Secrets of the Cold War: When American And Russian Jets Battled Over Siberia

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: This would be the last battle where a U.S. plane would shoot down a nominally-Russian fighter.

In the afternoon of November 18, 1952 four sleek jets painted an inky navy blue soared off the deck of the carrier USS Oriskany into a swirling Siberian snow storm gusting over the Sea of Japan. The carrier was part of Task Force 77, a fleet of twenty-five ships which included three carriers used to launch daily airstrikes on North Korean bridges and logistics during the Korean War. Earlier that day, its warplanes had struck the logistical base at Hoeryong, used as a gathering point for supplies received from China and the Soviet Union a short distance across the border.

The four F9F-5 Panther jets were braving flurrying snow, cloud cover down to 500 feet and visibility not exceeding a few miles, to fly a Combat Air Patrol (CAP). The fleet’s air search radars could only reliably detect aircraft under ranges of 100 miles—and Soviet Il-28 jet bombers that could cover that distance in a few minutes had been photographed nearby. Though no direct air attacks on the fleet had been attempted by Soviet or Chinese jets, it was vital to maintain the CAP to guard against a surprise attack.

The Panther flight was flying a patrol pattern at 16,000 feet when they received a report—bogeys detected just eighty-three miles north of their position, heading from the direction of Vladivostok.

The four aircraft from Navy squadron VF-781 assumed an intercept course. Sure enough, they spotted the vapor trails of seven Soviet jets flying high above them at 40,000 feet and the silvery glint of their bare metal fuselages. These were not Il-28 bombers, but MiG-15 fighter jets that could outrun even the late model F9F-5 Panther by seventy miles per hour.

At the same moment, the fuel pump of flight leader Lt. Claire Elwood aircraft began to malfunction. He was called back to the carrier, and his wingman assigned to cover for him. The Panthers of Lt. Royce Williams and Lt. Jg. David Rowland were left to face off against seven superior Soviet fighters.

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