My Flight in MiG 31 Foxhound – Life Time Experience

anil chopra, air power asia, MiG 31, Russia

The Mikoyan MiG-31 ( NATO reporting name: Foxhound) is a supersonic interceptor aircraft that was developed for use by the Soviet Air Forces. The aircraft was designed by the Mikoyan design bureau as a replacement for the earlier MiG-25 “Foxbat”; the MiG-31 is based on and shares design elements with the MiG-25. The MiG-31 has the distinction of being among the fastest combat jets in the world. It continues to be operated by the Russian Air Force and the Kazakhstan Air Force following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russian Defence Ministry expects the MiG-31 to remain in service until 2030 or beyond and was confirmed in 2020 when an announcement was made to extend the service lifetime from 2,500 to 3,500 hours on the existing airframes.

The Foxhound Refueling

After passing state testing in 2008 this modernized variant of MiG-31B was approved for introduction into air force of Russia. 50 planes are modified to MiG-31BM (Bolshaya Modernizatsiya/Deep Modernization) standard in accordance with 2011 contract. Efficiency of modernized MiG-31BM is 2.6 times greater than basic MiG-31. The MiG-31BМ’s maximum detection range for air targets was increased in the upgrade to 320 km (200 mi). It had the ability to automatically track up to ten targets, and the latest units can track up to 24 targets and simultaneously engage up to eight targets. The on-board Argon-K is replaced with new Baget 55-06 computer that selects four targets of highest priority, which simultaneously are engaged by long-range R-33S air-to-air missiles. New long range missile R-37 (missile) with speed of Mach 6 and range up to 400 km (250 mi) is developed during modernization process for use with newly modernized MiG-31. MiG-31BM has multi-role capability as is capable of using anti-radar, air to ship and air to ground missiles. It has some of avionics unified with MiG-29SMT and has refueling probe. MiG-31BM broke world record while spending seven hours and four minutes in the air while covering the distance of 8,000 km (5,000 mi). MiG 31 BM, Tail Number 903, is the variant I flew.

MiG 31 BM. Image source: skyandspacetravel.com

Why I Flew the MiG-31?

I was the team leader of Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG 21 Upgrade ‘Bison’ project in Russia from mid-1996 to end 2000. The Design and development work was carried out at the Mikoyan Design Bureau in Moscow’s (OKB-155, Experimental Design Bureau 155). Our location was at RAC “MiG”, 6, Leningradskoye Shosse, Moscow. In 1995, Mikoyan OKB had merged with two production facilities to form the Moscow Aviation Production Association “MiG” (MAPO-MiG). Rostislav A. Belyakov, was still the father figure. I had an opportunity to meet him.

Then Gp Capt Anil Chopra (author) with Sokol Director, and Ms Nirupama Rao, then Deputy Head of Indian Mission in Moscow. Later Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to USA.

Tow MiG 21 Bis Aircraft had been sent from India for the Design and development project. These aircraft were in positioned at the Sokol plant in Nizhnie Novgorod, where they were to be stripped and rebuilt after receiving the final design drawings from Moscow Design Bureau.  Sokol was also where the MiG 31 was being built. Our team used to visit the Sokol plant regularly from 1997, nearly once a month, for progressing the work on our two aircraft. Two of our officers were later permanently at Sokol for the flight testing of “Bison”. The Director General of the plant, V Pankov mentioned to me about the MiG 31 and said that the Russians had been proposing the MiG 31 for sale to India. He said that they had given details to both the Government of India and to the Indian Air Force, but had not received any response or interest. I asked them to show us the aircraft, and if they had no problem, then I could get a chance to fly it. In Russian armament industry the general dynamics were still of the Soviet era. It took him some time to get approvals for me to fly in the rear seat of the MiG 31. They also told me that I was to be the first pilot from a foreign country to fly a MiG 31. They gave me a certificate to that effect, which is currently lying misplaced somewhere in my boxes. It was a demonstration flight and not a test flight. The basic aim was to show case the long range radar and to demonstrate high speed and acceleration. The date fixed was 28th May 1999. That was also the day the deputy head of India’s Mission in Moscow was on her first official visit to the Sokol plant. Ms Nirupama Rao was later India’s foreign secretary and India’s Ambassador to USA.

