From Obscurity to Front Runner
The term “MiG” became, through the course of the Cold War, a near synonym for fighter jets originating from behind the Iron Curtain. “MiG” itself is the standard prefix used to identify aircraft designed and built by the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau of the former Soviet Union and is still used today by its descendant company, Mikoyan.
While the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau was established in 1939, its contribution to the Second World War was relatively minor. The only MiG aircraft to serve in the conflict was the MiG-3; a high altitude fighter that turned out to be of limited use in the lower altitude nature of Eastern Front air combat. The MiG-3 was quite fast in a straight line but lacked maneuverability; consequently, it found itself primarily tasked with reconnaissance work.
This situation meant that MiG spent the war in the shadow of the Lavochkin and Yakovlev bureaus who produced the bulk of Soviet fighter aircraft in the conflict. On the surface, this seemed a very negative thing for the young bureau; however, it did give them a window of opportunity to experiment with more revolutionary aircraft and propulsion designs that Lavochkin and Yakovlev did not possess. This put MiG in very good stead to take a leading role in jet aircraft development in the immediate post war period.
The Jet Race at Home and Abroad
In the immediate post war years, jet propulsion in fighter aircraft was being worked on by aircraft manufacturers around the world with varying degrees of success until practical and serviceable jet fighter designs were developed.
Among the first post war jet fighters to enter military service were the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and Republic F-84 Thunderjet from America, the DeHavilland Vampire and Gloster Meteor from Great Britain and the Yakovlev 15/17/23 series and the MiG-9 from the Soviet Union. Though jet powered, none of the designs were particularly pioneering. They all had straight wings and showed a degree of World War Two era thinking in a variety of other aspects. The Yakovlev designs were little more than a crude marriage of their wartime fighter designs with a jet engine.
1949 saw the MiG-15 and Lavochkin La-15 enter Soviet service while the Americans introduced the F-86 Sabre in the same year. All three aircraft featured swept wings in their designs and performed much better than any of the straight winged jets before them.
The Lavochkin jet was, from a technical point of view, somewhat superior to the MiG-15. However, it was also a more complex design and more expensive to produce and maintain. In the end, though both planes were popular with pilots, the La-15 was destined for a short service life with favour being given to the MiG-15’s simplicity of construction and servicing.
In battle, the dogfights between the MiG-15 and the Sabre in the Korean War are well documented and the two aircraft generally were considered very closely matched. While the MiG could climb higher than the Sabre, outmaneuver the American aircraft at higher altitudes and had more powerful guns; many of the Sabre pilots were experienced combat pilots who had flown in World War Two. Against Chinese or North Korean MiG pilots, the combat experience of the Sabre pilots was very often the deciding factor in the outcome of a battle. On the other hand, battles against Soviet pilots who were secretly flying in the conflict and frequently had combat experience could end quite differently in spite of the Sabre pilot’s skills.
Through actions in the Korean War, the MiG-15 elevated the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau from a bit player in the Second World War to a leader in the jet age, a position from which the bureau would never look back. Mikoyan-Gurevich were not the only Soviet producer of fighter jets, but they became the best known and the MiG-15 was the beginning of a long and legendary line of fighters to bear the “MiG” prefix.
Popular and Plentiful
Through its long service life, MiG-15s were known to still be in military service as late as the 1990s, the aircraft served in approximately 45 countries and produced in four countries. Between Soviet, Czech, Polish and Chinese production lines over 18,000 MiG-15s were built; this makes the aircraft the most produced jet fighter in history.
It very quickly became popular with pilots for its good handling qualities along with a very comfortable working environment in the cockpit thanks in large part to an excellent air conditioning and heating system.
The aircraft’s undemanding maintenance regime also made it popular with ground crews.
Of course, with the Cold War on, the idea of capturing a fully operable example of the MiG-15 for analysis was quite popular in the west. During the Korean conflict, America offered a large cash sum and American citizenship to any pilot of the type willing to defect with one. The plan paid off when a North Korean pilot defected with a fully armed and operable MiG-15 in September of 1953.
The MiG-15 Today
The popularity of the MiG-15 continues today through several examples preserved in museums around the world, so your chances of getting up close to one in that context are quite good.
Beyond museums, there are also several examples of the type kept airworthy and regularly flown at airshows. Some sources state that the number of airworthy MiG-15s is actually on the rise through the type’s popularity in the “Warbird” category of preserved aircraft.
This link, while a bit rough in translation in a few places, is a good source of additional reading on the MiG-15; particularly in the context of the former Czechoslovakia: