Peren­nial Bad Guy: The MiG-21


Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Fred Johnsen

65 Years Old and Still Kickin’ Butt

If the United States has de­vel­oped fight­ers that have stay­ing power over many years—the ven­er­a­ble F-4, F-15, and F-16 come to mind—then the Russian MiG-21 must surely share that space. The MiG21 made its pub­lic de­but in a Soviet air dis­play in 1956. Known as an air-to-air mis­sile fighter, the MiG-21 can also wage war with an in­ter­nally mounted 23mm can­non. Some like to call the MiG21 the “AK-47 of jet fight­ers.” Like the famed short Soviet ri­fle, the MiG-21 has proven to be both lethal and long-lived around the world.

Just as avion­ics and weapons up­dates have kept the F-15 and F-16 po­tent into the 21st cen­tury, the ven­er­a­ble MiG-21 has been the sub­ject of up­grades that keep it in con­tention to­day. The Sovi­ets read­ily ex­ported MiG-21s to many na­tions, from

Europe to Asia. MiG-21s still serve at least 15 coun­tries world­wide, rang­ing from Cuba to Croatia and Ro­ma­nia.

The ba­sic MiG-21 was con­ceived as a short-range in­ter­cep­tor re­ly­ing on ground radars for vec­tor­ing to its aerial tar­get. Un­der these cir­cum­stances, the MiG-21's prom­i­nent shock cone nose in­let, which in­hib­ited the use of long-range on­board radar, was not viewed as a detri­ment. The MiG-21 is a light­weight fighter that achieves Mach 2 and en­joys good ma­neu­ver­abil­ity. It is some­times com­pared to the F-5 and F-104 in per­for­mance.


MiG-21 De­vel­op­ment

The pro­gen­i­tor of all MiG-21s the pro­to­type called “Ye-2,” an am­bi­tious jet with a swept wing. It first flew on a Fe­bru­ary day in 1955. Per­for­mance fell short of the in­tended Mach 2 speed, and the de­sign evolved into a delta-wing plan­form, re­tain­ing a tra­di­tional hor­i­zon­tal tail as well. Sub­se­quent test it­er­a­tions up to Ye-6 yielded the ba­sic MiG-21 form. By 1959–60, the Soviet Air Force was fly­ing a small batch of MiG-21F vari­ants armed with two 30mm can­nons. This model car­ried the Soviet Air Force des­ig­na­tion “Type 72” and the NATO iden­ti­fi­ca­tion name of “Fishbed B.”

By 1962, Warsaw Pact na­tions were re­ceiv­ing de­liv­er­ies of the im­proved MiG-21F-13, Type 74 (Fishbed C), fea­tur­ing an en­larged ven­tral fin and a change in canopy de­sign. The C model car­ried only one can­non but had two un­der­wing hard­points that could load air-to-air or air-toground mis­siles; this would prove to be a for­tu­itous ad­vance­ment for the air­craft. It­er­a­tions of the MiG-21F set the tone.

The MiG-21PF (Fishbed D) en­larged a num­ber of air­frame fea­tures, in­clud­ing the nose cone and ven­tral fin, to ac­com­mo­date radar de­vel­op­ments and fuel tank­age, re­spec­tively. In par­al­lel with U.S. doc­trine of the era, the Sovi­ets built some of this model with­out an in­ter­nal can­non, re­ly­ing solely on mis­siles. The Fishbed F in­tro­duced a side-hing­ing canopy and blown flaps. Some Fishbed F mod­els could mount an ex­ter­nal gun pod ven­trally.

An old aero­nau­ti­cal engineering tru­ism is the pound-a-day diet, the rate at which air­craft de­signs seem to gain weight to meet evolv­ing mis­sion re­quire­ments, some­times at the sac­ri­fice of per­for­mance. The MiG-21 was not im­mune from this phe­nom­e­non, and ver­sions of it built into the 1970s in­cluded the MiG-21M (Fishbed H) and MiG-21MF, with more fuel ca­pac­ity and more ord­nance hard­points. In 1980, dur­ing the Iran-Iraq War, a MiG-21MF was cred­ited with down­ing an Ira­nian F-14.

An un­pop­u­lar at­tempt at in­creas­ing fuel ca­pac­ity was the de­vel­op­ment of the large dor­sal sad­dle tank of the MiG-21SMT (Fishbed K).

