Initiated by this event, some American and Israeli enthusiasts (once pilots of their AF
fighters), one of which has a private squadron of various Russian fighters, attempted to
replicate that minimum altitude needed to complete Split-S figure in the two-seater MiG-
21. Previous consultation with Israeli ace, who participated in that dogfight in '73. war,
did not help test to be successful. Attempts were carried out at the higher altitude (5 km)
and the height loss during the figure was in accordance with flight manual. It remained
unclear whether ’73 event was result of "special skills or superhuman strength of the
Egyptian pilot needed to withstand the required g-loads”.
Recently disclosed files of the official MiG-21 evaluation in the U.S. revealed some
unexpected capabilities that can be correlated with the "inexplicable" ’73. maneuver.
MiGs were brought to America via Israel, in the late '60s as a result of pilot error or fled
from Iraq and Algeria. Later they were bought from Indonesia. The MiG-21 in the U.S.
Air Force is designated YF-110.
The report of a MiG-21F shows nothing particularly unusual, except for maneuvering
capabilities and behavior/handling at low speeds described as "class above competition”.
Besides that, if competitors tried to follow MiG-21F at high alpha, their engine
experienced shutdown or compressor stall. MiG could perform "hammerhead" turn (wing
over/stall turn/renversement) at 100 knots (knot = 1.853 km/h), figure where at the end of
the vertical climb pilot add rudder (with the opposite aileron and forward stick) to push
the plane in the dive. Rudder is effective from 30 knots. With the stick fully backward,
the plane flies at 210 km/h, the rolling oscillations are present, but there is no lift
breakdown or the tendency towards spin. If during the evaluation, loss of control due to
uncoordinated controls occurred, it was in the form of roll-off (usually for 180°) instead
of much more dangerous yaw-off. To put the plane back under control it was necessary
only to release controls. MiG-21 proved to be docile, safer to fly than MIG-17. During
the hundred flight tests engine compressor stall was never experienced.
U.S. of course, used MiGs in dogfight evaluation against their aircraft. Latter, they
formed "Aggressor" squadron of MiGs and other fighters for the dogfight simulation with
regular American aircraft.
Figure 2, 3. MiG-21 on testing in the U.S.
During MiG testing, it was clear that U.S. pilots have not relied on Soviet pilot’s manuals
or they did not have one at the beginning. That is why the aircraft ability was fully
exploited. Test pilots had thousands of flight hours experience on dozens of types of
aircraft. Those who have survived the testing of U.S. supersonic fighters
F-100/101/104/4 (many of planes were called "widow makers"), learned to recognize the
pre-stall/spin signs and use rudder for rolling the aircraft at higher angles of attack.
Figure 4. Some of the results of MiG-21 testing in the United States
Reportedly, if Vietnamese pilots had adequate training, the U.S. fighter shot-down ratio
figures would be much worse in that war. In the hands of the well trained pilots, MiG
would always outmaneuvered Phantom. US unveils graphs depicting not only far better
instantaneous turn performance of Fishbed C compared to F-4D but also better sustained
maneuverability. MiG-21 Aggressor pilots respected only the most modern fighters
because they do not lose so much speed in turn even at low speeds. However, appearance
of all-aspect infrared missiles reduced the importance of sustained turns (M2000, F-18E,
Gripen …are not brilliant in the maintaining speed in turn). If MiG-21 had R-73 missile,
it could easily take advantage of first shoot opportunity at close range against any new
The F-5E, fighter which does not fly above Mach 1.5, MiG-21 simulator, reportedly has
shade better subsonic sustained turn maneuverability, but inferior controllability at low
speeds. Maneuverability is the ability to change speed and direction of flight path
(velocity vector pointing) and controllability - ability of change aircraft attitude
(pitch/roll/yaw - nose pointing) and thrust (engine response - spool up time matters).
When the aircraft initial flight path in dogfight is anti-parallel flyby, combat will
inevitably develop so that someone goes in a climb with rolling scissors - turn reversals
along the opponent’s flight path to remain behind the opponent. If the F-5E does not gain
an advantage before the speed drops below 200 knots, MiG will start winning. First look
at the configuration of the aircraft, MiG – delta with the sweep near 60°, and Tiger with
nearly straight wings, would suggest the opposite, that MiG is in trouble at low speed.
