MiG Alley Foes

The Korean War (June 25th, 1950 – July 27th, 1953) fought between the Communist North (later with their ally China along with aid from the Soviet Union) and the South supported by UN forces started out as a war where piston engined fighters such as the North American P-51D Mustang and Yakovlev Yak-9 fought in the skies above the battlefields, to one where the jet engined fighters ruled supreme. UN forces soon had air superiority over the North but they got a rude awakening On November 1st, 1950 when Communist forces started flying the jet powered Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 against their fighters and bombers (North Korean, Chinese and unofficially Soviet Union pilots flew these fighters during the war).

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 painted in North Korean markings (taken at Planes of Fame Air Show 2013 in Chino, CA)

The MiG-15 was fast (top speed 1,059 kmh / 658 mph) and had a lot of firepower (2 x 23mm cannons and 1 x 37mm cannon). Although they managed to achieve air to air victories over the MiG-15 most of the UN jets such as the Gloster Meteor, Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and Grumman F9F Panther could not truly compete in combat with it and were soon relegated to different roles such as ground attack missions. Despite this the MiG-15 was mainly introduced by the Communists to intercept the high-flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers that were turning the North into rubble. How did the UN forces deal with the MiG threat?

MiG-15's attack B-29's over North Korea
MiG-15’s attack B-29 bombers over North Korea

In December 1950 the USAF introduced the ace in their sleeve. The North American F-86 Sabre jet fighter which was fast, maneuverable and had plenty of firepower (6 x 0.50 caliber machine guns). In performance the MiG was mostly superior to the early Sabre fighters but the F-86F introduced in 1953 was pretty much an equal match for the Communist MiG-15 (the F-86F had a top speed of 1,107 kph / 688 mph).

51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, North American F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War in 1953
51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, North American F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War in 1953 (Photo Source: USAF)
North American F-86 Sabre
North American F-86 Sabre (taken at Planes of Fame Air Show 2013 in Chino, CA)
F-86 Sabre take-off
F-86 Sabre take-off (taken at Planes of Fame Air Show 2013 in Chino, CA)

The Korean War pilots of the USAF were mostly World War Two veterans who had plenty of combat experience, something the North Korean and Chinese pilots did not have. The Soviet pilots on the other hand (whose identity was unknown back then – in the early part of the war they flew aircraft in North Korean markings and even wore North Korean pilots gear) were a different story as they included veterans and numerous aces.

Mig-15 Chino 2013 Planes of Fame
The MiG-15 fighter was a shock to UN pilots – this one is in North Korean markings (taken at Planes of Fame Air Show 2013 in Chino, CA)
Top Soviet Ace Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub the commander of the Soviet 324th IAD (Fighter Air Division) during the Korean War
Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub (top WW2 Soviet air ace) was the commander of the Soviet 324th IAD (Fighter Air Division) during the Korean War

In April 1951 the first Soviet “volunteer” squadron of the 324th IAD (Fighter Air Division) was deployed with MiG-15’s to Antung Airfield in China near North Korean border under the command of Colonel Ivan Kozhedub (June 8th, 1920 — August 8th, 1991) who was the top Soviet/Allied air ace of World War Two with 62 air to air victories (predominately German fighters he shot down: 16 Bf-109’s and 21 FW-190’s fighters plus 1 Me-262 jet fighter along with 18 Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, 2 He-111 bombers, 3 Hs-129 close support aircraft plus a Polish PZL P.24 fighter). Due to his Hero of the Soviet Union status (awarded 3 times – twice in 1944 and again in 1945), the Soviet leadership would not permit Kozhedub to fly combat missions in Korea (who knows though, he may have?).

The 324th IAD was manned by elite Soviet pilots of the 196th IAP and 176th GIAP, many of whom were World War Two veterans. Initially their mission was to train Chinese pilots but it was soon decided that the Soviet pilots would also need to fly combat missions to counter the threat of well trained United Nations pilots. These elite Soviet pilots were known to the USAF asHonchos” and under Kozhedub are said to have achieved 239 air to air victories for the loss of 27 MiG-15’s and 9 pilots in combat.  Kozhedub continued to serve in the Soviet Air Force and became an Aviation Marshal in 1985.

China and the Soviets more or less used the Korean War as a training ground for jet pilots. 12 Soviet air divisions were rotated through the war zone from 1951-1953.

