My fight with secret MiGs: An F-15 Eagle pilot writes

Credit: USAF

The USAF operated a secret force of purloined Soviet fighters to expose USAF fighter pilots to the strengths and weaknesses of the aircraft they were likely to meet in war. Here former F-15 Eagle pilot Paul Woodford reveals his own personal encounters ‘fighting’ the air force’s strangest unit.

An aviation photographer and writer I follow on Twitter posted this the other day:

I couldn’t resist commenting:

My response triggered questions, mostly from people wanting to know when, where, and how it happened. Not that many years ago I could have gotten in serious trouble for even confessing to flying against a MiG, never mind sharing the details.

One of the aviation writers who participated in the discussion prompted me to tell the story on my blog. I’m flattered to learn a working aviation writer and journalist — someone who actually gets paid to do it — knows about my blog, but in fact I have told part of the story here. This is from a post I wrote in 2018:

In my day the USAF ran a super-secret program (finally declassified in 2006, which is why I can write about it now) called Constant Peg from an airstrip near Tonopah, Nevada, where it had a small squadron of MiG-21 Fishbeds and MiG-23 Floggers. Aircrews at Nellis AFB’s Fighter Weapons School, along with visiting aircrews taking part in Red Flag air war exercises, were able to go out in ones and twos to engage with the MiGs over Tonopah. It wasn’t adversary training, not really … it was a familiarization program, as in “here’s what a MiG looks like in the air, here’s how it flies and fights, here are its strengths and weaknesses” … the idea being to get the buck fever out of your system before you saw the real thing in combat. Great training, but strictly limited (as in you only got to do it once), rigidly scripted, nothing like actual air combat.

Here’s the rest of the story, as I remember it.

During my first two F-15 assignments, from 1978 to 1985, I frequently trained with and flew against USAF aggressor pilots trained in Soviet tactics and equipped with F-5E Tigers, roughly equivalent in size and performance to the MiG-21 Fishbed, which at the time was still one of the other side’s front-line combat aircraft. I’d heard whispers about a program where USAF fighter pilots got to fly against actual MiGs, but that was the extent of it — bar talk and rumor.

In 1984, I deployed from Alaska to Nevada for a Red Flag exercise. It was there I was read in to the Constant Peg program and realized I was going to get to see the MiG-21 and MiG-23 in action. The program was highly classified, not so much due to the fact we had MiGs, but to conceal how we obtained them. We had to be formally read in before participating; afterward we were read out and warned never to talk about it, even with F-15 squadron mates.

The MiG pilots were assigned to a unit called the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, the “Red Eagles.” They were experienced Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, a lot of them veterans of the F-5 Aggressor program, and many were “target arms” — Fighter Weapons School graduates. My Constant Peg flight consisted of me, a wingman, and two Red Eagle pilots — one flew the MiG-21, the other the MiG-23. We briefed at Nellis, three to four hours before our scheduled takeoff time. That allowed time for the MiG pilots to hop on their transport aircraft, a Mitsubishi MU-2, and fly uprange to the Tonopah Test Range airfield where the MiGs were based.

Tonopah_Test_Range_Airport_-_1990
Tonopah Test Range Airport (USAF photo)

My wingman and I took off in our F-15s at the scheduled time, met a tanker over Caliente and topped off, and headed northwest to Tonopah. The MiG pilots monitored our progress on the radio, calibrating their takeoffs to give us maximum time with each. Which translated into the MiG-21 taking off just before we entered the working area over Tonopah and jumping us the second we did.

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We took turns dogfighting the Fishbed, which was (to me, anyway) surprisingly nimble and tight turning, hard to see due to its small size, and hard to get a guns tracking shot on. The Fishbed, if it uses afterburner (as ours did the entire time we fought with it) has enough gas to fly for about 20 minutes. It was a busy 20 minutes for both of us.