Even the mighty F-15 Eagle had no solution in dogfight below 150-250 knots against
MiG-21 in US Aggressor hands. At the beginning of dogfight, at the speed of 400-500
knots MiG-21 will turn at max g loosing 70 knots per second, ending at the speed of 70
knots in less than 90º of turn (deceleration of 3.5 g, more intensive than Harrier’s VIFF
turn). Reportedly, no other aircraft can do that. This way MiG will remain behind every
opponent still having sufficient controllability for gun tracking using rudder rolls.
Opponents would think that at this speed MiG can only bring down the nose and dive, but
the MiG at less than 100 knots has sufficient pitch authority to raise the nose at enemy. If
F-15 tries to follow, ’21 should execute 'barrel-roll ' to remain behind the Eagle.
It is obvious that MiG-21 'Aggressor' pilots pulled full aft stick in turn regardless of the
lateral oscillations, roll-off and temporary loss of control.
Figure 5. Scissors maneuver
Latter, the F-15 pilots learned (in a hard way) not to accept maneuvering at slow speeds,
not to allow to be drown into a series of turn reversals, but to withdraw and re-attack at
higher speeds using 3D turns and it’s higher thrust/weight ratio. F-15 with 45º swept
wing and low horizontal tail, at higher angle of attack becomes longitudinally
superstable, so it can not achieve more than about 30º angle of attack.
On the example of lift and stability of the aircraft with the 45º swept wing and high-set
horizontal tail it can be seen that the lift begins to decline at 10º (buffeting starts), the
wings are stalled at the 20º (the airflow separates from the wing), and max body lift is at
35-40º after which it decreases. Delta wing of MiG-21 with sweep of 57 º retains stable
airflow to very high angles of attack.
Longitudinal stability is positive where the curve has a downward slope. In this case, the
position of the horizontal tail is causing longitudinal instability at 15º, and at 35-40º angle
of attack aircraft is trimmed without tail deflection. MiG-21 has no problem with
longitudinal stability (except with air to ground armament with low fuel) and the plane in
the example would have a limit at 15º angle of attack.
Yaw stability curve shows that the aircraft is unstable at 15º, what is not uncommon.
Few modern fighters are stable at over 20º, but it is not a problem if the aircraft maintains
lateral stability i.e. roll due to yaw. Roll stability curve is increasing as the lift increase,
so it similarly comes to the instability, in this case at about 20º angle of attack. Shall the
plane have a tendency toward spin (at no deflection of the control surfaces!) show the
curve of dynamic directional stability where factors are static yaw and roll stability along
the inertial characteristics of the aircraft. In this example, the plane is at stall just above
20º angle of attack, while MiG-21 is stable at well over 30º at low Mach numbers.
Curves correspond to a particular Mach number, at some other speed they can vary
Figure 6. Example lift and stability of aircraft
Soviet training was based on a relatively small number of flight hours on a MiG, which is
used for training the primary purpose of aircraft, interception of fighters-bombers, under
ground control. Pilots are not encouraged to explore the flight envelope. The aircraft is
designed to fly faster and higher. Slow speeds were irrelevant, except for landing. In the
first combat manuals, the performance at altitudes only above 5 km were presented.
Later, it turned out that there are many practical constraints due to which the projected
max altitudes and speeds are rarely used.
MiG-21 wing has no camber or twist along span. The relative thickness of the higher end
of the wing than in the root. There are few prestall signs. Prestall buffet begins much
earlier (at 50-100 km/h higher speed), its intensity is light and slightly decreases at higher
the altitude loss is during figure. Below 600 km/h CAS entry speed aircraft cannot
aerodynamically reach the allowed structural load factor so there is no need for
superhuman physical stress. At higher speeds height loss in split-S at stall angle of attack
is much more than 3000 ft.
Figure 7, 8, 9.
Because of its very high stall angle of attack at lower Mach numbers and good pitch
control authority (large wing leading edge sweep produces strong vortical flow which
shifts aerodynamic centre forward at high alpha, reducing stability thus allowing the tail
to easily trim aircraft at more than 30° alpha), aircraft has a great point and shoot
potential with modern IR missiles.
Although it is often said that the MiG-21 looses a lot of energy in turn, the truth is also
that it has better sustained turn performance than most aircraft of its generation.
