I flew the most secret MiG fighter in the world for the US Air Force: Red Eagle pilot gives the low-down on America’s MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’
Name: Brian McCoy
Service: United States Air Force
How did the MiG-21 differ from the F-5E?
The biggest difference for the pilot would have to be familiarity. The F-5E is essentially a beefed-up, fighter version of the Northrop T-38 Talon … an aircraft every USAF pilot had experience in during basic flight training.
Small airplane! Small cockpit, archaic instrument panel, high canopy rails.
How would you rate the cockpit for the following:
Ergonomics wasn’t yet a thing when the ‘Fishbed’ was designed.
b. Pilot’s view?
Outward visibility contends for the worst single problem encountered by the Fishbed pilot during air combat manoeuvring. Fighting the MiG-21 required deliberate manoeuvring simply to keep the adversary in sight … regardless of the tactical advisability of such manoeuvring.
The blind zone behind the pilot (due to the ejection seat and structural members behind the seat) extends at least 40 degrees either side of the tail. The wings are not visible to the pilot – neither is the vertical tail.
The blind zone under the high canopy rails extends about 70 degrees either side as measured from the pilot’s butt centerline (aircraft structure).
The blind zone out front is about 10 degrees either side of the nose (tall instrument panel; poorly-placed gun camera; combining glass supports; thick, translucent Pexiglass sheet placed in front of pilot as protection from B-52 tail gunner).
i. While not really a concern for the designers, it’s not any more uncomfortable than other fighter designs from the era. And they did paint the instrument panel a soothing shade of green specifically to calm the pilot.
i. Primarily the instruments we used were factory-installed … with Cyrillic characters and metric system measures and graduations – neither of which were familiar to the average American fighter pilot. Luckily our outstanding maintenance professionals placed green arcs for normal operating ranges and red radials for system limits. At some point, numbers are numbers.
Our jets had American altimeters, airspeed indicators, radios, transponders, oxygen regulators and drag chutes (for the Soviet jets … F-7 jets came from the factory with drag chutes).
Yes, the ejection system was factory installed. For the older Soviet jets, that meant a 57mm mortar shell fired to propel the ejection seat (and pilot) from the aircraft. It also brought along the forward-hinged canopy which attached to the headrest of the pilot’s seat and then folded down in front of the pilot as a shield from windblast. (The canopy and related support members probably weighed 250 – 400 pounds!) The later F-7 jets featured a rocket-propelled seat that had nearly 0/0 capability (the pilot was on his own against the breeze). The fabulous ACES-II ejection seat installed in the F-15 and F-16 aircraft (among others) used similar rocket tubes that fired sequentially to keep the G-loading associated with riding the seat during ejection down to a maximum of about 16 G’s. The F-7 rocket tubes fired all at once … giving the ejectee a spine-compressing 21 G “boost” from the aircraft.
Against the F-16?
a. In WVR: Which aircraft would have the advantage and why?
i. The F-16 holds every advantage: Higher thrust-to-weight ratio, vastly better outward visibility, higher instantaneous turn rate, much higher sustained turn rate, better weapons, much better cannon and gunsight, better man/machine interface, better acceleration … the only potential advantage the ‘Fishbed’ pilot might enjoy is if the speeds in the fight slow below 250 KIAS – well below. The slower the fight gets, the more the advantage swings to the MiG.
b. Which set-ups and altitudes would the MiG-21 favour?
i. Offensive perch at 1,000 foot range in solid gun tracking solution … LOL.
ii. Side-by-side, line-abreast 500’ spread, 150 KIAS (or less), 20,000 feet MSL.
c. How should the MiG-21 pilot fight?
i. Call for help, stay close to the Viper, get slow (and hope the Viper follows suit), keep pointing the nose at the Viper to threaten him, call for help, look for any opportunity to leave the fight, consider pre-emptive ejection, call for help!”
d. Who would you put your money on?
i. It might be obvious that I’m leaning toward the F-16.
