How The Israelis Got Their Hands On An Iraqi MiG-21 Fishbed

Image credit: IDF

A 007-style of mission to capture a MiG-21 in the 1960s.

Built in more than 11,000 examples and acquired by countless countries around the globe, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 was introduced in several Arab arsenals in the early 1960s, becoming the most modern among the Soviet jets flown in the Middle East in that period.

After it entered the active service, Israelis feared that the Fishbed was superior to the Mirage III fighter jets hence they needed as much details about it as possible to assess its capabilities since any information about this new fighter could give to the Israeli Air Force aircrews an edge over the enemy pilots in combat.

Therefore, the IAF made it clear to Israeli national intelligence agencies that it needed detailed information on the MiG-21 and, preferably, an example to test.

The interesting story of how the IAF was able to procure a MiG-21 is reported in Bill Norton book Air War on the Edge, A History of the Israel Air Force and its aircraft since 1947.”

According to Norton, Captain Munir Radfa, an Iraqi MiG-21 pilot, was convinced to fly his Fishbed to Israel, with the promise that his family would be brought out from Iraq and that he would be paid $ 300,000 to re-establish himself in Israel.

After the transfer of his family initiated, Captain Radfa waited to be assigned a long range training sortie over the western desert during which he would try to reach Israel.

On Aug. 16, 1966, while flying in aircraft 534, a MiG-21F-13 Fishbed-C with a full load of fuel, Radfa broke away from his formation and made his way to Israel.

The MiG-21 flew across Jordan and entered Israeli airspace just south of the Dead Sea thanks to a flight path provided by the Israelis that would have avoided his detection by Jordanian radar stations.

As described by Norton, two Jordanian Hunters pursued the MiG, but the Fishbed flew at high speed at an altitude of about 30,000 ft, making the intercept impossible. Moreover the flight path of the MiG-21 to enter Israel was chosen far from populated areas, allowing the shooting down of the Iraqi fighter in case of false defection.

After Radfa crossed Israeli border, the Mig-21 was flanked by two Mirages IIIs flown by two of the best IAF pilots, Major Ran Peker, 119 Squadron Commanding Officer, and Lieutenant Colonel Shamuel Shefer, who was Tel Nof Air Base Commander, who escorted the jet to Hatzor avoiding sensitive areas.

According to another story, Radfa flew to Turkey escorted by U.S. F-4s then, after refueling, he took off again heading out to the Mediterranean Sea where it was met by IAF fighters that escorted the defecting Mig-21 into Israeli airspace.

Even if Israel tried to keep the defection secret, the MiG-21 sporting Iraqi markings was clearly seen landing at Hatzor escorted by two IAF Mirages. Almost immediately the defection gained the world headline news and Iraqis and Russians demanded the return of the aircraft. Obviously, the Israelis rejected these requests and applied the 007 number to the aircraft, reflecting the James Bond manner in which it had come to them, as told by Norton.

Finally Israel had its MiG-21 and Danny Shapira, the legendary IAF test pilot, flew it in mock air engagements against the Mirage III.

What he discovered is that even if the Fishbed was a good high-altitude fighter and an easy aircraft to fly, it was also underpowered in many important areas of the flight envelope. However the two aircraft were found to be nearly evenly matched, and it was the pilot’s skill and determination that largely  determined the outcome of an engagement between the two.

But aircraft “007” also served in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service during the Six Days war, when it was painted with red stripes in order to prevent it from being mistaken for an enemy and attacked by other Israeli fighters.

Moreover the MiG-21 007 was sent to the U.S. in January 1968, to be evaluated alongside with captured MiG-17s, in a secret unit which had the task to fly Soviet combat aircraft against the most modern American fighters under Operation Have Doughnut.

In 1982 the Israelis requested the MiG-21 007 back, since they wanted to expose it in the IAF Museum in Hatzerim.

However, the U.S. sent them another MiG-21. Israel tried once again to have the real 007 but, once again, the U.S. sent a wrong Fishbed: at this point it was clear that the Americans had too many MiG-21s and Israel could only accept this last one that was soon put on display at the Museum.