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Constant Peg

For years, rumors persisted that Soviet-bloc warplanes were being secretly tested by the US. In March 1998, three decades after American pilots flew the MiG-21 in US skies, the USAF allowed details – and some pictures – to become public. By then, numerous accounts had appeared in the press.

After decades of secrecy, the Air Force acknowledged 23 November 2006 that it flew Communist-built fighters at the Tonopah Test Range northwest of Las Vegas. From 1977 through 1988, the program, known as Constant Peg, saw US 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.

As a result of marginal performance of American fighter forces in the skies over North Vietnam, Constant Peg complemented other revolutionary training programs such as Red Flag, Top Gun and the Air Force and Navy-Marine aggressor squadrons. The program also was intended to eliminate the "buck fever" or nervous excitement many pilots experience on their first few combat missions. Historical experience indicated that pilots who survived their first 10 missions were much more likely to survive a complete combat tour, and Constant Peg was intended to teach them the right "moves" to enable them to come out on top of any engagement.

The Groom Lake program, instituted in the mid-1970s was highly successful and used a series of code names prefixed by Have-. The word `Have’ in project names such as HAVE DOUGHNUT (MiG-21) or HAVE BLUE (the prototype for the F-117 stealth fighter) simply mark the project as belonging to AFSC. The aircraft bore US designations prefixed by YF- with numbers ranging from around 110 to 118 with letter suffixes. For example, YF-114C may have been a MiG-17F used in the Have Ferry program.

HAVE DOUGHNUT, HAVE DRILL and HAVE FERRY should be seen in the context of their times. In the US, conflict between a conservative regime and a growing number of anti-Vietnam protesters had spread from the campuses to the streets, and federal agencies were secretly investigating the loyalty of American citizens. In the skies of North Vietnam, MiG-17s and MiG-21s (especially the MiG-21s) were performing well against American warplanes.

Flight testing of the MiGs took place at the US airbase at Groom Lake, Nevada. Built in the 1950s as a test site for the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, and known then as ‘the Ranch’, Groom Lake has been closed to press and public ever since. Officials will not discuss the base. This has led to speculation on everything from a super-secret Aurora spy plane to little green aliens kept in bottles neither of which ever existed. Other names for the location, such as ‘Area 51', are the work of imaginative sensationalists.

The base is part of a vast complex in Nevada which includes the Nellis test range and the National Test Site, the latter term a euphemism for the US nuclear test location. The USAF’s position on the source of the MiGs is that “International agreements preclude release of this information." As to where the aircraft were tested, the official USAF position is that they “were examined and tested at secure locations in order to maintain security and secrecy." The tests were the responsibility of the Foreign Technology Division of Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), a predecessor of today’s Air Force Materiel Command.

As for the secret base at Groom Lake (today serviced by a US government civilian contract ‘airline’ operating from McCarran airport in Las Vegas), it should be noted that there is almost certainly a great deal less at the base than some fanciful accounts suggest. Although the concept of a ‘black program’ did not exist in the 1960s (it came along in the late 1970s with the first efforts at developing stealth aircraft), there was nothing new about the USAF testing a potential foe’s aircraft in secret.

During the Cold War-era US pilots wanted to be able to test their mettle against what they could possibly face in combat during the time. They wanted to train against, and with, the MiG-17 and MiG-21 Soviet-built fighters. This MiG training came in the activation of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron. It was initially equipped with two MiG-17s and six MiG-21s. At the same time, the squadron was building up a flotilla of MiG-23s.

Constant Peg afforded pilots an opportunity to learn how to fight enemy aircraft in a controlled, safe environment, without having to endure the risks of actual air combat. Typically a pilot would start with a basic familiarization flight to observe the enemy airplane and study its characteristics, practicing one-on-one defensive and offensive maneuvers against it, and finally, experience multi-bogey engagements high over the desert scrubland of the Nellis Air Force Base ranges.

As a result of marginal performance of American fighter forces in the skies over North Vietnam, Constant Peg complemented other revolutionary training programs such as Red Flag, Top Gun and the Air Force and Navy-Marine aggressor squadrons. The program also was intended to eliminate the "buck fever" or nervous excitement many pilots experience on their first few combat missions. Historical experience indicated that pilots who survived their first 10 missions were much more likely to survive a complete combat tour, and Constant Peg was intended to teach them the right "moves" to enable them to come out on top of any engagement.

Some fell into the hands of Israeli airfores on 12 August 1968, when the Syrian Air Force pilots during a training flight off with the course and mistakenly landed at an Israeli airport (by some reports, the Syrians were misled by the Israelis in their uplink radio commands in Arabic). Initially, two MiG-17 aircraft were flown by Israeli Air Force pilots, then in 1969 with fighter MiG-21F, they were sent to the United States in exchange for a commitment to the United States to replenish Israel weapons after the Six Day “War.

