Lt. Col. Fred "Spanky" Clifton is one of the most experienced aggressor pilots ever, having flown the F-15, F-5, F-16 and the notorious MiG-29. He’s been in dogfights with pretty much every fighter out there and he’s an instructor at the prestigious Fighter Weapons School. Now he’s here to share his expertise with you.
How in the hell did you end up becoming the first USAF fighter pilot to fly the Russian-built MiG-29 Fulcrum as an exchange pilot?
First – a little (actually, a lot of) background. I earned a degree in aerospace engineering in 1979 and worked for Boeing in the Seattle area for two years after graduating from college. I had no real interest in joining the military at the time since I was an Army brat, growing up mostly at Fort Bliss, TX, and probably felt I had done my time. Plus, my dad told me if I ever joined the Army he’d kick my butt. Trust me Dad, an Army career was never on my radar screen. The Army doesn’t have cool jets!
I had a life-long fascination with airplanes and had built hundreds of plastic models, eventually moving on to u-control models and then radio-controlled models. I had always wanted to learn to fly myself, but could never afford it. One of my coworkers at Boeing told me about the Boeing Employees Flying Association (BEFA). BEFA had a range of different airplanes at affordable prices to members. For example, a Cessna 152 rented for $19 / hour, including fuel. An instructor was another $10 / hour. I joined BEFA and got my private pilot’s license in 1981. The ink wasn’t wet on my certificate when I took my girlfriend for a flight. I moved up to the Cessna 172 and thought this was the cat’s meow. Flying bug smashers was fun, but it sure wasn’t exciting. One Spring Saturday in 1981 another coworker called and asked if I wanted to go to the open house at McChord AFB. It was an abnormally sunny day in the Pacific Northwest, so away we went. Parked next to each other on the flightline was an F-15 and F-16. I was drawn to them like flies to a cow patty and I’m sure the two pilots were happy to have me quit bending their ears with questions. After a great show by the Canadian Snow Birds, I went and stood about 100 feet in front of the two fighters and thought to myself that I could fly one of those.
The next week, I called the local recruiting office and talked to the USAF recruiter. We set up a meeting and upon entering the building the Navy recruiter told me that if the Air Force wouldn’t take me, the Navy would. The Air Force recruiter must have had some issues with my appearance. I had shoulder-length hair and a way out-of-regs mustache. His first comment was that I had to have a college degree to become an Air Force pilot. Got one of those. First square checked off. He next commented that I can’t be doing (or never had done) drugs. Hadn’t gone there. Second square checked off, and the ball started rolling. Remember, this was 1981 and the start of the Reagan military build-up. If you met certain minimal criteria, and could fog a mirror, you were in. A couple of months after starting the application process, completing the testing requirements and passing a flight physical, I was awarded a slot in USAF Officer Training School (OTS) with guaranteed pilot training as a follow-on; assuming successful completion of OTS.
Driving from Seattle to San Antonio, TX (OTS was at the Medina Annex of Lackland AFB in those days) the route took me past Hill AFB in Utah. As a drove by I saw a couple of F-16s in the traffic pattern. If you’ve ever been to the Salt Lake City area, you know how nice it is. Let’s see – F-16s, mountains (skiing, hiking, etc). It must be a sign from God. I made up my mind right there I wanted to fly F-16s.
I never got stationed at Hill.
After finishing OTS, I started UPT at Laughlin AFB, TX in March 1982. There were 72 students who started the class (Reagan build-up once again). If I had any apprehensions about flight training, the biggest was aerobatics. Up until that time, I had never been a big fan of things like roller coasters and such and was afraid I’d get sick doing ‘acro.’ We started doing some mild acro on the second or third flight in the T-37 and I took to it like a fish takes to water.
The next thing I was apprehensive about was instrument flying. I’d never done that. There are four things one needs to do simultaneously to fly instruments – hold heading, hold altitude, hold airspeed and talk on the radio. In the first couple of T-37 instrument simulator sorties, I could do three, but not all four. During the second sim sortie, this hot-tempered first lieutenant instructor was banging on the glare shield and yelling at me over my errors. I’m not one to swear a whole lot, but I finally looked over at him and told him that if he’d STFU I’d do better. He did shut up and the sim went much better. He and I got along great after that and we ended up flying a lot together. I didn’t bust any flights or sims in the T-37.
The success continued into the T-38; although, I did bust one T-38 flight because I was slow getting the landing gear up as the flight lead during a formation take-off. As assignment time approached, I had been ranked as "fighter qualified" and filled out my assignment preference sheet (aka, Dream Sheet) with F-16 at the top and F-15 was number two.
Every UPT class does its Assignment Night a little bit differently. We knew beforehand what aircraft would be in the assignment drop for my class. As far as fighters, there would be one F-16, two F-15s, one F-4 and three A-10s. We decided that on Assignment Night, each student would be called up and face the crowd with a projector screen to his or her back. The first picture projected on the screen was the student’s first-choice aircraft, the second picture was what the class voted that the student would get and the final would be a picture of the USAF’s (final) choice for you. As the students went up, one after the other, it was easy to narrow down the remaining available aircraft from the deck. Kind of like counting cards. It got down to the last two students, me and another, and the two last available jets were an F-15 and an F-16. I was called up first. As I stood in front of the crowd – first picture: F-16, second picture: F-16, third picture: F-15.
