.5 Gs.”