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG_21_Landing
Red Eagle MiG-21 Fishbed (USAF photo)

As the Fishbed turned back toward Tonopah, almost directly below us, the Flogger joined our our wing. We didn’t do as much turning and burning as we had with the Fishbed. The Flogger, as we’d been briefed, doesn’t turn for crap, and bleeds off energy quickly. Instead, our MiG-23 pilot showed us how it flies, which is as poorly as it fights: difficult to control and unstable, especially with the wings swept aft. What it could do well, as its pilot showed us, was make a high speed, high-angle attack and then run. It accelerated away from us like nothing I’ve seen before or since, driving home the point that if you have a missile shot at a no-shit fast mover you’d better take it right now, because in a second it’ll accelerate right out of the firing envelope, and I guess that was the object of the lesson. The F-15 has the top speed advantage, but there isn’t enough fuel in the world to catch up with a Flogger determined to get out of Dod

MiG-23 Flogger (photo credit: unknown)



We did not land at Tonopah to debrief. The airfield was also home to the Black Jet, the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber, and everything there was classified to hell and gone, just like the airfield in nearby Area 51. Instead, we flew back to Nellis, followed a while later by our Red Eagle adversaries in their cushy little Mits.

One odd detail sticks in my memory. During the briefing and debriefing, I was distracted by the grotesquely long and curled pinky nail of our MiG-21 driver, apparently a fetish of his. In my Air Force, anything like that would have been a Be-No; apparently the Red Eagles had more freedom to indulge in personal eccentricities. Not sure why I’m sharing this memory, other than that it still gives me shivers.

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I believe Red Eagle pilots were dual-qualified, meaning that they flew and maintained proficiency in two aircraft simultaneously. Holding dual qualifications was common in the USAF of the 1950s and 60s but was rare in my day. I can’t recall if their other aircraft was the F-5 Tiger or A-7 Corsair II (probably the latter, since it was the aircraft their Tonopah colleagues, the F-117 pilots, were dual-qualified in). Perhaps someone who knows can enlighten us in a comment. Of course a few of the Red Eagles were also current in the Mits, the MU-2 twin turboprop they flew back and forth between Nellis and Tonopah.

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Well, those were the Reagan years, when budgets were fat and the military services could (and did) ask for the moon. The USAF had Constant Peg and three full-up F-5 Aggressor squadrons, one each in Europe, the Pacific, and CONUS. Imaging having all that, then asking Uncle Sam for a spiffy little business turboprop to get back and forth in — and getting it!

These programs ended, or were sharply curtailed, with the end of the Cold War. Constant Peg went away. The Aggressor squadrons were deactivated, eventually coming back in the form of what are today two small F-16 adversary training units, one at Nellis and one in Alaska, plus small contracts with civilian aggressors operating older foreign-built fighters (Hawker Hunters, Kfirs, and Mirages). With the post-Cold War integration of former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO, USAF pilots assigned to Europe have had limited opportunities to fly with, and train against, more modern Russian-built equipment. National air forces operating Russian aircraft now participate in Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB. Training opportunities are there, but they are a far cry from what we had in the early 1980s.

I have to say, I think I got to fly the F-15 Eagle at precisely the right point in history, and will be forever grateful for the experience.

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Credit: USAF

24 comments

  1. Brian McCoy

    I was Red Eagle Bandit #53 – flying 287 sorties in the Fishbed from January 1986 – March 1988. Good flying little jet – but the pilot had to deal with several … lssues.

    May not have looked like it – but we were fighting as best we could. What did we teach you about fighting the Fishbed? Do not go into the phonebooth with him!!

    When I was there, we were dual-qualified in ONE Bandit jet and the T-38.

    Those were challenging years. Fun … but challenging.

    • Ted Thompson

      Brian, I believe some Red Eagle pilots were triple-qualed before you and I joined the squadron. They flew their MiG, either the F-5E as aggressors or their Fighter Weapons School/Top Gun aircraft, and either the Mu-2 or Cessna 414. I remember having a Red Eagle fly with us on almost every stateside Aggressor road trip from 1980 to 1983. (Bandit 50, 85-88).