ii. But this question opens a line of consideration I’ve encountered several times on related FB posts … the idea that the superior aircraft always – and almost automatically – wins. For nearly eight years I flew nothing but air-to-air in engagements ranging from 1v1’s to Red/Green/Maple Flag exercises. I’ve led small missions and those Flag exercises. Debriefed both using high technology or chalkboards in as much detail as the situation required to illustrate the learning points involved. I estimate I’ve been in 4,500 engagements during those years. As I learned more and more about air combat and experienced varied tactics, aircraft capabilities (or lack thereof) and the occasional imposition of simple luck … the more I came to realise the skill, daring and bravado of the pilot in that other airplane was far more important in determining an engagement’s outcome than the type aircraft he was strapped into.
iii. But I’d rather be in the F-16 for such a fight.
About 60 – 70% of our ‘adversaries’ paid attention in our pre-mission briefings and avoided fighting in such a way as to maximise our limited list of potential advantages. They kept their energy up, kept their distance, threatened us enough to force us to bleed energy and then killed us quickly and cleanly. We lost nearly all of these sorts of engagements – just as intended!
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20 – 25% of our adversaries either ignored our briefings or intentionally sought to see what happens when they ‘stepped into the phone booth’ with us. We’d win well over half of such fights … pretty good considering we almost always started out defensively.
The rest either had a bad day, didn’t have a plan, or were so overcome by the situation that they forgot what to do. We knew what to do.
iii. We normally started on the DEFENSIVE perch, allowing frontline pilots the opportunity to watch the threat aircraft do it’s thing while they were looking out their front windows … much easier than assessing performance while looking over their shoulders.
iv. I had memorable engagements against F-15’s, F-16’s, A-4M’s … but perhaps especially against the original F/A-18.
Best thing about the MiG-21?
Worst thing about the MiG-21?
a. Toss-up between abysmal outward visibility, incredible susceptibility to battle damage and astounding energy bleed-off during heavy manoeuvring.
How would you rate the MiG-21 in the following areas:
a. Instantaneous turn rate
i. Totally dependent on airspeed. Nothing special until below 250 KIAS – then it became startling. The rate did not increase at the lower speeds … it simply did not fall off as much as expected.
b. Sustained turn rate
i. Woeful. A 4+G level turn in full AB bled a bit over 1 knot per degree of heading change. Impossible to assess a “sustained turn rate” with bleed off like that.
c. Weapons platform
i. Keep in mind we flew very early export model ‘Fishbeds’ – MiG-21 F-13’s and F-7’s. Not the most advanced Fishbeds built.
ii. We simulated carriage of the IR-guided AA-2 Atoll … a direct copy of the AIM-9B Sidewinder. Not an impressive missile. Fishbeds also carry the AA-8 Aphid IR missile … a short range missile with impressive cornering capability.
iii. As a gun platform the Fishbed suffers from an incredibly unstable gunsight … useless above 2.5-3 G’s. The gun itself suffered from poor rate of fire and low muzzle velocity … but at least it didn’t carry many rounds.
i. Acceleration of the early-model Fishbed was actually quite good. Less than late- model F-16’s but on par with F-15C’s.
e. Top Speed
i. We lived with a self-imposed limit of 600 KIAS … enough for perhaps Mach 1.3 at altitude. It’s reportedly a Mach 2 capable airframe. I see no reason to doubt that capability.
Read what fighting these MiGs was like from an F-15 pilot here
f. Take-off characteristics
i. Tonopah Test Range Airfield sits at about 5,600 feet above sea level – enough altitude to seriously reduce takeoff performance. We never flew the Bandits from a lower field elevation.
ii. Temperature varied considerably at TNX – also effecting flight performance drastically.
iii. Taking the runway, I’d lock the nosewheel in the straight-ahead position and select nosewheel braking to aid in any abort situation. Once cleared for takeoff (except for that ONE time!), I’d run the power up to MILITARY while holding the brakes. When prepared to launch, I’d simply release brakes and note the acceleration sensation at the small of my back. After perhaps 2 seconds of acceleration at just MIL, I’d thumb the release and select MAXIMUM power. The afterburner lightoff process took a few seconds (and featured a very good opportunity for the engine to cease operating altogether), caused several expected engine instrument fluctuations and normally resulted in much higher thrust output. (Sensing the differing acceleration rates of the two power settings gave me another check for normal engine operation.) Once lit, the afterburner made things happen much more quickly.