This Soviet Air Force model had de­graded flight qual­i­ties, and some were later con­verted to ones with a smaller dor­sal spine and iden­ti­fied as “MiG-21ST,” ex­ter­nally sim­i­lar to the sub­se­quent MiG-21bis.

MiG-21bis vari­ants (Fishbed L and N) were pro­duced in the early 1970s, and pow­ered by

the Tu­man­sky R-25-300 tur­bo­jet en­gine.

Ever-im­prov­ing avion­ics and fuel ca­pac­ity pro­duced MiG-21 vari­ants up to the Fishbed N. Soviet pro­duc­tion of the MiG-21 ended in 1985, with more than 10,600 hav­ing been built. Chi­nese Chengdu vari­ants rolled off the as­sem­bly line from 1966 un­til 2013, adding about 2,400 more air­frames to the tally, and In­dia con­structed 657 li­cense-built MiG-21s, while Cze­choslo­vakia built 194 of the fight­ers.

The MiG-21 Goes to War

While Amer­i­can mil­i­tary plan­ners stud­ied the MiG-21 as a po­ten­tial ad­ver­sary in the event of di­rect con­flict with the Soviet Union, the MiG-21 in real-world skies made head­lines over Viet­nam, the Mid­dle East, and In­dia-Pak­istan.

The MiG-21 has a wing­span of 25 feet and a length of 55 to 57 feet, de­pend­ing on the model. The Northrop F-5A spans 25 feet 3 inches and has a length of 47 feet 2 inches. The F-4 Phan­tom II spans 38 feet 5 inches and has a length of 63 feet. And while the MiG-21 can achieve speeds be­yond 1,300mph com­pared to the

F-5A’s 945mph best, the MiG and the Phan­tom are close ri­vals in the top end of the speed range.

Clas­sic MiG-21 per­for­mance is pro­vided by a sin­gle Tu­man­sky tur­bo­jet en­gine pro­duc­ing 12,000 to 16,000 pounds of thrust, more than the air­plane’s empty weight in some in­stances. The MiG-21 is char­ac­ter­ized by those who flew it as ag­ile, with a low radar sig­na­ture. The MiG-21 could be de­cid­edly harder to see than larger fight­ers. A good thrust-to-weight ra­tio en­hanced the MiG-21’s ac­cel­er­a­tion. Top speed is gen­er­ally listed at about 1250–1350mph for var­i­ous mod­els.

The MiG-21’s em­brac­ing of the Soviet “Atoll” in­frared guided mis­sile was a lethal mar­riage.

The Atoll is a Soviet copy of the Amer­i­can

AIM-9 Sidewinder. “Atoll” is its NATO des­ig­na­tion; its nomen­cla­ture is listed as K-13 or AA-2. Its re­verse engineering is the stuff of Cold War cliffhang­ers in pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture. The pre­vail­ing story says that a Tai­wanese F-86 pur­port­edly launched a Sidewinder at a com­mu­nist Chi­nese

air­craft over the Tai­wan Strait in 1958. Ac­cord­ing to the story, the mis­sile did not ex­plode and re­mained lodged in the com­mu­nist air­frame. The Chi­nese turned it over to their Soviet al­lies, and its se­crets were plumbed and copied. (Ad­di­tion­ally, a Swedish spy is said to have fur­nished Sidewinder de­tails to the Sovi­ets, but the re­verse-engineering story pre­vails in some pop­u­lar ac­counts. Ev­i­dently lost to pop­u­lar his­tory is the name of the adroit per­son whose task was the re­moval of the pre­sum­ably armed Sidewinder from the Chi­nese air­frame.)

The Atoll proved as lethal as the Amer­i­can mis­sile that gave rise to it, as Amer­i­can fliers learned to their dis­may over Viet­nam. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Navy (USN) quickly had to go to school to mas­ter ways of de­feat­ing North Viet­namese fight­ers, in­clud­ing MiG-21s. Com­bat rules of en­gage­ment im­posed on the U.S. war­planes in­cluded vis­ual con­tact with the en­emy, which negated some of the ad­van­tages of Amer­i­can long-range mis­siles. The size of the MiG-21 fleet was never very large at any one time, and North Viet­namese MiG-21 pi­lots per­fected a hit-and-run stern at­tack in which they launched Atoll mis­siles and de­parted quickly.