My reaction? Are you effing kidding me? I had to gather myself quickly. This was actually a great deal and honor. 13 of my classmates had been selected for one of the ultimate USAF screw jobs, First-Assignment Instructor Pilot, and were staying at Laughlin to instruct in T-37s and T-38s. I’d better put on a happy face. I saluted the student squadron commander and pumped my fists on the way back to my seat. Since I didn’t get my number-one choice, the F-15 was going to have to ‘sell’ itself to me, but I decided to go into it with an open mind. Of the 72 students who started, about 38 graduated. Even during the Reagan build-up, there were standards. The last student was washed out the day we received our wings.
I started F-15A training at Luke AFB, AZ in July 1983 and was assigned to the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Holloman AFB, NM in October 1983. In February 1987 I was assigned to the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB. About a year and a half into the Aggressor assignment, the decision was made to convert from the F-5E to another airplane; which was, ultimately, the F-16.
There was a lot of indecisiveness at the USAF level as to which Aggressor pilots would convert to the F-16. At first, the Air Force wasn’t going to send a lot of former F-15 guys like me to F-16 training. So here was a large group if F-5 instructors with no place to go; or, at least, we thought. Uncle Sugar had a lot of F-5 instructor pilot (IP) jobs in exotic locations and he lined us former Eagle pilots against the wall and started throwing darts at us. I got an assignment to Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Bizerte, Tunisia. I went on record as having volunteered for the job if I could come back to the Aggressors and convert to the F-16 (Remember? My number-one choice). The deal was done and after a year in a land of strange new sights and smells, I got an assignment to the PACAF Aggressors who were in the process of moving from Clark Air Base in The Philippines to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and taking delivery of brand new Block 30 F-16C Vipers.
Unfortunately, en route to Mac Dill AFB, FL to get checked out in the F-16 the powers-that-be decided to close all the USAF Aggressor squadrons. Suddenly, I become that guy with Eagle stink on him that the Air Force didn’t want to send to a Viper if it didn’t have to. This was especially true at the captain level. Those streams were just not to be crossed. There was a lot of back-and-forth at Tactical Air Command assignments and the USAF Personnel Center about what to do with me and the initial hack wasn’t very good – Air Liaison Officer at Fort Irwin, CA. However, cooler heads prevailed and I was allowed to continue F-16 training and got an assignment to Misawa Air Base, Japan. That’s how I got to the F-16. It took me over 7 years from the time a started UPT to the time I got my first Viper flight.
Arriving at Misawa, I fell into an age gap. There were a bunch of old-heads and a bunch of young punks, and with lots previous fighter experience, I upgraded to F-16 IP (instructor pilot) pretty quickly. Our squadron weapons and tactics officer, now a four-star, was a great guy and an outstanding example of what a squadron patch wearer (USAF Fighter Weapon’s School graduate) should be. I still had time left before I got too senior, so he backed me to go the F-16 Fighter Weapons School (I was in the last "Fighter" Weapons School class – 92A).
Being a FWS graduate opens some doors not necessarily available to other fighter pilots. In 1995, while flying Vipers at Pope AFB, I was selected to be the first MiG-29 exchange pilot in Germany. A requirement for the job was to be a Weapons School graduate. After that assignment, it was back to the Viper at Cannon AFB, NM and then, ultimately, back to Nellis in 2001. I hung up the spurs in December 2004. That’s the chronology in a nutshell.
When it comes to US fighters, you have flown some of the most notorious American fighters in modern history, including F-15, F-5, and F-16. Can you give us an idea of what the different characteristics of each jet are and their positives and negatives, especially in terms of air-to-air combat?
F-15A/B: The F-15 I flew was nowhere near the jet it evolved into. The Eagle is big, powerful and handles great. It’s a lot like a Mercedes. The cockpit is large and roomy and the outward visibility, except for the canopy bow, is slightly better the Viper’s. Control response is crisp and sometimes twitchy, especially in pitch. The F-15A is structurally 1500 pounds lighter than the F-15C. It also carries 2000 pounds less internal fuel than the F-15C. That meant lots of short sorties. It is a great BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers aka dogfighting) machine.
The jet accelerates well, but is not especially fast at low altitude. At lot is written about the F-15 being Mach 2.5 capable. First off, Mach 2.5 is altitude limited to above 50,000 feet and time limited to 1 minute maximum. I’ve flown the jet to Mach 2.35, its normal operating limit, on only a couple of occasions.
We occasionally did intercepts against SR-71s in which we got out to Mach 1.9 to Mach 2.1, but flying at those kinds of speeds were rare. Before anyone thinks we were trying to chase down SR-71s, that was not the case. The intercepts were head-on in which we simulated launching AIM-7s using the SR-71 as a MiG-25 simulator.
Accelerating straight up? That’s a myth. First off, the old coal-burning Pratt F100-100 proved troublesome. When the throttles were pushed into afterburner you weren’t 100% sure if the flame would come out of the back end or the front end. Sometimes, it came out of both ends. I’ve flown a twin-engine glider, meaning that both engines, while still operating but producing no thrust, as they had stalled. I had maybe 30 hours in the jet at that point. While the Pratt F100-220 in the F-15C is more trouble free, it only produces about 23,500 pounds of thrust. Installed thrust-to-weight is slightly less than 1:1 with eight missiles and no external fuel. If you point the jet straight up and start climbing thrust starts to fall off as the air’s density starts to decrease. Weight is not decreasing, as fuel is burned off faster than thrust is decreasing. So stop it everyone – there’s no accelerating going straight up in the F-15.
Where the F-15A fell short, at least compared to what the jet became, is in the avionics department. The original APG-63 radar nowhere lived up to the hype and is worthy of a whole other discussion.
