Articles

The Secret Air Force Program That Hid An Even More Secret Program


MiG-21 over Nevada (Photo: USAF)

During the Cold War air-to-air warfare was alive and well. The Soviets had a huge air force, and their fighters were a viable threat to NATO aircraft. As a result, American fighter crews trained extensively in matters pertaining to shooting down other airplanes.

Also Read: 17 Signs That You Might Be A Military Aviator >

We trained using Top Gun's "defense in depth" theory that was built around the idea that no matter how many forward-quarter, long-range missiles a fighter was carrying, there was a good chance the threat would make it into the visual arena. This arena had many nicknames – "getting into the phone booth" or "putting the knife in your teeth" – but was (and still is) best-known as "dogfighting."

The first trick of a dogfight is getting sight of your opponent.  The oft-repeated maxim is "You can't shoot what you don't see." That trick gets trickier when fighting multiple aircraft at the same time, what we call a "many v. many" or "Battle of Britain" scenario.

I was a Tomcat radar intercept officer (the guy in the backseat like "Goose" in the movie "Top Gun"). The problem of dogfighting multiple aircraft at once was made easier in the F-14 because there were two of us in the airplane. Good crew coordination allowed the pilot to go after one bandit while the RIO made sure no other threats were in a position to take a shot.

Dogfighting is the most exhilarating part of tactical aviation.  The hard turns, the crush of the G forces, and the intensity of the comms over the radio between wingmen make it a wild, heart-pounding experience.  And because of the variables – different pilots flying different airplanes in different conditions – every dogfight is unique.

To simulate the threat aggressor squadrons existed at all the major fighter bases. The squadrons flew American assets that supposedly replicated the flying qualities of Russian airplanes. For instance, an F-5's characteristics were a lot like those of a MiG-23, and the A-4 was somewhat like a subsonic MiG-21.

Those of us in fighter commands at the time – the mid-1980s – dreamed of going up against the real thing. And one day while conducting training out of Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada we found out that our dream was going to come true – sort of.

We were scheduled to participate in a secret program called "Constant Peg." In the late '70s the U.S. Air Force had come into the possession of a few Soviet aircraft that Israel had captured from Syria. Over the years that inventory grew to more than a dozen airplanes acquired from places like Pakistan and China.

The Constant Peg aircraft were assigned to the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron – "The Red Eagles" – based at Tonopah in the Nevada desert, a place I'd never heard of until the day of our first missions when pilots from the Red Eagles came to Fallon to brief us.

The Red Eagle reps reviewed the performance characteristics of the aircraft we'd be flying against.  In our case that day we were doing 1 v 1s against a MiG-23 (what they had designated the YF-113 for OPSEC purposes) and a MiG-21 (what Constant Peg designated the YF-110).

As much as the brief focused on the dogfights it emphasized the admin around the mission, specifically the fact that, although we would be dogfighting closer to Tonopah than Fallon, in case of an aircraft emergency in no case were we to consider Tonopah a suitable divert field unless the emergency was so serious that not landing at Tonopah meant we'd crash. And if we would end up landing at Tonopah we were warned that we'd wind up spending at least two weeks there before we'd be allowed to fly back.

These rules struck us as pretty intense, but we figured it was what a secret program like Constant Peg demanded.

A few hours later we launched and flew south until we rendezvoused with the MiG-23. It was surreal to see an airplane we'd only seen in photographs for years before that, and the airplane looked smaller than we'd expected.

MiG-23 (Photo: Bill Paisley)

We went through the choreography of the dogfight as we'd planned, taking advantage of the fact that the MiG-23 was a "bleeder" in terms of turn rate, which meant that the airplane lost a lot of airspeed (compared to the Tomcat) when attempting hard turns.  We also did a speed demo that showed us trying to outrun the MiG-23 was potentially a bad idea.

Then we joined up with the MiG-21 and did another dogfight, this one quicker than the first because we needed to conserve some gas to get back to Fallon. Again, it was surreal to fly formation on an enemy aircraft, studying the details that the Red Eagle pilot pointed out to us (in cryptic terms for OPSEC purposes) over the radio. The MiG-21 wasn't as fast as the MiG-23, but it had a better turn rate.

When we got back from the flight my pilot and I debriefed over a classified phone with the Red Eagle pilots we'd flown against. After we hung up, we went over the high points with each other, both remarking that it had been very cool to go against the real airplanes for once.

Then my pilot, who was the squadron operations officer and senior to me, said something that struck me as curious: "I'll bet Constant Peg isn't the only thing going on at Tonopah," he said.  "There's something else there they care about more than MiGs."

I didn't give the comment another thought until months later when the Air Force finally admitted that "the secret test aircraft" that had crashed in the middle of the Nevada desert in 1984 killing the pilot who also happened to be a three-star general – too senior for normal test flights – had actually been a MiG-23.

I asked my operations officer what he thought about the Air Force admission, and again he hinted at the idea that there was something else bigger going on a Tonopah. "They would've stuck with the original story otherwise," he said. "I'm pretty sure they offered up the MiGs hoping the press would stop digging beyond that." I asked him to put a finer point on the thought, but he just shrugged and said he didn't know anything more.

Just less than three years later the operations officer's hunch was proved correct as the U.S. Air Force introduced the F-117 Nighthawk – the first stealth fighter – to the world. It turned out that the Air Force had been developing that amazing new capability since the late 1970s conducting test flights mostly at night out of Tonopah.  Those involved with the program were stationed hundreds of miles away at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas and would fly in on a special airliner at the beginning of the work week and fly back home at the end of it. Families had no idea what their service members did during that tour.

F-117s taxi to runway (Photo: USAF)

The F-117 carried the day during Desert Storm in '91, and the world watched in wonder as DoD released the cockpit footage that showed bombs hitting exactly where the crosshairs were placed while the airplanes penetrated enemy defenses totally unseen by radars.

Even more amazing, especially when considering how information flows in today's internet age, is how the Air Force managed to keep the Stealth Fighter a secret all those years. (There were a couple of reports of UFOs made by locals over the years, but the Air Force managed to dismiss those.)

Not only was Constant Peg great training for American fighter crews, it provided a cover for the super-secret development of the F-117 – a stroke in sneaky brilliance that saw to the success of a platform that is arguably the most effective and revolutionary in the history of highly classified programs.

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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