Missing in MiG Alley

What happened to American pilots shot down over Korea half a century ago? Airs May 23, 2012 at 10pm Airs May 23, 2012 at 10pm

  • Originally aired 12.18.07

Program Description

(Program not available for streaming.) In the early 1950s, epic battles unfolded in the skies over North Korea as American and Russian fighters faced off in history's first jet war. This program explores the Korean War's aerial tactics, technology, and grim aftermath for downed pilots, many of whom disappeared without a trace.

The Korean War pitted the two most advanced fighters of their day, the American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15, in furious air battles in North Korea's notorious "MiG Alley." With the help of dramatic reconstructions, rare archival footage, and interviews with veteran American and Soviet pilots, NOVA puts viewers in the cockpit to experience the lethal split-second duels that erupted in MiG Alley. In the most moving part of the program, NOVA also traces the efforts of three families to learn what happened to their loved ones, all Sabre pilots. Russia's newly opened archives provide some clues, while the Chinese are now receptive to searches of Sabre crash sites on their territory.


Missing in MiG Alley

PBS Airdate: December 18, 2007

NARRATOR: For the young pilots sent to war, Korea was a barren and foreboding place.

JOHN LOWERY: When I stepped off the airplane just at the crack of dawn at six o'clock in the morning, ...(sniffs)...and I took a whif of the air, it was the worst smelling place I had ever been, and my first thought was "my God, I'm gonna die in this place."

COL. BUD MAHURIN: It was cold, and it was wintertime, and typical Korean with mud and gray and ugly looking. There was a war going on, and it sounded like that's where a fighter pilot would like to be, to see what that jet propelled war was like.

OFFICER: Five, four, three, two, one...

NARRATOR: These pilots were about to take part in a new kind of air war. They would fight at over 600 miles per hour, but had little idea of the risks they faced if they were shot down.

The war started in the summer of 1950, when Communist forces from the North invaded the South.

The United States led a U.N. ground force to repel the invasion and pushed the communists back into North Korea.

But then in the autumn, hundreds of thousands of Chinese reinforcements came streaming over the border into Korea to support their comrades in arms. Outnumbered on the ground, the U.N. still had an edge, in the sky, with the United States Air Force.

OFFICER: Up! Anybody got any questions? Okay let's go get them.

FILM REEL COMMENTARY: They went into action without delay, striking at military targets – with special attention to the enemy's lines of communication and supplies.

NARRATOR: American bombers struck at the bridges across the Yalu River that forms the border between China and Korea. It was across this river that crucial supplies for the Communist Army came into the country.

ROBERT HEWSON: Now those aircraft, they were able to operate essentially unopposed.

There was no Korean Air Defence. There was no North Korean Air Forces. And that's the way it was, it was a happy time for them almost, until the MiG-15s appeared.

NARRATOR: When this sleek silver jet came swooping into Korea, it was the fastest plane in the sky. The Russian-built fighter took everyone by surprise.

The United States scrambled to respond. One week after the MiG's first appearance, the Air Force Chief of Staff ordered two wings of F-86 Sabres to be shipped by aircraft carrier from the U.S. to Korea. It had entered the service only a year and a half before. Now the Sabre was America's sole hope of taking on the formidable MiG.

ROBERT HEWSON: The MiG-15s were fast, they were very heavily armed, they'd climb quickly, they could slice through the American formations and be gone again, almost before the pilots knew what had happened.

NARRATOR: The first men who piloted MiGs in Korea were actually Russians, flying in secret. If word of their involvement got out, the Soviets feared it might provoke their Cold War enemies. So pilots were prohibited from flying across territory the Communists didn't control.

U.S. pilots were also reined in – barred, with exceptions, from crossing into Red China, where the MiGs were based. The result – the two jets met along the Chinese border, south of the Yalu River, in a notorious patch of sky known as MiG Alley.

Here, at close to the speed of sound, a new episode of Cold War confrontation erupted.

ROBERT HEWSON: The Russian motivation was quite straightforward. They wanted to test their aircraft, and the best testing ground there is, is war. They had a new aircraft, they needed to know how they were going to perform against their former American allies who they knew now would be their future opponents.

NARRATOR: In fact, the MiG and Sabre were so well matched, pilots found it hard to tell them apart.

One reason lay in Nazi Germany. At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and America both studied Nazi breakthroughs in aeronautics.

The Messerschmitt 262 was the world's first operational fighter jet. It had a heavy engine. So, to keep the design in balance, its wings were angled back slightly. Taken farther, that "swept-wing" design would one day hold the key to supersonic flight.

