This Date in Aviation History: June 16 - June 18
ttyymmnn last edited by ttyymmnn
A MiG-21R of the former Czechoslovak Air Force in 1991 (Chris Lofting)
June 16, 1955 – The first flight of the MiG-21. While the jet-powered fighter first came onto the scene in the latter stages of WWII, it was the Korean War where early jet fighters first started duking it out in earnest in the skies over the battlefield. American pilots were surprised by the arrival of the Soviet-built swept-wing MiG-15, which proved faster and more maneuverable than the straight-wing US fighters. Though quickly countered by the American swept-wing F-86 Sabre, it was clear that a fundamental changed had taken place in fighter design. Based on lessons learned during the war, a new fighter race began, one which emphasized speed perhaps above all else. The MiG-15 evolved into the larger but still subsonic MiG-17, which was then followed by the twin-engine MiG-19, the Soviet’s first supersonic fighter and the world’s first to be produced in large quantities. Following the standard Soviet doctrine, the MiG-19 was primarily an interceptor, led to the target by ground controllers and fitted with missiles. The emphasis was on speed and power, at the expense of maneuverability.
MiG Ye-4, showing the tailed delta configuration that was used for the MiG-21. Note the wing fences added to control the flow of air across the wing. (India’s Defence)
By the early 1950s, the Soviet Union was looking for a fighter/interceptor that could challenge the jet-powered American B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress and be capable of flying twice the speed of sound at an altitude of 66,000 feet. Again, the Mikoyan design bureau returned to the tried and true designs of their earlier fighters. After all, the Soviet design ethos stated that fighters should be simple, easy to maintain, and be capable of mass production in very large numbers. While quantity may have been more desirable than quality, the new fighter would be no means be an incapable design. The biggest question facing the Soviets was the basic planform of the new fighter. The Americans had opted for the extremely thin straight-winged Lockheed F-104, while the French had gone with a tailless delta for the Dassault Mirage. Both concepts had benefits and drawbacks. Mikoyan spent three years testing various wing designs, but eventually settled on short, thin delta wings with a traditional tailplane, a configuration known as a tailed delta. The prototype tailed delta Ye-4 first flew on June 16, 1955. The MiG-21 was born.
A MiG-21F on display at the Barksdale Global Power Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. As the MiG-21 was developed, the dorsal ridge behind the cockpit was enlarge, practically eliminating rearward visibility for the pilot. (Michael Barera)
Known as the “balalaika” due to its resemblance to the traditional Russian musical instrument, the MiG-21's tailed delta configuration was a compromise that resulted in reduced drag and high speed, greater than Mach 2, while also providing reasonably good maneuverability. However, the delta wing also meant that new fighter was more difficult to fly at lower speeds. By 1958, the MiG-21F, with “F” meaning upgraded, was put into production and entered service with the first Soviet defense units. The initial production variants featured a larger fuel tank, dual cannons, and early radar rangefinder, but it was still strictly a daytime, clear weather fighter. It was followed by the MiG-21F-13, with the suffix denoting the addition of the K-13 missile system to augment its original cannon armament. Concurrent with the initial production run, work was done on a version with a larger adjustable intake cone to house a more powerful radar, and the MiG-21 gained its enlarged dorsal ridge to house improved avionics and fuel. This version, the MiG-21P, followed the trend of adopting a pure missile armament by removing the cannon, while ground attack capabilities were added to make the MiG-21 into a truly multi-role aircraft. Over the life of the fighter, continuous improvements to engine, avionics, the addition of nuclear weapons carrying capability, and more powerful radars led to a dizzying alphabet soup of variants.
A pair of Croat Air Force MiG-21s fly in formation with a US Navy F-14B Tomcat in 2002 (US Navy)
Known to NATO as the Fishbed, the MiG-21 was built and exported in such great numbers that the term “MiG Diplomacy” came into being, with the Soviets practically giving the fighters away to Cold War allies and non-allies alike, all in the hope of gaining influence over world events. As a result, MiG-21s featured heavily in the wars and conflicts of the Cold War era. Fishbeds were in limited use by India by 1965, and appeared in the skies over Vietnam in the same year, usually in the hands of North Korean pilots, though it’s likely that some were flown by Soviet pilots. Following the Soviet doctrine of ground-controlled interception (GCI), MiG-21 pilots became adept at ambushing American fighter bombers such as the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, and their hit and run tactics proved effective at either bringing the larger American aircraft down or causing them to jettison their bombs and make a run for home. Thirteen North Vietnamese pilots became aces flying the MiG-21. Even the vaunted F-4 Phantom II suffered significant losses to MiG-21 pilots, so much so that the US created the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as TOPGUN, to retrain pilots in the art of aerial dogfighting, skills that had become blunted in an age of radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles. It also led the US to initiate the Lightweight Fighter program, or LWF, which resulted in the General Dynamics F-16. MiG-21s were flown by India in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, and figured prominently in air battles over the Middle East from the 1960s to the 1980s. And while many were lost to more modern Iranian fighters such as the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iraqi MiG-21 pilots claimed 43 victories over Iranian pilots.