The USAF pro­duced a run­ning-nar­ra­tive syn­op­sis of the war as it un­folded, called “CHECO,” or Con­tem­po­rary His­tor­i­cal Eval­u­a­tion of Com­bat Op­er­a­tions. An en­try for Novem­ber 1967 tersely de­scribes the scene: “Three F-105s and one F-4 were shot down by MIG-21s in the vicin­ity of Yen Bay. All of the MIGs used sim­i­lar tac­tics, each at­tack­ing from the rear with a sin­gle hit-and-run fir­ing pass.”

A se­ri­ous set­back to North Viet­nam’s MiG-21 op­er­a­tions came in Jan­uary 1967 when USAF Col. Robin Olds per­formed a mas­ter­ful feint in which mis­sile-armed F-4s mim­icked the ex­pected ac­tions of F-105 bombers, thereby lur­ing MiG-21s to en­gage. The USAF mis­sion was called “Oper­a­tion Bolo.”

In the en­su­ing melee, the North Viet­namese Air Force lost nearly half its op­er­a­tional MiG-21 in­ven­tory, with USAF Phan­toms re­port­ing no losses of their own. The num­bers are some­times

dis­puted, but North Viet­nam had about 16 MiG21s in its in­ven­tory at that time, and any­where from 11 to 14 of them were in­volved in the bat­tle that day. The USAF logged seven MiG-21s downed; North Viet­namese sources claimed only five of their su­per­sonic in­ter­cep­tors were lost.

The feint caused a stand-down in North Viet­namese MiG-21 op­er­a­tions; clearly such losses could not be sus­tained re­peat­edly. By the time the United States with­drew from Viet­nam in 1973, the USAF had downed 68 North Viet­namese MiG-21s in aerial com­bat, as at­tri­tion was re­placed by more of the Soviet fight­ers over time. USN pi­lots in F-8 Cru­saders ac­counted for four Fishbeds, while Navy F-4 fliers were vic­to­ri­ous over 14 MiG-21s.

In­dia be­came the third largest op­er­a­tor of MiG-21s, with more than 1,200 in ser­vice to that coun­try over the years. Dur­ing its con­flict with Pak­istan in 1971, In­dian MiG-21s downed a num­ber of air­craft, in­clud­ing a Pak­istani F-104 Starfighter. As re­cently as 1999, In­dian Air Force MiG-21s downed a Pak­istani Breguet Atlantic pa­trol plane that had ap­par­ently en­tered

In­dian airspace.

MiG-21s found their way to the United States dur­ing the Cold War, in­clud­ing an ex­am­ple fur­nished by Is­rael in 1967. The then-se­cret eval­u­a­tions of the MiG-21 against U.S. fight­ers were un­der­taken over vast and re­mote Ne­vada test ranges. To min­i­mize the like­li­hood of knowl­edge about the MiG-21 tests go­ing pub­lic, the Fishbed was given the U.S. nomen­cla­ture “YF-110,” which had orig­i­nally been ap­plied to USAF Phan­toms be­fore they were re­des­ig­nated as “F-4.”

Fishbeds over the Mid­dle East

Is­rael gained valu­able in­for­ma­tion about the MiG-21 when, in Au­gust 1966, an Iraqi pi­lot de­fected with his fighter, which the Is­raelis later made avail­able to the United States.

In April 1967, an aerial al­ter­ca­tion over the Golan Heights saw Is­raeli Das­sault Mi­rage IIIs down six Syr­ian MiG-21s with­out loss of their own.

The 1967 Arab-Is­raeli War (Six-Day War) saw com­bat in­volv­ing MiG-21s. Per­haps bet­ter trained, Is­raeli pi­lots in Mi­rage IIIs con­tin­ued to hold their own against Egyp­tian and Syr­ian MiG21s. Dur­ing some 25 en­coun­ters be­tween Mi­rages and Fishbeds, hom­ing mis­siles were dis­ap­point­ing. Is­raeli vic­to­ries at that time were mostly ac­com­plished with can­non fire.

Lists of Is­raeli aerial vic­to­ries have been com­piled, in­di­cat­ing that more than 400 MiG-21s were downed by Is­raeli pi­lots be­tween 1966 and 1982. Ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Jan J. Sa­farik, the Is­raeli fight­ers in­volved in those com­bats have ranged from Mi­rage IIIs to the Su­per Mys­tère, an aged Oura­gan, the po­tent F-4E Phan­tom II, Nesher (Mi­rage V), F-15, Kfir (in a vic­tory claim shared with an F-15), and F-16.