Bottom line – I was able to lay a solid air-to-air foundation in the F-15 and, in the end, the jet ‘sold’ itself to me. I loved flying it.
F-5E/F: Getting selected to the aggressors was a huge deal for me and what I wanted to do after my initial fighter assignment. In those days, it was rare for a young punk like me to get a second consecutive Eagle assignment unless one went to either Luke AFB or Tyndall AFB to be an F-15 IP. The aggressor pilot selection process was competitive, so I felt pretty good about the opportunity. We had no two-seat F-5s in the aggressors. I didn’t fly the F-5F until I’d been flying the jet for over a year and a half. I hated the F-5F. It was a dog.
As complex as the Eagle is, the F-5E is the polar opposite. Simplicity is a whole quality unto itself. Most look at the F-5E and surmise it’s a single-seat T-38. That’s not the case. The F-5E’s GE J85-21 engines have almost as much thrust in military power as the T-38’s GE J85-5s have in full afterburner. The F-5E carries 900 pounds more fuel than the T-38, so it has slightly better legs. The F-5 also has semiautomatic or fully automatic, depending on vintage, leading and trailing edge maneuvering flaps and has leading edge extensions similar to the Viper. The Tiger II will fly rings around a T-38 and is faster at both low and high altitude.
Because the F-5 is so small it does present some issues with radar detection range and, if it survives to the merge, it’s difficult to acquire visually. Finding the merge in the F-5 is also a challenge as its pulse radar is not very good and is difficult to use. You bank on the fact that everyone is flying a bigger jet. In a maneuvering fight, the F-5E can acquit itself well. While not enjoying the sustained turn rate of other fighters, its nose can be jacked around at slow speed to at least intimidate some young fighter pilot into making a mistake. The controls feel slightly heavier than those in the T-38 and rearward visibility is somewhat lacking, but workable. Over-the-nose visibility is also a challenge as the nose is fairly long and you sit fairly low in the cockpit. I came into a lot of merges inverted if I knew the adversaries were below me.
The F-5 was a great aggressor aircraft. It did a great job simulating the MiG-21, a passable job of simulating the MiG-23, but was unable to simulate the new MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker. Its inability to simulate the new Soviet 4th-generation threats was one of the things that led to its demise in the USAF. It lacks as an operational fighter due to range limitations and it can’t carry a lot. But it is a hoot to fly. I learned more about stick-and-rudder fighter piloting in the F-5 than I did in anything else. In the high horsepower jets, thrust can make up for a lot of mistakes. Not so with the F-5. It’s a little jet with lots of bullets.
F-16C/D: The Viper is, in my opinion, what a fighter should be. It is small, nimble, accelerates like a bullet and is a pure joy to fly. Instead of loading it down with bombs, the radar should have been improved to give it Eagle-like capabilities and the jet should have taken more of an air-to-air role. While I said that the F-15 is like a Mercedes, The F-16 is like a Formula One race car. The cockpit is tight and it gives you more of the sensation that you’re actually wearing the jet than actually sitting in it. The side-stick controller takes about as much time to get used to as it takes to read this sentence.
I’ve flown all the C/D versions – Blocks 25, 30, 32, 40, 42, 50, 52. The Pratt-powered Blocks 25, 32 and 42 are good performers, but not great. The GE-powered Blocks 30, 40 and 50, plus the Pratt-powered Block 52 are absolute beasts. The GE-powered fleet is flown by the active-duty F-16 squadrons while Air National Guard and Reserve squadrons operate a mixed bag of GE-powered and Pratt-powered Vipers. I’ve never flown a jet that will out accelerate the GE-powered F-16. At low altitude, GE Vipers will step out to its airspeed of 810 knots indicated airspeed like nobody’s business. The limit is based on the polycarbonate canopy and not the engine. At higher speeds the canopy starts to get warm due to air friction. At some point the canopy will start to deform if the jet gets much faster. At high altitude, I’ve had the jet out to Mach 2.05. This limit is due to the fixed air inlet and opposed the F-15’s variable geometry inlet.
In his book, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam, Col C.R. Anderegg, USAF (ret), former F-15 pilot and F-4 Fighter Weapons School graduate, wrote this about the F-16: "The pure joy of the F-16, though, was in the furball (complex dogfight with many aircraft), where the aircraft had the edge over the F-15 and a significant edge over everything else. With the F-16’s incredible agility and power, the pilot could get close and stay close. He was less a viper than a python gradually squeezing the fight closer while beating down his victim’s energy and resistance until the time came for a mortal blow. Chaff might spoof a radar missile or flares might decoy a heat-seeker, but as one pilot said, ‘The gun is stupid. You can’t jam it and you can’t fool it.’ The F-16 was a superb gunfighter, and in the furball it was the top cat."
F-15 Eagle Vs F-16 Viper, which wins the day in an air-to-air engagement?
Starting from BVR, the F-15 enjoys a big advantage in radar detection range. Surprisingly, the Viper’s radar has significantly higher peak power than the Eagle’s radar. Because the F-15s radar can operate with a high pulse-repetition frequency versus the Viper, whose radar operates with a medium pulse-repetition frequency, the Eagle’s radar is actually transmitting more radar energy down range resulting in greater detection range. Because of some of the limitations of the old APG-63 I flew with in the F-15A, the F-16C’s APG-68 was actually a step up for me. The APG-68 had more modes and multi-targeting capability. Unfortunately, for the first couple of years I flew Vipers, we were AIM-9 only. AMRAAM didn’t start to come into the equation until late 1991.