The end of the Cold War and agreements with countries which had acquired Soviet aircraft proved a bonanza for the intelligence agents who were tasked with acquiring foreign hardware. At the maximum force structure, 27 airplanes that were flyable. Aircraft had been acquired from defecting pilots, by capture, and by purchase. As the program matured, the number of aircraft in the fleet grew as did the types. The addition of these new aircraft allowed the fighter pilots to receive the training they wanted.

Threat aircraft flown by the Red Eagles spanned several decades and technical generations of capability. There was the MiG-17 Fresco, a small, agile single-seat transonic fighter placed in service just after the Korean War and used extensively over Vietnam and the Middle East; the MiG-21 Fishbed, a high supersonic fighter used worldwide in large numbers; and the swing-wing MiG-23 Flogger, likewise in global service, an attempt by the Soviets to match the sophisticated capabilities of the F-4 Phantom.

Although it came too late to influence Vietnam, Constant Peg training greatly influenced the success of American airmen in Operation Desert Storm, who shot down 40 Iraqi fighters, many of which were Fishbeds and Floggers.

The end of Constant Peg nearly coincided with the end of the Cold War, by which time some of its "graduates" had already proven themselves in actual air combat. Threat aircraft flown by the Red Eagles spanned several decades and technical generations of capability. There was the MiG-17 Fresco, a small, agile single-seat transonic fighter placed in service just after the Korean War and used extensively over Vietnam and the Middle East; the MiG-21 Fishbed, a high supersonic fighter used worldwide in large numbers; and the swing-wing MiG-23 Flogger, likewise in global service, an attempt by the Soviets to match the sophisticated capabilities of the F-4 Phantom. Although it came too late to influence Vietnam, Constant Peg training greatly influenced the success of American airmen in Operation Desert Storm, who shot down 40 Iraqi fighters, many of which were Fishbeds and Floggers.

The MiG-21 and the two MiG-17s were flown extensively by Air Force and navy pilots. The MiG-17s were camouflaged, and the MiG-21 flew in natural finish with the US national insignia on both sides of the nose (but not on the wings) and the number ‘90865’ on the tail.

IR tests were conducted between the T-39A and the two MiG-17s. Although the USAF claims the external appearance of the IR test T-39A was never classified, no photo of the aircraft appears to have surfaced. Both the MiG-21 and a MiG-17 subsequently flew against a T-39A (59-2871) with a different type of radiometer extending from the starboard side of the fuselage but without the ATR-1 unit’s distinctive hump. It is unclear whether these subsequent tests were conducted by the same T-39A, after modifications, or whether the ATR-1-equipped Sabreliner was a different aircraft.

Although the tests were never made public and although they apparently revealed little which had not been learned the previous year at Groom Lake airmen at Phu Cat were able to take snapshots of the MiGs. Testing the MiG Returning to the Nevada tests in 1968 (MiG-21) and 1969 (MiG-17), all three aircraft were put through flight testing. The USAF will not disclose names of pilots or maintainers involved in the MiG tests. Some belonged to the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC).

Some of the pilots’ comments are thoughtful and sensible – for example: “The cockpit of the aircraft was an antiquated design. It was not possible to enter or exit the cockpit with any degree of urgency. The pilot had to step on the seat type parachute, which was an integral part of the seat. It was then necessary to support himself with his hands on the canopy rails while threading his feet onto the rudder pedal stirrups. It required an average of two minutes to don the parachute harness and hook up the necessary personnel leads after entering the cockpit. The seat was actuated electrically for proper positioning. The rudder pedals were adjusted manually before entering the cockpit. The cockpit was small and it would be difficult for pilots over 6ft (1.8m) tall and well built to fly the aircraft comfortably. The cockpit was approximately the same size as the F-86F (Sabre), with less leg-room."

It is known from various sources that some of the MiG pilots were USAF Col Robert `Bobby’ Bond (who later flew A-7Es in Southeast Asia), Navy Cdr Marland W ‘Doc’ Townsend (an F-4 Phantom II pilot), Navy Cdr Tom Cassidy (a future admiral), and Navy Cdr Foster S ‘Tooter’ Teague (who later commanded a carrier air wing in Vietnam).

Yak-23

In the early 1950s, the USAF tested a Yakovlev Yak-23 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, before packing the fighter into a C-124 Globemaster and returning it to a co-operative owner in Eastern Europe. Tests of the Yak-23 (carried out before the creation of Air Standards Co-ordinating Committee names, which later made the aircraft a Flora) remained secret for more than 40 years after they took place.

