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During the Korean War, the first Soviet combat jet ended B-29 daytime raids. (Frank Mormillo)

The Jet that Shocked the West

How the MiG-15 grounded the U.S. bomber fleet in Korea.

The first wave of F-86 pilots in the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing included veterans of World War II combat. Ostensibly, they were to engage inexperienced Russian-trained Chinese MiG-15 pilots. But it soon became clear the North Korean MiGs weren’t flown by recent flight school grads. The Sabre jocks called the mystery pilots honchos, Japanese for “bosses.” Today, we know most of the North Korean-marked MiG-15s were piloted by battle-hardened fliers of the Soviet air force.

Chick Cleveland describes an encounter with a MiG pilot whose skills suggested more than classroom training. Cleveland was approaching the Yalu River at 35,000 feet when the MiG came fast, head-on. Both aircraft were flying at their Mach limits as they passed one another. “I told myself, ‘This isn’t practice anymore, this is for real.’ ” Exploiting the Sabre’s superior speed and turning radius, he broke off and gained position on the MiG’s tail. “I slid in so close behind him he looked like he was sitting in the living room with me.”

Flashing on stories of World War II pilots who, in the heat of dogfights, forgot to turn on their gun switch, Cleveland glanced down for an instant to verify the Sabre’s switch setting. “When I looked back up, that MiG was GONE, man. He was just not there.” Cleveland checked front and back “and all over the sky”—nothing. Only one chilling possibility remained. “I rolled the F-86 and, sure enough, there he was, right underneath me.” It was a deft attempt at role reversal, executed by the MiG pilot yanking back the throttle and pulling out the speed brakes to drop beneath, then behind, a tailgating adversary. “I was about to become the fox and he was turning into the hound,” Cleveland laughs. After several rolls in the Sabre, however, he reestablished his position on the tail of the Russian fighter, which resorted to “the classic MiG disengagement tactic,” a steep climb. Cleveland riddled the tailpipe and fuselage with 50-caliber rounds and the MiG rolled slowly to the left, nosed over, and plunged earthward. Given the MiG’s flight characteristics, a high-speed dive was a crash, not an escape strategy.

With the MiG challenging U.S. air superiority, Americans worked hard to get their hands on the Soviet technology, but they wouldn’t obtain a flyable MiG-15 until September 1953, when defecting North Korean pilot No Kum-Sok landed his jet at Kimpo Air Base, South Korea. Flying the Korean MiG would fully reveal what U.S. pilots were up against. To evaluate the Soviet fighter, the best of the U.S. Air Force test pilots—Captain Harold “Tom” Collins of the Wright Field Flight Test Division and Major Charles “Chuck” Yeager—were sent to Kadena Air Base, Japan. On September 29, 1953, the first Western pilot took to the sky in the mysterious MiG. The flight revealed the expected formidable performance, but also the MiG’s more unpleasant characteristics. “The defector pilot told me that the MiG-15 airplane had a strong tendency to spin out of accelerated, or even one ‘G,’ stalls and, often, it did not recover from the spin,” said Collins in 1991 for Test Flying at Old Wright Field, a collection of memoirs. “A white stripe was painted vertically down the instrument panel to be used to center the control stick when attempting spin recovery. He said that he had seen his instructor spin-in and killed.”

The flight tests revealed that the MiG’s speed was limited to .92 Mach. Above that, the aircraft’s flight controls were ineffective in dives or tight turns. During air-to-air combat in Korea, U.S. pilots witnessed MiG‑15s that were flirting with design limits suddenly enter dramatic, high-speed stalls, then snap end over end, frequently losing wings or tails.

Soviet MiG pilots were as well versed in the Sabre’s capabilities as American pilots were in the MiG’s. “There is no way to make me fight them in sustained turns,” said Soviet MiG-15 pilot Vladimir Zabelin for an oral history, translated in 2007. “Then he easily would have made it to my tail. When I made it to their tails, they knew that their only escape was in horizontal maneuvers…. I usually chased them from behind and a bit below…. When he began to roll, I tried to intercept him. If I did not shoot him down during his first one third of a turn, I had to abort the attack and zoom away.”

The Finnish air force bought MiG‑21 fighters from the Soviet Union in 1962, and also acquired four MiG‑15 trainers to acquaint pilots with the exotica of MiG cockpits. Retired Finnish test pilot Colonel Jyrki Laukkanen found the MiG-15 responsive and maneuverable, “once you knew its limitations and stayed within the safe envelope. Basically, you had to remain below .9 Mach and above 162 knots [186 mph]; otherwise you began to lose controllability.” Landings could be touchy, due to manually pumped pneumatic brakes that faded fast. “If they warmed up, you had no steering or stopping capability other than to shut down the engine and watch where you ended up—usually on the grass.”

Laukkanen says there were eccentricities in the MiG-15 cockpit. “The artificial horizon in the MiG-15 was curious.” The upper part of the gauge normally representing the sky was brown, while the lower part that was usually the ground was sky-blue. The gauge was designed so, when climbing, the aircraft symbol moved downward. “It acted like it was assembled inverted,” Laukkanen marvels. “Yet it was not.” The fuel gauges in the MiG-15 he also found “especially unreliable,” so Finnish pilots learned to estimate remaining fuel by watching the clock. As chief test pilot, Laukkanen accumulated more than 1,200 hours in the delta-wing MiG-21. (He is also the only Finn to solo in a P-51 Mustang.) “For me, the MiG-15 held no special mystique,” he says. “My favorite airplane, which I unfortunately never had a chance to fly, was the F-86 Sabre.”

A more objective measure of the relative strengths of MiG and Sabre are the number of enemy aircraft each shot down, but these kill ratios have been hard to pin down. At the end of the Korean War, for example, Chick Cleveland was credited with four MiG-15 kills, two probable kills, and four damaged MiGs. The MiG he last saw in a high-speed death dive? “My wingman and I followed him as he went straight down and into a cloud deck at a couple of thousand feet. I know damn well he didn’t make it. But because we didn’t see him eject or the plane actually hit the ground, it was listed as a probable instead.” After exhaustive research by a fellow Sabre pilot over a half-century later, his second “probable” MiG would finally be changed to a verified kill by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. In 2008 Cleveland belatedly became America’s newest named ace.

The Soviet method of establishing claims, according to Porfiriy Ovsyannikov, was less involved. “We made the attack, came home, landed, and I reported,” he said. “We fought an engagement! I attacked four B-29s. That was it. In addition, the enemy spoke freely and put out over the radio: ‘At such-and-such location, our bombers were attacked by MiG-15 aircraft. As a result, one aircraft fell into the ocean. A second aircraft was damaged and crashed upon landing on Okinawa.’ Then our gun-camera film was developed, and we looked at it. It showed me opening fire at very close range. And the others—some did and some did not. I got credit, that’s it.’ ”

Immediately following the war, the claims of Sabre superiority were overstated. Against 792 claimed MiG kills, the U.S. Air Force officially conceded just 58 Sabre losses. The Soviets, in turn, admitted MiG losses of around 350, yet have always claimed to have downed an improbable 640 F-86s—a figure that represents a majority of the entire deployment of Sabres to Korea. “All I can tell you is the Russians are damned liars,” says Sabre pilot Cleveland. “At least, in this instance they are.”

In the 1970s, an Air Force study called “Sabre Measures Charlie” upped the Sabre losses directly attributed to MiG combat to 92, which cut the F-86 kill ratio to 7-to-1. Later, with the dissolution of the USSR, the archives of the Soviet air force became available to scholars, whose studies have since pegged Soviet MiG-15 losses in Korea at 315.

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