DICK HALLION: The first aircraft to have a swept wing, even though it was a very modest swept wing, was the German Messerschmitt 262 of 1944. The swept wing enabled you to fly an aircraft much faster.

ROBERT HEWSON: It completely changed their thinking about aircraft design. It revolutionized their ideas of aircraft design.

NARRATOR: Straight wings work well on propeller-driven planes, which operate at relatively low speeds. At high speeds, though, straight wings create aerodynamic problems. Shock waves form, causing drag.

ROBERT HEWSON: But if you use a swept wing, and a swept tail, all of a sudden you have a much more sleeker, much more efficient aerodynamic design, that lets you move at much higher speeds.

NARRATOR: The United States and the Soviets were both inspired by the German wing design, but the Soviets looked elsewhere for the MiG's remarkable engine.

ROBERT HEWSON: The MiG was a, was a good, well-armed aircraft but what made it great was its engine, and, and the reason it was great is because it was a great British engine. And the reason that there was a British engine there is because Britain gave it to them. In 1946 the British Government as a, as a gesture of friendship to a war-time ally, gave permission to Rolls Royce to send a batch of Nene Engines to the Soviet Union. Now the Nene was the most powerful jet engine of its day, Rolls Royce were the undisputed leaders in jet engine technology at the time, but the sad irony of this is that just a few years later when the Korean War broke out, Allied pilots, British pilots, found themselves being shot at by an aircraft powered by a British engine.

NARRATOR: A jet engine fires up by igniting fuel combined with air, under tremendous pressure. But there are different ways to compress air. The MiG's British Nene engine does it with centrifugal force, propelling the air outward to pressurize it. But there's another approach.

The more efficient axial flow engine packs air in, straight on.

This design was developed by the Nazis, and adapted by the Americans. It would one day usher in the modern Jet Age.

But the Sabre's engine had more weight to pull. The F-86 was loaded up with extra features, and added fuel to increase its range.

As a result, the MiG, rugged and simple, could outclimb it.

DICK HALLION: It had a much lighter construction and when you coupled that lightweight construction with the power of its engine this meant that the MiG could climb more rapidly, accelerate more rapidly and operate to a higher altitude. And fighter pilots always like to operate above their opponents so this advantage was a very strong one in favour of the MiG.

NARRATOR: And yet the Sabre had one crucial edge over its rival. Its pilots were better trained. Many were heroes from the Second World War.

PILOT – ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: Our job is to patrol MiG Alley and keep the MiGs off the backs of the fighter-bombers when they're up there dropping their bombs on targets in that area.

NARRATOR: Some went on to be astronauts – including Lieutenant Buzz Aldrin, who became the second man to walk on the moon many years after flying 66 missions in Korea.

BUZZ ALDRIN – ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: I do, however, remember my 37th mission rather vividly.

That was the mission I got my first MiG destroyed.

NARRATOR: In contrast, the North Korean Air Force had never flown jets before. The Russians began training them and the Chinese in the early months of the war. One of the first North Koreans to fly a MiG was Ken Rowe – formerly, Lieutenant No Kum-Sok.

KEN ROWE: We were not adequately trained. After we learned how to take off and landing, they, they didn't teach us how to fly fast. They needed jet pilots in a hurry. And then they taught us how to fly a formation flight. I was excited by flying the MiG and going up to 50,000 feet. But whenever I got chased by American planes that was not much fun.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: What it all boils down to is pilot on pilot, and whoever comes into the dogfight with more experience and better training, he's the one that's gonna dominate. And if you look at the training that both sides had, the Sabre pilot had more hours and more latitude during their training phase to learn all the intricacies of a swirling dogfight.

NARRATOR: But training in the cockpit could prove to be a liability. If a pilot were captured, he'd have more information to give his interrogators. To this day, there are those who went down over Korea who are unaccounted for. It's not clear whether they were killed in combat or taken prisoner.

Some believe there's a small chance they could still be alive.

Among the missing is Wing Commander John Baldwin, a legendary World War Two ace with 16 kills to his name. In March, 1952, he disappeared on a reconnaissance mission. Today, his son Michael is determined to find out what happened to him.

MICHAEL BALDWIN: There was always one particular cutting...it says "the tales that told of an almost unrecognisable prisoner in a North Korean compound who was said to be Baldwin." I mean, if he were still alive, that would be amazing, and that is possible—he could still be alive now as we speak.

