A closer look at the North Korean jets just outside of Beijing
You have to remember that the little MiG-15 in Korea was successful doing what all the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts of World War II were never able to do: Drive the United States bomber force right out the sky.
In late 1950 in the skies above Korea, a formation of US Air Force B-29 Superfortresses on a mission to bomb a North Korean air base encountered an aircraft never seen before in conflict. The aircraft cut through the formation only lightly damaging one of the bombers, but it was too quick for any of the bomber’s many gun turrets to respond let alone get a fix on it. The formation had an escort of jet fighters, but this aircraft was simply too fast for these as well. This new aircraft disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
It was less than six months into the Korean conflict and the fledgling Korean People’s Army Air Force had been wiped from the skies using their antiquated World War Two aircraft against the technically superior United Nations forces equipment spearheaded by the fighter jets and heavy bombers of the US Air Force. This aerial superiority allowed them to bomb north of the 38th parallel unimpeded with most North Korean cities and towns being obliterated. A single bombing raid in September of 1950 on Sinuiju by eighty B-29 bombers resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 people - the biggest single loss of life after the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two. With no ability to properly defend themselves, the United Nation forces were not only able to destroy most of North Korea and its infrastructure, but take the war right up to the border with China.
With the war now on the China’s doorstep and the entire Korean peninsula about to come under control of UN forces and the government of the South, China made the decision to intervene to push them back. Appeals to Moscow from China and North Korea’s leadership for assistance were successful with Russia agreeing to provide unofficial military support to both countries. As part of this agreement, Stalin agreed to provide aircraft to both countries and support from his air force.
Enter the Mig-15.
The Mig-15 was faster, better armed and in many areas could outperform all of the fighter jets the west had in production at that point and was designed to not only take them on in the air, but also take out the bombers they were protecting as well. The jet itself had a very interesting development – the design can be traced back to jet designs the Germans were working on before their defeat in Europe, the engine was a copy of a Rolls-Royce engine produced by the British (the earliest Mig-15s were in fact powered by British made Rolls-Royce engines), and it was all put together by Russian ingenuity.
Stalin had no interest in getting the Soviets directly involved with another war so soon after World War Two, so the jet was supplied to the air forces of both North Korea and China with technical assistance and training provided by the Russian Air Force. However, due to both air forces being small, under equipped and finding that the Korean and Chinese pilots were inexperienced, he gave the OK for his air force pilots to participate in the war in secret while Chinese and Korean pilots developed their experience. The directive was that they would fly in North Korean or Chinese jets, wear Chinese or civilian outfits in the cockpit, only communicate in Korean or Mandarin when flying and not fly past the 38th parallel or over the sea due to the likelihood of being captured by UN forces if shot down (it should be mentioned though that in most air to air encounters the Russian pilots would very quickly break character - much Russian cursing was heard over the radio).
As neither China or North Korea had enough of an air force to be a proper fighting force, they formed the ‘Unified Air Forces’ to bolster their forces and operate as a single unit until such time that they had sufficient numbers & experience to operate independently. This meant that while a particular aircraft may be wearing the colors of the Korean People’s Army Air Force, it could be a Korean, Chinese or Russian pilot sitting in the cockpit. It seems that most of the Migs from the conflict flew in Korean colors – as a visit to the Chinese Aviation Museum to see their large collection of preserved Mig-15s from the war as flown by Chinese air aces will prove.
The Mig-15 in the hands of the experienced Russian fighter pilots, and soon enough the Chinese and Korean pilots, became a very serious threat in the skies above the peninsula and quickly started wrestling control back. The US Air Force had to abandon the daylight bombing raids due to heavy losses inflicted by the Migs and revert to small night time bombing missions, while the jet fighters in theater at the time were simply no match in the air and switched to the role of ground attack. The majority of front line aircraft were rendered obsolete overnight. The only aircraft capable of being able to match it in the air was the newest American fighter jet – the F-86 Sabre - which was quickly rushed into the conflict in response to the presence of the Mig-15.
The Migs were based just over the Chinese border in Antung (now Dandong) and ruled the skies down south to the Chongjin River near Anju, and east across to Songwon in an area that became known as ‘Mig Alley’. The F-86 Sabres of the US Air Force regularly flew into this area looking for Mig’s and most dogfights of the war happened in this area, but being on the edge of their range from their bases in the South could only spend up to 20 minutes in the area before having to return to base. They officially weren’t allowed to cross the Yalu River into Chinese territory, but would quite often do this in pursuit of Mig’s in what they coined as ‘hot pursuit’.
There is an ongoing debate about which aircraft - Mig-15 vs. Sabre - was the better aircraft. While each has their strengths and weaknesses, it was believed for a long time that the Sabre was the better aircraft as there was only information available on the air to air victories of the US pilots and not much to refute it. However with the end of the Cold War and subsequent release of previously secret documents, the role of Russian pilots in the conflict was confirmed and the impact of the Mig-15 in combat over Korea became much clearer. The debate rages on though as historians now argue over the exact numbers of aircraft downed by each side, but there is no doubt that the entry of the Mig-15 into the Korean War not only changed the war on the peninsula, but also changed aerial warfare forever.
If you’d like to get up close to these Mig-15s from the Korean War, the Chinese Aviation Museum on the outskirts of Beijing preserves many of the jets from the conflict as flown by Chinese pilots and are on display in its vast halls and grounds (including in its half kilometer long underground hangar). They even have an example of the F-86 Sabre on display so that you can compare or simply admire (it’s an ex-Pakistan Air Force example gifted to China).
The Chinese Aviation Museum is a great place to visit for those interested in Korean War history or aviation in general. It has a vast collection of over 200 aircraft housed outdoors and indoors, including in a half kilometer long underground aircraft hangar. Chairman Mao's personal aircraft is also located here, you can go inside for 10 RMB.
It is free to access the museum grounds and view the outdoor displays, and 20 RMB to access each of the indoor displays. Opening hours are 8:30am - 5:30pm every day.
The museum is located on the very outskirts of Beijing in Xiaotangshanzhen located in Changping District, approximately 1 hour north from central Beijing by car or up to 2 hours by public transport for which there are several options to get you there (navigation apps will help).
'Sundays in Peking' introduces sights and activities in Beijing with even the slightest connection to Korea. Sometimes we just write about other stuff happening around Beijing.