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Cold War "Taran" PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Krzysztof Dabrowski, with additional information by Tom Cooper   
Jul 17, 2012 at 09:34 PM
One would think that with the advent of jets, radars and guided missiles, ramming as a tactic of aircombat finally became a thing of the past. As surprising as it may sound this was not so, for a few ramming attacks were performed by Soviet fighter pilots during the Cold War.



The Big Brother
Taran is the word standing for ramming in the Russian as well as other Slavic languages. Ramming as a tactic of air combat was pioneered by the Russians in the early days of World War I. It all started when a Russian airman, Captain Piotr Niestierov witnessed Austro-Hungarian reconnaissance aircraft flying unopposed over Russian positions and rear areas. He decided to challange it in air combat and put forward a request for his aircraft to be armed with a machine gun. Unfortunately his superiors turned the request down but Niestierov's resolve to engage the enemy remained undented. Having no other suitable weapon he decided to turn his own aircraft into a missile and announced this to fellow airmen. The opportunity to test his idea and courage came on 8 September 1914. True to his words Niestierov rammed and brought down an Austro-Hungarian aircraft - an “Albatros” - alas perished in the process.

A quarter century later Soviet airmen carried out numerous ramming attacks during the fighting on the Eastern Front. There were from about 230 to over 270 aerial ramming attacks (the numbers differ depending on the source); in addition other airmen crashed their aircraft against ground or naval targets. One would think that with the advent of jets, radars and guided missiles ramming as a tactic of aircombat finally became a thing of the past. As surprising as it may sound this was not so, for a few ramming attacks were performed by Soviet fighter pilots during the Cold War - cases known to the author are presented below.


Red on Red


The first possible instance of aerial ramming during the Cold War took place in the area of the Hungarian-Austrian border. On 21 January 1956 a foreign aircraft was reported in Hungarian airspace but if to go by subsequent events it may have never existed. In response to the supposed intrusion two Hungarian MiG-15bis of the 24 Fighter Regiment were scrambled from Sarmellek in order to intercept the airspace violator while at about the same time a pair of Soviet MiG-17PF took off from Papa tasked with the same mission. Neither the Hungarians nor the Soviets encountered any foreign aircraft but came across one another over Lake Ferto. In a seemingly inexplainable show of agressivness the Soviet fighters pounced on their Hungarian counterparts and opened fire. The latter tried to beat a hasty retreat but strangely choose to fly in the direction of Austria. Since jet fighters fly fast and can swiftly cover considerable distance all four aircraft soon found themselves across the border. [1] As a result the inhabitants of the Austrian village Pamhagen had the opportunity to witness the air combat from close up.

Hungarian MiG-15 bis fighter, as it looked like in the mid-1950’s: in aluminum overall with the national insignia applied in 6 positions, on the sides of the tail and rear fuselage, and below the wings. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


Villagers on the ground saw two aircraft being chased by another pair, the latter with guns blazing. It subsequently transpired that the duo in front were Hungarians with the Soviets in pursuit but despite having an advantageous position the latter's cannonade was off the mark. Obviously frustrated with his inability to hit the intended target with gunfire one of the Soviet pilots kept closing the distance till he crashed into it. As a result both planes tumbled out of the sky but while the Soviet airman ejected the Hungarian pilot was either outright killed or at least incapacitated when the collision occurred for he did not make any attempts to save himself and went down with his stricken aircraft. In contrast the Soviet pilot who descended to the ground under a parachute was unhurt except some minor injuries of the sort usually suffered on ejection. He was swiftly taken into custody by Austrian police and identified as Captain Nikolai Konoplov. [2] It was later determined that the Hungarian airman who perished was Flying Officer Sandor Magyar. Fortunately there were no casualties among people on the ground and material damage was limited: the Soviet fighter crashed on top of forty tons of hay belonging to Mr. Andreas Wegleitner while the Hungarian jet tore into the field of Mr. Michael Bors. [3]

The Soviet pilot was promptly send back across the "Iron Curtain" supposedly admitting beforehand that he had intentionally rammed his victim after failing to shoot it down. Reacting to the event the Austrian press voiced dissatisfaction that a man who had brazenly violated the country's airspace fighting an aerial engagement inside it was released so quickly. It is likely that the decision to put a swift end to the whole affair by Austria's Chancellor Julius Raab resulted from his wish not to put the country into a difficult situation. One should keep in mind that Soviet troops had left Austria not long prior to the event described and the small republic was located right along the divide separating Europe into two hostile military blocks. Being in such a position required extra caution when handling matters of this sort even at the expense of national sovereignty and pride.

