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'We didn't know what 90 percent of the switches did'
August 11, 2012 11:55 PM   Subscribe

In 2006, the United States Air Force declassified part of one of its secret programs: Constant Peg, the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, which flew MiGs.

The 4477th(autoplaying audio interview) was an extension of the 'Have' prgrams, whose aim was to determine the capabilities and weaknesses of Soviet aircraft. They were known as the 'Red Eagles,' and flew out of Tonopah, NV and the infamous Groom Lake Test Bed (all previously on MetaFilter). The purpose of the 4477th was to enable American pilots to 'kill a MiG on the first meeting.' There is much speculation about what, exactly, is out there in the Nevada desert.
posted by the man of twists and turns (36 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting stuff. My favorite MiG factoid of dubious veracity is that MiGs are actually very easy to get in the air, the idea being that it's cheaper to make oodles of MiGs that would-be pilots can be quickly trained to fly, as opposed to making safe, expensive, super awesome American planes that require more training to operate.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:28 AM on August 12, 2012


I still remember reading a Reader's Digest article (as a kid) that told the tale of the MiG pilot that defected. It seems the plane's engineering and technology was way more primitive than any imagined, still using vacuum tubes and whatnot, in comparison to state of the art fighter jets. I was left with the impression that Soviet tech was mindbogglingly backward yet reluctantly respected for being able to do what it could.
posted by infini at 12:48 AM on August 12, 2012


Lt. Viktor Belenko, and his MiG 25 Foxbat, a high-speed high-altitude forward-based interceptor(which drove a lot of the design decisions).
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:04 AM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


John Boyd, a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, discovered that Russian jets were better than American jets in a few crucial aspects: more powerful and more maneuverable.
This greatly influenced the design of the F-15 and F-16.
Boyd went on to create the OODA-loop concept that is the theoretical basis of a lot of today's U.S. military doctrine.
posted by atchafalaya at 1:05 AM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


It seems the plane's engineering and technology was way more primitive than any imagined

I heard that the welding and riveting were outta sight, and spurred further improvements in US techniques.
posted by wilful at 1:12 AM on August 12, 2012


It seems the plane's engineering and technology was way more primitive than any imagined, still using vacuum tubes and whatnot, in comparison to state of the art fighter jets. I was left with the impression that Soviet tech was mindbogglingly backward yet reluctantly respected for being able to do what it could.

Valves are much much more resistant to EMPs than transistors...

The kind of EMPs that would be produced by a mid-air nuclear explosion.

(And apparently MiGs were also built as Faraday cages.)
posted by Isn't in each artist (7) at 1:15 AM on August 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


the welding and riveting were outta sight

They were done by hand, apparently.
posted by infini at 1:40 AM on August 12, 2012


Sticherbeast, the Soviet Union did indeed, starting from the MiG-21, take a "quantity vs. quality" approach compared with the US. Their fighters were altogether simpler in several aspects, and there were a number of reasons for this:
First of all, they had different tactics. The USAF emphasizes more decentralised tactics, where the pilots decide themselves which enemies to engage. That requires very good onboard radar. The Soviet Union's VS had a much more centralised approach, with ground control vectoring their pilots towards the enemy. That requires less sophisticated electronics.
Secondly, they simply lagged behind in some technologies, especially electronics. Already in Korea, the MiG-15, though superior to the F-86 in how it flew, was severely handicapped by an inferior gunsight. This does not mean that they were always technologically inferior: in the 1980s, when the MiG-29 and the Su-27 (not all Soviet fighters are MiGs) came out, they shocked NATO not just by their sophisticated aerodynamics, but also by their innovative use of optical sensors. But in general they lagged behind.
Thirdly, they just preferred to keep it simple for ease of maintenance and use. There was also a school of thought in the US which agreed, producing for instance the F-5, but in general they were overruled by a brass with a taste for ever more sophisticated toys (and by a military industry which saw higher profits in them). Furthermore, during the Cold War, the US and its allies were (thankfully) never confronted with the Red Army itself, but with Third World Soviet allies flying less sophisticated versions of Soviet hardware. The Soviets kept the more whiz bang stuff for themselves.
BTW, the use of "unconventionally acquired" Soviet hardware by US "Agressor" squadrons was hardly a secret. The Israelis also pinched quite a few Soviet-made aircraft, getting to know that stuff so well that they started offering upgrade kits to former Warsaw Pact nations after the fall of the Wall...
posted by Skeptic at 1:45 AM on August 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


