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Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21
A 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron MiG-21 Fishbed – liveried in U.S. Air Force paint scheme – maneuvers over the Mojave Desert in this undated photo. The 4477th TES operated MiG-17 Frescos, MiG-21s and MiG-23 Floggers before the end of the Cold War shuttered operations in the late 1980s. (U.S. Air Force file photo)
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Former US MiG pilot talks with 3rd Operations Group Airmen

Posted 8/17/2012   Updated 8/17/2012 Email story   Print story


by David Bedard
JBER Public Affairs

8/17/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- A two-ship of F-4 Phantom II fighters arced over the simmering Mojave desert, their four J79 engines rapidly converting JP-4 fuel into thundering noise and blinding speed. The lead pilot, scanning the scorched landscape for radar contacts, could just make out twin subsonic glints of light moving at low altitude.

"Tally two, left 10, one mile, low," the lead pilot breathed into his mic, indicating two bandits at 10 o'clock, one mile's distance at low altitude.

"Tally two, visual," the wingman acknowledged.

In a matter of moments, the four fighters closed distance. Time seemed to move slower in the instant of the merge, and the F-4 leader could see the menacing outline of the lead MiG-21 Fishbed, complete with the Soviet Union's red star emblazoned on the MiG's tall, angular vertical stabilizer.

This sort of encounter - routinely staged during the latter years of the Cold War by the Air Force's 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Tonopah Test Range Airport, Nev. - was the subject retired Air Force Col. Gaillard Peck Jr. came to JBER to talk about with Airmen of the 3rd Operations Group.

Air Force Col. Derek France, 3rd OG commander, said events like the conference hosted at the Arctic Warrior Event Center Aug. 10 are an integral part of the group's professional development program.

"We try to do this three or four times a year," France said. "We bring out either a senior leader, a combat veteran or preferably both, who can tie present-day Airmen to their Air Force heritage and tell the stories they haven't heard firsthand."

During his presentation, Peck said Airmen of the 4477th TES "Red Eagles" maintained and operated MiGs as part of a larger effort to include dissimilar-aircraft training aimed at reversing the trend of unfavorable fighter kill ratios during the Vietnam War.

Peck said during the early days of the Vietnam War, U.S. fighter pilots were still using Korean War tactics that eventually proved ineffective in the face of advancing technology.
"It was all still man against man and airplanes with machine guns," Peck recalled.

"That's what we took to Vietnam with us - the tactics and procedures of the last war. That worked initially, then the bad guys got air-to-air missiles, and suddenly things didn't work anymore."

A part of the problem, Peck said, was the smaller MiGs were more agile and stood a better chance of winning in a turning dogfight when pitted against contemporary American fighters. To remedy this, the Air Force used the small, agile T-38 Talon as a dissimilar aircraft operated by aggressor squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
In the hands of experienced aggressor pilots, the Talon quickly earned its stripes flying against the larger, faster Phantom.

"They proved that they could whip the F-4s everywhere and in every way," Peck said. "They validated the requirement for the aggressors."

The Defense Intelligence Agency initiated several operations with names like Have Doughnut and Have Drill, which aimed to acquire and evaluate MiG fighters.

"These were exploitation programs," Peck explained. "The maintenance guys took these planes apart, every way you can take them apart. They figured out how they worked, put them back together, gave them back to the test pilots and said, 'Test pilots, go fly these airplanes and write us reports on how fast they are, how they turn and so on.'"

Peck said he felt this wasn't the best way to exploit the MiGs. The MiGs needed to be flown by American pilots in aggressive air-combat maneuvers, and other fighter pilots needed experience flying against the MiGs.

"Seeing a MiG in flight for the first time is an eye-opening experience, and every pilot should experience it," he elaborated. "If you could see the airplane, it was probably already too late. You needed to learn to look for glints or shimmers as an indication someone was about to jump in your chili."

Peck said the Air Force took his suggestions to heart after many behind-closed-doors meetings with high-ranking officials. The program was established under the name Constant Peg - Constant being the call sign of the program's primary advocate, Air Force Maj. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg Jr., and Peg being the name of Peck's wife.

Peck had his program, but Constant Peg needed a facility that was relatively isolated and had the infrastructure needed to support the MiGs. Peck said he made an appointment with the Tonopah Test Range Airport test manager, to pitch the idea of making the facility a jet base.

"He looked at me and said, 'You know, I've heard a lot of ideas, but that one might be the worst one yet,'" Peck said.

The MiG pilot told the audience how he convinced the manager he could cut commute times in half for him and for his staff due to the added infrastructure and support that came with converting to a jet base.

"He looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Boy, I think I'm beginning to like the way you think,'" he said.

Like a scene out of a Silicon Valley biopic movie, Peck described how he designed the expanded facility on the back of a napkin. The plan extended the runway to support the takeoff and landing of jet fighters. Because traffic would be limited, the runway was designed with simple turnarounds, no taxiway and no control tower. Three hangars were to be supported by a spartan lean-to operations center.