When analysing the incident both the Hungarians as well as the Soviets agreed that it resulted from a lack of proper coordination between their respective military commands. This would appear to be a plausible explanation but only under the condition that an aerial intrusion was really reported even if by mistake or due to "radar ghosting". Concerning the fatal collision the Soviets claimed that it was an unfortunate accident. When the supposed "intruders" who were in fact Hungarians were intercepted a Soviet pilot tried to signal them by dipping his aircraft's wings and approached one of the "unidentified planes" getting nearer and nearer until he accidentally hit it just as both were crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border. Taking into consideration the available information the only part true to this, is that one aircraft crashed into the other, but the collision - accidental or intentional - did not take place when signalling but in the course of aerial combat. It is also hard to belive that Soviet pilots could not identify a MiG-15 fighter which was at that time one of the principal Eastern Block combat aircraft types, in addition Hungarian AF markings should have been visible from close up.

While the author prefers to deal with proven facts rather than speculations it is impossible not to raise a number of issues. To start with, some sources credit Flying Officer Sandor Magyar with shooting down the Soviet MiG. This was obviously not the case for the reason behind the demise of both fighters destroyed in course of this incident was a mid-air collision. But this is not all with the story gaining another twist, for some sources claim that Sandor Magyar later defected to the West settling in the USA where he changed his name to Mike Edwards. Should this indeed be the case than the question of the killed Hungarian pilot's identity arises. Last but not least at the time when the incident took place Western press suggested that it might have been in fact a defection attempt by Hungarian airmen. If that was what really happened than the events described gain a completely new perspective - no foreign intruder ever existed (not even as an anomaly on the radar screen) and neither the Soviet attack nor the inability to tell apart a MiG-15 from a Western aircraft as well as the Hungarians' flight in the direction of Austria would be as illogical as it appeared at first glance. To cut short on further theorizing it is sufficient to say that the incident's circumstances still require clarification.


Destroy the Target at All Cost


During the late 1950s the Soviet airspace was repeatedly penetrated by American U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Despite a number of attempts being undertaken the Soviets were unable to bring the intruder down for it operated at an altitude of 20 000 m and even higher which was out of reach for Soviet fighters. [4] But aviation technology was not standing still and in 1959 the Su-9 - a high flying and fast missile armed interceptor fitted with an on board radar - entered Soviet service. However officially entering service and becoming available in numbers sufficient enough to provide a credible air defence were two separate things. First of all the reequipment process was slow with a trickle of aircraft (one or two, seldom more) being delivered in flight from the Novosibirsk aviation plant to operational PVO [5] units. In addition the pilots and ground control personnel had to gain experience in utilising the capabilities of the new interceptor.

These problems were highlighted on 9 April 1960 as a U-2 appeared again over the USSR photographing a number of strategically important sites while the Soviets once more proved powerless to do anything about this. Despite numerous fighters including Su-9s being scrambled all interception attempts failed and the American aircraft managed to get away. Not surprisingly the Soviet leader Nikita Chruschchev was furious. When a few weeks later on May 1, 1960 another high altitude overflight was reported Moscow ordered the intruder to be destroyed at all cost.

The above was not a mere figure of speech as Captain Igor Mientiukov found out. By pure coincidence he made on 30 April 1960 an in flight stop at Kolcovo airfield near Svierdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) while delivering a Su-9 from the factory to an operational unit. Instead of flying on the next day he was ordered to scramble tasked with intercepting and destroying a high altitude intruder. Since the aircraft was being ferried from the manufacturer it carried no armament and K-5 (AA-1 Alkali) air to air missiles were not available at Kolcovo either (the Su-9 had no gun). For these reasons it seemed that the task assigned was impossible to fulfil yet the order stood and Capt. Mientiukov took off. Once he was airborne and established radio contact with the ground control he not only received information about the target but also an order to ram it. The mission was for all practical purpose suicidal for even if the pilot survived the collision the effects of high altitude ejection could also be leathel.