In an air-to-air configuration, the F-16 has a higher fuel fraction and lower specific fuel consumption than the F-15. An F-15C IP at the Fighter Weapons School, (then) Major Mike "Boa" Straight, wrote an article about this in the Fighter Weapons Review in 1988 or 1989. I’m not just making this up. On-station time, acceleration to intercept speed and range advantages go to the Viper.
WVR (within visual range) scenario: An F-15C and GE-powered F-16C merge head-on, no missiles, guns only. This is truly where the F-16 excels. The F-15 is absolutely no slouch in this arena and the margin for error is small, but he F-16 enjoys a sustained turn rate advantage and a thrust-to-weight advantage. My game plan would be not to slow down too much in the F-16. Where the F-16 starts to fall off in comparison is when it gets slow and butts up against its hard-wired angle-of-attack limiter. Slow is not a place to be in the F-16 unless absolutely necessary. I wanted to keep my airspeed up relative to the Eagle and beat him down to where his nose track starts to slow and use the vertical as required and the F-16’s turn rate advantage to bring my nose to bear. Both jets bring excellent handling qualities and visibility to the equation. What you really don’t want to be is the MiG pilot who faces off against either jet in this scenario.
What was it like being sent to Germany to fly with former enemies in a fighter that you trained so hard to kill for so many years?
As stated earlier, I got this assignment while I was flying F-16s at Pope AFB, NC. We officially activated the F-16 squadron in June 1993 and were declared operational six or so months later. Air Combat Command (ACC) brought in a fairly experienced group of guys to stand up the new squadron. The four flight commanders, of which I was one, were promoted to major in February 1994. I personally pinned on major on the 1st of March, 1994. We completed our first combat deployment in November 1994 and that set the whole scenario up.
At the time ACC (Air Combat Command) had a policy of only three field-grade (major through colonel) officers in a line fighter squadron. That meant the squadron commander, the operations officer and the assistant operations officer. We suddenly had too many field graders, but ACC let us slide until the combat deployment was completed. Then the handwriting was on the wall and I had to find a new assignment.
In the 1990s, assignments could be found and applied for on-line on the Personnel Center’s website. We called these ‘the want ads.’ I had been unsuccessful until one of my squadron mates asked me if I had applied for the MiG-29 exchange assignment. I had missed that one. It was in the special duty assignments section. I checked out the want ad and called the point-of-contact (POC). All assignments had to be posted in the want ads, regardless if someone had already been penciled in for that job or not. Officially, it had to be a ‘competitive’ process. Sometimes, someone already had the job but it was listed just to be ‘legal.’ I asked the POC if this was the case. I figured someone’s prize show dog at Nellis already had the assignment. It has to be in the want ads just to be legal.
The POC told me it was an open competition. "Put me down as a volunteer," was my reply. The job required that one be either an F-15C or F-16 Weapons School graduate, pass the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) and complete German language training at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, CA. As an Aggressor pilot I had been the MiG-29 / Su-27 subject matter expert. I really wanted this job. What a chance to see if what I had been teaching about the MiG-29 Fulcrum was actually correct.
The first thing to do was the DLAB. In El Paso, TX we had to take Spanish from the first through the seventh grade and I couldn’t put together a complete sentence in Spanish; how was I supposed to pass the DLAB? For the DLAB I was set at a desk and issued a set of headphones. The test proctor inserted a cassette tape into a tape player and the tape started off with language rule 1. With language rule 1 in hand, the recording went into some made-up language that sounded like a mixture of Tagalog and Arabic. Based on language rule 1, and the made-up language, I had to translate different statements. After about five questions with only language rule 1, then came language rule 2. Oh by the way. Don’t round file language rule 1. It’s still a player. Now I had to translate more statements using both language rules. Then came language rules 3, 4 and 5, each at a time. Each new rule required translating statements while retaining the previously introduced rules. It was a hard test and there was no rewinding the tape to listen to something over again. I knew I had busted it and my name would be taken out of consideration for the MiG-29 assignment. Lo and behold, I actually passed the test. "When in doubt, ‘C’ it out" really worked. As a result, I was officially a player for the MiG-29 exchange assignment.
There was a report-no-later-than date for German language training at DLI for May 1995. About a month out, there had not yet been a release of who had actually gotten the MiG-29 job. Anyone who got the job would have to have time to prepare for the move, actually get to California and then find a house before the class started. The Air Force created a time crunch. There was a guy I had gone to OTS and UPT with working fighter assignments at the Personnel Center. He got one of the A-10 assignments out of UPT and we eventually ended up flying F-16s together at Misawa. I called him to see if he couldn’t get any intel from the special duty assignments folks. He said he’d have to call me back. When he did he told me he couldn’t tell me but he said if he got a chance to come to Germany he’d like for me to give him a ride in the MiG-29.
I got the official word a few days later when a USAF colonel in London – he was responsible for all exchange officers in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East – called to congratulate me on my selection. He explained that what put me over the top, and it was the Germans’ call, was that I had flown both the Eagle and the Viper and had been an Aggressor pilot.
I showed up in Laage, Germany in January 1996. The first month I was there I was without my family and I did this so I could find a house before they showed up. Until my household goods arrived I stayed on base. Since there was nothing else to do, I used the time to study the MiG-29 Dash 1 (Flight Manual). The jet is exceedingly simple plus the electric and hydraulic systems are similar to the F-16. I got a few afternoons of systems academics, normal operations and emergency procedures. I went through about five simulator sorties emphasizing normal ops, emergency procedures and instrument flying. This culminated in an emergency procedures simulator evaluation.
