Since the Korean War of the early 1950s, the aircraft designation ‘MiG’ has a had powerful association to many Westerners: MiGs were fast, agile and hostile fighter planes flown by dastardly communists — and they were shrouded in mystery. Whereas Western fighter designs were publicly promoted years before their first flight, new Russian MiGs were revealed in blurry photos from spy satellites, as if from nowhere in formations over parades in Moscow or eviscerating NATO opponents in exciting artist’s impressions released by the US Department of Defense. They were perceived as deadly and mysterious, and this was convenient for Western propaganda purposes. The MiG mystique naturally inspired a raft of fictional aircraft waiting to be blown from the sky by heroic Americans. Here are some of the fictional MiGs that appeared in books, TV shows and films in the late 20th century.
Gerry and Slyvia Anderson created a series of British television puppet shows from the 1960s, including Joe 90. Joe 90 took place in the future — or rather what was the future, as it was set in the 2010s. It was about a nine-year-old boy who could essentially Google things with his mind, which is not too far off Googling it with your fingers but this was 1968, so meant he was employed by the World Intelligence Network (WIN) as its ‘Most Special Agent’. The shows had a boyish obsession with fantastical vehicles, many of which were informed by Gerry’s personal love and great knowledge of real-world machines. The first episode of Joe 90 featured the MiG-242. This model was extremely futuristic for 1968, but was clearly a chimera of contemporary aircraft. The MiG-242 had twin outboard-mounted tails, variable geometry wings and was launched from a pivoting platform for near-zero runway length launches.
The Soviets were interested in zero-length launch platforms in reality, and considered using rocket-assisted take-off aircraft for the point defence protection of airfields and critical targets using MiG-19s. Tests with MiG-19/SM-30 ‘Farmer’ (with the PRD-22R booster unit) were semi successful but it was clear that this was a role that was better suited to surface-to-air missiles, a rapidly maturing technology.
In the US, Boeing proposed a Mach 2.8 carrier fighter operating from a vertical platform in the 1960s, the ultra-sleek ‘Nutcracker’.
The MiG-2000 was a notional threat aircraft devised by General Dynamics’ Richard Ward, of what a follow-up to the MiG-29 might look like. It was intended to give the international F-16 community an idea of what they may be up against in the year 2000. This was based on Ward’s observations of several technologies the Soviets appeared to be very interested in, most notably thrust vectoring and the canard-delta arrangement. According to Bill Sweetman (in conversation with Hush-Kit) there is a misinformation in Ward’s artwork – as he had a good knowledge of key stealthy design features actually being developed in the classified world and deliberately avoided them in his artwork and description.
Mikoyan MiG-37 (1989)
In 1989, stealth was a hot topic. One of the first books on this topic was Stealth Warplanes, by Doug Richardson. It looked to many observers that MiG-37 seemed the most likely designation for the first Soviet stealth fighter (see Testor’s MiG-37 below). Soviet developments could not be ignored by the book, despite the fact that at this time, nothing about Soviet stealth projects was known by the press. So the ‘Mikoyan MiG-37’ was pure conjecture, based on the pure ‘conjecture’ of the MiG-2000 above.
One of the fascinating features of this book was its strong belief in ‘round stealth’. Many of the hypothetical aeroplanes in this book feature rounded-off wingtips, noses and fin-tips of the hypothetical aircraft. Radar returns would be scattered from these curves:
“…the rounded planform (of the MiG-37) shown here would ensure that reflected energy was scattered over a range of directions.”
In reality, this design idea was never used (albeit to a small degree on some cruise missiles), and it could be argued that the cultivation of this idea was the result of deliberate disinformation by several companies. Loral, Northrop and Lockheed (in several ATF artworks) may have been actively involved in this attempt to draw attention away from the F-117-faceting and B-2 flying wing approach. This idea can be seen on most ‘F-19s’ and is evident on this MiG-37.
Of course complex curves are used in modern low observable designs, but this ‘round stealth’ is not like the two US schools of stealth that have emerged, the Lockheed approach (sharp angles and flat surfaces) and the Northrop approach (as flat as possible, and of the flying wing configuration for subsonic designs, as seen on the B-2, Lockheed Martin RQ-170, Dassault NeuroN etc). When Northrop and McDonnell Douglas designed the YF-23, they incorporated the ‘flat as a pancake’ Northrop approach.
The notional MiG-37 is a tactical fighter that weighs around 50,000 lb and is powered by two 30,000 lb (in reheat) thrust class turbofans. It has two-dimensional vectored thrust provided by ‘slotted low-RCS nozzles’. It is a two-seater, with a canard delta planform and two canted out vertical fins. The concept emphasises performance and reduced radar cross section.
