Red Eagles: America's Secret MiGs in the United States Air Force Secret Cold War Training Program. By Steve Davies. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2008. Photographs. Notes. Appendices. Glossary. Index. Pp. 352. $25.95 ISBN: 978-1-84603-378-0
This story of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (4477th TES) "Red Eagles" explores the avenue to more realistic air-to-air training born from the Air Forces' pathetic performance in the skies over North Vietnam. The frustration of air combat in that war was reflected by one Fighter Weapons School instructor who said, "I'd hate to see an epitaph on a fighter pilot's tombstone that says, 'I told you I needed training."' How do you best train for the most dangerous game in the world?
The answer was simple: train by fighting the "real thing." MiG-17, -21, and -23 examples obtained from Indonesia, Egypt, Israel, and elsewhere in the 1970s were brought together at Groom Lake, Nevada (Area 51), for exploitation in 1960s programs such as Have Doughnut, Have Drill, and Have Pad. These "black" programs were flown largely by Air Force Systems Command test pilots whose results eventually found their way into classified tactics manuals. But exposing tactical fighter crewmembers to MiGs would reduce or eliminate the "buck fever" that could paralyze them on their first combat encounters. Constant Peg began at Nellis AFB, Nevada, in April 1977, but moved to a remote airbase at Tonopah, Nevada. 4477th pilots initially came from Aggressor programs formed in the 1970s to reform Tactical Air Command's air-to-air training, make it realistic, and introduce dissimilar adversaries in T-38s and later F-5s.
The unit's first MiGs were in dangerous disrepair and had to be rebuilt. The Red Eagles brought together a unique maintenance team of innovative scroungers who could get aircraft into the air and keep them there. One Red Eagle commander explained, "We had a maintenance function that could reverse engineer parts that would have been the envy of any TAC fighter wing in the world. There were some short cuts that could be taken: you could use the nose wheel tire from a T-38 on the MiG-21, and hydraulic pumps off the F-100 would fit them". The maintenance functions employed just fewer than 100 hand-picked maintainers.
Maintenance personnel operated out of Tonopah during the week and returned to Nellis on weekends. Pilots "commuted" daily from Las Vegas, flying either a T-38 or an MU-2 light transport aircraft. To maintain...