THE MIG AND I
It was love at first sight. She was small, stubby, and came from the wrong side of the tracks. My friends hated her and my parents were afraid to admit I knew her. Everyone ignored her many abilities and gloried in trumpeting her weaknesses. To them she was the enemy and worthy only of scorn. But to me she had the beauty of a homecoming queen, the grace of a ballerina and I desired her over all others. She was the Russian MiG-15 and she was my favorite model airplane.
The Korean War began when I was eight years old, a great age for a war. At eight, I already had a good grasp of geography and history and was heavy into playing soldier and building model airplanes. Eight was innocent enough to believe war was exciting and only a backdrop for a John Wayne movie.
I was in my first week at YMCA summer camp when the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel and spilled onto the front page of the newspaper and into my life. The attack was the most exciting event that could happen to a group of pre-teen boys mired in the day-to-day activities of God's work. Suddenly target practice at the rifle and archery ranges took on a new dire meaning. We weren't quite sure who the North Koreans were, but by God, they would never cross the DuPage River if we could help it. After evening prayer and lights-out we would gather around the glow of our counselor's Philco and listen to Paul Harvey's News and Comments from Chicago. Mister Harvey told us of Commie tanks smashing through our valiant soldiers' lines and the bloody American retreat southward. Then with hushed voices we would add our comments and boast of how we would save the country, if only given the chance. Our bravado weakened only slightly a few days later when a dozen boys were whisked off to safety by anxious parents. My parents obviously secure in the knowledge of my bravery, left me in camp for the entire two weeks.
When I returned home from camp Paul Harvey was placed on the forbidden list. Not because of his graphic commentary, but because of the time. Eight year olds were tucked safely in bed way before his words wafted across the airways. As soon as my bedroom door closed, however, I countered this trivial problem by sneaking from my bed into the closet next to the kitchen wall. From my secret hideout I could listen to the radio and my parent's conversations well into the evening. I may have been able to keep up this plan all summer had I not fallen asleep one night and was discovered the next morning by a desperate mother searching for her lost son. From then on my information came from the early morning edition of the Herald News and an occasional newsreel at the Rialto.
The summer of 1950 was great. My pals Freddy, Andy, Buddy, Tommy and I mimicked the news reports and formed our own fighter squadron. We tore down Moen Avenue on our P-51 two-wheelers strafing convoys of unsuspecting shoppers or intercepting older girls on lumbering 26-inch bikes. We gave each other call names like "Charlie Blue Leader" and shouted out "bandits at three o'clock" as we dutifully patrolled our neighborhood. And when we weren't riding, we could be found in one of our cellars starting or adding the finishing touches on model airplanes.
Our models were made of balsa wood and tissue paper. They were lovingly hand cut with an X-acto knife, held together with a ten-cent tube of Testor's glue and painted with a dime's worth of Comet dope. Of all our models, the P-51 Mustang was the universal favorite. Its sleek silver body was a marvel of grace, whether outstretched in front of a running hand or carried aloft on a charging bike. Its whirling prop gave just the right sound as we made it dive, climb and roll. To us, the Mustang was the ultimate air weapon. We owned the Mustang and the Mustang owned the sky. But in November of '50 that changed. The Mikoyan and Gurevich design bureau's MiG-15 had arrived.
The MiG-15 came out of northern Asia like an avenging demon. The speed and firepower of this swept-winged devil cleared the Korean skies of our now suddenly obsolete aircraft. The propeller driven Mustangs and Corsairs were now as passé as the biplanes in an old Tail Spin Tommy serial. All at once our precious prop models were only good for one last flaming flight with a firecracker. Even our "for display" models of the Panther, Banshee, and Scorpion were assigned to a fiery end. They, like their straight winged cousins the Shooting Star and Thunderjet, were no match for the unstoppable MiG-15. My friends only hope, like that of the USAF, lay with the North American Aviation designed F-86 Sabre Jet. By the spring of 1951 the Sabre was the neighborhood's darling. Whether a solid wood model or one finished from balsa and tissue paper, just about every kid in the east end had at least four Sabre jets. Everyone, that is, but me.
