Prior to flying the F-35B Lightning II, RAF Wing Commander James Schofield flew and fought in RAF Harriers. We interviewed him to find out more about mastering the immortal jump-jet.
What were your first impressions of the Harrier?
“Coming from the Hawk T.1 with its analogue dials and navigating by map and stopwatch, its one type of takeoff and three types of landing (normal, flapless and glide), on arriving at the Operational Conversion Unit in 2000 reading the Harrier GR.7 groundschool notes gave a good impression of the step increase in capability ahead! The systems included a GPS/INS, frequency-agile radios, colour moving map, Zeus electronic warfare (EW) system and infra-red camera both integrated into the head-up display, angle-rate bombing system with a TV/laser tracker… Then there were rockets, freefall bombs, retarded bombs, cluster bombs, practice bombs, laser guided bombs, infra-red guided Maverick missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles… The laser could come from your aircraft (via the TIALD targeting pod), a wingman or a chap on the ground. There were manual releases, computed impact point releases, automatic releases, toss/loft releases. There was visual targeting, GPS/INS targeting, TV targeting, laser targeting. Also chaff, flares, night vision goggles. A lot to read up on!
But before you got to play with much of that you had to learn how to take off (conventional, short, strip, creeping vertical or vertical) and land (conventional, fixed-throttle variable-nozzle, slow, rolling vertical, creeping vertical, vertical). Additional variables were the use of auto flap or STOL flap, and the use of water injection to augment the thrust. You could land on normal runways, roads, grass, on perforated steel planking runways and aircraft carriers. Each of those combinations had a prescribed technique, often complicated and challenging, that you strayed from at your peril. Before every flight you put the aircraft tail number, temperature, pressure and stores configuration into a computer and it told you what nozzle angle to use for whichever flavour of takeoff you were going to attempt, and how much fuel/water you could hover or try a rolling vertical landing with.
Key indicators to watch like a hawk in order to make it to the bar that evening without an ejection and a trip to hospital were: the velocity vector in the HUD which became an inertial vertical speed indicator in the hover (watch out for any unwanted descent!), the “Billy Whizz” hexagon diagram in the HUD telling you how close you were to the most limiting engine parameter (be it RPM, jet pipe temperature or the non-dimensional fan speed), and the unique wind vane in front of the cockpit that enabled you to minimise potentially fatal crosswinds. Oh, and a vibrating rudder pedal that you had to stamp on at your soonest convenience if you ignored the vane.
Every aircraft has its challenges/foibles but I remember getting the books out and thinking “bugger me, there’s a lot here”! Looking back on it now, there was an awful lot to not get wrong but at the time we flew daily which made a big difference. I remember feeling rusty on a Monday morning having had a weekend off!
There were also a fearsome array of limitations to remember, both engine and airframe, which varied depending on aircraft build standard, load-out and speed.
Memories of flying the beast will always stay with me. A fantastic view from that big bubble canopy, a neat and well-laid out cockpit, on the ground the impingement of the jet efflux on the tailplane making it tremble like an attack dog straining to be released, massive air intakes right next to you with a loud whine at full power, brutal acceleration during takeoff, a very responsive aircraft to fly, a strange rumble at idle power as air spilled from those intakes, the laws of physics overpowering common sense as you decelerated towards the hover between swaying trees over some nondescript field in Rutland, cows looking on curiously, your throttle hand advancing all the time as wing lift receded, in your multi-million pound jet fighter. Halcyon days.
I don’t think I was alone, however, in spending most of each flight worrying about the landing – something the Harrier and the Pitts Special sports biplane have in common!”
What is the hardest thing about flying the Harrier?
“Not screwing up in the VSTOL regime.”
What was your most memorable Harrier mission or flight?
“There were hundreds of memorable moments, but I’ll pick my first takeoff from an aircraft carrier. You read the notes, you’re talked through the procedures by an instructor, then you walk out to the aircraft, fire her up and line up on the deck. Although the ski jump is only at an angle of 12 degrees, it looks like a vertical wall in front of you! Up to full power, release the brakes only when the tyres start to skid and you’re off. Screaming down the deck towards the ramp wondering idly if this is actually going to work or whether it’s all an incredibly elaborate wind-up! Up the ramp, lower the nozzles at the top, and you’re airborne. Ease the nozzles aft. Huh, it worked. Time to start worrying about the landing a mere hour away…
Rate the Harrier in the following:
A. Instantaneous turn rate.
“Good, particularly with Vectoring In Forward Flight (VIFF).”
B. Sustained turn rate.
“OK at low level, not much good at medium level.”
C. Climb rate.
“With a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1:1 it went up very nicely!”
D. High AoA performance.
“Although there were no AoA limits in the earlier aircraft with small LERX (leading edge root extensions) – just handling limits, it wasn’t built for large angles. The larger LERX came with a 24 AoA limit so couldn’t quite match a Hornet (60 AoA) in a nose-pointing contest!”
“Eye-watering going down the runway, disappointing at high speed (all that drag…).”
Did you fly the Harrier in combat? How combat effective was the type?
“Yes, over Iraq in 2003. It was very effective; flexible basing options, lots of hardpoints, a good all-rounder. Obviously combat missions come in a range of exciting flavours. In 2003 over Iraq ours involved both close air support (CAS) and strike missions.
The background to all of this starts back in the UK where we had the luxury of an extensive pre-deployment training period. This was interspersed with intelligence briefs so you’d know what the enemy order of battle was, location of units and so on. We were also very focused on understanding how all of the extra gear worked in the various pockets our jackets were festooned with – mostly survival gear – and what the plans were for egressing on foot if we had to.
In theatre, you’d have regular intelligence briefs to keep abreast of what was always a fluid situation on the ground. On the day, you’d have a weather brief and would then be allocated a piece of sky to hold in and wait for tasking (for CAS) or you’d be given target details (for strike). Significant planning was required to understand what was expected of us, particularly critical given that there would be myriad other air and ground assets in the area, all with their own missions. It was always obvious that we were just one part of a much larger war effort.
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The missions themselves were fairly tense at the start of hostilities as each side assessed what was being brought to bear against them. As things progressed it was easier to get into a rhythm, whilst always trying to guard against complacency. There’s nothing like getting shot at over barren, hostile territory to focus the mind back on the task at hand! It’s difficult to convey how stressful releasing live ordnance over a battlefield is, particularly with CAS where friendlies are often perilously close. One incorrectly typed digit, or the slightest ambiguity on the radio leading to misidentification of the target area, could lead to disaster. Clearly, there were well-honed procedures to mitigate against these risks but when the chap on the ground is shouting at you to get the bomb off because he’s under attack – you need to be disciplined under pressure.
There’s always a sense of relief after a mission, but it may not be long until you’re off again…”
Are there any things a Harrier can do that a F-35B can’t?
“Not many – bow in the hover; operate from a grass runway; punish the pilot for careless handling. That’s your lot!”
Was the Harrier the most demanding aircraft you have flown?
“It’s certainly in the top three; take the rolling vertical landing (RVL) for instance. You’re on final approach to a 1000 foot long strip at night in rain: fore and aft on the stick initially controls flightpath as you’d expect. You then move the nozzle lever to the hover stop to decelerate at which point you use the stick to control pitch attitude. At 50 knots groundspeed you select a lesser nozzle angle to stop decelerating and the stick then controls groundspeed. Just prior to touchdown it reverts to pitch attitude. So four control strategies with just one of the three hand controllers (stick, throttle, nozzle lever) in under 30 seconds while trying to execute a precise landing with little margin for error – lots of armchair flying required for that one!
The up-and-away handling was occasionally a little tricky too. During an air-to-air refuelling test flight in a very aft CG configuration I was working so hard just to put the probe in the basket I lost the power of speech! Requiring full back stick around finals was common in the two-seater; if the nose carried on dropping the only way out was to add power, which was somewhat counter-intuitive.
It would potentially depart from controlled flight due to intake momentum drag if you let sideslip build up during the transition to or from the hover, with fatal consequences – hence the wind vane in front of the cockpit, and rudder pedal shakers if you didn’t notice the vane!
High speed departures were also not unheard of and could be violent, particularly if you exceeded the lateral stick limits and/or reversed the roll rate rapidly.
Flying at low level at night also had its moments, and no one enjoyed landing on the carrier at night!”
What were the best and worst things about the Harrier?
“The best things were its V/STOL capabilities and its ability to reliably project air power for a reasonable cost; it was ultimately a relatively simple aircraft which kept costs down and reliability up.
The worst things were the unforgiving handling (however, the satisfaction of successfully operating a challenging aircraft was half the appeal) and the V/STOL design compromises meaning we always got whooped during air combat training by F-15s / F-16s / F/A-18s.”
