Mig-21. Those words, invoke images in any fighter aircraft lover’s mind, of it’s sleek , and deadly shape. The mid-mounted characteristic delta wing and tail plane combination, unique in and of itself, and diffuser radome in air intake design, that looked like an engine nacelle with a canopy and flight surfaces added on. I loved it . So much so, that I purchased a scale model of A MiG-21PF published by Revell. At 1/32 scale, it was big, could be decaled as Soviet Air Force or VNAF. Even though I was an adult by then, it didn’t stop me from imagining, strapping on one, and taking her up for a ‘spin’. The first inkling I had of this legendary Mikoyan Gurevich lightweight fighter was during a casual conversation I had with this other kid, who I can only remember as ‘Wendell’. We talked about, the usual stuff; girls, cars, and, who we thought had the best planes, ‘the Americans’, or ‘the Russians’. (the nuance of, ‘Soviet’, wasn’t quite grasped, in the mind of a 13 year old. Not yet, at least.) During the course of the conversation, comparing what we knew, about F-86 vs. Mig-15, or Mig-19 compared to F-100 and so forth,(which was damned little for obvious reasons.), when this other kid, whose name, I can’t even remember, casually asked: “Have you heard about the MiG-21?”; followed by; “It’s a supersonic delta.” At some point we went on our separate ways, home or whatever, but try as I might I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, so I started looking for any info I could find. Easier said than done, especially since I had to read every scrap of news I could lay my hands, on and frankly, the ‘pickins were slim ‘indeed
…I had not up to this point, ever heard of the MiG-21.
It’s hard to imagine today with ease of access afforded by the internet, but there was a time when most news out the USSR was severely limited, not just by the USSR, but the U.S. government as well, presumably, because they didn’t want their ideological adversary to know how much technical information concerning Russian combat aircraft types, the American military establishment knew. As a result, whatever knowledge I had, was cursory at best, or just plain non existent. So while I knew about Mig-15,-17and -19, I had not up to this point, ever heard of the MiG-21. There were a few publications that offered some insight, one even describing the plane, but no pictures, leaving me to imagine something like the ‘Convair Delta Series.’
It wasn’t until a couple of years after, that I finally got a glimpse of one in the form of some grainy photos, published by TASS, around the same time that I was beginning to hear stories about air to air engagements with pilots of the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines, and things were not going well in the air war. not well at all. During the Korean Conflict, American airmen enjoyed a 8 to 1 kill to loss ratio of their opponent the Mig-15, a very well engineered swept-wing design with a powerful 37mm cannon, and that weren’t enough, it also had twin 23mm cannon as well, and outperform the North American F-86 Sabre at altitude, and while MiG was superior in many ways, it was slower than the Sabre and lacked an all-moving tail, which put it’s pilot at a distinct disadvantage at higher speed regimes. Southeast Asia, however was a different story. Most of us know the reason why, but for the edification of any ‘newbies’ out there not up to speed on their history, a brief recap:
During the 1950s U.S. Military planners were operating under the premise, that any ‘modern’ war, would be fought with missiles. The targets would be heavy long-range bombers, and that air to air cannons and dogfighting were a thing of the past. As a result of that thinking, Western fighters, American in particular grew bigger, faster and more complex, in the case of the McDonnell F-4B and ‘C’ Phantom II, omitted a cannon from the design completely. Russian philosophy proceeded along different lines: simple, small (and thus harder to see) , agile and this is key; a gun for up close and personal. All significantly lower cost per example. A classic an example of ‘less is more’, as any. All characteristic of the MiG series.
It is difficult to accurately evaluate how this all would have worked out; had the ‘cold war’, turned hot. That war never happened. The war that did occur caught the U.S. war planners, grossly unprepared for the war that did. Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses , Martin B-57 Canberras , designed for all out nuclear combat, were forced to serve as ‘bomb trucks’, and the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, which was selected over the North American F-107A, because of it’s abililty to carry the B-61 nuclear weapon in an internalized rotary weapons bay(which had to be bolted shut in order to carry conventional 500lb. bombs), and while very fast ‘clean’ was used to fly daily missions, laden with bombs that had to dropped to maneuver, or to simply escape. ROEs were not very helpful either: ‘Don’t fire until visual ID.(IFF was not reliable, either.) Parked aircraft were off limits too.
In the meantime, American pilots were facing a new reality, completely unprepared and untrained for air to air combat. Kill ratios on the U.S. side had deteriorated to plane per plane. A pretty dismal turn of events, amid serious demoralizing losses of planes and pilots that fell to Vietnamese pilots and their MiGs, in addition to ground fire. The Americans eventually, were able get their proverbial feet and were able to regain the air initiative, to some degree. But even so, North Vietnamese MiG-21Fs , continued to claim air to air victories over just about every American type in theater during the war. Since that time, the ubiquitous fighter has seen action in nearly every corner of the globe in a number of variants, with in over 60 nations, and a fair number of them, including the MiG-21Bis, are still in operational service in a number of nations some 60 years since the first example first lifted into the air on 16 June 1955. The operational history of the aircraft is way too extensive to be encompassed in this article, but there are plenty of books out there. The Mig-21Bis, by Leatherneck Simulations, the subject of Digital Combat Simulator’s ‘high fidelity’ ‘study’ simulation, is based on the last variant built of the type . This simulation puts a breath into that old fantasy about flying this bird. It’s closer than I dared dream was possible back at the time I purchased that scale model, though Leatherneck’s creation is of a newer and more capable Mig-21, and that’s just fine with me. Ironically, it was the Indian Air Force’s requirements for a more advanced version of their current platform of the time, that were the driving force behind the development of this particular variant in the form of the Mig-21Bison, with it’s updated avionic suit and curved windscreen, ( a distinct departure from other MiG-21s in service) in much the same way as the Sukhoi SU-30MKI was the baseline for Russia’s ‘new’ SU-30SM, and even though the IAF is currently in the process of replacing most with more sophisticated types, I’m sure the ground technicians will really miss them, for their ruggedness and simplicity. Despite that, other nations, even some Eastern European ones such a Croatia and Serbia , still rely on the type for their defense needs and some nations, such as Israel offer a refitted version call the ‘Lancer Series MiG-21’, operated by the Romanian Air Force. Bottom line: this warplane will probably be around for a while. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Mig-21 and all it’s ‘brethren’, is that if not for it, there might never have been such a thing as an F-16 “Viper.” Think on that. I do.