‘The fourth MiG of this flight made a firing pass and made a lucky hit through the top of our left wing, about 8ft from the fuselage through the wing flap,’ Capt H.R. Austin, RB-47 pilot.
The Soviet MiG-17 (NATO code-name “Fresco”) was designed to replace the famous MiG-15 of the Korean War. Although similar in appearance to the MiG-15, the MiG-17 had more sharply swept wings, a longer fuselage, an afterburner, and better speed and handling characteristics. The first flight of a MiG-17 prototype took place in January 1950, and production began in late 1951. The first operational MiG-17s appeared in 1952, but they were not available in sufficient quantities to take part in the Korean War. Five versions of the aircraft eventually were produced. The MiG-17 has served in the air arms of at least 20 nations throughout the world — including nations friendly to the United States — and was flown against U.S. aircraft in Southeast Asia.
The North Vietnamese Air Force (VPAF) created its first MiG-17 unit, the 921st Fighter Regiment, in February 1964, after its pilots had received training in communist China. The VPAF also flew Chinese-built MiG-17s (called J-5s). US fighter pilots were careful to use their considerable speed advantage to shoot down the more maneuverable MiG-17.
The introduction of the MiG-17 into service also meant that NATO jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft were no longer immune to Soviet air defences: on May 8, 1954, an RB-47 from the 91st TRW, flown by Capt H.R. Austin took off from RAF Fairford on a mission to photograph nine Soviet airfields near Murmansk. After photographing the second airfield from 40,000ft, it was intercepted near Arkhangelsk by three MiG-17s of 1619th IAP.
Austin recalls in Michael Napier’s book In Cold War Skies;
‘We had been over Soviet territory an hour and were at 40,000 feet. We had been briefed by Intel that the MiG-15 would not be able to do any damage to us at 40,000ft with our true air speed on the order of 440kts. Well, you can imagine what we called those Intelligence weenies as the first Soviet MiG-17, not a MiG-15, made a firing pass at us from the left rear and we saw cannon tracer shells going both above and below our aircraft. And, the MiG was still moving out rather smartly as he passed under us in front. So enough of this 40,000ft stuff, I pushed the RB-47 over, descending a couple thousand feet picking up about 20kts indicated airspeed in the process. The second MiG-17 made his firing pass and I don’t care who knows, it was scary watching tracers go over and under our aircraft. The copilot turned around backward to operate our tail guns after the first MiG shot at us. It was typical for the two remotely controlled 20mrn cannons not to fire… Fortunately, when the third MiG started his pursuit pass, our guns burped for a couple of seconds. General LeMay did not believe in tracers for our guns but the Soviet pilots must have seen something because the third guy broke off his pass and the flight of six, and the next flight which joined us later, stayed out about 30 to 40 degrees to the side, out of the effective envelope of our guns. Of course, the MiGs didn’t know that our guns would not fire again even though the co-pilot pleaded, and I believe he did, at least, kick the panel trying to get them to work. The fourth MiG of this flight made a firing pass and made a lucky hit through the top of our left wing, about 8ft from the fuselage through the wing flap. It exploded into the fuselage in the area of the number one main tank and knocked out our intercom… By now we had covered our last photo target and had turned due west toward Finland to get the hell out of there… Real soon another three MiGs showed up. Two MiGs of this flight made individual firing passes but our added speed obviously made it a bit tougher… After those two made passes, one of the MiGs came up on our right side, close enough to shake hands and sat there for two or three minutes. Two more MiGs tried firing passes, but without hitting us, by this time we were well out of Soviet territory. Our excitement for this mission was not over… We really weren’t sure how the damage to our left wing and fuselage would affect fuel consumption. Initially it didn’t look that bad… As we coasted-out off Norway, it was obvious we had fallen behind the fuel curve. We climbed to 43,000ft and throttled back to max-range cruise. It did appear however, that we could get to a base in England and we knew there was a strip alert tanker at Brize Norton awaiting our call.’
After refuelling from a KC-97 Stratofrieghter, at a perilously low fuel state, the damaged RB-47 was able to recover to Fairford.
In Cold War Skies is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force