What equipment/weapons or sensors would have you liked to have seen added to the Harrier?
Easy – radar and AMRAAM. Having some Harrier II+ configured aircraft would have been fantastic.
What is the biggest myth about the aircraft?
“That the whining doesn’t stop when you turn off the engine! (The joke being that Harrier pilots whinge incessantly. I mean, have you ever met an F.3 pilot??)”
Is STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) a good idea?
“If you’re confident that any conventional runways you may operate from – either at home or at a forward operating base – are invulnerable then you don’t need it. I would opine that such a stance would be foolhardy. Also, stopping then landing on a carrier will always be easier and cheaper than landing then stopping (acknowledging that this leads to design compromises, e.g. a single engine, large intakes or a lift fan).”
Was the absence of cannon and radar problematic?
“The lack of radar did get you looking out of the window a lot, and building a mental picture of the tactical situation from radio transmissions was a cherished skill. At times you did feel like you were stumbling around in the dark – the absolute opposite of the level of situational awareness that today’s F-35 brings. At least we had a very good EW system, the display for which was in the HUD, to let you know who was looking at you and from what angle.
As for the gun, it’s always nice to have a cheap forward-firing weapon but the attempts to fit a 25mm derivative of the Aden cannon failed and, anecdotally, at that point there was no money to buy the GAU-12 5-barrel cannon (drool).”
What advice would you give to Harrier pilots?
“To any US Marine Corps, Italian Navy or Spanish Navy Harrier pilots; I envy you – enjoy it while it lasts!
Which three words would you use to describe the Harrier?
“Best. Of. British. (Harrier GR.3 / FA.2)
Revolutionary, legendary, challenging!”
Do you think the British got rid of their fleet too early? And what do you think about what happened to the air frames?
“Absolutely, but as I understand it the MoD had to save a load of money and they couldn’t bin the Tornado GR.4 due to its unique (at the time) ability to carry Storm Shadow. We’d have much rather seen the airframes continue to fly than mothballed and used for spares, but the GR.9 was so different from the USMC’s aircraft that they would effectively have had two fleets, which wouldn’t have been a practical proposition.”
What should I have asked you?
“F-35 or Harrier? F-35 for everything bar the satisfaction of mastering the handling challenge of the Harrier.”
Would Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing) have been useful in a dogfight?
“Using a smidge of nozzle at higher speeds was a valid proposition to gain a little more turn performance. Using a lot of nozzle at lower speeds gave a marked increase in turn rate, but physics being what it is the side-effect was a large reduction in energy which left you a sitting duck if your attempt to snap the nose around for a missile shot failed. I usually found that VIFFing worked quite well when pulling down from the vertical – people weren’t expecting a Hornet-like ability to nose-point – but if I was fighting in the horizontal the nozzle lever often led to disappointment! Putting the nozzles all the way forward in a “Braking Stop Spiral” manoeuvre meant you could descend vertically at a ridiculously low speed and often opponents couldn’t stay behind you. But you had to leave plenty of height to recover…”
How good was the GR9 at the time of its retirement?
“As with most aircraft when they’re retired, it had never been better and had an amazing future ahead of it! I started flying the GR.7 in 2000 and the GR.9/9A was retired in early 2011; by then it had been fitted with a larger engine (GR.9A) and some truly cutting-edge avionics, sensors and weapons: the excellent Sniper targeting pod, the TIEC datalink which went some way to offsetting the lack of radar, the Paveway 4 GPS/laser bomb with which we could simultaneously release six bombs against six different targets through cloud, the Brimstone anti-armour weapon, the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, encrypted radios…such a shame it went before its time.”
With which units did you fly the Harrier and what was your rank?
“I served on No 3 (Fighter) Squadron (2000-2003) at RAF Cottesmore, and the Fast Jet Test Squadron (2005-2006) at MoD Boscombe Down, both as a Flight Lieutenant.
(I joined the RAF in 1996 as a Pilot Officer and left as a Wing Commander in 2016.)”
Tell me something I don’t know about the Harrier
“Flying through hail would smash the EW “tusk” fairings under the nose. Ask me how I know…”
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RAF Wing Commander Scott Williams is currently flying the F-35B Lightning II, the world’s most advanced fighter, with the US Marine Corps. We interviewed him to find out more about what is also the world’s most controversial aircraft.
What were your first impressions of the F-35B? Technologically mind-blowing and a true engineering marvel. As a pilot it flies extremely smoothly and the handling is exceptional, especially when converting flight regimes to slow speed or jet-borne modes; that transition is almost imperceptibly smooth with no adverse characteristics. High angle-of-attack manoeuvring is very easy and forgiving, with excellent nose and flight control ‘authority’ throughout. Power is very apparent with impressive acceleration in dry power on take-off.
Which three words would you use to describe the F-35B? Lethal; Game-changing (I consider that one word!); Growth.
“‘…fighting the F-35 is like going into a boxing match and your opponent doesn’t even know you’re in the ring yet!’”
What are the greatest myths about the F-35B? That it isn’t operational; that stealth doesn’t ‘work’; that external stores on F-35 defeats the point of its design.
What are the best and worst things about the aircraft? The best thing is how quickly and effectively the F-35 allows the pilot to make decisions – fusing sensor and other data from onboard and off-board sources to display what’s out there and what’s going on. Worst thing? I’d like a bit more fuel but what pilot doesn’t?!
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Have you flown basic fighter manoeuvres against Typhoons (or any other types) if so, how did the aircraft do? I haven’t flown BFM in the F-35B against Typhoon or other types (yet!) but I’m sure I will soon.
Though the aircraft is not designed primarily as a WVR ‘dogfighting’ platform -and this may not be a desirable way to fight- how would it do in this respect? Pretty darn well, but there are so many factors that determine the outcome of a WVR fight; pilot proficiency, situational awareness, missile capabilities, countermeasures…every one of these things make a difference but if one were to postulate that in 1000 BVR engagements only a few would likely end up in a WVR fight, you need to ask yourself where you should invest the money, proportionally. Designing a lightweight dogfighter was arguably relevant in the 1970s as fly-by-wire tech gave birth to increasing (super)manoeuvrability; today it isn’t anywhere near as important but still cool for air shows.
Can the aircraft currently work communicate well with Typhoons, what are the considerations in working together? I won’t talk about what we do with Typhoon but the communications have been tested on trials and they work. I’d say a generic consideration for working latest generation fighters with legacy platforms is ensuring you understand their capabilities and limitations.
What is your most memorable mission in the F-35B? There are a few, but the one that stands out for me has to be my first STOVL flight. Comparing the aircraft to the Harrier first-hand was a unique privilege and genuinely brought a smile to my face. I think the UK and US teams who developed the STOVL Control Laws (CLAW), and the pioneering research from the VAAC Harrier and test pilots, were responsible for a huge triumph. Boscombe Down, take a bow!
What’s the best thing about the sensors? How they interact and complement each other with sensor fusion. For 15 years I’ve flown aircraft that need a targeting pod strapped on – these things were normally only bought in limited numbers so you’d get to use them on specific events. Having a targeting pod on every single F35 (the EOTS – Electro-Optical Targeting System) is hugely beneficial for training in all missions.
How good is the situational awareness compared to other aircraft you have flown and how does that change things? Nothing compares to it. Nothing. And information changes everything. When you look at Boyd’s well-known OODA loop, traditionally the hardest things are to answer ‘what’s out there’, ‘what’s it doing’, ‘what do I need to do’. That decision loop can cause paralysis which can lead to a quick demise in a combat fight. F-35 helps enormously in this regard and allows the pilot to act rather than react – reacting is what we’ll make the enemy do. Constantly.
When will the British have a combat capable F-35 force? The UK has a combat capable F-35 force today and declared Initial Operating Capability very recently, so are able to deploy on combat operations at any point from herein. The Block 3F capability is highly combat capable, despite what you may wish to believe or what is written by a number of prominent bloggers.
What would you change about the F-35B? Across all three variants the B does has the least fuel, but I believe it makes up for that with the ability to operate from the QE Carriers, bases with much shorter runways (~3000ft, predominantly for a re-supply tactical AT platform), or even other nations’ carriers when required.
How does its reliability and ease of maintenance compare with other aircraft you’ve flown? Most of the previously reported reliability issues have been software-related in my experience. Maintenance is logical and designed to be as straightforward as possible but the still maturing F-35 global sustainment enterprise results in delays in supplying spares to a high number of demanding customers and countries. With 8.6+ million lines of software code, this aircraft is many times more complex in how it operates compared to a Typhoon (or even an F-22 Raptor) but the latest software and hardware combinations in Block 3F have resulted in improved reliability for sure!
