Red Eagles: Secret USAF squadron with Soviet aircraft

No one in the Soviet Union at the time knew that their potential enemy had dozens of Soviet aircraft in combat service.

Air combat training is an essential element of fighter pilot training. For this purpose that the air forces of many countries have established specialized squadrons, whose mission is to pretend to be the enemy in exercises. Usually, the enemy fighter role is “played” by domestically produced aircraft with similar technical characteristics. However, there have been exceptions to this rule. For example, during the Cold War, the Americans secretly built a fleet of “genuine” Soviet MiGs fighters.

In 1977, assigned to a program called “Constant Peg”, Colonel Gail Peck and General Hoyt S. Vandenberg Jr. established the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, also known as the “Red Eagles”. From the U.S. Air Force’s failures in the Vietnam War, the two commanders believed that pilots should receive “real training,” that is, practice air combat with potential adversaries’ real planes.

MiG-23 of red eagle
MiG-23 of the red eagle

Purchasing campaign

The only problem is that capturing enemy planes is not an easy task. Soviet fighter aircraft were purchased by the United States from all over the world. They were bought or exchanged from Yugoslavia, Israel, Egypt and other countries. During the 1980s, several Chengdu J-7 aircraft(Chinese MiG-21 clones), were also purchased from Beijing.

The MiG-23 is operated by the "Red Eagles" team
The MiG-23 is operated by the “Red Eagles” team

Indonesia and Somalia also contribute a lot to the “Red Eagles” squadron. During the 1970s, these two countries switched from the socialist camp to the American side and may have supplied several dozen aircraft they had received from the Soviet Union earlier.

Finally, the “Red Eagle’s” major aircraft include the MiG-17 (nicknamed ‘Fresco’), MiG-21 (‘Fishbed’) and MiG-23 (‘Flogger’). An information revealed in 1985 showed that the squadron had 26 aircraft at that time.

Cockpit of a MiG 21. 
Cockpit of a MiG 21

The Americans had difficulty not only with finding and purchasing Soviet aircraft, but also with maintaining them. They can’t just go buy engines and spare parts. The maintenance of the MiGs was carried out by specialists from General Electric, while CIA (American intelligence) agents in Poland and Romania were tasked with hunting for particularly rare spare parts.

Learn from mistakes

Every fighter in the 4477 Squadron is treated like a real treasure. They never fly at night or in adverse weather conditions. Because there was not enough technical documentation on Soviet planes to be collected, American pilots had to learn how to operate them from their own mistakes. In some cases, those mistakes cost pilots their lives.

J-7B aircraft (made in China) of the Red Eagles squadron.
J-7B aircraft (made in China) of the Red Eagles squadron.

The most troublesome for the “Red Eagles” were the MiG-23s. Pilots loved the plane for its speed, but they also complained of flight instability and difficulty in handling. Only the most experienced pilots were allowed to fly them. On April 25, 1984, Lieutenant General Robert Bond, Deputy Commander of AFSC (USA Air Systems Command), crashed while flight a MiG-23.

While the existence of classic squadrons of “aggressors” armed with American aircraft is no secret, all information about the “Red Eagles” was hidden. American experts calculated the time and duration of Soviet satellites passing through Nellis Air Force Base and Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, where the 4477 Squadron was based. At that time, the MiGs were put in hangars or hidden under visors to camouflage their shape.

MiG-23 operated by "Red Eagle". 
MiG-23 operated by “Red Eagle”.

A portion of the airspace above the salt flats of Lake Groom (with the famous Area 51), where combat training took place with the participation of Soviet aircraft, was always closed to prying eyes.

Priceless experience

The “Red Eagles” squadron participated in the testing of most of the American fighter aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s. The air combat training with the MiGs of this squadron was the benefit for the pilotsof Air Force, Naval Aviation, and Marine Corps pilots.

The air battles took place according to some set pattern: one-on-one, two-on-two, or two American planes against a Soviet one. In addition, the MiGs also practiced simulated attacks on B-52 strategic bombers and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

The mission of the “Red Eagles” is not to win the battle at any cost, although it does happen quite often. The main objective of the squadron was to demonstrate to their fellow pilots the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet aircraft, showing the best way and time to attack a MiG.

MiG-21 of the "Red Eagles" squadron
MiG-21 of the “Red Eagles” squadron

For greater realism, the aircraft of the 4477 Squadron were painted with red stars, but not with the white border of the Soviet Air Force emblem, but in yellow.

Many American training pilots, when confronted with a potential enemy in air combat training, were shocked and stunned. “The first time I saw a MiG-17, I stopped flying!” – Major Francis Geisler recalls, “Instead of using straight flight and speed, I tried to turn around with the MiG. It was like chewing gum stuck to my shoe, I couldn’t break the tail. I felt I feel like an idiot.”

End of “Red Eagle”

By the end of the 1980s, the activity of the “Red Eagles” squadron began to decline. The main reason was due to lack of funding, as well as the launch of new fourth-generation fighters by the Soviet Union.

The "Red Eagle" pilots pose for a photo with a flag bearing their emblem.
The “Red Eagle” pilots pose for a photo with a flag bearing their emblem.
Headquarters of Squadron 4477 in the desert of Nevada, USA. 
Headquarters of Squadron 4477 in the desert of Nevada, USA.

The 4477 Squadron pilots made their final flight with the MiG on March 4, 1988. The “Red Eagles” were officially disbanded in 1990. Soviet planes were then stored in hangars, turned into museum artifacts, or targeted during Air Force exercise.

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