A study by the RV i PVO concluded that, `MiG-pilots are not capable of interceptor-operations at speeds above Mach 1.3.’
During the 1950s, Yugoslavia maintained relatively close relations to the United States of America (USA). Its representatives signed the Mutual Defence Aid Program (MDAP) and the armed forces thus received significant amounts of arms, equipment, and weapon systems of Western origin. However, after the end of the MDAP in 1958, the government in Beograd (Belgrade) – capital of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ) -turned to commercial deliveries for equipping its air force. Following contemporary trends, the Ratno vazduhoplovstvo i PVO Vojske Jugoslavije (RV i PVO, Air Force and Anti-Aircraft defense of the Army of Yugoslavia) designed a plan for its further growth for 1959-1966, which included an estimated requirement for 80 fighter jets capable of reaching speeds of Mach 2. It might sound surprising for what at the time was a communist country, but the senior leadership of the RV i PVO was quick to conclude that its preferred type would be the French-made Dasault Mirage IIIC interceptor; indeed, the generals were even interested in obtaining a licence for its manufacture in Yugoslavia. However, at the same time, the Liberation War of Algeria was in full swing, and the government in Belgrade was providing political support to the National Liberation Front (FLN) in that country: indeed, it went as far as to recognise its provisional government in exile, and started providing arms deliveries. It is hardly necessary to say that this not only hampered relations with Paris but led to a cancellation of the Mirage order.
Instead, and just as the Cold War was about to enter the period of its next major crisis, the Yugoslavs turned to the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union). As told by Bojan Dimitrijevic, Milan Micevski in their book Silver Birds Over the Estuary: the MiG-21 in Yugoslav and Serbian Air Force Service, 1962-2019, a visit of the Yugoslav Air Force commander General Ulepić in 1960 opened the possibility of Yugoslavia purchasing new fighters in the Soviet Union. A trade agreement between the two states for the period between 1961 and 1966 included an agreement on weapon deliveries including 34 million US dollars devoted to purchases for the air force. The primary Yugoslav aim was to obtain a modern supersonic fighter-interceptor. Although having only very few hard facts about the type – mostly obtained from various newspapers – the senior leadership of the RV i PVO decided that the MiG-21 would be its choice. On Apr. 17, 1961, General Ulepić approved a plan for purchasing the MiG-21 and the licence for its production, codenamed Thunder (Grom).
Plan Grom estimated that the purchase and licence production would include 150 MiG-21s as well as the purchase of 12 MiG-15UTI two-seaters for training. Indeed, they went as far as to consider licence production of the Tumansky R-11F-300 engine for the new type. A Yugoslav delegation reached Moscow on Apr. 19, 1961 and remained in the Soviet Union until August. On Apr. 22, it was given the opportunity to see a demonstration flight of a MiG-21F-13 at Kubinka Air Base, and then received a rather basic briefing on its performance. Moreover, during the following negotiations, the Soviet representatives demanded that the Yugoslavs ‘significantly change their political course’ from Belgrade’s pro-West orientation towards closer relations with the Warsaw Pact.
Surprisingly enough, considering their fierce insistence on independence, the politicians in Belgrade agreed with such demands. Indeed, they advised Ulepić to abandon the earlier practice of getting closely acquainted with the performance of the new jet and pressed on with negotiating the order. Correspondingly, and although the Soviets refused to lower the price, on Jun. 8, 1961 the Yugoslav delegation announced its decision to purchase a batch of MiG-21F-13s. The only element of the original intention of the RV i PVO left out from the resulting contract was the acquisition of MIG-15UTI conversion trainers.
Once all the related details were sorted out, on Aug. 2, 1961 representatives of the SFRJ and the USSR signed an interstate agreement, without details of quantities and prices, in Moscow. This stipulated the delivery of the first five MiG-21F-13s in 1962, eight in 1963, 14 in 1964, and 13 in 1965. In March 1962, a Soviet delegation visited Belgrade to negotiate a decision to purchase 40 MiG-21F-13s worth US $ 575,000, including spare parts, R-3S infra-red homing air-to-air missiles (ASCC/NATO-code AA-2 Atoll; colloquially known by its weapons system designation R-3S’ in the RV i PVO), ground equipment, and the training of necessary personnel of the RV i PVO. A related deal was signed on Apr. 7, 1962 which specified the purchase of 40 MIG-21Fs.
In January 1962, a group of RV i PVO airmen was selected for a trip to the USSR to convert to MiG-21 fighters. There were seven pilots, 20 technicians and one doctor. This group went through a two-month intensive Russian language course at the Air Technical Centre in Rakić, near Sarajevo between Feb. 28 and 25 Apr. 25. Nobody knew what kind of task the group was destined for except the group’s leader. The group was led by pilot Major Slobodan Radić seasoned F-86E Sabre pilot who finished conversion on the F-100 Super Sabre in USAF in 1957-1958.