Wg Cdr Harish, Mr Pankov, DG Sokol Plant and Author with MiG 21 Bison in the Background

Where did you fly it?

          The flight was made in the Sokol Aircraft Plant in Nizhnie Novgorod, which was formerly called Gorky. The plant was a manufacturer of MiG fighters. It was reportedly founded in 1932 and was once known as “Aviation Plant 21”, named after Sergo Ordzhonikidze. During 45 years of serial production the plant had manufactured about 13,500 combat aircraft. We were told that at its peak, they use to make close to 200 MiG 21s a year. But after the collapse of Soviet Union, and in the absence of significant orders from the Russian Air Force Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS), the production had gone down. Indian MiG 21 Upgrade was a significant order. Also the plant used to make around 10-12 MiG 29 two-seaters in a year. There were nearly 15,000 employs. Their salaries were very low in mid 1990s. Most of the sales and money earned from armaments was controlled directly from Moscow. All foreign contracts were through Rosvooruzhenie (later Rosoboronexport), the sole state intermediary agency for Russia’s exports/imports of defence-related and dual use products, technologies and services. We were told that the entire plant, including salaries could be run through sale of just two MiG 29s. It was clear that the aircraft sale price was very high and basic production costs and salaries were very low. The high mark-ups of defence equipment prices are true in all countries. For some exported components, the price mark-up could be a 100 times. Many smaller plants that were the real original equipment manufacturers (OEM) of the components or sub-systems, wanted to sell spares directly to India, but the Russian government control was never released and with the result the bulk of the profits went to Moscow. 

MiG 21 Bisson First Flight on 06 October 1998.

          Russian people take a little time to make friends, but once they become one, they are great friends. There were many very senior technicians in the plant who had been to India in 1960s to help set up the MiG plant at Nasik. They had fond memories and narrated about the great time they had in India, and how they loved Indians. They also remembered the great Indian Old Monk Rum. We arranged to get some from India for them.

Sormovo airfield. Image Source: Google Earth

The production facility was next to the airfield (also known as Sormovo airfield), which was also the civil airport. For long, the plant was considered the most important industrial enterprise and main employer of the region. In those hard days, the plant was making many aluminium and other alloy based products, like river boats, frames for doors and windows, and even metro coach shells. We have heard that in later years they even encouraged flight tourism for MiG-29 to generate additional income.

MiG 29 Flight Tourism. Image Source: tripadvisor.com

General Capability Briefing by the Russian Designers

A detailed briefing on the aircraft was carried out first by Russian designers, and then was the pre-flight briefing by the pilot. Designers told us that though evolved from the MiG 25, there were significant changes. The aircraft fuselage was longer to accommodate the radar operator’s cockpit and there were some other new design features. The wings and airframe of the MiG-31 were stronger than those of the MiG-25. The advanced radar, with look-up and look-down/shoot-down capability and multi target tracking and engagement was a significant improvement. The aircraft had advanced sensors and weapons. Radar they said was much better and works well even during active radar jamming. They specially highlighted cooperative work, between a formation of four MiG-31 interceptors, using data-links, dominating a large front and airspace across a total length of up to 900 kilometres. The radar had maximum detection range of 200 kilometres. They claimed that the aircraft radar and weapons combination could intercept cruise missiles flying at low altitude, and also the launch aircraft. Similarly it could take on UAVs and helicopters. The automatic tracking range of the radar was 120 kilometres. The aircraft could act as air defence escorts to a long range strategic bombers. The MiG-31 was not designed for close combat or high-g turning.

