The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15

Designed in 1946 to answer Soviet premier Joseph Stalin's urgent call for a high-altitude day interceptor, the MiG-15 was destined to shock the West with its capabilities and make the acronym "MiG" synonymous with "Soviet fighter plane." It was the first Soviet jet to benefit from the British sale to Russia of the new Rolls Royce "Nene" and "Derwent" jet engines. These were immediately copied and refined by the Soviets, and as the RD-500, Klimov RD-45 and modified VK-1, they gave a powerful boost to Soviet jet technology. The MiG-15 & its main adversary the North American F86 Sabre were products of German swept wing technology stolen by the Allies at the end of the second world war resulting in two of the best aircraft of the Korean conflict.

Claims that the successful Soviet piston-engined fighter designers Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich (the lead designers of the "MiG" bureau) were heavily influenced by the Focke-Wulf Ta-183 have been discredited. Although the abortive late-war German jet had swept wings and bore a superficial resemblance to the later MiG-15, the two aircraft are very different in structure and general design. The Soviets did seize plans and prototypes for the Ta-183, but the majority of Focke-Wulf engineers were captured by Western armies. Currently, most sources acknowledge that the MiG-15 is an original design and that Western aircraft industries benefited from German aerodynamic research just as much as Soviets.

First flown on 30th December 1947, the MiG-15 featured the first production swept wing on a Russian aircraft, the first pressurized cockpit, and the first ejection seat. Although Mikoyan and Gurevitch were aware of German turbojet and swept-wing work, this design was wholly Russian--except for the engine. The Cold War had just begun and Stalin was readying the B-29 clone, the Tu-4, and was developing the atomic bomb, both in high-priority programmes. MiG-15 production was authorized in March 1948, only 3 months after the first test flight, and substantial numbers were in service by the end of 1948 with both Soviet Air Forces (VVS, the tactical air arm) and IA-PVO (the air defence arm).

Russian flown MiG-15 Kill Ratio against the F-86 Sabre

Late in 1950, MiG-15s piloted by Russians appeared over North Korea, and their prowess "shocked and stunned" Americans. Their deadly attacks, using one 37mm and two 23mm cannon, quickly ran all piston-engined aircraft from the skies, including the B-29. First generation jets like the F-80 and F-84 were no match, and America had to rush the F-86 into Korea to re-establish air superiority. The MiG was a formidable opponent, it had a better climb & turn rate than an F-86 Sabre even above 25 thousand feet (7,620 meters).

Despite its high speed, excellent manoeuvrability, and high service ceiling, the MiG-15 was not very stable as a gun platform, with a tendency to Dutch roll at high speeds because of wing flexing and poor aileron effectiveness. Its cockpit instrumentation was primitive and stick forces were heavy. In combat against the F-86, a much more advanced fighter but with very similar performance, the MiG-15 suffered a 10:1 loss ratio. This applied to the MiG's flown by Chinese or North Korean pilots who were poorly trained but Russian pilots who flew the plane claimed a 2:1 kill ratio in favour of the MiG-15.

The American pilots had a significant amount of training, and many had a great deal of WWII combat experience with some of them being prior aces. The same applied to the Soviets who also had good training and most of the Soviets flying also had WWII records with some of them being aces. Most of the regimental and squadron commanders in 1951 were WWII aces, e.g. Georgii Lobov (19 victories), Aleksandr Vasko (15 kills), Aleksandr Kumanichkin (30), Grigorii Ohay (6). So, the Russian pilots were as experienced as the best American WWII Aces of the 4th and 51st Wings, like Francis Gabreski, Glenn Eagleston, Walker Mahurin, Robert Thyng, George Davis and many others.

When you have evenly matched aircraft, with evenly matched pilots, using only guns, it makes sense that the kill ratios would be very close to 1:1. The Soviets also had an advantage because they could use China as a shield. If they were in trouble, they just had to fly a few minutes north over the Yalu River and land. The US fighters on the other hand had to fly hundreds of miles south to get back to their bases with the MiGs being able to follow them the whole way.

The Soviet fighters were guided to the air battlefield by good ground control, which directed them to the most advantageous position.

The Russian flown MiG-15s always operated in pairs, as part of a team called “the sword and the shield,” with an attacking leader (”the sword”) covered by a wingman (”the shield”).

The squadrons operated in 6-plane groups, divided in 3 pairs, each composed of a leader and a wingman:

  1. The first pair (”the sword pair”) of MiG-15s attacked the enemy Sabres.
  2. The second pair (”the shield pair”) protected the first pair.
  3. The third pair remained above, with a panoramic view of how the battle evolved, supporting the “sword pair” or the “shield pair” depending on the situation. This pair had more freedom than the others, because it could also attack targets of opportunity, such as lone Sabres that had lost their wingmen.