Will a F-35B fly the close support mission in a different way to a GR4 or Typhoon? F-35 will be able to fly the mission in a much more hostile and contested airspace than a GR4 and Typhoon by virtue of its low observable capabilities. However, the rudiments of how a pilot conducts CAS do not necessarily change that much but differences in platform sensor capabilities are an example. It’s well documented that F-35 does not currently have a CCD capability in the EOTS so we’re restricted to infra-red only. That’s something I’d like to see improved soon in impending upgrades and it’s ‘in the plan’ so to speak. Expanded weapons integration in future will also open the variety of effects that we can give the ground commander too.
Do you like the helmet system? The HMD is a truly incredible piece of kit because it really does bring a further dimension to the situational awareness for the pilot. If you then consider the built-in Night Vision Camera and ability to project full-coverage IR imagery of the outside world no matter where you point your head, the ability to point or cue a weapon quickly by day or by night is a great capability.
What should I have asked you? What’s it like working closely with the US Marines! It’s awesome – those guys and girls work like Trojans to achieve the mission and we have a close relationship building for cooperation in future.
Interview with an RAF Typhoon pilot here
How would you rate its BVR capabilities? Second to none really. First to see is first to shoot, is first to kill. I recently heard a comment from someone that ‘…fighting the F-35 is like going into a boxing match and your opponent doesn’t even know you’re in the ring yet!’ I like that comment because our lethality is enhanced by being able to deliver the killer or knock-out blow to our opponents before they get enough awareness on what’s going on to prepare or do something about it.
How would you rate its ground attack and recce abilities compared to the GR4 or Typhoon? We only have Paveway IV currently, however this will expand with SPEAR 3 and other weapons in future but the single weapon option is a bit of a limitation of sorts right now, even though PWIV is an excellent weapon that’s proven itself against our enemies time and again. There is also potential for UK to procure the GAU-22/A Gun Pod if needs be and the USMC have already employed it. The variety of recce options on F-35 are good – from EOTS (IR) to DAS, to Radar Mapping, we have a true all-weather and, in many cases, multi-spectral recce capability. However, F-35 isn’t a dedicated “recce” platform so you can perhaps understand why there’s no pod like the RAPTor on Tornado as an example.
Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-35B. “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you”…
What is your rank and with which air arm do you serve? Wing Commander, Royal Air Force
What is your unit? Currently VMFAT-501 (USMC F-35B Fleet Replacement Squadron or FRS). However, this year all of my Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Instructor Pilots (IPs), Engineers and Mission Support staff will form the nucleus of 207 Squadron at RAF Marham on 1 July 2019, and we will also fly our aircraft back to the UK later that month.
Which types have you flown? Harrier GR7/GR9; Tornado GR4 (post-SDSR10, after Harrier was retired early) and I now fly the F-35B Lightning and instruct both US Marine and UK students on VMFAT-501.
Interview with a B-52 pilot here
Why was 207 Sqn chosen for the F-35B? Will the RAF and RN share F-35s? The choice was intentional — and was made due to the fact that 207 originated as 7 (Naval) Squadron, RNAS, in 1916. When the independent RAF was born on 1 April 1918 and subsumed RNAS and RFC squadrons, 7(N) re-badged to become 207 Sqn. So the number plate was purposefully chosen to have both Naval and Air Force lineage. We don’t ‘share’ the F-35B Lightning like one might share a car with a friend or partner. Instead the Lightning Force – and by that I specifically mean the aircraft, its personnel, equipment and support infrastructure – is all jointly-manned by serving Royal Navy and RAF personnel, including our vital civilian and reservist staff who make up what we call the ‘Whole Force’.
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High-flying, insanely fast and untouchable, the MiG-25R Foxbat served the Indian Air Force with aplomb. We spoke to Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji about flying the world’s fastest operational aircraft.
What aircraft did you fly and how many hours do you have on type ?
“I retired 7 years ago at the age of 60, with over 3,400 hrs on jets. I had the distinction of Commanding three units. First, a MiG-29 Squadron, second a MiG-25R Squadron and lastly the Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) – the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF – which had the MiG-21, MiG-23U and the MiG-27. So, as a historical landmark, I am the only pilot in the Indian Air Force (and probably the Russian Air Force ?) to have ‘Commanded’ units with the MiG-21, MiG-23U, MiG-25R, MiG-27, MiG-29.”
What were your first impressions of flying the MiG-25R ?
“A 20-ton aircraft that carries 20 tons of fuel, flies in the stratosphere, cruises at Mach 2.5 in minimum afterburner and exceeds Mach 3.0 with ease when required, what can one say ? It was an awesome aeroplane. The fact that the ventral fuel tank was one MiG-23 (equivalent in fuel) under the belly, speaks for itself.”
Which words best describe the MiG-25 ?
“Catch me if you can”
What is the cockpit like and how pilot-friendly is it ?
“Most Russian aircraft cockpits evoke a feeling of comfort and familiarity to a pilot who has flown Russian aircraft before. Coming from the MiG-21 to the MiG-25R was an easy transition. As one of our Air Chief’s remarked when the aircraft was demonstrated to him and he was stepping into the cockpit, “This is rather familiar. And dammit, it even smells the same!” The cockpit was a little more spacious than the MiG-21, thankfully so, because we operated wearing the pressure suit (which, incidentally, was the same as that worn by Yuri Gagarin – so much for Russian sustainability and dependability).
The two-seater (or Trainer version) was unique. It is the only aircraft I know (other than the Tiger Moth, I guess) where the trainee sits in the rear seat. The design, to my mind, was an aeronautical engineering masterpiece. To put it rather simplistically, the camera block was removed from a single-seater and a cockpit created in that space. The canopy, although the same as the other cockpit, appeared ‘flushed’ with the nose of the fuselage, as viewed from the rear cockpit. Thus the trainee felt he was sitting in a single-seater when in the trainer. The transition to going ‘solo’ was a piece of cake. With the nose-wheel located behind the rear cockpit, a 90 deg turn onto a taxi track entailed the front cockpit extending over onto the grass beyond the taxi track (at the ‘T’) before the turn was executed. A little unnerving initially for anyone (though airline pilots may not have felt uncomfortable).”
Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-27 here.
What can you say about the performance of the MiG-25 ?
“It was a beast with immense power. It has been described by some as ‘an engine with place for a pilot and some avionics’. The Tumansky R-15B engines each provided more than 10 tons of thrust to produce the desired performance. In almost all the other aircraft I have flown, a regular climb was executed at constant TAS (True Air Speed, the speed of the aircraft relative to the airmass in which it is flying) with a progressive reduction of IAS as the altitude increased. The Foxbat climbs at constant IAS with an increasing TAS, crossing abeam the take-off dumbbell (if a reciprocal turn were to be executed after take-off), at 30,000 ft and increasing! She would be crossing 20km (65,000 ft) in 6.5 minutes from wheels-roll, at a rate of climb (ROC) of 100 m/sec (almost 20,000 ft/min) ‘like a bat out of hell’, if you did not come back from the Max afterburner regime – In comparison, the ROC of a MiG-21 was 110 m/sec at sea-level. Now, that is sheer performance. Cruising at 20+ kms with minimum afterburner (which, incidentally, provided best specific fuel consumption) she could execute a 45-50 deg bank turn with just a wee bit of additional power. There was no loss of height. Her systems and auto-pilot were coupled to provide an optimised “Little m=1” (remember the formula for maximum range ?). So, as the fuel depleted she would keep climbing (cruise climb) and a mission commenced at (say) 19.5 kms altitude would terminate around 22 kms with no change of throttle position. The climb was so gradual over the period of time and distance that it did not affect the photography.”
What was the pilot workload ?
“With virtually a first generation inertial navigation system (coupled with the ground beacon RSBN), one could engage the auto-pilot at 50m (165 ft) after take-off and take your hands off the control column. The Foxbat would execute the complete mission, photography included, and return to base (or programmed airfield) descending to a height of 50m when the pilot needed to take control and flare out for a landing. All that the pilot was required to do through the entire mission was manipulate the throttle – From max afterburner at take-off, to min afterburner at about 60,000 ft, to idle throttle setting approximately 350 Kms from landing base (the MiG-25 would glide the distance), to 75% RPM on top of approach to landing. That’s it !”
Were you detectable by radar ? Were you susceptible to interception ?
“Certainly we were detectable by radar, provided you were expecting us. The Foxbat operated covertly, seen just as a blip on the radar amongst other flying aircraft, but one blip would suddenly disappear. In normal ground radar settings the Foxbat generally operates at the highest fringes of the radar lobe, with the ingress and egress (through the radar lobe) often allowing one or two blips for the radar controller to perceive. Low transition times (because of the high speed) did not provide adequate reaction time to scramble fighters; and other than a pure head-on interception with look-up / shoot-up capability (from, say, 40,000 ft), the Foxbat could survive any fighter interception.”
Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-21 here
What were the limitations of the aircraft ?
“The fuel quantity, I guess. The engines were gas guzzlers and 20 tons of fuel (including the ventral tank and fuel in the vertical fins) was just adequate. In the regional perspective of India and its neighbours it would suffice but we always returned for landing with 200-400 kg of fuel remainder (200-250 kgs was the fuel required to execute one circuit and landing). We operated on the fringe. The runway had to be kept clear at landing base (no other flying permitted for fear of runway blockage) once the MiG-25 commenced his descent. We needed to give only three R/T calls – one for take-off, one for commencing descent and one for landing (in operational missions just two). There was no need to give any other R/T calls because you operated unhindered in the stratosphere.”
What does operating in the stratosphere feel like?
“The subtle change in the colour of the sky starts around 16 kms (50,000 ft), I guess, as the suspended particles which reflect / refract the sunlight start getting dissipated. The sky turns a distinct grey as you cross 20 Kms (65,000 ft) and continues getting darker as you transcend into those dizzying altitudes of 90,000 ft and 100,000 ft. You fly with cockpit lighting ‘ON’ (as for night flying). It is a little eerie, one must admit. Not natural. The earth is round, a fact we could confirm (!) because you can see the curvature of the earth very clearly from those altitudes. The sun, moon, stars and the illuminated ground below, are all visible at the same time. A glorious feeling.”
What special clothing did you need and how effective was it ?
“As mentioned earlier, the pilots used the same pressure suit that Yuri Gagarin wore as the first man in space. The suit was the same that was supplied to MiG-21 and MiG-23MF pilots for their high altitude interception roles. It was not the most comfortable of suits but then pressure suits had a purpose. One needed to wear silk ‘inners’ (full sleeve top and ‘long-john’ lower pants) to allow the skin-tight suit to be put on. Needless to say, it required the help of another person (trained airman) to assist the pilot. Once zipped up (suggest one uses the washroom before donning the suit), there was further tightening of the suit by means of laces (on the chest, belly, back, legs, arms) to ensure the tightest fit without causing breathing discomfort. It was difficult to tie your own shoe laces. The neck-ring (on which the helmet would be put and locked – it weighed 2.5 Kgs) had this latex bladder which came over the head and distributed around the neck, not unlike a condom. Over the pressure suit the pilot would wear a loose flight suit to obviate the snagging of the pressure suit laces with switches / levers in the cockpit.”
“All this was fine in winters, but in summer, with the ambient temperature close to 40 deg C (104 deg F), the cockpit conditions with the canopy closed was a killer (start up time to take off approx 20 mts). Like other MiG aircraft, the heating system was brilliant, but the cooling system was designed to cut in only at 1 Km above ground level (and cut out at the same height during the return). Four layers of clothing – underwear, silk inners, pressure suit, flight suit – in those temperatures, meant you were soaked to the skin by the time you returned to the aircrew room. It needed an extra effort by the trained assistant to peel the wet pressure suit and wet inners off your body. Guess we got our share of sauna baths!”
What were your biggest fears in flying the MiG-25 or were there none?
“When you are flying a virtual fuel tank, the biggest fear is the illumination of the “Fire” warning lamp. This was more so at operating altitudes in the stratosphere. The ejection seat in the MiG-25 was the same as that in the later models of the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The ejection seat had two settings (3 Kms / 10,000 ft and 6 Kms / 20,000 ft), to be set depending upon the terrain one was operating over. We set ours to 6 Kms. But operating at (say) 20-22 Kms altitude, where the ambient temperatures are around minus 85 deg C, an ejection meant a free-fall of 15 Kms (50,000 ft) before the seat separated and activated the parachute. Would you hit terminal velocity ? I guess you would. It was not a happy thought.
The other fear was that, God forbid, one had to eject over enemy territory. On landing, how fast could one get out of the pressure suit (without external help) and be unbridled and unhampered to scramble for an escape ? We practiced and mastered the art in the squadron.”
What improvements would you have liked incorporated in the aircraft?
“An in-flight refuelling system (but in those days the IAF never had an AAR /FRA) to increase its potential. Digitisation of its photo and ELINT systems could have upgraded the aircraft and extended its life for another decade at least.”
Can you tell us of any specific reconnaissance mission which produced exceptional results ?
“Well, the photographs of the mountains and the terrain in the Kargil sector (15-18,000 ft) during the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict of 1999 are testimony to the photographic quality obtained from the MiG-25R. Every ridge, every crevasse, every approach and defile was clearly defined, all enemy positions and bunkers in the craggy and inhospitable mountain ranges lay exposed, providing immense information to the Indian Army and the IAF to conduct successful operations.”
Flying and fighting the MiG-19 here.
Can you describe any notable mission you have flown ?
“On 24 October 1995 the world witnessed a total solar eclipse and the path of the shadow traversed through North India. The Udaipur Solar Observatory requested the IAF to photograph the eclipse from the stratosphere, an exercise (to our knowledge) never done before. The purpose was twofold – to photograph the eclipse as it progressed, with a front looking camera in the cockpit and secondly, to photograph the traverse of the shadow over the surface of the earth, with the belly cameras. The high resolution, single-shot Hasselblad camera (20-25 frames/sec) provided for the front photography was a monster. It had to be fitted on top of the instrument panel and it blocked the forward visibility of the pilot. It was decided to use the two-seater and fit the camera in the front cockpit. The fitment, as any aviator would know, was a major task. Alignment with respect to the flight axis of the aircraft (angle of attack in flight) and the position of the sun was a major exercise. Scientists of astronomy from the Solar Observatory
obtained charts from NASA (also) to determine the ambient conditions likely to prevail in the stratosphere at the appointed time and altitude. It was decided (scientifically) that an altitude of 24.5 Kms (80,000 ft) and a speed of 2.5M flown towards the sun (in the path of the shadow), would provide the desired results. After fitment of the camera, the aircraft had to be raised on jacks, wheels retracted to simulate flight conditions and a framework fabricated with a simulated sun erected in front at a prescribed distance to get the correct alignments. For eye protection it was necessary to fly with the seat fully lowered which posed a problem of tracking the sun accurately with respect to the camera. So we fabricated a “gun sight” for the rear cockpit. A small aluminium frame with a 2cm x 2cm window over which a graph paper was pasted constituted the gun sight. The centre of this graph paper (the point of origin) was where the sun had to be maintained. This point had to be ‘harmonised’ with the camera, a procedure familiar for fighter pilots of that generation. Special filters to protect us from the damaging rays of the sun had been obtained from Argentina and Mexico. These were pasted over the visor of the pressure helmet.
As luck would have it, the scientists discovered that about 8-10 days before D-Day, the moon was going to be in exactly the same position as the predicted sun position on the day of the total solar eclipse. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to get a practice mission, albeit at night. The time worked out by the scientists was 2335 hrs or so (if I remember right). The mission was flown and while the daylight camera could not provide the clarity, the alignments and the ‘gun sight’ were verified and fine tuned.
On the day of the eclipse, at the pre-determined time, two MiG-25s, the MiG-25UB (two-seater) and a MiG-25R (to photograph the shadow) took off with the MiG-25R trailing 2 minutes behind. Timings were critical and they were met. We fed into the predicted path of the eclipse and started our photography about two minutes before the total eclipse took place. While it was getting darker by the moment, when the total eclipse took place we were enveloped in absolute pitch black conditions and the stars had a clarity and luminosity not seen otherwise. Everything was as per plan. The “gun sight” worked ! While the total eclipse was viewed from the ground for 42 secs, flying at 2.5M towards the sun allowed us to view the total eclipse for 2 minutes and 25 seconds. The changes in the corona surrounding the sun in this period of the total eclipse were of immense value to the scientists, because with no suspended particles the clarity of the photographs was beyond their expectations. The “Diamond Ring” (the most popular photograph during an eclipse) was indeed delightful to see, but the ‘Piece de Resistance’ followed immediately afterwards – the “Starburst”, as the sun peeped through the ridges on the surface of the moon (the photograph is attached). An unusual mission but an experience of a lifetime.
Was the MiG-25 comfortable to fly after the MiG-21 ?
“A bullock cart, we would joke. She was heavy but responsive. Because of the weight there was a lot of inertia, requiring anticipation. To the ab-initio the aircraft would wallow on approach, if pilot anticipation and control input were not timely. She was steady as a rock during the climb and its stated mission profile. The two-seater was aerobatic and we did rolls, barrel rolls and rolls-off-the-top. The loop was prohibited because there was apparently inadequate elevator available to pull her through the manoeuvre. Ground handling was outstanding.”