NARRATOR: Was Michael's father killed – or captured as the article suggests? To uncover the truth, he embarks on a painful journey.

Danz Blasser is a Senior Analyst with the United States Government Department of Defense. He has spent 13 years on the trail of these missing British and American men.

DANZ BLASSER: My job is like doing a million piece jigsaw puzzle where I have no picture to go from, and I have to find the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, which are scattered around the world. There were 31 F-86 pilots whose circumstances of loss led us to believe they may have survived their, the shoot down of their plane.

NARRATOR: Danny Cope's father, Troy, is one of 31 American Sabre pilots missing in action. Danny has always wanted to know his fate.

DANNY COPE: I remember seeing in a telegram from, from the military to my, my Uncle Laurel that my dad was missing in action, and it was pretty cryptic, I mean just a few lines on a telegram. My older brother Johnny was four and I was two and my younger brother Mike was just eight months, nine months old. So we spent much of our childhood not knowing much about my dad.

NARRATOR: On September the 16th, 1952, Captain Troy Cope's Sabre was attacked by MiGs, and he disappeared.

DANNY COPE – READING TELEGRAM: "It is with deep regret that I officially inform you that your husband, Captain Troy G. Cope, has been missing since 16 September 1952, as a result of participating in Korean Operations."

NARRATOR: Danny's father was shot down in one of the most dangerous parts of MiG Alley, just across the border in China. And it was from China that Danz Blasser got his first lead in the hunt for Captain Troy Cope.

DANZ BLASSER: In the mid 1990s an American businessman travelled to Andung, China, and he went to the museum there. He came across three sets of American dog tags that were on display there. One of them was for Troy Cope. Somebody went down to verify this, and lo and behold, they were Captain Cope's dog tags.

DANNY COPE: When I heard about the, the dog tags being discovered then of course I immediately, because of his name being on the POW list and then was that because then he was captured and was really a POW, or was it because these were taken from a crash site?

NARRATOR: Although the dog tags were found in China, the information Danny Cope seeks is most likely to be found locked away in a Russian archive. Unless the archives are opened, the mystery of what became of Troy Cope and his fellow MIAs may never be known.

NARRATOR: For 40 years, Russia's role in Korea remained a secret. Now, one of the Soviets' top aces, Sergei Kramarenko, can finally talk about his exploits in MiG Alley.

SERGEI KRAMARENKO: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: It was a secret mission, neither before nor after the war were we allowed to reveal that we were going to fly for the North Koreans...against the Americans. It was top secret.

SERGEI KRAMARENKO: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: We were told that in case we were shot down beyond the front line we had to kill ourselves. Not to surrender was in the interests of the State.

SERGEI KRAMARENKO: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: Of keeping the military secret.

NARRATOR: If word got out of their involvement, the Russians feared the Korean conflict might trigger World War Three. But then, this was not a secret easily kept.

COL. BUD MAHURIN: I had a friend that was over there fighting and he shot at a MiG and, and the MiG pilot bailed out and when he was down he was floating in his parachute and my friend went by him in his airplane and the guy was coming down with a red beard, he shook his fist at my guy as he went by, so it was obviously that he was Caucasian. So when I got permission to go to one of our heavy radar sites, there was a transmission coming that was being relayed to us from people that spoke Russian and could hear the Russian transmissions from Northern Manchuria. So we were obviously involved with Russian combat pilots.

NARRATOR: And yet, while the pilots knew who they were up against, the American public did not. Both sides, Western and Communist, kept the secret.

Colonel Orlov was a Soviet intelligence officer in North Korea.

COLONEL ORLOV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: It was kept from the American public in case they demanded action against the Soviet Union. By this time Russia had atomic bomb and neither Washington nor Moscow wanted to risk full-scale nuclear war.

NARRATOR: Whenever veteran Soviet and American pilots squared off, the playing field was levelled. Each took advantage of the two planes' strengths and weaknesses.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: It's like two professional athletes looking for the edge. When you have two very similar aircraft, what the pilot needs to do is take advantage of whatever small advantage you might have.

NARRATOR: The MiG had more powerful weaponry. Because of its lighter load, it could climb faster and higher.

But the Sabre had more fuel capacity, could fly with greater control, and – most important – was more user-friendly for the pilot.

DICK HALLION: The F86 pilot sat in a heated, relatively comfortable, relatively spacious cockpit under a beautiful bubble canopy that gave him superb visibility in all directions. The MiG-15 pilot sat in a much more constrained, cramped, cold environment; much more uncomfortable.

