The MiG-15 and the F-86 Sabre were the famous fighter jets of the Soviet and American air forces in the Korean War. What made them different from one another?

“The first serious clashes of the 1952 took place on 6 January. A number of engagements took place between through the day, after which F-86 pilots claimed to have shot down five MiG-15s and Soviet MiG-15 pilots claimed to have shot down nine F-86s.”

Two F-86 Sabres of the 335th FIS/ 4th FIG on strip alert at Kimpo (K-14) in April 1952. The aircraft on the left is an F-86A while that on the right is an F-86E, which was shot down by a MiG-15 on 4 July 1951; Capt Clifford C. Jolley ejected successfully. Note the yellow recognition bands which replaced the previous black and white stripes. [NMUSAF]

The MiG-15 and the F-86 were well-matched adversaries, with similar performance. At high-level, the MiG-15bis had the edge over the F-86E: it had a higher ceiling and a better rate of turn than the F-86, which it could also out-climb. MiG-15 formations would often fly as high as 50,000ft, some 5,000ft higher than the F-86 could manage, so the MiGs frequently had the advantage of altitude and could also break off an attack by climbing steeply back up beyond the reach of the F-86. Below 30,000ft, the F-86 was the more manoeuvrable aircraft, although the MiG retained the superior rate of climb. Thus, while MiG would disengage by climbing, the preferred defensive manoeuvre by the F-86 would be a tight descending turn. A sustained turn of about 6-‘G’ was usually enough to escape from a MiG-15, not least because one advantage of the F-86 over the MiG-15 was that it provided anti-‘G’ protection for the pilot, whereas the MiG did not. Soviet, Chinese and Korean pilots found the effects of high-‘G’ manoeuvring to be extremely fatiguing, so the lack of protection also affected the long-term alertness of pilots.

A MiG-15 framed at close range in the gun camera of an F-86. [NMUSAF]

The difference in tactics employed by each side reflected their different roles and experience levels. The role of the MiG-15 was to prevent UNC ground-attack and bomber aircraft from attacking their targets, either by destroying them or making them jettison their weapons. With a massive number of aircraft available but many inexperienced pilots, Soviet and UAA MiG-15s flew in large numbers so that overwhelming force could be applied against their targets. MiG-15s would expect to fight any and all aircraft types operated by the UNC, from the F-86 to the B-29. MiG-15s were usually seen in large regimental-sized formations, known to the UNC pilots as ‘trains.’ These would be made up of flights of four to six aircraft stepped at different altitudes, with each formation covering the one beneath it. Soviet pilots, who included a number of World War 2 veterans, tended to be confident and aggressive, but they were constrained to remain north of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line, though they rarely flew south of the Chongchon River and they were prohibited from flying over the sea. Soviet MiG-15 regiments tended to be launched to intercept incoming raids and they were vectored to their targets by GCI radar control. In contrast to the Soviets, the Chinese and Korean pilots were semi-trained and many of them had fewer than 50 hours of jet flying. In general, they did not understand sufficient Russian to be able to use the Soviet radar service, so they tended to fly standing patrols and rely on visual sightings to locate their adversaries. The MiG-15 operators were aware that UN aircraft were prohibited from crossing the Yalu River, so they would climb to their operating altitude in the sanctuary area to the north of the river, before setting off into MiG Alley. Chinese and Korean ‘trains’ would often fly from the Suiho (Supung) reservoir on Yalu River to Pyongyang and then turn northwards to Antung. F-86 pilots often commented that some MiG pilots seemed reluctant to engage in combat and this was probably the case for two reasons. Firstly, by flying high above UNC aircraft, the pilots might often simply not see other aircraft, and secondly, being aware of their own inexperience, the Chinese pilots in particular might not wish to engage unless they had a clear advantage. UNC pilots had noticed the cyclical pattern in the aggression and ability displayed by the MiG-15 pilots, which corresponded with the changeover of MiG-15 units in the theatre.

A MiG-15 of the CPLAAF – note the 9 stars under the cockpit indicating the kills credited to this aircraft.

