Flying and fighting in the MiG-19: In conversation with Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum (Rtd)

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Like most MiG fighters, the ’19 was a rough and ready hotrod. Fast, agile and powerful — it was also ill-equipped, unforgiving and brutal. Armed with three 30-mm cannon and Sidewinder missiles, and the fastest acceleration of its generation, the MiG-19/F-6 of the Pakistan Air Force was flawed but potent. We spoke to Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum about flying and fighting in the ‘Pack of Roaring Power’. 

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“Immediately after fighter conversion on the F-86F, I was selected for MiG-19 (the Chinese version that we had was known as the F-6) rather than go to a F-86 fighter Squadron. I was excited that I was to fly the MiG-19 as it presented a formidable challenge to harness the ‘Pack of Roaring Power’ as it was known in the PAF. I did my conversion in the Conversion Squadron in the year 1975.

There was no dual seater for training, at the time, and we had to be prepared really well to fly solo the first time. A couple of fast taxi runs were given, though.

My very first impression was that the plane didn’t look very aerodynamic and was not the prettiest fighter on the scene. It had a thick wing with thickness to chord ratio of about 8%, which meant that it would not transition to supersonic speed easily. However, the two powerful engines gave it good initial acceleration and with 0.8 thrust to weight ratio, it climbed exceedingly well which made it ideal for point interceptions.”

You’ve also flown the F-86F, how did the MiG-19 differ from this? 

“The F-86F had automatic leading edge slats, speed operated – a virtue not available to most other fighters around, not even the F-86E. That made the plane extremely manoeuvrable at low speeds. The MiG-19, on the other hand an aerodynamic problem where it would ‘adverse yaw’ at low speeds, often snapping out of hard turns during low speed manoeuvring. One had to assist a hard turn with a bit of inside rudder to keep it from ‘adverse yawing’. 

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Another major difference was in the fire control systems of the two planes. F-86F had a computing gunsight – where as the MiG-19 had a non-computing gunsight. That meant that the MiG-19 pilots had to pre-calculate (at various speeds, angles and distance scenarios) how much to lead the gunsight in order to hit the target, which bordered on the verge of judgement and estimated guess work envelopes.

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The F-86F used six –three on each side of the nose – 20mm canons with a very good rate of fire. The MiG-19 had two side guns and one center gun and used 30mm rounds at an inferior rate of fire.

The major difference in combat area was that the MiG-19 was better in the vertical plane, where as the F-86F had distinct advantage in the horizontal plane.

There is no statistical data of the two adversaries in actual combat. But the Korean War did see MiG-17 pitted against the F-86 in actual combat.”

Interview with a MiG-21 pilot here.

What were its best qualities? 

“The engines were powerful enough to get you out of a bad situation and the acceleration they provided was excellent, especially with afterburners.”

What were it worst qualities?

“There were quite a few bad qualities but the worst, in my opinion, was the thick wing which made transonic speeds (just short of Mach 1) very rough to ride through and almost uncontrollable, although it employed ‘short arm’ and ‘long arm’ technology to cater for it.”

How effective were its weapon systems? 

“With 30mm canon, just one bullet hitting the target was enough to destroy it. That is if you had computed the gunsight calculations correctly. It had no forward looking radar and no missiles carriage capability. It was the PAF (Pakistan Air Force) which modified it to carry two US made heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles.”

Interview with a Mirage 2000 pilot here.

What was your Squadron’s role?

“The fighter squadron that I served in was an ‘Air Superiority Squadron’ used for air defence and ground support roles.”

What advice do you wish you’d be told before flying the MiG-19?

“Don’t be scared of vertical manoeuvring the plane.  The myth was that the Chinese did not fly it as a combat aircraft where one would utilise the vertical plane as well. The reason that vertical looping manoeuvres bled the speed too low to handle the aircraft turned out to be myth only. Once you learned to fly at low speeds it manoeuvered beautifully in the vertical plane too.”

Did you feel confident at the prospect of facing potential enemies in the aircraft? 

“Absolutely. PAF put a great deal of effort in air combat training and DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) for the ‘Air Superiority’ squadron pilots. The aircraft could hold it’s own in point interception and air combat roles.”

What was the fighter you feared fighting the most and why? What were the aircraft you expected to face in war?

“We did not fear fighting any opposing aircraft. The Intel, at the time, was that we were  most likely to face the Hunter in the war as that was the aircraft which was to cross over the border to do battlefield air-interdiction and airfield strikes. The Hunter was a manoeuvrable aircraft like the F-86, and we had gained valuable experience during DACT with our F-86s. So we pretty much knew what tactics to employ. Firstly, force the Hunter to get into a vertical plane combat where our superior thrust-to-weight ratio would give us a distinct advantage. Secondly, allow the Hunter to exit and then catch him with the  MiG-19’s excellent acceleration and let the heat-seeking Sidewinder do the rest. Other aircraft that we could have encountered in our air defence role were Gnats and Canberra bombers. There were remote chances of encountering MiG-21 and Su-7 too.”

Did you practice dissimilar air combat flying? If so, against which types and how would you fly against them? 