PVO Su-9 depicted in the same configuration as Captain Igor Mientiukov’s mount during the U-2 interception attempt. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


Capt. Mientiukov was guided by ground control to intercept the U-2 on a rear chase course. When the distance to the target was about 25 km the pilot was ordered to jettison external fuel tanks and to ignite the afterburner. The speed of his mount rapidly rose to 1,9 - 2 Mach while he climbed to 20 000 m. Just as the distance to the U-2 decreased to 12 km the American aircraft made a turn and the Soviet pilot who had no visual contact with the target but was guided by GCI was instructed to follow it. Yet when flying with a high speed and at a high altitude the Su-9 like most other aircraft was not very maneuverable. As a result of the turn performed Capt. Mientiukov overshot the target by 8 km - considering his aircraft's speed it was not as much as it would seem at first glance - and found himself in front of the U-2. Now he was ordered to cut the afterburner and loose speed. Just as the Sukhoi's pilot complied with the order a new one followed instructing him to disengage and leave the area immediately. It turned out that in the meantime the U-2 had entered the engagement zone of SAM batteries defending Sverdlovsk. The first missile salvo was already in the air and friendly aircraft were to get out of the way.

With surface to air missiles engaging the American aircraft Capt. Mientiukov's suicidal mission become pointless and he flew away his life being spared. It is well known, that the U-2 was shot down by 13D (V-750VN) missiles from a S-75N Desna SAM system (SA-2) and its pilot Francis Gary Powers captured. But this unquestionable success was marred by the fact that the SAMs proved fatal for another Soviet fighter pilot, Senior Lieutenant Sergey Safronov who’s MiG-19 fighter was brought down by friendly fire in the course of this incident.

Soviet MiG-19P interceptor; this is how Safronov’s mount looked like – except for the serial, which is unknown. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


A Fight to the Death


While the U-2 affair ended without one aircraft ramming the other, another incident which occurred over the southern Soviet Union bordering Iran resulted with a taran being actually performed. To give some background to the event it has to be pointed out that peripheral areas are frequently "soft" spots which offer opportunities for aerial penetration due to insufficient radar coverage. The United States desired to fully exploit this factor by launching reconnaissance fligths over the Soviet Union from Iran. Since under the Shah's rule Iran was a close ally of the US it not only allowed its territory to be used for these activities but also participated in them. Several types of aircraft were utilised for that purpose including RF-4C. [6] Starting in 1971 the "Phantoms" flown by mixed US-Iranian crews would average about two sorties per month penetrating Soviet airspace.

IIAF RF-4C, depicted with an ALQ-119 jammer; this was almost always carried under its right inboard wing station,it is depicted here unde the left one for visibility purposes. ALQ-87 and ALQ-101 were also carried by IIAF (and later IRIAF) recce Phantoms. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


Available sources seem to indicate that a few cases aside [7] the US-Persian reconnaissance flights encountered little to no interference from the Soviets. But it was not always so, 28 November 1973 being one of the occasions when they were actively challenged. On that day a RF-4C with Maj. Shokouhnia at the controls and Col. John Saunders in the back seat - the former an Iranian while the latter American - was intercepted by a Soviet MiG-21SMT flown by Capt. Gennady Eliseev. What happened next was a supersonic chase with the Soviet pilot actually opening fire on the RF-4C. Yet despite firing off his entire combat load of two R-3S (AA-2 Atoll) air-to-air missiles Capt. Eliseev was unable to bring the reconnaissance aircraft down, for by launching 54 flares (all that were carried) as well as vigorously maneuvering the Phantom's pilot managed to avoid being hit.