The role of the F-86 in Korea was to establish a fighter screen between the MiGs and the large number of UNC fighter-bombers flying daily low-level interdiction missions against the Main Supply Routes (MSR) running from Antung and Manpojin southwards through Sinanju to Pyongyang. By early 1952, the F-86s regularly launched in Group strength, operating in Flights of four. Take-off times would be staggered three minutes apart between Flights, so launching a maximum effort sweep from Kimpo, using three squadrons of 16 aircraft, would take around 33 minutes. This ensured that MiG Alley was well saturated by F-86s patrolling at varying altitudes and also that there were fresh F-86 Flights available to intercept the MiGs which had been scrambled against the first flights. In the operating area, some Flights would be at 42,000ft to 45,000ft while others would fly below the contrails. While staying beneath the contrails surrendered some altitude advantage, it meant that pilots knew that any aircraft leaving trails were hostile; it also meant that MiGs diving down from above the contrail level would become easily visible as they made their attack. Once it was apparent that combat would be joined, the F-86s would jettison their wing tanks and accelerate to fighting speed around 0.95 Mach. The F-86 Flights would remain on patrol until the first aircraft in the element reached their ‘bingo’ or minimum fuel. This was enough to return from the Yalu River to Kimpo or Seoul, but it was not unusual for pilots to run short of fuel and there was about one flame-out landing at Kimpo each week.

Maj George A. Davis jr, commanding the 334th FIS/ 4th FIG, was the leading US ‘ace’ credited with 14 victories in Korea when he was killed in combat on 10 February 1952. Both the Chinese and Soviets claim to have shot him down. [NMUSAF]

The first serious clashes of the 1952 took place on 6 January. A number of engagements took place between through the day, after which F-86 pilots claimed to have shot down five MiG-15s and Soviet MiG-15 pilots claimed to have shot down nine F-86s. The Chinese pilot Fan Wanzhang of the 7th FT also claimed to have shot down an F-86 which attempted to bounce his formation leader. In fact, on that day the UNC recorded the loss of just one F-86 and no Soviet MiG-15s were lost in combat. However, St Lt V.G. Stepanov, who had six kills to his name, was killed in a landing accident at Tantungkao. His aircraft overran the runway, possibly as a result of battle damage. During the month, two more Soviet ‘aces’ were shot down in combat, Kpt L.K. Shchukin (15 victories in Korea) on 7 January and Kpt S.M. Kramarenko (13 victories in Korea) four days later. Both pilots ejected from their aircraft but were injured and took no further part in the conflict. The 5th AF also lost its highest scoring ace pilot on 10 February when Maj G.A. Davis, commanding the 334th FIS (4th FIG), with 14 victories in Korea, was shot down in combat. There is still controversy over who killed Davis: the Chinese maintain that it was the Chinese pilot Zhang Jihui from the 12th FT, while the Soviets assert that St Lt M. Averin of the 148th GvIAP did so. The Chinese were not without their high-profile losses, too: Meng Jin, commander of the 7th FT failed to return from a combat with F-86s over Taechon on 11 January.

F-86 Sabre vs. MiG-15 Armament

The F-86 carried six M-3 .50-caliber machine-guns like the one displayed at the museum. The M-3 was a later version of the M-2 used in World War II. The MiG-15 carried two 23mm and one 37mm cannon and was designed to destroy enemy bombers. The two cannons on display came from the museum’s MiG-15.

The MiG’s cannons fired heavy, destructive shells at a slow rate while the Sabre’s guns fired lighter shells at a much higher rate of fire. In the high-speed dogfights typical of MiG Alley, communist pilots found it very difficult to hit the F-86s they faced.

On the other hand, Sabre pilots frequently inflicted only light damage because their machine guns lacked the punch of cannons. MiG pilots could then escape across the Yalu River into the safety of Manchuria (although F-86 pilots sometimes followed them in “hot pursuit”).

Browning M-3 Machine Gun
Bore: .50-cal. (12.7mm)
Muzzle velocity: 2,870 feet per second
Rate of fire: 1,250 rounds per minute
Bullet weight: 1.7 ounces (49 grams)
Gun weight: 65 pounds

Nudelman-Suranov NS-23 Cannon
Bore: 23mm
Muzzle velocity: 2,250-2,330 feet per second
Rate of fire: 550 rounds per minute
Bullet weight: 6.2 ounces (175 grams)
Gun weight: 81 pounds

Nudelman N-37 Cannon
Bore: 37mm
Muzzle velocity: 2,260 feet per second
Rate of fire: 400-450 rounds per minute
Bullet weight: 27 ounces or 1.7 pounds (760 grams)
Gun weight: 227 pounds

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