Su-15TM ‘15 Yellow’ seen over international waters with a complement of two R-98s and two cannon pods.
By the end of 1975 the PVO intended to re-equip 41 fighter regiments with the Su-15, whereupon the new interceptor would make up nearly 50% of the PVO’s aircraft fleet. However, when Su-15 production ended in early 1976, the type was in service with only 29 units, 18 of them operating the Su-15 sans suffixe and 11 units flying the Su-15TM.
To give credit where credit is due, of all fighter types operated by the PVO the Su-15 probably had the highest percentage of successful real-life intercepts of aircraft intruding into Soviet airspace. Its baptism of fire came on 11th September 1970… well, actually the expression ‘baptism of fire’ is not really applicable because no shots were fired on this occasion. At 0336 hrs Moscow time PVO radar pickets near Sevastopol’, the Ukraine, detected a lone aircraft heading north towards the Soviet border at 3,000 m (9,840 ft), and a ‘Red Alert’ was called. The target was then 260 km (160 miles) southwest of the city; when it approached within 100 km (62 miles) of the border, a 62nd IAP Su-15 scrambled from Bel’bek AB to prevent an incursion. The target turned out to be an elderly Douglas C-47 belonging to the Hellenic Air Force, and when it eventually crossed the border the fighter lined up alongside and rocked its wings in the internationally recognised ‘follow me’ signal. The Dakota complied, landing at Bel’bek AB. It turned out that the pilot, Lt. M. Maniatakis, had stolen the aircraft from Kania AB on the island of Crete and fled from his homeland where the fascist junta of the Black Colonels had seized power. Maniatakis requested political asylum in the USSR, which was in all probability granted.
Throughout the 1970s the southern borders of the Soviet Union perpetually received the attentions of hostile aircraft coming from Turkey and Iran. The events described below are but a few of the incursions that took place there.
On 7th September 1972 a flight of Turkish Air Force (THK – Türk Hava Kuvvetleri) North American F-100 Super Sabres entered Soviet airspace near Leninakan, Armenia (the city is now called Gyumri). Despite flying at ultra-low altitude, the intruders were detected by air defence radars in a timely fashion. Another ploy of the ‘bad guys’ worked, however – the fighters flew in close formation, appearing on the radarscopes as one heavy aircraft (the USAF had used this tactic in Vietnam); hence only a single 166th IAP Su-15 was scrambled from Sandar AB in neighbouring Georgia to intercept ‘it’. The GCI command post operators did not realise that the target was not an ‘it’ but a ‘they’ until the Turkish fighters swept over the place with a roar.
The lone Su-15 proved incapable of intercepting its quarry because its radar lacked ‘look-down/shoot-down’ capability. As a result, the F-100s passed over Leninakan and were fired upon by a heavy machine gun providing anti-aircraft protection for the PVO’s radar site but got away unscathed.
On 23rd May 1974 another THK F-100 intruded into Soviet airspace over the Caucasus region with impunity. A Su-15 standing on QRA duty scrambled from the airbase in Kyurdamir, Azerbaijan, but was not directed towards the target because the latter had unwisely intruded in an area defended by an SAM regiment. A missile was fired at the F-100 but missed due to a malfunction in the guidance system.
Eventually, however, the Turks fell victim to the rule ‘pride goeth before the fall’. On 24th August 1976 Soviet AD radars detected a target moving in Turkish airspace towards the Soviet border. This was soon identified as a pair of F-100s flying in close formation. No fewer than three Su- 15s scrambled this time (two from Kyurdamir and one from Sandar AB), but again they did not manage to get a piece of the action. The fighters had again rashly flown right into a nest of SAMs; this time the PVO crews on the ground did their job well and one of the Super Sabres was shot down. Unfortunately the wreckage fell on the wrong side of the border and the pilot, who ejected, also landed in Turkish territory; the following day the Turks raised hell, accusing the Soviet Union of the ‘wanton destruction of a Turkish fighter’.
A while earlier, on 2nd April 1976, a 777th IAP Su-15 flown by Lt (SG) P. S. Strizhak scrambled from Sokol AB on Sakhalin Island to intercept a USAF Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft which had entered the 100- km territorial waters strip. Shortly after take-off the pilot was redirected towards a new target – a Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) Lockheed-Kawasaki P2V Neptune reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Sea of Japan at 2,000 m (6,560 ft) off the southern tip of Sakhalin. Approaching within 5-6 km (3.1-3.7 miles) of the target, the interceptor followed it, flying a parallel course. Apparently Strizhak flipped the wrong switch and inadvertently fired an R-98R missile at the Neptune, though no order to attack had been given. Realising what he had done, the pilot made a turn just in time, causing the missile to lose target lock-on; the missile passed off the spyplane’s starboard wing and self-destructed harmlessly.
