Interview with Soviet air force Su-15 ‘Flagon’ fighter pilot: Defending the USSR
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.
The main purpose of the Su-15 was to intercept air targets in day or night. The radar sight ‘saw’ a little worse than the radars of our potential enemies. But the long-range and short-range air to air missiles worked well, at least from my experience from training launches. After more than 30 years after flying Su-15 when I was at one of the air shows in the United States I had a chance to meet and speak with a SR-71 pilot. We were joking, exchanging impressions about our winged machines. I confessed to him, that if I was in my Su-15 attacking him from the front hemisphere I probably could had taken him out… but there was no chance of intercepting such a fast aircraft in the chase!
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.”
Starting on the Su-15
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.
It was a good plane and exceptionally reliable. I always said that I loved it like a woman.
And when you turned on the afterburner on take-off, you got a hefty push in the back from the ferocious power of two engines. The relatively long fuselage and delta wings allowed you to make a large number of barrel rolls with any rotation speed. What I like most about Su–15 was its ability to perform complex aerobatics at full power.
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. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here
A typical day on a Su-15 base. The problems and lives of Pereyaslavka 2
Flight days started with preliminary preparation. Before lunch, the pilots were busy in the classrooms at headquarters. Theory preparations for flights, repeated special cases in flights worked out in detail and placed it schematically in a workbook. After lunch in our canteen and a short rest, we played ice hockey in winter time squadron vs squadron. As the doctor forbade playing with the puck to avoid injuries, we used a ball for bandy (but most of the hockey sticks were classic – for ice hockey). Then there was flight readiness control. The deputy or commander of the squadron himself went through the safety checklist questions, and ‘ready for flight’ status required a signature from the wing commanders of the units. There were flights at day and at night, in simple/complex weather conditions and with minimal acceptable weather conditions.
Su-15 allowance was (lower cloud edge in metres / visibility in metres):
SMU (difficult weather conditions) – 600/6.
Minimum – 250/3 at day and 300/4 at night.
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).
Ready to defend
“The regiment was constantly on combat readiness. Two aircrafts were always in a state of quick readiness alert: One for high altitude target interception (with four air-to-air missiles), and the second for the “work” purposes of the low-speed interception of reconnaissance air balloons (four air-to-air missiles, two GSh-23 cannon pods on hardpoints).
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On weekends, family pilots spent time with their children and wives, walked along the only street of the military town, swam in the river, or gathered mushrooms in the forest nearby, or in winter, skied. Single pilots spent weekends at the dances in the Officers House where girls from Khabarovsk and nearby villages came. We drank in companies (but on Sunday we’d abstain from drinking —known as ‘taking a breath’ — if there were flights on Monday, because the doctor would have strict and pre-flight control before each flight).
Any flight was a feast for a military pilot in my time. I can’t single out one as being the most interesting mission. I remember being very fond of any training missions that included live missiles launches on target-aircraft, combat duty missions, flights in minimum weather conditions and night flights. I have strong mental images of penetrating clouds as a pair. Any flights for a military pilot are a holiday!
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.
Yes, there were simulated interceptions according to the course of combat training requirements: air combats one-on-one, pair-vs-pair and flight-vs-flight. The ‘enemy aircraft’ for training were usually Su-15s from our regiment. There were also training flights training interceptions against bombers. Usually the target bomber was the Tu-16. For actual missions, the SR-71 was the hardest to intercept.
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.
Special thanks to Vasily Kuznetsov
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Another excellent interview. Thank you! I love these stories.
Interesting read about a not well known aircraft (these days at least)…thank you