Ultimately, the Red Eagles would come to operate three Soviet fighter types: the MiG-17 Fresco, the MiG-21 and the MiG-23 Flogger.

The MiG-17 is a very small and agile aircraft that first flew in January 1951, according to a National Museum of the United States Air Force fact sheet. A development of the Korean War-era MiG-15, the MiG-17 added afterburners and longer, more swept wings, among other improvements.

Peck said the Frescos were rather crude by western standards, but the MiG's simplicity allowed for the jet's robust nature.

"I thought the airplanes were extraordinarily reliable," Peck explained. "We didn't know how long the engines were going to last, and I don't think we ever did really figure that out."

Peck said because the MiG-17 seats were not adjustable, 4477th TES Life Support Airmen devised a system of seat cushions, which could be arranged to ensure the pilots were high enough to see over the tall cockpit rails, but not too high so as to hit their heads against the canopy during high-g maneuvers.

According to the fact sheet, the MiG-21 first flew in 1955, is able to fly at a speed just faster than Mach 2 - like the F-4 - and was more maneuverable than the Phantom in a turning dogfight.

Peck said his inaugural flight in the Fishbed was a daunting experience.

"When I strapped into this airplane to fly it for the first time, my crew chief was Don Lyons," he said. "I looked at Don and said, 'Don, I can't fly this airplane.' He said, 'How come, boss?' I said, 'Don, I don't know where all of these switches go.' He said, 'Boss, don't worry about it, just put them all up.' I said, 'Okay.'"

Because flying the MiGs was such an unknown quantity for American pilots, the squadron maintained a fleet of five chase planes to assist when the MiG drivers got in over their head.

"These were very important for a variety of reasons," Peck said. "We had no simulators, we had no two seaters, so every man's first flight in a MiG was his first flight in a MiG by himself in a single seater."

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Clem "Buffalo" Myers, who accompanied Peck to JBER, pulled no punches when talking about the lack of safety margin for the Flogger.

"There's only one airplane I've ever been afraid of, and that's the MiG-23," Myers said. "That thing was trying to kill you from when you started it to when you shut it down. I never flew an airplane that didn't give some indication it was going out of control, and this thing did not give any warning."

On top of the Flogger's Jeckyll and Hyde handling characteristics, Myers said the MiG-23 canopies had a nasty tendency of imploding under vigorous air-combat maneuvers.

According the fact sheet, the MiG-23 is a swing-wing interceptor that first flew in April 1967. Peck said, because of the Flogger's powerful Tumansky R-29 engine, it could out accelerate contemporary American jets, but wasn't as agile as its forebears.

To place the MiGs into action and keep them in the air required a stable of resourceful, experienced mechanics. One such mechanic was retired Senior Master Sgt. Bob Ellis.
"This man was a genius," Peck said. "He had a photographic memory. He knew everything about parts imaginable. He knew which parts were interchangeable with other MiGs. He knew which parts could be substituted at local parts stores."

The maintenance effort was not without its challenges, Peck said. On one occasion, worn MiG-21 brakes were sent off to a fabrication shop to be duplicated. Six weeks later, a faithful replica of the brakes arrived, already worn out like the originals.

Secrecy was of utmost importance and was the primary criteria for selecting air crew.
"We hired pilots who were known entities," Peck said. "We had to have confidence that one, they would keep their mouth shut in a bar late at night; two, they wouldn't tell their loved ones everything that happened to them in flight; and three, that they were congenial people that would get along with other folks."

The MiG pilot said as part of the security program, Airmen didn't wear uniforms, and grooming standards were waived so the Airmen could blend in with a town primarily composed of miners. The practice continued until F-117 Nighthawk operations began at Tonopah in the mid 1980s.

With the end of the Cold War looming, MiG operations ceased at the installation in 1988. Since then, enemy fighters have been simulated by F-16 Fighting Falcons, F/A-18 Hornets and contracted aircraft of varying type and origin.

Peck said the use of dissimilar fighters for training has been invaluable, as evidenced by the success of U.S. and allied fighter pilots during the past 40 years.

"We've never lost an F-16 or an [F-15] Eagle in combat, with more than 170 kills," he said. "That's a pretty good return on investment. This program was never an end to itself."

France said Airmen can learn a lot from the experience of Peck, who had a vision, used resourcefulness and guile, and worked to see his vision become a reality at Tonopah.

"Great ideas kept to themselves just die on the vine," France said. "From our youngest junior enlisted to our [company-grade officers], that's where our great ideas are born. We encourage our folks to have those ideas, to not give up on them, to make their case, get their resources, and see it through to completion."

8/18/2012 6:37:26 PM ET
This is the most information I've ever seen in a public forum on this amazing program. Good to see folks get some credit after being sworn to secrecy for so many years.Ex F-4E pilotRed Flag participant circa 19756.
Bill Meeker, Southeast
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