A modernized Romanian MiG-21 Lancer C firing S-5 rockets during a training exercise (Mihai Zamfirescu)
Production of the MiG-21 in all its variants and internationally eventually lasted from 1959-1985, longer than any other fighter of its era, a run that was only recently topped by the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Soviet Union alone produced 10,645 copies of all variants, with more than 1,000 more built by India and Czechoslovakia. China also manufactured a license-built version of the MiG-21 known as the Chengdu J-7, NATO reporting name Fishcan, until 2013, with more than 2,400 produced.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. This photo does in fact show a Russian built MiG-21F-13 (Fishbed-E) in American colors. In 1967, the USAF acquired this MiG-21 from Israel after an Iraqi pilot defected to Israel during a training flight. The MiG-21 was transferred to the US, where the Defense Intelligence Agency carried out Project Have Doughnut (the project’s name came from the “doughnut” sight on the F-4 Phantom used to target opposing aircraft) to evaluate the MiG-21 against American fighters of the time.
Designated YF-110 to mask its true identity, the Fishbed was flown against F-4, F-105, F-111, F-100, F-104, B-66, RF-101, RF-4 and F-5 aircraft over Groom Lake, Nevada, better known as Area 51. The testing discovered that the Fishbed “has an excellent operational capability in all flight regimes. However, performance is limited below 15,000 feet due to severe airframe buffeting....” Other limitations of the Fishbed were poor forward and rearward visibility, poor gun capacity, high longitudinal control forces, excessive airspeed bleed off at high G loads, and extremely poor engine response at throttle inputs.
Despite those limitations, the Fishbed was, overall, a very effective fighter that could not be discounted. The testing led to specific tactics for each aircraft that might face the MiG-21. For example, the F-104 “should employ high-speed, hit-and-run tactics during offensive action and avoid prolonged maneuvering engagements. If the offensive situation deteriorates, the F-104 should separate by accelerate to above Mach .98 below 15,000 feet.” Versus with the F-4, the MiG-21 had more instantaneous G available than the Phantom at any given airspeed up to the limit load factor of the aircraft. The F-111, F-105 and F-100 were suggested to avoid maneuvering against the MiG-21 entire, as it was far more agile that those U.S. planes.
The complete Have Doughnut file was recently declassified, and is available for download.
June 17, 1959 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage IV. The world entered the atomic age in 1945 when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the hopes that it would hasten the end of WWII. For a time, the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but it wasn’t long before the Russians fielded an operational bomb of their own in 1949. The Soviets were quickly followed by England. But in the days before the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the only way to deliver a nuclear bomb to an enemy target was with a deep penetration bomber, one that could fly high and fast into enemy territory in the hopes of evading enemy interceptors and antiaircraft fire.
A Mirage IV P, modified to carry the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée (medium-range air to surface missile, or ASMP), photographed in 1999. (Rob Schleiffert)
In 1954, French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France decided that his country needed its own nuclear arsenal to put it on par with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. France initiated development of a three-pronged nuclear deterrence (Force de frappe, later called Force de dissuasion) that would include land, sea, and air assets each capable of carrying out nuclear attacks. In 1957, work began on a supersonic bomber capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, and Dassault offered the Mirage IV, which was a substantially enlarged version of their single-engine Mirage IIIA fighter. Where the Mirage III was powered by a single engine, the Mirage IV was powered by two SNECMA Atar afterburning turbojets capable of pushing the bomber to a top speed of Mach 2.2. The wing surface was doubled over that of the fighter, and the wing was also made much thinner than the Mirage III for high-speed performance. It could be armed with either a single free-fall nuclear bomb, a single nuclear missile, or 16 conventional bombs. Though the Mirage IV carried three times more fuel than its predecessor, its armed range of 670 miles was still less than the Mirage III, and would have required multiple refuelings in the event that it had to reach deep inside the Soviet Union. And, if the nuclear mission had to be carried out, it would have been a one-way trip. The aircraft would not have had sufficient fuel to return, and even if it could, its home bases would likely have been annihilated.
