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MiG 17 Fresco – High-Subsonic Performance

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 17 ‘Fresco’ (NATO reporting name) was a high-subsonic/transonic fighter developed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was one of the best fighter designs of the early Cold War period.

A follow-up development of the earlier MiG 15, the Fresco was a single-seat, highly manoeuvrable combat fighter originally designed to intercept and destroy American bomber aircraft, but the type matured into an excellent air-to-air fighter with an impressive combat record.

A first-generation fighter, the MiG 17 is mostly remembered today for its magnificent service with the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) during the Vietnam War, where it successfully battled against the second and third-generation combat aircraft of the United States Air Force and the United States Navy during the conflict.

A MiG 17 sat on the deck of the Intrepid.
A MiG 17 in the colours of the North Vietnamese. Photo credit – Ad Meskens CC BY-SA 3.0.

Content

Design and Development

The introduction of the MiG 15 ‘Fagot’ during the Korean War came as a rude shock to Western nations battling North Korean forces on the peninsula. Faster and more manoeuvrable than most Allied fighters in service at the time, it was only thanks to superior training and organisation that Western fighter pilots were able to hold their own in air-to-air combat against the MiG 15 while maintaining an even kill-loss ratio.

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It took the introduction of the superb Sabre before the UN forces were able to regain a position of air dominance in this conflict.

Soviet designers were already at work on a follow-up design to the Fagot, which even though recognised as a superb fighter still had some performance issues, which were mostly related to structural design issues.

The MiG 15bis had impressive performance for an aircraft with no afterburner.
The MiG 15 looked very similar from the front, however the MiG 17 was quite the upgrade. Photo credit – Kirill Pisman CC BY-SA 2.0.

So even while the MiG 15 was being introduced into service from 1949 onwards, Mikoyan-Gurevich engineers were working on an updated design that would eventuate as the Fresco.

Despite closely resembling the earlier MiG 15, the Fresco was a totally new design, with thinner and more highly swept wings and tailplanes. While still a subsonic fighter, the MiG 17 was designed to operate close to Mach-1 (transonic), while still retaining considerable agility for air combat manoeuvres.

During the platform’s time in service, the basic design was improved over the lifetime of the aircraft, and while the basic MiG 17 initially served as a basic cannon-armed day fighter, the Fresco matured into an all-weather fighter with some ground-attack capability in its later versions, after being fitted with a radar system, an early model afterburner and wing-mounted hard points.

A Polish Lim-5 parked outside.
A Polish Air Force Lim-5. A licence-built version of the MiG 17. Photo credit – Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0.

Along with licenced production in the People’s Republic of China and Poland, nearly 10,700 MiG 17s were manufactured before 1958.

The MiG 17 had its first flight on February 1st, 1950, and serial production commenced in August 1951, but full production was curtailed at this time to allow MiG 15s to be continually manufactured while the Korean War still rumbled on. The Fresco was formally introduced into service in the Soviet Union in October 1952 but did not see service in Korea.

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Following the successful test flights of the I-330 prototype, the basic MiG 17 ‘Fresco A’ was introduced as a basic day fighter, powered by the VK-1 engine, which was a design knock-off of the Rolls-Royce Nene jet engine. This was quickly followed by the MiG 17A, which was fitted with an improved VK-1A engine, and the MiG 17 AS, which could employ unguided rockets in the air-to-ground role, and also introduced the K-13 air-to-air missile, which was a copy of the American Sidewinder.

Later versions of the Fresco were equipped with radar.
A MiG 17PF with the Izumrud radar in the nose. Photo credit – VargaA CC BY-SA 4.0.

The next version of the MiG 17 was the ‘Fresco B’ MiG 17P, which was the first all-weather fighter in Soviet use, equipped with the Izumrud radar for interceptor duties. This was followed by the MiG 17F ‘Fresco C’ version, a basic day fighter which introduced the VK-1F augmented engine into service.

The following major variant was the MiG 17PF ‘Fresco D’, which was designed as an all-weather interceptor fitted with the Izumrud radar, a re-designed cannon armament and the afterburning VK-1F power plant.

