Can we talk?

Posted by Lex, on November 15, 2006

Yep. Now we can.

After decades of secrecy, Air Force officials acknowledged Nov. 13 that Communist-built fighters were flown at the Tonopah Test Range northwest of Las Vegas, Nev.

From 1977 through 1988, the program, known as Constant Peg, saw Air Force, Navy and Marine aircrews flying against Soviet-designed MiG fighters as part of a training program where American pilots could better learn how to defeat or evade the Communist bloc’s fighters of the day.

Constant Peg was good, clean, old-fashioned fun. The pilots the USAF chose for this program – Air Force and Navy – were among the best their services had to offer, test pilots for the most part. I don’t know how the rest of them did in their careers, but the lieutenant commander I fought against back when I was a lieutenant is a hot-tracking flag officer today. He was a damn good stick back then, so I know that it’s possible to be both a good officer and a good pilot. I also know that while it’s possible, it’s hard. Or at least it was for me, anway.

It was pretty cool to get “read in” to this program – you felt special, trusted. Cooler still was the day your name popped up on the flight schedule for an actual mission. After a high speed tactical intercept – you never quite get over that shot of adrenaline you get hitting the merge with an actual MiG-21 for the first time – came a side-by-side performance comparison and familiarization. For my own part, I only ever flew against the MiG-21 Fishbed, never the -17 or Flogger. Which was OK by me because the Fishbed was far the better performer in a knife-fighting pilot’s favorite room: The “phone booth.”

As an adversary pilot we used the subsonic A-4 Skyhawk as a good slow-speed simulator of the Fishbed, and the F-5 Tiger II as it’s high speed equivalent. But there was nothing like hitting the merge on your full-up, high aspect hop agains the real item, himself doing 1.1 in a flash as he passed your wingline, climbing into a nose high, high g hard turn. We were taught in those days to try and keep the Fishbed at a distance, the better to use our all-aspect weapons. But that was a risky game plan too, for it was a real sportscar – little more than a minimalist cockpit atop an engine – very hard to see beyond three miles or so nose-on and not much more than that in planform. The MiG-21 had been a stern teacher of visual lookout techniques in the air war over Vietnam: It was the jet that had taught our our Vietnam predecessors that losing sight meant losing the fight – knowledge that they had passed down to those of us who followed them, after they got out of the POW camps.

With a clear lane of fire and ROE satisfied the MiG-21 was no real threat against a radar and radar missile equipped Hornet or Tomcat – it was just a high speed missile sponge. But if for some reason the Fishbed survived to the merge for a close-in fight, manned by a pilot who knew what he was doing,  it could be a handful, a highly potent adversary even for its much more expensive and high tech opponents. You didn’t get many mistakes. Even one could be humbling.

That was the point.

So, another program declassified. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you where they’re keeping Elvis.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. – Sun Tzu


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