A Mirage IV carries out a reconnaissance mission over Kuwait during the Gulf War of 1991 (US Air Force)
The Mirage IV entered service in October 1964 as the first element of France’s nuclear triad, with 36 aircraft forming nine squadrons of four aircraft each. To carry out their missions, the Mirages worked in pairs, with one aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon while the other served as a tanker to refuel the attack aircraft. At the height of operations, there were always at least 12 aircraft in the air, with 12 more on the ground ready to deploy in four minutes should the need arise. The other twelve could be readied within 45 minutes. For seven years, the Mirage IV was France’s only means of delivering a nuclear weapon, as the land and sea components of the Force de dissuassion were not available until 1971. Dassault produced a total of 62 aircraft, and the Mirage IV served in the nuclear deterrence role until it was superseded by strategic nuclear missiles. The bomber variants were retired in 1996, though the reconnaissance versions served until 2005.
An F-117 drops a laser-guided bomb on a test mission over California (US Air Force)
June 18, 1981 – The first flight of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Though the Nighthawk is very much a product of 20th century technology, the radar detection it was meant to avoid traces its history back to a time 100 years earlier. In 1886, German physicist Heinrich Hertz (for whom the eponymous measure of frequency is named) discovered that radio waves could be reflected back from solid objects. In 1904, another German, the inventor Christian Hülsmeyer, found a way to use radio waves to detect metal objects. By WWII, radar (which is actually an acronym for "radio detection and ranging") was used by the British Royal Air Force to detect incoming German bombers, and radars were installed on aircraft to direct bombers to targets and to create the first night fighters. Following the war, development of radar technology made the sets ever more powerful, with increased range and the ability to track ever smaller targets. But what if you could make an aircraft that was invisible to radar, or at least one that had a radar cross-section (RCS) so small that a large aircraft appeared the size of a small bird? While not truly invisible, it would be impossible to detect the aircraft out of all the other normal clutter on a radar screen.
The Have Blue technology demonstrator (US Air Force)
The idea that an aircraft might be made nearly invisible to radar was first proposed by Russian mathematician Pyotr Ufimtsev in 1964, though the shapes necessary rendered the concept impossible at the time because the aircraft would be unflyable. It wasn’t until fly-by-wire flight control computers became more sophisticated that the idea could finally become a reality. The Nighthawk program began with work led by engineer Ben Rich at Lockheed’s Skunk Works on a technology demonstrator known as the Hopeless Diamond, a nickname derived from the shape of the aircraft because nobody believed it would ever fly. On paper, Lockheed engineers believed that the new design would be 1,000 times less visible than any other aircraft ever created at Lockheed, and would show up on a radar screen as an object about the size of a marble. In 1976, the Air Force awarded a contract to develop the Have Blue project, the stealth demonstrator that proved the concept and eventually led to development of the F-117 Nighthawk.
The flat, angled facets which deflect radar signals are clear in this head-on view of the F-117. (US Air Force)
The Nighthawk is instantly recognizable by its faceted shape, a series of flat surfaces that never join at a right angle. This myriad of differently angled flat surfaces works to reflect radar energy away from, rather than back to, the radar receiver. Special radar-absorbent coatings are also used to keep the radar signals from bouncing off the aircraft. But radar isn’t the only way to track an aircraft. The heat signature from jet engines is also easily detectable, so the Nighthawk’s engines are buried deep within the aircraft. This placement, however, ruled out the use of afterburners and limited the Nighthhawk to subsonic speeds. The F-117 also relied on redundant, fly-by-wire flight controls that make thousands of corrections per second. Without this system, the aircraft would simply tumble out of control.