Coun­tries in the re­gion that op­er­ated MiG-21s most of­ten in­volved in these com­bats were Syria and Egypt. In an un­usual twist, two Is­raeli claims of vic­tory over MiG-21s rep­re­sented North Korean jets that were de­ployed to help Egypt dur­ing the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973.

In July 1977, Ethiopian Air Force Northrop F-5s bat­tled So­mali MiG-21s over dis­puted ter­ri­tory. This clas­sic com­bat matchup of two sim­i­larly ca­pa­ble ex­port fight­ers saw the Ethiopi­ans’ Northrops emerge vic­to­ri­ous. Some ac­counts say Ethiopian F-5s downed nine MiG-21s and a pair of MiG-17s while suf­fer­ing no losses.

When Iraq went to war with Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, the Iraqi Air Force had MiG-21s to com­bat Ira­nian air­craft, which in­cluded F-5Es. Two days later, the two types of fight­ers met, and an Iraqi MiG-21 went down. Iran be­gan us­ing its F-5s as fighter-bombers in an ef­fort to de­stroy Iraq’s oil-de­rived in­come. Over the next three years, Iraqi MiG-21s and Ira­nian F-5s oc­ca­sion­ally chal­lenged each other, with both sides achiev­ing vic­to­ries.

In the first Gulf War, which the United States waged against Iraq in 1990–91, Iraq still mus­tered some MiG21s into the fight. On Jan­uary 17, 1991, two USN F/A-18s from squadron VFA-81 downed a pair of MiG-21s that chal­lenged the Hor­nets dur­ing a bomb­ing mis­sion. One MiG-21 suc­cumbed to an AIM-7 mis­sile, the other to an AIM-9. Then on Fe­bru­ary 6, a sin­gle USAF

F-15C shot down two Iraqi MiG-21s by fir­ing AIM-7 mis­siles at them. The MiGs were pro­vid­ing fighter es­cort for Su-25 ground-at­tack air­craft.

MiG-21s in the 21st Cen­tury

The post–Cold War Ro­ma­nian Air Force, now aligned with NATO, faced fund­ing short­ages and had old Fishbeds that seemed in­suf­fi­cient to meet 21st-cen­tury air-polic­ing du­ties. Ro­ma­nia sourced an up­grade pro­duced by Is­raeli con­trac­tors that gen­er­ated the MiG-21 LanceR out of more than 100 of the ag­ing MiG-21s.

Western avion­ics for ad­verse weather and night fly­ing were added, as were a radar-warn­ing re­ceiver and HOTAS (hands on throt­tle and stick) con­trols. HOTAS makes many of the fighter’s func­tions ac­ces­si­ble via but­tons on the con­trol stick and throt­tle, al­low­ing the pi­lot to keep both hands on those pri­mary con­trols with­out re­mov­ing them and search­ing the cock­pit for con­trols lo­cated else­where. This can be a game changer in the fog of bat­tle. The Ro­ma­nian LanceR pi­lot is also ca­pa­ble of us­ing a hel­met-

mounted dis­play, fur­ther bring­ing the MiG-21 into the 21st cen­tury.

The Ro­ma­nian MiG-21 LanceR-A model is op­ti­mized for ground at­tack and takes ad­van­tage of the Rafael Liten­ing tar­get­ing pod, which of­fers FLIR (for­ward-look­ing in­frared) and TV HD color cam­era im­agery. The Ro­ma­nian C model shoul­ders the air-to-air mis­sion, sport­ing a new Elta EL/M-2032 pulse Dop­pler radar in the MiG’s char­ac­ter­is­tic air-in­take spike.

Ro­ma­nia has drawn down its re­main­ing fleet of MiG-21s, with used F-16s coming on line.

In the United States, Draken In­ter­na­tional of Lake­land, Florida, amassed more than two dozen late-model MiG-21 fight­ers from Poland as part of their fleet of jet fight­ers from in­ter­na­tional sources. Draken makes air­craft avail­able for re­search and sim­u­la­tion projects. A quick re­view of re­cent Draken sup­port op­er­a­tions in­di­cates the com­pany’s other air­craft, in­clud­ing A-4 Sky­hawks and L-39s, have shoul­dered much of those du­ties.

In Mo­jave, Cal­i­for­nia, the civil­ian Na­tional Test Pi­lot School (NTPS) took de­liv­ery of a two-place MiG-21UM in Jan­uary 2018. The jet will pro­vide var­ied third-gen­er­a­tion jet-fighter ca­pa­bil­i­ties to the in­struc­tors and stu­dents at the school. It is a for­mer Czech Air Force air­craft, circa 1972.