Did you ever practice combat training – Practice Interceptions, etc ?
“The IAF MiG-25R was a purely reconnaissance version. PIs were conducted on us during various exercises. There were no successful interceptions to my knowledge.”
How difficult were the maintenance practices on the MiG-25R ?
“It was my first experience with (virtually) a modular concept of maintenance. Coming from the MiG-21 it was a pleasure to see the ease with which those massive engines of the Foxbat could be changed. The camera block lowered with winches and pulleys easily. The ELINT system was easily accessible. Because of its size, technicians could crawl in and out from access points for ease of maintenance.
Read about flying the B-52 here.
Sure, you can call it an ‘archaic, unsophisticated machine’. But then there was no other ‘sophisticated’ aircraft to either match its performance or shoot it down ! With a navigation accuracy of (max) 10 kms off track over 1000 kms (with a lateral photo swath of 90 kms), strategic targets were never missed. It was amazing for its role.
We had problems with the tyres and the fuel in the initial years. The Russians did not clear the Dunlop manufactured tyres nor the Indian Oil manufactured aviation fuel for quite some time. We remained dependent on the USSR for the supply of these two major items. The on-going Iran-Iraq war curtailed supply through the Suez Canal. So our fuel and tyres would come by ship, around the Cape of Good Hope. This led to restrictions in our quantum of flying. The aviation fuel, as you would expect, had to be different from the regular aviation fuel. Regular aircraft were using fuel K-50 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.77) while we required fuel K-60 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.84). The higher specific gravity was essential to raise the flashpoint of the fuel because skin temperatures on the aircraft would exceed 300 deg C (ambient temp minus 85 deg C).
The high temperatures also necessitated good cooling systems for the avionics and cameras. This was achieved by alcohol (98 proof !). The MiG-25 consumes almost 200 litres of alcohol per mission. Alcohol bowsers (tankers) were provided for replenishment which had a ‘tap’ provided at the rear (Aah ! Don’t you just love the Russians ?) – for purposes best left to your imagination! (venting, perhaps!).”
Read about Flying and fighting in the English Electric Lightning here
For an operational mission what would be the approximate timeframes from receipt of task to the completion of photo processing ?
“Well, the MiG-25R was designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance. Targets for such missions are not generally time constrained as in tactical scenarios. However, if it came to a pinch, it would take about two hours of manual panning (with necessary intelligence inputs) on maps, feeding the way-points in binary onto the plates and running it through the ground testing system to check the veracity. Pilot briefing is concurrent because there are other pilots assisting with the map planning. ELINT programming would also be concurrent. Then the plates are slotted into the aircraft and the inertial platform erected (energised). This would typically take about 30 mins in winter and 45 mins in summer. During this time the pilot would be assisted into his pressure suit and he would proceed to the aircraft. From start to take off we may consider 15 mins and a one hour mission thereafter. Once on ground, the camera spools would be off-loaded (simple procedure) and their analog processing in the dark room commenced. The specialist photo-interpreter would view the semi-dry negatives, identify the frames with the required targets and these would go into print positives. Thus the post flight procedure would also take roughly two hours. It would be safe to assume a mission, from start to finish would take about six hours. Add two more for delivery to the user. ELINT decoding would be simultaneous and coincidental to the photo processing.”
Were any special qualifications required to become a MiG-25 pilot ?
“Not really. However, all pilots had extensive experience on MiG-21s.”
After the MiG-25 how did it feel to fly any other fighter ?
“They were all sports models! Perhaps the greatest joy was to be able to throw the fighter around in the sky with gay abandon (which you missed when you flew the Foxbat), do aerobatics, fire weapons and the adrenalin of doing air combat. We missed the ‘G’ ! Also the sheer thrill of seeing another aircraft in the same sky!”
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Were you ever concerned about enemy defences ? What actions would be initiated if you were painted on enemy radar?
“It would be naïve of any warrior not to be concerned about his enemy. As I have mentioned before, missions were covert and silent. Just two R/T calls – for take-off and landing. There were no warning systems in the aircraft. The only warning that could be given was by our own ground radar picking up a possible interception. Depending upon the threat, it would entail moving the throttle up the quadrant and initiating a gentle climb. Secrecy, speed and altitude were our only weapons.”
Read about flying the Mirage 2000 here
Were there any aero-medical aspects that affected pilots flying aircraft such as these ?
“We were subjected to aero-medical scrutiny for the first year of operation of the aircraft. There were two issues of concern to the doctors. Firstly, the extent of exposure to UV Rays because of the clarity of the troposphere. We were made to carry dosimeters on our person. The results indicated there was no cause for concern. The second was the phenomena of possible ‘Disassociation’ (In psychology, ‘disassociation’ entails experiences from mild ‘detachment’ from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences – phenomena involves a detachment from reality —– Wikipedia). This came into consideration because of the rather lonely and silent missions in the troposphere, detached and distant from regular flight profiles. The issue was discounted because of the relative short duration of the missions – one hour at best.”
Some parting words?
“The MiG-25R was a superb flying machine, eminently suited to its task. It provided a feeling of immense power, invincibility and supreme confidence to the pilot in the execution of his mission.”
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The RC-135 has been quietly snooping and changing history for almost 60 years. Robert Hopkins flew the RC’ in the heat of the Cold War, braving intercepting MiG-31s and other threats to eavesdrop on the US’ potential enemies and hoover up vital intelligence for Presidents and generals. We met him to find out more.
What is the best thing about the RC-135?
“That’s a tossup: It has one of the best mission in the world, and it is crewed by some of the best people in the world. They naturally gravitate toward one another.”
What were your first impressions of the aircraft?
“I saw RC-135s at Offutt AFB during the early 1970s while I was in high school in nearby Bellevue, NE. My favorite was the COMBAT SENT with the rabbit ears and cheeks. It was very “bad assed” looking, which was all that mattered to an impressionable teenager.
The day I arrived at Eielson AFB in 1987 as a new copilot I saw RC-135S 61-2663 on the ramp, and was struck with an extraordinary sense of responsibility. I would be part of a team that flies an amazing technical intelligence platform on short-notice launches from one of the world’s most inhospitable locations on a mission of such national importance that its results are often briefed at the highest levels of government. I also fell in love with the black wing, which remains on the CBs to this day as a symbol of the airplane’s importance and legacy.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the type?
“Despite the long association of the 55th at Offutt AFB and the RC-135, the early years of RC-135 operations were developed by other units.
The first ‘135 reconnaissance mission was undertaken on 30th October 1961 by a rapidly modified JKC-135A SPEED LIGHT-ALPHA to monitor the Soviet “Tsar Bomba” atmospheric test at Novaya Zemlya. This was flown by SAC tanker crews (there were subsequent missions) drawn from air refueling squadrons.
The next ‘135 reconnaissance missions were flown in January 1962 by a KC-135A known as NANCY RAE, with crews from Wright-Patterson AFB operating from Shemya AFB, AK. This was later redesignated as a JKC-135A and then WANDA BELLE and finally the RIVET BALL RC-135S. In December 1962 this was joined at Eielson AFB by three KC-135A-II OFFICE BOY COMINT/ELINT platforms.
The three SPEED LIGHT airplanes were based at Offutt AFB beginning in 1963 and assigned to the 34th AREFS, but at this time the 55th SRW still flew RB-47s and was based at Forbes AFB, KS. The 55th did not receive its first RC-135s until it relocated to Offutt in 1966 and acquired the BIG TEAM RC-135B/.
The SAC reconnaissance community is fairly small, and crews served in both units (as did I). It remained a matter of some pride, however, for the 4157th SW (later 6th SW/SRW) that the original RC-135 recon jets (especially those configured for aerial refueling like the RC-135S and KC-135A-II) were not 55th SRW assets. All in good spirits, unless fueled by “spirits.”
Why is it important?
“The RC-135 fleet (and its predecessors) entered service as a strategic peacetime asset, and flew missions as part of the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO). The airplanes served two roles: detection of long-term preparations for any impending attack on the US and its allies, and collection of intelligence data essential to allowing Strategic Air Command (SAC) and its successor to fulfill its Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), the heart of “Deterrence”.
Since DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM in 1990/91, however, the RIVET JOINT mission has faded from view in light of the shift in focus toward “warfighter support” in the seemingly endless conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean and Central America, and events in North Korea and the South China Seas. It’s become increasingly difficult to separate these two peacetime and wartime functions, especially as new technologies alter the environment and platforms.”
Any tips for the new RAF RC-135 crews?
“Learn everything there is to know about your airplane and its mission, no matter what position you’re assigned. What you do is vitally important, and you need to do it very well and without hesitation. Although it may seem that your mission supports combat operations, it is equally essential in preventing unanticipated conflict—you are at the front line of peace. Never lose sight of this dual purpose.”
