Vipers, Fulcrums and Fitters: Tactical Exercise at Poznan-Krzesiny Airbase

We attended a tactical exercise of the Polish Air Force involving all fast jet types that remain in the service. F-16s and MiG-29s were tasked with providing fighter escort for the Su-22 attack aircraft.

On Mar. 13 we visited Poznan-Krzesiny airbase where Polish Air Force fast jets were taking part in a tactical exercise. As Polska Zbrojna reports, the operation involved both 1st and 2nd Tactical Aviation Wings of the Polish Air Force.

Noteworthy, what’s unique about the operation in question, is the fact that the said exercise involved the Su-22s and MiG-29s operating from the Poznan-Krzesiny airbase. Usually such operations see the pilots operating from their homebase which made it possible to integrate the planning and briefing processes, which could be considered a simulated deployment of all assets to some undefined operational theatre.

One of F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 52+ of the Polish Air Force taking off.

Not only did the operation cover fighter-escort capabilities, as the pilots also conducted CAS operations and scenarios, attacking the simulated targets around the Polish military ranges. The ground attack portion involved the Fitters, with Fulcrums and Vipers acting as the escort. Some of the jets simulated the adversary, in an aggressor role. Notably, the Fitters, to prolong their playtime probably, were carrying 4 external fuel tanks each.

Su-22 close up. The Fitters flew in the attack role.
Polish Viper thundering on take off from Poznan.
In order to extend their endurance, the Su-22s flew with four external fuel tanks.

Meanwhile, Vipers were taking off in waves, 4 aircraft per each wave.

Polska Zbrojna outlet notes that the operation is a part of preparation before the NATO Tiger Meet exercise planned to happen in May. The Aviationist is planning to attend this annual meeting of the NATO Tiger squadrons, and provide you with a report from the operation.

Polish MiG-29 Fulcrum.
Black Su-22 Fitter (305)
F-16D on the go. The Vipers escorted the Soviet-era Su-22 and MiG-29 attack planes.

All Images: Jacek Siminski

Many thanks go to Bartosz Torbicki and Sebastian Walczak, for taking care of logistics and formalities related to the visit at the base.

About Jacek Siminski 286 Articles
Standing contributor for TheAviationist. Aviation photojournalist. Co-Founder of DefensePhoto.com. Expert in linguistics, Cold War discourse, Cold War history and policy and media communications.

4 Comments

  1. Are there any good articles, even in polish, where they discuss things they like /don’t like about the Fulcrum’s and Vipers? AFAIK they are the only ones operating both at this time . There was a very good article written by a East German Colonel, but it’s dated now. Many of the problems listed like Radar & range can/should have retrofitted by with the humpback 29-S and Zhuk-M

    Quote

    “I’ve got over 500 hours in the MiG-29 and 2000 hours in the F-16 (I also
    flew the F-15A/C and the F-5E). The following is an excerpt from a
    research paper I wrote while working on a Master’s Degree in aerospace
    engineering. Bottom line: F16 (and F-15) good, MiG-29 bad.

    MiG-29 Fulcrum Versus F-16 Viper

    The
    baseline MiG-29 for this comparison will be the MiG-29A (except for 200
    kg more fuel and an internal jammer, the MiG-29C was not an improvement
    over the MiG-29A), as this was the most widely deployed version of the
    aircraft. The baseline F-16 will be the F-16C Block 40. Although there
    is a more advanced and powerful version of the F-16C, the Block 40 was
    produced and fielded during the height of Fulcrum production.

    A
    combat loaded MiG-29A tips the scales at approximately 38, 500 pounds.
    This figure includes a full load of internal fuel, two AA-10A Alamo
    missiles, four AA-11 Archer missiles, 150 rounds of 30mm ammunition and a
    full centerline 1,500 liter external fuel tank. With 18,600 pounds of
    thrust per engine, this gives the Fulcrum a takeoff thrust-to-weight
    ratio of 0.97:1. A similarly loaded air-to-air configured F-16 Block 40
    would carry four AIM-120 AMRAAM active radar-guided missiles, two AIM-9M
    IR-guided missiles, 510 rounds of 20mm ammunition and a 300 gallon
    external centerline fuel tank. In this configuration, the F-16 weighs
    31,640 pounds. With 29,000 pounds of thrust, the F-16 has a takeoff
    thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.92:1. The reader should be cautioned that
    these thrust-to-weight ratios are based on uninstalled thrust. Once an
    engine is installed in the aircraft, it produces less thrust than it
    does on a test stand due to the air intake allowing in less air than the
    engine has available on the test stand.
    The actual installed
    thrust-to-weight ratios vary based on the source. On average, they are
    in the 1:1 regime or better for both aircraft. The centerline fuel tanks
    can be jettisoned and probably would be if the situation dictated with
    an associated decrease in drag and weight and an increase in
    performance.

