The Yalu river runs wide and dark across the huge peninsula that is Korea. On either side, the topography is the same and at 40,000 feet, the hard blue sky doesn’t change color just because the politics below are different. One morning in 1950, however, when American and ROK (Republic of Korea) pilots came back with wild tales of a swept wing enemy fighter that slashed through them like a sythe through wheat, it was obvious something was indeed different on the other side of the Yalu. The North Koreans, whom it was assumed would be flying cast-off WWII aircraft, had suddenly changed the rules of war. The MiG-15 had upped the ante considerably.
It could easily be said that aerial combat in Korea was not U. N. pilots versus Chinese and North Koreans, but Germans versus Germans – the leading aircraft on both sides were heavily influenced by WWII German technology and both sides had German designers working for them. It is a fact that both the F-86 and the MiG-15, would have been much slower, straight wing airplanes had it not been for German swept wing technology.
Regardless of what they were designing, the Russians have always been pragmatic in the extreme, so, the MiG-15 was crude where it could afford to be crude and amazingly efficient where it needed to be. Part of the 1946 specifications laid down by the Russian government said the airplane had to be capable of over 630 mph at 45,000 feet and have a pressurized cockpit. At the same time, however, it had to be able to operate off of grass runways in all weather conditions. WWII had taught the Russians that their wars required fighting when and where it is necessary and, in those conditions, sophistication is the enemy of reliability – Russian equipment has always been nothing, if not reliable.
It is axiomatic that simple always works and, when you’re sitting in a MiG, you’re struck by the simplistic spigots, valves and plumbing that snake everywhere throughout the cockpit. It looks like a World War One submarine. At the same time, the compactness of the cockpit reminds you that the MiG is a small airplane and behind you sits a big engine, one that was developed out of the Rolls Royce ìNeneî engine right after WWII. Just ahead of your feet sits some very big guns, two 23mm and one 37mm cannon. Very small airplane, great big engine, great big guns. Hmmmm!
The combination of a little airframe perched on a big blow torch meant the MiG easily out-climbed the Sabre, it could sit at a higher altitude and pick its fights, and it was marginally faster. However, although its armament was hard-hitting, which was ideal for pounding bombers or tanks, it was, of necessity, slow firing, With the bullets spread so far apart, the probability of a hit during the deadly dance of dogfighting, was much lower than with the fast firing, though shorter ranged, six .50 caliber Brownings of the Sabre. Still, it often took only one hit to down a Sabre.
The airplane reportedly had stability problems at high speed, but once the dogfight had inevitably ground down to slower speeds, it could turn on a very small dime. For these reasons, Sabre pilots developed tactics to deal with the differences, including spacing Sabre flights out so when the pack of MiGs dropped down on the leading US formation, later formations evened the odds.
The MiG-15 demonstrated Russia’s amazing ability to combine rudimentary mechanical designs with aerodynamic creativity to forge a weapon of awesome capabilities.
by Budd Davisson