In this article:
PVO, the Soviet Air Defence Force
In the 1950s the Soviets had managed to grow a major Air Defence Force (PVO) capable of covering the entire airspace of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The PVO was able to field interceptors and surface-to-air missiles to intercept even high-flying foreign reconnaissance aircraft. By the early 1960s, the Soviets managed to theoretically, seal their airspace to unwanted visitors. Nevertheless, multiple foreign intelligence agencies and air forces continued seeking to penetrate the airspace of the USSR by means ranging from non-steerable ‘spy blimps’, via strategic bombers, to high-speed tactical reconnaissance aircraft.
This happened because the so-called ‘peripheral areas of the USSR were frequently ‘soft spots,’ offering plentiful opportunities for Western aerial reconnaissance.
Iranian RF-5A clandestine operations inside the USSR
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi II of Iran was a staunch US-ally and his armed forces almost completely equipped with US-made equipment. Unsurprisingly, he went as far as to allow the Americans to use the territory of his country for intelligence-gathering activities – provided Iranian personnel was involved and, in the course of such operations, equipped with and trained to use, some of most advanced and sensitive high technologies.
This is how starting in 1968, the CIA, DIA, NSA, USAF, the Iranian SAVAK intelligence agency and the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) had arranged a joint operation – apparently codenamed ‘Dark Gene’ – in the course of which, not only one or another of Iranian-owned Aero Commanders, but especially RF-5A fighter-reconnaissance aircraft of the IIAF, were regularly flying clandestine operations inside the USSR. These were sometimes crewed by US and other times, by Iranian and sometimes by combined crews (at least in the case of Aero Commanders: RF-5A was a single-seat jet).
USAF RF-4C aircraft for Iran
As this operation went on (apparently, without any of the involved Freedom Fighters being caught by the Soviets), the appetite grew and thus the idea was born, to deploy the much more powerful McDonnell-Douglas RF-4 Phantom II reconnaissance aircraft for clandestine sorties launched from Iran into the USSR. The plot behind this phase of the operation was quite simple: in exchange for the Shah permitting the Americans to use ‘his’ air bases, the White House, the Pentagon and the US Congress granted permission for Iran to acquire six RF-4s. Of course, delivery of Phantoms to Iran required training of IIAF personnel to maintain and fly them: correspondingly, Iranian pilots could fly RF-4s with US instructors in the rear cockpit and, if any of them ‘happened’ to violate the Soviet airspace, the affair could always be explained as an ‘innocent accident,’ occurring during a ‘routine training mission.’
The Devil was in the detail: the variant ordered by Iran was designated RF-4E and represented an advanced version of the slightly older version operated by the USAF, the RF-4C. Moreover, due to the requirements of the Vietnam War, McDonnell-Douglas took nearly two years to manufacture the jets in question and deliver them to Iran. ‘In the meantime, the Americans ‘loaned’ a handful of USAF’s RF-4Cs to the IIAF, to ‘serve for training of the Iranian personnel.’ The aircraft in question were anything else but ‘just training tools’: actually, all were equipped with some of most advanced reconnaissance equipment the USAF was capable.
RF-4C with intercepted by MiG-21
Starting in early 1971, this phase of Operation Dark Gene came forward quite well, and up to two missions were flown per month, all by mixed US-Iranian crews: usually, the pilot was from the IIAF, whilst the systems-operator in the rear cockpit was from the USAF. However, a day came when a US-Persian reconnaissance flight was not only detected but actively challenged, by the Soviet Air Force.
On Nov. 28, 1973, a RF-4C piloted by Major Shokouhnia from the IIAF (known to have flown RF-5As at earlier times), with Colonel John Saunders in the rear seat, was intercepted by a MiG-21SM of the 982nd Fighter Aviation Regiment (home-based at Vaziani AB), piloted by Captain Gennady Eliseev. What happened next was a supersonic chase, in which the Soviet pilot barely managed to keep up with the low and fast-flying Phantom: the RF-4C was faster than all the earlier MiG-21-variants. Eventually, Eliseev fired both of his R-3S’.
Ram the RF-4C!
According to the US version of events, Colonel Saunders managed to decoy both of these by deploying photo-flares. Actually, these were near useless against the seeker-heads of Soviet air-to-air missiles because they were lighting at the wrong frequency: Major Shokouhnia evaded the missiles by a hard break. However, his vigorous manoeuvre slowed the Phantom down sufficiently for Eliseev to attempt engaging with the internal GSh-23 autocannon of his jet: the weapon jammed. Having no weapons left at his disposal, there appeared nothing the Soviet pilot could do. His superiors were of different opinion: they ordered Eliseev to ram the Phantom.
Before moving on, it needs to be pointed out that while taking evasive action, the Phantom had lost airspeed, allowing the MiG to cut the range. Now, came the most dramatic moment, as Eliseev manoeuvred his MiG-21 to hit the RF-4C: while the ground control advised him to hit the of Phantom’s fin with his wing, the pilot decided to do so with the nose of his aircraft and from below.
RF-4C rammed by MiG-21
He impacted on the left side, close to the engine nozzles, probably causing serious damage – if not outright severing – the tailfin of the US-made reconnaissance jet. This was perfectly enough: the stricken Phantom turned turtle, leaving its crew without a choice but to activate their ejection seats: both Shokhouhnia and Saunders made a safe parachute descent and were apprehended by the Soviet police, shortly after reaching the ground. Their Phantom hit the ground at such a high speed that it was completely destroyed on impact.
Under interrogation, the Iranian and American steadfastly maintained that they had been on a training flight and strayed over the Soviet Union by pure accident – exactly along the cover story prepared in advance just in case of a situation like this. Since the Soviets could not prove the opposite – because the Phantom was completely destroyed in the crash – they were forced to, grudgingly, accept this version of events.
Eventually, the downed RF-4-crew were saved from a protracted stay in the ‘workers’ and peasants’ paradise’ by a fortunate coincidence. It so happened that at about the same time, a cartridge with reconnaissance film from a Soviet reconnaissance satellite landed on the ‘wrong’ side of the border to Iran: indeed, on one of oilfields outside Abadan. Under the given circumstances, Moscow was more than happy to exchange the cartridge with precious intelligence photographs for two seemingly ‘incompetent’ airmen who could not keep their bearings.
MiG-21 pilot dead after ramming RF-4C
Tragically, the story of Captain Genady Eliseev ended entirely differently: he was killed when slamming his MiG against the RF-4. The Soviet success thus came at a high price, for the pilot died the hero’s death while destroying his target literally, ‘at all cost’. On Dec. 14, 1973, Eliseev was posthumously awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
His feat did not receive great publicity but was not kept secret either. For example, the incident was related in the No. 3/1980 issue a of the Polish magazine Przegląd WL i WOPK, which featured an article by Colonel Kazimierz Stec describing the event. In addition, foreign pilots who were deployed to Astrahan in the 1980s for live firing exercises, recall that Captain Eliseev was much revered by their Soviet hosts. Moreover, Captain Eliseev who was laid to rest in his native Volgograd, was commemorated by a number of monuments and tablets with one of Volgograd’s streets also being named after him.
Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: G.Garitan Own Work via Wikipedia and ejection-history.org.uk