Defection by jet

In 1953 No Kum-Sok defected from North Korea. He brought a MiG-15 Soviet jet fighter with him.

USAF [Public domain]
In the early 1950s the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 was one of the best fighter jets in the world. It had wings that angled backwards (“swept wings”), which gave it great speed and stability. In the Korean War the MiG-15 completely outclassed the fighter jets of the United Nations, shooting down Western bombers and generally dominating the area above the Yalu River known as MiG Alley.

There’s still a lot of debate about the relative strengths of the MiG-15 and the United States’ F86-Sabre, which was the United Nations’ swept-wing jet opponent in the Korean War. Which was faster? (The Sabre.) Which had better acceleration? (The MiG.) Which manoeuvred better close to the ground? (The Sabre.) Which manoeuvred better above 10,000 metres? (The MiG.) You get the idea. The important thing was that the Western forces were desperate to get their hands on an intact MiG, so that they could pull it apart and work out what made it tick.

Operation Moolah offered a reward of US$50,000 for any North Korean pilot who defected to South Korea and brought their jet with them… and the first pilot to do so would receive double that. ($100,000 in 1953 is the equivalent of nearly a million dollars today, by the way.)

September 21, 1953: the North Korean fighter jet pilot No Kum-Sok climbed into his MiG-15, took off from Pyongyang International Airport, and defected. It took him 17 minutes to get to South Korea – unsurprising, given that the MiG could fly faster than 1000km/h. He landed at the main international airport in Seoul… going the wrong way. By that I mean he landed on a runway that was in use by another jet landing from the opposite direction. An F86-Sabre, as it turns out. They managed to avoid each other, although the Sabre pilot was probably rather startled to see their sworn enemy so close: he supposedly shouted “It’s a goddamn MiG!” over the radio.

No Kum-Sok got out of his plane, tore up a picture of the North Korean leader, and requested asylum. It was granted, but he never got the Operation Moolah money. (He and the other North Korean pilots had never even heard about the offer.) He was persuaded to get a Western education in its place, and went to the University of Delaware. The MiG was test-flown (by Chuck Yeager!) and then dismantled; it is now on display in Dayton, Ohio. Many of No’s colleagues were executed for allowing the defection to happen. No changed his name to Kenneth H. Rowe and still lives in the US today.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]

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