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The MiG-21: From Russia With Love

This fighter jet was one of the USSR’s most famous exports.

On February 14th 1955 the first of more than 11,000 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21s made its maiden flight. Approximately 60 countries have flown the MiG-21, and even after more than 60 years more than 3,000 of the supersonic fighters are still in service with more than 40 countries. The MiG-21 is the most-produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history and the most-produced combat aircraft since the Korean War, and at one point it was in production for longer than any combat aircraft.

The MiG-21 “Fishbed” jet fighter was a continuation of Soviet jet fighter designs, starting with the subsonic MiG-15 and MiG-17, and the supersonic MiG-19. Development of what would become the MiG-21 began in the early 1950s, when the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau finished a preliminary design study for a prototype supersonic interceptor.

The MiG-21 was the first Soviet aircraft to combine both fighter and interceptor characteristics in a single airframe. It was a lightweight fighter somewhat comparable at the time of its introduction to the American Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter and the French Dassault Mirage III.

The MiG-21’s short range was typical of the interceptor mission. Low fuel capacity and resultant short endurance of the MiG-21F, MiG-21PF, MiG-21PFM, MiG-21S, MiG-21SM, MiG-21M, and MiG-21MF variants was incrementally improved, but the MiG-21MT and MiG-21SMT variants had increased range of 250 kilometers (155 miles). However, the increase in fuel capacity and endurance inevitably resulted in decreased performance.

The MiG-21 has never been considered a dogfighter. The airplane’s delta wing, which while a good design for a fast-climbing interceptor, was not a good design for any kind of turning or maneuvering in air combat due to “speed bleed.” However, the light weight of the aircraft meant it could climb at prodigious rates. The design’s G-limits were increased from +7Gs in the early variants to +8.5Gs in the later variants. The Soviet Union eventually developed the MiG-29 to replace the MiG-21 and other second-generation fighters to counter the newer American F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 and other third generation NATO fighter designs.

The MiG-21’s simple controls, engine, weapons, and avionics were typical of Soviet-era military aircraft designs. The use of a tail with the delta wing aids stability and control at the extremes of the flight envelope, enhancing safety for lower-skilled pilots. These characteristics enhanced its marketability as an export aircraft to developing countries with limited training programs and available pilots. While technologically inferior to the more advanced fighters it often faced, low production and maintenance costs made it a favorite of nations buying Eastern Bloc military hardware. Russian, Israeli and Romanian companies now offer upgrade packages to MiG-21 operators, designed to bring the aircraft up to a modern standard, with greatly upgraded avionics and armaments.

A total of 10,645 MiG-21 aircraft were built in the USSR. The aircraft were produced in three factories. The first, referred to as AZ30 in Moscow, produced 3,203 MiG-21s. The second factory, GAZ 21 in Gorky, produced 5,765 MiG-21s. The third factory, TAZ 31 in Tbilisi, produced 1,678 aircraft. 194 more MiG-21s were built under license in Czechoslovakia. Hindustan Aeronautics of India built 657 MiG-21s as well. China has built well over 2,400 copies of the MiG-21 designated F-7.

The MiG-21 was designed for very short ground-controlled interception (GCI) missions. It often flew this type of mission in the skies over North Vietnam. The first MiG-21s for North Vietnam arrived directly from the Soviet Union by ship in April 1966. Although 13 of North Vietnam’s flying aces attained their status while flying the MiG-21 and only three became aces in the MiG-17, many North Vietnamese pilots preferred the MiG-17 because the high wing loading of the MiG-21 made it relatively less maneuverable and MiG-17 had better visibility. Although the MiG-21 lacked the long-range radar, missiles, and heavy bomb load of its contemporary multi-mission U.S. fighters, it still proved a challenging adversary in the hands of experienced pilots when employed in the high-speed hit-and-run attacks under GCI control favored by the Vietnamese.

The North Vietnamese GCI controllers would position the MiGs in ambush stations in order to make their single-pass attacks. The MIGs made fast and often accurate attacks against US formations from several directions. Often the MiG-17s attacked from head-on and the MiG-21s attacked from the rear. After making their single attacks the MiGs would disappear. In December of 1966 alone MiG-21 pilots shot down 14 USAF F-105s without any losses.

The heavy losses of aircraft and crews over Vietnam led to the creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) at Naval Air Station Miramar, California on 3 March 1969, and later the Air Force Dissimilar Air Combat Training (Red Flag) at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Employing a mixture of subsonic and supersonic U.S. Navy and Air Force types, these commands teach air combat maneuvering against the MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 by flying their aircraft using the tactical doctrine of the aggressors.

Two MiG-21s were claimed shot down by U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52 Stratofortress tail gunners. These were the only confirmed air-to-air kills made by the B-52. The first aerial victory occurred on December 18th 1972. The second air-to-air kill took place on December 24th 1972. Both actions occurred during Operation Linebacker II.

Hanoi’s MiG-17 and MiG-19 interceptors were unable to make attacks on the B-52s flying at their normal altitude. In the summer of 1972 the 12 MiG-21 pilots were trained for the specific mission of attacking and shooting down B-52 bombers. Nine of the pilots were specifically trained for night attack. On December 26th 1972 one of these specially-trained MiG-21MF pilots show down a B-52.

In the 1960s a specialized group of engineers, technicians, and pilots gathered to evaluate the Soviet fighter designs of the day. Under code names like “Have Drill”, “Have Ferry”, and “Have Doughnut”, Americans were able to determine the characteristics of the MiG-17 and MiG-21. Strengths and weaknesses of the aircraft were captured. Radios, armament, handling characteristics, and aircraft systems were evaluated and published for the potential exploitation of the MiGs. The data was provided to the Top Gun program. The resultant improvement in the kill ratios over Vietnam can in part be traced back to these early “Have” exploitation programs.

During the 1970s, the “Have” programs were expanded to allow selected Navy and Air Force fighter crews to take the MiGs on one v one. Of course the flights were flown over controlled Groom Lake territory and the surrounding airspace was closed during these missions.

The United States acquired several MiGs from China, Israel, Egypt, and other still-classified sources during the 1980s under the “Constant Peg” program. The 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron operated the MiGs from the secretive Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. This program was an expanded version of the earlier “Have” exploitation programs. In 1985 there were 26 MiG-21s and MiG-23s on strength with the 4477th TES. The MiG-17s were phased out earlier, but other MiGs and Soviet fighters were utilized as they became available. The pilots assigned to “Constant Peg” to fly the MiGs were primarily Air Force Aggressors and Top Gun instructors. Many more one v one engagements, and therefore exposure to the MiGs’ characteristics, were flown against the MiGs by a wider range of Navy and Air Force crews. The United States fighter designs, weapons, air combat doctrine, and training all reflect lessons learned during the “Have” and “Constant Peg” programs.


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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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