MiG-15

Not long after the MiG-21 and MiG-17 tests in Nevada, the USAF somehow found a way to ‘borrow’ a MiG-15UTI Midget two-seat trainer and MiG-17 Fresco from the Cambodian Air Force for evaluation. In complete secrecy, the aircraft were flown from Phnom Penh to Phu Cat Air Base, South Vietnam, where they were tested in late 1970.

MiG-17 / YF-114C / HAVE DRILL

The Russian MiG-17 Fresco was first obtained from the Israelis after two Syrians mistakenly landed in Israel. They were used in the Have Drill program. YF-114C may have been a MiG-17F used in the Have Ferry program. One of the MiG-17 aircraft was used in military training centdr Navy pilots (Top gun).

HAVE DRILL was the term for American tests of the older MiG-17F Fresco-C jet fighter (a Polish-assembled LIM-5 serial 1007-18, made largely from Soviet-manufactured components (and wearing bort, or nose, number `055') which took place the following year, between January 27 and June 30, 1969. The USAF simultaneously evaluated a second MiG-17F (serial number not provided, number `002') in a concurrent project HAVE FERRY.

Even after 20 years (in 1988), an acute shortage of hard currency forced the Polish government to allow the United States to buy more aircraft Lim-5 (MiG-17 F) and Lim-6m (MiG-17 PF) Polish production. These aircraft were to be used in schools training pilots and they were used for this purpose.

The two MiG-17s flew 198 sorties (usually together) against a variety of US Navy warplanes, ranging from the F-8J Crusader to the A-6A Intruder. Later, separately, they were flown against the USAF F-102A Delta Dagger, F-104A Starfighter, and F-106A Delta Dart. Barely legible photocopies of the MiG17s flying with all of these aircraft appear in the declassified report, but USAF officials say the original photos have been lost over the years.

Some of the details of the tests are fairly minuscule: pilots were impressed with the canopy-mounted periscope in the MiG-17 which improves visibility to the rear hemisphere. As for the HAVE DRILL and HAVE FERRY evaluations of two MiG-17s, one might ask why money was spent on testing an aircraft which, even in 1969, was long in the tooth? Indeed, the author of this article was evaluating the MiG-17 fully a decade earlier, albeit without a real aircraft in hand. The report tells us: “Complete volumes of handbooks and specifications were available on the MiG-17 in the intelligence community, but evaluation of the actual aircraft would furnish vital tactical and operational information necessary for the effectiveness and survival of our air warfare teams."

The report listed dozens of ways in which the F-4E Phantom (flown against the MiG-17 in 26 sorties) and the F-105D and F-105E Thunderchief (18 sorties) were superior to the Soviet fighter. Later Tests As regards widespread speculation about a secret squadron of MiGs at Groom Lake, operated by the USAF ‘Red Hats’ unit, no details have been disclosed about post-1969 tests of Soviet aircraft. Published speculation holds that at one time or another, the US had every warplane in the Soviet arsenal in the Nevada desert.

MiG-21 / YF-110 / HAVE DOUGHNUT

HAVE DOUGHNUT [the spelling Donut was not used] was the USAF project name for its flight test evaluation of the MiG-21 between January 23 and April 8, 1968. At the time, the fighter was the top gun of the communist world. Two more Russian fighters were evaluated soon afterwards.

MiG-21 aircraft acquired by the United States under the Foreign Materiel Acquisition/Exploitation program are designated as the YF-110. Any reference as to who provided the three MiGs 30 years earlier or where the planes were tested is missing from the papers declassified in 1998. There has been speculation that the MiG-21 was flown to Israel on August 16, 1966, by an Iraqi defector, Captain Monir Radfa. The two MiG-17s were brought to Israel on August 12, 1968, by Syrian 1st Lts Walid Adham and Radfan Rifai, who became disoriented and landed in Israel by mistake. Israel reportedly loaned the MiGs as part of a trade-off for a controversial US decision, taken soon after by the Nixon administration, to supply F-4D Phantom IIs (these were later joined by F-4Es) to the Jewish state.

Away from the pubic gaze, the MiG-21 was put through performance and stability tests before being flown against Strategic Air Command B-52 Stratofortress and B-58 Hustler bombers. The aim was to judge the ability of the bombers’ defensive systems to detect an aerial foe. Later, the MiG-21 was flown against virtually every US military aircraft then in the inventory, from the Navy’s A-7E Corsair II to the Air Force’s F-4 Phantom II. The Air Force also carried out radar crosssection and propulsion tests on the MiG-21.