MiG-31 with R-77-1 missile . Image Source: britmodeller.com

The MiG-31BM that I was to fly was reportedly a multirole version with partially upgraded avionics, new multimode radar, HOTAS controls, LCD colour multi-function displays (MFDs) in front cockpit, and ability to carry the R-77 missile and other Russian air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) such as the Kh-31 anti-radiation missile (ARM). It also reportedly had a new and more powerful computer, and digital data links. The aircraft was called Prospective Air Complex for Long-Range Interception. The Zaslon phased-array PESA radar would allow firing long-range air-to-air missiles. Its maximum range against fighter-sized targets was claimed as 200 km. The radar could track up to 10 targets and simultaneously attack four of them with its Vympel R-33 missiles, they said.

Typical MiG 31 Interception Front. Image Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

But eventually the radar would track 24 airborne targets at one time, and attack six simultaneously, they said. Actual development status of radar at that time was not known to us. An upgraded, larger Zaslon-M radar, would later have detection range of around 400 kilometres for AWACS class targets.

MiG 31 with Zaslon phased-array PESA radar. Image Source: Wikipedia

There was an infrared search and track (IRST) system in a retractable under nose fairing. Its tracking range was 56 kilometres. The eventual variants were to have various air-to-ground missiles integrated, that included six anti-radiation missiles, or anti-shipping missiles or six precision TV/Laser bombs like KAB-1500. Maximum external load mass was 9,000 kilograms. The MiG-31’s main armament was four R-33 air-to-air missiles. Fuselage could reportedly carry four R-33 or six R-37 missiles. Four underwing pylons could carry combinations of drop tanks and weapons. MiG-31BM could also carry the Kh-47M2 nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile with claimed range of more than 2,000 km, and Mach 10 speed,

MiG 31 retractable infrared search and track (IRST) system. Image Source: secretprojects.co.uk

The MiG-31 was equipped with digital secure data-links. Details were not told, but they mentioned that the aircraft radar picture could be transferred to Indian Su-30s and MiG 29s. Also ground radar picture could be received by the MiG 31 and transferred electronically to other aircraft. Thus allowing radar-silent attacks. There was a choice to slew missiles and fire based on inputs from other aircraft through data-link. The MiG-31 had radar ECMs. Details were not discussed. The on-board navigation and attack system had two inertial systems supported by digital computer.

MiG 31 Canopy Arrangement. Image Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

They also mentioned that the Russian Air Force was already flying the MiG 31, and a few hundreds had been produced by Sokol plant. Kazakhstan Air Force had also retained some numbers after Soviet dissolution. They prided in mentioning that the MiG-31 was among the fastest combat jets in the world. The aircraft had years of service ahead. Cash strapped Russia was very keen for IAF to buy the MiG 31.

Image Source: nationalinterest.org

What were your first impressions? 

The blue and white painted huge aircraft with Tail Number 903 looked most impressive and overbearing as one walked towards it. To start with, MiG-31 is big. You might say huge. This was the under development MiG 31 BM (air defence) variant. I had read up about the MiG 31. I had earlier seen the MiG 25 in India, though I had not flown it. This one was freshly painted aircraft and much better looking. This was the aircraft which used to be used for display during air shows. As one walks around the aircraft for external checks, one gets to see the huge nose cone that housed the RP-31 N007 backstop (Russian: Zaslon) radar. Air intakes were side-mounted ramps. Looking into the huge intake was like looking into a tunnel, and one could see the first stage of the huge engine. With a high shoulder-mounted wing, one could comfortably walk under the aircraft.

MiG 31 Under carriage wheel arrangement. Image Credit: Poutinov

The under carriage was peculiar. There were two main wheels in each side and these were in Tandem but not aligned with each other. We were told that the undercarriage had been strengthened to take greater weight, also the fuselage was clearly longer. One recalled that the MiG 25 had only one main wheel each side. Russians also demonstrated the peculiar way the wheels retracted into the fuselage. The wheel trolley did a full forward rotation before entering the wheel bay. The tail side was somewhat similar to MiG 25, though longer a little but difficult to make out.