A pair of F-117A Nighthawks from the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing prepare to takeoff from Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait for combat patrol mission over Iraq on March 13, 1998. (US Air Force)
Though given the “F” designation for fighter, the Nighthawk was strictly an attack platform for dropping guided bombs or missiles, and has no gun, either internal or external. After being revealed to the public in 1988, the F-117 made its combat debut in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama. Nighthawks saw extensive action in the 1991 Gulf War, where they flew the first missions of the war to knock out Iraqi radar sites and eventually took part in nearly 1,400 sorties. Though a number of Nighthawks have been lost to accidents, only one was ever lost in combat when it was shot down in 1999 during NATO operations over Serbia. Despite the F-117's stealthy design, Russian radar operators, using modified radars, discovered they could detect the Nighthawk when its landing gear or bomb bay doors were open. The plane came down relatively intact, and the Serbians invited the Russians and Chinese to inspect the wreckage and gain valuable information on American stealth technology.
Four Nighthawks from the 410th Flight Test Squadron fly in formation in 2007. One of these aircraft is on display, and another was broken up in 2008. The other two were placed in storage, and may well still be flying to this day. (US Air Force)
Lockheed produced a total of 64 Nighthawks, and the F-117 was officially retired in 2008. However, observers have reported continuing flights of F-117s over the US Air Force’s super-secret testing site at Groom Lake in Nevada, popularly known as Area 51, and even more public sightings have occurred over the West Coast of the US. No official explanation has been given for the flights, but it is likely that the Nighthawks are playing the role of stealthy adversaries for Air Force and/or Navy flight training.
June 16, 1984 – The flight of the first all-female commercial airline flight crew. When Emily Warner was hired by Frontier Airlines in 1973, she was the only woman working as a pilot for a major US airline and. In 1976, she was the first female pilot to be promoted to captain. In the five years following her hire, the number of female pilots rose to 300. By chance, Warner’s name appeared on the pilot rotation paired with first officer Barbara Cookfor Flight 244, Boeing 737 service from Denver, Colorado to Lexington, Kentucky. The flight marked the first time that an airliner cockpit was crewed by two women.
June 16, 1963 – Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman to fly in space. The Soviet Union scored a significant propaganda victory when it put Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, just three weeks ahead of American Alan Shepherd. To follow that feat, the Soviets thought they could score another victory by being the first to put a woman into space. Valentina Tereshkova, one of five female cosmonauts, launched onboard Vostok 6 and spent nearly three days in space, completing 48 orbits of the Earth. It would be 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space (and third woman overall) when she launched onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, just two days after the 20th anniversary of Tereshkova’s launch.
June 16, 1954 – The first flight of the Lockheed XFV, an experimental aircraft developed by Lockheed in an attempt to provide a fighter aircraft that could operate from the afterdecks of conventional warships. The XFV was designed to take off from a vertical position, transition to horizontal flight, then transition back to vertical and land on its tail. For testing, the XFV was fitted with long landing gear for a traditional horizontal take off, and while some transitions from level to vertical flight and hovering were undertaken, the XFV never took off vertically, due in large part to its underpowered engine. Only one XFV was completed before the project was canceled in 1955.
(US Air Force)
June 17, 1986 – The final flight of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. When the final Boeing B-47 Stratojet (52-0166) was restored to flying status for a one-time ferry flight from Naval Weapons Center China Lake to Castle Air Force Base in California for museum display, it marked the end of one of the most influential designs of the early jet era. Following a 1944 US Air Force request for a new jet-powered bomber, the B-47 entered service with the Strategic Air Command in 1951. By 1956, there were 28 wings of B-47 bombers and five wings of RB-47 reconnaissance variants, with many staged at forward bases as part of America’s nuclear deterrence policy. Though the Stratojet never saw combat, it remained the mainstay of SAC’s bomber force into the 1960s. Over 2,000 were produced, and the EB-47E electronic countermeasures variant served until 1977.
June 17, 1961 – The first flight of the HAL HF-24 Marut (Spirit of the Tempest), a twin-engine fighter bomber designed by former Focke-Wulf designer Kurt Tank and the first jet aircraft developed and built in India. Though designed for Mach 2 flight, the lack of a sufficiently powerful engine meant that the Marut could barely reach Mach 1, and following the successful detonation of India’s first nuclear bomb, import restrictions prevented more powerful engines from being fitted. The Marut did see some action as a ground attack aircraft, and during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, an Indian pilot flying an HF-24 claimed a victory over a Pakistani North American F-86 Sabre. A total of 147 Maruts were built, and the type was retired in 1985.
