The Korean conflict was less than six months old on the morning of November 30, 1950, when a U.S. Air Force B-29 Superfortress, attacking an air base in North Korea, was lightly damaged by a fighter that overtook the bomber too fast for the attacker to be identified, much less for the Superfort’s gunner to fix it in the sights of his gun’s tracking system. Straight-wing Lockheed F-80 jets escorting the bomber made a token pursuit, but the accelerating fighter rapidly shrank to a dot, then disappeared.
The bomber crew’s reports sparked an organized panic that sizzled through the U.S. chain of command. Although the airmen’s description of the intruder matched no aircraft known to be operating in the theater, U.S. intelligence officials quickly made an educated assumption. The attacking aircraft was a MiG-15, most likely flying from a base in Manchuria. Before the incident, analysts believed that the only use Stalin had authorized for MiGs supporting communist China’s air force was protecting Shanghai from attack by nationalist Chinese bombers. The MiG was an ominous sign: China’s involvement in Korea was increasing, and Soviet technology was spreading.
For the crews strapping into the lumbering Superfortresses, the jets slashing through their formations became a source of suffocating dread. “I’ll tell you, everybody was scared,” says former B-29 pilot Earl McGill, as he describes the notable absence of radio chatter while he held his four-engine Boeing—the weapon system that had ended World War II—short of the runway for a mission against Namsi air base, near the border between North Korea and China. “On my first mission, we were briefed for heavy MiG interception. I was so scared on that day that I’ve never been frightened since, even when I flew combat missions in the B-52 [over Vietnam].” Earlier, the ready-room chatter had been filled with black humor. “The guy who briefed the navigation route had been an undertaker,” McGill says. He delivered the briefing in an undertaker’s stove-pipe hat.
On one disastrous day in October 1951—dubbed Black Tuesday—MiGs took out six of nine Superforts. McGill’s first encounter with the craft had been typically brief. “One of the gunners called him out. He was a small silhouette,” McGill says. “That’s when I saw him…. [The gunners] were shooting at him.” McGill says the bomber’s centrally controlled firing system provided some protection against the fighters.
MiG-15 pilot Porfiriy Ovsyannikov was on the other end of the B-29’s guns. “When they fired at us, they smoked, and you think, Is the bomber burning, or is it machine gun smoke?” he recalled in 2007, when Russian historians Oleg Korytov and Konstantin Chirkin interviewed him for an oral history of Soviet combat pilots who fought in World War II and Korea. (The interviews are posted on the website lend-lease.airforce.ru/english.) The historians asked Ovsyannikov to rate the B-29’s defensive weapons. His reply: “Very good.” But MiG pilots were able to open fire from about 2,000 feet away, and at that distance, says McGill, they could savage a B-29 formation.
“The MiG-15 surprised the hell out of us,” says National Air and Space Museum curator Robert van der Linden. Compared to the North American F-86 Sabre, hastily introduced in combat after the MiGs showed up, “the MiG was faster, could outclimb it, and had more firepower,” he says. And Sabre pilots knew it.
“You’re damned right it was intimidating,” says retired Air Force Lieutenant General Charles “Chick” Cleveland, remembering his first encounter with a MiG-15. He was flying a Sabre with the 334th Fighter-Intercepter Squadron over Korea in 1952. Only weeks before, the squadron commander, high-scoring World War II ace George Andrew Davis, was killed by the Soviet fighter. (Davis was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor.) Now, pulling a tight turn to evade the MiG, Cleveland violated the Sabre’s unforgiving stall margin, snapped over, and briefly entered a spin, as he puts it, “right there in the middle of combat.” Cleveland survived his mistake to become a Korean War ace with five confirmed MiG kills and two probables. Today, he’s president of the American Fighter Aces Association and still has respect for his adversary of 60 years ago. “Oh, it was a wonderful airplane,” he says from his home in Alabama. “You have to remember that the little MiG-15 in Korea was successful doing what all the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts of World War II were never able to do: Drive the United States bomber force right out the sky.” From November 1951, B-29s stayed on the ground during the day; bombing missions were flown only at night.
