Sabres over Vladivostok


The end of the Korean War on 27 Jul 53 allowed the US Air Force to reconsider where its reconaissance activities in the Far East should be directed. The Pentagon decided to utilise the RF-86F Sabres based in Japan to conduct photographic sorties around the Soviet naval base of Vladivostok. As well as naval facilities, the area around Vladivostok contained a number of bomber bases equipped with the Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, a Soviet copy of the B-29 Superfortress. One of the great fears of Pentagon planners at this time was of a suprise attack by Soviet bombers from the Far East and Siberia flying over the Arctic. Consequently, it was vitally important to ascertain the number of bombers based in this area.

Khorol airfield

Maj George H 'Jake' Saylor had recently taken command of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) based at Komaki in Japan when he learned of the plans. Because of the relatively short range of the RF-86F, the plan was for a 2 or 4 ship flight of aircraft to take off from Osan in Korea carrying four underwing fuel tanks which would be jettisoned after the fuel was consumed. It was felt that the main threat would probably come from Soviet fighter aircraft, so it was decided to abandon the sortie if the Sabres started to leave a contrail. The 40-inch vertical cameras carried on the Sabres would enable them to photograph a 7 mile wide strip of land many hundreds of miles long.

On 22 Mar 54 Maj Saylor led two RF-86Fs into Soviet territory adjacent to Vladivostok, but for a variety of reasons the mission was not a complete success. The cover story they planned to use if they were forced down inside Russia was that they had got lost lost engaged in a study of the winds at high altitude. On 3 Apr 54 Maj Saylor led the second mission of four aircraft to Vladivostok and this time it was planned to cover all the targets in the area. After taking off with a maximum fuel load, the Sabres eventually punched-off the empty tanks over the Pacific before entering Soviet airspace at around 45,000ft. No MiGs were sighted by the pilots, although intelligence reports later indicated that they had been detected and MiGs were climbing up to attempt an intercept.

Tu-4's at Khorol

It is believed that the RF-86F Sabres of the 15th TRS eventually flew several dozen reconnaissance missions over Russia and some ventured over China, although the exact number of missions flown cannot be accurately determined. It is known that the last overflight by Sabres occurred in 1957. The US Air Force eventually decided to use the Republic RF-84F Thunderflash as its standard tactical reconnaissance aircraft and the RF-86Fs eventually found their way to the Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese air forces. Finally, the surviving aircraft were returned to the USA and either scrapped or used as QF-86F target drones. Thankfully, two RF-86F aircraft were still in existance when the QF-86F drone was withdrawn and were rescued by two museums. Hopefully, the full story of these missions over Russia will one day be written, until then all we can do is admire the bravery of the men who took part.

In a completely separate operation during the Korean War, 1st Lt Mele Vojvodich Jr flew his RF-86 all the way to Mukden, China, some 300 miles beyond the South Korean border, setting a long distance tactical reconnaissance record in the process. Mele Vojvodich Jr eventually retired from the USAF as a Maj General.