"Russian MiG." In American pop culture, that phrase has come to symbolize the air power of the Evil Empire. Over the years, half a dozen different MiG fighter models have bedeviled American pilots and inspired Hollywood movie-makers. The one that started it all is the MiG-15, the world's first swept-wing jet fighter.
Post-war Russian technology drew heavily on the West, and the MiG-15 was no exception. Designers Artem Mikoyan (The "Mi" in MiG) and Mikhail Gurevich (the "G") were heavily influenced by the Focke Wulfe Ta 183, an abortive Nazi jet.
The Russians had no suitable engine, but managed to talk the British out of a small batch of Rolls Royce Nene turbojets. They immediately built an almost exact copy, the Klimov RD-45, which powered the prototype MiG-15, called the I-310, on its first flight in 1947. A later version got an improved engine called the VK-1.
In the early days of the Korean War, the fast, high-climbing little MiG, code-named Fagot by NATO, came as a rude shock to the Americans. Armed with .23 and .37-mm cannons, it shot down a number of B-29s, and forced the USAF to halt daylight bomb raids. The MiG-15 was clearly superior to the American F-80 and P-51 fighters then in Korea, although the American pilots' superior skill and training helped close the gap. On November 8, 1950, an F-80 flown by 1st Lt. Russell Brown shot down a MiG-15 in history's first all-jet dogfight.
When the F-86 Sabre, America's first swept-wing fighter, arrived in Korea, the tables were turned. Although the MiG could outclimb the Sabre at altitude, it couldn't match its roll rate, turn radius, or visibility. Better-trained Sabre pilots racked up a claimed kill ratio of 14:1 against the MiGs. (The Russians have since claimed the MiGs' kill ratio was superior.) Bragging rights aside, the epic MiG/Sabre dogfights in "MiG Alley" along the Yalu River are among the most storied in air combat history.
After Korea, the MiG-15 became the standard fighter plane of the air forces in the Communist Bloc, and many neutral nations as well. More than 8,000 were built in Russia, thousands more in Poland and Czechoslovakia. A two-seat version remained the standard jet trainer in many Communist countries well into the 1970s.
About 20 MiG-15s have found their way into the hands of Western private pilots. (You can pick one up for $175,000 or so.) One fellow does a choreographed air show dogfight routine in his MiG-15 against a Sabre, with both aircraft painted in their original war colors. The crowds love it. Guess who loses, every time?
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