A 60 Year Old Fighter Design – Still Operational

In 2009, Neptunus Lex paid tribute to the MIG-21, which he referred to as “a noble adversary.”  At the time, it appeared that the airplane was about to be phased out of service by those countries still operating it.  Didn’t happen that way. though…the airplane is still in use by several countries, most notably India, which still operates more than 200 of them.

Design studies for the MIG-21  began in 1953, with first flight in 1958 and production shipments beginning in 1959.  As analogy for the design’s longevity, imagine the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane from 1918 still being employed in a military role in the post-Vietnam era of 1977!

An article asks: is the MIG-21 is the fighter jet that could fly for 100 years?  Probably not, I imagine, at least in any kind of operational role…but it’s already done pretty well in longevity terms for a combat airplane.

There are some web pages on the MIG-21 by a former East German fighter pilot.

Also, there’s a pretty decent movie, based on real events, about the 1966 Israeli operation to steal a MIG-21 from Iraq.  The moviemakers were evidently unable to get their hands on a real MIG-21 (in 1988), so a MIG-15 was used for the flying scenes instead.

More MIG-21 information here.

15 thoughts on “A 60 Year Old Fighter Design – Still Operational”

  1. Like most delta wing aircraft it had one good turn, but in the hands of a skilled operator it could do wondrous things in a slow speed fight with the flaps punched down…

    The Phantom bubbas had a bit more on their hands, with a platform that had been built as a missile truck, but lacked an internal gun. USAF and Navy kill ratios hovered around 2:1, which mean that in fiscal terms at least, we were getting our asses kicked by third world gomers.

    This is what John Boyd found in his Energy-Maneuverability studies of the MiG-21 vs the F-4

    In Figures 14 through 17, we note that the F-4C retains most of its low-altitude subsonic/transonic sustained maneuvering advantage as g is increased from 1 to 5. In. addition, these figures reveal that the MIG-21 not only has a supersonic advantage, but also is gaining regions of advantage subsonically since it can pull g in regions where the F-4C cannot operate. Essentially such a condition indicates the MIG-21 can turn more quickly than, or inside, the F-4C.

    His studies and subsequent work at the Pentagon led to the development of the more agile F-16, which, the way things are going with our bloated air platforms, will be our best dogfighter for years to come.

  2. The F 16 will be the standard that the Corsair was for 50 years,.

    I know guys who flew Phantoms and they loved them but they were not dogfighters.

    The same thing happened in Vietnam with the F 105, the “Thud.” It was designed to carry a nuclear bomb and got the task of going “Downtown” in the face of NVA antiaircraft missiles and AAA.

    We were caught with the wrong weapons. The guys who flew them had to do what they could but a lot got killed.

    A friend of mine flew almost 500 missions in Vietnam in F 4a. All were CAS but they were still shooting at him.

    This is him.

    The Navy seems to have a similar problem with surface ships and the F 35 is a glaring example of the F 111 syndrome.

  3. In Iraq and Afghanistan we could use dirigibles, the same goes for most of Africa. Against someone with actual air defenses, the life expectancy of a single air craft is probably measured in seconds to minutes. You can fire a lot of million dollar missiles to shoot down a nearly billion dollar plane. As far as ait-to-air combat with cannon, if you can see the other guy, you’re doing it wrong.

    We launched 60 Tomahawks into Syria. Assuming that the Russians could have targeted them (not easy for a small target 50 feet off the ground), they probably would have had to expend most if not all of the SAMs in the country. A manned attack would have required extensive preparation and a lot of dead Russians. Of course, the actual results were somewhat underwhelming. The message was unmistakable.

    I can’t see the future being large, expensive air frames, with even more expensive pilots for contested air space. It’s probably past time to stop re-fighting WWII.

  4. My most poignant memory of the MiG 21 comes from, of all places, a memoir from an Iraqi Air Force pilot

    Saddam Hussein had used the MiG 17 and they were getting a delivery of MiG 21

    The Russians had not set up their training program yet. Saddam insisted on a military parade with a flyby of the MiG 21

    And to not give Saddam what he wanted would’ve meant death

    So he just reads the manual and flies

  5. To not totally hijack the thread: The B-52 and C-130 are examples of planes of that era with even greater staying power while so many others came and went in just a few years. Everything just came together just right.

