Red Eagle, Top Gun

 General, History

The unfortunate passing of film director Tony Scott recalls the heady days of 1980s High Concept, of speed and sex, and barely contained violence unleashed in 1986 “Top Gun.” “Top Gun” gave the public a peek into late Cold War-era Dissimilar Aircraft Training and Aggressor Squadron action as Maverick and Goose were put through their paces at “Fightertown”, the US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, Miramar, California. Flying against American A-4 aircraft marked and modified to look like their Soviet equivalents, the larger F-14 Tomcats’ crews learn how to adapt to smaller, more maneuverable aircraft. The pulsing soundtrack, rapid frame cuts, testosterone oozes all over the screen and a whole generation of my high school contemporaries lined up at the recruiting centres. Some even eventually served in and over Kuwait and Iraq in 1990-91.

Special access programmes are intriguing, especially for historians. The names are in some cases inadvertently humorous. In 2006 the US Air Force declassified some of its many compartmented programmes. One was called CONSTANT PEG. And then there were the HAVES: HAVE DONOUNUT, HAVE DRILL, HAVE FERRY (do two HAVEs make a whole?)

These were all ‘compartments’ dealing with ‘acquired’ Soviet-built fighter aircraft, transported to the United States and technically exploited by the US Air Force and US Navy. Eventually, the USAF formed an entire squadron of MiGs (including long-suffering and creative maintainers) to use these aircraft to train fighter pilots over Nevada. Operating from a facility at Tonopah, Nevada, 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron flew by day while a co-located but equally compartmentalized programme, HAVE BLUE, flew at night. HAVE BLUE was the technology demonstrator for the F-117 Nighthawk, what the media called the ‘stealth fighter.’

The first “red eagle” was, in fact, a MiG 15bis delivered by a defecting North Korean pilot in 1953. Later, a pair of MiG 17s acquired by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967 found their way to Nevada, as did a MiG 21 delivered to Israel by a defecting Iraqi pilot. The exploitation of these aircraft made up the ‘HAVE’ compartments. Later, a pair of Egyptian MiG 23s were given to the United States by Anwar Sadat. The use of the aircraft in training US Air Force and US Navy pilots became known as CONSTANT PEG. By that time Indonesia divested itself of six MiG 21s. In time the 4477th TES operated around 27 Soviet-bloc aircraft. Some were used for static displays in a site called “the petting zoo.”

Now….what was the Soviet equivalent? I bet it wasn’t called “White Eagle”…. But I am sure they had their pick of A-37s and F-5s after the fall of Saigon. And did Iran perhaps hand over an F-14 and an F-4 after the Shah’s fall? And is/was there a Soviet “Area 51?” Inquiring minds want to know….

Colonel Gaillard Peck, USAF ret’d has just published his memoir, “American’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project CONSTANT PEG.” Col Peck was the commanding officer of the 4477th TES and this book is a superb read for those who want the details. The technical nature of air combat is seldom explained as effectively (Jack Broughton’s “Going Downtown” is an exception) as it is in this book.

And for Tony Scott, a man who entertained us with his Cold War movies, RIP.


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