“We had three mainstay aircraft in the time period I was actively flying. The MiG-19, F-86F & E and Mirage III. DACT amongst all was an essential part of the training.

MiG Vs Mirage: As MiG pilots, we were always scarce on fuel, especially if we used after burners – which we had to in combat. Therefore, we always planned for a short engagement. MiGs would utilise the horizontal plane superiority against the Mirage and try and engage the Mirage in a ‘turning’ battle. MiG pilots had to rely a lot on clearing their tails exceptionally well, as the Mirage would try and merge the fight at high speeds to take a missile shot. Therefore, MiG pilot had to spot him earliest possible and quickly get into hard turn, into him, before letting the Mirage get in missile firing range. The Mirage would then exit still maintain high speed and out run the MiG, only to re-engage/ merge the fight without getting into a turning manoeuvre.”

What did it feel like firing the guns on the MiG-19?

“The 30mm ammo really shook the aircraft and made vibrations that could be felt in seat of the pants of the pilot. The central gun was very accurate. We as MiG pilots were always detailed to do gun harmonisation ourselves of the dedicated aircraft to our name. So, each pilot very much knew how accurately his guns fired.”

Which three words best describe the MiG-19?

 “Challenging – Powerful – Fun”

What equipment would you most have liked the MiG-19 to have been fitted with? What did it lack? 

“The MiG-19s that we got from China were only equipped with two side and one centre gun. Then we modified it to carry Heat seeking Sidewinders.

It had no navigation systems except NDB. It could have done well if it had INS (Inertial Navigation System) or at least a HUD.”

What was your most frightening or memorable flight on the MiG-19?

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“The MiG 19 was notorious for getting into spins without much warning due to it’s ‘adverse yaw’ attribute. And my most frightening episode also relates to this aspect.

I was an operational wingman in an ‘air superiority’ squadron with less than 80 hours on the type. During one of the air combat training missions, I got airborne as a part of a four ship for  2 Vs 2 air combat mission.

During the very first merge, I was told by my section leader to do a hard 180 turn to the left. I remember going in to a hard turn and lighting my after burner. The next thing I remember is that is that the MiG flips out of the turn and starts spinning (this phenomenon was the result of adverse yaw attribute of the MiG-19)

The spin recovery procedure was: “throttled idle, full opposite rudder to stop the yaw and shove the stick forward to un-stall the aircraft) – I did the procedure – The MiG kept spinning. I thought that I may have given the wrong rudder. So I tried to look at ‘turn and slip indicator’ to see which side I was spinning. Needless to say, in the confusion and panic state that had set in, I could not ascertain which side I was spinning. Since the MiG was not responding, I decided to apply the other rudder and wait. Fortunately, the MiG responded and the spinning stopped and I neutralized the rudder and the stick.

But my problem was far from over. Coming out of the spin I found myself in vertical dive and the mother earth approaching at a rapid rate (during the confusion of the spin recovery, I lost track of height loss and descended below 10,000 feet – SOP was to eject if not recovered by 10,000 feet)

It finally dawned on me that I could not eject while being in a vertical dive, MiG speeding up and the safe ejection altitude of 6,000 feet had already passed (the Chinese ejection seat had 6000 feet limitation for a safe ejection)

Having no other choice but to recover, I put the speed breaks out, pulled with all my might, overstressing the aircraft by pulling some 7-8 gs – but broke my descent. And to my relief cleared the ground. By how much, I really don’t know – but I had a good look at the cattle grazing on the mother earth.

Although safe, I was trembling to no end. Didn’t give a call to my leader and went back to the Base to land. The amazing aspect of this episode was – which I was told in the debrief – that my leader was talking to me all the time. He told me over the radio the direction I was spinning in – didn’t hear him – which rudder to give – didn’t hear him again – and the whole recovery procedure – didn’t hear that either. He even advised me to check my height and if below 10,000 feet, eject – God, didn’t hear that at all.

How I didn’t hear any of it, beats me to this day. But that is how one’s brain can act when in an emergency situation.”

…and your most pleasant? 

“My most pleasant moment was rather a cruel one. Having been pleased with myself in a certain situation, I got reported and was disciplined to a verbal extent by the Officer Commanding.

I was made to scramble from  ADA (Air Defence Alert) duty to intercept an unidentified target by the radar. I had  full gun ammo load and two live Sidewinder missiles. My wingman aborted on take off for a technical reason. So, I proceeded alone to the intercept point under full radar cover and spotted a rather large aircraft from some 20 NM. At first I thought that a Soviet Bomber from Afghanistan may have strayed in our airspace. However, as I closed in I realised that it was an airliner (B747) of our very own National carrier. The airliner had strayed in the military training airspace. I was told by the radar to guide it out of the military air space. The airliner was on VHF radio frequency and I was on UHF. Not being able to talk to the airliner on the radio I got up close and used hand signals to guide it away from the military airspace. Having achieved the objective of the intercept mission, I felt pretty good and decided to barrel around the airliner. I started my barrel roll from his right wing, went around and under him to come back on his right wing again from where I had started.

