MiG Pilot – military aircraft, Germany

MiG Pilot – military aircraft, Germany

An American pilot is learning about the German air force while flying the Russian-built MiG-29

Maj. Doug Russell’s daily life begins much like any other American pilot’s, at least right up to the point where he climbs the ladder into his jet — a Soviet-built MiG-29 Fulcrum.

Russell, known as “Vinnie” by fellow pilots, is part of the Air Force’s personnel exchange program. While getting a shot as an exchange officer is a rare opportunity in itself, throwing MiG driving into the equation puts the former F-15 instructor into a class of his own.

Russell shrugs off any suggestion that he’s a man of rare abilities or innate qualifications for this one-of-a-kind job. Still, he knows the assignment is special.

“There’s not a day I don’t look out the window and say to myself, ‘I must have the coolest job in the Air Force.’ It’s pretty great to be flying the MiG,” he said.

The patches on the gray German flight suit Russell sports are those of the Luftwaffe’s 73 1st Fighter Squadron. His unit, based at Laage Air Base, Germany, about two hours north of Berlin, is the only MiG squadron in the German air force.

And what’s even more unique about his assignment is that Laage was home to the former East German air force a bit more than 10 years ago. The base teamed with Su-22 Fitters and other Russian-built fighters and military hardware. Laage’s well-concealed and scattered hardened aircraft shelters and flight line alert facilities still bear witness to the Cold War struggle between the East and West.

Although the buildings and warplanes tell tales of a former era, the addition of Russell, his wife, Kelly, and 4-year-old son, Benjamin, in the Laage community sends a strong message about the Germany of today. Many say their presence as Americans couldn’t be a better testament to the stark changes that have taken place since German re-unification.

Russell got his first taste of flying with German pilots while earning his wings and then later instructing at European joint jet pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

“I thought back then it would be a great opportunity to fly with the Luftwaffe,” Russell said. “I knew these guys and had a lot of respect for their abilities.”

But he said his selection into the two-year program simply amounted to being in the right place at the right time.

“Timing is everything,” he said “Any fighter pilot could do this job.”

After checking out of his assignment with the 2nd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Russell underwent 34 weeks of German language classes at the State Department’s national foreign affairs training center near Washington, D.C., before heading to Laage.

“I started off here with two weeks, seven hours a day of MiG-29 academics, all in German. And most of the components in the aircraft are in Russian,” Russell said. “It’s one thing to take a language course, but it’s another thing to show up and take a technical course in German. It was a little eye-opening.”

He said the experience forced him to be immersed in the language, and that’s been a key to his success ever since.

After learning about the MiG-29 aircraft systems, it was time to take to the skies. He flew seven flights with an instructor, each about 45 minutes. After that, he was cleared to take up the MiG on his own. After another seven missions, he was a “mission-ready” Luftwaffe MiG pilot.

“I think all pilots like to learn flying a new airplane. This was taking that to an extreme,” he said.

At first Russell thought he could climb into the cockpit and fly it much like his F-15C Eagle, but he found the philosophy behind the design of the durable Russian warplane was different. The only thing the MiG had in common with the F-iS was the relative ease in handling, he said.

“The F-is is more of a Cadillac. The MiG is more like a tractor. It’s heavy, strong and less technically oriented. It’s a more simple aircraft, but it’s still effective,” he said.

Russell explained that the real advantages of the MiG, other than simplicity and durability, come into play at close range with enemy aircraft.

“If the MiG driver survives to the merge [within visual range], he has the advantage because of the off-bore site weapons capability,” he said, referring to the helmetmounted site that guides missiles in the direction in which the pilot is looking. He also said the sheer power and flight Characteristics of the MiG make it a formidable sparring partner up close.

But, as he pointed out, the MiG may never make it to the ‘merge” because U.S. and western pilots are likely to identify the aircraft miles out and shoot it down before the Fulcrum pilot has a fighting chance. That weakness comes Largely from Soviet doctrine that takes much of the critical information out of the hands of the pilot, and puts it into the hands of ground controllers.

“The jet doesn’t provide the same decision-making data to the pilot. The information is in the machine, but the pilot can’t see it. That can be frustrating,” he said, citing lack of target altitude, closure velocities of enemy aircraft and visual target designation systems in the heads-up display as examples.

But when the MiG-29 goes head-to-head with our best fighters in the visual arena, “It will come down to who flies the better airplane,” he said.

Despite some of the aircraft’s weaknesses, Russell said the bottom line is that they are the real thing and provide invaluable training opportunities as adversary aircraft to other NATO pilots.

“These guys are rock stars. Everybody wants to fly with them,” he said of the German MiG pilots. The squadron walls bear testament to that fame. They are replete with the squadron posters and plaques of all the NATO fighter squadrons that have engaged the MiGs in air combat training since 1994.

“I’d rather have my adrenaline spiked for the first time when I meet a MiG in training, before meeting one in combat,” Russell said. “That’s what we provide NATO forces — the ability to train against an aircraft that many of their would-be adversaries are flying.”

“We can learn a lot from him,” said German Lt. Col. Peter Hauser, 73rd Fighter Wing vice commander. “It helps having an American point of view. I always like having an exchange pilot in the squadron so I can ask “What would an American think about it,’ when tough issues come up and we need another perspective,” he said.

But fellow pilot and German officer Capt. Frank Simon said that for the most part Russell is just one of the guys.

“He’s one of us,” Simon said, explaining that while he may be an American, he blends right in with the rest of the squadron. “I can imagine what it must feel like for him to fly the MiG-29 though,” he said.

When Simon was in the West German army more than 10 years ago, he had to scout positions where they expected East German and Russian tanks to come rolling across the border.

“Now I am flying a Russian-built MiG over the same territory,” Simon said. “It’s very hard to imagine that we were supposed to fight each other.” That “Twilight Zone” feeling must be similar to what Russell, an American pilot, experiences flying the MiG, he added.

While the Luftwaffe and the squadron are glad to have Russell on their team, Russell says the benefit of the exchange program is clearly mutual.

“It’s not like I’m here to exploit the aircraft. We’ve known about it and its capabilities for a long time. But I think having a guy with hands-on experience in an adversary aircraft can be valuable,” he said. “And the exchange of ideas — not only to learn how these guys do business, but to bring a part of our Air Force to them as well — is important.”

He said the cultural contact and relationship building is equally, if not more, important.

“The exchange between our cultures is good because I’ll make friendships that will last forever, and hopefully leave a positive impression of Americans and our Air Force.”

The future of American MiG pilots in Germany is uncertain. The Luftwaffe is scheduled to start flying the Eurofighter in about two years. While the MiG-29 provides a great opponent for air combat training, say German air force officials, the Soviet theory behind its design may make the great Russian warbird a significant, but obsolete, part of German air force history.

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Air Force, Air Force News Agency

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group