My father and his brother had emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early 1930's. Both had served in the America's armed forces during World War Two and were fiercely patriotic. However, both had that vestige of Russian pride that every now and then raised its head. This was one of those times. When my father and uncle got together and away from the prying eyes of any McCarthy era busybodies, they would speak of the MiG and remind me, "The MIG is Russian, not Communist." Since I was the resident aircraft expert, my opinions were now held in high regard; a position I had long sought, but never attained. I would explain the relative merits of the MiG versus the Sabre, often hedging on the side of the MiG. I would compare ceilings and maximum speed, turn and climb rates and the effectiveness of the MiG's cannons versus the Sabre's machine guns. So what if in the real would six or seven MiGs were destroyed for every Sabre, around our kitchen table the MiG reigned supreme.
Dad and Uncle hung on every word of my glowing reports and to show their appreciation no request was too great to grant. And request I did. I had only to mention my need for money to buy the latest MiG-15 model and suddenly the money appeared. My father and uncle literally fell over each other for the honor of sponsoring my next MiG project. Before long I had completed a model of every MiG in the inventory at Walt's Hobby Shop. I paid a only a quarter for die-cut balsa wood kits by Guillow, but a Fulcarved solid model by Cavacraft set me back seventy-five cents. The stringer and tissue paper kits from Cleveland and Enterprise cost me a dollar apiece and the much coveted, highly detailed solid wooden and metal models by Dyna-Mo went for a whooping $2.75, almost a whole month of paper route money. Best of all, I had no fear of flying the models, since every one I broke was now easily replaced
As months became years the war in Korea became a stalemate. My models began to gather dust and my interest in the events seven thousand miles away faded. I lost interest in the MiG, but the MiG did not lose interest in me. In September of 1953 a North Korean pilot named Kum-Sok No defected from his country and landed his brand new MiG at the USAF base Kimpo. The Kimpo MiG ended up at Wright-Patterson for evaluation and was static tested and test flown. Only one person called the base to report seeing a strange craft circling above the Miami Valley. The eleven-year old boy who reported the sighting was assured by base personal that he was mistaken - there were no MiGs flying above Dayton. I hope he didn't believe them.
By October 1956 the Korean War and the MiG were ancient history. A new star was in the heavens and I along with thousands of others looked beyond the atmosphere for my future. Sputnik circled the globe and inspired me to join the legion of those who would ensure our country's dominance in the space age. Eight years later, armed with a degree in engineering and a brand-new suit of Air Force blue, I appeared at the front gate of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base home of the Air Force's Foreign Technology Division. When I entered the lobby of FTD's Pepto-Bismol Pink building an old friend welcomed me. A shinning wind-tunnel model of the MiG-15 looked down at me from the ceiling. The model was based on photos of the aircraft that bested the Mustang and detailed by the plane that defected to Kimpo. During my stay in that windowless building I battled all manner of MiG, from the 15 to the 31. The war I fought, however, was cold and the air-to-air actions were played out with computer models.
The Cold War ended in 1990 when the Soviet Union crumbled under its own weight. The Russian Federation that emerged from the rubble of what had once been the second greatest power on earth was a mere shadow of its former self. The Federation was hard pressed to maintain its the multi-billion-ruble military and prominent on the list of economic casualties was Mikoyan. MiG, once synonymous with Russian fighters, took a backseat to the Sukhoi Design Bureau and Mikoyan, like its one time adversary North American Aviation, was soon found only in museums and nostalgic air shows. Eight years later, my career followed that of Mikoyan. The kid whose imagination was sparked by the MiG-15 called it a day and retired.
In the southwest corner of my basement are tiers of old metal shelves speckled with rust and laden with an assortment of "when I get the time" projects. On the top shelve, next to several jigsaw puzzles and a dusty Rubik's Cube is a small cardboard box - its once vibrant colors faded and its seams cracked by time. Inside, carefully wrapped in a sheet of yellowing instructions, is a set of vacuum formed plastic parts. It's my only unfinished MiG-15 model. It sits there patiently waiting for Testor's glue, Comet paint, and an eight-year-old boy.
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