“Red 49” MiG-23 on the Tonopah ramp, 1988.
CONSTANT PEG PROGRAM MiG-23 FLOGGER FIGHTER JET
Cairo had recently fallen out with Moscow with predictable results: less than one year after it started flying the Russian-supplied MiG-23 “Flogger” – a new and somewhat enigmatic supersonic interceptor that was greatly revered by US intelligence agencies – the Egyptian Air Force withdrew them from service as spare parts from the Motherland were withheld and their own stocks dried up. The situation for Egypt’s MiG-21s was only marginally better, thanks to more plentiful stocks of spares, but even these would not last for too long. Cairo did the only thing it could and made its MiGs available to China and the United States in exchange for new hardware and hard currency. America bought a large quantity of equipment from Egypt – MiGs, bombs, missiles, radars, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, and so on. But the jewel in the crown was the Flogger. Merlin cited a former Red Hat commander as saying: “In the summer of 1977, the Red Hats acquired from Egypt 12 MiG-23MS `Flogger E’ interceptors and one MiG-23BN `Flogger F’ fighter-bomber. They were shipped to the US in two C-5s, each carrying six airframes.” AFSC took the first look at the two MiG-23 variants under the codenames HAVE PAD and HAVE BOXER. Soon, it would be TAC’s turn.
On November 1, 1980, the first MiG-23 was flown by the 4477th TES at Tonopah when a single MiG-23BN Flogger F flew in from Groom Lake. Ellis, Henderson explained, had been crucial in preparing for the arrival of the Flogger. “The 4477th’s budget never quite caught up with the exploding growth of the operation and the arrival of the MiG-23. We were always scrounging for makeshift solutions to storage, housing, supply, etc. Only Bobby knew the ‘grand plan’ and I was constantly being surprised by a new structure or vehicle at the complex at Tonopah. It looked like a shantytown and it was called Indian Village for very obvious reasons.”
TAC had been flying the Flogger on and off since PAD and BOXER, and it is probably more than coincidental that the permanent acquisition of the first Flogger in November corresponds with the end of AFSC’s HAVE LIGHTER and HAVE DOWN testing of “Type IIIB” aircraft by the Red Hats, according to Merlin.
The MiG-23 was designed in the 1960s as a next-generation fighter for Russia’s Frontovaya Aviatsiya (Frontal Aviation), a part of the VVS. FA was the equivalent of TAC, and it wanted a fighter with performance superior to the MiG-21, and the ability to operate from short airstrips. The prototype first flew in the summer of 1967; the first production model – the MiG-23S – followed in 1969. NATO called it the Flogger A. Improved Floggers had followed, and Russia was soon developing export variants for sale to its allies. For the least trusted of those, Russia offered the MiG-23MS Flogger E. It was based on the 1970s MiG-23M Flogger B that was operated by the VVS, but had a less sophisticated Sapfir RP-22SM radar, known to NATO as the “Jaybird,” and a very basic avionics suite that severely limited its effectiveness as a beyond-visual-range interceptor. When Russia developed a dedicated air-to-ground variant, the MiG-23B Flogger F, they deleted the radar and completely revised the nose profile to allow the pilot better visibility out front. This too was made available in the form of the MiG-23BN Flogger F.
The Flogger used variable geometry (“swing”) wings similar to those found on the General Dynamics F-111 and F-14. The wings were manually set to 16 degrees for take-offs, landings, or low-speed cruise; 45 degrees for high-speed cruise; and 72 degrees for supersonic flight. Each wing featured trailing-edge flaps to improve low-speed handling, and spoilers on the top that popped up to generate roll, working in unison with the two large horizontal “tailerons” at the back of the fuselage. The vertical stabilizer – the “tail plane” – had a long strake that ran along the fuselage, and a ventral fin under the tail helped maintain high-speed directional stability. A fairing at the back of the vertical stabilizer housed a brake parachute to reduce landing distance.
