In the skies over Korea in the 1950s, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. debuted new jet fighters of very similar design. The Soviet MiG-15 and American F-86 were nearly evenly matched, but both sides wanted to capture and crack open the other’s jet to see what made it tick.
The Soviets got the chance first when they managed to capture a F-86 Sabre in Oct. 1951.
On Oct. 6, 1951, Air Force 2nd Lt. Bill N. Garrett was engaged by a Russian-piloted MiG-15 that got the better of him. Garrett made it out of the fight with his jet, but his engine and ejection seat were damaged.
As Garrett fled to the ocean, another MiG-15 caught sight of him and began chasing him. The American pilot began evasive maneuvers as Soviet rounds ripped past his aircraft. Losing altitude as he fled, Garrett barely made it to the coast before ditching.
But the jet didn’t end up in the deep seawater Garrett had originally aimed for. Because of the altitude he lost and the MiG’s aggressive attacks, Garrett was forced to ditch into mud flats that caught the jet.
Garrett was rescued by a search and rescue pilot who had to land in the mud flats under mortar fire from the coast. Garrett barely made it to his rescue. Behind him, his jet was about to become a hotly-contested objective.
Over the crash site, Sabres and MiGs fought viciously for control. The Soviets lost seven jets and killed zero Sabres before the incoming tide covered the U.S. wreck.
The mission wasn’t over for the Russians. They were forced to disassemble the jet overnight as the tide receded. Working with hundreds of Chinese laborers while U.S. ships fired on them, a Soviet team disassembled the plane and packaged it for transport.
Then the Russians carefully moved it on large trucks north to the border, moving mostly at night. The one time they failed to reach cover before first light, an American plane spotted the convoy and attacked the lead truck with rockets. The truck just managed to get away.
Another American fighter was captured a few weeks later on Oct. 24, giving Russian engineers two examples to study.
The U.S. Air Force estimated after the war that of the Sabres shot down over Korea, at least 75 percent could have been partially or completely recovered by the Soviets. At least one of them was recovered, repaired, repainted, and pressed into service by Communist forces against the Americans.
America got it’s hands on a MiG-15 two years later when Korean pilot No Kum Sok defected with his jet to the U.S.