Worst behaviour you saw on an RC-135 mission or base?
“I see it today at command levels and higher. RC-135s that are intercepted are “victims” of “unsafe and unprofessional” hostile aircraft. This is cowardice to say. For decades reconnaissance aircraft have been intercepted in far more dangerous ways than getting “thumped” over the Baltic. Aircraft (RB-29s, RB-50s, RB-47s, P2Vs, etc.) have been shot down and crews lost. The RC-135 mission is not a business endeavor but a military operation. To reduce it to “unprofessionalism” ignores the critical nature of the mission: if the interceptor forces the RC-135 to go home, the interceptor “wins” and the RC “loses”, which means that the airplane and crew were needlessly put at risk without the fullest confidence from their commanders that they could accomplish the mission safely under extremely hazardous conditions. This is largely due to commander risk aversion—“not on my watch.” Commanders should focus on getting the mission done rather than protecting their promotion opportunities.
There have been only TWO recon collisions since 1946 (a FLANKER clipped a Norwegian P-3—both landed safely, and a PRC J-8 hit a USN EP-3E; the J-8 was lost and the EP-3E compromised). Characterizing every encounter today as “dangerous” belittles real risk and reflects a lack of historical understanding of the mission and its requirements. As the motto says, “Recon is my life, danger is my business.”
Cold War spy flights
What were US recce aircraft doing in the Cold War?
“As I noted in an earlier answer, they had two primary roles: early long-term warning of an impending attack by the USSR and its allies and to acquire intelligence needed to fulfill the deterrent strike mission. Most of this was undertaken by SAC to meet its intelligence requirements, but the US Navy flew a fair number as well, as did USAFE and PACAF in “electric” C-130s. Other nations did too, with both Britain and Sweden building modest but successful programs early on, followed by other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. We shouldn’t forget the CIA missions, including the 24 total U-2 overflights of the USSR (small by comparison to the 156 RB-47 overflights in 1956 alone).”
Was it dangerous? What mistakes were made?
“These were very dangerous missions, not only because the USSR, PRC, and North Korea were willing and able to attack them and shoot them down, but because the airplanes were not always reliable or were too old. Sending RB-29s or RB-50s on missions where they were subject to attack by MiG-15s or MiG-17s was a horrible mismatch. Airplanes also struggled with breaking or other maintenance issues.
No doubt there were ill-considered decisions to undertake specific missions, and the subject of overflights remains highly contentious. In general, however, decision makers in the West acted out of genuine desperation to acquire intelligence they considered critical to the survival of the West in the face of what they saw as an existential communist threat to the liberal capitalist world order.”
What was the legal status of reconnaissance flights?
“Peripheral reconnaissance flights were and are legal under a variety of international agreements (Paris, 1919, Chicago, 1944). Even the USSR accepted that peripheral recon missions were legal, although they justified attacking them on the grounds that they had (or could) violate sovereign airspace, which was just an excuse for their unwarranted actions.
Overflights were a different matter. By themselves they were not a casus belli, a reason to declare war. Neither Eisenhower nor Khrushchev was willing to launch Armageddon over a U-2 overflight. When they met at Camp David in September 1959, the U-2 overflights did not come up. Ike didn’t want to rub them in and Nikita didn’t want to admit vulnerability. Both accepted them as part of espionage in general. As aerial reconnaissance maven Dick Leghorn opined, the world should understand that an overflight is no different than a spy mission, and once the world accepted this there would be a significant reduction in tensions associated with these missions.
Do you think all reconnaissance missions were necessary, ethical and effective?
“All” is such a big basket. In general, they were necessary to reassure Western leaders that the threat from the secretive USSR was only hypothetical. In that case they were both ethical and effective. Conversely, many of the flights led to increased demands for atomic weapons and delivery systems to destroy the—literally—thousands of new targets discovered. U-2s alone added 20,000 designated ground zeros (DGZs) to the potential target list. This led directly to inflated demands for strategic weapons, which Eisenhower correctly criticized (but could not prevent) in his remarks about the military industrial complex using taxpayers’ money to support corporate profits based on unnecessary defense acquisitions driven in large part by intelligence collected from aerial reconnaissance missions.”
What was Britain’s role in Cold War spy flights?
“Britain had a unique place. It served as a base for US peripheral missions from the late 1940s until today. In the early 1950s, RAF crews flew SAC RB-45s seconded to RAF Sculthorpe on nine overflights of the USSR under the JU JITSU and JU JITSU II missions, and allowed one SAC RB-47E overflight of Murmansk in 1954. Britain originally agreed but later rejected to host CIA U-2 operations in 1956, which were relocated to Wiesbaden, FRG, and RAF pilots flew two U-2 overflights of the USSR. The loss of the RB-47H on 1 July 1960 changed the way Britain did business with the US. All future missions were subject to approval by the Prime Minister.”
“Britain had its own aerial reconnaissance capability, known as “radio proving flights” for ELINT and COMINT, and flew high-altitude Canberra PR.9s on peripheral PHOTINT missions. I agree with U-2 expert Chris Pocock and others that the alleged 1953 UK ROBIN overflight of Kapustin Yar is a myth.
In recent years RAF’s 51 Squadron has fulfilled the strategic reconnaissance role, and suffered a terrible loss of life in Afghanistan. I understand the concerns about replacing the aging Nimrod MR.1 ELINT platform with a similarly ancient RC-135 that has less ELINT capability and more COMINT capability.”
Did all spy flights have the overview of national leaders? Did leaders always know what was happening and approve?
“Despite dramatic books, articles, and TV shows to the contrary, there is no verifiable evidence that these missions were undertaken en masse by military commanders intent on provoking World War Three. I believe I thoroughly debunked all of these claims in my book Spyflights and Overflights: US Strategic Aerial Reconnaissance, 1945-1960. As more and more documents are declassified, there is little doubt that Truman and Eisenhower knew about and approved all of US reconnaissance missions, including overflights. Writing in the pages of The New Yorker that Curtis LeMay wanted SAC recon flights to start global war on his terms without any supporting evidence of any kind may sell magazines but it isn’t history and it isn’t true.”
Why did the USSR not fly spy missions above the USA?
“It didn’t have to. To collect information on current B-36 production and operations, for example, Soviet spies operating freely within the United States could drive to Fort Worth and take pictures of the Convair production line or Carswell AFB, count the number of B-36s and their huge nose numbers, and report this to the Kremlin, along with latitude and longitude of everything on base. I recall sitting on alert and being told there was a “watcher” parked off the side of the road near the alert facility. A free society inherently allows foreign intelligence collection.
The USSR did establish a very modest ELINT program, and the loss earlier this year of one such airplane off Syria reflects this long-standing effort that was primarily conducted in the Baltic and around Western aircraft carrier groups.”
Were any spy flights shot down? What happened?
“The first US reconnaissance flight to be shot down (others had been attacked) was a US Navy PB4Y Privateer over the Baltic in April 1950, and the last was a US Navy EC-121 off North Korea in 1969. There are many fine histories of all of these losses, including my own Spyflights and Overflights, as well as By Any Means Necessary, The Price of Vigilance, and The Little Toy Dog.”
It is worth noting that there remains no evidence that any of those airmen who may have survived the loss of their aircraft were incarcerated in Soviet prisons (Taiwan and PRC are a different matter). While there have been reports of survivors, none have been corroborated, and I think it’s a disservice to the crewmen and their families to perpetuate “conspiracy theory” quality claims.
What is the RC-135 and what do they do?
“RCs have three distinct mission:
The RIVET JOINT V/Ws have an ELINT/COMINT mission,
(ELINT or Electronic intelligence is intelligence-gathering by electronic sensors. The purpose is often to assess the capabilities of a target, such as the location and nature of a radar)
the COMBAT SENT Us have a specialised ELINT mission
(According to the USAF website, “The RC-135U Combat Sent provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information to the president, secretary of defense, Department of Defense leaders, and theater commanders. Locating and identifying foreign military land, naval and airborne radar signals, the Combat Sent collects and minutely examines each system, providing strategic analysis for warfighters. Collected data is also stored for further analysis by the joint warfighting and intelligence communities. The Combat Sent deploys worldwide and is employed in peacetime and contingency operations.”)
and the COBRA BALL Ss have a MASINT/TELINT mission.”
(Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) serves to detect, track, identify or describe the signatures (distinctive characteristics) of fixed or dynamic target sources. This often includes radar, acoustic intelligence and nuclear chemical & biological intelligence.)
What should I have asked you?
