I recently saw this picture floating around Facebook with the caption “F-15s vs MiG-29s during Operation Desert Storm, 1991”. While not entirely inaccurate, the engagement depicted in this awesome photograph wasn’t actually much of an engagement at all.
Two Fulcrums piloted by Valery Menitsky and Anatoly Kvochur lifted off from a Soviet airbase after lengthy briefings and preflights. This wasn’t any ordinary mission for the two. Both would be flying into territory they’d previously never dare to venture in. Settling in for a long flight in their state-of-the-art aircraft, they lifted off and pointed their noses towards the United States.
Upon being notified of the two MiGs approaching American airspace over the Bering Sea, four F-15s of the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing out of Elmendorf AFB took off en route to the incoming Fulcrums. In previous years, 21 TFW had already intercepted a number of wayward Soviet aircraft, fighters and bombers alike. This time, however, would be different. Two F-15s broke away from their flight, heading at a near-perpendicular vector to intercept their prey, the remaining two hanging back. In the picture, flight lead (the jet with the contrails heading towards the left of the photograph) brought his plane parallel to the Soviet jets, so that he could get a visual identification of the two aircraft. His wingman (the jet with the contrails crossing over flight lead’s) brought his Eagle to a position behind the MiGs, just in case they turned out to be hostile and needed to be downed immediately. A textbook interception. But yet, the MiGs still didn’t alter course and turn home. Their destination? Elmendorf AFB.
It wasn’t a brazen incursion of American airspace, but rather, a pre-planned visit of goodwill. In 1989, the Soviet Air Force had decided to send a few of their top aircraft to the Abbotsford International Air Show, one of the largest in the world, in British Columbia, Canada. Their roster included the legendary AN-225 Cossack, the largest flying aircraft in the world, a pair of MiG-29 Fulcrums (one single-seater and the other a two-seater) among a few other demonstration birds. This would be the first-ever North American appearance for both the Cossack and the Fulcrum, to an audience that had only ever seen pictures of the two aircraft on the news and in the papers. The two Fulcrums were to first land at Elmendorf and refuel, their pilots and crew mingling with USAF pilots and crew as a sign of friendship during the Soviet Union’s last few years before its final collapse and the end of the decades-long Cold War. The Soviet jets were to then take off and continue towards the Abbotsford airshow in Canada, escorted by F-15s once again to the Canadian border, whereupon three CF-188 Hornets took over the escorting duties and brought the MiGs in, even after one of the two foreign jets experienced a failure with their communications suite. Once at the airshow, as yet another sign of friendship, Major Bob Wade of the Canadian Forces Air Command was allowed to take the controls of the MiG-29UB with Valery Menitsky in the rear seat, guiding and mentoring the CF-18 pilot.
A nice, positive and peaceful change in events from the older days of the Cold War where NATO and Warsaw Pact pilots constantly played games of tag and chicken in the air, always ready to release the first shot of war should the situation escalate to that point.