There was a time when the US military had used both American and Soviet-made aircraft to train its fighter pilots.
In a YouTube video released recently, a former F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Ward Carroll shared exciting details of secret dogfight training he was part of in 1985.
Held at Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range Airport, Carroll took part in the secretive Constant Peg program and its equally secretive training unit- the Red Eagles. As he found out, there were many more secrets hidden in Nevada.
In 2006, the US government declassified its Constant Peg program. Established in 1977, it was a secret program to impart training to the US Air force, Navy, and the Marine Corps to fly and engage Soviet-designed aircraft.
TheDrive mentions the video in which Carroll explained in detail an exciting dogfight involving an F-14 as part of the Constant Peg program.
The Secret Program
The Constant Peg program was the creation of Air Force Colonel Gaillard R. Peck. Interestingly, the program used jets made by America’s Cold War arch-rival, the Soviet Union.
The aim of the program was to acquaint the US pilots with the various specifications and abilities of the Soviet-made jets.
It was hoped that such a training program, which included sorties with the Soviet jets, may kill the fear of facing the adversary jets if such a possibility arose due to the then-existing Cold War tensions.
In 1985, Carroll who was then deployed aboard the Forrestal class aircraft carrier USS Independence was sent to Fallon, Nevada.
Like others, Carroll was also oblivious to the existence of the Constant Peg. Reaching Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range Airport, Carroll not only found out about the secret program but also the secret MiG aggressor squadron, the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, or the ‘Red Eagles’.
The Red Eagles squadron was established as a formal USAF testing unit in 1977 by the Tactical Air Command. Using the Soviet-made jets, they imparted aerial combat training to the USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots.
The Red Eagles’ instructors were mostly the alumni of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, or from the US navy’s Topgun program.
With around 3,000 flight hours in tactical jets under their belts, these instructors were the best in business. The secrecy around the program was such that even the families of the instructors were in dark about their work. While most lived at Nellis, they made a daily commute of 150 miles onboard C-12 transport planes from Nellis to Tonopah.
The secrecy seems to be just one aspect of the program, and there were many more difficult aspects to be taken care of. The entire program with its instructors, air force, and civilian technicians worked round the clock to ensure the availability of 11 jets at any point in time for training.
Taking care of flight schedules for training, they also looked after the maintenance of the jets, even if it meant at times repairing the jets with spare parts from other crashed aircraft or even bringing spare parts by secret routes through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
MiG 17, MiG 21, and the MiG 23 were the preferred Soviet-made jets of the Red Eagles. In 1985, when Ward undertook training under the program, the Red Eagles unit used the MiG 21 Fishbed and its derivative the Chinese-manufactured F-7 as well as two versions of the MiG 23 Flogger.
The Exciting Sorties of Ward & ‘Truck’
Before the sorties began, Carroll and his fellow pilots had a short briefing by the Red Eagles’ instructors, followed by a telephone call with the pilots they were going to fly against in the sorties.
The pilots were given clear instructions not to use the real names of the aircraft they were up against. The pilots were supposed to use the cover designations of the jets instead. The cover designation of the MiG 23 Flogger was YF-113, whereas the Fishbeds and the F-7s were the YF-110.
Once the sorties began, Carroll and his pilot ‘Truck’ found themselves up against F-7 and MiG 23 in the sortie which lasted about 45 minutes.
Both the sorties followed a flight plan, with three steps. The first step pitted Carroll and Truck against the speed of the Soviet-made jets. Next came action based on a defensive set-up where Carroll and the adversary jets showed maneuver skills in a defensive-offensive manner, while the last involved a neutral set-up.
The first sortie put Carroll and Truck against the MiG 23 Flogger. Till that time, all he knew about the Soviet-made jet was through unclear pictures circulated by the intelligence agencies.
The first glance surprised him, as the jet turned out to be much smaller than he had thought it to be. However, by the time he finished the sortie with the Flogger, more surprises were in store for him.
The first step of the flight plan was a speed demo. Soon Carroll’s F-14 found itself parallel to the MiG 23 and after the instruction “On my mark, go to full afterburner” the two jets zoomed in the skies in speed.
But the Flogger left Carroll way behind, as it flew in full throttle while Carroll waited for the TF30 engines of the F-14 to advance through stages. Carroll learned there was no outrunning the Flogger.
The next step involved defensive and offensive maneuvers. Carroll and Truck managed to force the MiG-23 to overrun by a max-g turn by their F-14 when the MiG-23 was on the offensive. When the F-14 started on offensive, it easily managed to keep up with the MiG and reached close enough for a possible gun kill.
The jets started the neutral setup at a speed of 350 knots, keeping a distance of three miles between them. By the end of this setup, Carroll and Truck were left surprised. The F-14 lost the MiG mid-way when the jet suddenly dived towards the ground.
Taking the F-14 by surprise, it suddenly came back next to their wing line and was able to take a simulated shot.
The next sortie put Carroll against an F-7, and this time the jet looked bigger to him than he had earlier expected it to be.
The F-14 pilots found themselves at ease in keeping up with the speed of the F-7 in the first step of the speed demo. In the second, the F-7 proved a similar turn-rate to the F-14, but with a smaller radius.
The F-7 was not able to keep pace with the turning F-14. When it was the turn of the F-14 to start from the offensive, it found it relatively easy to track and fly close to the F-7 throughout.
In the third and final step — the neutral setup, much surprise was in store for the F-14 once again. By this time, Carroll and Truck believed their adversary jet to possess a limited turning ability.
But in the course of the neutral set-up, the F-7 entered a one-circle fight. The pilot of the F-7 in a one-circle and deploying the flaps, in a way which seemed nothing less than magical, managed to gain an offensive position.
More Secrets About Nevada Airbase
The trip to Nevada and their flying sorties with the MiG jets left an indelible mark on Carroll and other pilots. But the training given by the Red Eagles proved to be immensely useful especially in the operations that the Tomcat squadron undertook at the Gulf of Sidra and in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
Apart from the secret MiGs, there was something else at Fallon, Nevada that caught the attention of the pilots. The Tonopah Test Range Airport was also home to the secret F-117 stealth combat jets.
The existence of these jets was only known to the Red Eagles before it became public in 1988.
The pilots were given instructions that except for a total failure of their own aircraft, they should not divert their jets to the Tonopah Test Range Airport.
The instruction included that in the case of a single-engine emergency, they need to fly back to Fallon.