Flight training was just like we do in the USAF when we transition someone to a new fighter. The first few flights were mainly aircraft handling, instrument flying and pattern work in a two-seater. The fourth or fifth flight was an instrument check which allowed to me solo the single-seater. I didn’t give much special credence to my initial solo. I had soloed other jets before, so this was nothing new.
My family had since arrived in Germany and I didn’t mention anything to my wife about my initial solo flight when I left for work that morning. However, after I stepped to go on my solo flight, one of the pilots went to pick up my family and bring them out to the base to watch the event. When I taxied up to the runway, I switched to tower’s frequency and transmitted I was ready for take-off. The clearance came from my 9-year old daughter. That was cool. After landing I was met by the squadron pilots, my family, the wing leadership and numerous others. I received a plaque and we toasted with champagne to commemorate the event. The Germans do things up right.
Next, it was on to tactical training in the Fulcrum. When I showed up in Germany I had over 2500 fighter hours. It was decided that I would complete an abbreviated syllabus. I did the BFM phase (offensive, defensive, neutral) in one day. I did one intercept sortie and was done with my check-out.
The only avenue for Luftwaffe pilots into the MiG squadron was to be an F-4 flight lead. No new guys and no Tornado pilots. The conversion syllabus was designed for the new MiG-29 pilot to walk out the other end as a MiG-29 flight lead. After my last syllabus sortie I was asked if I wanted to lead a 4 MiG-29s versus 4 Danish F-16s sortie the next day. I explained that it had been a year since I’d flown a 4 v 4 anything and I was probably a little rusty. I qualified further I’d be more than happy to fly any other position in the flight, which I did. I just didn’t lead – until the next 4 v 4.
Since I had already been a fighter IP in multiple jets, the chief of wing standardization and evaluation (and F-4F Fighter Weapons School graduate) decided that my IP upgrade would also be abbreviated. He explained that they weren’t going to teach me how to be an instructor pilot so all I needed to do was take an instrument check ride in the backseat of the two-holer and safely land the jet from the backseat. I was a MiG-29 IP with less than 30 hours in the jet.
We did not employ the Fulcrum as the Warsaw Pact had intended. We employed it using western tactics. Mostly like the F-16 before it got AMRAAM. Although we had a BVR missile, we weren’t going to stand toe-to-toe with AMRAAM shooters and win. We had to be sneaky.
When Germany reunited and the Luftwaffe inherited 24 MiG-29s, a small cadre of F-4 pilots were sent to the MiG-29 squadron to check out in the jet and then ‘teach’ already-qualified MiG-29 pilots from the former Nationale Volks Armee (National Peoples’ Army) of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany) how to employ it. The Luftwaffe went through a vetting process of which former East German MiG-29 pilots to retain and which to cut loose. The process was as difficult and it was sometimes harsh. But, in the end, of around 25 MiG-29 pilots in the squadron when I arrived, about half were former East German (Ossis) and the other half were former West Germans (Wessis).
The vetting process was done right and the Luftwaffe picked the right guys all around from both sides. Even though we were enemies only a few years before, the Ossis were all great guys. We shared a common love of flying fighters. Politics, shmolotics.
I got along great with them and they were very receptive to me being in the squadron. The only issues about me being in the wing came from some of the senior enlisted maintainers (almost all Ossis). Some of them were outright hostile.
I avoided bringing up ‘us versus them’ discussions with the Ossis. If they brought it up, I’d certainly join in the conversation. I didn’t want to seem like the conqueror and them the vanquished in the Cold War. We concentrated on making ourselves better MiG-29 pilots. I did get the feeling they understood that at least their training was not up to western standards and they were frustrated by what they were not allowed to do and how innovative thought was crushed. They had great respect for the capabilities of our aircraft and our training.
What was the MiG-29 Fulcrum like to fly? Did it live up to the fear and Cold War hype?
The Fulcrum is a very simple jet that was designed to fit in the Soviet model of tactical aviation. That means the pilot was an extension of the ground controller. As many have read, innovative tactics and autonomous operations were not approved solutions in the Warsaw Pact countries. The cockpit switchology is not up to western standards and the sensors are not tools used to enhance pilot situation awareness, rather they are only used as tools to aid in the launch of weapons.
The jet is very reliable and fairly simple to maintain. I could service the fuel, oil, hydraulics and pneumatics and had to demonstrate proficiency in these areas before I could take a jet off-station. Its handling qualities are mediocre at best. The flight control system is a little sloppy and not very responsive. This does not mean the jet isn’t very maneuverable. It is. I put it between the F-15C and the F-16. The pilot just has to work harder to get the jet to respond the way he wants.
The Fulcrum also has a lot of ponies under the hood. I rack-and-stack it in the same order as above as far as thrust-to-weight. The only real side-by-side performance comparison was with an F-15C. I was carrying a centerline fuel tank and the Eagle had no external stores except for the wing pylons and missile launch rails. The mission was BFM but the MiG-29’s centerline tank is limited to 4 g until empty. The performance comparison put me 3000 feet line abreast with the F-15 at 10,000 feet and 300 knots indicated airspeed. At the F-15 pilot’s call we each selected full afterburner and I matched his pitch rate until we got to 70° nose high. The first one to reach 100 knots would call terminate and we’d see how it played out. When the F-15 pilot hit 100 knots I still had 170 knots and was well above him.
