During the Cold War, the air-to-air war was alive and well. The Soviets had a huge air force, and their fighters posed a viable threat to NATO planes. As a result, American fighter crews practiced extensively on issues relating to the downing of other planes.
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We trained using Top Gun’s ‘defense-in-depth’ theory, which was based on the idea that no matter how many long-range and front-quarter missiles a fighter carries, there are There was a good chance the threat would reach the visual arena. This arena had many nicknames – “walk into the phone booth” or “put a knife in your teeth” – but was (and still is) better known as “air combat”.
The first trick in aerial combat is to spot your opponent. The often-repeated maxim is “You can’t film what you can’t see”. This trick gets trickier when you’re fighting multiple planes at the same time, which we call a “many against many” or “Battle of Britain” scenario.
I was a Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (the guy in the backseat like “Goose” in the “Top Gun” movie). The problem of air combat with several planes at a time was made easier in the F-14 because there were two of us on the plane. Good crew coordination allowed the pilot to pursue a bandit while the RIO made sure no other threats were able to fire.
Air combat is the most exhilarating part of tactical aviation. The tough turns, crushing G-forces and the intensity of radio communications between wingers make it a wild and thrilling experience. And because of the variables – different pilots flying different planes under different conditions – every air combat is unique.
To simulate the threat, aggressor squadrons existed at all major combat bases. The squadrons flew American assets which allegedly reproduced the flying qualities of Russian planes. For example, the specs of an F-5 looked a lot like a MiG-23, and the A-4 looked a bit like a subsonic MiG-21.
Those of us who were in command of hunters back then – in the mid-1980s – dreamed of taking on real life. And one day, while conducting training at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, we found out that our dream was going to come true – sort of.
We were to participate in a secret program called “Constant Peg”. In the late 1970s, the US Air Force had taken possession of a few Soviet planes that Israel had captured in Syria. Over the years, this inventory has grown to more than a dozen aircraft acquired in countries such as Pakistan and China.
Constant Peg planes were assigned to 4477e Test and Evaluation Squadron – “The Red Eagles” – based at Tonopah in the Nevada desert, a place I had never heard of until the day of our first missions when Red Eagles pilots came. to Fallon to brief us.
Red Eagle representatives reviewed the performance characteristics of the aircraft we would be flying against. In our case that day, we were doing 1 on 1 against a MiG-23 (what they referred to as the YF-113 for OPSEC purposes) and a MiG-21 (what Constant Peg referred to as the YF- 110).
As much as the dossier focused on air combat, it focused on the administrator around the mission, particularly that while we would have air combat closer to Tonopah than to Fallon, in the event of air emergency, we should not consider Tonopah to be an appropriate hijack under any circumstances. land unless the emergency was so severe that not landing at Tonopah would mean we would crash. And if we ended up landing at Tonopah, we were warned that we would end up spending at least two weeks there before we were allowed to return.
These rules seemed pretty intense to us, but we figured that was what a secret program like Constant Peg required.
A few hours later, we took off and flew south until we had an appointment with the MiG-23. It was surreal to see a plane that we had only seen in photos for years before, and the plane looked smaller than we expected.
We walked through the choreography of air combat as we planned, taking advantage of the fact that the MiG-23 was a ‘bleeder’ in terms of rate of turn, which meant the plane was losing a lot of speed (compared to Tomcat) when attempting tight turns. We also did a speed show which showed us that trying to outrun the MiG-23 was potentially a bad idea.
Then we joined the MiG-21 and did another air combat, this one faster than the first because we had to save gas to get back to Fallon. Again, it was surreal to fly in formation on an enemy aircraft, studying the details the Red Eagle pilot reported to us (in cryptic terms for OPSEC purposes) over the radio. The MiG-21 was not as fast as the MiG-23, but it had a better rate of turn.
Upon our return from the flight, my pilot and I did a confidential phone debriefing with the Red Eagle pilots we had flown against. After hanging up, we went over the highlights with each other, both noticing how cool it had been to go against the real planes for once.
Then my pilot, who was the squadron operations officer and my supervisor, said something that struck me as curious: “I bet Constant Peg is not the only thing happening in Tonopah” , did he declare. “There is something else that interests them more than the MiGs. ”
I didn’t think about the comment until months later, when the Air Force finally admitted that the “secret test plane” that crashed in the middle of the Nevada desert in 1984, killing the pilot who was also a three-star general. – too old for normal test flights – was in fact a MiG-23.
I asked my operations officer what he thought of the Air Force admission, and again he hinted that there was something else bigger on a Tonopah. “Otherwise, they would have stayed true to the original story,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they offered the MiGs in hopes the press would stop digging beyond that.” I asked him to clarify the thought, but he just shrugged and said he didn’t know more.
A little less than three years later, the operations officer’s intuition proved correct when the US Air Force introduced the F-117 Nighthawk – the world’s first stealth fighter – to the world. As it turned out, the Air Force had been developing this amazing new capability since the late 1970s by conducting primarily night test flights from Tonopah. Those involved in the program were stationed hundreds of miles from Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas and flew on a special airliner at the start of the work week and returned home to the end. The families had no idea what their military did on this tour.
The F-117 won out during the Desert Storm in 91, and the world was in awe of the DoD who released the cockpit footage that showed bombs hitting exactly where the reticle was placed as the planes entered the enemy defenses totally invisible by radar.
Even more astonishing, especially considering the way information travels in today’s internet age, is how the Air Force has managed to keep the Stealth Fighter a secret for all these years. (There have been a few reports of UFOs made by locals over the years, but the Air Force has managed to dismiss them.)
Not only was Constant Peg excellent training for American fighter crews, but he provided cover for the super secret development of the F-117 – a devious stunt that enabled the success of a platform that is arguably the most effective and revolutionary in the history of highly classified programs.