iv. The MiG-21 typically rolled about 3,500 to 5,000 feet before attaining takeoff speed at about 150 KIAS. Climbout was always in full afterburner until reaching 10,000 feet MSL. (This was to get us as quickly as possible out of the more dangerous low altitude ejection envelope.) We typically climbed out at 300 KIAS with a very steep climb angle.
v. The aircraft was designed to takeoff from even unprepared fields, climb quickly to high altitude, accelerate to supersonic speed … and run down attacking B-52 bombers. I never took off from a plowed field, so I can’t verify that specific capability – but the airplane’s delta wing made it very capable of quick climbs and rapid acceleration.
g. Landing characteristics
i. Oh, boy! Do we have to do this?
ii. First of all, refer back to the section where I discussed the limited forward visibility. Nowhere is that more relevant than during each mission’s landing phase.
Pilots had to fly the overhead traffic pattern looking obliquely forward during the final turn. This is completely natural and how every final turn is flown in every fighter jet.
When rolled out on final, that same oblique viewpoint (out both sides now) has to be used to fine-tune runway alignment … and it works okay. But the normal down-the-runway cues most guys use for rounding out and flaring to land are hidden, so peripheral vision has to substitute perceived sink rate to help ‘feel’ for the runway. This skillset needed some development. (It wasn’t as bad as the wall in front of Charles Lindbergh in the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ … but it wasn’t as good as looking through your car’s windshield, either.)
iii. The engine’s extremely slow windup makes the landing pattern the most dangerous phase of flight for the unwary or careless ‘Fishbed’ pilot.
Idle to MILITARY power took as much as 13 seconds … almost a quarter of a minute!! Imagine a ‘Fishbed’ pilot allowing the engine’s rpm to decay all the way to idle while at low altitude, low airspeed and high sink rates – as normally occur during any routine traffic pattern.
One of the signs of low thrust availability came anytime engine rpm dropped below 80% N1.
a. The extended windup time was less than the 13-second Idle to MIL marathon … but even 5 or 6 seconds waiting for useable thrust could be critical.
b. The exhaust nozzle opened fully right around that 80% N1 reading, dropping the effective thrust to nearly nothing. That was the true danger of allowing the engine rpm to decay.
c. Instructor pilots flying chase aircraft (AT-38B’s) could visually monitor the exhaust nozzle during traffic patterns with new pilots so as to provide warning and guidance in case of decayed engine rpm … or other issues with transitioning pilots’ traffic pattern work.
d. While potentially dangerous, this condition was easily avoided by simply not allowing the engine rpm to slow below the 80% N1 level. As a result, we flew wimpy wide traffic patterns with very gradual turns and descents.
iv. The Fishbed was actually easy to fly through it’s landing pattern … so long as the pilot was aware of and prepared for the unusual and potentially dangerous pitfalls unique to the aircraft.
v. Being a single-engine aircraft, we spent a lot of time thinking about and training for flameout recoveries. Our glide profile was flown at 250 KIAS … the same speed we used for other emergency recoveries.
vi. While TNX was our prime recovery field, flight conditions at the time of the emergency could make landing there impossible due to distance. There were several contingency landing possibilities in the area – like old, inactive runways or dry lake beds. (Necessity is the mother of invention.)
vii. We used drag chutes on every landing to extend brake and tire life.
Read what fighting these MiGs was like from an F-15 pilot here
h. Climb rate
i. The aircraft could climb rapidly and steeply to whatever altitude was required. Once level, the Fishbed could quickly accelerate to supersonic speed.
i. This is an astonishingly short-ranged aircraft … even for a fighter. I’ve taken off from TNX, climbed to meet an adversary almost directly overhead the runway, fought three engagements and left the range with need to land immediately due to fuel considerations … ten minutes after takeoff!
ii. I flew 287 ‘Fishbed’ sorties in my Constant Peg career – logging 134.5 hours … a bit under 0.47 hours per sortie. We weren’t trying for long sorties and made liberal use of afterburner, so your results may vary.