Soviet built MiG-15 jet fighters ready for takeoff during the Korean War (Photo Source: USAF)
Soviet built MiG-15 jet fighters ready for takeoff during the Korean War (Photo Source: USAF)
Colonel Yevgeny Pepelyayev
Colonel Yevgeny Pepelyayev – Top Soviet Air Ace of the Korean War

An Air Force Magazine article in 1991 reported that there were at least 23 Soviet aces from the Korean War (other sources quote over 30 -50 aces) with the highest being Colonel Yevgeny Pepelyayev with 23 air to air victories and Captain Nikolay Sutyagin with 21-22 victories. These pilots had the highest victory tally of any nation in the conflict. By 1952 the air war was mostly being operated by Chinese and North Korean air divisions.

Zhao Baotong was the Chinese PLAAF first and top air ace of the Korean War with 9 victories
Zhao Baotong was the Chinese PLAAF’s first and top air ace of the Korean War with 9 victories

The top North Korean and Chinese aces had no more than 8 to 9 victories. The top ace of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was Zhao Baotong of the 3rd Fighter Division flying the MiG-15 with 9 air to air victories including at least 2 F-86 Sabre jets (he was also the first Chinese air ace).

North Korean ace claims are shrouded in controversy and it is disputed as to whether they achieved more than 5 victories or not. Potentially the top North Korean ace was Kam Den Dek of the Korean Peoples Air Force (KPAF) 1st Air Division with an alleged 8 air to air victories flying the MiG-15.

Top USAF Ace Korean War Captain Joseph McConnell following his last mission
Captain Joseph McConnell following his last mission (Photo Source: US Air Force Museum)

Veteran combat skills attained during World War Two often gave the USAF pilots the edge they needed to defeat their Communist opponents. Captain Joseph McConnell was the leading USAF ace in Korea with 16 air to air victories. Interestingly McConnell served as a B-24 bomber navigator in World War Two rather than a pilot but today he remains the top US jet ace! He commenced pilot training post war.

On August 25th, 1954 McConnell was testing the fifth production North American F-86H-1-NA Sabre (serial number 52-1981) at Edwards Air Force Base, California and died in a crash near the base following a control malfunction. The cause? It seems ridiculous that a man who survived aerial combat would suffer this fate all because of a missing aircraft bolt! A sad way to go for an all American hero.

James Jabara the second highest scoring USAF air ace during the Korean War standing on his F-86 Sabre in April 1953
James Jabara the second highest scoring USAF air ace during the Korean War standing on his F-86 Sabre in April 1953 (Photo Source: USAF)

McConnell was closely followed by Major James Jabara of the USAF with 15 air to air victories. Jabara was the first US jet ace. He flew a North American P-51D Mustang during tow tours of duty in Europe during World War Two but was not an ace in that conflict (1.5 German air to air victories). In Korea he got his first victory on April 3rd, 1951 and had his 5th victory a month later.

Jabara later flew combat missions in Vietnam flying the North American F-100 Super Sabre but given he was flying ground attack missions he did not add to his air to air victory tally. Despite surviving 3 wars he sadly died following a car accident in 1966.

USAF MiG Maulers Korean War 1950-1953
USAF Korean War MiG Maulers

The USAF claimed a 8:1 kill ratio with the Sabre over Communist fighters during the Korean War. Later studies by independent researchers have apparently put the figure at being 2:1 (note: the USAF maintains the original ratio). Either way in the hands of skilled pilots the Sabre proved to be the difference in the air battle over Korea.

39 USAF F-86 pilots (and one US Marine Corps exchange pilot) became air aces with 5 or more air to air victories during the Korean War. That is not only an attest to the pilots themselves but also the magnificent jet fighter they flew into combat each day.

84532 AC - Short life of MIG-15
Gun camera footage of a MiG-15 being shot at by a Sabre circa 1953 (Photo Source: National Museum of the USAF)
MiG Alley North Korea Korean War
“MiG Alley” in North Korea

MiG Alley” in the northern section of North Korea along the Chinese border was where many jet on jet air battles occurred in large numbers. It is considered the birthplace of combat between jet fighters. Large groups of Communist fighters would wait on the Chinese side of the border to attack UN aircraft. For political reasons (to avoid World War Three) UN pilots were not meant to cross over the Chinese border to pursue MiG fighters back to their bases, but of course they often would.

UN gun camera footage that showed combat over China would apparently often simply go “missing” to avoid pilots getting into strife when they returned to base! Communist losses may have been much higher if this restriction was not in place as many pilots from the North could easily escape a losing situation by high tailing it over the border!

