Cold War Era

Here’s how Soviets were able to steal and transport an F-86 Sabre to Moscow during the Korean War

The F-86 Sabre

The F-86, the US Air Force’s first swept-wing jet fighter, made its initial flight in October 1947. The first production model flew in May 1948, and four months later, an F-86A set a new world speed record of 670.9 mph.

As a day fighter, the F-86A (and later F-86Es and F-86Fs) saw service in Korea as the primary opponent of the Russian-built MiG-15. By the end of hostilities, F-86 pilots had shot down 792 MiGs, with a kill ratio of about 8:1.

More than 5,500 F-86 day fighters were built in the US and Canada. Air forces of 20 other nations, including West Germany, Japan, Spain, Great Britain and Australia, also operated the Sabre.

F-86 Sabre transported by truck to Moscow

As told by John Fredrickson in the book North American Aviation In the Jet Age, The California Years 1945-1997, Ralph Wetterhahn tells a fascinating story in the Spring 2007 edition of North American Aviation bulletin (NAAR Bulletin, pp, 10-12). It was widely known that many of the Korean War MiG-15s were piloted by Russians, but only with the demise of the Soviet Empire did the veil of secrecy fall away.

After wartime face-to-face meetings with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Gen. “Hap” Arnold himself considered Stalin better informed and more astute on American airpower than some of Arnold’s own generals.

Stalin was shocked by the performance of the F-86 and ordered that one be captured. After months of frustration, an opportunity arose on Oct. 6, 1951.

The F-86A flown by 2Lt. Bill N. Garret took hits from a MiG-15 in the engine and ejection seat. Garret headed for a ditching in the Yellow Sea but was attacked by a second MiG-15 flown by Capt. Konstantin Sheberstov of the Russian air force. Garret was forced down on a mudflat and rescued by an SA-16 amphibious aircraft but enemy soldiers seized the F-86.

Wreckage of F-86A Sabre (FU-334 / 49-1334) after being bombed by Po-2 biplane on Jun. 17, 1951

Attempting to destroy the prize, American aircraft attacked the hulk from overhead, but it soon disappeared under a rising tide. Soviets hired five hundred Chinese to salvage the mired aircraft. They labored the next day under protection of cloud cover to detach the wings. The enemy recovery team loaded the pieces onto trucks. The trucks traveled by night and hid in tunnels during the day.

The captured Sabre, serial number 49-1319, arrived at the Air Force Research Flight Test Institute at Zhukovsky, 22 miles southeast of Moscow, in October 1951.

MiG-15 warning system to counter the F-86 gunsight

The MiG-15 had a manual gunsight system designed in 1939. The Soviets were most fascinated with the F-86 gunsight. The Sperry APG-30 radar gunsight had a range of about 3,000 feet and was able to measure the range and compute the lead time required even when the target was maneuvering.

A warning system was developed to counter the American gunsight. A sensor, similar to an automobile police radar detector was installed in the tail of each MiG-15. The sensor was wired into the headset circuitry to deliver a warning tone to the communist pilot. The system was simple, cheap, and generally effective.

Stalin considered cloning the F-86, but his impending death combined with the Soviet air force expectation that the next enhancement, the MiG-17, would outperform both the MiG-15 and the F-86. Meanwhile, the parade of Allied aircraft parts gleaned from other Korean crash sites continued to flow to suburban Moscow for engineering evaluation.

North American Aviation In the Jet Age, The California Years 1945-1997 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

The captured F-86 in Russia

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Joec03 via Wikipedia and unknown

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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