iii. We never flew the Bandit jets with external fuel tanks or in a cross-country fuel-efficient mode … at least not while I was there.
i. Mark-1 eyeballs were our best set of sensors – by far! Our best-in-the-business GCI controllers were a close second.
ii. There was no onboard Airborne Intercept search-and-track radar.
iii. There was no IRSTS.
iv. There was a range-only radar system that displayed information on a meter equipped with lights to indicate “In Range.” It was a pathetic system useful only when I pointed the jet straight down to get altitude verification. I suppose it may have been effective against relatively cooperative, bomber-sized targets.
Biggest myth about the MiG-21?
a. That it is not an effective combat machine. With well over 11,000 copies built over a very long production run, it remained deadly due to sheer numbers for decades.
What should I have asked you?
a. How many times did the MiG-21 try to kill you? [Tried hard only once]
b. Would you willingly fly the MiG-21 into combat? [No.]
c. Was the MiG-21 easy to taxi? [Not Day One … or Day Two]
Describe you most memorable exercise in the MiG-21?
a. Describe a typical MiG-21 fight
b. How did the Soviets fight and where did this knowledge about their tactics come from?
i. I’m unsure of the remaining classification status of some aspects of this sort of information and not comfortable discussing it. It’s probably now unclassified since the USSR is out of business but I’d prefer to leave this topic alone.
c. Which model of MiG-21 was it and where did it come from?
i. We flew the MiG-21 F-13 (an early export model best known for combat operations versus United States aircraft in Southeast Asia.) We also flew later license-built (?) F-7 aircraft. Where these aircraft came from is frankly more than I personally know or am willing to discuss.
d. What was life like between missions? How did the desire for secrecy change things in your life?
i. We left Nellis AFB every morning via MAC-owned/operated C-12 executive transport aircraft (Beechcraft King Airs). We returned almost every evening after the day’s flight operations were complete. This travel was required to enable face-to-face debriefings with our adversary aircrews. Non-pilot personnel typically traveled to Tonopah on Monday mornings and returned to Nellis Friday afternoons. There were adequate dormitory, mess hall and recreational facilities to accommodate all assigned personnel. Pilots each had a full-time dorm room in case they needed to remain overnight.
ii. Details of our squadron’s operations were classified – but the fact that something special was going on was not a closely-guarded secret. We were treated with something like lofty respect by the Nellis fighter community – and granted unquestioned ‘expert’ status in matters regarding adversary aircraft.
iii. I could not share specific information with my family. If I’d been killed while flying a MIG – my family would have been told a cover story.
iv. One night at home my heart nearly stopped during a local news broadcast clearly showing a MiG-21 taking off at Tonopah! I couldn’t say a word about what I’d seen on the TV … thankfully my young family couldn’t tell a MiG-21 from a B-29 … but my jaw dropping to the floor might have drawn attention.
Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-21
a. It accelerates right with the MiG-27 … knot for knot!
Describe the MiG-21 in three words
a. Surprisingly nimble $hitheap!
Quickest way to lose a fight with a MiG-21?
a. Failure to pick him up visually before he’s in firing position. With a wingspan under 24’ … it’s very hard to see!
b. Slowing down with him (assuming he’s willing and able to fight at very slow speed)
Against the F-15
a. How does the MiG-21 compare to the F-15 in WVR?
i. Each of the advantages enjoyed by the F-16 in the previous discussion also apply to the F-15’s advantages (except that acceleration is basically a draw) – with the additional factor that the Eagle is even better than the ‘Fishbed’ at slow speeds. The MiG is considerably smaller and much harder to see and perhaps keep track of in a visual fight.
b. What was your most challenging opponent in BFM/DACT and why?
i. Not really a definitive single answer to this question – owing to the pilot skill factor brought up above.
ii. Need to mention that most Constant Peg engagements went according to plan.