At 1457 hrs Moscow time on 23rd December 1979 a Cessna 185 Skywagon light aircraft entered Soviet airspace 175 km (108 miles) south-west of Maryy, Turkmenia (pronounced like the French name Marie), coming from Iranian territory and flying at about 3,000 m. The aircraft was detected by PVO radars three minutes before it crossed the border, and a 156th IAP Su-15 took off almost immediately from Maryy-2 AB to intercept it. The pilot was directed towards the target by GCI stations but failed to spot it because the Cessna was camouflaged (so much for allegations about ‘navigation errors’). The radars lost track of the target shortly afterwards and, after circling for a few minutes, the fighter pilot had no choice but to head for home. (Three more Su-15s and a MiG-23M had also scrambled by then, but they were not directed towards the target.) Nevertheless, his mission was accomplished; when (unbeknownst to the Soviet pilot) the interceptor passed directly above the Cessna, its pilots aborted their plan, losing altitude and opting for an emergency landing for fear of being shot down (hence the disappearance of the target from the radarscopes). Eventually they landed on a highway 195 km (121 miles) west of Maryy and were soon arrested by Soviet border troops.
Another incident on the Iranian border occurred on 18th July 1981. An unidentified aircraft flying at about 8,000 m (26,250 ft) briefly entered Soviet airspace but then left it and the pair of 166th IAP Su-15s which had taken off to intercept it was ordered back to base. A few hours later, however, another unidentified aircraft intruded into Soviet airspace; this time a single 166th IAP Su-15 flown by Capt. Valentin A. Kulyapin and armed with two R-98s and two R-60s scrambled to intercept it. The intruder turned out to be a Canadair CL-44D4-6 freighter, LV-JTN (c/n 34), chartered from the Argentinean airline Transporte Aéreo Rioplatense for smuggling weapons – officially ‘pharmaceuticals’ – from Israel to Iran and flown by a Swiss crew. The fighter pilot gave the customary ‘follow me’ signals, trying to force it down at a Soviet airfield; instead, the big turboprop started manoeuvring dangerously, making sharp turns in the direction of the Su-15. The pursuit continued for more than ten minutes; eventually Kulyapin received orders to destroy the intruder. Since the border was very close and the target could get away before the fighter could move away to a safe distance for missile launch, Kulyapin chose to ram the target. The attack was skilfully executed; moving into line astern formation, the Su-15 pitched up into a climb, slicing off the CL-44’s starboard tailplane with its fin and fuselage. The freighter plummeted to the ground, killing all four occupants; however, Kulyapin’s aircraft was seriously damaged by the collision and the pilot ejected, landing safely not far from the wreckage of both aircraft. This time the wreckage fell on Soviet territory, furnishing irrefutable evidence of a border violation. For this performance Capt. Kulyapin was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.
Gradually, together with the MiG-25P heavy interceptor capable of Mach 2 flight, the Su-15 supplanted the outdated Su-9, Su-11, Yak-28P and MiG-21PFM from the PVO inventory. Su-15s saw service with units stationed in almost all borderside regions of the Soviet Union, the High North and the Far East receiving the highest priority. The Su-15TM which superseded the initial versions on the production line remained one of the principal fighter types defending these vital areas for many years. The upgraded Su-15-98M aerial intercept weapons system comprising this aircraft and the Vozdukh-1M GCI system which permitted guidance in manual, semi-automatic (flight director) and fully automatic modes was capable of intercepting targets flying at speeds of 500-2,500 km/h (310-1,550 mph) and altitudes of 500-24,000 m (1,64078,740 ft).
The Su-15TM also saw a good deal of action in defence of the Soviet borders, particularly in the late 1970s and the 1980s. 20th April 1978 was the first occasion when a South Korean aircraft ‘accidentally’ strayed into Soviet airspace. The full truth about this incident remains unknown to this day. Some Western media maintain that the incursion was a result of crew error because the pilots were making their first flight in an unfamiliar aircraft along an unfamiliar route. Get real. It is hard to imagine a navigation error that would lead to a course change in excess of 180°. The facts: at 2054 hrs Moscow time the radar pickets of the 10th Independent PVO Army detected an aircraft 380 km (236 miles) north of Rybachiy Peninsula, flying at 10,000 m (32,800 ft) and heading towards Soviet territorial waters at about 900 km/h (559 mph). When the target approached the 100-km territorial waters strip, at 2111 hrs the officer of the day at the 10th Independent PVO Army headquarters ordered a scramble. Since the unit based nearest to the coast was re-equipping with new aircraft and was not operational for the time being, the mission fell to the 431st IAP at Afrikanda AB (Arkhangel’sk Region), and a Su-15TM piloted by Capt. Aleksandr I. Bosov took off to intercept the target. After being directed towards the unknown aircraft in head-on mode by GCI control the pilot reported seeing the target on his radar display, executed a port turn and started closing in on the target. Coming within visual identification range, Bosov reported it was a four-engined Boeing 747 (sic) but he could not make out the insignia – they were either Japanese, Chinese or Korean. (Obviously the pilot had seen hieroglyphic characters of the aircraft’s fuselage but had no way of knowing what language it was – Auth.)
