In December 1950, U.S. pilots flying F-86 Sabres and Soviet pilots flying MiG-15s over North Korea began history’s first large-scale jet fighter combat. The appearance of Soviet pilots marked a major turning point in the war. One of China’s conditions for entering the war in October 1950 was Soviet air support, and to that end Soviet fighter units were sent to bases in Manchuria, close to the border with North Korea. The aircraft bore Chinese markings, and the pilots were ordered to speak only Chinese or Korean, but to the crews of U.S. B-29 bombers and their escort fighters, there was no doubt as to the pilots’ nationality—a nationality that was eventually confirmed when the Soviet pilots, in the pressure of combat, abandoned the ruse and communicated by radio in Russian.
The MiG-15 was the first “all-new” Soviet jet aircraft, one whose design did not simply add a jet engine onto an older piston-engine airframe. Employing swept-back wings, tailfin, and horizontal stabilizers to reduce drag as the plane approached the speed of sound, it clearly exploited aerodynamic principles learned from German engineering at the close of World War II. It was powered by a centrifugal-flow engine that had been licensed from the British Rolls-Royce company and then upgraded by the Soviet manufacturer Klimov. The plane was first flown in 1947, and deliveries to front-line fighter units began in 1949. Designed as a bomber interceptor, the MiG-15 carried a formidable armament of two 23-mm guns and one 37-mm gun firing exploding shells.
Shocked by the speed, climbing ability, and high operating ceiling of the Soviet fighter, the United States hurried delivery to Korea of the new F-86 Sabre, a single-seat, single-engine jet fighter built by North American Aviation, Inc. Like the MiG-15, the F-86 was built with swept-back wings, was first flown in 1947, and became operational in 1949. Unlike its Soviet counterpart, it was designed for air-superiority combat with other jet fighters; it was powered by a General Electric turbojet engine, and its armament consisted of six .50-inch machine guns (though later versions also carried 20-mm cannons). Though inferior to the MiG-15 in weight of armament, turn radius, and maximum speed at combat altitude, the F-86 quickly re-established U.S. air supremacy over Korea, in part because of its superior handling characteristics, a radar-ranging gunsight, and a superior pilot-training system instituted by the U.S. Air Force. Nevertheless, the MiG-15 virtually ended daylight bombing runs by the huge, slow B-29s, and Soviet pilots continued to engage in combat with U.S. and allied planes even as they trained Chinese and North Koreans to fly in the new jet age.
Soviet-made MIG-15 jets appeared over North Korea on 1 November, but it is possible that Soviet pilots were not actually flying them until later in the month. For recent evidence on the matter, see Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue, Uncertain Partners, 199–200, and Jon Halliday, “Air Operations in Korea: The Soviet Side of the Story,” in Williams, Revolutionary War, 149–51.
On 14 July 1953, aces Arkadiy Boytsov, Anatoliy Karelin and Mikhail Mikhin were made Heroes of the Soviet Union for their successful combat operations in Korea in 1952-53 — during this period, 16 64th IAK fighter pilots had become aces. Many others would have probably also done so if their claims had been confirmed under the system used in 1950-51. Following a tightening up in the kill confirmation criteria in mid-1952, the results achieved by pilots in the final year of the conflict were more modest than those of their predecessors.
Between 1 November 1950 and 27 July 1953, Soviet fighter pilots in Manchuria flew 60,450 day and 2779 night combat sorties, and fought in 1683 daytime group air battles and 107 individual night battles. 64th IAK's pilots scored 1097 victories as follows — 65 B-29s, seven B-26s, two RB-45s, one RB-50, two F-47s, 28 F-51s, 118 F-80s, 185 F-84s, 647 F-86s, 11 F-94s, one F4U, three F6Fs, one F3D and 26 Meteor F 8s. Total losses were 335 aircraft and 120 pilots, including 319 aircraft and 110 pilots in aerial combat. These figures are taken from official 64th IAK documentation, having initially been derived from reports created by the corps' divisions and regiments.
On the basis of kills attributable to individual pilots, after all necessary confirmations have been taken into account, the total becomes 1025 — 66 B-29s, seven B-26s, two RB-45s, one RB-50, two F-47s, 28 F-51s, 123 F-80s, 181 F-84s, 574 F-86s, 11 F-94s, one F4U, three F6Fs and 26 Meteor F 8s. Combat losses amounted to 307 aircraft and 103 pilots.
For over half a century, Western sources have portrayed the skies over Korea between 1950 and 1953 as being something of a playground for US fighter pilots, who were able to achieve an impressive kill ratio over opponents who were assumed to be mainly North Koreans or Chinese, with a leavening of Soviet Volunteers'. The reality, was somewhat different.
Not only were the MiG-15s operated by regular Soviet Air Force units constantly rotating through the combat zone, but many of their pilots were capable of making life difficult for the USAF. Indeed, just like their US counterparts, many had combat experience in World War 2 to draw on. All told, 52 Soviet MiG-15 pilots downed five enemy aircraft, with thirteen downing ten or more. For these achievements they are entitled to be regarded as the MiG-15 aces of the Korean War.