In a 1v1 between an F-5E and a MiG-21 which aircraft would you rather be in and why?
a. If life and death is not on the line, I’d prefer to be in the MiG-21. Knowing what I know, I can control the fight, bring it to a situation I can completely control and confidently maneuver to win the fight … decisively.
b. If life and death is on the line … give me the F-5E. (Damn few ‘Fishbed’ pilots realise they can fight that jet down to 30 KIAS. The better survivability of the F-5E can’t be denied.)
What was Constant Peg and how did it work?
a. Constant Peg was a flight program utilising actual threat aircraft to expose frontline American fighter crews to the sight of an aircraft they’d expect to kill. There was some exposure to fighting that aircraft – with the expectation that they would not encounter more skilled pilots anywhere else.
b. Normally selected units deploying to Nellis for Red Flag exercises were given the opportunity to spend part of their time with us.
i. They would operate out of Nellis – just as they did for Red Flag.
ii. We’d inbrief them into our program – usually on a Saturday.
During this inbrief each pilot would sign a sheet informing them of the penalties for divulging information about our program.
We’d also brief them about the aircraft they’d be flying against. (This was when we’d tell them not to go into the phone booth with the ‘Fishbed’!)
iii. We would wait on the ground until GCI told us our adversaries were inbound to our operating areas at the extreme northwest corner of the vast Nellis airspace complex. Our flight time was extremely limited, so saving fuel was a primary … and constant! … concern.
iv. Immediately after takeoff (we most often took off in pairs), we’d run a Soviet-style tactic for our adversaries to practice their radar work. They’d also run a stern-conversion on us to get us quickly together to get on with the meat of our mission.
v. Participating pilots had to first experience a Performance Profile mission with one of our pilots. This was a sophisticated ‘show and tell’ mission where the Red Eagle pilot described identifying features of his aircraft (without actually naming the aircraft … never know who’s listening!), coordinated a drag race to compare acceleration capabilities and led an advanced-handling demonstration.
vi. Once completing a PP with a ‘Fishbed’ pilot, our adversaries normally got a second PP with a Flogger pilot.
vii. After flying a PP with both aircraft, they were cleared to fly BFM missions with us.
BFM missions with the ‘Fishbed’ were full-up fights. We’d normally begin out front in the defensive position … allowing our adversary to watch us do our thing out their front window. Most of the time we’d start at about 20,000 feet, with about 400-450 knots on both jets and the adversary about 9,000 feet behind at the MiG’s 4:30 or 7:30 position. We’d usually get two long or three short engagements before the ‘Fishbed’ was out of fuel.
Who would win Eurofighter Typhoon versus Dassault Rafale? Analysis here
BFM missions with the Flogger were not very challenging for our adversaries … the Flogger couldn’t turn well at all. But seeing that in person was an important thing to learn.
viii. Once completing BFM missions with both aircraft, adversary pilots moved on to DACT missions – normally against one ‘Fishbed’ and one ‘Flogger’. (We rarely flew DACT sorties since so much emphasis was put on the BFM missions.)
c. We also participated in actual Red Flag missions – either with the Bandit aircraft or our AT-38B’s … or sometimes with both! (Our participation limited the Red Flag scenario to American participants only – due to the classification of our program.)
Why were you chosen for this effort and how would you describe the other individuals in your team?
a. I sometimes wonder why I was selected for this program. I volunteered, had built a solid reputation within the USAF fighter community and had appropriate experience that allowed me to be considered. Only Aggressors, Fighter Weapon School graduates and former Topgun Instructors were considered to become Bandits! I was an Aggressor. Bottom line? I got lucky!!
i. Even with those prerequisites, a prospective Red Eagle had to pass muster with the current Red Eagles. One vote, “No” … and you were out.
ii. Three personal interviews took place: two with individual General Officers – in their offices. Not intimidating at all! The third … and most important … was with the Red Eagle Operations Officer. Fail that one – and the outcome of the other interviews didn’t matter.
iii. Needed a security clearance a notch above Top Secret to play. Not routine.
