“I had a MiG-29 Fulcrum right where I wanted him in a really slow airspeed fight when I saw him light his afterburners and accelerate straight up away from me—amazing!,” David Rash, F/A-18 Hornet driver
Designed in response to a new generation of American fighters, which included the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18, the MiG-29 Fulcrum presented a formidable threat to Western pilots.
Among the countries that purchased the Fulcrum there was also East Germany. Luftwaffe (German Air Force) MiG-29s were kept in service also after German reunification and were used not only for national Quick Reaction Alert (QRA)service but also as adversary aircraftduring NATO air exercises, where the MiG-29 showed its tremendous air to air capabilities.
In October 2000, 23 officers and 55 enlisted personnel accompanied eight U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets from the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana, Va, to begin a two-week detachment to Laage, Germany. The primary purpose of the trip was to obtain air-to-air combat training for the fleet readiness squadron’s replacement pilots (RP) and instructor pilots against dissimilar, former Soviet-bloc aircraft. Aircraft and personnel from Fighter Squadron Composite (VFC) 12 also made the transatlantic voyage with the Gladiators and participated in the training.
Laage lies in the former East Germany and then was home to the Jagdgeschwader (Tactical Air Force Wing) 73 (today Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 73, Tactical Air Force Wing 73) Luftwaffe Squadron. During the Cold War, Soviet-built aircraft could have launched from Laage on strikes into western Europe. After German Reunification, the pilots and aircraft based at Laage trained with U.S. forces much like any other NATO ally, with one important difference—they still flew the MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet.
Although, as explained by Capt. John Carson in the article Gladiators Star in “Red October” appeared in March-April 2001 issue of Naval Aviation News, at the time the aircraft was the yardstick against which U.S. pilots measured themselves, many American pilots had never seen a MiG-29, much less fought against one. When the opportunity arose for VFA-106 pilots to test their mettle against the infamous foe, they jumped at the chance.
Two Air Force KC-10 Extender tankers carried Gladiator ground personnel and refueled the F/A-18s on the nonstop 9.5-hour overseas flight. After the final refueling of the Hornets, the tankers remained in Mildenhall, England, due to the unavailability of logistical equipment for the KC-10s in Germany. Passengers and cargo flew on to Germany in smaller C-130 Hercules and C-9 Skytrain II aircraft.
When the training began in Germany, the American pilots were anxious to test themselves against the MiG-29s and their German pilots. The RPs completed the same air-to-air training syllabus that they would normally execute in the U.S., but instead of an American-built adversary aircraft, such as the F-5 Tiger II or F-16 Fighting Falcon, they got to fight the “real McCoy.” The Gladiators also had the opportunity to train with the German version of the F-4 Phantom II and the European-built Tornado.
Lieutenant Frank Krevetski, who was in charge of the day-to-day activities of the detachment, had put the RPs through an extensive academic syllabus in preparation for their training in Germany. A building-block approach was used during the detachment, beginning with basic fighter maneuvering (BFM) to teach the RPs to fight MiGs in one-on-one dogfights.
Lieutenant (jg) David Rash was especially impressed with the performance of the Fulcrum: “I had a MiG right where I wanted him in a really slow airspeed fight when I saw him light his afterburners and accelerate straight up away from me—amazing!”
After the BFM training, the complexity of the hops gradually increased from one versus one to four versus many aircraft in full-blown aerial battles. The Gladiator instructor pilots were also getting invaluable training by leading the RPs during the multiplane sorties. They even managed to get an occasional one-versus-one BFM sortie against a MiG-29 for themselves when there was room in the flight schedule.
Although the eastern European weather was challenging, causing training to be canceled on some days, the Gladiators held their own against the MiGs, validating their prior hard work and training. “A fantastic experience for all involved, especially for the RPs,” Lt. Krevetski commented.
The Sailor and Marine maintainers of VFA-106 also scored high in their efforts. A total of 220 sorties were flown with minimal delays due to mechanical problems. Not a single aircraft was unflyable for more than a day during the entire period, and the reliability of the aircraft on the nonstop transatlantic legs was impressive as well.
A film crew from the Discovery Channel television network accompanied the Gladiators during every phase of the detachment. The crew filmed the following footage for a one-hour documentary that was aired in 2001 on the “Wings” TV series. Entitled “Red October,” the show documented the aerial battles against the MiGs, while highlighting the human side of the exercise.
During the detachment, the Gladiators were able to obtain realistic training for Navy and Marine Corps replacement pilots to prepare them for service in fleet squadrons. VFA-106 skipper Commander Greg Nosal summed up, “This detachment took a lot of hard work from a great number of people, including personnel from the Navy, Air Force and the German air force. I couldn’t be happier with the results.”
Photo credit: screenshot from YouTube video
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