The Mo­jave MiG was ex­pected to fly with stu­dents by Oc­to­ber 2018, fol­low­ing a lengthy main­te­nance and FAA air­wor­thi­ness cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process. In­struc­tor pi­lot Jim Brown’s pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences in­clude ser­vice as an F-5 ag­gres­sor pi­lot, dur­ing which he used his jet to sim­u­late the MiG-21. Now, fly­ing the real deal MiG-21, Brown says, “It flies very sim­i­lar to the F-5.”

Brown says that most stu­dents cur­rently in

test-pi­lot train­ing have op­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ence in fourth-gen­er­a­tion fight­ers, like the F-16 or Eurofighter Typhoon. These jets’ so­phis­ti­cated flight-con­trol sys­tems can tame some of the rough edges that the older MiG-21 still ex­hibits in flight. “They’ve never flown an air­plane that flies lousy,” Brown ex­plains. Not that the MiG21 is lousy, he says, but “it re­quires more fi­nesse. You can put it out of con­trol quite eas­ily.”

The Mach 2+ MiG-21 of NTPS will share the same su­per­sonic airspace cor­ri­dors used by nearby Ed­wards Air Force Base. “We have a need to teach stu­dents what an air­plane does as it tran­si­tions from sub­sonic, through tran­sonic, to su­per­sonic,” Brown says. Plus, this is a clas­sic Soviet-era jet. “Some of the de­sign philoso­phies are dif­fer­ent,” Brown ex­plains, and that gives test-pi­lot stu­dents valu­able in­sight into how to do their craft.

The man­ual MiG re­quires var­ied con­trol inputs to main­tain lon­gi­tu­di­nal and lat­eral sta­bil­ity through­out its flight range, and test­pi­lot stu­dents must learn how to quan­tify those con­trol inputs if they are to con­duct mean­ing­ful test re­search. It’s not enough to just yank and bank; test pi­lots must use an es­teemed tool of the flight tester, the Cooper-Harper rat­ing scale, which enables a test pi­lot to give nu­mer­i­cal value to the way an air­craft han­dles. Stu­dents will learn to do that in the MiG-21.

If the MiG-21 is an ag­ing Cold War relic, don’t tell that to the pi­lots who fly it in air forces around the world—or to their po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries, who must keep a healthy re­spect for the fighter to­day.

John Dibbs trav­eled to Bul­garia last year, where he cap­tured its fully armed MiG-21s, since re­tired, in all theirSoviet glory. The type has been the “the en­emy” for many gen­er­a­tions of fighter pi­lots. (Photo by John Dibbs/ planepic­

Along with the AK-47, theMiG-21 cap­tures the essence of bru­tally lethal sim­plic­ity, mak­ing it the per­fect low-dol­lar fighter for small coun­tries. (Photo cour­tesy of Bar­rett Till­man)

Rat-rac­ing Ro­ma­nian MiG-21 and U.S. Alabama Air Na­tional Guard F-16 turn clas­sicCold War ten­sions into the ca­ma­raderie of new­found al­lies. The real­is­tic train­ing took place near CampiaTurzii, Ro­ma­nia, in Oc­to­ber 2015. (USAF photo by SSgt. Matthew Bruch, cour­tesy of Johnsen Col­lec­tion)

The Ira­nian Air Force ini­tially pur­chased MiG-21s from Ger­many, but pol­i­tics pre­vented their de­liv­ery, so they pur­chased a Chi­nese de­riv­a­tive: the ChengduF7. (Photo cour­tesy ofTom Cooper)

The Viet­nam Peo­ple’s Air Force (VPAF) op­er­ated a num­ber of MiG-21s, but it is re­ported they never num­bered more than sev­eral dozen. (Photo cour­tesy of Bar­rett Till­man)

There have been re­ports that Rus­sians and/or Chi­nese pi­lots manned some of the VPAF MiGs. (Photo cour­tesy of Bar­rett Till­man)

One of the first things men­tioned by Western pi­lots who have flown the MiG-21 is the lack of for­ward vis­i­bil­ity, which is ob­vi­ous in this view. The gun­sight is sur­rounded by flight gauges se­verely ham­per­ing the pi­lot’s vision. (Photo by John Dibbs/ planepic­

Much smaller than most of its ad­ver­saries, the MiG-21 none­the­less takes “sim­ple” to a lethal level. (Photo by John Dibbs/planepic­

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