b. Everyone that wore a Red Eagle patch was absolutely top-notch! The pilots I flew with – USAF, USN and USMC – were extremely skilled aviators. I’d go to war with any one of them … or all of them! Red Eagle GCI controllers were the absolute best. Our maintenance folks were beyond comparison … best in the business! They could build an airplane from spare parts without any problems – or they could fashion parts if none existed! We pilots routinely placed our lives in their hands without batting an eye. We also entrusted our lives to the Life Support technicians that worked directly for me (I was the Squadron Life Support Officer) but needed no direction from me. (There were two ejections while I was there … both pilots survived without meaningful injuries – thanks in part to the efforts of my guys.) We had dedicated professionals manning the firetrucks, security posts, refueling trucks, cooking our meals, cleaning our rooms, filling out our paperwork … at every level of effort – amazing, hand-picked personnel volunteered to pull classified duty at a classified location for several days each week away from home. I’m still impressed by the numbers of highly-qualified people that supported our unique mission. And kept it all secret until the program was declassified in 2006!
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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. Pre-order our Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.
thank you for the insight. Capt. McCoy, perhaps you’d like to check out a video with Jyrki Laukkanen on “Aircrew Interview”. He was (among other things) a test pilot and an engineer with the Finnish Air Force, logging over 1000 h on MIG-21 (both F and BiS), taking those machines beyond M2. Being neutral during the Cold War, Finland had to acquire roughly equal amounts of “eastern” and “western” equipment and MiG-21 Fs in particular were kind of forced on us by Khrushchev. With not too much instruction included with the “sale” of these fighters I guess it was people like Laukkanen who really made a difference in getting the most out of the situation.
He has described Soviet training as formulaic (or rigid, can’t remember the exact phrasing) and thus there was a need to explore the true potential of the jet. Apparently as a result of these investigations and some out-of-the-box thinking our tactics evolved in a unique direction. In the case of the BiS a lot of the instrumentation was also replaced with western equipment. Laukkanen has written what is a pretty exhaustive book about MiG-21s in the Finnish service which was also available in English, though the most recent extended edition is in Finnish only. As your experiences seem somewhat similar, perhaps someone to compare notes with?
I do not know him personally but currently he appears to be managing the Flying Museum of Karhula.
You need to follow this article up with an interview with Captain McCoy,s commander Col Jack Manclark. After LTG Bond crashed and was killed Jack was selected by the Commander of the Tactical Air Command to take command of the MIG Base near Las Vegas and ensure this did not happen again.
May Almighty God bless people like this pilot who keep us free! War in the air is a game most people do not understand! And even now, if we only knew what is being done to keep that narrow, but needed edge against an adversary in air combat. Need I say that our fighter pilots today are encountering unidentifiable aerial phenomena that probably does represent a threat. But we’ll be ready…
Croatian Air Force (NATO member) still operates a squadron of MIG-21bis with westernized electronics in air policing/ ground attack role.
Absolutely fascinating read. Having flown the MiG 19 for over 1300 hours ( you can imagine how many sorties that would make considering a sortie would be of average 35 to 40 minutes), I could relate to most of what was said about the MiG 21. Here I will bust touch on one aspect of it: cockpit visibility: hind quarter visibility was real bad. Sideways one had to bank to get a good view to keep situation awareness. Having said that we got good at it and after some experience it presented no disadvantage. While the leader was Protected by the wingman, the wingman himself would most often become the casualty. The forward visibility on landing was again very poor but other cues were sufficient to land on the centerline.
The forward landing in the dual model of the MiG 19 (Chinese F6) was the FT6 and back seat Instructor pilot was all but blind on the approach and landing. Each one would in time develop his own technique to safely land.
In short flying the MiG was more enjoyable than the F86 and the Mirage V that I also flew fir the reason that it was a difficult plane to fly with adverse aerodynamic characters of adverse yawing and very poor transonic speed ride to supersonic. But once one got the hang of handling it correctly, it became an absolute joy to fly the MiG 19.
Are you seriously comparing mig 21 (first flight 1956) to f 16 (first fligjt 1974)? Were Soviets really that advanced??? 🙂
Very good and informative read, but the best part by far was Capt. McCoy’s statements in the closing “Why were you chosen for this effort and how would you describe the other individuals in your team?” That is what I remember about many of the elite folks I had the honor of working with in my USAF career as well. Some years were doing the boring, but some were not those years.