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MiG-15 FAGOT - Combat Experience

The MiG-15s received their combat baptism in the Korean war and proved superior to the American F-86, the Sabres. The MiG-15 was deployed against American Air Forces in December of 1950 in Korea. On November 8, 1950, 1st Lt. Russell Brown, flying an F-80, shot down a MiG-15 in the first all-jet dogfight in history. It was apparent, however, that the MiG-15 was superior to any aircraft then in the US inventory. The superiority of the excellent MiG-15 was one of the key factors that led to Soviet pilots emerging on top in the air war over Korea.

September 1950 witnessed the first major turning point in the Korean War. At the beginning of the month, North Korean forces were at the threshold of total victory, but by its end they were in full retreat across the 38th parallel. Unable to stop raids by the air forces of the U.S., Britain and Australia, the North Koreans appealed to Moscow. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had no intention of entering the war in Korea. World War II was too recent a memory and Moscow did not want a conflict with the West that could lead to another global war. So initially it was just China that militarily supported the North Koreans. But as the western armies – nominally under UN command – threatened to overrun the entire peninsula and seeing the quality and shortage of Chinese pilots, Stalin took the decision to involve his air force in the war.

In order to keep Moscow’s involvement a secret, Stalin imposed certain limitations on the Soviet pilots. One, they would fly under the markings of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force or North Korean Peoples' Army Air Force. Secondly, while in the air, the pilots would communicate only in Mandarin or Korean; the use of Russian was banned.

And finally, Russian pilots would under no circumstances approach the 38th Parallel (the border between the two Koreas) or the coastline. This was to prevent their capture by the Americans. The last restriction was crippling – it meant Russian pilots were prevented from giving chase to enemy aircraft. Since aircraft are at their most vulnerable while fleeing (because they have either run out ammunition, are low on fuel, or experiencing technical trouble), it meant Russian pilots were denied easy kills. Hundreds of western fighters were able to escape into South Korea because the Russians turned back as they neared the coastline or the border.

The Soviets sent in their latest MiG-15 flown by battle-hardened veterans of the Great Patriotic War. The result was dramatic. In the very first aerial battle between Soviet and American planes over Korea on November 1, 1950, the Soviets shot down two Mustangs, while losing none of their MiGs. “American mastery of the Korean skies had come to an end,” writes former fighter pilot Sergei Kramarenko in his book, ‘Air Combat Over the Eastern Front and Korea.’ On 08 November 1050, in the largest incendiary raid of the Korean War, seventy Superfortresses dropped some 580 tons of fire bombs on Sinuiju on the Chinese border. [some Russian accounts date the attack to September, and claim this was the provocation for Soviet involvement in the War]

Over the skies of Korea, Russia’s air aces came up against their western opponents in the first fighter-against-fighter clashes of the jet age. In deadly air battles over the peninsula the Soviet pilots repeatedly defeated much larger enemy fighter formations and sent dozens of bombers to their doom.

The MiG-15 was a key factor in establishing Soviet dominance. The aircraft had a higher ceiling than western aircraft such as the F-86 Sabre so Soviet pilots could easily escape by climbing to well over 50,000 feet, knowing that the enemy could not follow. Secondly, the MiG had much better acceleration and speed – 1,005 km/h versus 972 km/h. The MiG’s 9,200 feet per minute climbing rate was also greater than the 7,200 feet per minute of most F-86 versions. A critical factor in the air war was the difference in armament. The MiGs were armed with cannons capable of hitting a target from a distance of 1,000 meters, while the American B-29 bombers’ machine guns were set for a range of 400 meters.

Kramarenko explains: “It turned out that in the range between 1,000 and 400 meters our planes would fire and destroy the bombers while still outside the range of their machinegun fire. It was the largest miscalculation of the American command – an error of their designers and aircraft producers. Essentially, the huge and expensive bombers were defenseless against the cannons of our MiGs.”

The MiG-15’s high explosive bullets would rip a hole approximately one square meter in size on enemy aircraft. Few of these aircraft flew again even if their pilots miraculously managed to take their stricken plane back. On the other hand, the MiG-15s with their thicker skin could take a lot of punishment and return home safe.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Charles “Chick” Cleveland told Air & Space Magazine: “You have to remember that the little MiG-15 in Korea was successful doing what all the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts of World War II were never able to do – drive the United States bomber force right out the sky.”

Most of the Soviet fighter pilots who took part in the Korean War were air aces of the Great Patriotic War which had ended barely six years ago. So were the American and British pilots. Pilots of all three countries had fought against the highly trained German Luftwaffe, but there was a difference. The air battles that accompanied the Soviet advance westward toward Berlin were pitiless. There the Red Air Force confronted increasingly desperate, outnumbered but still deadly Luftwaffe pilots who were defending their homeland. The Soviet pilots, therefore, had much better combat experience and possessed better dogfighting skills than their western opponents. For instance, the first large Soviet aviation unit sent to Korea, the 324th IAD, was an air defense interceptor division commanded by Colonel Ivan Kozhedub, who, with 62 victories, was the top Allied ace of the Great Patriotic War.

