The primary adversaries of American fighters over Vietnam were agile Soviet jets like MiG-17 and MiG-21. The Americans were forced to fight them using not so agile F-4 Phantoms, the mainstay of American forces. Thus they had to find a way to expose the weaknesses of the MiGs and use it against them to shoot em down. MiGs were pretty successful on the international market and the Americans knew that their next adversary will surely have MiGs in its service. Combat engagements were too short for analyzing the jets properly and thus the Americans were looking to get an airworthy jet from somewhere for extended exploitation.
A ray of hope appeared when an Iraqi pilot defected to Israel in his MiG-21F-13. This jet was loaned to the Americans by the Israelis from Jan 1968 and was tested at the mystical Groom Lake in the US. The jet was tested under the Have Doughnut programme and a detailed report of its capabilities and performance was made. Have Ferry and Have Drill were also started. These programmes tested ex-Syrian MiG-17Fs which were loaned to the Americans just after the MiG-21 was. Then came the ambitious Red Eagles of the 4477th TES, a dedicated MiG squadron of the USAF. In this article you will thus get to see the MiGs that served the USAF.
The former Iraqi MiG-21 received American colors while in the US and was extensively used to test its performance and capabilities. It was also used to train a select few from the USAF before being returned to Israel.
The American air force obtained invaluable data by exploiting these jets. USAF thus wanted a dedicated MiG squadron which would be used to train American pilots on a more routine basis. This marked the beginning of the Constant Peg programme under the 4477th TES based at the Tonopah Test Range near Nellis. The programme started with Have Doughnut, Have Ferry and Have Drill MiGs and was expanded later on. The expansion was done first using MiGs from Indonesia and then from Egypt. The Americans also got their hands onto the MiG-23 and exploited them under Have Pad and Have Boxer programmes. They were then handed over to the 4477th for exploitation.
By the late 1980s, the early MiGs were nearing the end of their service lives and hence 12 new build F-7s were acquired from China in the same secretive fashion as other MiGs. These jets allowed the squadron to expand and put up a larger number of sorties daily.
The canopies of the F-7 are hinged at the rear end unlike those on the MiG-21 which are hinged at the front. In the pics above you can easily differentiate between F-7s and MiG-21s by looking at their canopy.
Very few pilots, sworn to secrecy were exposed to these jets. Few pilots from the squadrons visiting Nellis were selected and asked to fly towards a designated area where they would run into the MiGs. They were allowed to practise different approaches on the MiGs followed by mock dogfights. At times several MiGs would be deployed to ambush a formation of USAF fighters to simulate combat. All this provided valuable experience to the pilots which would be passed onto the squadron over time. This improved the chances of survivability in combat.
MiG-17s were retired in the 80s due to their obsolescence, difficult maintenance and crashes. The MiG-23 suffered from reliability problems as well which affected flights and caused crashes. However these jets were excellent in some domain or the other. The MiG-17 was excellent in slow turning fights while the Flogger sported tremendous acceleration. The MiG-21 on the other hand proved to be a gem of a fighter. It could turn hard and bleed a lot of energy. This caused the fighter pursuing it to over shoot thus giving the Fishbed a chance to shoot it down. Pilots flying the jet had to keep their hands ready on flaps levers while turning hard to avoid stall due to low speed.
The programme officially ended in July 1990 due to the end of Cold War and the massive budget cuts that followed it. The fate of the jets is still classified although some of them have been preserved in museums. Most of the details from the programme have been declassified along with the pics posted above. For more information about the programme you should read the book “Red Eagles” by Steve Daives.