My wife came home from work one day telling me about this strange plane she'd seen fly over on her drive home.
"It was a small jet and it had triangle shaped wings."
Hmmmmm. Not many delta-winged airplanes flying around these days.
F-102? Long gone.
B-58? Not a chance.
F-106? All turned into target drones and shot down years ago.
Concorde? Long since retired.
Mirage 2000? Maybe, but what would one be doing in Ohio?
Wait, could it be?
"Did it have a tail like a normal airplane or was it all wing?"
"It had a tail."
Ah ha! I brought up a picture and sure enough, she'd seen a MiG-21!
I got my first look at a MiG-21 a few years back while I was still flying tankers. I was sitting out on the ramp at Rickenbacker when I heard a jet take off with afterburner lit.
At first I figured it for one of the F-16s from Springfield or Toledo. It wasn't unheard of to see them beating up the pattern at Rickenbacker. I looked over anyway and Holeeeeee Shit! That's a Fishbed! Yep, my old adversary from the Cold War days except now it was somebody's expensive toy.
1. It's fast. Mach 1.7 or so. Not the fastest, but plenty fast enough. It could outrun anything it couldn't outmaneuver.
2. It's highly maneuverable. The combination of light weight, and excellent aerodynamics gave it incredible turn performance. It could outmaneuver anything it couldn't outrun. Later models were stressed for 8.5 G's and supposedly could hold their own against an early F-16 in the turns. Even as slow as 150 knots it could still track its nose while other jets would be dead in the water.
3. It's very small and hard to see. Roughly the size of a T-38. At 5 miles it's almost invisible compared to a huge, smoke belching F-4 Phantom.
6. It was simple and easy to maintain. They could easily be kept flying by less developed countries who frequently relied on poorly trained conscripts.
We first encountered MiG-21 during the Vietnam conflict. There are many reasons for the generally disappointing performance of US Air Force and Navy fighters in Vietnam. That's a whole diary unto itself. One of those reasons was that the MiG-21 turned out to be a pretty damn good aircraft.
The MiG -21 was a super airplane that flies as good as it looks.
We were learning that once supersonic you could pull the throttle back to mil power and it would stay supersonic for a long time. It would almost supercruise, it was so clean. This is what we’d seen in tactics in Vietnam – the MiG-21 pilot would run away, climb to a higher altitude while supersonic, and then he could sit there for a long time without burning a lot of fuel.
If the North Vietnamese Air Force had been any good, they could have really kicked butt in Vietnam.The F-4, which was a mainstay of the Air Force, Navy and Marines in Vietnam had originally been designed as a high-speed interceptor and ground-attack aircraft for the Navy. It was built to go fast in a straight line and shoot somebody with a radar-guided missile from beyond visual range. Dogfighting with nimble little MiGs was not its strong point. Early versions of the Phantom didn't even have a gun, although they could sometimes carry an external gun pod.
In the hands of a good pilot, versus the F-4, the MiG-21 wins every time.Vietnamese ace Nguyễn Nhật Chiêu said much the same thing:
For me personally I preferred the MiG-21 because it was superior in all specifications in climb, speed and armament. The ATOLL missile was very accurate and I scored four kills with the ATOLL. In general combat conditions I was always confident of a kill over a F-4 Phantom when flying a MiG-21.The North Vietnamese used the MiG-21s for hit and run style attacks. Using their excellent GCI controllers they would vector the MiGs in behind the US formations. Often your first clue that the MiG was there was an AA-2 missile flying up your tailpipe. You know you're having a bad day when....
The aircraft that did best against the MiG-21 was the Navy's supposedly obsolete F-8 Crusader. During the war F-8s shot down 19 MiGs (3 of them MiG-21s) with only 3 losses in air-to-air combat.
The MiG-21 has seen extensive service with the Indian Air Force since the mid 1960s. Many wondered what would happen when it met its closest US counterpart, the Pakistani Air Force's F-104 Starfighters. Long story short, Pakistan lost several Starfighters. On paper the two planes look like a pretty even match. Both lightweight single-engine/single-seat fighters with heat-seeking missiles and cannon. The big difference was that F-104 could go really fast, and that's about it. The MiG-21 could still go pretty fast and turn on a dime.
So why didn't we build something like this? We tried. Our original "lightweight fighter" concept was the F-104 and it was deeply flawed. We finally succeeded with the F-16 in the late 1970s.
In 1982 the Israeli Air Force put their new F-15s and F-16s to the test and shot down 86 Syrian aircraft, many of them MiG-21s, without sustaining a single loss. Ouch.
Through various updates the MiG-21 has managed to stick around even to this day. China still operates their home-grown copy the J-7. Chinese J-7s have also been exported to several countries including Pakistan and Iran. Most interestingly, some former Soviet clients like Romania have upgraded their MiG-21s with western avionics. Some of the later models with upgraded missiles and avionics are still pretty capable aircraft.
We greatly overestimated the range of this aircraft. If you're fighting him, you're probably right over his airfield. Keep an eye out for his buddies because he's probably just the first hornet out of the nest.You can own one of these if you have a spare $150,000 burning a hole in your pocket. I've actually seen them advertised for as little (relatively) as $70,000. I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to fly one. It's only got one engine and if it quits your life now depends on a decades old Soviet ejection seat. The Indian Air Force, after a rash of accidents, started calling them "flying coffins".
So how would the MiG-21 have stacked up in a hypothetical war with the West circa 1980s? My guess is we'd have shot a lot of these down. The question is, would we have shot enough of them down?
In the immortal words of Powers Boothe in Red Dawn:
It was five against one! I got four.