F-86 vs. Mig 15: The Knights of the Korean Skies

The Superforts that had terrorized Tokyo in 1945 were such sitting ducks in 1950 that they had to switch to night bombing missions where the MiG-15 was much less deadly.

The first jet vs. jet dogfight in history broke out between America and North Korea during the first ‘small war’ after World War I – the Korean War in 1950. Resembling the propeller plane dogfights of World War 1, these jets took the air battle to a new level. 

The best American jet at the time was the straight-wing F-80, while the Koreans went into battle with the much faster MiG-15.

Used to always bringing the best toys to the party, the Americans were shocked to discover the Koreans’ MiG-15. They were fast, maneuverable, light, and heavily armed.

The MiG-15 downed fighters and bombers in massive numbers, flipping the scales on an otherwise U.N. Air Forces-controlled airspace. 

Then entered the American F-86 Sabre into the ring. This jet was razor-sharp! It could dive faster than its opponents but still couldn’t fly as high, climb as fast, or maneuver as agilely as the Soviet-made opponent. It was, however, more aerodynamic, had a radar gunsight, and fired much lighter shells at a higher rate than the MiG-15. However, there was a downside to these lighter shells – they didn’t pack as great a punch and so inflicted less damage on enemy planes. 

In the high-speed dogfights over MiG-Alley, the Communist pilots found it difficult to hit the aerodynamic F-86s. But on December 20th, after the North Korean and Soviet pilots lost six MiGs in combat, the first F-86 Sabre was shot down by a MiG-15. 

The U.N. forces assumed the MiGs were being flown by experienced pilots who had fought in World War II and it was, in fact, later admitted that most of the early MiG-15s dogfighting in the Korean War had been Soviet pilots. Interestingly, Chinese and Soviet MiGs were marked with the North Korean insignia, and pilots wore North Korean uniforms and tried to speak Korean during radio contacts.

As it was so hard to know which nationality of the pilot in the MiG seat, U.S. Sabre pilots nick-named them “Honchos” – Japanese for “boss” or “squad leader.”

So, how did these jets’ stats actually add up? 

A recent RAND report that the F-86 kill-to-loss ratio was 1.8:1 overall and 1.3:1 against MiGs flown by Soviet pilots. The numbers for the jets flown by Chinese or Korean pilots were much different. 12-1 in favor of the American F-86 Sabres! That’s quite the difference! 

41 of the pilots who achieved the status of “ace” during the Korean War, all but one flew an F-86 Sabre. Now that’s impressive, indeed!