The Buzz

Why Iran's Air Force Is Still Flying American Planes

One of the ironies of the bitter relations between the Iran and the United States today is that half a century ago they were the closest of allies. The repressive, secular government of the shah had come to power thanks to a CIA-orchestrated coup, and was lavished with then latest American weaponry, including F-14 Tomcat fighters, AH-Cobra attack helicopters and TOW antitank missiles.

So when the CIA asked Iran if it could conduct aerial spying flights into the Soviet Union, the response was “How many bases will you need?” and “Can our pilots ride backseat?” and, even, “Can we buy spy planes from you to help out?”

That the Soviet Union did not take kindly to the U.S.-Iranian intrusion is to put it lightly. Soviet fighters lobbed missiles and spat cannon fire at the Iranian aircraft, and when that didn’t work, they even rammed one of the U.S.-Iranian recon jets.

The main purpose of “Operation Dark Gene” was to find and exploit gaps in the Soviet Union’s air-defense radar network along the Iranian border—and also to test just how those defense worked when alerted. In 1968, twelve RF-FA Tigereye reconnaissance variants of the F-5 Freedom Fighter were delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force. Piloted by U.S. Air Force pilots, these conducted regular spy flights across the border. Then, in 1971, Iran acquired two dozen faster and heavier RF-4C Phantom recon jets with special modifications for listening in to Soviet communications. The two-seaters would typically fly on spy missions twice a month with a mixed crew of American and Iranian personnel, the latter there for training purposes.

A separate program known as Project Ibex used a mix of large Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft and five ground-based joint Iranian-U.S. listening posts to listen in on Soviet radio communications, and gather frequency and telemetry data. The ground stations were defended with mines, barbed wire and self-destruct systems, and supplied solely from the air. Iran reportedly paid Rockwell International $500 million for the equipment. The IIAF also purchased four modified C-130H Hercules transports loaded full of ELINT gear, as well as a converted 707 that remains in Iranian Air Force service today.

The American and Iranian pilots didn’t always get out of Soviet air space cleanly. Two RF-5As and two RF-4Cs were allegedly shot down during the 1970s, with the ejected pilots innocently claiming they were engaged in training flights.

The most dramatic—and only fully documented—encounter occurred on November 28, 1973 when an RF-4C piloted by Maj. Mohamed Shokouhnia with U.S. Air Force Col. John Saunders in the backseat was intercepted at supersonic speeds by a Thirty-Fourth Air Army MiG-21, piloted by Capt. Gennady Eliseev and dispatched from a base in Vaziani, Georgia. The Soviet pilot fired off both of his R-3S (NATO codename AA-2 Aphid) heat-seeking missiles at the recon jet, which evaded while expending dozens of flares. The R-3S was a Soviet clone of the American AIM-9 Sidewinder missile—the Soviets reverse-engineered one recovered from the hull of a lucky Chinese fighter plane after an air battle off of Taiwan!—and the early versions of the Sidewinder were not renowned for their reliability. The R-3S’s seeker required twenty-two seconds to lock on, and the minimum engagement range was under one kilometer.

Eliseev then tried to engage the Phantom with his twenty-three-millimeter cannon, but it jammed when he pressed the trigger. His ground controller told him attempt a ramming attack, which Eliseev agreed to. Soviet pilots had widely employed ramming tactics in World War II—given the superior training and inferior numbers of the German aircraft, a one-for-one trade-off was seen as advantageous, though it asked quite a lot of the pilots.

The RF-4’s evasive maneuvers had caused it to lose speed relative to Eliseev, so the Soviet pilot hit the throttle and smashed his smaller fighter into the tail of an aircraft more than twice its weight. Eliseev’s last message was a triumphant “I got him!”

Saunders and Shokouhnia successfully ejected from their Phantom and were captured by Soviet ground troops. Eliseev did not survive. He was posthumously decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union and is remembered with a memorial in the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). The maintenance and weapons crews responsible for his plane, on the other hand, were jailed for several years as punishment.