"We didn’t know what 90 percent of the switches did"

by Bill Sweetman
Aug 07, 2012

Earlier this week I met someone in person that I had first detected on an AltaVista search, so you know that this is going to be about history.

John Manclark was the commander of the 4477th Test & Evaluation Squadron from 1985-87. At the time, a few of us who took an unhealthy interest in such matters knew a bit about what 4477TES was, to wit: It flew Soviet aircraft, and it was secret. (Later, early internet searches started to reveal odd details of biographies, such as Manclark's claim to have flown the YF-110 and YF-113.)

Some details of the program were declassified in 2006. It was codenamed Constant Peg, Constant after the callsign of Maj Gen Hoyt Vandenberg Jr and Peg being the wife of Col Gail Peck, another of its founders.

It was not the same as the highly classified codenamed programs (mostly prefixed with "Have") that evaluated foreign aircraft for the intelligence community. Constant Peg was intended to give USAF combat pilots direct experience of flying against (then) Soviet aircraft.

Constant Peg had more aircraft than the Have programs, of fewer types, and many more people were exposed to it. MiG-29s and Sukhoi types occasionally seen in the Nevada skies in the 1980s and 1990s belonged to (cough discreetly) other organizations.

Recently retired as the USAF's director of test and evaluation, Manclark gave an hour-long extempore talk at the Air Force Association this week. ("The computer puked on my slides.") From beginning to end you could have heard a pin drop in the audience. Here are a few of his comments:

"In 1985 we had 26 MiGs -- MiG-21s and MiG-23s. We had had MiG-17s originally but phased them out early, and by the end of the program we still had more MiG-21s than anything else.

"The pilots were Aggressors or Fighter Weapons School or Top Gun instructors. Most were majors, a few captains, with 2000-3000 hours. We didn’t have to worry about the pilots. "They were all comfortable with themselves. They weren’t proud of themselves for beating up on an F-4. The goal was not to beat them up, you’d beat them up on day one – that was a given."

For the students, it was "a Sunday-Friday course. By the end of a week, we wanted people to be able to kill a MiG the first time that you saw him."

Constant Peg was based at Tonopah Test Range in the northwest corner of the Nellis range. The facilities were spartan and the sophisticated amusements of Tonopah city were 45 miles away over dubious roads patrolled by Nevada's legendary bovine kamikazes.

“That all changed when the F-117s came in," said Manclark, recalling the stealth fighters' move to TTR from Groom Lake, which they had outgrown. "They had a chow hall, an Olympic-size stainless steel pool, bowling alleys and a sports field that was lit up at night – money wasn’t much of an object for them. And when they lost a couple of -117s the security went to s---." [Guilty as charged. - Ed. TTR was on the secret-airplane-mafia target list after that.]

On the MiG-21: "It had no gas – a point-defense fighter.
"We didn’t know what 90 percent of the switches did. We changed the ASI and parts of the oxygen system. We had one switch that we just labeled BOMB EXPLODE.

"It was fun to fly. You could see out pretty well. The limitations included the throttle – there were two rpm gauges, and if you got them too far apart, and to 80 percent rpm, it would take you 17 seconds to get military power. When you flew it a long time you found a little notch that was there to remind you not to do that.

"The A/B would not light until you were at 100 percent. But it opened the nozzle immediately, so it killed all your thrust.

"The '21 had maneuver flaps and would depart on you if you did not put them down below 250 knots. It had two buttons – down and up. If you pushed the wrong one, it would depart.

"It was a great aircraft to fight if you wanted to fight slow – maybe not against an F-18. You’re at 120 knots and still pointing at him and all he’s looking at is your nose… you get down to 80 knots, dump the nose, go to 120 and from 30 deg nose low to 40 deg nose high and you didn’t go up, but the other guy goes 'holy smokes, here he comes'." Evasive action against this deceptive maneuver often put the unwary student inside the MiG-21's weapon envelope.

"Later we got newer MiG-21s and retired the old ones. The reason was that in the morning, you’d fly an airplane where, if you pulled the handle between your legs it ejects you, and in the afternoon if you pulled the handle in the same place it undid your harness." (Manclark did not say so, but a photo of one of the new jets showed that it was a Chinese J-7, with the early MiG-21F nose and two-piece canopy.)

No such affection was earned by the MiG-21's brutish follow-on. "The MiG-23 was a nightmare, maintenance was a nightmare. The guys hated flying it, and we checked people out when they had 3-5 months left.

"We had eight MiG-23s, two of them the air-to-ground version [MiG-23BN]. At high AOA (angle of attack) they were not as stable as the radar nose types.

"It would accelerate until it blew up. The limit was 720-710 knots, but guys would look down inside and see they were going 850-880.

"Everyone who flew it spun it at least once. You’d be in a separation maneuver at 1.4 and the nose would start searching from side to side. The stab-aug was terrible – although it was faster than anything we had, you weren’t ever comfortable.

"At Red Flag in the 1970s we were told that the MiG-23 would sweep its wings [forward] and kill you. Ron Iverson [4477th operations officer 1975-79, retired as a Lt Gen] flew one of the first ones. He said, “don’t worry about it -- most of the time it’s trying to kill me”.

Overall, the operation was hazardous. Tactical Air Command "asked us for our accident rate. TAC average was three to four major accidents per 100,000 hours, Five to six was a concern. We had a rate of 100/100,000, and that wasn’t counting all of them. We spun one and we never flew it again, because you got a fire light every time you started it."

"We had 210 maintainers," Manclark recalled. "They were dedicated, just unbelievable, tech sergeants and master sergeants. The CIA gave us a flare dispenser from a Frogfoot [Su-25] that had been shot down in Afghanistan. We gave it to maintenance – it was just a thing with wires coming out of it. Four hours later they had it operational on a MiG-21."

That proved to be a very important test. "In 1987 we had the AIM-9P, which was designed to reject flares, and when we used US flares against it would ignore them and go straight for the target. We had the Soviet flares – they were dirty, and none of them looked the same – and the AIM-9P said 'I love that flare'.

"Why’d that happen? We had designed it to reject American flares. The Soviet flares had different burn time, intensity and separation. The same way, every time we tried to build a SAM simulator, when we got the real thing it wasn’t the same.

"I use the AIM-9P because it is out of the system and I can talk about it. The same thing happened to a lot of things that are still in the system and that I can’t talk about."

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