Did history provide us with a real MiG-37 to compare it to? The simple answer is yes. The Mikoyan Project 1.44/1.42 was a technology demonstrator that first flew in 2000. It displayed some similarities to Richardson’s MiG-37.
It was a canard delta, it did have twin outwards-canted tails. The thrust class was similar, though the real aircraft was even more powerful, with two Lyulka AL-41F turbofans rated at 176 kN (39,680 lb) in reheat. Weight was between 42-62,000 lb depending on fuel load, test equipment etc, so again- excellent guesswork. It certainly did not have rounded-off wingtips or tail-fins. The nozzles were not flat, despite the stealth advantages these could have conferred. The reason for the inclusion of round exhaust nozzles could have been one or more of the following-
1. 3D vectoring was envisioned, requiring a circular nozzle (perhaps extreme manoeuvrability was considered more important than minimum RCS)
2. Russian metallurgy was not good enough to make square nozzles which could withstand the high temperatures of a vectoring jet nozzle
3. The actual production version if made, would have featured 2D nozzles
4. They were not required or were not consider a suitable design feature
(Though recently photographs have come to light of Soviet mock-ups of fighter designs with 2D vectoring thrust nozzles)
It was claimed that the aircraft would feature plasma stealth technology, an exotic idea that a General Electric employee had filed patents relating to in 1956. Little has been heard about plasma stealth since, though the fact that the later PAK FA is so carefully shaped suggests it is not a technology that was made to work satisfactorily. Problems in developing working plasma stealth include the generation of sufficient power to create the required plasma layer, and the operation of radar and radio in what amounts to a ‘radio blackout’. Talk of this technology may have been deliberate disinformation.
The MiG 1.44/1.42, a candidate for the Mnogofunksionalni Frontovoy Istrebitel (Multifunctional Frontline Fighter) programme was cancelled (though some contend that research from this effort found its way into the Chengdu J-20 project though there is no direct evidence of this). Sukhoi’s rival S-47 ‘Berkut’ took a radically different approach and adopted canards with forward swept wings, as can be seen from later developments this configuration appears to have been a design dead-end, at least for the time being.
In reality, thirty plus years later, MiG has only got far as the MiG-35
MiG-31 Firefox (film version) (1982)
The Firefox is a splendidly ambitious design, supposed able to achieve Mach 6 and to embody a range of advanced technologies, including thought control of it weapons systems (as long as you can think in Russian). Other claimed characteristics include 2 x 50,000-lb thrust engines, flight at up to 130,000 ft, internal carriage of 6 AA-11 missiles, 2x 23mm cannon and chaff and flare dispensing pods.
Hush-Kit’s Editor asked Jim Smith for his thoughts on the MiG-31 Firefox.
“Apart from a few obvious blunders, I really quite like the Firefox. If one imagines a strategic air defence aircraft, capable of taking on the XB-70, SR-71, and other high-flyers like the U-2, a configuration which borrows from the Valkyrie makes some sense.
My biggest concern with the Firefox is the propulsion system, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment, and suppose sufficient thrust is available. The highly-swept near delta wing looks to fit inside a Mach 2.9 Mach cone, and it would be plausible to achieve that sort of speed without excessive wave drag and heating, assuming the stated materials for the structure. Mach 6, even for brief periods, does not look likely, particularly given the propulsion system. I like the use of the canard and the fold-down wing tips, both clearly borrowed from the Valkyrie, and the essentially high-speed bomber/transport-like configuration would be well suited for high-speed interception of strategic targets at high altitude. I would, however, expect any kill to be achieved using internally carried long-range air-to-air weapons. There is no need to carry 2 x 23mm cannon, and one cannot readily conceive a situation where this aircraft would be used in WVR combat.
Here are a few other (unsuccessful) aircraft designed with the same sort of performance goals (M 2.5 or thereabouts):
I particularly like the Douglas one, whose canard and wing resemble the Firefox quite closely, although it has a different propulsion arrangement and a single fin rather than twin fins.
What about propulsion? Well, what we do know about high-flying fast aircraft is that they have large engines, and truly enormous propulsion systems. Managing the intake compression process to bring airflow to the engine front face at stable subsonic speeds requires a very large and complex intake system. Look at Concorde, the XB-70, the MiG-31 (the real one) and the SR-71, and what you will find is huge engines behind bigger intake systems.
I used to attend meetings occasionally with Rolls-Royce at Filton. On the wall of their management conference room, occupying the entire length of the room was a fabulous full-scale drawing of the engine installation of the Olympus 593 in Concorde. Truly, engineering as art. But driven by the physics of getting the air to the engine in a usable state – stable in flow, and at the temperature and pressure required.
There is no way Firefox would work with anything that could be described as a high-bypass ratio turbofan. Something I recall being referred to as ‘a leaky turbojet’ would be more likely. But probably installed either like the Concorde in underwing nacelles, or like the Douglas supersonic transport or the XB-70.
