A Red Airpower Feature: A Close Look at Faceplate

April 1, 1959

At their last all-out showing of Soviet military aircraft at Tushino Airport on Aviation Day in 1956, the Russians displayed a prototype model of a new interceptor. This was the MIG-21, which promptly was designated Faceplate by NATO.

The aircraft had been rather hastily put together for the show, and prior and subsequent test flights showed many shortcomings that caused Artem I. Mikoyan, brother of Russia’s most recent visitor to the US, to take his design team back to the design boards for more work. They worked fast, and by October of 1957 the Russians, had a newer version of the same airplane in series production.

Today a fair number of fighter squadrons of the IA-PVO, the Soviet interceptor command, have been armed with this airplane. It is evident that the Russians regard the MIG-21 as an important airplane, for they also have been giving it to those satellite powers, which form so much of Russia’s first line of defense. The MIG-21 has been observed in China, and the East German air Force today is being retrained to the airplane.

For all practical purposes, the MIG-21 is the first Soviet fighter capable of penetrating speed ranges near and beyond Mach 2. It represents the best the soviets have in production today, and its development in many ways parallels that of fighter development in the US, though again, the Soviets have not been able to achieve the performance of US fighters of the same time period.

In general outline, the MIG-21 is similar to the MIG-19, though performance is much better. Sweepback of the leading edge of the wing is very high — about fifty-seven degree, which makes for resemblance to both the MIG-19 and the English Electric P.I.

The airplane is reported by German sources to perform well in the transonic region, though it employs none of the “coke-bottle effect” that has been used in the US. Flying characteristics of the MIG-21 at low speed, however, are not so good. The aircraft is rather unstable, and so it does no make a good ground-support aircraft.

The profile thickness of the geometrically untwisted wing varies from six percent at the root to four percent near the tip. The profile is near symmetrical. The boundary layer fences, so common to most all Russian aircraft, give rise to the belief that there is no leading edge flap.

Ailerons appear to be conventional. The wing loading is relatively low, and the plane’s over-all aerodynamic performance is not the best. The Russians have sought to compensate for this by using a lot of thrust. Even so, the MIG-21’s absolute ceiling is about 6,500 feet less than the generally acknowledged capabilities of its western counterparts, unless the rocket engine carried under the tail is used. The rocket engine is a liquid-fuel type, which could raise the absolute ceiling by about 9,300 feet for eighty to ninety seconds. More likely, however, the rocket engine is designed to improve climb performance during the intercept portion of a mission. Thrust of the rocket engine is put at 4,400 pounds.

Powerplant in the MIG-21 that is now in production comes as a surprise and a revelation. It is a modified AM-3, also used in the TU-104 jet transport. It is equipped with an afterburner, of course, to give the MIG-21 its supersonic performance.

Specific fuel consumption of the engine has been somewhat improved, to where it now is .087 pounds per pound of thrust per hour, through this is still quite high when compared to such turbojets as the J-79. Furthermore, the AM-3 is quite heavy. Static thrust of this latest AM-3 is put at 18,000 pounds, which is quite good, except that the thrust curve falls off sharply with altitude.

Specific fuel consumption goes up to 2 to 2.2 pounds per pound of thrust per hour when the afterburner is cut in. The engine, of course, has neither variable stators nor the dual spool compressor arrangement. Without afterburner, the speed of the MIG-21 is limited to subsonic except between 25,000 and 50,000 feet. With afterburner, the airplane seems capable of 1,400-1,500 miles per hour at 35,000 feet.

The air intake if formed much like a pitot tube, with central diffuser bevels to give a two-stroke diffusion. It is quite an efficient arrangement up to the sped limits indicated, after which it becomes something of a handicap to the aircraft’s speed.

The rate of descent during landing probably is quite high, and deceleration is aided by landing brakes extending laterally from the fuselage similar to earlier Soviet interceptors.

The wheels of the landing gear retract into the fuselage, though the shock absorbers of the gear are in a more lateral position, and retract into the wings. Usually the airplane is observed with high-pressure tires, but it is believed that larger, low-pressure tires could be substituted for operations off grass plots. The gear is meant to withstand the shocks of operating off grass plots, though a short-run takeoff might require that the rocket motor be cut in for this type of operation.

The radar aboard the MIG-21 is all-weather in scope. Sighting and firing are adapted to air-to-air missiles, and the four Type M-101A missiles carried under the wings are designed to home in on target by following infrared rays.

Below the nose, as with most Soviet interceptors, there are three cannons, two of 20- and one of 37-mm. caliber. A retractable tunnel with eighteen non-guided missiles is carried just behind the nose wheel section. The missiles can be replaced with bombs- through it is not certain whether of not A-Bombs could be carried.

Characteristics and Performance Data, MIG-21 — FACEPLATE

Designers: Mikoyan and Gurevich

Engine: 1 AM-3

Static thrust: 18,000 lbs.; 22,400 lbs. with afterburner

Crew: 1

Total length: 56.4

Fuselage length: 50.2

Height: 14.8 ft.

Span: 39 ft.

Wing area: 363.8 sq. ft.

Wing aspect ratio: 3.1

Structural weight (with equipment): 15,456 lbs.

Fuel: 8,360 lbs.

Crew: 264 lbs.

Combat lead: 6,160 lbs.

Useful load: 14,784 lbs.

Takeoff weight: 31,240 lbs.

Landing weight (max.): 18,000 lbs.

Max speed at 33,000 ft.: Mach 2.25

Cruising speed at 41,000 ft.: 608 mph

Takeoff run to 50 ft. altitude: 3,370 ft.

Landing speed: 120 mph

Climbing speed (near ground): 765 fps

Climbing time to 33,000 ft.: 2 minutes

Climbing time to 53,000 ft.: 4.8 minutes

Climbing time to 61,000 ft.: 8.6 minutes

Service ceiling: 61.000 ft.

Range (normal): 1,000 mi.

Landing run (from 50 ft. altitude): 4,000 ft.

Aircraft cannon: 3, one 37-mm. and two 20-mm.

Guided missiles: 4 infrared types

Unguided missiles: 18 of 85-mm. size

Other ordnance: non-atomic bombs