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Air Tattoo Blog

Cold War Classics; MiG-21 and Su-27

Published: 19 Jun 2019   updated: 21 Jun 2019

This summer's Air Tattoo will see the rare appearance of two iconic Cold War Soviet fighter jets; the MiG-21 and the Su-27.

Seeing one of these aircraft at a Western airshow is a spectacle few get the chance to see, but to have both flying at the same event in the 21st Century is rare. We are thankful to the hard work of our Air Operations team, as well as representatives from the Romanian and Ukrainian Air Forces and Embassies in London.

Whilst both are frontline fighter aircraft produced by the (then) world's second biggest super power, they differ in many ways and show the development of Soviet aerospace through the Cold War.

Mikoyan MiG-21
Of the two aircraft, the MiG-21 is the older design. With a delta wing and distinctive 'shock cone' nose intake that saw limited use outside the USSR, it was one of the most successful Soviet fast jet aircraft ever produced.

The prototype Ye-2 first flew in February 1956, just over a decade after the start of the Second World War. In automotive terms, that was the same year as Austin Healey first produced their 100-Six.

The MiG-21 was a true figher/interceptor aircraft, capable of reaching Mach 2 thanks to an afterburning turbojet engine and slim profile, which led to nicknames such as pencil (in Polish). Whilst only having a small overall size, it clocked in at under 10 tonnes.

The MiG-21 was a rugged design that worked well - and thus was mass produced. Over 60 nations operated the MiG-21 over the past six decades - from Cambodia to the Congo and Tanzania to Turkmenistan. Nearly 11,500 were produced, with the vast majority of those being in the USSR - although a few hundred examples were licence built in India and Czechoslovakia.

The MiG-21 has been used in major conflicts throughout the world, notably in the Vietnam War, most major Middle East confrontations and around Africa. Most recently the MiG-21 was employed in the India / Pakistan dispute.

The 2019 Air Tattoo will see flying displays from the Romanian Air Force's upgraded 'LanceR C' model. The upgrade programme saw 26 examples upgraded to the 'C' air defence variant, with ground attack and trainer variants also receiving the upgrade.

In May this year, Romanian Defence Minister Gabriel Les announced that the country was beginning work to acquire 36 more F-16s to fully replace its LanceR fleet.

Sukhoi Su-27 'Flanker'
Throughout the Cold War, Western fighter aircraft maintained a level of technical sophistication that was generally above that of Soviet counterparts. Avionics, weapons systems and flight control systems were an area that Western engineers had the upper hand, producing aircraft that had gave pilots greater situational awareness in a battlefield.

The birth of the F-15 Eagle resulted in Soviet leaders issuing a requirement for a highly advanced frontline fighter, with overly ambitious specifications. The resulting research and development led to two aircraft being proposed to meet that requirement; the MiG-29 and the Su-27.

First flown in May 1977 (the year of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II!) the aircraft entered service with the Russian Air Force in 1985. Just over 800 Su-27s have been built and have served with countries from Angola to Vietnam.

The Su-27, or Flanker, as it became known to NATO, offered the Soviets (and other users) with their first real step ahead of many Western fighter aircraft; supreme agility. Whilst many argue it is comparable to the F-15, it's manoeuvrability was far ahead of fighter/interceptors like the Tornado Air Defence Variant or Phantom F.3.

In 1989 Soviet test pilot Viktor Pugachev demonstrated the 'cobra manoeuvre', at the Paris Air Show and stunned many western aviators in the process. The aircraft's ability to almost stop in mid-air and then regain flying speed (graphic below) was an obvious potential advantage in close quarters air-to-air combat.
© Henrickson CC Wikipedia
Above: © Henrickson CC Wikipedia

This, and other high angle of attack manoeuvres that the Flanker can perform, are more impressive when the size and weight of the aircraft are considered. The Su-27's maximum take-off weight (MTOW) is over 30 tonnes, which is comparable to some regional airliners. It can also carry as much fuel as a fully loaded MiG-21 weighs, just under 10 tonnes. The Flanker isn't just good 'low and slow', however, it's maximum speed is Mach 2.3 with a service ceiling of over 60,000ft.

There is faint shade of irony that these both these aircraft types, defenders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), have flown in civilian hands, owned by wealthy private individuals in the United States.

To all those booked to visit us in July, we hope that you are looking forward to seeing these amazing aircraft flying at RAF Fairford. The 2019 Air Tattoo could well be the final time to see both these Cold War fighters flying at a Western airshow.

“It was an epic spectacle, as magical as anything you've ever seen in the West End, and as loud as anything you've ever heard at Knebworth.”

Jeremy Clarkson, Television Presenter

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Jenson Button, Former Formula 1 Racing Driver

“Probably the most complete air show I’ve ever been to!”

Al Worden, Apollo 15 Astronaut

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Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 Astronaut

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