Another common performance comparison that doesn’t require any side-by-side look is over-top-top airspeed – the speed required to complete a loop. The Viper requires about 250 knots to get over the top. I could horse the MiG-29 over the top at 150 knots. While the GE-powered F-16 does have a thrust-to-weight advantage over the MiG-29, the Viper will get to its angle-of-attack limit if it started a loop at such a slow speed and the pilot can’t pull the nose through the vertical. Although the Fulcrum has the same angle-of-attack limit as the F-16 (26°), the Fulcrum pilot can override the limiter and get to 45° to 50° angle-of-attack. The only caution when doing this with the MiG is that it loses some directional stability above the angle-of-attack limit.
The Fulcrum only carries a few hundred more pounds of fuel internally than an F-16. That fuel has to feed two fairly thirsty engines. The jet doesn’t go very far on a tank of gas. We figured on a combat radius of about 150 nautical miles with a centerline fuel tank. This included a high subsonic cruise out to its area-of-responsibility, about 2 minutes of afterburner and a high subsonic cruise back to base.
When it came to tactically employing the jet there were surprises and disappointments. The radar was actually pretty good and enabled fairly long-range contacts. As already alluded to, the displays were very basic and didn’t provide much to enhance the pilot’s situational awareness. The radar switchology is also heinous. The Fulcrum’s radar-guided BVR weapon, the AA-10A Alamo, has nowhere the same legs as an AMRAAM and is not launch-and-leave like the AMRAAM. Within its kinematic capability, the AA-10A is a very good missile but its maximum employment range was a real disappointment.
One sensor that got a lot of discussion from Intel analysts was the infrared search-and-track system (IRSTS). Most postulated that the MiG-29 could use the passive IRSTS to run a silent intercept and not alert anyone to its presence by transmitting with its radar. The IRSTS turned out to be next to useless and could have been left off the MiG-29 with negligible impact on its combat capability. After a couple of attempts at playing around with the IRSTS I dropped it from my bag of tricks.
Other things that were disappointing about the MiG-29 were the navigation system, which was unreliable, the attitude indicator and the heads-up display.
Overall, the MiG-29 was/is not the 10 foot tall monster that was postulated during the Cold War. It’s a good airplane, just not much of a fighter when compared to the West’s 4th-generation fighters.
Regardless, there was the ‘cool factor.’ I got to fly the MiG-29 all over Europe and we were treated like rock stars. Those fighter squadrons we didn’t visit came to Laage. At one point we discussed putting up a sign by the transient aircraft ramp that would say "Fighter Town Laage."
I flew to US airbases several times and often couldn’t get away from the airplane for over an hour. The only time I got harassed was at Ramstein Air Base. I had flown a Fulcrum there one morning to take an Air Command and Staff College test and, since my USAF boss’s office had been moved to Ramstein from London, to go check in with the colonel. After meeting with him I was walking over to the Base Exchange to pick up some tortilla chips, salsa and Jack Daniel for the squadron bar. Every time I flew to a US air base an extra travel pod was hung on the jet to fill up with snacks and drinks for the squadron. Walking from my boss’s office to the Exchange I had to walk past Headquarters US Air Force Europe. Headquarters such as these are manned with lots of colonels and generals. I hadn’t gotten 100 feet from my boss’s office when a USAF colonel stopped me, put me at attention and demanded to know why I was wearing a gray German flight suit and a USAF flight cap. I tried explaining to him why and he wasn’t satisfied. I finally had to ask him to go talk to my colonel at which time he let me go while he walked off grunting to himself.
I also got congratulated many times about my accent-free English. Everyone expected the guy wearing a German flight suit to be German. I guess the USAF major’s oak leaves on my shoulders didn’t register. In the end, I had the chance to compare what I had learned as an aggressor pilot to what I learned getting to fly the actual machine. I was dating the other team’s prom queen and she was telling me all her most intimate secrets.
During the mid 1990s the US still relied on the relatively narrow field of view AIM-9L/M Sidewinder as a short-range heat-seeking missile, what was it like being introduced to the MiG-29’s Archer missile, with its high off bore-sight targeting capabilities and its helmet mounted sight?
The Archer and the helmet-mounted sight (HMS) brought a real big stick to the playground. First, the HMS was really easy to use. Every pilot was issued his own HMS. It mounted via a spring-loaded clip to a modified HGU-55P helmet. The pilot then could connect the HMS to a tester and adjust the symbology so it was centered in the monocle. Once in the jet the simple act of plugging in the power cord meant it was ready to go. There was no alignment process as required with the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cuing System. It just worked.
Being on the shooting end of the equation, I saw shot opportunities I would’ve never dreamed of with the AIM-9L/M. Those on the receiving end were equally less enthused about being ‘shot’ from angles they couldn’t otherwise train to. I was once playing bandit for a couple of F-16s in visual 2 v 1 Air Combat Maneuvering. I was offensive on the wingman and had temporarily lost sight of the fight lead. I reacquired a tally-ho (visual contact) on him as he was pulling lead for a high-angle gun shot. Instead of calling me ‘dead’ with an AIM-9M, he flew through AIM-9M launch parameters trying to get gun video on me. His attempt put him in launch parameters for an Archer shot, so with a push of a button on the right throttle I commanded the seeker head to slave to the HMS line-of-sight and was able to call a kill shot on him. Imagine pulling lead for a gun shot and getting killed by the target!