Though the Americans had not previously had their hands on a MiG-21, the information gleaned appears not to have surprised anyone. Few surprises Air Force officers concluded in a now-declassified intelligence report that the MiG-21’s technology “was in most cases comparable to our own" but that the Soviet fighter was cruder and intended to be built on simpler production lines. For example, the MiG-21 had countersunk rivets protruding as much as an eighth of an inch above the skin of the aircraft. Experts were impressed by the fact that the MiG-21 had smokeless engines, making it – unlike the Phantom II – difficult to detect visually.

Many of the report’s conclusions, once classified ‘secret’, make it sound as if the USAF could have saved money by consulting a plastic modeller rather than flying an actual MiG-21. For example: “The design concept which appears to have been used by the Soviets was to ‘wrap’ the smallest airplane possible around the available powerplant to assure maximum speed, altitude, and acceleration performance. This philosophy was carried to the point where bulges in the fuselage were provided at various places to clear equipment and accessories, rather than permit an overall increase in fuselage diameter or cross-section area. The performance of the MiG-21 attests to this approach."

Equally superficial was the report’s conclusion, also originally classified ‘secret’: “By US standards for tactical aircraft, the range and payload capabilities of the MiG-21F-13 are very low, but the Soviets did achieve their apparent goal of developing a rugged, simple, highly realiable [sic] and easily maintained fighter with exceptional climb, altitude acceleration and manoeuvrability capabilities, surpassing any other aircraft operational at the time (early 1960) that it went into service. These characteristics are still very good by present-day tactical fighter standards if range and payload are not a prime concern."

The MiG-21 was also flown against a T-39A Sabreliner equipped with an ATR-1 airborne radiometer (producing a distinctive `hump’ atop the fuselage of the T-39A, behind the flight deck). This measured the fighter’s vulnerability, or lack of it, to airborne infra-red (IR) weapons by evaluating IR emissions at various angles, speeds, power settings, and altitudes. The radiometer could be adjusted to produce data based on the performance of the principal US air-to-air missiles of the era, the AIM-4C/D Falcon and AIM-9G Sidewinder, as well as the IRSTS (infra-red search and tracking system) employed by some US interceptors such as the F-lOlB/F Voodoo.

The MiG-2l-versus-T-39A engagements yielded a wealth of information about how to attack a MiG-21 with an IR weapon, but there were also moments when all did not go well. For example: “Mission No.5 was mainly unproductive because of the everworsening background conditions and the low contrail level. The aircraft were ‘sandwiched’ between a contrail level at 33,000ft (10,058m) and 30,000ft (9,144m)." Several data runs failed to produce useful information because the data was `influenced by other factors’."

MiG-23 Flogger

Only the existence of at least two MiG-23 Floggers can be confirmed by actual sightings, and speculation may be exaggerated. The ‘black programme’ begun in the 1970s to gain intelligence by flying additional Soviet-built fighters in the US is reported to have peaked in the late 1980s and ended in the 1990s.

On April 26, 1984, Lt Gen Robert M `Bobby’ Bond who had flown the `HAVE’ MiGs 15 years earlier-was killed in the crash of a MiG-23 Flogger on the Nellis range. This was one of the few occasions on which the USAF could not cover up post-1969 flights of MiGs. Sadly, it was to have been the general’s farewell flight, marking the end of a fine career. Instead, it may have marked the beginning of the end of what were now called `black’ programmes in the Nevada desert.

The high-profile Bond mishap was a MiG accident the US Air Force could ill afford. As for the secrecy, most of it was based on politics rather than real security concerns. Obviously, the Soviets knew what was going on, but the tests of these aircraft were kept secret, primarily to protect the identity (or identities) of the country (countries) which provided the MiGs flown in Nevada.

Soviet Constant Peg

It should be mentioned that the Soviet VVS had an opportunity to study a pair of F-14 Tomcats and extensively test them against current Soviet fighters. These tests were not conducted in the middle of a desert, but just outside of Moscow – at the Zhukovsky Flight Test Centre, then known to the American spooks as “Ramenskoye" airbase (because of the Ramenskoye highway passing nearby). No photos or any other official information regarding these tests were ever released, although it is known that the Tomcats came from the only possible source: Iran.

It is also known that one Russian organization consistently participated in testing of foreign aircraft and their components – the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, known by its Russian abbreviation “TsAGI" (www.tsagi.ru). Among the aircraft tested at this facility were the two F-86 Sabres captured by the VVS in Korea and numerous other foreign aircraft obtained during various local conflicts, in particular during the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as reconnaissance aircraft shot down over or near the USSR.

One F-5 was extensively tested by top Soviet pilots from Chkalov's State Flight Tests Center. In air combat with MiG-21, F-5 did show extremely well, winning almost all fights according to reports; this gave Soviet aircraft designers a push to develop new types, like the MiG-23.



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