    Speed

    Both aircraft display good performance
    throughout their flight regimes in the comparison configuration. The
    MiG-29 enjoys a speed advantage at high altitude with a flight manual
    limit of Mach 2.3. The F-16’s high altitude limit is
    Mach 2.05 but
    this is more of a limit of inlet design. The MiG-29 has variable
    geometry inlets to control the shock wave that forms in the inlet and
    prevent supersonic flow from reaching the engine. The F-16 employs a
    simple fixed-geometry inlet with a sharp upper lip that extends out
    beyond the lower portion of the inlet. A shock wave forms on this lip
    and prevents the flow in the intake from going supersonic. The objective
    is to keep the air going into the engine subsonic unlike a certain
    ‘subject matter expert’ on this website who thinks that the air should
    be accelerated to even higher speeds than the aircraft is traveling.
    Supersonic air in the compressor section? That’s bad.

    Both aircraft have the same indicated airspeed limit at lower altitudes of
    810
    knots. This would require the centerline tanks to be jettisoned. The
    placard limits for the tanks are 600 knots or Mach 1.6 (Mach 1.5 for the
    MiG-29) whichever less is. It was the researcher’s experience that the
    MiG-29 would probably not reach this limit unless a dive was initiated.
    The F-16 Block 40 will easily reach 800 knots on the deck. In fact,
    power must be reduced to avoid exceeding placard limits. The limit is
    not thrust, as the F-16 has been test flown on the plus side of 900
    knots. The limit for the F-16 is the canopy. Heating due to air friction
    at such speeds will cause the polycarbonate canopy to get soft and
    ultimately fail.

    Turning Capability

    The MiG-29 and F-16
    are both considered 9 G aircraft. Until the centerline tank is empty,
    the Fulcrum is limited to four Gs and the Viper to seven Gs. The
    MiG-29
    is also limited to seven Gs above Mach 0.85 while the F-16, once the
    centerline tank is empty (or jettisoned) can go to nine Gs regardless of
    airspeed or Mach number. The MiG-29’s seven G limit is due to loads on
    the vertical stabilizers. MAPO has advertised that the Fulcrum could be
    stressed to 12 Gs and still not hurt the airframe. This statement is
    probably wishful and boastful. The German Luftwaffe, which flew its
    MiG-29s probably more aggressively than any other operator, experienced
    cracks in the structure at the base of the vertical tails. The F-16 can
    actually exceed nine Gs without overstressing the airframe. Depending on
    configuration, momentary overshoots to as much as 10.3 Gs will not
    cause any concern with aircraft maintainers.

    Handling

    Of
    the four fighters I have flown, the MiG-29 has by far the worst handling
    qualities. The hydro-mechanical flight control system uses an
    artificial feel system of springs and pulleys to simulate control force
    changes with varying airspeeds and altitudes. There is a stability
    augmentation system that makes the aircraft easier to fly but also makes
    the aircraft more sluggish to flight control inputs. It is my opinion
    that the jet is more responsive with the augmentation system disengaged.
    Unfortunately, this was allowed for demonstration purposes only as this
    also disengages the angle-of-attack (AoA) limiter. Stick forces are
    relatively light but the stick requires a lot of movement to get the
    desired response. This only adds to sluggish feeling of the aircraft.
    The entire time you are flying, the stick will move randomly about
    one-half inch on its own with a corresponding movement of the flight
    control surface. Flying the Fulcrum requires constant attention. If the
    pilot takes his hand off the throttles, the throttles probably won’t
    stay in the position in which they were left. They’ll probably slide
    back into the ‘idle’ position.

    The Fulcrum is relatively easy to
    fly during most phases of flight such as takeoff, climb, cruise and
    landing. However, due to flight control limitations, the pilot must work
    hard to get the jet to respond the way he wants. This is especially
    evident in aggressive maneuvering, flying formation or during attempts
    to employ the gun. Aerial gunnery requires very precise handling in
    order to be successful. The MiG-29’s handling qualities in no way limit
    the ability of the pilot to perform his mission, but they do
    dramatically increase his workload. The F-16’s quadruple-redundant
    digital flight control system, on the other hand, is extremely
    responsive, precise and smooth throughout the flight regime.