With both air-to-air missiles expended there was nothing the Soviet pilot could do and the RF-4C's crew could consider themselves safe - or so it seemed. Yet it was not to be so for Capt. Eliseev was out of ordnance but definitely not short on zealous combativeness. Before moving on it has to be pointed out, that while taking evasive action the Phantom had lost airspeed allowing the MiG to close the distance. Now came the most dramatic moment as the Soviet fighter struck the RF-4C's from below impacting on the left side close to the engine nozzles resulting in the Phantom's tail being seriously damaged if not outright severed. While Capt. Eliseev took his final thoughts to his grave - for he was killed in the collision - such an aimed blow could hardly be accidental. Therefore it can be safely stated that the Soviet pilot rammed the RF-4C intentionally. As most readers familiar with the basics of aerodynamics will know an aircraft with a conventional layout can not be controlled if its tail is gone. This is precisely what happened to the Phantom which entered an uncontrollable dive. Its crew could do nothing but save their lives and Col. Saunders as well as Maj. Shokouhnia ejected. Both made a safe parachute descent but were aprehanded by the Soviets once they reached the ground. Meanwhile their aircraft crashed and since the engines kept running it hit the ground at high speed being completely destroyed on impact.

MiG-21SMT bort 40, c/n 40501, operated by the 982 Fighter Regiment V-VS is the exact aircraft involved in the ramming, shown here in the particular paintscheme and load configuration it had during this incident. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


When interrogated by the Soviets both captured airmen steadfastly maintained that they had been on a training flight and strayed over the Soviet Union by accident. [8] Since the opposite could not be proven with the evidence of reconnaissance activity reduced to unrecognisable wreckage [9] the Soviets grudgingly accepted this version of events. Col. Saunders and Maj. Shokouhnia were saved from a long stay in the "workers' and peasants' paradise" by a fortunate coincidence. It so happened that at about the same time a capsule from a Soviet reconnaissance satellite containing data gathered in orbit landed on the "wrong" side of the border coming down in Iran. Under the circumstance the Soviets readily agreed to exchange it for two seemingly incompetent airmen who could not keep their bearings.

As for the Soviet pilot, Capt. Gennady Eliseev was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for sacrificing his life in the defence of the country's airspace. His feat did not receive great publicity but was not kept secret or forgotten either. For example the incident was related in the no. 3 / 1980 issue of the Polish magazine Przegląd WL i WOPK [10] which featured an article by Colonel Kazimierz Stec describing the event.[11] In addition foreign pilots who were deployed to Astrahan in the 1980s for live firing exercises recall that Capt. Eliseev was much revered by their Soviet hosts.


The Argentine Connection


The final story of Cold War ramming started at Larnaca in Cyprus from where a Canadair Limited CL-44 transport (c/n 34, reg. LV-JTN) owned by Transporte Areo Rio Platense (an aviation transport company registered in Argentina) took off. Behind the controls were Hector Cordero with Jose Burgueno and Hermete Boasso being the other crew members (the trio were Argentine) while the fourth man aboard was a British citizen Stuart McCafferty. The latter was a broker handling military equipment purchases for the aircraft was not just an ordinary cargo plane making a routine transport flight. From Cyprus the CL-44 flew to Tel Aviv where it picked up a load of aircraft spares and tyres destined for Iran's airforce which needed them in order to sustain its operability in the war with Iraq. As it later transpired the aircraft had already made two flights to Teheran and on 18 July 1981 was returning from a third, but this time it did not make it back. Considering that the Iraq-Iran war was also intensively fought in the air the Argentinian pilot thought that the best way to avoid being caught up in aircombat or shot down by ground based air defences would be to fly a northern course "hugging" the Soviet border before reaching Turkey. Once in Turkish airspace the plane and its crew could consider themselves safe and would than continue flying to Cyprus. It had worked twice but on the third occasion it turned out different for the Argentinian aircraft crossed the Soviet border and was actually flying over what was at that time Soviet Azerbaijan.

TAR, Transporte Aereo Rioplatense, based in Argentina used two CL-44D4-6, c/n 33 and 34, between 1971 and 1981. LV-JTN, c/n 34, is seen here at Miami in 1979, was the one lost on 18 July 1981 over the USSR. (Le Fana de l’Aviation no. 374, January 2001)


While the CL-44 never intruded deep into Soviet airspace the violation was enough to get the PVO running in full gear. Since the area right along the border was not covered by SAMs a number of interceptors belonging to the 166 Fighter Regiment had to be scrambled in order to deal with the intruder. Among them was a Su-15 flown by Captain Valentin Kulyapin who for the purpose of radio communications with ground control was assigned the call sign "pilot 733". As it happened he was the only one to intercept the airspace violator for all his colleagues broke off the chase because they were getting low on fuel.

