Air-Minded: Sabre vs MiG

A few years ago, restoration staff at Pima Air & Space Museum parked a USAF F-86E Sabre and a North Korean MiG-15 next to one another in an exhibit hangar. As leader of the museum’s walking tour team, I was asked to write a background paper to help bring the other docents up to speed on the jets and their role in the Korean War.

Korea Panorama

MiG Alley panorama copy

This is my background paper, as written, with an absolute minimum of re-editing and/or polish:

Sabre vs MiG Background Paper
Paul Woodford

Note: this paper does not attempt to address the full scope of the air war in Korea. These talking points are USAF-specific and generally confined to the F-86 and MiG-15.

Korean War lasted from June 1950 to July 1953.

At the start, NK’s inexperienced aircrews, flying prop-driven WWII Soviet planes, were no match for USAF aircrews flying B-29s, P-51s, F-80s, and F-84s. The US quickly gained complete air superiority over the peninsula.

NK pressed USSR for relief: MiG-15s with Soviet pilots were introduced in late 1950.

First MiG-15 encounters occurred in Nov 1950: P-51s & F-80s were shot down by MiGs, followed by successful attacks on USAF bombers.

By April 1951 MiGs were shooting down so many B-29s the USAF suspended bombing for 3 months, then switched from day to night bombing. To counter the MiG-15, the USAF accelerated the introduction of the new F-86.

MiG Alley was the name given to an area along the China/NK border. Stalin ordered MiG-15s to operate from bases on the Chinese side of the border; since the MiGs had limited range much of the fighting occurred in MiG Alley.

For the first year of the war, most of the MiGs were flown by Soviet pilots. The relative equality between Soviet and American pilots, as well as the relative equality between the MiG and Sabre, resulted in close to a 1:1 kill ratio.

In 1952 and 1953, most MiGs were flown by Soviet-trained Chinese & NK pilots, but a few Soviet pilots remained (and were called Honchos by USAF pilots). Chinese/NK pilots were inexperienced and the advantage passed to the Sabres and their pilots. Sabres finished the war with anywhere from a 10:1 to 6:1 kill ratio:

– Official figures (based on claims) are 762 MiG-15s to 78 F-86s, close to 10:1
– Counting airframe losses as recorded by participating air forces, more realistic numbers are 566 Mig-15s to 104 F-86s, closer to 6:1
– Above numbers factor out Sabres & MiGs lost to other factors such as fuel starvation, engine failure, etc

Supplemental notes:

The MiG-15 was developed after WWII, first flown in 1947, introduced in 1949. Its swept wings were based on WWII German designs; the engine was a reverse-engineered British design. More than 18,000 MiG-15s were built (12,000 in the USSR, another 6,000 built under license in other countries), making it the most-produced jet fighter in the world.

The F-86 was also developed after WWII, first flown in 1947, introduced in 1949. It had initially been designed with straight wings, but to give it increased speed designers adopted swept wings based on WWII German research. Close to 10,000 Sabres were built by North American, Canadair, and CAC (Australia).

Both aircraft first saw combat in the Korean War.

Relative strengths of the MiG-15 over the F-86 included a heavier punch (it employed 37mm & 23 mm cannons), faster rate of climb, and higher combat ceiling. MiGs could enter the fight from above and escape by climbing back up where Sabres couldn’t follow. At very high altitudes, the MiG was slightly faster than the Sabre in level flight.

Relative weaknesses of the MiG were its slow rate of fire and limited ammunition capacity, an antiquated manual gunsight, and instability at high speed. The MiG had conventional, unboosted flight controls and there was no G-suit for the pilot: it was exhausting to fly at transonic speeds and, while fast, became dangerously unstable approaching the Mach. It had a very short range, never operating very far from its own airfields.

Relative strengths of the F-86 were its rapid rate of fire and larger ammunition capacity, lead-computing gunsight tied to a range-only radar in the nose, hydraulically boosted flight controls, stable handling at transonic speeds, and a G-suit for the pilot. It had a faster instantaneous turn rate, better cockpit visibility, and longer range. The F-86E and later models incorporated an all-flying tail, giving the Sabre even better transonic handling. At low altitudes, the Sabre had a slight speed advantage over the MiG in level flight.

Relative weaknesses of the Sabre were its lighter punch (0.50-inch machine guns), slower climb rate, and lower combat ceiling.

The Sabre was fully controllable in transonic flight and could go supersonic in a dive, whereas the MiG became dangerously unstable approaching the Mach (some MiGs were actually seen shedding vertical tail assemblies in high-speed dives). Later models of the MiG-15 incorporated speed brakes that auto-deployed above Mach 0.92 to keep it from exceeding that speed.

The initial batch of MiG-15 pilots were the pick of the USSR’s crop; some were WWII aces and others became aces in Korea. Their tactics were similar to ours.

We gave our pilots better training, and over time this made a huge difference. Experienced and inexperienced Sabre pilots alike went through extensive and realistic training at Nellis AFB in Nevada before deploying to Korea. Once the Soviet presence was reduced and the bulk of the fighting turned over to inexperienced, hastily-trained Chinese and NK pilots, the advantage shifted decisively to American and allied pilots. The introduction of improved F-86Es and, in the closing months of the war, F-86Fs made a big difference as well.

Reference materials:

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