The Hawker Hunter was the RAF’s answer to the swept wing Soviet fighters that emerged in the early 1950s namely the MiG-15 and MiG-17. Both Soviet aircraft were prolific in Eastern Europe and had the Cold War turned ‘hot’ in the second half of the 1950s there is no doubt that RAF pilots would have faced these aircraft in air-to-air combat. So how well would the Hunter have faired against the MiG-17F? For this comparison I am looking only at the Hunter F.6 and MiG-17F variants as these were the most common fighter variants of their respective types.
Both aircraft were day fighters in the traditional sense of the role. In the 1950s the main threat from both sides came from armadas of bombers armed with nuclear weapons. The Hunter and the MiG-17F required radar stations on the ground to direct them to within visual range of the enemy aircraft whereby the pilot could then make his attack. Traditionally, Soviet doctrine required total control of the whole interception from the ground whereas the RAF pilot had a little more flexibility in how he prosecuted the target.
In terms of speed both these aircraft were very evenly matched in the high subsonic flight envelope. In level flight the Hunter could achieve a very small lead over the MiG-17F but had a much higher rate of climb (17,000ft a minute compared to the MiG-17F’s 12,000ft a minute). The reason for this was that while the MiG-17F did have a primitive afterburner the Hunter still had a higher thrust output despite not having an afterburner of its own. This gives the Hunter much more grunt throughout the entire flight envelope. The MiG-17F did have a higher service ceiling however being some 4,000 feet above the Hunter’s ceiling of 50,000ft. Also the agility of the MiG-17F was slightly superior to the Hunter thanks to its clean design coupled with a high wing sweep.
The Hawker Hunter was armed with four 30mm ADEN cannons mounted close coupled in the forward fuselage. These were impressively powerful weapons capable of firing up to 1200 rounds a minute which would achieve a muzzle velocity of in excess of 741m/s. Each gun had 150 rounds at its disposal making 600 in total. By contrast the MiG-17F had two types of weapon; a single N-37 37mm cannon with 40 rounds and two NR-23 23mm cannons each with 80 rounds. The N-37 was a powerful weapon with its heavy shell being able to cause impressive damage on a fighter sized aircraft but it was very slow in both firing and the velocity at which the shell travelled. The two NR-23s also had a much lower firing rate and muzzle velocity than the Hunter’s ADENs.
The Hunter is forever remembered as being a viceless aircraft in terms of its handling. It was a sturdy design with an aesthetically pleasing blended wing design that even today gives it a very modern look. The MiG-17F was more skittish by contrast which in the hands of a skilled pilot translated in to a very manoeuvrable aircraft that was potent in a dogfight. The Hunter was certainly the more damage resistant of the two aircraft however if Indian Air Force combat experience is anything to go by. The IAF’s Hunters absorbed a high degree of punishment in the 1965 Indo-Pak Wars and many of them still returned home. The MiG-17F in both Vietnam and the Middle East was not so fortunate however with the tail and engine both being susceptible to failure after being hit by 20mm shells.
The Hunter F.6 would certainly have given a good account of itself had World War III broken out in 1955 (for example). The Hunter could have used its more powerful engine to attack and retreat from the MiG-17F and thus avoid a tight turning battle where the MiG-17F would have had a slight advantage. This is an old story in air combat: speed vs. manoeuvrability. History has shown that in these instances it is always the better trained pilot that uses his aircraft to its strengths that will come out on top. It would be safe to say however that the Hunter’s guns could inflict a far higher level of damage on the MiG-17F in a shorter time than vice-versa. With opportunities to hit your opponent in a dogfight being less than a few seconds this is a major advantage for the Hunter but the MiG-17F’s 37mm cannon would be a serious threat to the Hunter if the MiG pilot could get one of those slow firing shells to hit home.
If I have to chose a winner then it has to be the Hunter since it has more going for it but the MiG-17F was not an aircraft to be underestimated as the US Air Force and Navy found out over North Vietnam.