Updated: Mar 8
The man in the cotton suit
As the hands of the clock passed midnight, the American cargo plane slipped quietly through the frigid night air, the pilot declaring 'feet dry’ as the Mediterranean Sea slipped from view below them
Off the nose ahead, an orange glow marked the crew's declared destination: a thriving city almost seven million people called home.
The visitor had entered Egyptian airspace in the usual way, calling air traffic control whilst inbound and informing them of its intentions to land, as filed, at Cairo’s international airport.
But as the aircraft, a US Air Force C-5A Galaxy, began its descent towards the city, its radio calls – and the attendant air traffic control responses – became works of fiction.
In the minutes that followed, anyone listening would have concluded that the visitor successfully landed at Cairo. Instead, enveloped in darkness and with its external lighting now off, the C-5 droned on another 100 miles.
Beneath, gold and silver lights speckled the verdant strip of land that emerges from Cairo and tracks the Nile southward, like a solitary snaking tentacle from a jellyfish.
Not long after, the Galaxy crew located the secret airbase, circled overhead and awaited a single green flare from the control tower: the radio-silent signal they were cleared to land.
On the ground, a small contingent of Egyptian Air Force officers and NCOs were patiently waiting.
The distinctive whine of the Galaxy's four TF39 turbofans was all they needed to hear.
The flare duly arced through the sky.
The Galaxy began its approach.
The C-5 was marshalled to a large maintenance hangar in a remote corner of the base. The crew raised the aircraft's nose to allow access to the cavernous cargo space, and the hanger doors in front of them opened to the shrill pitch of a klaxon. Inside, green tinted fluorescent light illuminated a macabre scene.
On a large, wheeled platform with hydraulic jacks – a so-called K-Loader – sat objects wrapped ominously in black plastic: industrial-size body bags awaiting disposal under cover of darkness.
One of the structures stood proud, taking the shape of an aircraft tail fin. The other, flat and long – amputated wings, perhaps?
Around were scattered the accoutrements of a Soviet-built fighter or fighter bomber: an orange boarding ladder and the elongated and slightly ungainly-looking tow bar that was compatible with Russian aircraft.
And nearby rested the dismembered fuselage, also tightly wrapped in black plastic, of a large fighter aircraft. Without the weight of fuel, wings and tail to compress the oleos, the hulk stood tall on landing gears that protruded from the wrap. It loomed over a small group of Western looking men who busied themselves beneath it, completing paperwork and making final inspections.
These men were American, too. They greeted their fellow countrymen as they disgorged from the C-5, gave them the cargo manifest, and provided refreshments.
But there was no time to waste. The aircraft and its precious cargo had to leave before dawn and fly non-stop to an even more secret air base in another desert. This one in US state of Nevada.
Under no circumstances could the C-5 be seen or, worse still, identified by anyone who might care to look.
Stood back from the welcome party, a man dressed in a cotton khaki suit stood smiling and posed for a handful of photos next to the cargo.
He had reason to be happy. It was 21 September 1977 and so it was his 46th birthday.
But to him, and to thousands of unknowing American fighter aircrew in the years that would follow, today was much more than that.
The real reason for his smile would remain secret for decades to come.
Today was the day he would hand the United States Air Force its most sought-after Soviet prize: a MiG-23 “FLOGGER” fighter jet.
His name was Jim Fees.
Fees was the CIA station chief in Egypt and long-term incumbent of the CIA’s clandestine service. His service to country had started in the early 1950s when, with the Korean War in full tilt and before he could complete his university education, he’d been drafted into the US Army Signal Corps.
As luck would have it, an Agency talent scout in the Corps spotted him and in the fullness of time he joined the cloak and dagger word of international espionage. There he distinguished himself as a talented operator.
Having served in the Near East division of the Clandestine service, he was sent to study Arabic full-time for one year at Georgetown's School of Languages and Linguistics. From there, the role in Egypt beckoned.
In preparation for his departure to Cairo, Fees met with Air Force chiefs in late 1973. They briefed him on the Soviet materiel – SOVMAT – they most wanted to gain access to, and top of the list was the MiG-23 fighter bomber, NATO codename FLOGGER. “They desperately needed the MIG-23”, Fees wrote in a secret journal, “[it was] then the first line Soviet fighter in the Warsaw Pact”.
At this time, Western intelligence agencies had for years been drastically overrating the Flogger. An Air Force’s tactics, weapons systems, training, and future design and development are all predicated on known and expected threat capabilities, and in the case of the FLOGGER, American intelligence estimates of the MiG-23 were wrong. Completely wrong.
