It’s Not Every Day You See an F-16 and Russian Su-27 Dogfight Above Area 51
Photos reveal rare combat exercise
by DAVID CENCIOTTI
The photographs below were taken from Tikaboo Valley, near Groom Lake, Nevada, by Phil Drake, who was lucky enough to observe one of the U.S. military’s Su-27P Flanker-Bs dogfighting with an F-16 — presumably one of the four Groom Lake based -D models — in the skies above Area 51.
Although the quality of the pictures is low — the aircraft were flying between 20,000 and 30,000 feet — they are extremely interesting since the Flankers operating from Groom are not a secret but have rarely been photographed.
Here’s Phil’s report of the rare sighting.
“The date was Nov. 8, U.S. election day, and the sighting was between 1500 and 1525. I was visiting Nevada hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the latest defense programs being tested.
On the Monday and Wednesday, Nellis Aggressor F-15s and F-16s were regularly overhead, dropping flares and sonic booms. It was Tuesday afternoon when the skies went quiet for a couple of hours, and I hoped this may be a sign of something unusual being flown.
Eventually the sound of jet noise caught my attention, and I scanned the clear blue skies ’til I saw the tiny speck of an approaching military jet at high altitude, leaving an intermittent contrail.
It was instantly recognizable as a Russian-built Sukhoi 27 Flanker, and carried no national insignia or identifying marks.
I took my camera out and photographed the ensuing dogfight between the Flanker and a F-16. The sortie seemed to consist of a head on intercept, conducted at descending altitudes from 30- down to 20,000 feet, and after each intercept a turning dogfight ensued after they had flashed past each other.
The highly maneuverable Flanker was a single seat version, a Su-27P, and it pulled out all of its best moves to get behind the F-16.
I watched in awe as the pair fought it out for 25 minutes before they both climbed to altitude and flew back into Groom Lake restricted airspace.
My scanner remained silent throughout the whole encounter.”
What they were testing is difficult to say. We can’t even be sure the Flanker was one of those reportedly flown from Groom, or a privately owned one rented to perform some sort of testing. So all we can say is pure speculation.
It was a daylight operation, therefore, unless the U.S. Air Force was trying to assess the visual appearance of a Su-27 in standard Russian Air Force scheme under a specific angle at a certain altitude and so on, it was, most probably, something not related to a “black project” that would be carried out at night.
That’s when spotters — who have become a common presence around Area 51 and Tonopah Test Range — would find it hard to I.D. the types involved and understand what’s happening.
The daylight dogfight could involve the testing of a specific pod and sensor against a type of aircraft usually replicated by the aggressors when involved in Red Flag exercises.
The F-16s of the aggressor squadrons replicate the paint schemes, markings and insignias of their near peer adversaries. In 2014, Lt. Col. Kevin Gordon, 64th AGRS commander, explained how the Su-27 Flanker was the type of aircraft they replicated when attacking a Blue Force F-15 in what was the first time the Flanker was mentioned as an enemy aircraft.
In any case, the U.S. military has been operating MiG and Sukhoi jets for decades.
In the late 1960s, CIA, U.S. Air Force, Navy and several other agencies were involved in highly classified programs whose purpose was to evaluate MiG fighter jets and study the best ways to face them in air-to-air combat.
Among these programs, “Have Doughnut” was aimed at exploiting a MiG-21 Fishbed-E that the United States acquired in 1967 from Israel that it had obtained in August 1966, when an Iraqi Air Force pilot flew it to Israel during a training sortie that was actually a pre-arranged defection.
Have Doughnut saw the MiG-21, using the cover designation YF-110, fly over Groom Lake against the F-4, F-105, F-111, F-100, F-104, B-66, RF-101, RF-4 and F-5 during offensive and defensive missions that gave the evaluation team the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of U.S. air combat tactics.
Half a century after “Have Doughnut,” some Russian planes, in this case a camo Su-27, are still flown for testing and training purposes in the United States.
By the way, be sure to visit Phil Drake’s blog. It has some of the Sukhoi pictures, and also some of a Groom Lake MiG-29 taken in 2009.
Originally published at The Aviationist on Jan. 6, 2017.