Also, although Soviet-designed aircraft were (are) easier to build and maintain, they weren't necessarily easier to fly. The MiG-29 in particular is said to be a bit of a handful compared with Western contemporaries like the F-16, which feature fly-by-wire (meaning that the computer does part of the flying) and an ergonomic HOTAS setup. HOTAS is the somewhat juvenile acronym for "hands-on-stick-and-throttle", meaning that all the most important controls and switches are grouped on the joystick and throttle handle, so that the pilot doesn't have to take his hands off them: there's reportedly a lot more fiddling around in a MiG-29 cockpit, which can be somewhat inconvenient in a dogfight...
posted by Skeptic at 3:09 AM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking of dogfights, any good estimate of the # of dogfights in the last 10-15 years? I don't follow any of this stuff but my impression is that most combat sorties in modern times are bombing runs.
posted by Gyan at 3:15 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia has a good run-down.

And you can watch an F-16 and a MiG-29 go at it at an airshow(video)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:07 AM on August 12, 2012


While reading some of the above links, I found an eye-opening Wikipedia page about aces in the Vietnam War.
posted by cropshy at 4:49 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does anyone else, after reading all this, have an irresistible urge to go back and watch Firefox? :)
posted by trackofalljades at 6:05 AM on August 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


I also remember from the time that while the discovery that the avionics were based on thermionic devices was spun as "therefore, they're EMP-hardened and we must work hard to make ours the same way", it later transpired that this perception was encouraged much as that of the missile gap. Not that true, but useful to promote ever more fevered investment in Western tech.

(Yes, valves/tubes are more robust against EMP, but in an environment where EMP is an issue you're going to have a few more problems than your radios frying - and 'more robust' does not mean 'robust enough'.)
posted by Devonian at 6:22 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


the Soviet Union did indeed, starting from the MiG-21, take a "quantity vs. quality" approach compared with the US

They were familiar with Arthur C. Clarke, apparently.
posted by Egg Shen at 6:32 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


They were familiar with Arthur C. Clarke, apparently.

Or rather, Arthur C. Clarke was familiar with military and naval history. The "quantity vs. quality" dilemma is a very old one, from the heavily armoured French knights who were cut to pieces by (a lot of) English guys with longbows in Agincourt, to the late XIX century debate between the proponents of the heavy battleship and those of the fast torpedo boat.
posted by Skeptic at 7:01 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Firefox: pretty much overtaken now.

A similar project was undertaken during WWII, when a Japanese Zero was recovered more or less intact on the island of Attu. The aircraft seemed primitive, but it turned out to have some very good engineering.

This thread is a good illustration of how difficult it is to equate weapons and tactics, strategies, among any given enemies. The devil is in the variables.
posted by mule98J at 7:02 AM on August 12, 2012


Somewhat similarly, we still maintain a squadron of F-14s used as agressors to simulate engagement with Iran (and possibly other older types). Although these days, apparently we use F-18s for that, too.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:58 AM on August 12, 2012


As I understand it, the key to flying the MiG is being able to THINK in Russian
posted by Renoroc at 8:27 AM on August 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


The first MIG was flown by a defector, top Israel, where it was then shipped to Area 51 and dismantled and studied.
posted by Postroad at 8:42 AM on August 12, 2012


Did the Soviets have an aggressor squadron of their own? Did their pilots get to practice against real F-4s?
posted by vibrotronica at 9:26 AM on August 12, 2012


As I understand it, the key to flying the MiG is being able to THINK in Russian

That would violate the Sapir-Whorf prime directive, which is that nobody can say they think Sapir-Whorf is true. In any language.
posted by gjc at 9:27 AM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


In 2000, i worked on a film about a training mission for F/A-18 pilots to fly against former East German MiG-29's (they had been incorporated into the German Air Force expressly for training NATO allies). My memory of what we learned about the MiG's was that they were tough, with strong landing gear, which helped them take off and land on unimproved, grassy, or beaten-up runways and that they were amazingly over-powered. We got footage of a US pilot in the back seat of the MiG, whooping in enjoyment as they took off and immediately went almost 90 degrees vertical. Apparently you just didn't do that in an F/A-18 (not saying you couldn't, but you didn't).

I can't remember the details about the specifics of the other strengths and weaknesses of the jets, but I think the US pilots were all impressed with the former East German pilots.
posted by jindc at 11:44 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was left with the impression that Soviet tech was mindbogglingly backward yet reluctantly respected for being able to do what it could.
posted by infini at 9:48 PM on August 11 [+] [!]