The Flogger E had a GSh-23L twin-barreled 23mm cannon mounted flush with the underside of the fuselage, and there were two weapons pylons under the forward fuselage, and one under each wing glove. These could carry the R-3S (NATO designation, AA-2 “Atoll”) IR AAMs, or the R-3R (AA-2C “Advanced Atoll”) semi-active radar homing (radar-guided) derivative. The pilot sat on a Mikoyan-Gurevich KM-1 ejection seat that required a minimum speed of 90 knots in order for the parachute to deploy.
On paper, the Flogger was a decent design that, when used in conjunction with the Soviet doctrine of strength in numbers (as opposed to NATO’s “quality versus quantity”) could offer the VVS and the USSR’s allies an effective interceptor capability. But it wasn’t the air superiority fighter that the FA had wanted. More worryingly, the Flogger was plagued from the outset by design flaws, poor reliability, and an airframe that was easy to overstress. But the MiG-23 Floggers E and F were fast. There was no denying it. The Tumansky R-29-300 (R-29A) engine would churn out 27,500lb of thrust, easily taking the Flogger E to its placarded limit of Mach 2.4, or more than 1,500mph. In its early years, the Flogger’s parachute had a propensity to deploy spontaneously in flight. While this would be startling, but not necessarily fatal, there were several handling issues with the MiG-23 that had, and continued to, kill its pilots. It did not like to be spun and was averse to the low-speed maneuvering flight that characterized the final stages of BFM – when two evenly pitted adversaries might be out of altitude and airspeed.
At the opposite end of the envelope, the Flogger was unstable in yaw as it passed through the sound barrier, and then again as it exceeded Mach 2. Even in regular phases of flight – like take-off and landing – it was a handful. Its narrow landing gear would skid and slide on a damp, icy, or wet runway; and since its main landing gear was articulated to absorb the bumps and ruts of an unprepared surface, the jet sat low to the ground where its two intakes could suck up foreign objects.
Corder, the Red Eagles’ assistant ops officer, must have known most, if not all, of this as a result of HAVE PAD and BOXER when he volunteered to be the first Red Eagle at Tonopah to fly the MiG-23. McCloud followed suit and became the second to checkout in the Flogger, Scott recalls. “It was a new experience and we didn’t know too much about the jet; it didn’t come with the knowledge that the other countries operating it around the world took for granted,” he added. As they learned each day, Corder got to work writing the Flogger’s Dash 1.
With experience flying MiGs going back more than seven years, Press was soon selected to transition to the Flogger, becoming the third pilot in the unit to do so. But the Flogger immediately proved problematic: “On about my second or third sortie in it I was up with Dave McCloud flying chase in a T-38. It was basically an aircraft-handling sortie to investigate the envelope. Up at about 20,000ft, I pulled little too hard on the stick with the wings swept back and the thing went out of control and entered a spin. McCloud was calling: ‘You’re on fire! Bail out!’ I managed to get it out of the spin, but the engine shaft had warped from the motion of the spin.” All was not well. The Flogger’s engine intakes featured a system of louvers around the compressor section of the R-29A, and these were used to take surplus “bleed” air for use by the Flogger’s environmental control system for cooling the avionics and the pilot. “The spin and warping had caused the compressor blades to tear out the louvers, and these had gone into the turbine section, causing turbine blades to break off and fly everywhere. That was the cause of the fire.”
By now the fire had gone out, but he had no engine and was faced with either landing the 34,000lb fighter like a glider – known as a “deadstick” landing – or to eject. “I still had enough hydraulic power to get the wings forward, and the gear came down via pneumatics, so I decided to head back towards Tonopah. The thing was coming down like the space shuttle and McCloud kept telling me he didn’t think I would be able to make it. I told him I could. I got the gear down and landed 500ft down the runway and rolled to a stop.”