Front Cockpit with MFDs. Pinterest Upload By Joshua Coley

On entering the cockpit, I was briefed by the Pilot, Alexander Georgevich Konovalov. about the cockpit. We were not allowed photography in the cockpit. The front cockpit was still like the other Russian cockpits with green colour and standard old instrumentation. There were two MFDs which had been introduced in front cockpit. It looked like a cut and fit task as is the case in developmental aircraft cockpits. The rear cockpit had the old round CRT radar scope. The front cockpit had a standard Russian control column with autopilot and weapon controls. The rear seat had a control stick with no control buttons on the stick-head. This rear-stick could also be removed and stowed away for better radar work. Once the canopy was closed the outside view reduced considerable in the rear cockpit. One got a feeling as if one was seated in a submarine. There was a big periscope to see outside. The cockpit seemed more optimised for WSO role and less for flying.          

Rear Cockpit radar scope, and control stick head.. Image Source: defencetalk.com

How does it compare with the MiG-25? 

Both MiG 25 and MiG 31 were designed as interceptors. The MiG 31 was greatly upgraded to house an advanced radar, digital data links and the more powerful engines. The aircraft had to be made longer. The gross weight of MiG 31 had gone up to 41,000 kg (90,390 lb) vis-à-vis 36,720 kg (80,954 lb) of MiG 25. MiG 31 had 2 × Soloviev D-30F6 engines with 93 kN (21,000 lbf) dry thrust each dry, and 152 kN (34,000 lbf) with afterburner, compared to 2 × Tumansky R-15B-300 engines, with 73.5 kN (16,500 lbf) dry thrust, and 100.1 kN (22,500 lbf) with afterburner for MiG-25.

MiG 25. Image Source: Wikipedia

The MiG-31 was clearly an upgraded design. It would be wrong to call it a totally new design. Strengthened wings allowed a small increase in max G from 4.5 to 5G, and better acceleration and low-level flight. The MiG-25 radar, was primarily optimised for high-flying targets, but the Zaslon radar of the MiG-31 could detect and track low flying aircraft (look-down/shoot-down capability). The same was demonstrated in flight by locking on to a low flying MiG 21 that had taken off from same airbase. The rear cockpit in the MiG 31 has been optimised for the WSO. WSO was entirely dedicated to radar operations and weapons deployment. MiG 31 radar was passive electronic canned array (PESA) whereas the MiG 25 had older variants of vacuum tube or semiconductor radars.  While MiG 25 carried only air-to-air missiles, MiG 31 also carried air-to-surface missiles that included 4 × Kh-58UShKE anti-radiation missiles or 1 × Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile.

Mig 31 with Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile. Image Source: defpost.com

How well did it accelerate? 

          The aircraft accelerated quickly, as if someone was pushing from behind with brute force. Having flown the MiG 23 MF whose Tumansky R-29 (R-29A) engine (123 kN (27,600 lbf) thrust) give it excellent acceleration, the MiG 31 was also similar. During our sortie we climbed up to 15 kilometres, and accelerated to max M 2.7. The transition to supersonic and subsequent cruise was very smooth. We also flew at low level to see the acceleration, but did not hit max speed or go supersonic, though the aircraft had the ability. The aircraft pushes ahead like a rocket.

MiG 31. Image Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

What was take-off and landing like? 

          The date was 28 May. Average daytime temperatures in May in Nizhnie Novgorad are around 22℃. Airfield elevation was 256 ft. The take-off and landing were done by the front pilot. The rear cockpit is used mostly as WSO station, though it has a control column to fly in case of emergency requirement. There was nothing peculiar about the take-off. The frontal view through the periscope was good. I had used the periscope earlier on MiG 21 UB (trainer) and on MiG 23 UB. So I was quite comfortable. However the side view was minimal as the large front canopy left little place for Perspex for the second cockpit. I tried to visualise if the second pilot could easily land from the rear seat. It surely can be but compared to a SU-30 MKI it would be surely more uncomfortable. 