How did a MiG-29 in skilled hands stack up against NATO fighters, especially the F-16 and the F-15?
From BVR (beyond visual range), the MiG-29 is totally outclassed by western fighters. Lack of situation awareness and the short range of the AA-10A missile compared to the AMRAAM means the NATO fighter is going to have to be having a really bad day for the Fulcrum pilot to be successful.
In the WVR (within visual range) arena, a skilled MiG-29 pilot can give and Eagle or Viper driver all he/she wants. When I was flying the MiG-29, the way I prosecuted the visual arena depended on the scenario. If it was 1 v 1 BFM and we only called kills with a gun shot, I flew the jet differently than if missiles and guns were in play. If the BFM scenario was guns-only, I flew the jet more like an F-16, knowing I had a lot more angle-of-attack (than an F-16) available if required. If missile shots were in play then I would pull as hard as I could to place the other guy in Archer parameters as quickly as I could and make him at least feel threatened by my nose position; hopefully, forcing him into making a mistake. In a many versus many scenario in which missile shots were generally counted for kills, I was hesitant in bleeding off all my airspeed to get the quick Archer shot since I probably needed the energy to maneuver against other aircraft in follow-on engagements.
Over the years you have flown against so many different fighters from around the globe, what foreign fighter aircraft surprised you as to their capabilities, or lack thereof, during dissimilar air combat training events (fighting against a different fighter types)?
Probably the most I’ve ever been surprised by a DACT adversary was flying against Mirage 2000s from the French Air Force when I was flying the MiG-29. I had read all kinds of glowing reports about the Mirage. The few times I did fly against them, either the jet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be or we were flying against the worst Mirage 2000 pilots in the French Air Force. I was not impressed.
On the positive side, I once participated with Italian Navy flying AMRAAM-capable Harriers with APG-65 radars (the radar originally in the F-18). The scenario was two Harriers plus two MiG-29s versus four German F-4F ICE Phantoms. The Italian flight lead did the coordination briefing for the mission. Obviously, he briefed our 4-ship’s game plan and ran the post-mission debriefing. From start to finish the whole show was as professional and well executed as anything one would expect from the USAF Weapons School. Two large thumbs up.
How did your role as a USAF fighter pilot change once you returned from your historic MiG-29 pilot exchange with the German Air Force?
I figured I would be a shoe-in for an assignment to Nellis, if anything to be an aggressor pilot in the Adversary Flight at Red Flag. The Adversary Flight was the remnant of the 64th Aggressor Squadron from pre-Desert Storm. That did not happen and I ended up going to Cannon AFB, NM.
I had played a high school football game in nearby Clovis, NM and had spent a couple of nights there when I was flying the Eagle. I had seen enough of Clovis to know I didn’t want to live there. The Air Force figured otherwise. It always befuddled me why the Air Force would send someone to fly the MiG-29 and then not use that expertise. Two other guys had the MiG-29 job. The guy who replaced me went back to the airlines. The last guy was going to get out and go to the Guard when I hired him to be my operations officer when I was commander of Detachment 3 of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis. He tried to get hired by the 64th Aggressor Squadron before thinking about getting out. The 64th told him "no." Three former MiG-29 pilots and the Air Force took a who-GAS attitude. Go figure?
While at Cannon, except for bro-level tactics discussions, I never pushed anyone to listen to what I had learned about the MiG-29. I fact, I had been there over two years before being asked to give a briefing to the pilots.
One thing we did when I transferred back to Nellis, since I ran all things relating to foreign materiel exploitation, was to set up an exploitation of the AA-10A and the Archer using the German MiG-29s. This exploitation became known as Project Grace and was conducted at Eglin AFB, FL in June and July 2003. The Germans island-hopped the Fulcrums to the States as they had done a few times prior. We fired 11 AA-10As and 12 Archers in varying scenarios. We learned a lot about the radar and the missiles. That we conducted this exploitation was not classified. It made the local newspapers. The results, however, are classified. After I retired I test flew the first privately-owned flyable MiG-29 in the world.
Today, the Su-27 and other advanced Flanker derivatives (Su-30/Su-35 etc) are seen by some as dangerously capable against America’s aging fourth-generation fighter arsenal. Can the F-15 and F-16 remain viable against the ‘Super Flanker’ threat?
Absolutely. How? Continuing to upgrade sensors, weapons and defensive systems; and continuing to maintain a training advantage. Remember, the Super Flanker is not stealthy, so you’re not really asking a 4th-generation fighter to do anything it really wasn’t capable of in the first place. The obvious long-pole in the tent is the age of the F-15 and F-16 airframes. How long can the jets hold out? How long will maintaining them be funded?
Is 3D thrust vectoring, like that found on advanced MiG-29 and Su-27 variants, the threat some say it is when it comes to the within visual range fight?
First, a little thrust vectoring history. The USAF tested a 3D nozzle on the Multi-Axis Thrust Vectored F-16 in the early 1990s. It was found that thrust vectoring was really only useful at speeds below 250 knots (with the F-16; the speed will vary with other jets). Above that speed the jet had enough g available and was maneuverable enough that thrust vectoring didn’t add anything. Also, at high speeds, if the nozzles start to swing the jet violently around you’re apt to induce unacceptable loads on the airframe.