Unlike their American & Soviet counterparts the Chinese & North Korean pilots had no previous combat experience & next to no training. They were taught navigation, landing & take-off & not much else, then sent against a far more experienced & better trained enemy. If Chinese & North Korean pilots flew the F-86 Sabre & American pilots flew MiG-15’s the result would have been the same. True there were Chinese & North Korean Aces but these few were naturally talented as fighter pilots.

Did differences in equipment explain the disparity? Probably not. Esentially the technological contest between the Soviet MiG-15 and the American F-86 Sabre was an even match. The MiG-15, NATO code word Fagot, was better than the F-86 in many aspects (superior climb rate, faster acceleration, more powerful weaponry) but the F-86 Sabre compensated that with more stable diving, a better gunsight, and a g-suit for their pilots, allowing them to resist the tremendous g-forces involved in dogfights. So, the edge were the men in the cockpits, and in the “Honcho Period” (Honchos: the nickname given by the Sabre pilots to excellent MiG pilots) the Soviets had such a slight edge. Quoting Chuck Yeager: “It’s the man, not the machine”.

History would repeat itself a decade later in the Viet Nam War. The Russian made MiG-21 used by the North Vietnamese Air Force was arguably a better fighter than the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom but Phantom pilots with superior training had a higher kill ratio against the MiG-21s. Many F-4 Phantom pilots say if they were flying Mig-21s & the North Vietnamese pilots were in the F-4 Phantoms, F4’s would have littered the countryside.

MiG-15s sold internationally

Russians were joined by Chinese and North Korean MiG-15s before the Korean War ended, and the MiG-15 was ultimately flown in some 35 countries, remaining in service in China as late as 1978, where it was called the J-2 (F-2 in an export version). The MiG-15UTI trainer version, also used throughout the world, is still in common service today. More than 12,000 MiG-15s were built in 17 versions, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China, as well as in the former USSR. Many Chinese F-2s have made their way to the United States, where they can be seen in flight displays at air shows. Based on lessons of the Korean combat, the MiG-15 was later upgraded as the MiG-17, which also served throughout the world, including combat in Vietnam and the Middle East.

The MiG-15 was developed by the Soviet Union following WW II. It began appearing in service in 1949 and by 1952 it had been provided to a number of Communist satellite nations, including North Korea where it was used extensively against United Nations forces.

The early versions of the MiG-15 had no avionics except a high frequency radio & a homing receiver. It's gun-sight was copied from a British version. Later MiG-15's were given radar & more advanced electronic systems in addition to the improved ASP-3N gyro gun sight.

$100,000 reward for a MiG-15

In November 1950 when the Russian-built MiG-15 was introduced into battle by the Communists, U.N. forces were startled by its advanced design and exceptional performance and hoped one of the planes could be acquired for technical analysis and flight evaluation. However, MiG-15 pilots were very careful not to fly over U.N. territory where they might be forced down.
In April. 1953, the U.S. Far East Command made an offer of $100,000 for the first MiG-15 delivered intact. No enemy pilot took advantage of this offer and when the Korean Truce went into effect on 27th July 1953, the U.N. still had not acquired a MiG-15 for flight-testing.

On Sep. 21, 1953, personnel at Kimpo Air Base near Seoul, South Korea were surprised to see a MiG-15 suddenly land downwind and roll to a stop. The plane was piloted by a 21-year old Senior Lt. Kum Sok No of the North Korean Air Force who had decided to fly to South Korea because he "was sick and tired of the red deceit" or so the official version goes.
Shortly after landing at Kimpo AB, the young pilot not only learned of the $100,000 reward, but also that his mother had been safely evacuated from North to South Korea in 1951 and that she was still alive and well.

The MiG-15 was taken to Okinawa where it was first flown by Wright Field Test Pilot, Capt. H.E. "Tom" Collins. Subsequent test flights were made by Capt. Collins and Maj. C.E. "Chuck" Yeager. The aeroplane was next disassembled and airlifted to Wright-Patterson AFB in December 1953 where it was reassembled and given exhaustive flight-testing. An offer by the U.S. to return the aeroplane to its "rightful owners" was ignored, and in November 1957 it was transferred to the U.S. Air Force Museum for public exhibition. At his request, No came to the States, changed his name, and became a U.S. citizen. He graduated from the University of Delaware, he was joined by his mother, and he was married. Interestingly, just below the gun sight on Lt. No's MiG-15 was the following admonition in red Korean characters: "Pour out and zero in this vindictive ammunition to the damn Yankees."

MiG-15 vs F-86 Sabre
Which aircraft was better? Well lets examine their strengths and weaknesses

The MiG-15 had a higher thrust to weight ratio therefore accelerated and climbed a little better than the F-86. It also had a slightly higher service ceiling. Many battles over Korea began with MiG's diving on F-86's which could not reach the altitude at which the MiG-15 flew. The MiG-15 arguably had sufficient power to dive at supersonic speeds, but could not do so because it did not feature a tailplane (horizontal stabilizer in American). As a result, the pilot's ability to control the aircraft deteriorated significantly as Mach 1 was approached. Later MiGs would incorporate a tailplane. The canopy also tended to mist up in dives & rapid climbs though this problem was rectified.