The two twin-engine aircraft known to have this sort of performance are the remarkable SR-71, where the engines have been described as turbo-ramjet, and the MiG-31. For the SR-71, both the intake and ejector exhaust nozzle are critical to engine performance, and very complex airflow management is required. For the MiG-31, the powerplant is the Soloviev D-30R, which is a ‘leaky turbojet’ with a by-pass ratio of 0.57, but only about 2/3 the proposed thrust of the Firefox engine. In describing the earlier MiG 25, Jane’s stressed that most of the thrust at high speed comes from the intake and nozzle, and these are pretty complex for both the MiG-25 and 31.
I regard the splitting of the intake path both by the wing and the fin structure as a concern, given the known complexity and sensitivity of the intake systems for similar aircraft. I do not believe the system, as drawn, could get the aircraft to Mach 6, and possibly not even to Mach 3.
On the whole, I suggest the aircraft would be suited to two engines installed like Concorde, or indeed like current Sukhoi aircraft essentially in nacelles fed by underwing intakes. If the target performance were to be Mach 3-ish, as suggested by the appearance of the airframe, it does not seem evident that 50,000 lb thrust engines are required, leave alone additional rockets. It’s worth noting that the stated dimensions of the Firefox are significantly smaller than those of the SR-71, supporting the view that 50,000 lb thrust engines would not be required.
But then, all you would have is a sexier MiG-31, not at all what was envisaged by the film script.
What about thought-control? We already have voice control for a number of functions in some advanced aircraft. Thought control might be quite difficult, but programs have existed where there was conceptually a progressive hand-over of autonomy from pilot to system as pilot workload went up, allowing fuel to be managed without intervention, for example. However, I would think that thought-controlled weapons systems would be among the last to be implemented, because of the need to track ‘who did what’, both for training, and to provide an audit trail for decisions to employ lethal force.
I admire the ambition of the Firefox, and the recognition of the importance of advanced systems as well as the right airframe. There’s no way the stated design would achieve Mach 6, and given that, I prefer to view Firefox as a strategic interceptor, operating at a maximum of Mach 3+, heavily armed and with good systems. But no cannon, no auxiliary rockets, and somewhat smaller thrust. Otherwise, I think that the forward part of the aircraft does look somewhat crude, and would probably produce unacceptable high-speed drag.”
MiG Project 701/Sukhoi T60S
An intelligence blunder made the West believe that what was actually a MiG concept for high-speed replacement for the MiG-31 was actually a Sukhoi bomber. Though not fictional as such, this is a good excuse to mention an interesting design. As of 2020, work continues on a high-speed replacement for the MiG-31.
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-28 (1985) Top Gun
Real Soviet fighters were not available for the 1986 Top Gun movie so US Navy F-5s (operated by the real Top Gun aggressor units) were painted black and given Communist-style markings. The black paint was sleek and sinister, and made the aircraft both easier for the audience to see and to clearly differentiate from the ‘goody’ F-14 Tomcats. The MiG-28 is is highly described as manoeuvrable, but somewhat slower than the F-14 Tomcat, both of which are true of the F-5. The American pilots are warned that the MiG-28 was armed with the AM 39 Exocet, this is a real French anti-ship missile which earned notoriety in the Falklands War which took place four years before the film. The nationality of the air force operating the MiG-28s is not stated but according to a director’s commentary was originally intended to be North Korea, though there is also nods to it Libya or the Soviet Union. Intriguingly, the Soviets had some actual F-5s of their own.
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (Kfir)
The Iron Eagle films started bad and got progressively more dire. Simplistic, atrociously scripted and ridiculous – this was fun ’80s action propaganda at its best. It was a paean to the F-16, in the same way that Top Gun drooled over the F-14. Though the poster for the film portrayed USAF F-16s, all the aircraft in the film were (somewhat bizarrely) provided by the Israeli air force. This is said to be due to USAF’s long-standing policy of not cooperating on any film with a plot that involves the theft of an aircraft. If this rule is real it makes one wonder why the USAF appears to have assisted in the 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L. which features an electronically enhanced child stealing a Blackbird.
Where this rule comes from and why it is in place is unclear, but this led the filmmakers turned to turn to Israel. As well as F-16s, the Israeli Air Force operated Kfir’s (a heavily Isreli adaption of the French Mirage 5) and this unfamiliar aircraft was an excellent choice to portray the ‘MiG-23’s of the Bilyan air force (Bilya being a fictional North African nation)
Iron Eagle II MiG-29 (F-4E Phantom)
For Iron Eagle II (1988) big lumbering F-4E Phantoms of the Israeli Air Force were cast as the small nimble MiG-29. The times they were a changin’ and so this time the Soviet MiGs were allies of the US’. This concord, which happened to a lesser degree in reality, didn’t last and today the DoD has going back to its comfort-zone of hating/posturing of hating the Russians. Either for legal or safety reasons, real Soviet markings were not used and a made-up hammer & sickle rondel was stuck over a standard 1980s three-tone Israeli camouflage scheme.