Thrust vectoring, whether 2D or 3D, is a two-edged sword. If you’re going to use it, you’d better kill me now. Ever seen videos of the Super Flanker spinning around like a top and doing back flips at an airshow? First off, the jet is slow – not a place to be in a multi-bogey environment. Second, when thrust is steered off-axis the axial component of thrust is decreased. Axial thrust pushes the jet (and wing) through the air at a speed required to maintain lift. Take away forward thrust, take away speed and lift. Go back to the videos. What’s happening? The Flanker is dropping like a rock at slow speed (no lift is being produced by the wing). If the Flanker pilot does not kill me now, the other edge of the sword is about to fall. He’s automatically building in vertical turning room for me and it’s going to take an unacceptable amount of time for him to get enough smash back to take it away due to his low airspeed. If I’m still alive I’m turning him into a strafe rag.
I flew enough BFM against the Raptor before I retired where the new Raptor pilots were discovering there’s a time for thrust vectoring and there’s a time to leave that club in the bag.
HOBS missiles, as I’ve already stated, bring a whole new facet to the WVR fight and make the arena more lethal. HOBS versus HOBS? Who can get to launch parameters first? Better countermeasures and missile counter-countermeasures are also definite players.
How will threat replication that is based around the F-16 alone cope with things like low-observability, super maneuverability and Infrared search and track systems in the future?
You can’t unless you start turning F-22s and F-35s into aggressor aircraft. That ain’t happening.
Will the F-35’s sensor fusion and low observability (stealth) allow it to overcome its lackluster maneuverability and kinetic performance against future enemies?
I can’t answer this one. I can ask, "Why did they make it such a pig?"
If you had to fly any fighter into an air combat arena today, including an operational F-35A as an option, what would it be?
The F-22. It’s a better jet than the F-35. It can carry at least as much, further and faster. If it was up to me I’d cancel the F-35 and start building more Raptors. A common counter to that is the cost to restart the F-22 assembly line. How much does one pig cost? Another is that the F-35 program is too far along. Yep, let’s just keep paying for a poorly-managed, overly expensive fighter that has three versions that make any one version less than it could be. Can you say F-111? That the F-35’s avionics are better than the F-22’s; how about a Raptor upgrade? I’d also build more advanced versions of the F-15 and F-16.
OK, I’ve spent enough time on my soapbox.
If you had a wish list of three things that you think the USAF fighter community needs more than anything else, and currently do not have, what would it be?
Number 1: AESA radar for the F-16. A force multiplier.
Number 2: Better offensive jamming and better defensive systems.
Number 3: More DACT (dissimilar air combat training—flying against different types of fighters than the one you fly). There are students who show up as Weapons School students who have never done a 4 versus 4 DACT mission. I was doing them as an F-15 student at Luke. I could write a short thesis on this subject.
This has been an assumption by so-called experts since the 1950s. Unfortunately, these experts have never flown fighters and we’ve proven many times since that aircraft will get into the visual arena even with sophisticated BVR sensors and weapons. We build better BVR weapons and our adversaries build better radar jammers. And it goes around and around and around. Networks can be jammed and/or compromised. So yes, dogfighting is not dead.
How about manned fighters being replaced by drones? At the end of the movie "Patton" a reporter asked the general this: "General, we’re told of wonder weapons the Germans were working on: Long-range rockets, push-button bombing, weapons that don’t need soldiers. What’s your take on that?" To which Patton replied, "Wonder weapons? My God, I don’t see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics. Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops. No generals. Only those that are left alive and those that are left… dead." Did Patton ever actually say this? I don’t know, but I believe the sentiment (except for the "… no generals" part).
Can you share one of your most memorable moments as a USAF fighter pilot with us?
I’ll share one since it was one of the dumber things I’ve ever done with a jet. On January 4, 1989, two US Navy Tomcats shot down two Libyan MiG-23s over the Gulf of Sidra. It was during the time I was an F-5 instructor in Tunisia.
Bizerte, Tunisia is the northern-most town on the African continent. We did 99% of our flying over the Mediterranean. I was leading a BFM sortie one afternoon when my radar warning receiver (RWR) alerted me that an aircraft had locked on to me. The symbology indicated it was a Tomcat and I turned to put the symbol on the RWR’s scope at my right 1 o’clock. Off in the distance to our north I saw a single contrail heading south. I knew that a few days before the Navy had shot down two Floggers in international airspace, but I was going to check it out anyway.
My wingman and I turned towards the F-14 and started a cruise climb at about 0.9 Mach up to its altitude of 31,000 feet. At about 2 miles from the Tomcat I expected him to turn into us and take away the lateral turning room, instead he turned away and started to head back north. I cut across his turn and ended up about 200 feet above him a couple hundred feet out at his right 4 o’clock. Both the pilot and RIO were moving their melons right and left, but were looking down as if they thought we were lower than they were. I continued to move closer when the RIO spotted me about 100 feet out. I settled onto the right wing of the Tomcat, went to the emergency frequency of 243.0 and made some disparaging remarks about the Navy (with a noticeably non-Arabic accent), then flipped them off and left.
I heard about it a few days later when some pilots off the boat came to Sidi Ahmed via a C-2 to do some coordination for DACT that was to follow a few days later. Everyone got a chuckle out of it.
Foxtrot Alpha would like to give a special thanks to Lt. Col. Fred "Spanky" Clifton for his service and taking the time to give us an incredible insight into his awesome experiences and expertise in the realm of air combat. With any luck we will have him back to discuss more focused topics in the future.
Photos via Fred Clifton (where he is featured), all others via DoD/public domain aside from the JHMCS formation shot which is via JHIMCSII.com, SU-30 nozzles via Julian Herzog/Wikicommons, RACR radar via Raytheon.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com