The Air Force thought the MiG was comparatively slow but highly manoeuvrable, and so tactics manuals directed pilots who tangled with it to out-dive it and to avoid getting into a swirling dog fight with it.
Such advice as this was based on estimates derived from grainy photos and attempts to watch Flogger operations both visually and on radar.
Clearly, it was not enough.
With the vacuum of knowledge apparent, Fees made a pledge: “I decided I would make that my top private priority while in Cairo as much as my primary duties allowed”.
And so, as a sort of hobby project to be undertaken when time allowed, the man who would go on to be labelled “one of America’s most talented intelligence officers”, started to plot and scheme.
The new Chief of Station in Cairo was arriving in a country whose relationship with the Soviet Union had deteriorated over a number of years, and recently declassified State Department files show that America had been quick to hasten this.
Egypt’s President, Anwar al-Sadat, removed the Soviet military presence from his country during the summer of 1972. The reasons for this will continue to be a matter for analysis among historians, but it was ultimately to both Egypt and America’s advantage, and Fees must have known that by the time he arrived in country, the Egyptian Air Force was beginning to feel the strain of operating with a shortage of expertise and spare parts.
In short, there was both the leverage and the natural opportunity to do a deal.
Fees’ head-on requests for a MiG were met with immediate and unequivocal rejections, but this was to be expected and for a man of his intellect and capabilities did little to dampen his spirits.
Ultimately, it would take three full years to gain the prize, and Fees got there through a layered programme of relationship building and exercises intended to gain trust.
The relationships he fostered went all the way to the top, and then-Vice President Mubarak was the most important. It was he who, at Fees’ urging, eventually convinced al-Sadat to transfer a flyable Flogger to America.
The first layer of trust building, Fees wrote, “was to ask VP Mubarak for permission to photograph a full set of classified manuals for the MIG-21 and MIG-23 versions they had. It was agreed and arranged by Mubarak despite resistance from the Military Chief of Staff”.
The CIA sent a team to the Cairo Station to photograph many thousands of pages of MIG-21 and MIG-23 documents, but it was not all plain sailing: “An Egyptian AF general balked at giving me MIG-23 documents at my first meeting with him. I went to the office and called VP Mubarak and he said not to leave my office, and sure enough the Egyptian General called back asking me to please come at 9 am the next morning to get “all” the documents I requested”. From there, Fees launched into part two of the plan, asking “whether one of our American USAF MiG pilots could come to Cairo and fly the MiG-23. He eventually agreed. The pilot came to the Station and we arranged for him to fly in formation with a few other Egyptian MiG-23 pilots for a very “satisfactory” test, in his words”.
I understand that the pilot in question was General John Secord, a long-time special operations pilot who was at that time working as the Chief of Military Assistance Advisory Group in Iran.
While in Iran, Secord had been the Air Force representative running Project Ibex and Project Dark Genie: CIA programmes to gather electronic intelligence and photo reconnaissance images of weaknesses in the Soviet Air Defence apparatus.
Secord’s trip in the MiG was a seminal moment, for it revealed to America that its intelligence estimates were 180 degrees out: the MiG-23 was faster than any tactical fighter in the US inventory, but it was not a good turning fighter. The advice to try to outpace it was all wrong!
Secord fed back his findings through Air Force Systems Command and CIA channels, and Fees wrote that America swiftly briefed NATO on the findings. However, this contradicts anecdotal evidence from those who were there at the time, and while it’s very likely that Fees was certainly told that this was the plan, the truth appears somewhat different.
In reality, the indications point to the fact that America not only sat on the new information and did not share it with friendly Western nations, but also compartmentalised it so that it remained secret even from its own tactical aviators. As late as 1979, US Air Force pilots in frontline units were still unaware of the Flogger’s true capabilities and their tactics manuals contained outdated information.
Back in Cairo, it was time to land the big fish. Fees asked Mubarak to make the case to al-Sadat, and within the weeks the word came back that transfer of a flyable Flogger had been approved. Within just a few weeks more, the arrangements had been made and a C-5 had been booked to collect the precious cargo.
As the C-5 touched down at Groom Lake, the then-unacknowledged airfield 90 miles to the northwest of the Las Vegas strip, the black wrapped cargo was disgorged from its belly and rolled into giant hangers with huge rolling doors.
The timing of its arrival had been planned to ensure that no Soviet satellite was overhead, and other secret programmes at the sprawling base had all taken cover lest the Galaxy crew see something they should not.
