Cold War Era

The story of the Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor that rammed an Iranian Canadair CL-44 carrying smuggled weapons through Soviet Airspace

The Su-15 fighter pilot gave the customary ‘follow me’ signals, but the big turboprop ignored them and started maneuvering dangerously, since the crew was determined to get away.

In the late 1950s, the Sukhoi Design Bureau, already an established fighter maker, started work on a successor to its Su-9 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot-B) and Su-11 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot-C) single-engined interceptors for the national Air Defense Force. Similar to its predecessors, the new aircraft, designated Su-15 (NATO reporting name: Flagon), had delta wings; unlike the Su-9/Su-11, however, it had twin engines and lateral air intakes freeing up the nose for a powerful fire control radar.

First flown in May 1962, the Su-15 officially entered service in 1965 and was built in several versions, the late ones having cranked-delta wings and a more capable radar. Being an air defense fighter, the Su-15 frequently had to deal with intruders.

Throughout the Cold War the southern borders of the Soviet Union perpetually received the attentions of hostile aircraft coming from Turkey and Iran.

As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes, an incident occurred on Jul. 17-18, 1981 on the Iranian border.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians made a deal to smuggle weapons—officially ‘pharmaceuticals’—from Israel (which was cooperating with the US in the infamous ‘Iran-Contra affair’). In late June a Canadair CL-44D4-6 freighter registered LV-JTN (c/n 34) was chartered for this purpose from the Argentinean airline Transporte Aéreo Rioplatense by Stuart Allen McCafferty, a Scots businessman acting as intermediary between the Iranians and the Swiss arms dealer Andreas Jenni. On Jul. 17 the freighter’s captain, Hector Cordero, decided to take a short cut across Soviet airspace en route from Tel Aviv to Tehran in order to skirt the north flank of the Iran-Iraq front. Flying at about 8,000 m (26,250 ft.), the aircraft briefly entered Soviet airspace over Armenia but then left it, and the Soviet PVO command post in the area took no action—no fighters were scrambled. (Another account says that the pair of 166th Fighter Aviation Regiment (IAP) Su-15s that had taken off to intercept was ordered back to base when the CL-44 escaped to Iran.

Transporte Aéreo Rioplatense Canadair CL-44D4-6 LV-JTN

The following day the crew again took the same route on the return flight. This time, two pairs of fighters scrambled from Vaziani AB, near Tbilisi, Georgia, to intercept; however, the indecision and bungled actions of the duty officers at the 34th VA’s command post meant that the interceptors were unable to find the target and were forced to return after hitting ‘bingo fuel’. (Some sources describe these fighters as Su-15s, but Vaziani AB hosted the 982nd IAP, which never operated the type, being equipped with MiG-23MLDs at the time.) Eventually a single 166th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment (GvIAP) Su-15 coded ’30’ and flown by Capt. Valentin A. Kulyapin was vectored toward the intruder, with orders to force it down at a Soviet airfield. The fighter pilot gave the customary ‘follow me’ signals (which was difficult in itself because the Su-15 flew at its minimum control speed to keep formation with the slow freighter and could stall), but the big turboprop ignored them and started manoeuvring dangerously, since the crew was determined to get away. Realising the intruder was not going to obey his signals, Kulyapin requested permission to fire but was denied. Due to poor interaction between the pilot and the command centre, the pursuit continued for more than ten minutes; when the CL-44 headed due south in an obvious attempt to get away, Kulyapin had to report this three times before he finally received orders to destroy the target. But then a problem arose-his aircraft was armed with two R-98 AAMs but had no cannon pods; another Su-15 fitted with cannon pods was on the way but would reach the scene too late.

Since the border was very close and the intruder could escape before the fighter could fall back to a safe distance for missile launch, Kulyapin opted for a Second World War—style ramming attack. Moving into line astern formation, the Su-15 pitched up into a climb and sliced off the CL-44’s starboard tailplane with its fin and fuselage. The uncontrollable freighter plummeted to the ground 2-3 km (1.24-1.86 miles) from the border, killing the three-man crew (captain Hector Cordero, first officer Jose Burgueno, and flight engineer Hermete Boasso) and Stuart McCafferty, who was also aboard. However, Kulyapin’s aircraft was seriously damaged by the collision and the pilot ejected, landing safely not far from the crash site. This time the intruder fell on Soviet territory, the wreckage furnishing irrefutable evidence of a border violation. For this performance Capt. Valentin Kulyapin was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Sukhoi Su-15

Photo credit: US DoD and Christian Volpati via Wikipedia

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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