    • tony mahoney

      Damn you’re fast, Laz ! This article just popped up on the wife’s feed from somewhere. Good times, good times.

  2. Phillip Beadham

    Brian, what is it about the MiG-21’s aerodynamics that enables the hammerhead turns, which western aircraft (e.g. F-8, Lightning) of the same era, can’t achieve (as far as I know)? Does the Fishbed have larger control surfaces?

    Phillip

  3. B.S.

    I was a ground FAC (previous RF-4C/OA-37 driver) during that ’84 Red Flag hanging out in the mountains east of the Tonopah AF. Saw a lot of action above me.

  4. James E Bermingham

    I was a civilian contractor/aircrew member that flew for a charter airline that had the USAF contract with which to service the Tonopah Test airfield (1986-90). We would fly several rotations a day from Nellis (only by day and never at night), transporting the many base personnel that had worked at the remote Tonopah facility. It was certainly a thrilling experience to watch genuine Constant Peg aircraft rocket into the blue when on their intercept missions.

    I recall witnessing the time when a regular F-16 participating in the Red Flag exercise suffered a mechanical failure and had to make an unscheduled landing at the Tonapah site. The fighter jet was then marshaled to be parked next to our B-727 airliner where it was met by flightline security personnel who then placed a shopping bag over the pilot’s head immediately after the canopy had opened. The USAF Captain was then escorted over to our airplane where we flew him back to Nellis with the B-727’s window shades pulled closed.

    • B. S.

      James, did you have any idea what was going on at the time you were flying into to Tonopah? Was you call sign “Jane” or “Judy?”

      • James E Bermingham

        We only knew that classified operations were occurring there (F-117) however we were never able to observe them as the 117’s came out of their hangers when only at night (we were never allowed to be there when after dark). I’m told that the test site’s other aircraft were pushed into their hangers three times a day (when the Soviet satellites would pass overhead). Our call sign was simply “Key”.

  5. Greg

    Nellis Jet engine guy here with the 474th TFW “back in the day”…best things about Nellis…..Vegas baby……and all the different jets you could see on a nearly daily basis…..Red Flag always brought out the Israelis, Brits, Germans and others…..also had a MIG 23 on display in a hangar there for a few yrs….always wondered how they got one and if they flew it…..SR71 landed on a weekend shift i had to pull one time……..awesome……..

  6. Michael N Totty

    MikeT here. In 1977 I was the weapons officer for the 71stTFS at Langley flying the F-15.
    I got the chance to fly against the soviet aircraft flown out of Groom lake. Tonapah was still in the beginning stages of development. We flew two sorties the first with Mig 17, Mig 21s, and the Mig-23, and the second with just the Mig-21. It was quite a day to finally be fighting the real Soviet aircraft. This was before the end of the cold war so we were all very attentive in the brief, flying and debrief. In the furball I luckily got a very hi-G high angle gun shot on the Mig-21. Wish I had that gun camera film ! Im glad to see the program was continued and that all of you guys got the chance to fight the soviet aircraft as well.

  7. Orville Prins

    I was one of the USN pilots assigned to the 4477th. In addition to the USAF, there were typically two USN pilots & one USMC pilot assigned. I was there from 1982-1985 & had the great opportunity to first fly the MiG-21 & later the MiG-23/27. In addition and concurrently, I flew the F-5E/F with the 64 AS, the MU-2B and the T-38. We used the T-38 for chase flights and to intercept airspace intruders. The USAF 4477th was a superb squadron and the maintenance team was incredible. A side note: With a no kidding top speed of 730 KIAS / 2.35 IMN, I believe the MiG-23 has a top speed advantage over the F-15? I can remember having to throttle back on a high speed slashing attack or a bug out to not exceed 730, clean configuration, wings at 72 degrees.