June 17, 1955 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-104, (NATO reporting name Camel), the world’s first successful jet-powered airliner. Though the de Havilland Comet had flown first, the Comet was withdrawn from service in 1954 due to a series of fatal crashes and did not return to service until 1958. Tupolev based the Tu-1o4 on the Tu-16 bomber, and when the Tu-104 arrived in London in 1956 it caused much consternation in the West because nobody believed that the Soviets had the technology to produce a modern airliner. The Tu-104 entered service with Czechoslovak Airlines in 1957, and while it had a safety record comparable to other airliners of the time, a series of crashes led to its retirement on commercial routes in 1979, and it was removed from military service the following year.
June 17, 1928 – Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane. Though best known for her disappearance while attempting a circumnavigation of the globe in 1937, Earhart made headlines in 1928 as the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane, though she did so as a passenger. In response to Charles Lindbergh’s famous crossing the previous year, Earhart accompanied pilot Wilmer Stutz and copilot/mechanic Louis Gordon on a 22-hour flight from Newfoundland eastward to Wales flying a Fokker F.VII trimotor. Since the flight was made on instruments, Earhart never did any flying during the trip, though on landing, she did tell an interviewer, “...maybe someday I’ll try it alone.” Earhart made her own solo Atlantic crossing in 1932.
June 18, 1983 – Sally Ride becomes the first American woman to fly in space. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and went to space in 1983 as a Mission Specialist on board Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-7, 20 years after the first woman in space, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. At age 32, Ride was also the youngest American and the first LGBT astronaut to fly in space. She went to space a second time the following year, again on Challenger, as a Mission Specialist on STS-41-G. Ride left NASA in 1987, but served on the investigation committees into the Challenger and Columbia disasters. After teaching physics at the University of California, San Diego, Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61.
June 18, 1928 – Explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew disappear in the Arctic. Roald Amundsen was a famed explorer of the Earth’s polar regions and became the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. On May 25, 1928 the airship Italia crashed in the Arctic Ocean while flying around the North Pole, and Amundsen and his crew of five left Tromsø, Norway in a Latham 47 floatplane to search for survivors. Flying across the Barents Sea, the aircraft disappeared without a trace. Two months later a piece of a float was found washed ashore, then three months later a gas tank washed ashore. The bodies of Amundsen and his crew were never found.
June 18, 1916 – The death of Max Immelmann. Immelmann was the first German ace of WWI, and the first to be awarded the Pour le Mérite, one of the highest awards of the Kingdom of Prussia. He is credited with the creation of the acrobatic turning maneuver that bears his name, and had scored 15 victories by the time of his death. Immelmann was one of the first to make use of the interrupter gear developed by Anthony Fokker which allowed the pilot to fire directly through the arc of the fighter’s propeller. Ironically, Immelmann’s death resulted from a malfunction of the device, when he shot away the propeller of his Fokker E.III Eindecker monoplane and crashed.
facw last edited by
For example, the F-104 “should employ high-speed, hit-and-run tactics during offensive action and avoid prolonged maneuvering engagements.
I'm pretty sure I could have given the Air Force this insight even knowing absolutely nothing about the MiG-21. Seems like that would be the right course of action for the F-104 against any opponent (maybe they'd want a turning fight against the MiG-25/31?)
They also could have asked Erich Hartmann. He seemed to know a thing or two about dogfighting. Especially against Soviet aircraft.
Skyfire77 last edited by
@facw Starfighters don't really turn, the Earth just revolves underneath them.
HammerheadFistpunch last edited by HammerheadFistpunch
@ttyymmnn This is a fun watch for fishbed action
Also, re-reading skunkworks by ben rich, the father of the f117. Good read.
Also, re-reading skunkworks by ben rich, the father of the f117. Good read.
I read that a few years ago and yes, it's a very good read. Right now I'm re-reading Dune in anticipation of the upcoming film, and I am enjoying it even more the second time. I'm interested to see what they do with the film, because I honestly can't see how this story could be told in less than 18 hours.
benn454 last edited by
@ttyymmnn Good week to be a female aviator.
Krieger22 last edited by
Russian radar operators
Zoltan Dani and the other crew members of his missile battery are not Russian. I wouldn't be surprised that some misguided form of pan-Slavism claims them, but they aren't.
From the account of the man himself, even when they knew that something was there and how to look for it, getting a lock proved difficult, and if the crew hadn't decided to try for a third and final time (against his own habit) it might not have happened at all.
This, in turn, was facilitated by the general complacency of NATO mission planners throughout Allied Force, with their own ignorance of their best practices corralling stealth and non-stealth aircraft alike into predictable ingress and egress paths.