Soviet interceptor pilots faced the daunting task of defending the world’s largest nation against the combined forces of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. The awesome responsibility of preventing nuclear annihilation from USAF B-52 bombers, countering the impossible nuisance of snooping mach 3 SR-71s and air-to-air combat with F-4 and F-15s were formidable tasks that the skilled pilots of the Soviet Air Defence Forces (PVO) trained for in earnest. In the Cold War, the backbone of their manned air defence was 1300 Sukhoi Su-15s (NATO codename ‘Flagon’), we spoke to Su-15 pilot Valeri Shatrov to find out more.
“If I had to choose three words or terms to describe the Su-15, I would say: reliability, good manoeuvrability, and beauty of form. High reliability was one of its best traits, I do not remember any tech failures. Su-15 crashes were very rare and were mostly caused by the human factor.
I had a comfortable cockpit, everything in it was simple and easy to find. In those times there were no autopilots and navigation systems as we know them today, so we flew without any. Navigation was done with the aid of often barely legible pilot’s written notes! Very primitive by modern standards. Again, the lack of modern navigation instruments and landing systems required the pilot to maximise his skill in order to land the plane in minimum weather conditions. And it was nothing, it was ok for us. There were times you had to land below minimum weather conditions.”
I got on to the Su–15 immediately after graduating from the Armavir Flight School (or the Armavir Higher Military Aviation Red Banner School for Air Defence Pilots to give it its full title). At Armavir I trained on the L-29, MiG-15UTI and MiG-17. After completing a training course that included live ammo gun firing on ground targets, night flights and flights in challenging meteorological conditions we (the graduates) were awarded the qualification of ‘Military pilot of the 3rd class‘. Following graduation in 1976 I was appointed to 302nd Fighter Regiment (302 ИП in Russian) at Pereyaslavka 2. That was located in the Far East region of the country near the city of Khabarovsk (this regiment doesn’t exist anymore). My first impression of the type was the elegance of its extremely swept wing and tail. The plane was very beautiful and extremely graceful. The Su-15 was a typical fighter of its time, we climbed into the cockpit using the ladder. The cabin was comfortable and relatively spacious. Even in winter time with fur jacket and boots (‘mukliks’) on I didn’t feel any discomfort inside the cockpit. Take-off was not difficult, but landing was. Its high approach speed required precision landing and the timely release of the braking parachute.
All Sukhoi aircraft cockpits differ from each other, but share some traits. They are all quite spacious, the instrument panel is mounted a considerable distance from the pilot, which allows you to switch attention from one device to another with only a slight angular movement of the eyes. Thinking about the worst thing about the aircraft: the first serial Su–15 modifications (the Su-15TM Flagon-F) were called ‘Hound dog’ (Гончая in Russian) for their extremely high landing speed and ‘Dove of Peace’ (Голубь Мира in Russian) for having only two air-to-air missiles. I was lucky – I flew and was on duty with four missiles and two cannon pods. And that version had leading edge extension on the wing, somewhat reducing the landing speed.
Was even lower low 200/3 (for commander flying).
The aircraft was equipped only with a radio compass, there were no other landing systems. The day flight shift began at dawn and lasted six hours. Night shift lasted two hours in the afternoon – at dusk, and four hours at night.
We served in air defence, so we rarely wore everyday clothes – boots and a belt (much like a ‘Sam Browne’). There was even a joke about that uniform: “When I wear a belt, I get more and more stupid.” (This is a pun that doesn’t really translate directly into English- the word ‘portupeya‘ (army belt) contains “tupeyu” which means ‘stupid’.) For service we wore flight suits, and added jackets (in Autumn and Winter).
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The aircraft was manoeuvrable, as I have already mentioned. With the engines set at maximum thrust the Su–15 allowed you to perform a turn with a roll of almost 90 degrees. As for the service ceiling of the aircraft I personally gained a height of 23,000 metres (75,459 feet) , where ‘a little higher – space begins’ as we joked in those days.The instantaneous turn rate was very good, with a G-force of up to 6. The high alpha of the aircraft was limited to this maximum overload, but the thrust of the engines allowed any horizontal aerobatics figures without loss of speed. ‘Split ‘S manoeuvres were allowed from a minimum altitude of 2.5 km up to the practical service ceiling.
There were no simulators in our time, we had our main training in the cockpit.
In addition to training launches of air-to-air missiles, one had to shoot cannons at ground targets. We had no misses. I guess that says a lot. For its time, the aircraft was well armed and equipped with decent avionics.
Actually I had no chance meeting with the SR-71. They ‘teased’ our pilots on combat duty, especially in Primorsky Krai. Sometimes DS (Duty vehicles) had real interception flights – aircraft were frequently scrambled. The SR-71s were performing flights in neutral zone but with each launch of our interception aircraft, they turned toward their base. In my case, bases in Japan.
In wartime the Su-15 would have intercepted B-52s, which raises the question of whether the B-52s would be accompanied by a number of escort fighters, which would drawn us into a missile air battle. While F-4s and Su-15s had the same manoeuvring characteristics and armament, the F-15 would have proved a far more challenging battle opponent. The F-15 was more manoeuvrable than our aircraft, and its electronic equipment was much more modern.
I served in a great regiment with great people. When we arrived to the regiment it was equipped with MiG-17s. Training on Su-15s took place directly in the regiment. I remember all my pilots-instructors, I still meet some of them. If I had to evaluate the training on a five-point system, I would give it ‘5’- it was excellent. We are still friends and meet once a year in Moscow – pilots and engineers alike. Our unit, the 302nd Fighter Aviation Regiment was based in Pereyaslavka-2, Khabarovsk Krai. Now there are no aircraft, and there are only two or three colleagues left. The former military town is now a civilian settlement.”
Have a look at Interview with a Viggen pilot, interview with a MiG-25 pilot, interview with a Gripen pilot, Top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. How to kill a Raptor, An Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraft, The 10 worst French aircraft, Su-35 versus Typhoon, 10 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. Was the Spitfire overrated? 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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