by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Shot down and stranded behind the Iron Curtain? No problem. Just steal a MiG-15 fighter plane … and fly home to freedom.
That’s the escape plan proposed in a recently declassified U.S. Air Force manual dating back to the early years of the Cold War. But the idea would have been virtually impossible for even the most seasoned pilots to put into action.
In 1955, the Air Technical Intelligence Center published a user’s guide to the Soviet MiG-15. The handbook described the first-generation jet’s basic layout and how to get it airborne.
“This manual has been prepared specifically for the purpose of providing USAF personnel with operating information on the MiG-15,” the handbook explained. “If necessary, this airplane may be used as a means to escape from hostile territory.”
The Air Force recently released the handbook in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s available at GovernmentAttic.org.
Reading the manual won’t turn you into a fighter pilot — far from it. The guide is clearly not intended to help downed airmen do anything beyond getting the plane from point A to point B.
While its diagrams and other details show would-be escapees where to find the trigger for the jet’s 23- and 37-millimeter cannons, the actual instructions focus almost entirely on taking off and landing.
“Only the information the pilot must know is presented,” the manual stated. “Some procedures which might be considered unorthodox for operational flying of this airplane are recommended because they represent the simplest means of assuring safe flight.”
The writers also made it clear the handbook is suitable for MiG-15s with the Klimov VK-1 engine — which the Soviets referred to as the bis variant, or “second model.”
An earlier aircraft with the RD-45 powerplant — an unlicensed copy of the British Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet — might not have the same range. “However, it is believed the operating instructions are, to a large degree, valid for the MiG-17,” the handbook added.
First flown in 1950, this newer design owed a lot to its earlier cousin, and the Klimov engine powered both jets. But the Air Force had a good reason to use the MiG-15 as their baseline, because the flying branch actually had one of the diminutive jets on hand.
Two years before the service published its pilot’s guide, North Korean fighter pilot No Kum Sok flew his MiG-15 into South Korea, landed and defected.
Superior in some aspects to the contemporary American F-86 Sabre, U.S. military intelligence agencies were desperate to examine No’s MiG in detail. The Air Force acquired it, and quickly put the aircraft through its paces.
The results no doubt went straight into the manual. But just having this information probably wouldn’t have been enough for anyone to actually try and escape in a stolen MiG.
To even contemplate such a plan, a pilot would need to find an enemy airfield, sneak in unseen, locate the right plane, make sure it had enough fuel, start the engine and successfully take off … all without anyone stopping them.
Without a copy of the handbook tucked away somewhere, the pilot would have to remember all aircraft’s nuances. The whole concept would have been “next to impossible even if he had completely committed this to memory,” Air Force historian Brian Laslie said.
And even if the pilot had remembered everything, it’s not exactly the case that you can jump into the cockpit of a MiG-15 without any real training. Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, a person who knows how to fly cannot just take off in any plane they happen to stumble across.
Decades after the Air Force published the manual, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies continued to get access to — and experiment with — captured foreign aircraft. Even for the elite test pilots who flew these jets in controlled settings, the job was dangerous and unforgiving.
“The grouping of switches, controls, instruments, and warning lights is poor, giving the cockpit a cluttered appearance,” a Defense Intelligence Agency report described the later MiG-21. This “inconsistency was confusing to an inexperienced … pilot and caused identification difficulty.”
The Pentagon evaluated this iconic Soviet fighter as part of a project nicknamed Have Doughnut. With little to no official documentation about the aircraft, the pilots who flew the MiGs — and the crews who kept them airworthy — learned almost everything they needed to know on the job.
During the 1968 tests, “11 [sorties] were cancelled because of maintenance,” the DIA report stated. These cancellations were “due, in part, to lack of familiarity with the MIG-21 systems.”
Perhaps more worrisome, “warning lights were poorly located and difficult to interpret,” the DIA added. “The MiG-21 appeared to have a high speed ejection capability.”
Of course, the test pilots probably weren’t rushing to test out whether the ejection system would actually work. But accidents weren’t out of the realm of possibility for these elite fliers, either.
In 1979, U.S. Navy Lieutenant M. Hugh Brown crashed in a MiG-17F near the military’s secretive Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The base was home to the similarly top secret 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron that flew these captured aircraft. Brown died in the crash.
“He had recovered only partially from the spin when, as the ground rushed up toward him at an alarming rate, he entered a new spin,” Steve Davies wrote in Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs. “This second spin was unrecoverable.”
During the next five years, at least two more American officers died while testing Soviet planes. The Air Force officially dissolved the 4477th in 1990.
With all of the difficulties these highly-trained airmen faced, it’s possible the manual’s stated purpose was just a cover. Maybe intelligence agents wanted the information to try and steal the jets. Or it could just have been for training.
“I’m guessing it was the manual developed after they got their hands on No Kum Sok’s MiG-15 and it was used to train new pilots how to fly it,” Laslie posits. “But that’s just a guess.”
Whatever the reason, downed pilots on the run from Soviet troops would probably have hoped for more realistic means of getting back home.
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