    There
    is no auto-trim system in the MiG-29 as in the F-16. Trimming the
    aircraft is practically an unattainable state of grace in the Fulcrum.
    The trim of the aircraft is very sensitive to changes in airspeed and
    power and requires constant attention. Changes to aircraft configuration
    such as raising and lowering the landing gear and flaps cause
    significant changes in pitch trim that the pilot must be prepared for.
    As a result, the MiG-29 requires constant attention to fly. The F-16
    auto-trims to one G or for whatever G the pilot has manually trimmed the
    aircraft for.

    The MiG-29 flight control system also has an AoA
    limiter that limits the allowable AoA to 26°. As the aircraft reaches
    the limit, pistons at the base of the stick push the stick forward and
    reduce the AoA about 5°. The pilot has to fight the flight controls to
    hold the jet at 26°. The limiter can be overridden, however, with about
    17 kg more back pressure on the stick. While not entirely unsafe and at
    times tactically useful, care must be taken not to attempt to roll the
    aircraft with ailerons when above 26° AoA. In this case it is best to
    control roll with the rudders due to adverse yaw caused by the ailerons
    at high AoA. The F-16 is electronically limited to 26° AoA. While the
    pilot cannot manually override this limit it is possible to overshoot
    under certain conditions and risk departure from controlled flight. This
    is a disadvantage to the F-16 but is a safety margin due its lack of
    longitudinal stability. Both aircraft have a lift limit of approximately
    35° AoA.

    Combat Scenario

    The
    ultimate comparison of two fighter aircraft comes down to a combat duel
    between them. After the Berlin Wall came down the reunified Germany
    inherited 24 MiG-29s from the Nationale Volksarmee of East Germany. The
    lessons of capitalism were not lost on MAPO-MiG (the Fulcrum’s
    manufacturer) who saw this as an opportunity to compare the Fulcrum
    directly with western types during NATO training exercises. MAPO was
    quick to boast how the MiG-29 had bested F-15s and F-16s in mock aerial
    combat. They claimed a combination of the MiG’s superior sensors,
    weapons and low radar cross section allowed the Fulcrum to beat western
    aircraft. However, much of the early exploitation was done more to
    ascertain the MiG-29’s capabilities versus attempting to determine what
    the outcome of actual combat would be. The western press was also quick
    to pick up on the theme. In 1991, Benjamin Lambeth cited an article in
    Jane’s Defence Weekly which stated that the German MiG-29s had beaten
    F-16s with simulated BVR range shots of more than 60 km. How was this
    possible when the MiG-29 cannot launch an AA-10A Alamo from outside
    about 25 km? Was this a case of the fish getting bigger with every
    telling of the story? The actual BVR capability of the MiG-29 was my
    biggest disappointment. Was it further exposure to the German Fulcrums
    in realistic training that showed the jet for what it truly is? It seems
    that MAPO’s free advertising backfired in the end as further orders
    were limited to the 18 airplanes sold to Malaysia.

    If F-16Cs and
    MiG-29s face off in aerial combat, both would detect each other on the
    radar at comparable range. Armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM, the F-16s
    would have the first shot opportunity at more than twice the range as
    the Fulcrums. A single F-16 would be able to discriminately target
    individual and multiple Fulcrums. The MiG-29’s radar will not allow
    this. If there is more than one F-16 in a formation, a Fulcrum pilot
    would not know exactly which F-16 the radar had locked and he can engage
    only one F-16 at a time. A Viper pilot can launch AMRAAMS against
    multiple MiG-29s on the first pass and support his missiles via data
    link until the missiles go active. He can break the radar lock and leave
    or continue to the visual arena and employ short range infrared guided
    missiles or the gun. The Fulcrum pilot must wait until about 13 nautical
    miles (24 kilometers) before he can shoot his BVR missile. The Alamo is
    a semi-active missile that must be supported by the launching aircraft
    until impact. This brings the Fulcrum pilot closer to the AMRAAM. In
    fact, just as the the Fulcrum pilot gets in range to fire an Alamo, the
    AMRAAM is seconds away from impacting his aircraft. The advantage goes
    to the F-16.

    What if both pilots are committed to engage
    visually? The F-16 should have the initial advantage as he knows the
    Fulcrum’s exact altitude and has the target designator box in the
    head-up display (HUD) to aid in visual acquisition. The Fulcrum’s
    engines smoke heavily and are a good aid to gaining sight of the
    adversary. Another advantage is the F-16’s large bubble canopy with 360°
    field-of-view. The Fulcrum pilot’s HUD doesn’t help much in gaining
    sight of the F-16. The F-16 is small and has a smokeless engine. The
    MiG-29 pilot sets low in his cockpit and visibility between the 4
    o’clock and 7 o’clock positions is virtually nonexistent.