The last air-combat version made was the MiG 17 PM/PFU ‘Fresco E’, a model specifically designed to intercept and destroy American bombers in combat. This variant was equipped with a new radar system and carried the K-5 beam-riding air-to-air missile for interceptor duties.

The last major variant of the Fresco to enter service was the MiG 17R, a reconnaissance aircraft stripped of all armament, utilising the VK-1F engine and mounting cameras for battlefield intelligence gathering purposes.

MiG 17 with afterburner lit.
MiG 17 with the VK-1F afterburning engine. Photo credit – Rob Shenk CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Fresco

In its basic dimensions, the Fresco differed little from its predecessor the MiG 15: a height of 3.8 metres (12 feet 6 inches), a length of 11.3 metres (37 feet) and a wingspan of 9.6 metres (31 feet). The empty weight of the aircraft was 3,900 kg (8,600 lbs) with a full load of 5,400 kg (11,700 lbs).

The MiG 17 was able to carry a total of 1,150 kg of fuel internally, and its range with two 400 litre (110 gallons) wing-mounted drop tanks was 2,000 km (1,250 miles). The Fresco had a top speed at sea level of Mach .089 (684 mph, 1100 km/h) and with afterburner at 3,000m altitude was able to attain Mach .093 (712 mph, 1,150 km/h). The Fresco had a service ceiling of 16,600 metres (54,500 feet) when the afterburner was employed.

The Klimov VK-1F engine was able to generate dry thrust figures of 6,000 lbs (26.5 kN) and using the afterburner could muster 7,500 lbs (34 kN) of thrust. The MiG 17 had a power-to-weight ratio of 0.63, which was very respectable for an early first-generation fighter.

MiG 17 in low level flight above some tree tops.
Performance was excellent for this type of early jet fighter. Photo credit – Balon Greyjoy.

The Fresco carried a variety of weapons, and while predominantly designed as an air combat fighter the aircraft was able to carry out air-to-ground attacks. The primary armament of the Fresco was two 23 mm Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 cannons with 80 rounds per gun, and a single 37 mm Nudelman N-37 cannon with 40 rounds supplied. The Fresco ‘D’ was equipped with three NR-23 cannons in a bid to lower the weight of the aircraft and increase the firing rate of the gun armament.

Two hard points under the wings had a load capacity of 500kg (1,100 lbs) and could be fitted with unguided rocket pods, 250kg (500 lb) bombs, or drop tanks for ferry flights. In later versions, two K-13 or K-5 missiles for air-to-air fighting or interceptor missions were mounted.

Service History

The MiG 17 was designed to intercept the early piston-engine bombers of the early Cold War such as the B-29 and the B-50, but the advent of jet bombers saw the Fresco quickly become obsolete when employed in this role, and it was replaced in Soviet air defence units by later and higher-performing aircraft.

K-13 Missile sat on a stand in a museum.
The Soviet K-13, also known as the R-3S. These types of missiles were basic and unreliable. Photo credit – Clif1066 CC BY 2.0.

The Fresco entered service too late to participate in combat in the Korean War, and the first service use happened over the Taiwan Strait in 1958. MiG 17s clashed with missile-armed Taiwanese Sabres during these confrontations, and some reports state that several Frescos returned to their bases in the PRC with unexploded Sidewinder missiles wedged in their airframes.

Soviet engineers were able to safely remove these missiles and re-engineer these into the K-13, the Warsaw Pact’s first air-to-air missile to enter service.

It was during the early part of the Vietnam War (1962-73) that the MiG 17 came into its own as a combat aircraft, and gained a reputation as a worthy adversary in air-to-air fighting.

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It was during this conflict that the Fresco’s basic qualities of simplicity and robustness meant that the platform was able to hold its own against opponents of later manufacture and superior performance, often shooting down these far more capable opponents when certain combat scenarios allowed this.

The MiG 17 was not as advanced as the USAF fighters of the time.
A MiG 17 in the gunsight of an F-105D.

