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John Dibbs traveled to Bulgaria last

year, where he captured its fully armed
MiG-21s, since retired, in all their
Soviet glory. The type has been the
“the enemy” for many generations of
fighter pilots. (Photo by John Dibbs/

If the United States has developed fighters that

have staying power over many years—the venerable
F-4, F-15, and F-16 come to mind—then the Russian
MiG-21 must surely share that space. The MiG-
21 made its public debut in a Soviet air display
in 1956. Known as an air-to-air missile fighter,
the MiG-21 can also wage war with an internally
mounted 23mm cannon. Some like to call the MiG-
21 the “AK-47 of jet fighters.” Like the famed short
Soviet rifle, the MiG-21 has proven to be both lethal
and long-lived around the world.

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Just as avionics and weapons a short-range interceptor relying on
updates have kept the F-15 and F-16 ground radars for vectoring to its aerial
Along with the potent into the 21st century, the target. Under these circumstances,
AK-47, the venerable MiG-21 has been the subject the MiG-21's prominent shock cone
MiG-21 captures of upgrades that keep it in contention nose inlet, which inhibited the use
the essence of
brutally lethal today. The Soviets readily exported of long-range onboard radar, was not
simplicity, making MiG-21s to many nations, from viewed as a detriment. The MiG-21 is
it the perfect Europe to Asia. MiG-21s still serve at a lightweight fighter that achieves
low-dollar fighter
for small countries.
least 15 countries worldwide, ranging Mach 2 and enjoys good maneuver-
(Photo courtesy of from Cuba to Croatia and Romania. ability. It is sometimes compared to
Barrett Tillman) The basic MiG-21 was conceived as the F-5 and F-104 in performance.

with U.S. doctrine of the era, the Soviets built Rat-racing Romanian MiG-21
MiG-21 Development and U.S. Alabama Air National
The progenitor of all MiG-21s the prototype some of this model without an internal cannon, Guard F-16 turn classic
called “Ye-2,” an ambitious jet with a swept relying solely on missiles. The Fishbed F intro- Cold War tensions into the
wing. It first flew on a February day in 1955. duced a side-hinging canopy and blown flaps. camaraderie of newfound
Some Fishbed F models could mount an external allies. The realistic training
Performance fell short of the intended Mach 2 took place near Campia
speed, and the design evolved into a delta-wing gun pod ventrally. Turzii, Romania, in October
planform, retaining a traditional horizontal tail An old aeronautical engineering truism is 2015. (USAF photo by SSgt.
the pound-a-day diet, the rate at which aircraft Matthew Bruch, courtesy of
as well. Subsequent test iterations up to Ye-6 Johnsen Collection)
yielded the basic MiG-21 form. By 1959–60, designs seem to gain weight to meet evolving
the Soviet Air Force was flying a small batch of mission requirements, sometimes at the sacrifice
MiG-21F variants armed with two 30mm can- of performance. The MiG-21 was not immune
nons. This model carried the Soviet Air Force from this phenomenon, and versions of it built
designation “Type 72” and the NATO identifica- into the 1970s included the MiG-21M (Fishbed
tion name of “Fishbed B.” H) and MiG-21MF, with more fuel capacity and
By 1962, Warsaw Pact nations were receiving more ordnance hardpoints. In 1980, during the
deliveries of the improved MiG-21F-13, Type 74 Iran-Iraq War, a MiG-21MF was credited with
(Fishbed C), featuring an enlarged ventral fin downing an Iranian F-14.
and a change in canopy design. The C model An unpopular attempt at increasing fuel
carried only one cannon but had two underwing capacity was the development of the large dorsal
hardpoints that could load air-to-air or air-to- saddle tank of the MiG-21SMT (Fishbed K).
ground missiles; this would prove to be a fortu- This Soviet Air Force model had degraded flight
itous advancement for the aircraft. Iterations of qualities, and some were later converted to ones
the MiG-21F set the tone. with a smaller dorsal spine and identified as
The MiG-21PF (Fishbed D) enlarged a number “MiG-21ST,” externally similar to the subse-
of airframe features, including the nose cone quent MiG-21bis.
and ventral fin, to accommodate radar develop- MiG-21bis variants (Fishbed L and N) were
ments and fuel tankage, respectively. In parallel produced in the early 1970s, and powered by