Once the foreign aircraft was intercepted the Soviet pilot took station off its left wing. [12] He gave the intruder a closer look reporting that it was a four engined aircraft devoided of any markings. While flying on a parallel course Capt. Kulyapin could clearly see the crewmen in the other aircraft's cockpit - who must also have seen him - and tried to signal them but was ignored. Soviet sources claimed that attempts were also made to contact the intruding aircraft by radio but to no effect. [13] Than the foreign aircraft made a turn forcing the Soviet pilot to maneuver out of its way in order to avoid a collision. If to go by Soviet accounts this was a deliberate hostile act by the intruder. However the author is of the opinion that once the CL-44's pilot realised that he was not only over the Soviet Union but also had unwelcome company in form of a Soviet interceptor he decided to leave the Soviet airspace and turned on a course for the border.[14] It is a much more rational explanation than the idea of a transport trying to physically challenge a fighter over the latter's home turf. While at first glance it may appear that a propeller driven aircraft had no chance to make an escape when chased by a jet it should be pointed out, that the incident took place right next to the border with the Araks River constituting it being actually in sight.

Unfortunately for those on board the CL-44 never made it for the Soviet pilot wanted to get his prey whatever the cost. Capt. Kulyapin radioed ground control that the airspace violator not only failed to follow his instruction but also acted in a hostile manner by forcing the Su-15 to get out of its way and was trying to escape across the border. Basing its decision on such feed back from the man on the scene the ground control ordered the intruder to be destroyed. This was however easier said than done. The Soviet interceptor was by that time in a seemingly perfect position right behind the CL-44 but in order to get sufficient clearance from the target so as to be able to launch an air-to-air missile [15] the Su-15 would have had to drop back a certain distance. This was not an option for the airspace violator was rapidly approaching the border and once he crossed it the Soviet pilot could not pursuit him much less open fire. Since time and distance or rather the lack of both prevented Capt. Kulyapin from engaging the intruder in a conventional way he decided to ram it.

In order to do that Capt. Kulyapin maneuvered his Su-15 under the CL-44's tail and struck it from below at 14 : 44 Moscow time as the Soviet fighter’s cockpit chronometer indicated. It was a crippling collision for both aircraft - the Soviet pilot was showered by glass as the canopy disintegrated, his mount started to vibrate violently and the control system also ceased to function leaving him with no option other than to eject. Capt. Kulyapin passed out for a brief moment [16] and regained his senses when he was already dangling under the parachute. Being aloft he had a bird's view of the unfolding events witnessing the intruding aircraft - its tail visibly damaged - first spiral towards the ground and than impact it in a fireball. The Soviet pilot safely floated down to earth by parachute while the four men aboard the CL-44 had no means of escape and all perished buried under a heap of blazing wreckage.

PVO Su-15TM interceptor; this is how Kulyapin’s mount should have looked like – except for the serial, which is unknown. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


The Soviets quickly arrived at the scene removing the bodies first which were transported to a morgue in Yerevan [17] and subsequently handed over to Argentine and British authorities. Before the CL-44's wreckage was cleared, Leopoldo Brave who was at that time Argentina's ambassador to the Soviet Union was allowed to visit the crash site. There was little to see but twisted and charred debris except that on one piece of wreckage not affected by fire the diplomat was able to spot the Argentine flag which clearly contradicts Capt. Kulyapin's statement that the aircraft was unmarked. Interestingly ambassador Brave was informed by the USSR’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Soviet pilot was also killed in the incident. Very likely the Soviets wanted to prevent the Argentinian diplomat from even asking for the possibility to speak to the one who caused the death of his countrymen. As for official Soviet outlets the TASS [18] as well as the National Voice of Iran [19] both reported about the destruction of a foreign aircraft which collided with a Soviet one having first violated the country's airspace. For the time being nothing more was officially stated. Obviously the Soviets intended to keep the whole incident as low key as possible. After a few years their attitude changed and Kulyapin's story was covered in detail by the April 6, 1986, issue of the Krasnaya Zviezda. [20] The newspaper published a large portrait of Kulyapin who was meanwhile decorated as well as promoted and using heavily propagandised language gave a two-page long account of the incident.