The 2nd and 3rd generation fighters employed by the USAF and USN in this conflict were designed to employ the latest air-to-air missiles and often lacked gun armament. However, these early missiles were not as effective as the Americans had hoped for, and successful launches were rare with missiles often being ineffective for reasons such as poor rules of engagement, incorrect launch parameters and electronic reliability.

Over half of all missiles fired were faulty, and only one in eleven missile shots found their targets successfully.

USAF/USN pilots often found themselves at a distinct disadvantage during the early part of the conflict in combat against the MiG 17, when the missiles missed their VPAF opponents or malfunctioned.

MiG 17 has some serious firepower.
The lack of guns on American aircraft was a huge disadvantage. However this MiG 17 packed a punch – two 23mm cannons and a single 37mm. Photo credit – YSSYhguy CC BY-SA 3.0.

The American pilots found that the untouched Fresco would then engage and often destroy its adversary with cannon fire, and the lack of cannon on US aircraft meant that American pilots were basically helpless against this form of attack.

Often flown by Russian and Chinese pilots as well as VPAF personnel, the MiG 17 racked up some impressive scores against US aircraft, and this situation was not remedied until superior tactics and training saw the Americans better able to deal with the threat of nimble, cannon-armed fighters.

It took the introduction of the cannon-armed F4-E Phantom in 1968 to ensure that the kill-loss ratio reverted back to acceptable levels.

The Fresco also served in the Middle East for many years, including combat use with the Egyptian and Syrian air forces against the Israeli Air Force. The MiG 17 formed a large part of the combat strength of Arab air forces leading up to the Six-Day War of 1967, but history records that the majority were destroyed on the ground by surprise attacks in the initial stages of that conflict.

Underside view of an Egyptian MiG 17.
Underside view of an Egyptian MiG 17.

The survivors were engaged in ground attacks, and Russia replaced all lost aircraft soon after the Israeli victory in this conflict.

The MiG 17 fared better in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 but was mainly employed in the ground attack role again, as it was realised that IAF pilots with their superior aircraft and training would be too tough an adversary in air-to-air combat. Losses were again high, but the Soviets again replaced all aircraft lost in combat. However, many Arab air forces retired the Fresco from front-line service after 1973.

Over twenty nations employed the MiG 17 as combat fighters over the course of the platform’s career, but the vast majority have long since retired this venerable aircraft from service.

The exception is North Korea, which continues to employ about 240-odd Shenyang J-5s (Chinese licenced production model of the Fresco) in service to this day, but poor serviceability means that less than 50% of these aircraft are reportedly airworthy.

The J-5 is often known as copy of the MiG 17.
A twin-seat Shenyang JJ-5 was an aircraft that closely resembled the MiG 17.

Conclusion

Principally designed to intercept and destroy early American bombers, the MiG 17 Fresco morphed into an excellent air-to-air fighter, well able to take on and successfully combat later and more sophisticated fighter opponents.

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The Fresco ended its career boasting an impressive combat record and was regarded as a capable and worthy opponent by those who flew against it in aerial combat. Its positive qualities and attributes ensured that it had a long and successful career, and was still in service long after its contemporaries had long been retired from Western inventories. This distinguished combat record ensures its place in the pantheon of successful combat aircraft in aerial fighting history.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 11.264 m (36 ft 11 in)
  • Wingspan: 9.628 m (31 ft 7 in)
  • Height: 3.8 m (12 ft 6 in)
  • Empty weight: 3,919 kg (8,640 lb)
  • Gross weight: 5,340 kg (11,773 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 6,069 kg (13,380 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Klimov VK-1F afterburning centrifugal-flow turbojet engine, 26.5 kN (6,000 lbf) thrust dry, 33.8 kN (7,600 lbf) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: 1,100 km/h (680 mph, 590 kn) M0.89 at sea level. 1,145 km/h (711 mph; 618 kn) / M0.93 at 3,000 m (9,800 ft) with afterburner
  • Range: 2,020 km (1,260 mi, 1,090 nmi) at 12,000 m (39,000 ft) with 2 × 400 L (110 US gal; 88 imp gal) drop-tanks
  • Service ceiling: 16,600 m (54,500 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 65 m/s (12,800 ft/min)
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