KOMRADE DEY GOT RED STARS WOT MAKE'EM GO FASTER AND AV PLENNY OF DAKKA

posted by Sebmojo at 2:14 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


it was Lenin who said "quantity has a quality all its own."
posted by wilful at 4:49 PM on August 12, 2012


The first MIG was flown by a defector, top Israel

Did Israel exist when the first MiG was flown?
posted by circular at 6:12 PM on August 12, 2012


Did Israel exist when the first MiG was flown?

No.
posted by wilful at 6:18 PM on August 12, 2012


(Though I guess you could have read that as the first MiG that was captured by the USA. But even then, I'm sure the US would have had some MiG-3s.)
posted by wilful at 6:22 PM on August 12, 2012


I was left with the impression that Soviet tech was mindbogglingly backward yet reluctantly respected for being able to do what it could.

This probably isn't the right place for this comment, but when I lived in Russia for half a year in 2003 and 2004, I kept getting little peeks at common technology that was very similar to what I was used to in the US but different. Items made prior to 1945 or thereabouts seemed to be right on par with pre-1945 technology in the US, but when you came upon washing machines or cars or elevators or tape players or other sorts of other everyday technology made between 1945 and the late 70s or so, everything seemed to have diverged from some common ancestor and taken a slightly different path to the present. The goals were the same: a washing machine still washed clothes and a water heater still warmed water, but always in a slightly different way than recent-historical technology I knew in the US.
posted by msbrauer at 6:30 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


First, I had always heard that "quantity has a quality all its own" was a Trotsky quote.

Secondly, I worked at a large airplane manufacturer for a number of years, and I heard a bunch of interesting stuff about Belenko's MiG 25.

It was assumed that it was made largely of titanium due to the fact that the Soviet Union was sitting on huge supplies of the stuff and given the presumed flight envelope. It turned out that only the leading edges of various surfaces were titanium, and the majority of the plane was made of welded stainless steel (which is pretty crazy, if you think about it).

The other thing that surfaced was how we got the MiG 25 back to the Russians.

Apparently they were (understandably) pissed at what happened, and angrily demanded that the US return their "stolen property."

At first the US (via the State Department) stonewalled them. Then the US finally said, 'OK, we'll be retuning it to you on such and such a date,' and they promised to drop it off at a given air base.

Which they did.

In a bunch of crates.

And inside, every part of the plane was individually bagged, labeled and numbered.
posted by Relay at 9:06 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know about the MiG-3, but if they wanted to have a close look at a bunch of Soviet WWII fighters, the Americans would just have had to ask the French. Politely.
posted by Skeptic at 1:51 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's a great article, Skeptic. Yaks were cool planes, too. And still are.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:37 AM on August 13, 2012


(If we didn't have such NMH issues in our procurement, this would make a great aggressor.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:38 AM on August 13, 2012


(The Aeromacchi based on that Yak may compete to replace the T-38, but I'd be surprised if it won.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:40 AM on August 13, 2012


(The Aeromacchi based on that Yak may compete to replace the T-38, but I'd be surprised if it won.)

I wouldn't be so surprised. It has already won export contracts in Singapore and Israel, two particularly discerning buyers. And in principle, the other two contenders are also foreign designs, the British Hawk and the Korean T-50. The Hawk airframe is getting rather long in the tooth, and always had some basic drawbacks (its low wing and relatively short undercarriage limit the size of underwing stores). Also, the fact that the USN already flies its close cousin, the T-45 Goshawk, is a bit of a mixed blessing: not only is the USAF less than keen on flying anything already chosen by the Navy, but also, if my memory serves me right, the T-45's introduction was notoriously troublesome.
As for the T-50, it has been rather unsuccessful in export so far. Its main advantage in the competition is that it is being proposed by LockheedMartin, which has all the right connections both in the Pentagon and in the Capitol.
At the end of the day, I'd say it all depends on whether Alenia/Aermacchi gets the right US partner. If they get either Boeing or Northrop Grumman to lead the proposal, future USAF pilots could easily be training on an initially Russian-designed airframe in a few years from now...
posted by Skeptic at 8:29 AM on August 13, 2012


At the end of the day, I'd say it all depends on whether Alenia/Aermacchi gets the right US partner.

Sounds about right to me. Interesting times!
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:04 AM on August 13, 2012


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