Rear Cockpit Limited View. Image Source: militaryfactory.com

Describe your flight

The sortie was designed to demonstrate the radar interception performance, aircraft acceleration and general handling. The rear cockpit has only two small vision ports on the sides of the canopy. Fighter pilots are more used to having a great external view. I felt a little claustrophobic. But reconciled to it. There were side screens to make the cockpit darker for better viewing of the radar scope. After take-off the pilot kept the afterburner on for a little while to demonstrate high rate of climb. We climbed initially to 6 km. Konovalov spoke decent English. He allowed me to handle the controls. The aircraft handling was somewhat sluggish, more like a bomber than a fighter. The rear control stick felt more like holding a rod rather than a control column.

Author after a fkight in British Hawk aircraft

Here we did some radar work. He kept instructing me how to put on the radar and allow it to warm up and settle down. He also told me how to change range scale. The picture was more like the old time CRT displays of the raw blip. He showed me an airliner at around 185 km. Since the airliner was not under our ATC control, we did further radar work with a MiG 21 that had taken off from the home base. We locked on to the MiG 21 around 85 km. Later the MiG 21 was asked to decent to lower height of about 1 km. Then we saw the look down mode. I do not recall at what range we locked on. I think it was certainly around 40 km. We then climbed to 15 km, where he accelerated the aircraft to M 2.7. Acceleration was smooth and fairly quick. He allowed me to be on the controls during acceleration. There was no buffet on the aircraft or on control column. Subsequent deceleration was also fast. For quicker deceleration we initiated a turn (3G).

Image Source: flickr.comphotospesawat-terbang

Once subsonic, I carried out few turns pulling around 4G. Turns appeared sluggish. In any case the aircraft was cleared only for max 5G. Yes the aircraft was easy to handle, but appeared more like weapon launch platform up in the sky. We then descended to low level. The MiG 25 was known to be difficult to fly at low-levels. Russians had made some aerodynamic airframe modifications on the MiG 31 for better low altitude handling. We did an acceleration to around 1100 kmph. The acceleration was smooth. I did not notice any buffet or other aerodynamic effects.

What was best about it?

The best part of the aircraft were the acceleration and the long range radar. I had been told that aircraft has some very long range missiles. Also the aircraft had been used to launch satellites. The aircraft had significant weapon carrying capability. However many modern, smaller in size fighters can carry similar tonnage.   

Author After MiG AT flight with pilot Kanavalov in Russia

What was worst about it?

          I think it is not appropriate to call anything worst. I would hardly call it a fighter aircraft. It was basically a weapons platform in the air. More like an atmospheric satellite, or an airborne cruise ship. I also thought that the aircraft still required more refinements in its avionics, displays and cockpit instrumentation. WSO station in Su-30 MKI or Phantom F4 had an excellent external view. Essentially designed as an interceptor, one could not call it a fighter in conventional sense. I understand that subsequently, the rear cockpit also got an MFD, otherwise working on the old CRT type round scope was not good for situational awareness and information display. For a Mirage 2000 pilot like me, it was a little confusing initially.

Preparing for my Sortie in Su-30 K at Zhukovsky  airfoeld, Moscow.

How comfortable is the cockpit? 

          I sat in the front cockpit for a few minutes. It was like any Russian cockpits. Green panels and black instrument dials. Having flown the MiG 21s, MiG 23 BN and MF, and few sorties on MiG 29 earlier, the cockpit looked very familiar. Some of the instruments were same, others had to change to cover different range of flight parameters. Two MFDs had been brought in. One could see the cut and paste done to the old cockpit to introduce them. One could make out that more changes were still in the offing. The cockpit was spacious like all Russian aircraft, catering for the well-built and well clad “Ruskies”. The ejection seat and strapping was also familiar. One thing I always liked about the Russian cockpits was that there was no need for pilot to wear leg restraining straps, as they were part of the cockpit and seat arrangement. The layout of the throttle, stick and positioning of switches appeared good as per flight usage requirements. This had obviously evolved over the years in all counties. Having interacted very closely with Russian designers, especially the cockpit specialists, in our upgrade project, one knew that they were very knowledgeable and real masters at their job. The rear cockpit was somewhat suffocating and tight. Holding the control column was like holding a round headed walking stick. The stick could be removed from the base and stowed away. Instrumentation in the rear was awaiting an upgrade. Later pictures of the rear cockpit (on the internet) indicate that the MFDs had been introduced. 