December 2018 25
Seen from this angle, the MiG-21 is easily seen as a simplistic tube, with
air coming in the front and blowing out the back, with minimal accom-
modations for a crew. The Mach 2 fighter is still a formidable opponent in
a close-in knifefight. (Photo by John Dibbs/
The Iranian Air Force initially the Tumansky R-25-300 turbojet engine. speeds beyond 1,300mph compared to the
purchased MiG-21s from
Ever-improving avionics and fuel capacity F-5A’s 945mph best, the MiG and the Phantom
Germany, but politics pre-
vented their delivery, so produced MiG-21 variants up to the Fishbed are close rivals in the top end of the speed range.
they purchased a Chinese N. Soviet production of the MiG-21 ended in Classic MiG-21 performance is provided by
derivative: the Chengdu 1985, with more than 10,600 having been built. a single Tumansky turbojet engine producing
F7. (Photo courtesy of
Tom Cooper) Chinese Chengdu variants rolled off the as- 12,000 to 16,000 pounds of thrust, more than
sembly line from 1966 until 2013, adding about the airplane’s empty weight in some instances.
2,400 more airframes to the tally, and India The MiG-21 is characterized by those who flew
constructed 657 license-built MiG-21s, while it as agile, with a low radar signature. The
Czechoslovakia built 194 of the fighters. MiG-21 could be decidedly harder to see than
larger fighters. A good thrust-to-weight ratio
The MiG-21 Goes to War enhanced the MiG-21’s acceleration. Top speed
While American military planners studied the is generally listed at about 1250–1350mph for
MiG-21 as a potential adversary in the event various models.
of direct conflict with the Soviet Union, the The MiG-21’s embracing of the Soviet “Atoll”
MiG-21 in real-world skies made headlines over infrared guided missile was a lethal marriage.
Vietnam, the Middle East, and India-Pakistan. The Atoll is a Soviet copy of the American
The MiG-21 has a wingspan of 25 feet and a AIM-9 Sidewinder. “Atoll” is its NATO designa-
length of 55 to 57 feet, depending on the model. tion; its nomenclature is listed as K-13 or AA-2.
The Northrop F-5A spans 25 feet 3 inches and Its reverse engineering is the stuff of Cold War
has a length of 47 feet 2 inches. The F-4 Phan- cliffhangers in popular literature. The prevail-
tom II spans 38 feet 5 inches and has a length ing story says that a Taiwanese F-86 purportedly
of 63 feet. And while the MiG-21 can achieve launched a Sidewinder at a communist Chinese

aircraft over the Taiwan Strait in 1958. Accord- time, and North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots per-
ing to the story, the missile did not explode and fected a hit-and-run stern attack in which they
remained lodged in the communist airframe. launched Atoll missiles and departed quickly.
The Chinese turned it over to their Soviet allies, The USAF produced a running-narrative syn-
and its secrets were plumbed and copied. (Addi- opsis of the war as it unfolded, called “CHECO,”
tionally, a Swedish spy is said to have furnished or Contemporary Historical Evaluation of
Sidewinder details to the Soviets, but the Combat Operations. An entry for November
reverse-engineering story prevails in some popu- 1967 tersely describes the scene: “Three F-105s
lar accounts. Evidently lost to popular history and one F-4 were shot down by MIG-21s in the
is the name of the adroit person whose task was vicinity of Yen Bay. All of the MIGs used similar
the removal of the presumably armed Side- tactics, each attacking from the rear with a
winder from the Chinese airframe.) single hit-and-run firing pass.”
The Atoll proved as lethal as the American A serious setback to North Vietnam’s MiG-21
missile that gave rise to it, as American fliers operations came in January 1967 when USAF
learned to their dismay over Vietnam. The U.S. Col. Robin Olds performed a masterful feint
Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Navy (USN) quickly in which missile-armed F-4s mimicked the
had to go to school to master ways of defeating expected actions of F-105 bombers, thereby lur-
North Vietnamese fighters, including MiG-21s. ing MiG-21s to engage. The USAF mission was
Combat rules of engagement imposed on the called “Operation Bolo.”
U.S. warplanes included visual contact with the In the ensuing melee, the North Vietnamese
enemy, which negated some of the advantages Air Force lost nearly half its operational MiG-21
of American long-range missiles. The size of the inventory, with USAF Phantoms reporting no
MiG-21 fleet was never very large at any one losses of their own. The numbers are sometimes