  8. Gary Moman

    Neat to hear. Was there in the region from 75 thru 88 and remember a great many things. Worked ground radars, mostly instrumentation and data collection. Used to pat the russkies on the nose sometimes while walking to/ from the chow hall. And the f86. And the commanders f15. After Tonopah opened we didn’t see the red birds as much. Sleds did a lot of low level passes down the runway for rcs testing etc. Didn’t see the f117s up close and personal very much as they were down at the south end. Watched many of the test concepts smack the ground pretty hard. Ever talk with a guy named Roger Mosely?

  9. Gerry A

    I was lucky enough to be part of the ground force tracking all the air action in 1985 and 1987. We were 2nd LAAM Bn from MCAS Yuma, AZ. We had the priviledge of being the ground-to-air missle battery (HAWK). I got to see a lot of things out there you don’t normally see flying around anywhere else. To all the pilots, thanks for giving us lowly Marines some of the coolest memories we’ll ever have.

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  12. artherader

    I was there from Mar 1978 until Sep 1979. I helped Major Ronnie Iverson (Lt Gen), the 4477th TEF Ops O exploit the MiG-23. After that I helped set up MiG-17 and MiG-21 flight ops at TTR airfield and OBTW, it was always TTR “Airfield” and never an “Airport”, get it right dummies; my roommate, Gerry Huff and I oversaw the construction with the dubious titles of Base Commander and Deputy Base Commander because Huffer was a Major and I was a Captain. It took us a year to get the 3 buildings completed plus the rest of the infrastructure so that we began flight ops in the summer of 1979. We had a great crew of people from pilots to maintainers (top notch and run by Bobby Ellis) to two GCI controllers to admin folks and lowly me, Robert E. Drabant, Aerospace Engineer. And OBTW, I was a member of TAC’s F-117 IOT&E Test Team from Oct 1980 to May 1984 and then a Special Assistant to the 4450th Tactical Group DO from Jun 1984 until Aug 1986 at TTR when I retired and then went to work for the Skunk Works as a Mission Planning Field Service Rep from Sep 1986 until I left the program on 14 Jan 1989 or 2 months after it came out of the closet in Nov 1988.

      • Robert Drabant

        No, I didn’t know Mark. He was after my time. I can’t find when he joined the Red Eagles either in Steve Davies book or in my friend’s book by Gail Peck or our Red Eagles spreadsheet roster. All I could find was that Mark belly landed a MiG-17 on 9 April 1982 and survived. But then on 21 Oct 1982 he had problems with MiG-23 and tried to make it back to the airfield but saw he wouldn’t make it and tried to bailout, but perished in the crashed. As you can see, Mark’s courage from his first crash did not deter him from taking on the challenge to fly a different type of MiG. All of us Red Eagles always give a tribute to those who perished on the program during our Reunions.

  13. Sgt Jay Crittenden

    I was a Comm Nav ECM flightline tech. I remember one of our guys got transferred to the red squadron from the 523rd TFS @ Cannon AFB NM. This was sometime between 1981-1985. We were all waiting for an exercise to kickoff and see American piloted Russian birds on a simulated strafing run. That never happened but would have been cool. Thanks for the flashback. You made this old mans day.
    Jay

    • Bob Clarkd

      I was Intel Reservist supporting the 4513th Adversary Threat Training Group @ Nellis. Col Mulligan was the boss. Worked mostly giving tours at the Threat Training Facility aka “Petting Zoo”. They had MiG-17, -19, -21 (Fishbed C) & -23BN Flogger H. The Flogger was from Egypt. It had the ground attack “shovel nose”. It was in pristine shape when it got there but gradually old tires replaced the original new ones, some panels were replaced. Understand it was damaged in Egypt & used as a parts bird. It was in its own room inside the facility that requided a separate sign-in for access. Some of the Floggers on the photos are Flogger E’s prob also ex-Egypt.
      There was general knowledge there was activity “uprange” but nothing specific. No one talked any of it – EVER!
      Most fun job I had in 20+ years service. Still waiting to get the “bill” for it. 😁
      Check Steve Davies book for details.

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