How loud is it for the crew?

          The cockpit was well sealed. After all the aircraft was meant to fly at very high altitude and at very high speeds. I flew with the normal Russian inner and outer helmet. Same as used on MG 21.  The noise level was reasonably low. Even at high supersonic speed it was quite comfortable and one could converse with other pilot comfortably.  

Air intake adjustable flaps. Image Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

Why the IAF did not buy the MiG 31?

Russians had made many attempts to try convince the Indian Government and IAF to go for this “multirole aircraft”. Their main USP was long range missiles (carrier killer and ASAT) and multi-role platform. India had good experience of the MiG 25, albeit mostly in the reconnaissance role. IAF well understood the complexities of maintaining an aircraft of this type. MiG 25 had been bought for high altitude reconnaissance. By now India had own satellite based reconnaissance capability. Also more and more UAVs were being used for ISR work. Notwithstanding the upgrade, MiG 31 remained an old platform inherently designed for high altitude, high speed interception. It could not be compared to a modern multi role aircraft. IAF had already made up its mind on Su-30 MKI for which the contract was actually signed while we were in Russia. We were also interacting closely with the Indian SU-30MKI upgrade team in Moscow. India was also not keen to put IAF more into the Russian basket. India had had a great experience with Mirage 2000, and was also looking at adding more upgraded variants of the Mirage 2000. Also India had done its threat perception study. It had seen how its own neighbourhood was evolving. India had no such threat from Pakistan. Yes India needed long range missile and interceptors for China. But the same could be achieved by putting a long range missile on any other aircraft. Having a large radar with long range was the main advantage with MiG 31 which was not possible on smaller aircraft. But technologies were evolving and later better radar performance was possible from smaller radars. In any case Su 30 MKI had a large real-estate in its nose. Interestingly MiG-31A has been used to launch commercial satellites and MiG-31S have been used to train astronauts, to conduct research in the upper atmosphere and for space tourism by launching the aerospace rally system rocket-powered suborbital glider.

Indian Su 30 MKI. Image Source: IAF

Not many countries had shown interest in the MiG 31. India also not very sure about the MiG 31’s projected radar capability. Even the Chinese had chosen many Su 30 variants instead of MiG 31 despite greater threat. SU-30 variants manoeuvre very well. Sukhoi Design Bureau was also much more aggressive in its marketing. Even a MiG 35 of Mikoyan stable was considered a better bet, but then India already had plans to upgrade the MiG 29. There was no need immediately for IAF at that time to have an AWACS killer missile. MiG 31’s capability to launch anti-satellite (ASAT) was not of immediate interest to India. India was already building its own surface based ASAT capability. IAF’s finite budget allocations could not afford too many platforms. Also buying just 10-12 MiG 31s would have added more logistics complexities to IAF’s already many fleets.  As per my knowledge, IAF never did a formal evaluation of the aircraft.

Image Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

The MiG 35 which Russians claim can shoot down almost all kind of reconnaissance drones and other platforms like AEW&CS and U 2 Spy plane, is one of the contenders of the 114 new fighters India is going to evaluate in the near future.

What are your feelings on Western versus Russian aircraft – do you have a personal preference and if so, why? 

          I have flown a fair number of both Western and Russian aircraft. I have nearly a 1,000 hours on MiG 21 variants (MiG 21 FL, MiG 21 M and MF and MiG 21 Bis). I was an instructor on MiG 21. MiG was my initial year’s aircraft. I was a pioneer of the Mirage 2000 fleet and commanded a Mirage 2000 squadron, and have around 1200 hours on type. I also happened to have ejected from a Mirage 2000 at a ripe age of 59 years and 2 months in the rank of an Air Marshal, a sort of record of its own kind. I have also flown the MiG 29, Su-30 MKI, Jaguar, Hunters, among others.