December 2018 29

The Vietnam People’s Air disputed, but North Vietnam had about 16 MiG- time. USN pilots in F-8 Crusaders accounted for
Force (VPAF) operated a 21s in its inventory at that time, and anywhere four Fishbeds, while Navy F-4 fliers were victori-
number of MiG-21s, but from 11 to 14 of them were involved in the ous over 14 MiG-21s.
it is reported they never
numbered more than several
battle that day. The USAF logged seven MiG-21s India became the third largest operator of
dozen. (Photo courtesy of downed; North Vietnamese sources claimed only MiG-21s, with more than 1,200 in service to
Barrett Tillman) five of their supersonic interceptors were lost. that country over the years. During its conflict
The feint caused a stand-down in North Viet- with Pakistan in 1971, Indian MiG-21s downed
namese MiG-21 operations; clearly such losses a number of aircraft, including a Pakistani F-104
could not be sustained repeatedly. By the time Starfighter. As recently as 1999, Indian Air Force
There have been reports that the United States withdrew from Vietnam in MiG-21s downed a Pakistani Breguet Atlantic
Russians and/or Chinese
pilots manned some of the 1973, the USAF had downed 68 North Viet- patrol plane that had apparently entered
VPAF MiGs. (Photo courtesy namese MiG-21s in aerial combat, as attrition Indian airspace.
of Barrett Tillman) was replaced by more of the Soviet fighters over MiG-21s found their way to the United States
during the Cold War, including an
example furnished by Israel in 1967.
The then-secret evaluations of the
MiG-21 against U.S. fighters were
undertaken over vast and remote
Nevada test ranges. To minimize the
likelihood of knowledge about the
MiG-21 tests going public, the Fishbed
was given the U.S. nomenclature
“YF-110,” which had originally been
applied to USAF Phantoms before they
were redesignated as “F-4.”

Fishbeds over the Middle East

Israel gained valuable information
about the MiG-21 when, in August
1966, an Iraqi pilot defected with his
fighter, which the Israelis later made
available to the United States.
In April 1967, an aerial altercation
over the Golan Heights saw Israeli
Dassault Mirage IIIs down six Syrian
MiG-21s without loss of their own.
Countries in the region that operated
MiG-21s most often involved in these
combats were Syria and Egypt. In an un-
usual twist, two Israeli claims of victory
over MiG-21s represented North Korean
jets that were deployed to help Egypt
during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In July 1977, Ethiopian Air Force
Northrop F-5s battled Somali MiG-21s
over disputed territory. This classic com-
bat matchup of two similarly capable
export fighters saw the Ethiopians’
Northrops emerge victorious. Some
accounts say Ethiopian F-5s downed
nine MiG-21s and a pair of MiG-17s
while suffering no losses.
When Iraq went to war with Iran on
Sept. 22, 1980, the Iraqi Air Force had
MiG-21s to combat Iranian aircraft,
which included F-5Es. Two days later,
the two types of fighters met, and an
Iraqi MiG-21 went down. Iran began
using its F-5s as fighter-bombers in
an effort to destroy Iraq’s oil-derived
income. Over the next three years, Iraqi
MiG-21s and Iranian F-5s occasionally
challenged each other, with both sides
achieving victories.
In the first Gulf War, which the
United States waged against Iraq in
1990–91, Iraq still mustered some MiG-
21s into the fight. On January 17, 1991,
two USN F/A-18s from squadron VFA-81
downed a pair of MiG-21s that chal-
lenged the Hornets during a bombing
mission. One MiG-21 succumbed to an
AIM-7 missile, the other to an AIM-9.
Then on February 6, a single USAF
F-15C shot down two Iraqi MiG-21s by
firing AIM-7 missiles at them. The MiGs
were providing fighter escort for Su-25
ground-attack aircraft.