NARRATOR: At stake was more than just a comfortable ride. At close to the speed of sound, the body gets slammed.

At each burst of thrust, in a turn or when accelerating, a pilot must fight against the force of gravity, or g's. His bloodstream can literally get cinched off, putting him at risk of blacking out.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: You are under g's so the body weighs 600, 700, 800 pounds. The blood is draining from your eyes. You are getting tunnel vision. You are having to deal with an oxygen mask and all those accoutrements around your body and people are shooting at you.

NARRATOR: The remedy: a stroke of American ingenuity.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: The g-suit is connected by this hose to a fitting in the cockpit and compressed air is blown through this tube into the suit. The bladders inflate and squeeze tight against those body parts, restricting the flow of blood to the lower extremities. That allows extra blood to reach the brain and the eyes. So that a pilot wearing a g-suit can pull approximately one additional g for a long period of time over a pilot who does not have a g-suit. That's a tremendous advantage in a swirling, turning dog fight between the MiG-15 and the Sabre jet.

NARRATOR: Add to that another advantage: tactics.

DICK HALLION: The tactical formation of Sabres was based around the leader and the wingman.

Basically the leader and the wing man operating off his wing as an extra pair of eyes to look out and protect the leader while the leader engages in combat against the foe. If we put another element with that, now we have the finger of four, we have a group of four. What this meant was that we had a very fluid formation here that if bounced could break into two elements of two and you would still not break that inviolate bond between the leader and the wing man as they prosecute air combat against the foe.

NARRATOR: American pilots had to make their own decisions in combat. But the Soviets were directed from bases on the ground, known as "Ground Control Intercepts."

DICK HALLION: Ground Control Interception Officers would position the MiGs so that they would fly across the Yalu at very high altitude and high speed just at the point where Sabre pilots, having made a routine patrol, were getting very low on fuel. The MiGs would dive down on the Sabres from high altitude, make a single pass through their formation and then blast back toward the Yalu to try and get into North Korea again before the Sabres could follow after them.

JOHN LOWERY: If there were no, no MiGs flying we'd, we'd patrol up and down the Yalu River and then as we called "Bingo," meaning "minimum fuel to get back home," we'd turn to leave. The MiGs sometimes would come up and then try to engage us when we were leaving.

NARRATOR: Low on fuel, the Sabres were easy targets. The only way to escape was to dive – at close to the speed of sound.

JOHN LOWERY: I'll never forget, my flight leader was physically shooting at a MiG when another MiG came out on me, and that was the first time I'd been shot at. He had about 12 foot of flames coming out of that 37 millimetre cannon, and I saw the red balls going by. The rule that we were taught was "you don't dogfight with ‘em when they have the advantage, you just go ahead and dive and lose ‘em."

NARRATOR: For a MiG pilot to follow was a risky proposition. In a high-speed plunge, his jet became unstable. But why could the Sabre maintain control at speeds MiGs couldn't handle?

The Soviets were determined to find the Answer – by capturing and interrogating Sabre pilots.

JOHN LOWERY: I didn't worry about death as much as I did getting captured.

NARRATOR: The fear of being shot down was bad enough, but ending your days in a Russian Gulag seemed even worse. Yet it still didn't deter some foolhardy acts.

COL. BUD MAHURIN: Biggest dumb thing I ever did in my life! In an effort to try and entice the MiGs to come down and do battle with us, we decided we would try to drop bombs so they'd have to come in and look at us. We dropped our bombs and I circled to see if we were accurate...and in doing so I saw a truck going down the highway, so I thought I'd just go by and shoot that truck up, and I'll have a good story to tell the guys at the bar tonight when I get home. And so I slowed down, opened the speed brakes and got ready to shoot at it just as it turned off of the highway into a forest. And I couldn't turn sharp enough to go over and get it, but in doing the slow-down I got hit by ground fire. My cockpit filled with smoke. Had to fly over another heavily defended town and got hit another coupla of times. I have a fire warning light in the front compartment and fire warning in the aft compartment and I know that I don't have enough power to keep on flying and I'm gonna end up by flying into the ground, which of course I did!

NARRATOR: Mahurin crashed – but miraculously survived, only to be captured. As a senior officer and Air Force tactician, he was a valuable prize for the enemy.

COL. BUD MAHURIN: I was kept in solitary confinement all the time I was in prison. I got interrogated almost continuously. It was kind of thing you'd see on TV, where there'd be four or five guys sitting in a table and they would start to ask me questions. For example, "how many F-86's are there in South Korea?" That kinda stuff. They were using what we call "Brainwashing Pavlov Reflex Conditioning," trying to break me down so I'd tell them anything just to get away.

