Which was the better fighter, the Sabre or the MiG? As in most questions of this type, the answer is--it depends!
Throughout the Korean war, American intelligence on the capabilities of the MiG-15 was limited largely to Sabre pilots' fleeting impressions of the Russian-built aircraft when they encountered it in combat. These impressions were reinforced by a description of a MiG-15 flown to Denmark in March of 1953 by a Polish defector, and also by the examination of a wrecked MiG salvaged from 17 feet of water off the North Korean coast in July of 1951.
On September 21, 1953, Lt. No Kum-Suk of the Korean People's Armed Forces Air Corps defected to the South along with his MiG-15bis. This presented the USAF with its first flyable example of its MiG-15 opponent, and gave US intelligence the first chance to compare its initial impressions with actual flight test data. The MiG was dismantled and flown to Okinawa aboard a C-124 Globemaster. There, it was reassembled and flown by a crew of experienced test pilots including Maj. Gen. Albert B. Boyd, Major Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, and Capt H. E. Collins. The MiG was painted with USAF markings, and was assigned the fictitious serial number "616", because Capt. Collins had used this same number on a plane he had once flown. The actual MiG serial number was 2015357. This aircraft was later flown to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Lt. No's MiG-15bis is currently on display at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum, painted in its original North Korean markings.
The test flights confirmed the initial impressions of combat pilots in Korea. The MiG-15 was faster than the F-86A and F-86E at altitudes above 30,000 feet, but slower at lower altitudes. Early F-86Fs were superior in speed to the MiG only up to 35,000 feet, whereas the "6-3" F-86Fs were faster than their MiG opponents all the way up to the Sabre's service ceiling.
One of the primary advantages of the MiG over the Sabre was its 4000-foot advantage in service ceiling. It would often happen that F-86s would enter MiG Alley at 40,000 feet, only to find MiGs circling 10,000 feet above them. There was nothing that the Sabre pilots could do unless the MiGs decided to come down and do battle. The high-flying MiGs could pick the time and place of battle, and their higher speed at high altitudes enabled them to break off combat at will when things got too tight. Many a MiG escaped destruction by being able to flee across the Yalu where the Sabres were forbidden to pursue.
The Sabre was much heavier than the MiG and had a superior diving speed. Both the MiG and the F-86 could go supersonic in a dive, but the Sabre was much more stable than the MiG in the transonic speed regime. One way for a Sabre to shake a MiG sitting on its tail was for the F-86 pilot to open his throttle all the way up and go over into a dive, pulling its pursuer down to lower altitudes where the F-86 had a performance advantage. Above Mach 0.86, the MiG-15 suffered from severe directional snaking, which made the aircraft a poor gun platform at these high speeds. Buffeting in the MiG began at Mach 0.91, and a nose-up tendency initiated at Mach 0.93. The high-speed stability problems of the MiG-15 were so severe that it was not all that uncommon for a MiG to go into the transonic regime during an air battle, only to lose its entire vertical tail assembly during violent combat maneuvering. The rate of roll of the MiG was too slow, and lateral-directional stability was poor at high altitudes and speeds.
One of the most serious weaknesses of the MiG-15 was its tendency to go into uncontrollable spins, especially in the hands of inexperienced pilots. Many Sabre victories in Korea were scored without the F-86 pilots ever having to fire their guns--they merely forced their MiG opponents into spins from which their pilots could not recover. An experienced MiG pilot could get himself out of a spin, but the aircraft was somewhat unstable and lacked good stall warning properties.
The turning radius of the MiG was good, somewhat better than that of the F-86A, E and early F. However, this advantage was largely eliminated by the advent of the "6-3" wing of the later F-86F. The good turning radius of the MiG was compromised by poor stalling characteristics. These bad stalling characteristics could get a green MiG pilot into serious trouble during the stress of a dogfight, causing his fighter to suddenly stall, go into an uncontrollable spin, and fall out of the sky.
In contrast, the spinning characteristics of the Sabre were excellent, and gave most pilots no trouble at all. If the F-86 was forced into a spin, recovery was usually effected by simply neutralizing the controls.
The MiG-15 armament of one 37-mm N-37 cannon and two 23-mm NR-23 guns was designed for attacking bombers, and was not really intended for use against fighters. Forty rounds of 37-mm ammunition and 160 rounds of 23-mm ammunition were carried, a rather low ammunition capacity. The 37-mm gun fired at a rate of 450 rpm, whereas the 23-mm guns each fired at a rate of 650 rpm. The MiG's armament had a good punch, but the rate of fire was too slow to make it effective against nimble, rapidly-maneuvering fighters. In contrast, the F-86's armament of six 0.50-in machine guns had a rapid firing rate and the aircraft carried an ample supply of ammunition. However, the machine guns of the Sabre lacked the stopping power of the MiG's cannon. It was not uncommon for a Sabre pilot to empty all 1600 rounds of his ammunition at a MiG, only to see it escape unscathed.
The gunsight of the MiG-15 was of the simple gyro type, similar to that of the early F-86A. It lacked any radar ranging capability. The radar ranging gunsight of the later Sabres made the F-86 a much more accurate gun platform than the MiG, but this accuracy was sometimes wasted because of the low weight of fire from the machine guns.
The MiG was much lighter than the Sabre, weighing only 11,070 pounds loaded. The take off run to clear a 50-foot obstacle was only 2500 feet, as compared with 3660 feet for the F-86A.
Internal fuel capacity of the MiG was 372 US gallons, compared with 435 gallons for the Sabre. This gave the MiG a range of 480 miles, which could be increased to 675 miles with drop tanks.
During the Korean War, 792 MiG-15s were destroyed by F-86 pilots, with 118 probables being claimed. 78 Sabres were definitely lost in air-to-air combat against the MiGs, with a further 13 Sabres being listed as missing in action. This is about a ten-to-one superiority. From this result, one might naturally conclude that the F-86 was the superior fighter. However, a factor which must also be considered is the relative level of experience and competence of the opposing pilots. The US Sabre pilots were all highly trained and competent airmen, many of whom had extensive World War 2 combat experience. With the exception of some Russian World War 2 veterans who flew MiG fighters in Korea, the MiG pilots were often sent into combat with only minimal flying experience. MiG pilots often exercised poor combat discipline. During the course of battle, MiG pilots would often break off into confusion and panic, firing wildly, and leaving their wingmen unprotected. Often, a MiG pilot in trouble would eject from his plane before anyone actually shot at him. Many MiG pilots were so inexperienced that in the heat of battle they would end up getting themselves into uncontrollable spins and crashing. At times, MiG pilots would fire their cannon in an attempt to lighten their loads, without really aiming at anything. Most of the MiG pilots were extremely wary of combat, and usually did not attempt to fight unless they saw an advantage opening up. In contrast, the Sabre pilots were aggressive and eager for combat, and wanted nothing more than for the MiGs to come over the Yalu so that they could add to their scores.
So, which plane would you rather be sitting in, the MiG-15 or the F-86? Perhaps Chuck Yeager said it best--"It isn't the plane that is important in combat, it's the man sitting in it."
- F-86 Sabre in Action, Larry Davis, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992.
- The North American Sabre, Ray Wagner, MacDonald, 1963.
- The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.
- Flash of the Sabre, Jack Dean, Wings Vol 22, No 5, 1992.
- MiG--A History of the Design Bureau and its Aircraft, Piotr Butowski and Jay Miller, Aerofax, 1991.