“It’s like two professional athletes looking for the edge,” says Colonel Ralph Wetterhahn, now retired from the U.S. Air Force. He’s describing how fighter pilot measure one another and their aircrafts and, as a former fighter pilot and crash site investigator, he should know. Standing outside, his eyes squinting against the sun, Wetterhahn brings a standard sort of authority to Nova’s Missing in MiG Alley: he’s been there, which makes his testimony unassailable.
Other interviewees similarly underscore the documentary’s focus on “the world’s first jet war.” Former U.S. F-86 Sabre pilots recall fighting MiG-15 pilots, alternately inexperienced Koreans and veteran Soviets. Their national affiliations were key to the way the Korean War stood in for the Cold War As the documentary reports, the U.S. pilots knew their opponents were Russian, but kept the secret — apparently under orders — in order that the American population would not know. Otherwise, citizens might rise up and “demand action” against the Russians, who by then had developed an atomic bomb. “To avoid WWIII,” the two sides agreed to lie about how they conducted the war.
The more precise benefits of this lie — and who enjoyed them — are questions left unasked in Missing in MiG Alley, which instead lays out an array of mostly superficial stories. Primarily, the documentary extols the pilots’ skills and dogfighty grit (the “better trained” Sabre pilots included some who “went on to be astronauts, like Buzz Aldrin,” who appears in scratchy, stalwart-young-Buzz footage remembering the mission when “I got my first MiG destroyed”), as well as their courage in the face of physical hardships. The program spends some time explaining how gravity affects humans in speeding cockpits, and the advantages of G-suits: since Sabre pilots were advised to dive fast in order to escape MiGs, they were at regular risk of “blacking out.”
The jets used different technologies (the MiGs had advanced Rolls-Royce engines, courtesy of the British, who cut deals with their new buddies the Russians following WWII; the Sabres were based on Nazi designs, with swept wings), and the documentary emphasizes the efforts of both sides to get hold of the other’s covert equipment. To this end, the Russians were especially eager to get actual jets. So they shot down as many as they could, hoping some would come to ground in legible form.
This leads to the documentary’s titular interest in over 30 missing British and American pilots, specifically those with children who continue to pursue the facts of their fates. Among their champions is investigator Danz Blasser, Chief of the Korean War Working Group who’s been “on the trail” for some 13 years. “My job,” he explains, as the camera follows him inside a file room filled with that most ancient technology, boxes full of papers, “is like doing a moving piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture to go from, and I have to find the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are scattered around the world.” Blasser becomes the program’s primary point of conscience, responding to interview bites with people like Ann Bakkensen, restive daughter of Robert Niemann, and Danny Cope, whose father went missing when he was so young that he his memory of him is vague: “We spent most of our childhood not knowing much about our dad,” he says, over a photo of him and his brother as kids that cuts to stock black-and-white air-fight footage.
Such juxtaposition of domestic calm and historic combat — especially the lingering over details of aircraft designs and air maneuvers — is familiar in war documentaries, now ubiquitous on TV, thanks to the History Channel, Discovery, and of course, PBS. That the form has remained so unchanged over so many decades makes its art both too familiar and elusive, as connections among events are identified too easily with cuts and smoothed over by commanding narration. Missing follows the formula, its talking heads both students of the history and former pilots, including a couple of Russians, who recount their instructions to kill themselves if captured, so as to protect their secret participation, and a Korean who defected to the States, where he was educated as an engineer.
If the set-up is typical, though, the gaps in the narrative are at least a little compelling. For one thing, the U.S. pilots who were captured and interrogated by Russian officers tell how they resisted harsh conditions and abuses (say, “what we call brainwashing, Pavlov reflex conditioning” or again, “slapping and pounding about the head and shoulders”), in order to keep their secrets. While none of them speaks to the issue of torture and abuse as an effective means to obtain information, neither do they suggest that they were forthcoming under duress. Some prisoners were reportedly sent to Russia for further questioning, and their whereabouts remain unknown. A couple of former prisoners, Bud Mahurin and Michael DeArmond, make clear they lied to their captors — a point that might be pertinent to current debates concerning U.S. torture methods, aims, and legalities.
The documentary insinuates that the U.S. did right by its one-time enemies (the Korean engineer) and the Russians did not (perhaps they kept prisoners for unspecific “sinister” reasons). As it skims the politics of the Korean and Cold Wars, it doesn’t provide much context for why the missing pilots’ stories have remained so mysterious.