To Snatch a Sabre

Fifty years ago, North Korea’s secret allies plotted to heist from the United States a North American F-86.

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Experienced combat pilots of the Soviets’ highest scoring regiment in Korea, the 196th made fun of the plan. Even today, the regimental commander, Colonel Yevgeniy G. Pepelyayev, derides the test pilots. When I spoke to him in Russia two years ago, he still had the pugnaciousness and arrogance at age 80 that characterized his career as a fighter pilot. He told me that the test pilots wanted to fly MiG-15s assigned to his regiment and offered to let the 196th count test-pilot victories as their own. Pepelyayev told them, “I don’t need your victories and won’t have any. You will be lucky if you manage to stay alive.” Although Pepelyayev relented and allowed the use of his airplanes, his words were prophetic. He didn’t need donated victories—he became the Soviet Union’s top-scoring ace in Korea, credited with 19 kills (including Garrett’s F-86; it was Pepelyayev who got the first hit). And the test pilots achieved no victories. During their first combat experience, on May 31, 1951, one of the senior test pilots was shot down. After their commander died in a crash landing at Andun airfield within weeks of the first loss, members of the group were spirited back to Moscow. Five remained and were absorbed into combat units, but the plan to corral a Sabre was quietly dropped.

Then on October 6, Bill Garrett bellied into a tidal pool on the coast of the Yellow Sea, and the Russians saw their chance.

Garrett was rescued by an SA-16 amphibian, but above his F-86 a three-hour battle raged as U.S. pilots tried to destroy the aircraft and Russian pilots fought them off. The Russians paid dearly for the prize. “We lost seven MiGs and didn’t get any more Sabres,” Pepelyayev said, “but the incoming tide covered the plane.”

A Russian search team, which included Moscow representatives of the Mikoyan design bureau, used the MiG pilots’ reports to locate the aircraft. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the Americans returned, the search team recruited 500 Chinese laborers to haul the wreckage from the water. The next day, as the team members labored to remove the wings, they had the advantage of an overcast sky, but U.S. ships at sea spotted the group and fired on them. An F-84 dropped through the clouds, causing the workers to scurry for cover on the levee, but the F-84 turned out to be a reconnaissance version and had no bombs to drop on the aircraft. That night, desperate to depart before dawn, the team continued dismantling the Sabre, finally finishing at four in the morning. The laborers loaded the pieces on trucks. Rolling toward Andun, the convoy hid in tunnels during the day, hopping from one to the next each night, yet the prize was nearly lost. According to the 1998 article in Mir Aviatsii, one of the military engineers, N.M. Chepelev, rode in the lead truck, which carried the F-86’s forward fuselage. Even though daylight was fast approaching, he decided to attempt to reach the next tunnel. The rest of the group elected to play it safe and stayed behind. The Americans “almost got us,” Chepelev remembered. “The driver...was already approaching the tunnel when we noticed the ‘night watchman,’ a B-26…. We entered the tunnel at high speed as the B-26 fired several rockets at us. Fortunately, we were already about a hundred meters deep inside the tunnel, and the rockets could only penetrate for about 10 meters before hitting the walls.”

Eventually, the convoy got its prize to Andun. The design group wanted the Sabre sent immediately to Moscow, but Pepelyayev persuaded the team to leave it at the base for a few days. “I sat in the cockpit. We all did,” he said. “It was a well-laid-out cockpit, which created an impression that you were sitting in an expensive car.” When the aircraft was finally sent on to Moscow, Pepelyayev recalled, someone sent back a complaint: “Couldn’t you have washed the mud off the aircraft before sending it to us?”

The captured Sabre, serial number 49-1319, arrived at the Air Force Research Flight-Test Institute at Zhukovsky, 22 miles southeast of Moscow, in October 1951. Stalin knew that getting his hands on a Sabre would permit Russian engineers to copy and modify parts for fighter aircraft in a fraction of the time it would take to develop improvements from scratch. His intention had been to have the F-86 copied by an aviation design bureau, just as he had done with the B-29 after three of those aircraft had made emergency landings in Vladivostok during World War II (see “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” Feb./Mar. 2001). But the inspection team at Zhukovsky, led by the highly respected test engineer Major Semyon Fradkov, concluded that the copying effort wasn’t necessary. Engineers from the Mikoyan, Yakovlev, Tupolev, and Sukhoi design bureaus also examined the Sabre, and noted in their evaluation that the MiG-15 already was a good match for the F-86 and that the MiG-17, about to go into production, was more advanced.

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.

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