Aside the cases described above there were a number of other Cold War incidents when Soviet and Western aircraft collided. A prime example is the Gatow air Disaster when on 5 April 1948 a Soviet Yak fighter crashed into a British Vickers Viking resulting in the destruction of both aircraft and the death of 15 people including the Soviet pilot. Yet the Gatow case as well as several more incidents were collisions resulting from aggressive and reckless behaviour of the airmen involved or just unfortunate accidents rather than intentional ramming attacks.

Closing the subject it should be pointed out that the wisdom of risking one's live and loosing an aircraft in order to bring down the opponent's plane is highly questionable. Technically reliable weapons employed by well trained men should be utilised for that purpose. Having said this there is no doubt that it took considerable personal courage to intentionally perform a taran. To keep things in perspective the few instances of ramming were in fact marginal occurrences taking into account numerous Cold War shootdowns and an even larger number of interceptions. But this method of engaging an aerial opponent is both highly unusual as well as dramatic and thus worthy to be presented.




Footnotes


[1] It has to be pointed out that Lake Ferto (Neusiedler See in German) over which the initial encounter took place is located right at the border with one part (smaller) on the Hungarian side and the rest on the Austrian side. Considering this jets could quickly find themselves in the airspace of the neighbouring country.

[2] His name was also reported as Capt. Nikolai Konoklov.

[3] The damage was valued at 3 500 Austrian Schillings in the former and 1 000 Schillings in the latter case.

[4] At that time the S-25 (SA-1) and soon also the S-75 (SA-2) surface to air missiles systems entered service but initially the SAM sites were few and far between meaning that as long as the U-2 did not overfly a location defended by them the Soviets were unable to do anything against the American aircraft.

[5] PVO stands for ProtivoVozdushnaya Oborona which was the Soviet Air Defence Force

[6] It should be pointed out that the aircraft in question though officially designated RF-4Es were in fact specially modified RF-4Cs.

[7] As a matter of fact a number of US and Iranian aircraft were downed but considering the duration and intensity of the reconnaissance operations such incidents were relatively few and far between.

[8] It was a cover story prepared in advance just in case of a situation like this.

[9] The Phantom's total destruction on impact is best proven by the fact that at the time and long thereafter the Soviets were convinced the aircraft brought down was a T-33.

[10] Przegląd WL i WOPK means the WL i WOPK review with the acronym standing for Wojska Lotnicze i Wojska Obrony Powietrznej Kraju meaning Air and Air Defence Troops.

[11] Interestingly the article was viewed as very controversial and received a number of hostile comments from other Polish officers who thought the author unwisely wanted to popularise ramming as a tactic of aerial combat.

[12] Considering the incident's location and the aircrafts' course it means that the Su-15 positioned itself between the CL-44 and the border.

[13] It is not clear if such attempts were made by Soviet ground control, the interceptor's pilot himself or both. In either case the author is highly sceptical about this claim for Soviet pilots rarely spoke any other language than Russian (the same applies to ground control personnel) and there is no evidence Capt. Kulyapin was an exception.

[14] The very fact, that the CL-44's pilot turned for the border may be an indication, that he knew all along that he was actually in Soviet airspace - meaning he intentionally violated it in the first place.

[15] The Su-15 had no internal gun but could be fitted with gun pods yet obviously they were not carried on this particular occasion.

[16] This is not an uncommon occurrence, as many pilots who had "punched out" experienced, for the tremendous forces of an ejection are enough to knock a man out.

[17] While the incident took place over Azerbaijan the nearest city to the crash site was Yerevan in Armenia. [18] TASS stood for Telegrafnoye Agentstvo Sovetskovo Soyuza (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) which was the official news agency of the Soviet Union.

[19] The National Voice of Iran was a Soviet radio station broadcasting in the Persian language.

[20] Krasnaya Zviezda (Red Star) was the official newspaper of the Soviet military.

Last Updated ( Dec 22, 2012 at 12:49 PM )
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