    Charts
    that compare actual maneuvering performance of the two aircraft are
    classified. It was the researcher’s experience that the aircraft have
    comparable initial turning performance. However, the MiG-29 suffers from
    a higher energy bleed rate than the F-16. This is due to high induced
    drag on the airframe during high-G maneuvering. F-16 pilots that have
    flown against the Fulcrum have made similar observations that the F-16
    can sustain a high-G turn longer. This results in a turn rate advantage
    that translates into a positional advantage for the F-16.

    The F-16 is also much easier to fly and is more responsive at slow speed.
    The
    Fulcrum’s maximum roll rate is 160° per second. At slow speed this
    decreases to around 20° per second. Coupled with the large amount of
    stick movement required, the Fulcrum is extremely sluggish at slow
    speed. Maneuvering to defeat a close-range gun shot is extremely
    difficult if the airplane won’t move. For comparison, the F-16’s slow
    speed roll rate is a little more than 80° per second.

    A lot has
    been written and theorized about the so-called “Cobra Maneuver” that
    impresses people at airshows. MAPO claimed that no western fighter dare
    do this same maneuver in public. They also claimed that the Cobra could
    be used to break the radar lock of an enemy fighter (due to the slow
    airspeed, there is no Doppler signal for the radar to track) or point
    the nose of the aircraft to employ weapons. Western fighter pilots were
    content to let the Russians brag and hope for the opportunity to see a
    MiG-29 give up all its airspeed. The fact that this maneuver is
    prohibited in the flight manual only validates the fact that this
    maneuver was a stunt. Lambeth was the first American to get a flight in
    the Fulcrum. Even his pilot conceded that the Cobra required a specially
    prepared aircraft and was prohibited in operational MiG-29 units

    Another
    maneuver performed by the Fulcrum during its introduction to the West
    is the so-called “Tail Slide”. The nose of the jet is brought to 90°
    pitch and the airspeed is allowed to decay. Eventually, the Fulcrum
    begins to “slide” back, tail-first, until the nose drops and the jet
    begins to fly normally again. The Soviets boasted this maneuver
    demonstrated how robust the engines were as this would cause western
    engines to flameout. The first maneuver demonstrated to me during my
    F-15 training was the Tail Slide. The engines did not flameout.

    The
    MiG-29 is not without strong points. The pilot can override the angle
    of attack limiter. This is especially useful in vertical maneuvering or
    in last ditch attempts to bring weapons to bear or defeat enemy shots.
    The HMS and AA-11 Archer make the Fulcrum a deadly foe in the visual
    arena. The AA-11 is far superior to the American AIM-9M. By merely
    turning his head, the MiG pilot can bring an Archer to bear. The one
    limitation, however, is that the Fulcrum pilot has no cue as to where
    the Archer seeker head is actually looking. This makes it impossible to
    determine if the missile is tracking the target, a flare, or some other
    hot spot in the background. (Note: the AIM-9X which is already fielded
    on the F-15C, and to be fielded on the F-16 in 2007, is far superior to
    the AA-11)

    Fulcrum pilots have enjoyed their most success with
    the HMS/Archer combination in one versus one training missions. In this
    sterile environment, where both aircraft start within visual range of
    each other, the MiG-29 has a great advantage. Not because it is more
    maneuverable than the F-16. That is most certainly not the case
    regardless of the claims of the Fulcrum’s manufacturer and numerous
    other misinformed propaganda sources. The weapon/sensor integration with
    the HMS and Archer makes close-in missile employment extremely easy for
    the Fulcrum’s pilot. My only one versus one fight against a MiG-29 (in
    something other than another MiG-29) was flown in an F-16 Block 52. This
    was done against a German MiG-29 at Nellis AFB, Nevada. The F-16
    outturned and out-powered the Fulcrum in every situation.

    The
    Fulcrum’s gun system is fairly accurate as long as the target does not
    attempt to defeat the shot. If the target maneuvers, the gunsight
    requires large corrections to get back to solution. Coupled with the
    jet’s imprecise handling, this makes close-in maneuvering difficult.
    This is very important when using the gun. Although the Fulcrum has a 30
    mm cannon, the muzzle velocity is no more than the 20 mm rounds coming
    out of the F-16’s gun. The MiG’s effective gun range is actually less
    than that of the F-16 as the 20 mm rounds are more aerodynamic and
    maintain their velocity longer.