“My favorite intercept took place on 3 October 1988 while flying RC-135S 61-2662 with Major “Mad Jack” Elliott off Kamchatka. While proceeding northbound in our orbit I noticed a glint well off to the northeast. I followed it a bit, and figured it was an Il-76 on a cargo mission from Anadyr to Petropavlovsk. It disappeared and we continued our orbit. We had a quick visit by a MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ from “Pete”, and then it was all quiet again on a sweet sunny afternoon.
Shortly thereafter (again while heading north) I was stunned as a Tu-16 ‘Badger’ pulled up on our right wingtip in the tightest formation you could imagine. I waved to the pilot and he waved back. I broadcast the required HARVARD message (indicating that we were intercepted in international airspace) and then resumed our mission business. The Tu-16 stayed parked on our wingtip for the two hours or so. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
By this time we still had a lengthy launch window to cover and were running low on fuel, so we left the orbit and sensitive area to head to our tanker. The ‘Badger’ remained tucked into position. As we approached the tanker, their boom operator squeaked over the radio something like:
“COBRA 55 do you know you’re not alone?”
“Roger, we know.”
“What should I do?”
“Well, if he wants gas, give it to him.”
As we moved forward to the pre-contact position I noticed there was now a person with a huge movie camera in the plexiglas dome atop the fuselage aft of the cockpit. He filmed the entire air refueling procedure in close-up detail. After we had received our fuel I motioned for the BADGER to move into the recontact position (visions of a cover photo for Aviation Week danced in my head), but he declined. The pilot waved goodbye and headed south. I sent out our BROTHER message that our escort had departed and that was that!”
“As best as I can guess, the Soviets wanted detailed video of a boom air refueling to evaluate. As we know they stuck with the probe-and-drogue method, but this mission likely provided them with data on how the boom worked.
There was no Soviet ICBM launch that day, and we headed back to The Rock after a 10.2-hour sortie.”
Tell me something most people don’t know about Cold War spy flights?
“There were a lot more than U-2 overflights to Cold War reconnaissance. There were just 24 CIA U-2 overflights of the USSR from 4 July 1956 to 1 May 1960. From March to April 1956 there were 156 RB-47E/H overflights of the USSR, although this was the single largest event.”
Comparatively there were tens of thousands of peripheral reconnaissance missions around the Communist bloc between 1946 and 1992. SAC averaged 50-60 per month at the height of operations, not to mention US Navy and allied-nation flights.
What is a popular myth about aerial reconnaissance?
“The single most popular myth is that these flights threatened the Soviet Union and were, in the words of US diplomat George Kennan, “indistinguishable from a state of war.”
We now know (to quote a book title) that the flights were far less provocative to Soviet leaders. Declassified documents from the Soviet era, interviews, and brilliant scholarship (such as William Taubman’s biography of Khrushchev) show that the flights had little impact beyond irritants and “theater” at the UN or in the pages of the New York Times. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, attacks on Western reconnaissance aircraft began to dwindle as Soviet defense capabilities improved sufficiently to identify and track peripheral missions without the need to attack them. The evidence is compelling, and by 1960 these flights had become so routine that the Soviets could actually predict the exact arrival of WC-135s on daily aerial sampling missions, for example, and these were never considered a threat (the 1960 RB-47H loss was purely political, a decision made by Khrushchev).”
About the pilot
What is your rank and unit, and when did you serve?
“I entered the USAF as a Second Lieutenant in 1984 after commissioning at Officer Training School (“90 Day Wonder”). I had three operational assignments: 70th AREFS at Grissom AFB, IN, 24th SRS at Eielson AFB, AK, and the 38th SRS at Offutt AFB, NE. I separated from the AF as a Captain after returning from DESERT STORM in 1991.”
Which types have you flown?
During training I flew the T-41A, T-37B, and T-38A.
Operationally I flew 17 different types of ‘135 tankers, airborne command posts, and reconnaissance platforms [KC-135A, A(RT) D, E, E(RT) R, Q, EC-135C, G, L, TC-135S, W, and RC-135S, U, V, W, X]
I also flew the T-37B in the Accelerated Copilot Enrichment (ACE) program, and logged pilot time in the OA-37B and F-15D.
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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the sixth and final part of our Mirage special he summarises the immortal Mirage.
Which three words describe the Mirage?
“Reliable, stable and difficult to master.”
Which equipment did pilots want on added to the Mirage III?
“Every Mirage III pilot agrees on what we needed to improve our aircraft:
- A more powerful engine was first
- Flaps and slats to shorten take off and landings and allowing for turning dogfighting.
– Better radar and systems.
– Reduce weight.
In summary, we wanted a Mirage 2000.”
How well-trained and equipped was the Spanish Mirage force?
“Very well. Between 1970 and 1975, every pilot asking to be assigned to 11th Wing needed 1,500 jet flying hours to be accepted. The experience level was high.
When they began to assign fresh lieutenants, and mine was the second group, we had to go through an Initial Training Course comprising about 100 flight hours — on each and every type of mission with special attention to air combat.
We used to log a lot of hours in those years, never less than 200 hours per year, with many months 35 hours or more. I flew two missions per day many times.
Every pilot took two weeks of simulator practices per year. We went to France in six-pilot groups and had six simulator hours each.
So the training was superb, though we could have done more training with dissimilar types and attended more exercises. The only squadron exchanges we had were with French units, flying the Mirage III or F-1, so nothing new.”
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Fast, brutal and unforgiving, the MiG-27 is a formidable Soviet attack aircraft that continues to serve with the Indian Air Force. Hush-Kit spoke to former MiG-27 pilot Anshuman Mainkar about flying and fighting in this ferocious machine known locally as the Bahadur.
What is the best thing about the MiG-27? “She was built for low level flying. No doubt about it, she offered a silk smooth ride down low. And she was fast….I remember a live fire exercise mission flows in card with two French Mirages trailing. On being given a call to push, we engaged afterburners and pulled away from the Mirages, who couldn’t catch up with us after that.”
“She was very fast at low-levels, and her ability to hold steady was superb. With wings swept back fully and speeds exceeding 1000 km/h at low levels, the wings waggled and the noise and vibrations that set in gave an impression of a banshee just freed, screaming with abandon.”
What were you first impressions of flying the MiG-27?
“The MiG-27 you got to fly, after doing dual conversion on the MiG-23UB trainer, which was very different from the MiG-27. Firstly, the MiG-23UB stands with its nose up, making visibility on ground difficult for a short guy like me. I had to use two cushions to prop myself up decently. But the switches and their placement in the cockpit were not very different from a MiG-21 which made things easier. True, it was a different generation, so there were other things to contend with, but similar aesthetics made adjustment easy.
It was heavier than the MiG-21. I remember using both hands to control attitude after retracting flaps on the take-off leg during the initial few sorties. Visibility was generally poor, but cockpit workload during the conversion phase did not leave much room or time to take in the scenery.
The big difference of course, was the variable sweep wings, which you had to control manually in the air. We usually flew at 45 degree sweep, extending the wings to 16 degrees for landing/take-off and to 72 for getaways. During the initial sorties, there were a couple of instances when one forgot to sweep wings. But the aircraft gave a few indications (vibrations, sluggish turning) before the trainer captain got a chance to add your name in the little black book and claim a crate of beer.
The circuit speeds were comparable to the MiG-21, and the landing speeds were a notch lesser, flaring out at approx. 310-300 kmph.
The MiG-27, in comparison was set low, had the duck nose and afforded amazing visibility (in relative terms). Handling was similar, but it was much more fun to fly, also considering the lack of patter from the rear cockpit ☺. It handled nicely, although it was heavier than the MiG-21. She was a little stiff to manoeuvre, but once you got the hang of it, she’d follow you to high heaven. Larger than the MiG-21, she also gave you more time in the air, which was welcome, although, built for low levels, the non-existent air-conditioning below 6000 ft made a huge announcement when you landed, and got out, dripping wet from aircraft.
She was very fast at low-levels, and her ability to hold steady was superb. With wings swept back fully and speeds exceeding 1000 km/h at low levels, the wings waggled and the noise and vibrations that set in gave an impression of a banshee just freed, screaming with abandon.”
Which three words best describe the MiG-27?
“Fast, furious and a true Flogger.”
What is the cockpit like, and how pilot-friendly is it?
“I mention this above (for both the MiG-23UB and the MiG-27). Adding some more. The cockpit was slightly bigger than the MiG-21FL. The seat pan was also bigger, the KM-1M. The throttle and stick were sizeably bigger than the FLs. Visibility was a stark contrast between the MiG-23UB and the -27ML (as described earlier). The MiG 27 visibility was ‘great’ compared to the MiG-23, but having sat in an F-16 as well, I shouldn’t boast too much.
