Interview with Soviet air force Su-15 ‘Flagon’ fighter pilot: Defending the USSR

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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!
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I met a former ‘foe’, Brian Shul, former pilot of the frustratingly fast SR-71 Blackbird spy-plane, at the Sun ‘n’ Fun Airshow 2013. A Su-15 could have attacked a SR-71 from the frontal hemisphere – a chase engagement would been impossible. (author)

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
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I got on to the Su15 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.

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Su-15 in TECH (technical and operational unit)

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 Su15 was its ability to perform complex aerobatics at full power.
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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 Su15 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.

A typical day on a Su-15 base. The problems and lives of Pereyaslavka 2
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Posing beside my aircraft in 1978.

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.
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A painting by one of our regiment’s pilot, now a sculptor and artist, Vladimir Beketov.
It is called: ‘ARKP Su-15-98 while passing the front of the occlusions of a two-centre pressure depression in the evening at M = 1.9′ 

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
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“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).
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Newspaper cutout. 
Upper inscription: “Pacific Star competition”, a photo competition held by the newspaper in 1978 (see the emblem on the left)
Lower inscription: Interceptors. Military communist pilots Victor Drigin, Yuri Suhonosov, Valeri Shatrov (the interviewed pilot). Photo by G. Kosenkov

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 Su15 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.

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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.

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Seeing the Su-15 sent to the dustbin of history (Khurba, 1984)

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.”

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And your humble servant.

Special thanks to Vasily Kuznetsov
Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Have a look at  Interview with a Viggen pilotinterview with a MiG-25 pilotinterview with a Gripen pilot, Top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. 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. 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. 

Stick your hands in your flight-suit pockets! Sadly, we are still way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscriptions — and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. 

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