    If the fight lasts very long, the
    MiG pilot is at a decided disadvantage and must either kill his foe or
    find a timely opportunity to leave the fight without placing himself on
    the defensive. The Fulcrum A holds only 300 pounds more internal fuel
    than the F-16 and its two engines go through it quickly. There are no
    fuel flow gauges in the cockpit. Using the clock and the fuel gauge, in
    full afterburner the MiG-29 uses fuel 3.5 to 4 times faster than the
    Viper. My shortest MiG-29 sortie was 16 minutes from brake release to
    touchdown.

    It should not be forgotten that fights between
    fighters do not occur in a vacuum. One-versus-one comparisons are one
    thing, but start to include other fighters into the fray and situational
    awareness (SA) plays an even bigger role. The lack of SA-building tools
    for MiG-29 pilots will become an even bigger factor if they have more
    aircraft to keep track of. Poor radar and HUD displays, poor cockpit
    ergonomics and poor handling qualities added to the Fulcrum pilot’s
    workload and degraded his overall SA. It was my experience during
    one-versus-one scenarios emphasizing dogfighting skills, the results
    came down to pilot skill.

    In multi-ship scenarios, such as a
    typical four versus four training mission, the advantage clearly went to
    the side with the highest SA. Against F-15s and F-16s in multi-ship
    fights, the MiG-29s were always outclassed. It was nearly impossible to
    use the great potential of the HMS/Archer combination when all the
    Eagles and Vipers couldn’t be accounted for and the Fulcrums were on the
    defensive. The MiG-29’s design was a result of the Soviet view on
    tactical aviation and the level of technology available to their
    aircraft industry. The pilot was not meant to have a lot of SA. The
    center of fighter execution was the ground controller. The pilot’s job
    was to do as instructed and not to make independent decisions. Even the
    data link system in the MiG-29 was not meant to enhance the pilot’s SA.
    He was merely linked steering, altitude and heading cues to follow from
    the controller. If the MiG-29 pilot is cut off from his controller, his
    autonomous capabilities are extremely limited. Western fighter pilots
    are given the tools they need to make independent tactical decisions.
    The mission commander is a pilot on the scene. All other assets are
    there to assist and not to direct. If the F-16 pilot loses contact with
    support assets such as the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System
    (AWACS) aircraft, he has all the tools to complete the mission
    autonomously.

    The combat record of the MiG-29 speaks for itself. American F-15s and F-
    16s
    (a Dutch F-16 shot down a MiG-29 during Operation Allied Force) have
    downed MiG-29s every time there has been encounters between the types.
    The only known MiG-29 “victories” occurred during Operation Desert Storm
    when an Iraqi MiG-29 shot down his own wingman on the first night of
    the war and a Cuban MiG-29 brought down 2 “mighty” Cessnas. Are there
    more victories for the Fulcrum? Not against F-15s or F-16s.

    Designed
    and built to counter the fourth generation American fighters, The
    MiG-29 Fulcrum was a concept that was technologically and doctrinally
    hindered from the beginning. Feared in the west prior to the demise of
    the Soviet Union, it was merely an incremental improvement to the
    earlier Soviet fighters it replaced. Its lack of a market when put in
    direct competition to western designs should attest to its shortcomings.
    The German pilots who flew the aircraft said that the MiG-29 looked
    good at an airshow but they wouldn’t have wanted to take one to combat.
    Advanced versions such as the SMT and MiG-33? Certainly better but has
    anyone bought one?

    Lt. Col. Johann Köck, commander of the German MiG-29 squadron from
    September
    1995 to September 1997, was outspoken in his evaluation of the Fulcrum.
    “It has no range, its navigation system is unreliable and the radar
    breaks often and does not lend it self to autonomous operations”, he
    said. He added that the best mission for NATO MiG-29s would be as a
    dedicated adversary aircraft for other NATO fighters and not as part of
    NATO’s frontline fighter force.?

  2. They’ve turned the viper into a flying gas can! Is Polish airspace even large enough to for the conformal fuel tanks to be necessary?

  3. Make no mistake – along with placing AEGIS BMD system w/SM3 Blk IIA interceptors in Poland, Russia would literally soil their Stalin-pants if Poland placed an order for F-35A. So?

    NATO and the U.S. must make every possible effort to ensure that that’s exactly what happens. Even if richer NATO countries like Germany have to subsidize the buy. And the US. After all …

    Israel gets military aid, Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and others all receive U.S. military financial aid. Seeing how Poland is on the front-line vs Russian aggression, I see no reason why Poland too shouldn’t be given some level of direct military assistance.

    Warsaw needs to lobby to make that happen. Polish military assistance via the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. So that the Polish AF can field a world’s best fighter, the 5th Gen F-35. Talk about something that will stick in Putin’s craw!

    There’s only one message that Moscow understands – force. I ask why hasn’t this been done?

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