Inevitably, the history of the MiG-15 returns to its dogfights with Sabres, the rivalry that has come to define the air war in Korea. But the link between MiG and Sabre began in the previous war. Both drew inspiration from the concept produced in the frantic search for a weapon at the end of World War II, when Allied aircraft had achieved numerical superiority over the German force. Desperate, the Luftwaffe High Command held a contest. The winning entry in “The Emergency Fighter Competition” was submitted by Focke-Wulf head designer Kurt Tank and designated TA-183; it was a concept for a single-engine jet with swept wings and a high T-tail. In 1945, British troops entered the Focke-Wulf facility in Bad Eilsen and confiscated plans, models, and wind tunnel data, which they quickly shared with the Americans. And when Berlin collapsed, Soviet forces sifted through the home office of the German Air Ministry and scored a complete set of TA-183 blueprints and a treasure trove of wing research. Less than two years later, and within weeks of each other, the United States and the Soviet Union introduced single-engine jet fighters with wings swept to 35 degrees, stubby fuselages, and T-tails. The two aircraft looked so much alike that in Korea, a few U.S. pilots too eager to bag a MiG mistakenly shot down Sabres.
Neither aircraft was a copy of Tank’s design. The raw aeronautical research, in combination with the limited availability of engines and the prevailing materials of the time, necessarily imposed the commonalities on the designs. The first jet to fly from the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) Design Bureau in Moscow was a straight-wing fighter, the MiG-9. The -9’s rudimentary engines—twin BMW jet engines captured in Germany—fell short of the design bureau’s specs for the MiG-15, yet Moscow hardly possessed the expertise to build better ones. The first operational MiG-15s would instead be powered by Rolls-Royce Nene engines—marvelously innovated and cluelessly supplied by the British.
Keen to thaw Anglo-Soviet relations, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee invited Soviet scientists and engineers to the Rolls-Royce jet facility to learn how the superior British engines were made. Attlee further offered to license production to the USSR—after exacting a solemn promise that the engines would be utilized only for non-military purposes. The offer stunned the Americans, who protested loudly. And the Soviets? Russian aviation historian and Ukrainian native Ilya Grinberg says, “Stalin himself couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Who in their right mind would sell anything like this to us?’ ” Grinberg, a professor of technology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, points out that the presence in the delegation of Artem Mikoyan himself—the “Mi” in MiG—should have been a tip-off to what in fact ensued: The Rolls-Royce samples shipped to the USSR in 1946 were promptly installed into MiG-15 prototypes and successfully flight-tested. By the time the fighter was ready for mass production, the Soviets had reverse-engineered the Nene; their copy was designated the Klimov RD-45. When the British objected to the violation of their licensing agreement, says Grinberg, “the Russians just told them ‘Look, we incorporated a few changes. Now it qualifies as our own original design.’ ”
But as in the case of post-war Soviet duplicates of western European autos, craftsmanship in the Soviet engine copies compared unfavorably to what went into the real thing. The time between the introduction of the Klimov engines and their failure was measured in hours. “Knowing the general state of the Soviet aviation industry at the time,” Grinberg says, “quality control throughout the entire MiG was not what you would expect in the west.” Materials for high-stress parts were substandard. Tolerances were not precise. Indeed, some performance problems on individual MiGs were traced to wings that didn’t exactly match. Grinberg describes a Russian archival photo of production line workers casually installing an engine in a first generation MiG-15. “How shall I say this?” he says, hesitantly. “It’s not exactly people wearing white overalls in a high-tech environment.”
By that time, however, another Soviet design bureau, led by designer Andrei Tupolev, had copied rivet-for-rivet two Boeing B-29s that during World War II had made emergency landings in Soviet territory. Grinberg says the precision in manufacturing required by the Tupolev project spread into the MiG program. In fact, “the project to duplicate the B-29 dragged not only the aviation industry but all Soviet industries up to a higher level,” he says. Though the MiG remained inexpensively built and unapologetically spartan, the finished product, which first flew on the last day of 1947, was rugged and reliable.