Dr Alan Stephens 'Meteor versus MiG: Challenging the Myth' in Australian Aviation' July 2017
A story board in the Korean War display at the Australian War Memorial asserts that, “after the first encounter between [RAAF] Meteors and [Chinese] MiGs … it was clear that the MiGs outclassed the Meteors in nearly every way”, a judgment that has become received wisdom. It is, however, inconsistent with the facts.
For the first five months of the Korean War, the RAAF’s No 77 Squadron, flying P-51 Mustangs, made a vital contribution in the ground attack role. However, in November 1950, the appearance of Chinese Air Force MiG-15s indicated that the air war had entered a new and more dangerous phase.
The MiG-15 was an advanced technology fighter, its swept-wing aerodynamics and 2470-kilogram thrust engine giving it an excellent rate-of-climb, service ceiling and maximum speed. The RAAF decided to replace its Mustangs with jets as soon as possible.
Because the United States’ best fighter, the swept-wing F-86 Sabre, was unavailable, the twin-engine, straight-wing British Gloster Meteor Mk VIII was chosen. In the circumstances the Meteor was the best the RAAF could do. The question was whether that “best” would be good enough.
The Meteor had been designed to intercept high-flying bombers under the guidance of ground radar. Air combat in Korea, however, involved the classic “dog-fight”, in which speed, manoeuvrability and acceleration were the critical qualities. Doubts about the Meteor’s ability to compete against faster swept-wing aircraft were eased when it performed reasonably well against a USAF F-86 during trials in Japan. In particular, the Meteor demonstrated a better rate-of-climb and a tighter turning radius at altitudes below 7600 metres.
After six months training in Japan, in July 1951, No 77 Squadron deployed twenty-two Meteors to Kimpo airfield northwest of Seoul. The Americans had only two squadrons of Sabres in Korea, so the arrival of a third squadron of jet fighters was keenly anticipated. The RAAF was confident the Meteor would be effective as an air-to-air fighter: the challenge would be to employ tactics which maximised its advantages and minimised the MiG-15s.
On 29 July, sixteen Meteors conducted the RAAF’s first jet fighter mission, a sweep up to the Yalu River (nicknamed “MiG Alley”). Given the findings of the trials in Japan, it was curious that the Australians patrolled between 9150 and 10,700 metres, flying top-cover for USAF F-86s at 6100 to 7600 metres. The reverse would have made more sense.
The first combat occurred on 29 August, when eight Meteors and sixteen F-86s clashed with twelve MiGs at 10,700 metres. One Meteor was shot-down and another sustained major damage. A week later the second clash took place, with one Meteor being badly damaged while the enemy escaped unscathed.
The inference was immediately drawn that the results “proved” the Meteor’s inferiority, and No. 77 Squadron was restricted to operations away from MiG Alley.
A number of RAAF pilots considered the decision hasty believing that with a little more experience, tactics would have been developed to maximise the Meteor’s positive qualities, and that unrestricted air combat operations could have been successful. Then-pilot officer, later air vice-marshal, Bill Simmonds (who subsequently shot-down a MiG-15) believed the Meteor was much underrated, and that the Australians’ problems were related primarily to inadequate training and poor tactics.
Simmonds’ opinion was shared by the RAF, who privately criticised the RAAF for making its decision after only two “short sharp ... inconclusive engagements”. A senior RAF pilot attached to No 77 Squadron argued that no Meteor pilot should ever be shot-down by a MiG-15 below 9150 metres unless he made a mistake, because the Meteor was more manoeuvrable. And the commander of the USAF in Korea considered the British aircraft’s “good rate-of-turn ... excellent climb and excellent armament” had not been used to full effect by the Australians.
No 77 Squadron was taken off fighter sweeps and was tasked with protecting bombers and ground attack aircraft. The squadron generally flew at an altitude of 7000 to 7620 metres. If attacked, pilots immediately descended to their optimum fighting altitude of 5500 metres and jettisoned external stores. At that height and in a clean configuration, the inferior thrust of the Meteor’s engines was less pronounced and its superior turning qualities were enhanced.
Nevertheless, there was a limit to the Meteor’s competitiveness, which was determined by the speed differential. The MiG-15 was capable of Mach 0.9 in level flight, compared to the Meteor’s Mach 0.82. That differential almost invariably allowed enemy pilots to decide when a dogfight would start and when it would end, a critical tactical advantage.
RAAF and USAF pilots were almost invariably outnumbered. On 24 October, eight B-29 bombers attacking a railway bridge south of MiG Alley were escorted by sixteen Meteors and ten USAF F-84 Thunderjets. The formation was “relentlessly” assailed by sixty MiG-15s. Three days later, sixteen Meteors and thirty-two F-84s flying cover for eight B-29s were “overwhelmed” by ninety-five MiGs.
Notwithstanding the intensity of those attacks, one of No 77 Squadron’s senior pilots reported that the protective screen established by the Meteors was never penetrated.
On 1 December, fifty MiGs made a “vicious” attack on fourteen Meteors, shooting-down three. But in turn, No 77 Squadron shot-down two MiGs, a highly creditable performance given the numerical disparity. However, the following day, the squadron was told that it would no longer fly air combat sorties over North Korea; and, for the rest of the war, the Meteors were used in the ground-attack role. Yet in total, only four Meteors were ever shot-down by MiG-15s; by contrast, the Australians scored five confirmed MiG kills.
There is no question that most air combat pilots would prefer the MiG-15 to the Meteor. But the belief that the MiG-15 “outclassed the Meteor in nearly every way” is inconsistent with the facts.
Dr Alan Stephens is a Research fellow of the Williams Foundation and a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra. On Target is published as a regular column in the Australian Defence Business Review.