What was the MiG-29 Fulcrum like to fly? Did it live up to the fear and Cold War hype?
The Fulcrum is a very simple jet that was designed to fit in the Soviet model of tactical aviation. That means the pilot was an extension of the ground controller. As many have read, innovative tactics and autonomous operations were not approved solutions in the Warsaw Pact countries. The cockpit switchology is not up to western standards and the sensors are not tools used to enhance pilot situation awareness, rather they are only used as tools to aid in the launch of weapons.
The jet is very reliable and fairly simple to maintain. I could service the fuel, oil, hydraulics and pneumatics and had to demonstrate proficiency in these areas before I could take a jet off-station. Its handling qualities are mediocre at best. The flight control system is a little sloppy and not very responsive. This does not mean the jet isn't very maneuverable. It is. I put it between the F-15C and the F-16. The pilot just has to work harder to get the jet to respond the way he wants.
The Fulcrum only carries a few hundred more pounds of fuel internally than an F-16. That fuel has to feed two fairly thirsty engines. The jet doesn't go very far on a tank of gas. We figured on a combat radius of about 150 nautical miles with a centerline fuel tank.
The radar was actually pretty good and enabled fairly long-range contacts. As already alluded to, the displays were very basic and didn't provide much to enhance the pilot's situational awareness. The radar switchology is also heinous. The Fulcrum's radar-guided BVR weapon, the AA-10A Alamo, has nowhere the same legs as an AMRAAM and is not launch-and-leave like the AMRAAM. Within its kinematic capability, the AA-10A is a very good missile but its maximum employment range was a real disappointment.
One sensor that got a lot of discussion from Intel analysts was the infrared search-and-track system (IRSTS). Most postulated that the MiG-29 could use the passive IRSTS to run a silent intercept and not alert anyone to its presence by transmitting with its radar. The IRSTS turned out to be next to useless and could have been left off the MiG-29 with negligible impact on its combat capability. After a couple of attempts at playing around with the IRSTS I dropped it from my bag of tricks.
Other things that were disappointing about the MiG-29 were the navigation system, which was unreliable, the attitude indicator and the heads-up display.
Overall, the MiG-29 was/is not the 10 foot tall monster that was postulated during the Cold War. It's a good airplane, just not much of a fighter when compared to the West's 4th-generation fighters.
During the mid 1990s the US still relied on the relatively narrow field of view AIM-9L/M Sidewinder as a short-range heat-seeking missile, what was it like being introduced to the MiG-29's Archer missile, with its high off bore-sight targeting capabilities and its helmet mounted sight?
The Archer and the helmet-mounted sight (HMS) brought a real big stick to the playground. First, the HMS was really easy to use. Every pilot was issued his own HMS. It mounted via a spring-loaded clip to a modified HGU-55P helmet. The pilot then could connect the HMS to a tester and adjust the symbology so it was centered in the monocle. Once in the jet the simple act of plugging in the power cord meant it was ready to go. There was no alignment process as required with the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cuing System. It just worked.
Being on the shooting end of the equation, I saw shot opportunities I would've never dreamed of with the AIM-9L/M. Those on the receiving end were equally less enthused about being 'shot' from angles they couldn't otherwise train to.
How did a MiG-29 in skilled hands stack up against NATO fighters, especially the F-16 and the F-15?
From BVR (beyond visual range), the MiG-29 is totally outclassed by western fighters. Lack of situation awareness and the short range of the AA-10A missile compared to the AMRAAM means the NATO fighter is going to have to be having a really bad day for the Fulcrum pilot to be successful.
In the WVR (within visual range) arena, a skilled MiG-29 pilot can give and Eagle or Viper driver all he/she wants.
Overall this is a very interesting interview. On the one hand it is impressive that an undeveloped society like the Soviet Union could produce a weapon system that was equal or better than what the West had and also introduced first the revolutionary helmet mounted targeting system. On the other hand it is clear that all Soviet systems suffered from ‘soft’ flaws (poor ergonomics and lack of situation awareness) which limited their performance in the field.