The MiG-15 was originally contracted in 1939 as a propellor-driven aircraft, but when the Soviet military captured Me-262 blueprints and models in the downfall of Nazi Germany, it was changed to a jet aircraft through use of German technology. The Soviets gained access to a British Rolls-Royce jet engine, far ahead of anyone elses, for the engine model. Like most other second generation jets, the airplane had swept wings for maximum performance at near-Mach speeds, another innovation inspired by the Me-262.
The aircraft was fast and maneuverable; it was also cheap. The MiG had a heavy armament of one 37 mm and two 23 mm cannons, all in the nose.
North Korea had no jets when it invaded South Korea in June 1950, so its air force was ultimately destroyed by the American and United Nations planes, which included first-generation jets like the F-80 Shooting Star. When Communist China sent its troops across the Yalu River, Chinese MiG-15s went as well, and the second-generation jets outclassed anything the UN forces had in the air. Only after the American F-86 Saber arrived could the UN seriously challenge the MiGs.
The first confrontation took place in December 1950, and by the end of the month, eight MiGs had been lost for only one Saber shot down. The two planes were evenly matched and in fact resembled each other to a large extent. The MiG had a higher service ceiling and a higher rate of climb, while the Saber was more maneuverable. The MiG’s cannons packed a larger punch than the Saber’s machine guns, but they were slower firing and didn’t carry as much ammo. However, the Chinese pilots tended to be poorly trained compared to their American counterparts, and this made a big difference. During the war, the American Saber pilots claimed to have shot down almost 800 MiGs, although the real number was probably a little less than 400, while the MiGs only shot down eighty Sabers.
Some of the MiGs encountered, however, were flown by very competent pilots. The Americans dubbed these MiG drivers “Honchos” and suspected that they were not Chinese or North Koreans, but Russians, a suspicion which has since been confirmed. In fact, the highest scoring pilot of the Korean War, on either side, was Russian WWII veteran and Hero of the Soviet Union Nickolai Sutyagin, with 22 victories, including at least nine Sabers.
After the Korean War ended, China turned its attention back to Nationalist China on the island of Taiwan. Chinese MiG-15s were in action over the Taiwan Strait against the outnumbered Nationalist Air Force (CNAF), and helped make possible the Communist occupation of two strategic island groups. The US had been lending support to the Nationalists since 1951, and started delivery of F-86s in 1955. The Sabers and MiGs clashed three years later in the Quemoy Crisis, and this time the Nationalists won the struggle for air superiority in a series of fierce battles.
Shootdowns of Reconnaissance Flights
In the first decade of the Cold War, several American and NATO airplanes were downed while on patrol or reconnaissance flights. MiG-15s took part in at least four of these incidents.
On June 13, 1952, during the Korean War, Soviet MiG-15s shot down an American RB-29 over the Sea of Japan, 100 miles east of Vladivostok. The bomber was based at Yokota, Japan, and disappeared from radar coverage while on a reconnaissance mission. No wreckage was ever found, and all of the twelve man crew were lost. The Soviets eventually admitted to having downed the plane, but claimed it fired on their MiGs first.
On March 10, 1953, a Czechoslovakian Air Force MiG-15 shot down an American F-84 Thunderjet along the Czech-West German border, the pilot bailing out safely. The U.S. government strongly protested to the Czech government, calling it a “provocative incident”. Two days later, a Soviet MiG destroyed a Royal Air Force bomber over Germany with the loss of the entire seven man crew.
On April 18, 1955, Soviet MiG-15s shot down a SAC RB-47 on a photo reconnaissance mission off the Kamchatka Peninsula. When the plane failed to return to base, the U.S. government suspected it had been shot down, and conducted an extensive search, but failed to find any wreckage or remains, although a life jacket, aircraft debris, and an RB-47 aircraft manual washed up on a nearby Soviet-held island. The full story wasn’t known until 1992, when Boris Yeltsin’s government provided declassified documents on the incident. Surprisingly, the documents did not include the claim that the aircraft violated Russian airspace, although they did state that the bomber fired first when the MiGs approached. There were no known survivors among the bomber crew.
In two other incidents, the tables were turned by the presence of escorting fighters. On January 22, 1954, an RB-45 was attacked over the Yellow Sea by MiG-15s, but Sabers had come along on this mission, and one of the MiGs was shot down. A year later, on February 5, 1955, another RB-45 was attacked, again over the Yellow Sea; this time two MiG-15s fell to the guns of the escorting F-86s.
At the start of hostilities in late 1956, Egypt had two squadrons of MiG-15s, purchased from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. They first saw aerial action on the morning of October 30, when MiGs intercepted four RAF Canberra bombers on a reconnaissance mission over the Canal Zone, damaging one. Later that day, MiG-15s attacked Israeli forces at Mitla and El Thamed in the Sinai, destroying half a dozen vehicles. As a result, the Israeli Air Force instituted a standing combat air patrol over the Canal, and the next attack resulted in two MiGs downed by Israeli Mysteres, although the Egyptian planes were able to successfully hit the Israeli troops. The next day, the MiGs evened the score somewhat when they badly damaged two IAF Ouragan fighters, forcing one of them to crash-land in the desert. British and French warplanes then began a systematic bombing campaign of Egyptian air bases, destroying at least eight MiGs and dozens of other Egyptian aircraft on the ground and forcing the others to disperse. The remaining planes still managed to fly some attack missions, but the Egyptians had lost air superiority.
- Korean War Aces
- Russian Aces over Korea
- China and Taiwan since 1945
- The Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights, by Larry Tarte and Robert Keefe, Ballantine Publishing, 2001
- Cold War Era: USA claims
- The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, ed. by Chris Bishop, Aerospace Publishing, 2001
- Soviet MiG-15 Aces of the Korean War, by Leonid Krylov, Osprey Publishing, 2008