Cold War Era

Former Finnish Air Force MiG-21 pilot tells the story of an exciting USAF RC-135V Rivet Joint Intercept

‘I began a turn to starboard and got a visual on the target, which the controller ordered me to identify. I recognized it as a USAF Boeing RC-135V flying steadily northwards,’ L t C o l J.O. Laukkanen, former Ilmavoimat MiG-21 pilot.

With the fast-moving advances in aircraft performance and combat capability, the Finnish Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) was soon looking to upgrade its fleet with a truly supersonic aircraft.

The USSR had unilaterally withdrawn from the Porkkala naval base in 1956 as a gesture of goodwill, but by the early 1960s, in the face of deteriorating relations with the west, the USSR felt the need to apply some political pressure to secure its relationship with Finland. As a direct result of this pressure from the USSR, the MiG-21 was procured for the Ilmavoimat in 1962 and 20 MiG-21F-13 aircraft were delivered to Rissala by Soviet pilots the following year.

Most of these aircraft were issued to Hävittäjälaivue 31 (HävLLv 31 – fighter flotilla 31) but the Ilmavoimat was unable to use all of the new airframes, so six of them were sent to Luoenetjärvi for storage; they were subsequently used to form the Tiedustelulentolaivue (TiedLLV – reconnaissance squadron) at Luonetjärvi in the early 1970s.  

In the summer of 1973, HävLLv 31 carried out the first squadron exchange visit to the USSR, visiting Kubinka airbase, another MiG-21 operator. The visits continued over the next two decades, with the host nation alternating between the USSR and Finland. The first Soviet visitors flew the MiG-21bis to Rissala in 1974 and in following years Rissala was also visited by MiG-23 and MiG-29 units of the VVS. The MiG-21F was replaced in 1980 by the upgraded MiG-21bis.

L t C o l J.O. Laukkanen, former Ilmavoimat MiG-21 pilot tells the story of an unusual intercept which took place on Jan. 27, 1989 in Michale Napier’s book In Cold War Skies, NATO and Soviet Air Power 1949-1989:

‘It was another busy day at the Finnish Air Force Flight Test Centre at Halli where, other than test flying, we also covered QRA; normally a task for fighter squadrons.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RC-135S Cobra Ball 55th Wing, 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, 61-2663 – Offutt AFB, NE – 2015

‘After lunch it was my turn for a 15-minute readiness alert duty. Besides wearing normal flight gear and an immersion suit, I also wore a pressure suit which would allow me to climb to 50,000ft with a normal flying helmet. My aircraft was MiG-21BIS (serial MG-133); the cannons were armed with live ammunition.

‘At 13:00hrs, the fighter controller ordered me to cockpit readiness for a possible identification mission and 6 minutes later I was ordered to scramble. After a fast start-up, lineup on the runway and afterburner take-off, I became airborne at 13:08hrs and headed southwest while climbing to 33,000ft in military power. I was then instructed to hold in a race-track pattern over the sea, south of Åland.

‘After some 10 minutes holding, the controller directed me to the south-southwest and informed me that a target was approaching from some 155 miles away. With my radar switched off, the controller vectored me to intercept the target. I began a turn to starboard and got a visual on the target, which the controller ordered me to identify. I recognized it as a USAF Boeing RC-135V flying steadily northwards. I reduced speed and formated off its right wing and checked the fuselage number. I remained in formation as it headed north, which was homebound for me.

‘A short time later, the fighter controller informed me of two targets approaching fast from behind; I figured on them being either Swedish Viggens or Soviet MiG-23s. Then the RC-135V turned away, back to south.

‘By now I had been airborne for an hour and my fuel state was approaching ‘Bingo’, but I continued in the direction of Halli; a diversion to Turku or Pikkala would be possible. Over Turku I still had 800 litres and, with clear skies over mainland Finland, I calculated that I could just make it all the way to base. Passing over Pirkkala, I initiated an idle descent and at 14:38hrs made a smooth landing at Halli. I checked my fuel status: 450 litres remaining, just 50 litres above the minimum-landing amount of 400 litres.’

NATO and Soviet Air Power 1949-1989 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Finnish Air Force and U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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