Su-27 Picture signed by Viktor Pugachev after the flight with him

I had earlier done a flight on the Su-27 on 06 December 1991 (my birthday) in Delhi with the famous Russian pilot Viktor Pugachev (of the Cobra manoeuvre fame). I had also flown the Su-30K at Zhukovsky flight test airfield in Moscow with Test Pilot Slava on 13 May 1997. Also flown the under development MiG AT at the same airbase, and the Yak 131D at Sokol. So I have no specific loyalties and can make an independent comment.

Author at Zhukosky airfield with the Mikoyan Project 1.44/1.42 aircraft (NATO name: Flatpack) in Background

I had had an occasion to be present at Zhukovsky airfield when the Mikoyan Project 1.44/1.42 aircraft (NATO name: Flatpack) technology demonstrator developed by the Mikoyan design bureau was revealed to the world. Later it had done its maiden flight in February 2000.

Martin Baker Certificate for Ejection from Miarge 2000,

Both, the Russian and Western aircraft had their own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Russian aircraft were simpler in design, cockpits were big, more mechanical than complex electronics, and had high standardisation and commonalty. Switching from one Russian aircraft to other was so much easier. I like the levelling mode of Russian autopilot that brought you to level flight by pressing this button on the control column. This was handy if one got disoriented. I know of someone who saved his life because of this. I also liked the simplicity of Russian ejection seats. And they were as fool-proof as any Western ones. Russian aircraft mostly had brut power, they were fuel guzzlers, and some had high specific fuel consumption (SFC), and many passed out smoke through their exhaust. Russian aircraft were cheaper in their base price, but in the long run, their life cycle costs were higher. For example a MiG 29 would overtake a Mirage 2000 in around 5 years in life cycle costs.

Unmounted MiG 31 D-30F6 engines – Image: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

The Western avionics, including electronic warfare systems were more sophisticated. Russians used brute power there too. Russian aircraft required greater stick displacement for any aircraft response, it was much lesser in Western aircraft. This was as per their concept. This had its own dynamics when one changed fleet from Russian to Western aircraft or vice-versa. Pilots had to be cautioned for this. Russian cockpit switches were much larger and easy to operate in the cockpit, the Western were smaller and one had to get used to them while operating with gloves on. The Russian and Western artificial Horizon instrument display was quite different. In Russian aircraft the Artificial horizon bar turned with the aircraft, thus remained parallel to the aircraft and not to the actual horizon. The aircraft symbol/bar moved twice the degrees to indicate the bank. This worked well when one was head down. Most pilots really liked this instrument (AGD). In the Head up Displays of initial Russian aircraft they replicated the same display. This was most confusing because the displayed horizon was different than the real one. We discussed this with the Russian test pilots who had flown some Western aircraft. They also tended to agree with us on this. It took us a great effort and pressure to convince the Russian designers to redo the software to make the MiG 21 Bison HUD to the Western symbols and logic. Russian designers were not very happy about this. Russian inner helmets were standardised between pilots, tank crew, and even ship or submarine crew. Russian radio navigation system (RSBN) was quite different to the Western TACAN. I found the Russian system very complex and many ways less accurate. The fighter aircraft Air Speed Indicator (ASI) started from 200 kmph, unlike the western aircraft.

Russian Artificial Horizon Instrument AGD. Image Source: worthpoint.com

Soviets/Russians remained more than a match for the Western world. They often achieved results with simpler and cheaper means. After all, they were the first to put a man in space and even today are moving ahead with hypersonic weapons. They are being accused by Americans of a cyber-war, so they are still generally there. There were many more peculiarities of aircraft of both philosophies. Since I have been out of fighter cockpits for some years, I may not remember everything off hand.       

Soviet /Russian Mig-21 KM-1M Ejection Seat. Image Source: in.pinterest.com/WorthPoint

How effective an interceptor do you think it is? How good are the sensors and weapon systems? 