The instrumentation was similar, and its placement resembled that of a MiG 21 – communication, flaps and gear, engine instruments, pneumatic/hydraulic dials were the same make, and their positioning was also similar. This added to the aesthetics. In addition, in the MiG-27, the dials were a tad angled towards the pilot, reducing the parallax error, and making it easier to spot and interpret.
There were adequate warning switches and also the Natasha, (audio warning), which made life simple.”
The aircraft had an extremely powerful gun, what was it like to fire? “After pickling, the aircraft seemingly came to a stand-still, engrossed with its target – tracers creating an illusion of morse communication. Smoke and the smell of cordite entered the cockpit, and in a flash it was all over. 30mm at 5000 rds/min. ‘Surge’ had to be avoided. Plus…the ‘Gasha’ was a six-barrelled Gatling type gun, the airframe shuddered during the trigger pull, and surge was a possibility, hence the exit had to be smooth and deliberate. Hearing the A-10’s infamous BRRRRRT gun sound brings back memories of the MiG-27 to me.”
What was your most notable mission and why?
“I’d gotten disoriented after take-off, recovering at about 500metres above ground level.
But let me talk about a mission that sums up life in a regular fighter squadron, and the small joys that make all the difference. This was a 6 -ship long-distance range strike mission as part of our annual preparedness inspection. The range was approximately 800 km away, involving a flying time of 40 min, followed by recovery at a base close to the armament range. Two squadrons were being inspected at the home base, so there were 12 ac, plus the inspection ships. Since the inspectors were to be the same for both formations, the spacing couldn’t be kept far apart, catering to the limited loiter times for the inspectors.
Take-off was uneventful. We proceeded at medium levels at tactical speeds since we were out of the ‘green period’ for the morning. Radar handovers were okay. We got bounced once, and we managed to evade the threat, having spotted it in time. Having ensured our separation from the earlier formation, we commenced descent and built up separation gradually between the members, altering position as to ensure max situational awareness (SA). I was the last. Ensuring adequate spacing, I settled down at 100m AGL, checked my switches and started accelerating towards the target on cue, trimming constantly to ensure minimum pressure on the stick. Coming off a navigation, I needed to read the ground, correlate it with my map, adjust heading, cross-check spacing with the guy in front, check engine parameters, speeds, switches, trimming the aircraft finely to ensure no inadvertent ‘g’ forces during trigger press. This process was repeated, but faster each time, as the target approached. A minute out, I started scanning for the target, trying to align myself with it, to reduce any deflection errors. 45” to go, at the right speed, switches checked, I spotted the white dot which represented the target. It appeared huge by comparison, or maybe the focus was so intense that I blacked out everything else. I gave the 30” LIVE call indicating my position and intention to fire to the Range Officer, marking the target on ground. Speed was +10, height was +10 metres…which meant a nudge-back on the throttle lever (mentally prepared to push this back up, in a couple of seconds, such was the response time of the jet) and a slight trim forward, aligned to the target, master switch on, trigger cover pulled up, trimmer locked. Now there would be no more check on speed or alignment. The entire focus was on a smooth ride-up to the base of the target, keeping the fingers around the stick as light as possible, with the right index finger ready to pickle. I can still remember the gentle coaxing to get the gunsight move up towards the target steadily. Once it got to the base of the target, a pause, just as I had imagined the scene from the workstation that morning…trigger press and a hollered ‘FAAAIIRRRE!’. I immediately selected safe switches, pulled back, throttled back to get the aircraft back to tactical speeds, checked engine parameters, heard the weapon sighted call from the Range Officer and began a scan for the member in front.
Five minutes later, with the adrenalin still flowing (a double shot actually, given the flying plus the range-work), 14 aircraft got into the landing pattern. Recovering thirsty aircraft was a delicate operation. There was just about enough fuel to reach the primary diversion, and with each minute, the point of no return was approaching fast. What you did not want to hear was a call of ‘runway blocked’! With fingers crossed in spite of the cockpit workload and the scanning for multiple aircraft in the circuit pattern, the adrenalin kept pumping till I call finals and landed, literally panting for fuel. Upon opening the canopy after switching off the jet, there were my squadron mates lined up. An exceptional score gets you that sort of adulation, especially when not many can boast of the feast. Given the seriousness of the mission, it was absolutely the best feeling in the world.”
Which new piece of equipment would you have most liked have seen integrated on the MiG-27? “A few of our ML machines have got a Mid-Life Upgrade, equipping them with HUD and a navigation/avionics suite which was far better than what we map-bound warriors had to contend with. So, I think for the generation that it represented, the upgrade gave it the best possible facelift. As someone who has come out with a sore behind on multiple occasions after long duration missions, I wouldn’t insist on in-flight refuelling”
“In my opinion, it is the only fighter which has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency.”
What are worst things about the MiG-27?
“At a time counted as one of the most powerful single-engined fighters in the world, it has a few teething issues with the power-plant, but that also had to do with age / engine rating / maintenance issues. In my opinion, it is the only fighter which has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency.
But a real issue was the air-conditioning, which only kicked in climbing past 6000’. At low-levels it’s hot / hotter / hottest temperature settings (as fondly known in the IAF) did not offer much respite.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the aircraft – Did you know it waggles along its longitudinal axis (nose to tail) at high speeds at max sweep, esp. at low levels. Resembles the rifling of a bullet.
How fast was the MiG-27?
- Climbing – decent
- Low level max speed – I’ve crossed 1100 kmph
- High level max speed – supersonic at 10 km altitude (air-test profile)
What’s the best way to avoid or defeat an F-16? A MiG 27, being a striker, is likely to be escorted into adversary territory. However, if it had to contend with an F-16, defensive manoeuvring towards a low level quick getaway would be the ideal choice.
Which aircraft have you trained against, which was the hardest opponent and why? “A good pilot, even in a MiG 27 can make a big difference. Basically any opponent who can exploit the manoeuvre envelope the best, and make optimal use of the energy. If you can build an edge for the first 30”, you have the close combat wrapped up – either dominating or escaping. That said, I found the Su-30 daunting, versatile and dominating in almost any situation.”
What’s your favourite piece of equipment on the MiG-27 and why? “Its undercarriage. Designed like a piece of art, fits like a glove. — and sturdy to boot.”
What advice would you have given a new pilot coming onto the MiG-27? “Respect her, listen to her, and she’ll treat you right.”
How high was the pilot workload? “Considerable, given that she was heavy to handle, low-level work required a lot of outside scan, and her age demanded a judicious amount of internal monitoring as well. And of course, no HUD and Nav goodies meant that outside cockpit workload was also considerable, making maps, plans and rehearsing profiles. But it was worth it!”
How combat effective was the MiG-27? “In today’s age, you can’t expect much out of them. But their systems were well designed and it was a strike pilot’s dream – for its day and age. It delivered the payload well!”
What is the greatest myth about the aircraft? “Low reliability. True, they required maintenance, but aside from the engine (explained above), they behaved and performed relatively well, given the analog systems and equipment on board. The Russians built good stuff!”
Has the MiG-27 been kept in service for too long? “Yes. The IAF is probably the only AF operating these. So, as a philosophy and platform, it is obsolete. However, the upgrade version is a potent platform, and should render decent service, within its mandates scope.”
How would you rate the MiG-27 in the following: (1 to 5; 5 being a high score)
- Instantaneous turn rate – 2
- Sustained turn rate – 3
- Weapon accuracy – 3 (4 – upgrade)
- Survivability – 2 (3 – upgrade)
What was the MiG-27s role in the Kargil War and how well did it perform? “Strike. The terrain did not allow conventional weapon delivery, so limited effectiveness. However, LGB employability could be done, provided the target was painted by another platform.”
Were spare parts always available as required? Serviceability was maintained at about 60-70%, with decent flying, ensured by good planning process, and subsequently a phase-out plan ensured that even the last non-upgrade unit maintained its operational status. The MiG 27 upgrade units are still flying decently.
Which aircraft do you fly and with which unit, how many do you hours do you have on type?
“MiG 21FL (Type 77 in India) with ‘OCU AF’ (Operational Conversion Unit) and with 8 Sqn, AF (Eighth Pursoot). These tenures were part of my MiG Operational Flying Training (MOFT) stint, which followed advanced Jet training, and preceded a posting to operational squadrons of the IAF. I flew these from Mid-2004 till Dec-2005, approx. 150hrs.
MiG 27ML with 18 Sqn AF (Flying Bullets), 222 Sqn AF (Tigersharks) and 22 Sqn AF (Swifts) as operational pilot from Jan 2006 till May 2012. However, I was off flying from mid-2011 due to a cervical spine injury. I subsequently got out of the AF in mid 2014. I flew these ac for approx. 600 hrs”
What should I have asked you? I think you were comprehensive.
Photographs: photographs by Kedar Karmarkar & Anshuman Mainkar
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