Throughout the 20th century it was no secret that both the Soviet Union and the United States were covertly involved in each other’s conflicts around the globe. At the conclusion of the cold war, it was discovered that the involvement was often more overt than previously understood.
The Korean War was fought between the U.S-backed South Korea, and the Communist -backed North Korea and lasted from 1950 to 1953. The Soviet Union provided assistance to the North Korean’s in many forms however the most notable were aircraft and pilots. The Soviet pilots were a necessity to the North Korean war effort as they had a wealth of combat experience from the Second World War, as did many of the American pilots. They were smuggled into the country and were required to wear Chinese or North Korean uniforms and had no Soviet Union markings on their aircraft.
In addition to all of the precautions above, Soviet pilots were not allowed to fly anywhere near the 38th Parallel (The UN imposed dividing line between the North and the South) in case they were show down and captured. The repercussions of such an event such could have been severe.
These smuggled Russian pilots (nicknamed ‘Honcho’s’ by US Airmen), were easy to identify as their abilities far superseded those of their North Korean and Chinese counterparts. This is due to the Soviet Pilots having extensive combat experience gained during WWII. The pilots were ordered by their superiors to only speak Korean or Chinese over the radio, however, often in the heat of a dogfight a pilot would let a few curses slip in Russian and American pilots would overhear. The combination of both highly trained American pilots in their F-86 Sabre and Soviet Union pilots in their MIG-15’s led to some legendary dogfights in the infamous ‘Mig Alley’ which was in the north-western part of North Korea bordering with China.
Instances did occur where American pilots crossed the border with China in furious pursuit of a kill (an obvious restriction). The History Channel series titled ‘Dogfights‘, often draws upon the numerous air to air combat scenarios that occurred in the skies over North Korea. Below is a link to one such episode.
The exact capabilities each countries’ respective aircraft were shrouded in secrecy and as such, it became difficult to learn the limitations and weaknesses of the enemy aircraft. The capabilities of the MIG-15 were not uncovered until in 1953, a North Korean pilot named No Kum-Sok defected to South Korea for a reward of $100,000 (Factoring in inflation since the 1950’s I am sure this would have been a tidy sum). The United States studied the aircraft extensively and were able to uncover its weaknesses and develop tactics to increase success against the MIG’s. The Soviet Union had a similar goal which they achieved with the F-86 Sabre however, no American pilot defected. Instead the Russians managed to obtain a largely intact F-86 after the pilot bailed out shortly after being shot down.
An additional advantage the F-86 Sabre had over the MIG-15 was a lead computing gun sight. Lead is the situation where at high speeds bullets do not travel a direct path, especially not during high-G turns. During WWII, pilots had to visually judge lead on targets however, this became increasingly difficult when jet fighters achieved much higher speeds. The lead computing sight calculated how the bullets would arc comparative to speed and the aiming reticule moves accordingly allowing much more accurate fire.
Despite the USA’s technological advantage in many instances, the skill of the Russian pilots was undeniable with as many as 26 Russian pilots earning ace status. The most notable of which was Nikolai Sutyagin who claimed 21 victories through the duration of the conflict.
This conflict was not the last time Russian and American pilots meet each other in combat. Similar circumstances have occurred in conflicts such as the Vietnam War and various other skirmishes around the globe. Even today, pilots from the world’s air forces tangle over contested air space with some very near misses, crashes and shoot downs occuring. It remains to be seen whether Russia and the United State’s air forces ever go head to head directly in air combat.