Military Aviation

The MiG-29 Fulcrum: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Mainstay of the Ukrainian Air Force Fighter Fleet

With the news of the EU intending to donate old MiG-29s and Su-25s from different NATO-air forces to Ukraine, we believe a review and analysis of the MiG-29 (NATO Codename Fulcrum) is in order here.

With the news of the EU intending to donate old MiG-29s and Su-25s of different NATO-air forces to Ukraine, we believe a review and analysis of the MiG-29 (NATO Codename Fulcrum) is in order here.

The MiG-29 was the first 4th Generation Soviet Fighter to be widely publicized in the West, as its appearance in Finland in the mid-80s gave Westerners a glimpse into the latest Soviet threat aircraft, which was known until then only via grainy Satellite Images of the Soviet’s Zhukovsky test center at Ramenskoye. These new Soviet Aircraft were ominously known as the RAM series of jets, after their base there.

The MiG-29 was clearly different from earlier MiGs. The Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau designed an aircraft for maximum maneuverability rather than maximum speed like the MiG-25. This ultra-maneuverable design was achieved with standard hydraulic flight controls, with a Manual Override system which enabled a Fulcrum Pilot to override their flight control system limits in an emergency. Thus, the MiG-29 was capable of amazing maneuvers which wowed airshow crowds around the world.

The MiG-29 also had the world’s first Helmet Mounted Sighting system to achieve widespread operational use (the USN briefly tested and deployed such in the 70s for its F-4Ns and a South African system influenced the Soviets to do same). These helmet mounted sights were nowhere near as sophisticated as the current JHMCS Helmet Mounted Displays. Instead, they consisted of a simple monocle which allowed MiG-29 pilots to lock their R73 Head Seekers onto any target they looked at within the gimble limits of the missile’s seeker head. This capability was known as the SHLEM, and SHLEM calls would be regularly heard in NATO Exercises as MiG-29 pilots called off heater shots way out of normal NATO heat seeking missile envelopes.

This Off Boresight capability coupled with high maneuverability certainly made the MiG-29 a threat aircraft. This same capability existed with its larger and aerodynamically similar Sukhoi counterpart, the Sukhoi Su-27. The MiG-29 was designed to be a front-line dogfighter and the low end of the High Low Mix of Su-27s and MiG-29s. With only a 6 Missile Armament, and only 2 out of 4 being Radar Guided, the Fulcrum was seen as a close in F-16 like dogfighter while the Flanker with its armament of up to 12 missiles was the long range heavily armed flying SAM site designed to be the Soviet Analogue to the F-15.

The MiG-29 wasn’t a perfect aircraft, as any it was the result of a series of design compromises. Its engines suffered from lower Soviet tech levels, and their initial Time Between Overhaul interval was in the neighborhood of 200 hours. Soviet Maintenance philosophy called for standard intervals of Depot Level Maintenance overhauls with minimal front-line servicing required. Range and endurance were short, with two fuel hungry turbofans limiting such to under an hour. Soviet Air Defense Doctrine also hampered effectiveness, as the Soviet Air Defense philosophy called for strict Ground Control rather than individual pilot initiative. Aircraft were vectored onto target from the ground.

Even the MiG-29 Flight Manual reflects this philosophy. Rather than listing Flight Envelope and Procedures, as Western Manuals do, the most common phrase seen in the MiG-29 Pilot Handbook is “IT IS PERMITTED.” Much like the USAF, if the Soviets didn’t give Permission, an activity was expressly Forbidden. Western Aviators tend to operate with far more day-to-day latitude, and US Naval Aviators have long followed a distinct philosophy that if it isn’t Prohibited, it is Permitted. During the first Cold War the joke was “teach Ivan some initiative and next thing you know he’ll be flying his Foxbat to Japan.” Still, the Fulcrum has proven to be a durable, long living fighter aircraft and is still produced to this day.

Adapted by a host of Warsaw Pact Air Forces various Middle East and African nations, and nonaligned India, the MiG-29 saw NATO service after the Unified German Luftwaffe adapted the type in a mixed formation with their AMRAAM capable F-4Fs. The MiG-29 was in wide demand as an adversary aircraft and as such NATO gained useful knowledge of its capabilities. Over Iraq and former Yugoslavia, the MiG-29 was incapable of doing much more than being shot down by vastly superior numbers of US and NATO aircraft.

In the skies over Ukraine today, the MiG-29s have proven more survivable despite the losses taken and thanks to its unique capability to operate from ‘primitive’ facilities (it can use even grass runways) the Ukrainian Air Force dispersed it Fulcrum fleet in minor fields in the west and south of the country the night before the Russian aggression.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

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Photo credit: Maksym Rinis Own work via Wikipedia

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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