Actually this was no 747 but a Korean Air Lines Boeing 707-321BA-H registered HL7429 (c/n 19363, fuselage number 623) bound from Paris-Orly to Seoul on flight KE902. As David Gero wrote in his book Flights of Terror – Aerial Hijack and Sabotage since 1930, ‘Built more than a decade earlier, the aircraft lacked a modern inertial navigation system, and as a magnetic compass is useless in this part of the world (it gives false readings due to the proximity of the North Pole – Auth.), and with a scarcity in ground aids, the crew would have to rely upon the older but well-proven method of celestial navigation.
Trouble first arose in the vicinity of Iceland, when atmospheric conditions prevented the aircraft from communicating with the corresponding ground station. Approximately over Greenland, and following the instructions of the navigator, the 707 inexplicably initiated a turn of 112 degrees, heading in a southeasterly direction towards the USSR (our highlighting – Auth.). A while later the pilot, Captain Kim Chang Kyu, sensed something was amiss by the rather obvious fact that the sun was on the wrong side of the aircraft!’
Capt. Bosov was instructed to force the intruder down at a Soviet airfield, which he tried to do, making two passes along the 707’s port side 50-60 m (165-200 ft) away to a point ahead of the flight deck and rocking the wings. Yet the South Korean crew ignored these ‘amorous advances’.
Meanwhile, after analysing the target’s track plotted by AD radars, the 10th Independent PVO Army HQ decided the 707 was pressing on towards the Finnish border, which was only five minutes away, in an attempt to escape and ordered the airliner shot down. At 2142 hrs the fighter pilot fired a single R-98MR missile, reporting an explosion and saying that the target was losing altitude; Bosov was about to fire a second missile but lost target lock-on because the Boeing was descending sharply.
In the meantime a steady exchange of information was going on between PVO command centres at all echelons. The PVO Commander-in-Chief was belatedly informed that the target was a civil airliner; hence the C-in-C’s order not to shoot the intruder down but to force it down in one piece reached the lower echelons too late when the 707 was already under fire. The explosion tore away the Boeing’s port wingtip and aileron, knocked out the No.1 engine and apparently punctured the fuselage, causing a decompression. The crew initiated an emergency descent, causing the PVO radar pickets to briefly lose sight of the aircraft. By then, apart from Bosov’s Su-15, five other aircraft had scrambled to intercept the intruder – two Yak-28Ps from Monchegorsk, one MiG-25P from Letneozyorsk, a Su-15TM from Poduzhem’ye AB and a further Su-15TM from Afrikanda AB. When the target vanished from the radarscopes, a further Yak-28P, a MiG-25P and three Su-15TMs from the same bases joined the hunt. A 265th IAP Su-15TM from Poduzhem’ye even fired a missile at a slow-flying target at 5,000 m (16,400 ft) – which later turned out to be nothing more than a cloud of honeycomb filler fragments from the 707’s damaged wing.
The crippled airliner circled at low altitude near Loukhi settlement near Kem’, Arkhangel’sk Region, where it was again detected and tracked by AD radars and the nearest interceptor was directed to the scene. Since the Su-15’s radar was not much use against a low-flying target, the pilots had to rely in the Mk 1 eyeball; yet mortal men haven’t got the eyesight of an owl, and even on a cloudless polar night it takes time to locate the target. At 2245 hrs Capt. Keferov of the 265th IAP spotted the intruder flying at 800 m (2,620 ft) near Loukhi; twelve minutes later the target was spotted by another 265th IAP pilot, Maj. A. A. Ghenberg. Together they gave signals to the crew, trying to force the jet to follow them; the airliner ignored the signals, landing on the frozen Lake Korpijärvi 5 km (3.1 miles) south-west of Loukhi. Of the 109 occupants, two passengers were killed (allegedly by fragments of the damaged engine) and 13 people were injured. The crew and passengers of the 707 were detained by the Soviet authorities but subsequently released; the airliner, which was declared a write-off, was recovered from the scene and taken to Moscow for examination.