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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A prototype of the MiG-17, dubbed SI-10, was selected to evaluate the features of the new F-86E models. After the design bureau test pilots made several flights at Zhukovsky airfield, Mikoyan ferried it to the Chkalovskaya airfield and in June 1955 began testing it. One of the the F-86E’s modifications included the leading edge flap system. “The leading edge flaps improved maneuverability to some extent, but they were not adopted, I think because production of the MiG-17 was ceasing then,” Mikoyan told me. “They were not used on the MiG-19 either, probably because of the greater sweep angle of its wings [almost 60 degrees].”

The fully movable stabilizer was also tried on the MiG-17. When Mikoyan flight tested it, at a three-G load factor, he let go of the stick to test the aircraft’s dynamic stability. He expected the MiG to porpoise slightly and return to stable flight, but he got a surprise. “The aircraft pitched down so sharply that I was tossed up from my seat and bumped my head against the canopy,” he said. “Then it pitched up, and I was pressed down into the seat. After a series of such violent and hardly bearable jolts, I finally decided to get hold of the stick, and the aircraft steadied down. My head was booming like a church bell and ached—I was only wearing an ordinary leather helmet. When the instrument readings were studied afterward, it turned out that there had been nine up-and-down jolts in eight seconds, with the positive load—pressing me into the seat—up to 10 Gs and the negative up to –3.5 Gs.”

Mikoyan borrowed one of three U.S. “crash helmets” recovered in North Korea and flew a second test. “The whole thing happened again, the only difference being that my head did not ache quite as much,” he said. The stabilizer modification, Mikoyan added, was not adopted for the MiG-17. However, the all-movable stabilizer was installed on the MiG-19 and later Soviet fighters.

One of the most significant adaptations the Soviets made after capturing the Sabres and Sabre pilots was the introduction of G-suit systems, which enabled Russian pilots to handle the increasingly formidable MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets to come. With the addition of G-suits, the Soviets improved the performance of the most lethal system in a combat aircraft: the pilot.

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