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