Turning circles for each aircraft were very similar, with the F-86 gaining advantage at low speed because of it's leading edge slats. The MiG's higher thrust to weight ratio allowed it to power through turns a little better than the Sabre. Rate of roll/pitch was a problem for the MiG as they did not have boosted controls. At high speeds (400kts+) stick forces would become so high that the aircraft was very difficult to roll or pull into turns/climbs etc. The F-86 on the contrary, was very easy to fly and control and was responsive throughout the flight envelope. With the introduction of the "6-3" slat-less wing in Sept. 1952, on the F-86F-25 (and later refitted to older aircraft.), the Sabre was able to turn inside the MiG all the way up to its combat ceiling of 50,000 ft (15,250 m) and increased it's max speed to 695 mph (1118 km/h), giving the "F" a 30 mph (48.3 km) top speed advantage over the MiG (Albeit at the loss of low speed handling and a higher landing speed.)

The MiG-15 was originally intended to intercept American bombers like the B-29, and was even evaluated in mock air-to-air combat trials with interned ex-US B-29 bombers as well as the later Soviet B-29 copy, the Tupolev Tu-4. To ensure the destruction of such large bombers, the MiG-15
carried heavy cannon armament: two 23 mm cannon with 80 rounds per gun and a single massive 37 mm cannon with 40 rounds. These weapons provided tremendous punch in the interceptor role, but their limited rate of fire and relatively low velocity made it more difficult to score hits against small and maneuverable enemy jet fighter aircraft in air-to-air combat. The 23 mm and 37 mm cannon also had radically different ballistic characteristics, and some United Nations pilots during the Korean War had the unnerving experience of having 23 mm shells pass over them while the 37 mm shells flew under them. The cannon were fitted into a neat pack that could be winched down out of the bottom of the nose for servicing and reloading, in principle allowing a preprepared pack to be switched in for rapid turnaround. (Some sources claim the pack was added in later MiG-15 production but it was fitted from the outset.)

The MiG-15 was also a poor gun platform because at speeds above 450kts, the aircraft was beset by buffet which made aiming very difficult. This, combined with a primitive gunsite, made getting hits incredibly difficult. Only the most lucky pilots or the very best shots hit fighter sized targets. The 6 x .50 cal M3 machine guns on the F-86, while not having the stopping power of cannons, had high muzzle velocities and very high rates of fire. Combined with the M-18 optical gunsite and A-1CM radar ranging device, even average pilots could get hits.

So, each aircraft had it's advantages and disadvantages. In my opinion, the F-86 was marginally better. In the hands of the large cadre of extremely experienced pilots fielded by the U.S.A.F., the 10-1 kill ratio racked up by the Sabre over the MiG is not surprising.

Contrary to what some think the F-86H models did not see service in the Korean War. The first ten F-86H operational aircraft were delivered at the end of June 1954. None saw service in the Korean War which ended in July 1953.

The Communists can thank their good friend Prime Minister Clement Atlee of Great Britain for the six Rolls-Royce 'Nenes' that he sent them soon after the end of the Second World War.Copies of that fine engine powered the Mig 15 in Korea.

An improved variant, the MiG-15 bis ("bis" being Latin for "encore"), entered service in early 1950 with a Klimov VK-1 engine, an improved version of the RD-45/Nene, plus minor improvements and upgrades. Visible differencies are: a headlight in air intake separator and horizontal upper edge of air brakes in MiG-15.

MiG Alley

Sinuiju and Antung, located along the Yalu River in north eastern North Korea, were the main operating bases for Communist MiG-15 fighter units. While Sinuiju was located in North Korea, and therefore could be bombed, Antung was located just across the river in Manchuria and could not be attacked.

Large formations of MiGs would lie in wait on the Manchurian side of the border. When UN aircraft entered the airspace that became known as "MiG Alley," they would swoop down from high altitude to attack. If the MiGs ran into trouble, they would try to escape back to the safety of the border. Even with the advantage of a sanctuary across the Yalu, Communist pilots still could not compete against the better-trained Sabre pilots.

Korean Conflict Ends
(The Forgotten War)

On 27th July 1953, after three years, one month, and two days of fighting, the Korean War officially ended. The United States suffered 33,327 deaths and 102,000 wounded. The cost of the war was over $18 billion (that's over $18 billion in 1953!).

Under the terms of the cease-fire, Korea would be divided at the 38th parallel, as it was the day the Communists attacked. The first truce talks had begun on 10th July 1951. A cease-fire agreement was nearly reached very quickly in almost all areas, with the exception of a prisoner-exchange. The United Nations forces refused to return prisoners who did not want to be repatriated. Two more years of fighting ensued and only a threat by President Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons finally brought about an armistice.


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