Tumansky engine proved almost stall/surge free at speeds far below minimums quoted in
conservative Soviet flight manuals. All U.S. and European contemporary designs flamed
out under same conditions. Engine has two shafts for optimized - different rotational
speeds of low and high pressure compressors stages for a compressor blade stall
resistance, feature that allows more compressors stages to be added for lowering specific
fuel consumption. But it has unusually low number of compressor stages for a two-shaft
design, contributing to reliability. Bad side of this philosophy is higher fuel consumption.
Despite the resistance of the compressor to the extreme conditions of airflow at the inlet,
if afterburner is engaged at almost zero speed (well below the conservative engine
envelope) other undesirable phenomena are possible. Distortions of the inlet airflow
causes disruption of relations of air and fuel in the AB chamber, which changes the speed
of combustion. Pressure fluctuations coupled to acoustic velocity fluctuation (AB
chamber is also exposed to sound fatigue, the noise is up to 180 decibels) associated with
combustion instability (called rumbling), can cause extreme resonant structural vibrations
of the engine with subsequent engine destruction and the loss of the aircraft.
The published results of American evaluation relates to the F/PF models. BIS model has
15-20% higher ratio of inertia moments in yaw to roll. It certainly results in more sideslip
during rolls and somewhat lower stall angle of attack, angle when breakdown of dynamic
directional stability occurs. But the prevailing factor in this equation is the dihedral effect
i.e. roll stability and it is the same in all models because it depends on airflow around the
delta wing, so it can be expected good behavior of BIS model at low speeds also.
It should be borne in mind that prevailing effects at high angles of attack are dihedral and
adverse yaw due to aileron deflection. Rudder is used for rolling and if the sideslip angle
or yaw rate (induced in this way) crosses critical, result is the spin. Opposite aileron
increases the roll rate through an additional sideslip angle i.e. 'adverse yaw'. In most
modern aircraft application of such cross controls for 5-15 seconds, usually causes spin.
Figure 10. MiG-21 derivatives J-7G and JL-9
In general, the plane that has a lower stall speed is more maneuverable. At some speed, it
will be able to achieve g-load equal to the square of the mentioned speeds quotient. The
U.S. experience from simulated dogfights during exercises indicates the importance of
the minimum speed and controllability at high angles of attack. That is why F-18 gets F-
15/16 although its performances are considerably lower. Latest F-18E has still weaker
performance, but better controllability. Angle of attack, at low speeds, of the F-16 and
Gripen is limited to about 26º (Rafale and the Typhoon to a shade more). F-15 has max
trimmed angle of attack 30-33º with poor roll response here. Against 'stealth' fighters F-
22/35 and corresponding new Russian (whose all planform contour lines are parallel to a
few main sweep angles - cm wavelength radar return angles, in addition to other 'stealth'
measures and cost of 50 MiG-21), none of the listed has significant chances at medium
range. Analysts agree that the close combat will remain inevitable, and that each aircraft
armed with missiles cued by helmet sight has a chance, especially if it can reach high
angles of attack. Even stealth fighters do not destroy opponents with death rays. Every
component of the fire control/weapon system chain has limitations, from fighter radar to
missile fuze. Towed mini decoy (laterally separated) with monopulse deception
jammer/repeater or just simple towed corner reflector can draw away radar return signal
centroid from towing aircraft. It could help surviving medium range combat even against
The main disadvantages of MiG-21 are poor cockpit downward visibility, a
proportionally small (but inline to generation) wingspan i.e. large induced drag
(afterburner is needed for level flight at the absolute minimum speed, as at max allowed
Mach number) and relatively slow response of two-shaft engine. All this causes poor
performance on landing, especially in the case of go-around. Small fighter size means
limited mission equipment carriage capacity.
It turns out that only important is to have a reliable and economical aircraft, a platform
for carrying payload, with attack speed in the Mach 1.5+ class (that’s why a 15-20 years
younger A-10 was withdrawn prematurely). The modern nav-attack equipment
(simplified inertial system, GPS, displays…) is now relatively inexpensive to install even
in a small propeller planes. MiG-21 operators missed opportunity to realize fact that with
helmet cued, large acquisition angle R-73 missile that was available upgrade, MiG could
achieve 50:1 kill ratio in dogfight against F-18/Gripen/Typhoon class fighters just
because latter were 10-15 years late with similar weapon system. Instead of making best
of it, MiG-21 operators opted to admire newer fighters.
Because of its good characteristics, even 50 years after MiG-21 became operational,
some of its modifications are still in production in Asia.
- Fighter Performance in Practice, Phantom versus MiG-