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The Inside Story of Flying Against the Air Force’s Secret Soviet Fighter Jets

It’s true: The U.S. once had a covert stash of enemy MiGs. An American F-15 pilot reveals what it was like to fight them.

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The race for military supremacy during the Cold War took many unusual twists and turns, and one of the strangest was America's clandestine effort to acquire Soviet fighter jets.

The MiG jets, flown by U.S. Air Force pilots under the secret “Constant Peg” program, were used to familiarize American pilots with what would have been their prime adversary had World War III broke out. Now, 36 years later, one former F-15 pilot has detailed his own experiences flying against the Soviet fighters.

In the 1960s, the U.S. intelligence community went on a top-secret shopping spree. The Central Intelligence Agency purchased or leased Soviet fighter jets from a number of countries, often acquired through pilot defections, captures, or even from the Soviet Union itself.

The Soviet planes were then passed on to the U.S. Air Force, which translated instruction manuals (if any) and had some of its best pilots fly the unfamiliar aircraft. The haul included MiG-19 “Farmer,” MiG-21 “Fishbed,” and MiG-23 “Flogger” fighter jets collected from countries such as Israel, China, Egypt, and Indonesia.

The secret program, known as “Constant Peg,” organized the tiny fleet of MiGs into the 4477th Testing and Evaluation Squadron. The “Red Eagles” of the 4477th flew out of Groom Lake, Nevada, then the home of another top-secret Air Force program—the F-117A stealth fighter.

Once the pilots mastered their Eastern Bloc airframes, they were scheduled to fly against frontline American fighter pilots. The objective was to allow the Americans to see the real thing in action, with all of their advantages and disadvantages. Then, they had to figure out how to beat them.

One such frontline pilot was Paul Woodford. A former Air Force F-15 pilot, Woodford recounts his memorable one-day encounter with Constant Peg planes at the excellent Hush Kit aviation blog.


U.S. Air Force F-15C fighters based at Bitburg, West Germany, 1985. (USAF//Getty Images)

Woodford recalls the time, while in Nevada to participate in one of the Air Force’s famous Red Flag exercises, that he was brought into the Constant Peg program. Although Woodford had heard rumors of secret Soviet fighters in U.S. service, the rumors had just been rumors.

We took turns dogfighting the Fishbed, which was (to me, anyway) surprisingly nimble and tight turning, hard to see due to its small size, and hard to get a guns tracking shot on. The Fishbed, if it uses afterburner (as ours did the entire time we fought with it) has enough gas to fly for about 20 minutes. It was a busy 20 minutes for both of us.

Here's part of Woodford's account of flying against the "Flogger":

Our MiG-23 pilot showed us how it flies, which is as poorly as it fights: difficult to control and unstable, especially with the wings swept aft. What it could do well, as its pilot showed us, was make a high speed, high-angle attack and then run. It accelerated away from us like nothing I’ve seen before or since, driving home the point that if you have a missile shot at a no-shit fast mover you’d better take it right now, because in a second it’ll accelerate right out of the firing envelope, and I guess that was the object of the lesson. The F-15 has the top speed advantage, but there isn’t enough fuel in the world to catch up with a Flogger determined to get out of Dod.

Woodford’s firsthand insights into how the Soviet fighter jets operated are fascinating and, at the time, invaluable to a pilot that might some day square off against them in the air. He was later warned to never talk about his experience, even with his F-15 squadron mates. Luckily for us, we have the full story at the Hush Kit.

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.

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This post originally appeared on Popular Mechanics and was published October 21, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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