NARRATOR: After months of interrogation by the North Koreans and Chinese, Mahurin was close to the breaking point.

COL. BUD MAHURIN: I'd, I'm getting to the point where I'm sort of losing my sensibilities and so one night I decided I was gonna attempt to commit suicide.

NARRATOR: He convinced a guard he needed a knife to sharpen a pencil.

COL. BUD MAHURIN: I, I ended up by cutting my wrists and causing a, what was in my view, a pretty good flow of blood and at that time we had just bombed what was called the "Suijho Reservoir", which was the big power generation station on the Suijho River. The lights in my cell went off and when they went off the guards came rushing into the cell, reached up to tap the light and they found flecks of blood on, on the light and came over instantly to me and saw me sitting in a pool of blood. And immediately got medical assistance to keep that from going any further.

NARRATOR: The rescue was not for humanitarian reasons.

COL. BUD MAHURIN – ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: Ah, I made a confession, it was not a confession that had any basis...

NARRATOR: Mahurin was saved so that he would sign a trumped up confession that America was waging germ warfare. After 16 months, he was sent home. Others were not so lucky.

Intelligence reports suggest a sinister reason why some pilots never returned.

DANZ BLASSER: There was an air attaché in Hong Kong by the name of Delke Simpson who sent a report out saying that there were trainloads of American prisoners of war being trans-shipped through China to the former Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: Was it possible some Sabre pilots were taken to the Soviet Union? Michael Dearmond is one of the few captured pilots who was interrogated by a Russian, and lived to tell the tale.

MICHAEL DEARMOND: One day when I went for interrogation there was a Caucasian Officer in a Korean uniform but with no rank on him. I turned to the Captain and I said "who's this?" and he said, "this is one of our Russian advisors who would like the answers to a few questions".

I became more and more concerned about the purpose of this Russian running my interrogation because one of my frankly deepest fears was to wind up in a Gulag someplace. So I tried to be the dumbest F-86 pilot he had ever interrogated. Apparently it was effective but he became more and more exasperated, until one day he said something to the Korean Major, again the slapping and pounding about the head and shoulders, he folded up his stuff and disappeared, and I never saw him again.

NARRATOR: Ultimately a Sabre pilot could only reveal so much. What the Russians really needed was to capture the plane itself.

COLONEL ORLOV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: We wanted to capture a Sabre and they wanted to capture a MiG. That's quite natural. Descriptions can be inaccurate due to translation and de-coding.

It's much better to see with your own eyes and to touch with your own hands.

COLONEL ORLOV: (Russian dialogue)

NARRATOR: Soviet pilots were under orders to bring down a sabre without destroying it. This was easier said than done, but one day they got the chance they'd been waiting for.

YEVGENY PEPELYAYEV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: The squadron took off to intercept the enemy fighters.

YEVGENY PEPELYAYEV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER I decided to use my tried and tested manoeuvre. I made it look like I was drifting to the left and immediately moved right.

YEVGENY PEPELYAYEV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: I had almost drawn level with the Sabre, so I rolled my aircraft and took aim.

YEVGENY PEPELYAYEV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: I didn't bother to follow him once he went down.

YEVGENY PEPELYAYEV: (Russian dialogue)

COLONEL ORLOV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: The Sabre pilot managed to land the plane without it exploding. The plane buried itself in the sand. The pilot was saved by the rescue team and the plane was left behind.

COLONEL ORLOV: (Russian dialogue)

NARRATOR: The pilot, Bill Garrett, fled to safety, while U.N. Forces tried to protect his downed Sabre.

COLONEL ORLOV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: The Americans tried to destroy it, to prevent us taking it. But they failed.

NARRATOR: The Communists succeeded in securing an F-86, despite all efforts to keep them away.

For the Russians, it was the chance they had been waiting for. Now they could send the Sabre back to Moscow to investigate its top secret technology.

One of America's worst fears had been realized. Its most prized fighter had fallen into Soviet hands.

YEVGENY PEPELYAYEV: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: Of course, it was great to get such a prize. We sent it to Moscow straight away.

NARRATOR: There it remained, hidden behind the iron curtain.

NARRATOR: One of the original members of the top secret team that studied the captured Sabre still lives in a Russian Air Force housing complex just outside Moscow.

Vadim Matskevich's job was to evaluate and adapt Western technology for use on Soviet aircraft. He was able to learn a lot from the captured Sabre.

