Icons of Aviation History: MiG-17

Outwardly, the MiG-17 looks like a slightly larger MiG-15. But in reality it was a completely different aircraft.

MiG-17A on display at the Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force in Savannah GA

Although the MiG-15 had been a success when it was introduced, the Soviets already knew that it had stability issues, especially at high speeds, and it was unrecoverable in a spin. The fighter had also become quickly outclassed by the American F-86 in Korea. So even before the war had ended the Russians were working on an improved version.

The prototype was dubbed the I-330 SI. The fuselage was lengthened by about five feet, which gave enough internal space to re-design many of the systems. The wings were thinner and stiffer: they were also swept back 45 degrees, and a series of vertical channels were fitted to the upper wing to give greater stability. The tail was remodeled to give better control in a spin. The Soviets adopted the new design as the MiG-17, and it began entering service in February 1953. NATO gave it the codename “Fresco”.

The initial Fresco models used the same Klimov VK-1 engine that had been used in the MiG-15 (a Russian version of the British Nene engine), and the MiG-17A also carried the same armament of 37mm and 23mm cannons. These were aimed with the ASP-4N radar-controlled gunsight, which had been copied by the Russians from the American gunsight taken from a crashed F-86 Sabre in Korea.

But as Soviet experience with jet fighters improved, the MiG-17 was constantly updated. The F model carried a more powerful VK-1F engine with an afterburner (which dumped raw fuel into the engine for a burst of speed), while the PF model had a fixed-scan Izumrud RP-1 radar system (though Soviet tactics still depended heavily on ground control to direct fighters to their targets). The MiG-17PFU, an interceptor version, had its cannons removed to save weight and was armed instead with four Kaliningrad K-5 air-to-air missiles (NATO codename “Alkali”) mounted on the wings.

The MiG-17 proved to be a very good fighter and a significant improvement over the MiG-15. It was fast and nimble, capable of 8g turns and speeds of 715mph, along with a climb rate of 14,000 feet per minute. It was the Soviet Bloc’s frontline fighter through the 1950s. China’s Shenyang aircraft bureau also produced its own licensed copies, which it designated the J-5, and these saw some combat action against American-built F-86 Sabres over Taiwan. Several Arab nations in the Middle East were also provided with MiG-17s, where they flew against American-supplied Israeli air forces—and their poorly-trained pilots lost heavily to the Israelis.

By the 1960s, though, the MiG-17 was beginning to lose performance to newer American fighters, and the USSR replaced it with the MiG-21. The MiG-17 still remained popular with smaller nations, however. And one of these was North Vietnam.

After the Second World War, Vietnam had been divided into a Soviet-backed North and an American-backed South, with elections to be held to decide about unification. The American-backed military regime in the south, however, refused to hold any election, and the Communist regime in the North, headed by Ho Chi Minh, began military actions to reunite the country by force. North Vietnamese pilots were being trained in China and the USSR to fly MiG-17s. The US meanwhile began supplying military aid to South Vietnam, and in 1964, after two American destroyers were fired upon by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, the US began sending American combat forces into Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese air force was always small, but proved itself to be remarkably effective against the United States. The Americans had decided that the days of the close-in dogfight were over, and all of their training emphasized long-range combat using air-to-air missiles. The frontline F-4 Phantom II fighter was not even fitted with guns.

As a result, the agile North Vietnamese MiGs did well in close-in dogfighting with the bigger and less maneuverable US aircraft. When the North Vietnamese began receiving newer MiG-21 fighters, many of their pilots preferred the older MiG-17s, which were slower but much more nimble.

The Americans attributed the loss of 71 aircraft to MiG-17s. To combat the MiGs, they began fitting add-on external gun pods to their Phantom fighters and hastily added built-in cannons to newer models. The Navy was so chastened by their losses that they opened a new Fighter Weapons School (known as “Top Gun”) to train its pilots in air-to-air dogfighting tactics, and even managed to obtain a number of captured MiGs to fly in these exercises. The North Vietnamese pilots, by contrast, were poorly trained and, although at least three MiG-17 pilots are known to have reached “ace” status against the Americans, by the late 60s the MiG-21 had become North Vietnam’s standard fighter, and the MiG-17s were used for ground-attack.

In all, about twenty nations flew the MiG-17 (or its Chinese J-5 copy), some of them as recently as the 1990s. North Korea still maintains combat-ready Frescoes. About 10,000 of the aircraft were produced in Russia, China, and the Eastern Bloc, mostly MiG-17F models.

Today only around 20 MiG-17s survive. One of these is on display at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH: this aircraft is an F model that was sold to Egypt by the Soviet Union and was given to the United States in 1986 as a goodwill gesture. It is displayed in North Vietnamese markings. The Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force near Savannah GA has a Soviet-built MiG-17A on exhibit. It is also exhibited with North Vietnamese markings.

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