MiG-21s in the 21st Century

The post–Cold War Romanian Air Force,
One of the first things men- The 1967 Arab-Israeli War (Six-Day War) now aligned with NATO, faced funding short-
tioned by Western pilots who saw combat involving MiG-21s. Perhaps better ages and had old Fishbeds that seemed insuf-
have flown the MiG-21 is
the lack of forward visibility, trained, Israeli pilots in Mirage IIIs continued to ficient to meet 21st-century air-policing duties.
which is obvious in this view. hold their own against Egyptian and Syrian MiG- Romania sourced an upgrade produced by Israeli
The gunsight is surrounded 21s. During some 25 encounters between Mirages contractors that generated the MiG-21 LanceR
by flight gauges severely
hampering the pilot’s vision.
and Fishbeds, homing missiles were disappoint- out of more than 100 of the aging MiG-21s.
(Photo by John Dibbs/ ing. Israeli victories at that time were mostly Western avionics for adverse weather and accomplished with cannon fire. night flying were added, as were a radar-warning
Lists of Israeli aerial victories have been com- receiver and HOTAS (hands on throttle and
piled, indicating that more than 400 MiG-21s stick) controls. HOTAS makes many of the
were downed by Israeli pilots between 1966 and fighter’s functions accessible via buttons on the
1982. According to researcher Jan J. Safarik, the control stick and throttle, allowing the pilot
Israeli fighters involved in those combats have to keep both hands on those primary controls
ranged from Mirage IIIs to the Super Mystère, without removing them and searching the cock-
an aged Ouragan, the potent F-4E Phantom II, pit for controls located elsewhere. This can be a
Nesher (Mirage V), F-15, Kfir (in a victory claim game changer in the fog of battle. The Romanian
shared with an F-15), and F-16. LanceR pilot is also capable of using a helmet-

Much smaller than most of mounted display, further bringing the MiG-21 of recent Draken support operations indicates the
its adversaries, the MiG-21 into the 21st century. company’s other aircraft, including A-4 Skyhawks
nonetheless takes “simple”
to a lethal level. (Photo by
The Romanian MiG-21 LanceR-A model is and L-39s, have shouldered much of those duties.
John Dibbs/ optimized for ground attack and takes advantage In Mojave, California, the civilian National Test
of the Rafael Litening targeting pod, which Pilot School (NTPS) took delivery of a two-place
offers FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and TV HD MiG-21UM in January 2018. The jet will provide
color camera imagery. The Romanian C model varied third-generation jet-fighter capabilities to
shoulders the air-to-air mission, sporting a new the instructors and students at the school. It is a
Elta EL/M-2032 pulse Doppler radar in the MiG’s former Czech Air Force aircraft, circa 1972.
characteristic air-intake spike. The Mojave MiG was expected to fly with
Romania has drawn down its remaining fleet of students by October 2018, following a lengthy
MiG-21s, with used F-16s coming on line. maintenance and FAA airworthiness certification
In the United States, Draken International process. Instructor pilot Jim Brown’s previous
of Lakeland, Florida, amassed more than two experiences include service as an F-5 aggressor
dozen late-model MiG-21 fighters from Poland pilot, during which he used his jet to simulate the
as part of their fleet of jet fighters from interna- MiG-21. Now, flying the real deal MiG-21, Brown
tional sources. Draken makes aircraft available for says, “It flies very similar to the F-5.”
research and simulation projects. A quick review Brown says that most students currently in

test-pilot training have operational experience do their craft.
in fourth-generation fighters, like the F-16 or The manual MiG requires varied control
Eurofighter Typhoon. These jets’ sophisticated inputs to maintain longitudinal and lateral
flight-control systems can tame some of the stability throughout its flight range, and test-
rough edges that the older MiG-21 still exhibits pilot students must learn how to quantify those
in flight. “They’ve never flown an airplane that control inputs if they are to conduct meaningful
flies lousy,” Brown explains. Not that the MiG- test research. It’s not enough to just yank and
21 is lousy, he says, but “it requires more finesse. bank; test pilots must use an esteemed tool of
You can put it out of control quite easily.” the flight tester, the Cooper-Harper rating scale,
The Mach 2+ MiG-21 of NTPS will share the which enables a test pilot to give numerical
same supersonic airspace corridors used by value to the way an aircraft handles. Students
nearby Edwards Air Force Base. “We have a need will learn to do that in the MiG-21.
to teach students what an airplane does as it If the MiG-21 is an aging Cold War relic, don’t
transitions from subsonic, through transonic, tell that to the pilots who fly it in air forces
to supersonic,” Brown says. Plus, this is a classic around the world—or to their potential adver-
Soviet-era jet. “Some of the design philosophies saries, who must keep a healthy respect for the
are different,” Brown explains, and that gives fighter today. 
test-pilot students valuable insight into how to

December 2018 35