          For a successful interceptor, the key attributes are a good radar with long range of detection and tracking, good situational awareness with wider coverage, ability to handle multiple targets, and have ECCM features. The MIG 31 radar was indeed powerful and had a good range. I was demonstrated a target at around 185 km range. Also I did see the look down capability. Beyond that it was difficult for me to comment. In any case the radar and displays would have improved many folds since then. Russian radar and missile combinations have generally done well in some wars including Vietnam and in Iraq/Iran wars. Though there were other factors for success. Yes the Americans were able to deceive or jam them with powerful electronic platforms, when they were introduced. Russians believed in brut power in the radar output. Undoubtedly the western avionics are generally better than the Russian ones. Russian missiles are indeed world class.

Pair of MiG-31 Foxhound long range interceptors, fully loaded. Image Source: reddit.com

What should I have asked you?

          I think the questions asked are fairly comprehensive. Remember it was not a flight test evaluation where I would have gone after detailed study and with a clear test profile. It was a general demonstration flight to expose me about the aircraft, with a hope that I would put a positive word across about the aircraft. My preparation about the flight was based mostly on the briefing by the Russian designers on the day of the flight. Also after over 20 years, recalling the single flight details are not so easy.  

Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-31? 

          Well, Hush-Kit is an alternative aviation magazine of international repute. There is little that you all do not know and I would know. I am a “getting older, foggy aviator”. If I was to summarise my flight, I felt I was sitting atop a missile head and going for a high speed interception. Aircraft looked good and made of razor sharp nickel steel and other metal edges. I liked the white and blue colour scheme. As someone once wrote, I don’t recall who, that comparing the MiG-31 with Rafale is like comparing Bruce Lee with a Para Special Forces commando. Sure Bruce Lee was much faster with his arms & legs but he couldn’t operate 14 different kinds of guns, run 40 km with a 25 kg backpack, navigate through jungles, perform special recon behind enemy lines, kill anyone just with a kitchen knife & rescue hostages. The MiG-31’s cardinal flaw was lack of versatility, and too big and clumsy for use in dogfights. That is how the Sukhoi family of Su-27 variants over took the Mikoyan designs. MiG 31 is a formidable machine which has its time.

How many other Indians have flown the aircraft? 

          I am not sure if anyone else has ever flown. I was told that I was the first foreign pilot. As far as I know, no formal flight evaluation was ever done by IAF. May be some team went to have a look at the aircraft and had some formal discussions. But I may be wrong on this score. But India was never interested.

 Describe the aircraft in three words.

          High Speed Brut.

This Interview by me first appeared in Hush-Kit Aviation News, History & Satire. The same has since been updated and many new pictures added https://hushkit.net/2020/12/18/i-was-the-first-foreign-pilot-to-fly-the-mach-2-8-mig-31-interceptor-heres-my-story-by-air-marshal-anil-chopra-retd/

Header Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

9 thoughts on “My Flight in MiG 31 Foxhound – Life Time Experience

  1. 1989 soviets offer mig 31,but deal cancelled ,gorbachev offer mig 31,2001 again offer mig 31,mig 31 foxhound,i remember news reports in 1989 and 2001,now has awacs killer missile,i have mig 29 diecast

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sir, this article https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/chinas-j-11b-heavy-fighter-plane-just-how-dangerous-175375?amp says that the pitot tube on the centre of the radar dome of the Chinese 🇨🇳👲 PLAAF J-11B has compatibility issues with the AESA radar. The IAF fighter jets like the MiG-21 Bison, MiG-29 and Su-30MKI all have the pitot tube in the centre of their radar dome. So, does it mean that they don’t have the AESA radar and instead have it’s weaker predecessor, the PESA radar?

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  3. Sir, the latest Sukhoi, the Su-35 has the PESA radar and is participating in the IAF’s MMRCA 2.0. So, does the fact that the Su-35 has the PESA radar mean the IAF is undoubtedly going to reject it in today’s age of AESA radars?

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  4. Normally the radar processor is supposed to cater for the Pitot tube and that would eliminate the false signal. This is applicable to all radars. The signal processing for AESA is more complex. But since others have found solutions, Chinese will have to do the same

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    1. Sir, thank you for your reply. I appreciate it. It still doesn’t answer my question whether the IAF fighter jets with the pitot tube on the centre of their radar domes have PESA radars or AESA radars?

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