A famous Korean War photo of the torii gate leading to the Sabre flight line at Kimpo Air Base in South Korea
A famous Korean War photo of the torii gate leading to the Sabre flight line at Kimpo Air Base in South Korea (Photo Source: USAF)
MiG-15 vs Sabre Korean War
MiG-15 vs Sabre (taken at Planes of Fame Air Show 2013 in Chino, CA)
Mig-15 Sabre Chino 2013
Side by side comparison (taken at Planes of Fame Air Show 2013 in Chino, CA)
“MiG Alley” (taken at the Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii)

During the Korean War the US Government was very keen to obtain an operational MiG-15 to fully evaluate its performance and capability. In 1951 they had obtained parts from crashed examples and then in March 1953 a Polish pilot, Franciszek Jarecki defected to Denmark in a MiG-15. US authorities were able to inspect the aircraft but due to international regulations had to return it to Poland. This lead to Operation Moolah being launched in April 1953 where $100,000 and political asylum was offered to any Communist pilot who would defect to the west and deliver a MiG-15.

1953 Operation Moolah leaflet with information about Polish pilot Franciszek Jarecki who defected to the West in a MiG-15
1953 Operation Moolah leaflet with information about Polish pilot Franciszek Jarecki who defected to the West in a MiG-15 (Photo Source: US Army)
North Korean pilot Lieutenant No Kum Sok wearing his flight uniform. Lt No Kum Sok landed his Russian built MiG 15 jet aircraft at the 77 Squadron RAAF base at Kimpo, South Korea, on September 21st, 1953, and surrendered the aircraft to United Nations forces (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
North Korean pilot Lieutenant No Kum Sok wearing his flight uniform. Lt No Kum Sok landed his Russian built MiG 15 jet aircraft at the 77 Squadron RAAF base at Kimpo, South Korea, on September 21st, 1953, and surrendered the aircraft to United Nations forces (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Operation Moolah didn’t prove overly effective though and no MiG-15 was delivered before an armistice was signed to end the Korean War in July 1953. Then surprisingly on September 21st, 1953 a North Korean pilot, No Kum Sok defected to South Korea in his MiG-15. He claimed to know nothing about the reward before he defected but received the $100,000 anyway! After his defection No Kum Sok resettled in the United States, changed his name to Ken Rowe, became a US citizen and worked as an aviation engineer.

The MiG-15 aircraft flown by No Kum Sok was taken to Japan and then the United States for considerable testing. Following testing the aircraft was offered to be returned to North Korea. This offer was ignored and today the MiG-15 resides in the National Museum of the USAF.

The Korean War armistice was signed on July 27th, 1953. It was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” but alas even today no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved between North and South Korea and a tense DMZ remains!

Defector North Korean pilot Lieutenant No Kum Sok's MiG-15 secured in a hangar at Kimpo Air Base in South Korea in 1953
Defector North Korean pilot Lieutenant No Kum Sok’s MiG-15 secured in a hangar at Kimpo Air Base in South Korea in 1953 (Photo Source: USAF)
The MiG-15 of North Korean defector No Kum Sok taking off on its first USAF test flight in Okinawa, followed by an F-86 in 1953 (Photo Source: USAF)
The MiG-15 of North Korean defector No Kum Sok taking off on its first USAF test flight in Okinawa, followed by an F-86 in 1953 (Photo Source: USAF)
No Kum-Sok's MiG-15 in USAF markings Korean War
No Kum Sok’s MiG-15 in USAF markings (Photo Source: USAF)
North Korean MiG-15 at the National Museum of the USAF
The MiG-15 back in North Korean markings at the National Museum of the USAF (Photo Source: USAF)
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12 thoughts on “MiG Alley Foes

  1. Deano — nicely balanced and objective post 🙂 Another dimension to understanding the pitting of the F-86 and MiG 15 against one another is the pilot workloads and aircraft performance and to better understand I’d recommend a pair of books: 1) North American F-86 Sabre 1947 onwards (all day-fighter variants): an insight into owning, flying, and maintaining the USAF’s legendary Cold War jet fighter by Mark Linney who has piloted both aircraft and writes well about flying them; and 2) Red Eagles: America’s secret MiGs by Steve Davies which is the story of how the USAF obtained MiGs (including a pair of MiG 15s) and what they learned testing them. Joe

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      1. Thanks for the link. Yes I only briefly mentioned that the MiG’s were flown by North Korean, Chinese and unofficially Soviet pilots). This one was more about the aircraft, but it would be interesting to write some more about the Soviet involvement (if you look through some of my other blogs I have spent a lot of time checking out Soviet era aircraft – some of my favourite types)

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      1. Ha, no! Your Korean War blog where you mentioned the Sabre jet got me thinking that I had a number of photos of the Sabre and MiG-15 from the Planes of Fame 2013 Air Show. So it inspired me to put them in the blog 🙂

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