VADIM MATSKEVICH: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: All the equipment was stripped off the aircraft including the electronic gun sight. It was sent to our Institute in Chkalovskaya.

VADIM MATSKEVICH: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: I was given the task of studying the Sabre's electronic gun sight, its design, how it worked, its performance. I wrote a report explaining its exceptional qualities compared with the equipment on Soviet aircraft.

VADIM MATSKEVICH: (Russian dialogue)

NARRATOR: Here's what Matskevich discovered.

The Sabre was equipped with radar to give the pilot his target's exact range. Thatinformation, processed by a rudimentary computer, automatically positioned his gunsight – telling him where he should point his nose and shoot.

VADIM MATSKEVICH: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: I explained that all the gun sight data was projected on to the forward windscreen, the range and target was automatically encircled, it was absolutely outstanding!

NARRATOR: This information was vital, enabling Matskevitch to create a warning receiver that could pick up the gunsight's radar frequency and alert MiG pilots to a Sabre's approach.

VADIM MATSKEVICH: (Russian dialogue)

INTERPRETER: It warns you that there's an aircraft approaching from behind. At the furthest distance it gives a single sound like... When the aircraft gets closer... And when it gets really close... The last is a really alarming noise. It saved the lives of a lot of our pilots.

NARRATOR: By snatching Sabres, the Russians could exploit Western technology. When Bud Mahurin was captured, so was his jet – a later generation, Model E, with a special tail.

Like the MiG, earlier model Sabres had a tail that was split.

But the tail on the Model E Sabre moved as one fixed piece. This design, along with enhanced flight controls, was why the F-86 could dive so well at high speeds.

Steadily, the F-86 was refined. In June of '52, the ultimate Korean War-era Sabre was unleashed. The F-86 F had an even more powerful engine, with 770 added pounds of thrust. The leading edge of the wings was streamlined, while the size of the wings as increased. The result: improved aerodynamics and stability.

Here was a plane that, even when weighed down with fuel, could climb nearly as fast as a MiG – and take on the MiG at any altitude.

The U.S. finally got its chance to inspect a MiG in September, 1953, when a young North Korean pilot, disillusioned with Communism, set out on a dangerous bid to defect to the West.

KEN ROWE: That day I decided I was ready to die. I had a 20% chance of success. So I took off for the south. That was the luckiest day of my life. The US radar at Kimpo Airbase was shut down for the maintenance work on that day. So they didn't see me. You see how lucky I could be. The anti aircraft gunners, they all thought this war was over. They were half asleep. Once I went over their head they shouted, "that is a MiG." That when I just passed over their head. That's when I landed. Then I went and I parked there. They were surprised and then one pilot came out and eh he did not know what's going on. So him and I shook hands. That's the first thing we did.

NARRATOR: The Americans put their prize to the test when flying legend Chuck Yeager, first man to exceed the speed of sound, put it through its paces. Unimpressed, he called the MiG a "Flying Booby Trap."

KEN ROWE: He went up to 50,000 feet then he dived down. He hit the Mach number 0.95 and then he couldn't get out of there because the control system does not respond. It's buffeting and very uncomfortable. So he went all the way down to 3000 feet above the water then somehow he got out.

NARRATOR: The MiG could still climb slightly faster and higher. But that was matched by the superior handling, gunsight, and g-suit of the late model Sabre.

The U.S. had dropped leaflets promising a hundred thousand dollars as an incentive to lure pilots. But Lieutenant No Kum-Sok was not even aware of the reward he was to receive. He went on to become an American citizen, and an aeronautical engineer. He changed his name to Ken Rowe.

And what became of his Western counterparts – those American and British pilots who ended up in enemy hands?

In July 1953, a ceasefire was declared. Fifteen Sabre pilots were repatriated, Michael Dearmond and Bud Mahurin among them. More than twice that many failed to return home.

Some may have been killed in action. But Michael Dearmond believes others remained behind, imprisoned by the Soviets.

MICHAEL DEARMOND: With hindsight I think I'm probably alive today because of the ignorance I portrayed to this Russian interrogator. I had at least three close friends who I think disappeared in the Gulag.

NARRATOR: If men were taken by the Russians, what became of them? During the Cold War, there was no way to find out.

Then, in 1992, in a bid to gain congressional approval for an aid package, Russian President Boris Yeltsin made a startling concession.


INTERPRETER – ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: Even if one American has been detained in my country and can still be found, I will find him. I will get him back to his family.

NARRATOR: For the first time, a Russian leader promised that any captured Americans would be sent home.

