56 years ago today the first flight of the MiG-25 prototype was performed. Why is this important? Well, the ‘Foxbat’ is my favorite jet aircraft. Maybe even my favorite aircraft in general.
Even though it was officially introduced into service with the Soviet Air Force 50 years ago, some records it set back in the 70’s still stand to this day. One of the latter is the absolute altitude record for “Class C of Powered Aeroplanes – for planes that take off under their own power.” set by Alexandr Vasilievich Fedotov and officially aknowledged by the FAI. Already an official ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and a successful test pilot, Fedetov flew a MiG-25RB outfitted with R15BF2-300 engines to 37,650 meters or 123,523 feet on the 31st of August 1977. (A)
Other ‘retired’ records (still standing but FAI rules have been adjusted) are time to height records which where set by Boris A. Orlov reaching 20,000 m in 2 min 49.8 s and Pyotr M. Ostapenko reaching 25,000 m in 3 min 12.6 s and 30,000 m in 4 min 3.86. Another notable high altitude record was set when Fedotov reached 35,230 m with a 1,000 kg payload and 36,240 m (118,900 feet) with no load. During the latter flight, the engines flamed out and the aircraft remained in a ballistic trajectory ‘powered’ by inertia alone, dropping its speed as low as 75km/h at the apex. (A)
Despite all these feats it seems like the legacy of the MiG-25 has aged poorly, often portrayed as a failure in ‘the West’. Maybe because it was initially misunderstood by the intelligence community? Or maybe because it was never able to perform the mission it was designed to do, intercepting supersonic bombers like the XB-70 Valkyrie. (G) Instead it faced the only other production aircraft which could outspeed it, the legendary SR-71, operating at extreme altitudes. However, to achieve this incredible goal that particular aircraft needed extensive servicing after each operational flight, limiting it to only one flight per week at huge operational costs. (D) By contrast the MiG-25 was robust, could even be operated from remote airfields and remain operational with relatively simple maintenance. (I)
Other often repeated arguments found on the internet to prove its inferiority was the imposed speed limit of Mach 2.83 to prevent irreversible engine damage and overheating, or that it was never able to catch or shoot down an SR-71, or that the IQAF was ordered to bury their Foxbats because “they were such bad aircraft”, or how it’s a “failed fighter aircraft” since some IDF and USAF F-15’s were able to shoot down a couple of export MiG-25 in the 80’s and 90’s.
And yet, time and time again people seem to neglect the direct effect the appearance of the Foxbat actually had on the design process of the aforementioned F-15. The claim that the MiG-25 was a direct response to the SR-71 has also been questioned since. This simply because the ‘Soviet Union’ seemed to be unaware of the existence of said aircraft when the interceptor design requirements were being laid out and when work on the MiG-25 had started (E). In addition, neither a SR-71 or even a YA-12 airframe had been completed at those moments in time. By the first time they learnt of them, it were just rumors at the most.
Above all, despite their ‘inferior speed output’ the MiG-25 (and follow up MiG-31) remain the only ‘high-production’ aircraft which ever came close to the performance of that particular aircraft of which less than 50 were ever built (32 SR-71 and 12~14 YA-12).
Although the engines are indeed capable of melting themselves at full power, it could actually sustain the speed limit for a few minutes without doing so and was arguably put in place for controllability issues rather than engine damage. (H) Meanwhile, about those export service MiG-25’s which where shot down 30 years after its initial introduction, it is often ignored that the Foxbats had their own successes to shoot down several enemy fighter aircraft over the years. Some of those were even introduced nearly 2 decades after the old bird herself.
I’m not saying the MiG-25 is the best bird that ever existed. But it seems that the Foxbat is viewed in a misunderstood way or simply brushed aside as a failure by blatantly ignoring the achievements it actually did accomplish. Even despite its ‘flaws’, if you could even call some of them so, to me the Foxbat will always remain a favorite. Not because of what it couldn’t do, but simply because of what it could with limited resources in combination with its menacing looks. Even the Indian Air Force who operated them seemed it fitting to bestow them the name of the mythical eagle king from Hindu scriptures, ‘Garuda’. (F)
(B) – Belyakov, R.A. and J. Marmain. MiG: Fifty Years of Secret Aircraft Design. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-85310-488-4.
(C) – Gordon, Yefim. Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat: Guardian of the Soviet Borders (Red Star Vol. 34). Hinckley, UK: Midland Publishing Ltd., 2008. ISBN 978-1-85780-259-7.
(D) – Norros, Guy, “Hyper ops”, Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 20 – August 2, 2015.
(E) – Spick, Mike. The Great Book of Modern Warplanes. St. Paul, Minnesota: Motorbooks International Publishing, 2000. ISBN 0-7603-0893-4.
(F) – BBC news: ‘India retires Cold War spy MiGs’ – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4892524.stm
(I) – Broad, William J. “Nuclear Pulse (I): Awakening to the Chaos Factor.” Science, Volume 212, 29 May 1981, pp. 1009–1012.