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For Ten Years, This USAF Squadron Kept Enemy Soviet Fighter Jets at Area 51

4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron 11 photos
Photo: USAF Archives
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If you could draw a comparison between the Soviet MiG-21 jet interceptor and a piece of popular Western media, the Star Wars TIE Fighter would probably be appropriate. For decades, the MiG-21 was the archetypal adversarial Soviet jet aircraft, a perennial thorn in the side of the United States and its NATO allies practically anywhere they found themselves, much to the annoyance of American F-4 Phantom pilots. That's why it's unsurprising that the Pentagon went to great lengths to get their hands on a few Soviet jets to learn their secrets.
The story of how the biggest pain in the ass the US Air Force ever fought against would up on American soil is one of those classic Cold War stories that isn't talked about nearly enough. As we've already established, seeing a MiG on American soil before the collapse of the Soviet Union would've been enough to give people an aneurysm from cognitive dissidence. If you're one of these people, the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron is the culprit. It may have only officially been in operation for ten years or so between 1980 and 1990, but the history of American personnel snooping around where they shouldn't be looking for Soviet aerospace hardware dates back nearly to the start of the Cold War.

But to understand why the USAF felt such a strong need to procure Soviet MiGs, you'll need to remember what befell them just a few years earlier over the skies of Indochina. During the Vietnam War, especially in its early years, American fighter pilots of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and even a few stateside Air National Guard units found themselves getting all the hell they could handle from Soviet-built fighters and interceptors. The key reason for this would be the choice of fighter-bomber, which all major military branches decided was the be-all-end-all of the breed, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.

Famously, early iterations of the Phantom were more like missile trucks than dedicated fighters. With a stark lack of an internal cannon, unlike all fighters before it, early Phantoms, their wonky infrared and radar-guided missile technology, antiquated combat doctrines, and wrong-headed training, American pilots were ill-prepared to scrap with fast, agile, and deadly Soviet fighters. Most often, Soviet jets of Pentagon intrigue came from a single outlet called the Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau. This single design bureau is a practical household name for their MiG line of fighters and interceptors, and today, they simply go by Mikoyan.

Almost immediately after arriving in Indochina in 1965, American Phantoms found themselves brawling with Soviet-built MiG-17s that resembled lightweight sports cars compared to the practical lifted pickup trucks the twin-engine leviathan F-4s were. With the flight characteristics of a brick and the turning credentials of a muscle car, American Phantoms were routinely on the losing side of dogfights that Pentagon big-wigs assured pilots were an antiquated relic of World War II and Korea by this juncture.

4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron
Photo: USAF Archives

As it turned out, this notion was the biggest load of bull-you-know-what in the history of the US Air Force to this point. Losses of F-4s against North Vietnamese and a few Chinese pilots at the seats of MiG-17s and their big brothers, twin-engine MiG-19s, were staggering. Matters were made worse when Phantom pilots started seeing increasing swarms of MiG-21s, which were nearly as fast but far more agile. Worse still, the humid, sweltering climate did no favors for the Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles the Americans brought into battle.

By no means were Phantoms sitting ducks, and the odds against them evened out when the powers that be came to their senses and altered aerial doctrine to factor the dogfight into account. But the early struggle is an indisputable footnote in the history of the war. It wasn't until the F-4E variant of the Phantom hit the scene in 1967 that, mercifully, the type received an internal M60 20 mm autocannon. In hindsight, it was probably too little too late.

By 1975, the US was withdrawing from Vietnam with its tail firmly between its legs, and the Air Force/Navy paradigm was scrambling to make sure it was never humiliated in the same fashion again. Apart from designing the next generation of American jet fighters like the Grumman F-14, McDonnell Douglas F-15, and the General Dynamics F-16, a key cornerstone of the Pentagon's post-Vietnam aerial strategy was the clandestine procurement of the very same Soviet MiGs that just wiped the floor with them.

Though many of the particulars of the story behind their procurement remain either classified or unknown to the public, the real spicy details of how Soviet jets made their way to US soil before the fall of the Berlin wall was one no-doubt littered with 007-level espionage and intelligence operations. Under the codename of Project Constant Peg, these warbirds made their way to the care of none other than the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron. With the clandestine nature of their work in mind, it should come as no surprise that the base of operations was located at the Air Force Flight Test Center Detachment 3.

4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron
Photo: USAF Archives
You might know it better as Area 51. It might be illegal aliens of a different nature, but it's hard to argue the highly classified aspects of the 4477th's work necessitated its placement alongside the flying saucers. Starting with the procurement of Soviet MiGs via what can presumably be described as black ops or special ops in 1977, the fleet of MiG-17s and MiG-21s was handed over to the 4477th and formally commenced on May 1st, 1980. In truth, the US had clandestinely been acquiring MiGs through brokered deals with proxy nations as far back as 1968. In the years since, it's been revealed that at least a handful of MiGs made their way to US soil via Israel and Mossad, both before and during this initiative.

However, the bespoke Project Constant Peg program made ascertaining what lessons American pilots could learn from flying their adversary's jets easier than ever. Pentagon heavyweights like Air Force Director of Operations and Readiness, Major General Hoyt "Sandy" Vendenberg Jr, and Colonel Gaillard (Gail) R. Peck Jr championed the initiative. The latter of whom even named the program after his wife, Peggy. Over the next decade, 4477th test pilots became just as familiar with the MiG-21's flight characteristics as Red Air Force pilots flying them in combat.

In that time, the MiG-17s the program had on staff were phased out to make room for the arrivals of more MiG-21s and even a few MiG-23 single-engine interceptors with variable-geometry swing wings. A hydraulic wing mechanism that was strikingly similar to the one the US Navy employed on their Grumman F-14 Tomcat. In short, the 4477th gave Pentagon top-brass a first-person perspective of how MiGs whooped the American's asses in Vietnam, but also how to fix the problem.

By increasing the emphasis on maneuverability with American fighter jets designed after the Phantom, domestic contractors spent long hours honing the dogfighting capability of their designs to match and, in many cases, exceed the combat capability of Soviet MiGs. Through lessons learned from the 4477th, advancements already built into the designs of the next generation of American fighters were doubled down upon and further refined. Though the Navy F-14 Tomcat was always an interceptor first and a fighter later, with a turning circle to prove it at first, later B and D variants with better engines were far better at matching the MiG's threat in a dogfight.

4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron
Photo: USAF Archives
This point was promptly proven by the US Navy's Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, or what civilians might know as TOPGUN. As for the F-15, it immediately paid dividends upon its deployment to service, particularly with the Israelis. It is still the most successful fighter plane in history by kill-to-loss ratio, with no end to its reign in sight. Soon after, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, an all-American take on the single-engine fighter concept the MiG-21 employed, hit the scene as well, and the 4477th tested the F-16's performance against their own squadrons of MiG-21s to ensure the Fighting Falcon was up to the task. Even 50 years after its first flight, the F-16 is one of the world's most capable and desirable jet fighters, as Ukraine demonstrated.

All three of these timeless classic American jets, plus the F/A-18, which came later, benefited from the work done by the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Area 51 in a single decade. The last 4477th sortie was completed on March 4, 1988, and the squadron was formally made inactive on July 15, 1990. Since then, and following the fall of the Soviet Union, the US Air Force continues to maintain a fleet of MiG and Sukhoi fighters acquired in the aftermath of the fall, sometimes for the equivalent of pennies on the dollar. Since then, contemporary Russo-Soviet jets like the MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 have entered these ranks. But sadly, the lowered priority of maintaining these jets as meager aggressor squadrons in training exercises means Area 51 can free up more hangar space for little green men.


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