Press had inadvertently demonstrated that the MiG-23MS engine casing was the weak link during out-of-control maneuvers that resulted in strong sideloads (yaw). While intentionally spinning any of the MiGs was already against the rules, the MiG-23 pilots at Tonopah now understood exactly how dangerous the Flogger could be. It was an incredible baptism of fire, and the incident put Press in the history books as the only Red Eagle to deadstick a Flogger. Ted Drake, who would join the squadron in 1984 and become the unit’s high-time Flogger pilot, explained: “The air model [MiG-23MS] engine, the R-29-300, was mounted in a way that meant it was really not stressed for yaw, and that’s why you experienced this. That’s why Press ended up with a dead motor. But if you look at the guys who, in the years that followed, spun the ground model [MiG-23BN], that motor, the R-29B-300, was much better suited to sideloads and so carried on working.”
Coyle, the FTD analyst, had seen with his own eyes the damage that these out of control incidents could cause when he visited Tonopah to inspect some Floggers. The three MiG-23s were being temporarily stored at Tonopah, probably in advance of their delivery to Groom where they were most likely dismantled for spares, and may well have been Egyptian examples.
All three of the ones I examined showed the result of a compressor stall and verified to me the reasons for several reports I had gotten earlier about the FLOGGER having a “Coffin Corner” problem. All three aircraft had fragmentation penetrations of their inside and outside intake surfaces with one exhibiting entry and exit holes all the way through the equipment and avionics bay just aft of the cockpit.
What was happening with the FLOGGER air-to-air birds, both the export FLOGGER E and the indigenously flown FLOGGER B, was a vertical stabilizer washout. This came from the vortex flows off of the wing glove leading edge extensions at high angles of attack and high dynamic pressures when any sideslip was introduced. When you got all of these conditions together at one time you were usually in a high-G nose high turn at low to medium altitudes. The vortices would suddenly stop traveling to the sides of the wing glove and cross over the top of it. The inboard vortex would then wrap itself around the tail and you immediately lost all directional stability. The plane would snap roll in the opposite direction of the turn and the aircraft would swap ends at the same time.
This motion was so violent that the engine would deform enough for the front fan blades to gouge into the casing treatment at their tips and start stripping off chunks of metal that were then ingested into the low and then high pressure parts of the compressor, stripping off compressor blades and stators all the way down into the core. Portions of the compressor lost any semblance of an aft directed pressure gradient and the higher-pressure air and burning fuel from the annular combustor had a new direction to travel and that was back through the already damaged compressor. A huge explosion out of both forward facing intakes then occurred accompanied by a lot of high velocity shrapnel. Then the whole mess got swallowed again and that was the end of the engine and a lot of structure around it and forward of it. If he was still conscious, the pilot found himself about 1,500 feet lower than where he started, already at stall speed, with no engine. If he started all of this at less than about 7,000 – 10,000 feet above local ground level he didn’t have a chance to recover the aircraft. If he was higher, he had a chance to use his accumulator pressure to drive the wings forward to their best glide configuration and look for a place to set the thing down.
Some guys just ejected immediately, but I was looking at three ships that some line pilot on the other side had recovered in one piece. I just stood there amazed at the physical reality of what I had been reading about and the guts and flying skill that had apparently gotten these things back on the ground in one piece.
“There were other things that we had to find out for ourselves, one of which was structural,” adds Scott. “The Flogger was never designed for the sort of high-G flying that we were putting it through, so we developed a modification to reinforce the ‘wing carry through box,’ which held the sweeping wings in place. These were ‘discovery’ problems, the sorts of things that Tom Gibbs was having to deal with on a day-by-day basis as we learned new things about the jet.” The addition of the third type of MiG created more pressure for Gibbs’ men and complicated the issue of reverse engineering. “But we at least had a pretty good budget to deal with that, probably a little bit more than $1 million,” Gibbs estimated.
As 1980 came to a close, 1,015 sorties had been accumulated, accounting for the exposure of the MiGs to some 372 Air Force and Navy pilots. CONSTANT PEG’s first full year at Tonopah had been hugely successful, and at one point in 1980 “the Red Eagles flew five sorties a day for two straight weeks, including weekends,” says Sheffield.