NARRATOR: Yeltsin's speech gave renewed hope to the relatives of missing pilots.

ANN BAKKENSEN: It's the same markings as from Korea.


NARRATOR: Among them is Ann Bakkensen, whose father flew an F-86 E.

ANN BAKKENSEN: I'm just amazed, I mean the, the markings on the plane are, are the same, the yellow and black and how many times have I, oh, how many times have I looked at pictures of that and thought about my dad.

NARRATOR: Bakkensen's father, Lieutenant Robert Niemann, was shot down three months before the end of the Korean War. She never believed that he died in combat.

ANN BAKKENSEN: I naturally assumed that he had been taken to the Soviet Union and had lived out his time there. Our government is more cautious about making any type of conclusion and so I want to believe that he was captured and was alive because that gives me hope that he might still be alive.

NARRATOR: With the collapse of Communism, it was hoped that new information on the missing pilots might emerge from the former Soviet Union.

Danz Blasser received a document from Russia's newly opened archives. It lists Ann's father as being one of the prisoners who passed through an interrogation point in either China or North Korea, indicating he hadn't died in combat.

DANZ BLASSER: Well, the Russians went and dug further and came up with another document for us. And the title of the document was "An Inventory of documents taken from an F-86 pilot Robert Niemann who was shot down and the pilot perished".

NARRATOR: It seemed contradictory. Had Niemann been killed, or did he survive to become a prisoner? For many families, such confusing accounts are dashing any hope of finally getting answers.

ANN BAKKENSEN: It's really difficult to try to be realistic and reasonable about this when you don't have the information. Every time you think something happened it means you have to...adjust your thinking to that and then information will come along that says something else. I mean what if his plane went down (making plane noise) and burst into flames and he was burned beyond recognition? And some day I see a photograph of him as just a few pieces of singed flesh and some equipment on the ground. Well, that, that would, would be hard to deal with too, but any outcome would be hard to deal with, so really, I've, I guess I've tried not to make a definite conclusion, but you always hope.

NARRATOR: To date, there is no documented proof that missing pilots were actually taken to Russia. The only evidence is anecdotal. For those seeking closure, the search for hard facts has become a vigil.

Danny Cope's father, Troy, disappeared during a dogfight on the 16th of September, 1952. Search and rescue teams could find no trace of a crash site. His family had no idea what had happened to him.

But 40 years later, Danz Blasser made a major breakthrough in his quest to discover Cope's fate. In the Soviet archives, he found a description of a Sabre shoot-down that matched the date of Troy Cope's disappearance. That document said the plane crashed over the North Korean border in China.

DANZ BLASSER: It said that it crashed into the house of Lee Dyeung Chen in the 8th District of Dandong. Well it, it was like, Eureka! We went there, we did a, a site survey, we found evidence that there was a plane crash in that location. They discovered high concentrations of hydrocarbons, which indicated jet fuel and some pieces of aircraft wreckage.

DANNY COPE: At the crash site they had found a number of things that belonged to my father. They found, you know, they found a, a sole of the shoe that initially compared it to the American issue of boot at that time and it matched the size of my dad's shoe. They had found a watch band, and a watch back. And in the picture of Rosie of which he's, you can see the watch and it, and it's that watch. A pocket knife that was... totally rusted. There was pieces of the map that he'd used of Korea, and then pieces of a magazine that he was reading at the time.

NARRATOR: This was probably the site where Cope's dog tags had been discovered, by civilians or perhaps the Chinese authorities. The American recovery team also unearthed human remains, which were taken to a government lab for DNA analysis. This confirmed beyond doubt that Troy Cope had been found.

DANNY COPE: We actually went into the Lab to where my dad's stuff was laid out. Small pile of... fragments of... bones. Being with the remains and being allowed to touch them and, that was just beyond words. Can't describe it... so...

NARRATOR: Troy Cope's story was finally resolved, but the case of Wing Commander John Baldwin is still open. Michael Baldwin has heard of Danz Blasser's successes. Now he's holding out hope that Danz may have come across some reference in the Russian archives to his missing father as well.

MICHAEL BALDWIN: Thank you, thank you very much.

DANZ BLASSER: Back in 1994 we did an interview of a retired Soviet Officer who was in the Intelligence Branch at the 64th Fighter Aviation Corp, and in this interview he gave a lot of information that checked out, I mean it was, it was factual. He gave this little statement here about three Canadian aircraft being shot down in Korea. But he says here that he recalled one of the pilots was a Colonel Baldwin or Balwin and he died in the crash. And that's what led to this document being put into the file for your father.