The Soviet also ran better tactics that outclassed the western air forces. For instance, large formations of MiGs would lie in wait on the Chinese side of the border. When western aircraft entered MiG Alley – the name given by western pilots to the northwestern portion of North Korea, and the site of numerous dogfights – these MiGs would swoop down from high altitude to attack. If the MiGs ran into trouble, they would try to escape back over the border into China.

Soviet MiG-15 squadrons operated in big groups, but the basic formation was a six-plane group, divided into three pairs, each composed of a leader and a wingman. The first pair of MiG-15s attacked the enemy Sabres. The second pair protected the first pair. The third pair remained above, supporting the two other pairs when needed. This pair had more freedom and could also attack targets of opportunity, such as lone Sabres that had lost their wingmen.

Soviet involvement in the war had a spinoff effect on North Korean and Chinese morale. When the Soviets first started training Chinese fighter pilots to fly the MiG-15 they discovered that the trainees were in poor physical shape and could barely get off the plane after a sortie. This was mainly owing to their diet – three cups of rice and a cup of cabbage soup a day. After several weeks on a diet based on Soviet standards the Chinese airmen were able to endure the rigors of air combat. Similarly, the North Koreans started performing miracles in the air, shooting down several American aircraft, which earlier used to fly rings around them.

The turning point of the war came in October 1951. American aerial reconnaissance had detected construction work on 18 airfields in North Korea. The largest of these was in Naamsi, which would have concrete runways and be capable of staging jet aircraft.

Yuri Sutiagin and Igor Seidov explain in the exhaustive book ‘MiG Menace Over Korea’ the implications of the runway expansion program. “The new airfields, located deep in North Korean territory, would permit the transfer of fresh MiG-15 unites to them, which would expand the area of operation of these dangerous fighters and jeopardize the operation of the UN forces. In the event, the so-called MiG Alley would extend all the way down to the 38th Parallel, and potentially expose the UN ground forces to continuous air attacks.”

On October 23, 1951 – now known as Black Tuesday – the western air forces cobbled together a vast armada of 200 jet fighters (F-86 Sabres, F-84s, F-80s and British-built Gloster Meteor IVs) and nearly two dozen B-29 Superfortress bombers (the same type that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan). The mission profile of this concentrated attack was to disrupt the flow of supplies to Korean and Chinese forces and to put the airbases at Naamsi and Taechon in North Korea out of action.

To counter this threat the Russians organised two fighter air divisions. The 303rd comprising fifty-eight MiG-15s formed the first echelon and was assigned to attack the primary group of enemy bombers and fighter-bombers. The 324th division had twenty-six MiG-15s and comprised the second echelon. It was responsible for reinforcing the battle and covering the 303rd’s exit from battle.

The Soviet strategy was to ignore the fighter escorts and go straight for the slower Superfortresses. As the MiGs were heading to clash with the Superfortresses they caught sight of a group of slow British Meteors. Some of the Russian pilots were tempted by these enticing targets, but commander Nikolai Volkov said: “We’re going after the big ones.”

Like orca whales circling around and then swallowing their prey, the MiGs tore into the B-29 formations. Some of the Soviet pilots attacked the American bombers vertically from below, seeing the B-29s explode in front of their eyes. It was almost a turkey shoot, as the crew – 12 to 13 airmen – of the stricken bombers bailed out one by one.

The Soviets claimed the destruction of ten B-29s – the highest percentage of US bombers ever lost on a major mission – while losing one MiG. However, Kramarenko says some pilots claimed that twenty B-29s were downed in the week of October 22-27. Plus the USAF lost four F-84 escort fighters.

The Americans admit to three bombers downed in the air, while another five B-29s and one F-84 were seriously damaged and later written off. “Even so, these were quite painful losses for the American command,” write Sutiagin and Seidov. Commander Lev Shchukin recalls Black Tuesday: “They were trying to intimidate us. They were perhaps thinking that we would be frightened by their numbers and would flee, but instead we met them head-on.” Clearly, Soviet pilots had internalised what Sergei Dolgushin, a Russian Air Force ace with 24 victories in WW II, said is a prerequisite to be a successful fighter pilot: “a love of hunting, a great desire to be the top dog”.

Former USAF pilot Lt-Col Earl McGill sums up the battle in 'Black Tuesday Over Namsi: B-29s vs MiGs': "In percentages, Black Tuesday marked the greatest loss on any major bombing mission in any war the United States has ever engaged in, and the ensuing battle, in a chunk of sky called MiG Alley, still ranks as perhaps the greatest jet air battle of all time." The air battle of Black Tuesday would forever change the USAF’s conduct of strategic aerial bombardment. The B-29s would no longer fly daytime sorties into MiG Alley. North Korean towns and villages would no longer be carpet bombed and napalmed by the Americans. Thousands of civilians were out of the firing line.

With Stalin’s death in 1953 the war was coming to a close. Since this was not a battle for the homeland, none of the Soviet pilots wanted to be the last one to die, and therefore there were no more epic air battles over the skies of Korea.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2019 18:37:09 ZULU