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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He designed a warning system that detected the signal from the Sabre’s gunsight and alerted the pilot that his aircraft was reflecting the signal back to a pursuer. Based on the same technology as today’s police-radar detectors, the system was a simple receiver, mounted on the tail.

Flight testing the device became the chore of Lieutenant Colonel Stepan Mikoyan, nephew of the renowned Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau chief, Artem I. Mikoyan. Mikoyan had fought in Moscow and Stalingrad during World War II. He then attended the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in Moscow, graduating with honors in 1951 to become a test pilot at the Research Flight-Test Institute.

Mikoyan, now 81, is an elegant, accomplished man with a full mane of silver hair and a mustache. He smiles often, his face showing the crow’s feet of a man who has spent many, many hours squinting into the sun from beneath a fighter canopy. Though retired with the rank of lieutenant general, he still goes to work at the institute every day.

One of Mikoyan’s responsibilities was testing Sabre systems and avionics. He recalled for me how he and test pilot Igor Sokolov tested Matskevic’s warning device. To prove his concept, Matskevic set up the radar emitter from the captured Sabre on the roof of one of the institute’s tall buildings and mounted his warning device on a MiG. Every time Mikoyan and Sokolov flew the MiG over the building, “we heard a low-pitched ‘howling’ in the earphones,” Mikoyan recalled. “As the distance from it grew, the noise became higher in pitch, but lower in volume. Even so, it remained perfectly distinct within seven or eight kilometers [four to five miles].”

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.

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