No F-35s Here: How North Korea Used 1920s Fighter Planes To Fight America

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: North Korea has had to do more with less.

On the night of June 16, 1953, the Associated Press reported on “a boiling mass of flame, mushrooming like an atomic bomb, shoots skyward from a burning fuel dump, set afire at the South Korean port city of Inchon.” The fire “lighted the sky for more than 20 miles” and took three days to put out, having consumed 5.5 million gallons of fuel.

The perpetrators of this devastating attack? A flight of four pokey North Korean two-seat trainers flying blindly through the night.

The Marines, Navy and Air Force fielded their most advanced radar-equipped jet fighters to intercept these low-tech night raiders—but soon also had to contend with deadly MiG-15 jet fighters stalking the night skies over Korea.

Washing Machine Charlie Heckles at Night

The Polikarpov Po-2, or U-2, was a two-seat wood-and-fabric biplane developed in the late 1920s for use as a primary flight trainer. The aircraft’s 125-horsepower Shvetsov engine could lift the plane no higher than ten thousand feet and to a maximum speed of around ninety-five miles per hour. You could outrun one with your typical modern car. Up to five one-hundred-pound bombs could be carried underwing, while backseaters sometimes operated a machine gun on a flexible mount, or hefted mortar shells or bunches of propaganda leaflets to be dropped by hand.

During its darkest hour in World War II, the hard-pressed Soviet air force deployed Po-2 units to harass German troops at night, including the famous all-female 588th “Night Witches” regiment. Though the night raiders inflicted only minor damage, they were devilishly difficult to track and shoot down, and kept troops on the ground stressed and fatigued.

By late 1950, the Korean People’s Air Force had most of its piston-engine fighters and bombers swept from skies or destroyed on the ground by UN fighter planes. While Soviet MiG-15 jets based in China joined the fray in November, it would be a few years before the KPAF’s own MiG-15 pilots were ready for prime time. In the meantime, the KPAF adopted Soviet night-raiding tactics to harass frontline positions, logistical bases and airfields.

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