Although all of the pilots passed strict medical exams in Yugoslavia, at the request of the Soviets they were examined again prior to starting the conversion course and one of the Yugoslav pilots was returned by the Soviets. The Soviet style of training was from the ground-up, and treated the Yugoslav pilots as though they had never flown fighters before, no matter their previous experience on US-built jets. Pilots were converted to fly the MiG-21 in daytime/ VFR conditions by 715 Training Aviation Regiment at Lugovaya AB in Kirgizia. They conducted ten sorties on MiG-15UTIs and a dozen on MiG-17s between Jun. 1 and Jul. 4. From Jul. 4, they started to fly MiG-21s until the middle of August, reaching an average of 23 training sorties per pilot. After the Yugoslav pilots learned how to take off, make a circle around the air base and land, the Soviets provided no tactical training whatsoever. Ground crew proceed from Lugovaya to Alma Ata where they joined the technicians from other air forces which were also about to receive the MiG-21s, and passed the training to maintain the MiGs at I and II level, i.e. at the squadron and regimental levels.
Conversion was finished and on Aug. 20 the group returned to Yugoslavia with the technicians proudly stating that they were the best among other foreign groups to finish conversion. Thus came into being the nucleus of the Yugoslav supersonic fighter community.
On Sep. 22, 1962, the first five MiG-21F-13s arrived at Batajnica Air Base, some 15 miles north of Belgrade. According to the contract with the Soviets, the Yugoslav RV i PVO increased security measures at Batajnica Air Base to prevent any leakage of information concerning this type. The sales contract also requested secrecy over the type’s name and so Yugoslavia adopted their own type designations; the MiG-21F-13 became the L-12, where “L” stood for lovac or fighter, while the later-delivered MiG-21U became the NL-12 where meant nastavni lovac, or training-fighter.
The first unit to receive the Soviet-built fighters was 204th Fighter Aviation Regiment. Originally established in 1949, this regiment was based at Batajnica AB, west of Belgrade, from 1951. It operated MDAP-supplied Republic F-84G Thunderjets in 1953-1958 and then North American F-86E Sabres from 1958. When the MiGs arrived, the 204th consisted of two fighter squadrons Nos. 127 and 128, and the force’s acrobatic team, and had around 25 F-86Es in total. No. 127 Squadron was chosen to be the first unit to convert to MiG-21s; conversion started immediately after the MiGs arrived and continued until the end of 1963. The pilots that finished conversion in the USSR continued flying in Yugoslavia from November 1962. In spring of 1963 conversion of the first group of five pilots started in Yugoslavia. It is interesting to note that in 1962-1964, 204th Regiment was most likely unique in Europe and probably worldwide, to jointly operate American and Soviet fighters – and that at the peak of the Cold War!
The conversion programme continued in Batajnica in 1963. It took until spring 1965 for all technical personnel to be converted to maintain the type in so-called I and II degree of technical maintenance. In the meantime, there were also Soviet instructors in the regiment. A total of 54 different Soviet airmen were in the unit until 1966, assisting the conversion and inspecting the MiGs during the guarantee period. The Yugoslays managed to overcome the Soviet limitations on flying the MiG-21F and to carry out all of the fighter training and even the acrobatics on their own.
Conversion and initial training were carried out under VFR conditions, while flying under IFR rules was allowed only to the pilots of the group who had passed their conversion in the Soviet Union. Lack of flying gear also meant that most interceptions were carried at the middle altitudes and below Mach 1. Squadron exercises were also conducted: fast take offs from QRA, interception at middle and higher altitudes carried out by a single pilot or in a pair.
Compared to the earlier conversion to the American types delivered through the MDAP, the conversion to the Soviet supersonic fighter was burdened with many problems. The Soviet flying gear was in deficit. No official flying manuals, schemes, procedures or other devices used in preparation for flying were supplied. All of this was especially obvious when flying at higher altitudes and training for the sonic boom; it was not easy to go over the speed of sound just on the experiences of the elder pilots.
A major problem was the lack of the two-seater. The Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies used the MiG-15UTI as the trainer for the MiG-21s until receipt of the production batches of two-seater MiG-21Us which did not arrive until 1965. Due to the lack of two-seaters during conversion, the Yugoslays modified at least one Lockheed TV-2 (serial number 10258) in May 1964 by mounting Soviet metric instruments (air horizon) and continued conversion of other pilots using the modified American training aircraft: this was a unique application, but also a typical ‘Yugoslav improvisation’ – which worked flawlessly until the delivery of dedicated two-seat conversion trainers. Indeed, the delivery of the first batch of two-seaters caused a major surprise, because it turned out that the instructor – who always occupied the rear seat – could see almost nothing at all during the take-off and landing.
In 1965, one of the MiG-21 squadrons moved to Pleso-Zagreb Air Base where it took part in Exercise Lov6en, together with F-86D Sabre Dogs from 117th Regiment. However, and overall, the conversion to MiGs progressed rather slowly. Indeed, during the same year a study by the RV i PVO concluded that, `MiG-pilots are not capable of interceptor-operations at speeds above Mach 1.3′. Furthermore, it observed that – while a modern fighter ‘safe for flying’ – the MiG¬21F-13 had a ‘short range… (and) minimal engine resources, and that the engine was sensitive to service use.
Silver Birds Over the Estuary: the MiG-21 in Yugoslav and Serbian Air Force Service, 1962-2019 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.