How the MiG-31 repelled the SR-71 Blackbird from Soviet skies

Even if no SR-71 was lost due to hostile actions during the entire Blackbird career, the Mach 3+ capable spyplane faced an adversary that could effectively intercept it: the MiG-31 Foxhound.

The SR-71 impressive mission record was reached thanks to some unique features of its airframe, such as its ability to fly at more than three and a half times the speed of sound at 88,000 feet, its small (for the time) Radar Cross Section (RCS) and its sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM).

These flight characteristics made the Blackbird safe against any attempt of interception conducted by enemy fighters or surface-to-air missiles (SAM), during its reconnaissance missions in the Russian skies during the Cold War years.

The only aircraft which possessed the capabilities to shoot down an SR-71 was the F-14 Tomcat, that could use its AIM-54 Phoenix long range missile against the fast black plane.

In fact the Phoenix was developed to shoot down Soviet cruise missiles which flew at an altitude similar to the one reached by the Blackbird. Moreover with a speed between Mach 4 and Mach 5, the AIM-54 was fast enough to cause serious problems to the SR-71.

But, the capabilities featured by the Tomcat and its long range missiles, weren’t matched by any Russian interceptor, and to stop SR-71s’ overflights, the Soviets developed an aircraft which had similar characteristics to those owned by the F-14.

As we have recently explained, the only aircraft that had a speed close to the one of the SR-71 was the MiG-25. But even if it could fly at Mach 3.2, the Foxbat wasn’t able to sustain such speeds long enough to reach the Blackbird.

Another serious problem which affected the Foxbat was the lack of effectiveness of its R-40 missiles (AA-6 Acrid based on NATO designation) against an air-to-air target smaller than a large strategic bomber.

These deficiencies were settled when a more advanced MiG-25 development, the MiG-31, entered in service in the 1980s: the Foxhound was armed with a missile very similar to the US AIM-54 Phoenix, the R-33 (AA-9 Amos as reported by NATO designation).

This weapon was ideal not only for shooting down the American bombers, but also to intercept and destroy fast reconnaissance aircraft, such as the SR-71.

This statement was dramatically confirmed in Paul Crickmore’s book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond The Secret Missions.

In this book one of the first Foxhound pilots, Captain Mikhail Myagkiy, who had been scrambled with its MiG-31 several times to intercept the US super-fast spy plane, explains how he was able to lock on a Blackbird on Jan. 31, 1986:

“The scheme for intercepting the SR-71 was computed down to the last second, and the MiGs had to launch exactly 16 minutes after the initial alert. (…) They alerted us for an intercept at 11.00. They sounded the alarm with a shrill bell and then confirmed it with a loudspeaker. The appearance of an SR-71 was always accompanied by nervousness. Everyone began to talk in frenzied voices, to scurry about, and react to the situation with excessive emotion.”

Myagkiy and its Weapons System Officer (WSO) were able to achieve a SR-71 lock on at 52,000 feet  and at a distance of 120 Km from the target.

The Foxhound climbed at 65,676 feet where the crew had the Blackbird in sight and according to Myagkiy:

“Had the spy plane violated Soviet airspace, a live missile launch would have been carried out. There was no practically chance the aircraft could avoid an R-33 missile.”

After this interception Blackbirds reportedly began to fly their reconnaissance missions from outside the borders of the Soviet Union.

But the MiG-31s intercepted the SR-71 at least another time.

On Sept. 3, 2012 an article written by Rakesh Krishman Simha for explains how the Foxhound was able to stop Blackbirds spy missions over Soviet Union on Jun. 3, 1986.

That day, no less than six MiG-31s “intercepted” an SR-71 over the Barents Sea by performing a coordinated interception that subjected the Blackbird to a possible all angle air-to-air missiles attack.

Apparently, after this interception, no SR-71 flew a reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union and few years later the Blackbird was retired to be replaced with the satellites.

Even if claiming that the MiG-31 was one of the causes of the SR-71 retirement is a bit far fetched, it is safe to say that towards the end of the career of the legendary spyplane, Russians proved to have developed tactics that could put the Blackbird at risk.

The Mig-31 is still in service, but the SR-71 successor, dubbed SR-72 and capable to reach Mach 6, should be quite safe at hypersonic speed.

David Cenciotti contributed to this post.

Image credit: Russian Air Force / MiG-31 Facebook page


  1. I have a book on the SR-71, and the author claims they found a small piece of a missile lodged into the skin of the 71 after a mission. I will have to look that up again to make sure I read that correctly.

  2. Gonna call BS on the part about a MIG31 intercepting an SR71 over Russian/Soviet territory…………the Russians/Soviets have shot down numerous American miltary planes and planes of other nations, to include airliners filled with civilian passengers, intruding or just getting close to their airspace………………..and I’m supposed to believe that they let an SR71 go when they had it in their sights over their territory??????? BS!

  3. Found this article and found it interesting. But let’s face it. 1960’s technology of the US rivals the late 80’s technology that the Russians stole. Add in that the Blackbirds true speed and ability were never fully released. Talk to the pilots and they will tell you it’s capable of 5+ so even if the Russians are less then 10 nautical miles the Blackbird hits full afterburner and she’s gone. She was taken out of service because we have spy satellites that can do the same thing and for less and with no possibility of a U-2 incident.

  4. You are so full of s***! There is no way that a mig-31 with a top speed of 1,900 mph or Mach 2.83 can intercept the SR-71 with a top speed of 2,200 mph or Mach 3.32+. The only airplane in world that can even come close is the F-22 Raptor and to say that the F-14 could intercept or shoot down and SR-71 is the most moronic thing I’ve ever heard. My grandfather was in the air force for 22 years and worked on the missiles in the US inventory and while most if not all are capable of speeds topping out at Mach 4 or 5 by the time they get close enough to do any damage to the SR_71 all the pilot has to do is nudge the throttle forward about half an inch to outrun it. I would tell you to go to the air force to get your information on the blackbird but as most information on the SR-71 is still classified they wouldn’t give much info hell even the specs listed on Wikipedia isn’t everything on the plane. You better get your facts straight before you post an article like this.

  5. The only thing close to a Soviet “intercept” of an SR-71 occurred while the SR-71 was engaged in a Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program sortie over international waters or over friendly territory just outside Soviet airspace. These tended to take place at lower altitudes. Our SR-71 pilots could easily see the jet contrails of Soviet aircraft attempting to gain altitude to intercept and get within the required missile envelope. The incident this article mentions of multiple MiG-31s surrounding SR-71 took place on one these missions, we knew exactly what they were doing and knew we were situated well over international waters. These sorties were flown on autopilot with turns timed perfectly to keep the SR-71 out of Soviet airspace. The Soviets also knew where the turns would be, we had ran so many missions to gather intel on the same targets, thus the mention by the Soviet pilot that intercepts were “timed to the second.” If a Russia-overflight mission was required by Presidential request, then SR-71 would come in at max altitude and speed and shortest overflight route virtually eliminating danger from any Soviet aircraft type (including the MiG-31) or surface-to-air or air-to-air missile they possessed. The SR-71 was king, never challenged. Satellite technology simply became better/cheaper (bigger cameras and more of them) and less of a foreign policy speed bump than the SR-71 missions.

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