NARRATOR: The report is disturbing. If Michael's Father did die in this crash, the site lies deep in North Korea, where the U.S. has suspended recovery operations because of concerns for the safety of investigators.

Michael's hopes that his father survived are slowly fading.

MICHAEL BALDWIN: The most painful thing, I, I would suppose that, that it, that he died in, in really painful circumstances. Whether that was a crash, you, you sort of half expect that that may be the truth. And it'll be shocking when it, if it, if it does come, but you still want to know the truth. You'd much rather know the truth than some fairy story.

DANNY COPE: As I look back on it now and, and all the, the events that led up to where we are today, I just have a real sense of well-being that made that trip, as emotional and difficult as it was, worth it.

NARRATOR: Fifty-three years after he crashed near the North Korean border, Danny's father, Captain Troy Cope, was buried with full military honors in Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Texas.

DANZ BLASSER: We've only looked at approximately a quarter of the documents that we know to exist on the Soviet involvement during the Korean War. Do I expect that we can solve some more of these cases? I, I do. I do. I hope that other families get to have the end experience that I do and that they don't go through their entire lives never knowing, because I think that's the most difficult part, is not knowing.

ANN BAKKENSEN: If you have a loved one that dies, you will never stop thinking about that loved one. And for my dad, it's a loved one that I never knew so, besides the fact that he's gone and I still think about him, I still wonder what he's like.

MICHAEL BALDWIN: These last few days has given me renewed optimism that there will be an answer. It may be a very simple one—that he died in the crash. It may be that he was a prisoner of war. The possibilities are still endless. But I'm absolutely sure that there will be a, a conclusion to this, somehow or other. And it may take four, five, ten years but I won't be happy until I find it. But I will find it.

Broadcast Credits

Missing in MiG Alley

Produced by
Michael Barnes
Directed by
Emily Roe
Produced for NOVA by
Jonathan Grupper
Edited by
Justin Badger
Gerry Branigan
Stephen Mack
Yuri Burak
Mike Coles
Tom Kaufman
Nick Manley
Sound Recordists
Mike Boyle
Jim Machowski
Alex Parnell
Jay O. Sanders
Rostrum Camera
Chris Shelley
Robert LePage
Eureka Media, Inc.
Fluid TV
Steve Bowman
Assistant Editor
Evelyn Carrigan
Online Editor and Colorist
Michael H. Amundson
The OutPost
Audio Mix
David Porter
Stock Footage Research
Polly Pettit
Archival Material
Library of Congress
Clips and Footage
Images of War
Alexander Kandaurov
Military Archive and Research Services
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
National Archive & Records Administration
Special Thanks
Christopher Fahey
SGM Herbert A. Friedman, (Ret.)
Executive Producer for Windfall Films
David Dugan
NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.
NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Additional NOVA Theme Music
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Spencer Gentry
Closed Captioning
The Caption Center
NOVA Administrator
Ashley King
Eileen Campion
Lindsay de la Rigaudiere
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Gaia Remerowski
Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan
Raphael Nemes
Talent Relations
Scott Kardel, Esq.
Janice Flood
Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen
Assistant Editor
Alex Kreuter
Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey
Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole
Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto
Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner
Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart
Business Manager
Joseph P. Tracy
Producers, Special Projects
Lisa Mirowitz
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Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane
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Managing Director
Alan Ritsko
Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A Windfall Films Production for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with National Geographic Channel International and FIVE

© 2007 WGBH Educational Foundation and Windfall Films Ltd.

All Rights Reserved

Image credit: (plane animation) © Windfall Films; (Troy Cope) © Danny Cope


Ann Bakkensen
Daughter of Robert Niemann
Michael Baldwin
Son of John Baldwin
Danz Blasser
Chief, Korean War Working Group
Danny Cope
Son of Troy Cope
Michael Dearmond
Former Sabre Pilot
Richard Hallion
USAF Historian
Robert Hewson
Military Aviation Specialist jalw.janes.com/public/jalw/editorial_team.shtml
Sergei Kramarenko
Former MiG Pilot
John Lowery
Former Sabre Pilot
Bud Mahurin
Former Sabre Pilot
Vadim Matskevich
Former Engineer, Soviet Air Force
Sergei Orlov
Former Soviet Intelligence Officer
Yevgeny Pepelyayev
Former MiG Pilot
Ken Rowe
Former MiG Pilot
Ralph Wetterhahn
Author, Former Fighter Pilot


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