I had no idea that the Captain of the airliner reported me for barreling around him and putting both aircraft and the passengers at peril. That is till I was called in by the Officer Commanding the next day for disciplining me over the incident. Fortunately, the flak I got was contained to the office of the Officer Commanding only.”

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How would you rate the MiG-19 in the following ways? 

A. Instantaneous turn rates – Average

B. Sustained turn rates – poor as compared to F-86 and Mirage

C. Climb rate – Excellent with  thrust to weight ratio of 0.8, it climbed really well.

D. High alpha – High Alpha (very high angles of attack – close to stalling angle of attack -where the nose of the aircraft is kept way above the horizon while maintaining low speeds) If you could control the adverse yawing, High  Alpha was no great issue

E. Ease of flying – It was a difficult plane to fly primarily because of its bad aerodynamic behaviour. It would adverse yaw very easily, had awful transonic range speed control and it’s engines (axial flow compressors) were prone to stall if not handled properly.

Everything wanted to know about Indian air power but were afraid to ask here

Did you perform the ground attack role, if so what would you have been expected to do it in wartime and how did you prepare for it? 

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 “The MiG 19 was  used in ground attack role utilising its three 30-mm canons and 8 rockets in two pods (modified to carry the pods by PAF) in support of the Army’s ground battle. Typical targets were troops gathering to create a bridgehead, troops on ground like convoys, tanks, artillery and radar stations and lines of logistics, railroad stations etc.

Typical training consisted of live strafing and rocket firing at targets in the firing ranges created for the purpose. This was first practiced by remaining in the traffic pattern of the firing range and repeating attack after attack. Later, put to test by means of tactical strikes where you had only one dive attack to hit the target.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-19?

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Irfan Masum with his F-86F. 

“Having highlighted some of the disadvantages of the MiG-19, I’d like to dwell on the fun part of flying it, that is after one had mastered the art of handling it in the air.

During one of the 1 Vs 1 combat training, I pulled vertically up without the afterburner. The airspeed bled so fast that before I could recover, my speed was approaching stalling speed.  I knew fully well that if I allowed any yaw at the time of stalling, I will enter in a spin. So, I held my rudders neutral to avoid inducing any yaw. Also, I pushed the stick forward just enough to go to zero G – in a state of zero G the aircraft never stalls. Soon the speed went to zero and the MiG started sliding down while remaining in vertical position and the altimeter began to register a descent. I was thrilled that I was descending while in vertical position without stalling or spinning. My elation was rather short lived as I realised that I must recover without stalling or spinning. It was not possible to drop the nose forward or back words to the horizon. The only option was to yaw the MiG and let the nose drop sideways to the horizon. Mindful that if I induce a yaw the MiG will go in to a spin, I made sure that I maintained zero g (which does not allow the plane to stall) and induce a yaw just enough to let the nose drop sideway as done in a ‘Stall turn’ manoeuvre – which I had learnt in my basic training on the ‘Harvard the T-6G’. I also had to counter the roll that the yaw would induce by applying just enough opposite aileron. To my great delight and relief, the nose dropped sideways to the horizon and I could complete the recovery. The amazing thing was that the engines, which were very prone to stall, did not.

Encouraged by this feat, I went on to repeat it again and again, each time recovering without any problem. Thereafter, I would employ this manoeuver to shake off anyone who tried to get behind me in 1 Vs 1 combat. I would simply pull up vertically and unload to zero g, dropping my speed rapidly to zero. The chase aircraft would follow me and fall out of the vertical pursuit. I would then execute a stall turn and get behind him.

Some years later, when I became a fight weapons instructor, PAF got the dual seater of the MiG-19 and I began to teach this manoeuver to other instructors and demonstrate it to the students.

Another aspect of the MiG-19 relates to drop tanks that it carried. It carried two 760 litre each drop tanks which had to be dropped in case of actual combat. With drop tanks the Gs were limited to five and without drop tanks to six. Flight characteristics with drop tanks were more stable than in clean configuration.”

Special thanks to @Le_Sabre54  for introducing me to the Wing Commander (Rtd).  

Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes.  Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

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3 comments

  1. Alex

    Thank you for this interview. It’s very nice to have the viewpoint of a non-western airforce pilot on a relatively lesser-known aircraft.

    With respect to the suggestion that the J-6 lacked a computing gunsight – might this be an issue confined to Chinese-made aircraft? The Soviets had been fitting radar gunsights as far back as the MiG-17F, and the MiG-19S was supposedly fitted with the SRD-3 Grad radar / ASP-5N gunsight combination. Chinese aircraft production of the J-6 was somewhat chaotic, especially in the early years – perhaps the Chinese were unable to duplicate the Soviet electronics?

    • Irfan Masum

      You are perhaps right about the Chinese not being able to duplicate the Russian radar gun sight for the F6. A fact that I failed to mention was that the Chinese were flying it still wearing leather helmets and throat mikes. We used to ferry the F6 from China with leather helmets and throat mikes. It was extremely difficult for us. Later, our avionics technicians would go ahead of time and modify the planes to be flown with our own helmets with integral mikes.

      The decision to do the modification was made when one of our planes was lost during a ferry flight where a partial cause was lack of clear communications due to unfamiliar throat mike radio talk.

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