The Jet that Shocked the West

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

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

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Limiting the statistics to specific periods highlights more meaningful conclusions. Author and retired Air Force Colonel Doug Dildy observes that when Chinese, North Korean, and newly deployed Soviet pilots occupied the MiG-15 cockpit, statistics do in fact support a 9-to-1 Sabre-favoring kill ratio. However, when claimed kills are restricted to a span encompassing 1951 combat, when Americans faced Soviet pilots who flew against the Luftwaffe during the Great Patriotic War, the kill ratio flattens out to a nearly dead-even 1.4 to 1, slightly favoring the Sabre.

The pattern of the air war in Korea gives credence to this interpretation. Once the honchos were rotated back to the Soviet Union, the less experienced Soviet replacements proved no match for the F-86 pilots. The Chinese lost fully one-quarter of their first generation MiG-15s to the evolved version of the Sabre, prompting Mao Tse Tung to suspend MiG missions for a month. The Chinese took delivery of the advanced MiG-15bis in the summer of 1953, but by then a cease-fire was about to be signed. The MiG-15 was quickly superseded by the MiG-17, which incorporated a wish list of improvements, mostly by cloning the technology found in two salvaged F-86 Sabres.

By the spring of 1953, the remaining Soviet MiG-15 pilots in Korea began avoiding engagement with U.S. aircraft. Stalin was dead, a cease-fire at Panmunjom appeared inevitable, and nobody wanted to be the last casualty. Ilya Grinberg sums up the attitude of the men in the cockpits of the capable fighter: “Soviet MiG-15 pilots viewed Korean air combat as simply a job to be done. After all, they weren’t fighting to protect the motherland. They viewed the Americans as adversaries, but not really enemies.”

While the star of the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau was making a name for itself in the West, the Soviet citizenry barely knew what that name was. The F-86 Sabre became an icon of American air superiority in 1950s popular culture, written into movie scripts, depicted on magazine covers, and silk-screened on metal school lunchboxes. During those years, however, the MiG-15 remained an enigma to the Soviet public. “We didn’t even know its designated name until way, way, later than you might think,” Grinberg says. “In any Russian aviation magazine, you might see images of the MiG-15, but the captions would always say simply ‘Modern Fighter Jet.’ ”

In the mid-1960s, in one of the inexplicable reversals that typified Soviet bureaucracy, the fighter was abruptly brought out of cover—and into public parks. “I remember vividly when they put a MiG-15 in our local park,” Grinberg says. The aircraft wasn’t installed on a pedestal or as part of a monument, as many are now, but simply towed into the park and wheels chocked. “I recall very well being so excited to go see the famous MiG. All us kids were climbing all over it, admiring the cockpit and all the instruments.”

A decade earlier, among the air forces of Warsaw Pact countries and others in Africa and the Middle East, word of the MiG-15’s performance in Korea spread. Eventually it served with the air forces of 35 nations.

MiG! Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in southern California. In this issue, he also reviewed a book about NASA’s X-15 rocketplane.


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