    I don’t see what the F-35 pilot can do while flying, fighting and defending himself that wouldn’t be done better from Arizona. If some sort of relay is necessary, another drone is the way to go. I see drones all the way down and all of the way up as well. This is not a vision that the present USAF command finds pleasing.

    Once the pilot is removed from the cockpit, all sorts of constraints: every thing from mission duration to minimum aircraft size disappear. One possibility I see is separating radar transmitters from receivers. This is already used for some air-to-air missiles that use the firing aircraft’s radar to illuminate the target. The signal processing techniques first used in long base line interferometry for radio astronomy also allows for multiple illuminators which greatly diminishes the effectiveness of any sort of stealth technology. The illuminators would be especially prominent targets and would be best thought of as expendable.

  6. As far as I know they are still producing the C130 which first came out in 1955 I believe. I was thinking with so many Russian products they are simple and durable. Like the T 34 tank. Or the AK-47.

    I wonder if it would be practical to produce the B-52 today? It certainly would not need eight engines. Which involves a major redesign

  7. Mike K…”I wonder if they still have the jigs for the (B-52) airframe ?”

    Don’t know, but I’m curious how many airplanes have been out of production for a substantial period and then had production restarted. One interesting case is the Russian YAK-3…evidently an excellent fighter….design drawings and jigs were rediscovered sometime in the 1990s, and a limited edition of new-build airplanes was built.

    Here’s one for sale:


  8. And the MiG-21 is not unique in that

    The F-5 is of similar age (and very similar to the MiG-21 in performance and technology) and remains in service, along with its derivatives (the Super Hornet is a direct descendant of the F-5 and T-38 twins, via the F-5E, YF-17 and F/A-18 Hornet).

    Then there’s the king of longevity. Two Gloster Meteor’s remain in service with Martin Baker, as testbeds (a role they’ve played since the late 1940’s)

    And of course there’s the F-4. First flew 2 years after the MiG-21 (in 1958) and entered service in 1960. Still flying with 1st world air forces today (the Japanese and South Koreans still operate the type, along with the Turks and Greeks).

    The MiG-21 and F-5 remain in service because they’re simple. They provide sufficient performance for a 3rd world air force while actually being maintainable by said air force. As such, they will no doubt remain in service until the remainder have crashed or otherwise been written off.

    The F-4 is more interesting. There’s little doubt that an updated F-4 could be a viable aircraft in most Air Forces today. The Germans refitted their fleet with F/A-18C avionics and radar in the mid 90’s, producing an aircraft that was more capable than any Legacy Hornet, and that was only retired in 2012 because of the arrival of enough Eurofighters, the Japanese upgraded theirs with F-16 avionics and they remain in service. The F-4 actually outlasted virtually every aircraft intended to replace it except the F-15 (Where are the Tornado F.3 and F-14 Tomcat today?) and the main limitation in keeping it in service is simple airframe wear.

    Interestingly, McDD scuttled a modern F-4 proposal from IAI in the late 80’s as they felt it would kill Hornet sales (and were probably right).

  9. @David – there was a proposal to make the P-51 during Vietnam – with a turbine engine – but it never came to fruitation.

    I have been thinking about this – amazinkg for the MiG 21 – but don’t you think a lot of the component is ease of servicing?

    IIRC the Phantom II required 20 hours of servicing for every hour of flight.

  10. “It certainly would not need eight engines. Which involves a major redesign”

    The B 52 has military grade engines which may be quite a bit different from the high bypass engines of civilian airliners.

    I’m sure they can be improved but redundancy might be an issue.

    Especially after a United two engine”heavy” blew up an engine on a flight to Hawaii. It was just a cover but a lot of vibration was described and the flight was only 20 minumtes from landing.

  11. I was a B-52 pilot back in the70’s. The remaining B-52’s (H models) are powered by the Pratt and Whitney TF-33, a military adaptation of the JT-3D turbofan, which powered several civilian airliners of the period, such as the Boeing 707, and the Douglas DC-8.
    The Air Force is currently looking to replace these engines with more modern engines of similar power, which would be around 40% more fuel efficient. Such engines power corporate jets such as the Gulfstream 500 series. Replacing the engines one for one minimizes the redesign of wing and engine struts required. Also, using four bigger engines instead makes the airplane more difficult to fly in the event of an engine failure. The airplane has always been limited by flight control authority, simply the ability to counteract asymmetric thrust using the rudder during an inflight engine failure. Fixing that would probably cost more than the re-engining program would save.

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