Mikoyan MiG-31 ‘Firefox’ (book)
The MiG-31 ‘Firefox’ of the 1977 novel incorporated stealth technology, was capable of hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (partly thanks booster rockets) and had a thought-guided weapons system. The real MiG-31 is a very fast, though not as fast the ‘Firefox’, interceptor known by the NATO reporting name of Foxhound.
The idea of a superior Soviet fighter plane eclipsing the West’s machine echoed the panic expressed by defence planners on the perceived capabilities of the real-world MiG-25. Indeed the original frontcover depicted a MiG-25. I don’t have a copy of this novel to hand so welcome any readers to share descriptions of the aircraft’s appearance in the comment’s section below, just to be clear I mean the novel only as I’m fully aware of what the film version looked like.
According to Doug Richardson’s 1989 ‘Stealth Warplanes’,“In the autumn of 1987, the US plastic model manufacturer Testors.. launched its model of the “MiG-37B Ferret E”- a Soviet equivalent to the Lockheed stealth fighter. Its appearance must have caused a few smiles around the Mikoyan design bureau. As its manufacturer admitted.. Its reception in the Pentagon must have been less amusing. Here in widely-distributed form was the first model to widely illustrate the use of RCS reduction technique.” It seems that the concepts of a gridded intake and a surface made of flat panels was already there for those looking. And Testors’ model designer John Andrews certainly seemed to have his ear to the ground. Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes, from ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. He was asked by the British Government to assess the YF-22 and YF-23; we wondered what he would make of a totally fictional aircraft, the MiG-37B model kit of 1987.
“The Testors toy company released this model 2 years after their very successful F-19 kit and only about a year before the F-117 appeared in public. It’s a pretty ugly beast, but, let’s not hold that against it, given the impact that designing for low signature had on Have Blue and the F-117. So what have Testors’ done in ‘Russianizing’ their F-19 stealthy strike concept? Well, somewhere along the way, the Testors team appear to have heard some whispers about ‘The Black Jet’, as insiders were referring to the F-117. The MiG-37 model has outward canted fins, and has a facetted structure, while retaining the letterbox-slot exhaust of their F-19 concept. While the appearance of these features may have caused some disquiet in some circles, there was by this time some awareness of strange black aircraft operating up in Tiger Country (the far reaches of the Nellis, Tonopah and Area 51 complexes). In addition, the Pentagon was moving towards first, disclosure that the F-117 existed, and then, the presentation to families and the media which I attended.
As well as some of the F-117 features, Testors has done quite a good job of giving the aircraft a Russian look. Partly, the use of a MiG-23- like undercarriage, and partly subtle stylistic and colour scheme aspects which just convey a less-Western look. Paradoxically, the crude-looking faceted shaping turned out to be more accurate than the smooth surfaces of their F-19 concept.
From a propulsion perspective, the intakes perhaps look a little more likely to work than those of the F-19, and still bear no resemblance to those of the F-117. From a stealth perspective, however, the whole aircraft is full of changes in angle which look counter productive to maintaining a low signature. In particular, the under-surface of the aircraft does not feature the flat surface of the F-117, and appears unlikely to be successful in managing the MiG-37 ‘s signature. In addition, the changes in sweep of the planform, the gaps and joins around wing slats and other features, and the intakes all suggest a less successful stealth design.
Aerodynamically, the MiG-37 concept would probably have been more efficient and easier to manage than either the F-19 or the F-117, as the moderately swept wings would allow the use of high lift devices and a significantly lower take-off and landing speed. Like the F-19, the relatively conventional cockpit would probably have resulted in a less constrained environment for the pilot than the essentially pyramidal F-117 cockpit.
I am a bit concerned about the extremely large fins, coupled with the anhedral of the wing, which might lead to unusual lateral-directional handling, but again, there is nothing terrible about the configuration (given the open-minded approach I am adopting). It is very ugly, but it is not alone in that.
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Like the F-19 forward fins, I do have a gripe – the dorsal airbrakes just don’t make sense. There-s no way this aircraft would be used as a dive bomber, and the configuration is likely to be draggy enough that airbrakes are unlikely to be needed to manage the approach. Plus they have the disadvantage that they would deny the opportunity to use uber-cool black silk parachutes deployed by the 2 F-117s that came ‘out of the black’ at Nellis in April 1990.
Summing up the MiG-37 – ugly, but closer to the appearance of the F-117 than the F-19. In the aerodynamics vs stealth trade off, perhaps the solution has better aerodynamics than stealth.”