The recipient of “the asset” was an Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) unit that was a secret in its own right: the 6513th Test Squadron, better known to insiders by its moniker, the “Red Hats”.
The small unit’s motto featured a bear wearing a wide-brimmed red hat and surmounting a globe hemisphere, all against a yellow background. Six red stars arced over the top. Two tabs included the name, “RED HATS”, and the motto, “MORE WITH LESS”. It symbolized the team’s ability to consistently produce useful data despite the challenges of operating from a remote location with a small cadre, and having to scrounge or make spare parts to keep their aircraft flyable.
Under the project name HAVE PAD, the Red Hats would re-assemble the Flogger, conduct a wide array of non-destructive testing on it, and then extensively test fly it to reveal its strengths and weaknesses – handling qualities, range, endurance, max climb rate, sustained turn rates and so on.
The exploitation was known to few people, and in the typical fashion of such secret programmes, heavily compartmentalised. So, with the technical exploitation completed, PAD was ‘loaned’ by AFSC to Tactical Air Command to allow the Flogger to be exploited for operational intelligence purposes. Besides, by this time, al-Sadat had approved the transfer of a MiG-23BN Flogger F, the air-to-ground version of the jet, and AFSC was exploiting this under the codename HAVE BOXER.
PAD’s tactical exploitation started in March 1978, and Air Force pilot Major Ron Iverson was given responsibility to head TAC’s HAVE PAD team as yet more Egyptian Floggers arrived at Groom Lake. Iverson was part of TAC’s own secret unit, the 4477th Test and Evaluation Flight – the Red Eagles – which had been stood up 1977 with the mission of building a squadron of MiGs against which to expose America’s tactical air force units. This was only possible because another former Soviet customer, Indonesia, traded its supply of MiG-21s for newer American hardware. Some of its MiGs had sat rotting in swamps, and these wrecked airframes were now being restored to airworthy condition at Groom Lake in preparation for their use in what would become known as CONSTANT PEG.
Part of the PAD operational exploitation involved hiring an analyst, and Iverson selected a gifted Aeronautical Engineer, Capt Bob Drabant. US Navy pilot Tom Morgenfeld also joined the effort.
Drabant had earned the respect of the fighter community by working on the groundbreaking Energy Maneuverability (EM) theory as put forth by the highly controversial (but ultimately much-respected) Col Jon Boyd and civilian mathematician, Tom Christie. In fact, Drabant was an understudy of both men, but he had stood out for his practical work in creating performance graphs that the average fighter pilot could look at and understand. Between 1970 and 1974, he had conducted his EM work as an Aero Engineer at the Air Force Armament Lab’s Weapon System Analysis Division, Eglin AFB, Florida.
The EM concept, and Drabant’s graphs, provided the fighter pilot with a snap-shot overview of an aircraft’s performance capability. By studying the EM graph of one aircraft, or by overlaying it on top of the EM graph of another, its relative strengths and weaknesses became clear. The EM graph showed how fast, how high, and how many sustained Gs a given fighter could achieve in any given area of the flight envelope.
Drabant had one foot planted in the white world and the other in the black world.
He’d participated in Freedom Fighter Source Selection, resulting in the Northrop F-5E; and Lightweight Fighter Source Selection, the winners of which were the General Dynamics F-16A for the Air Force, and the eventual F/A-18A for the Navy, at the same time.
But on the dark side, he had created the MiG-17 and MiG-21 EM graphs during a blanket exploitation programme known as HAVE IDEA, using them as examples during the process of “transferring EM capability to AFSC and the Air Force’s Foreign Technology Division.”
Drabant recalled that one of the first things they did was install an Air Combat Manouvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pod on PAD. This missile-sized pod captured the Flogger’s performance characteristics and location, allowing a three-dimensional video of it mock air combat engagements to be visualised and replayed. Curiously, AFSC shared no data with Iverson’s team, so it came as surprise to them to learn that the MiG could accelerate with aplomb, but could not turn to save its life: “They got it totally wrong”, he scoffed.
To illustrate the point, he recalled the Flogger flying against an F-15A Eagle, flown by Timmy O’Keefe. “They went nose to nose and passed each other at 15,000 feet and 500 knots. Iverson [in the MiG] just unloaded and accelerated, so Timmy pulled a 7g turn for about 12 degrees per second, and by the time he had reversed his turn and locked Ron up with his radar, the MiG was 3 miles away with a Vc [closure velocity] of minus 300 knots”. In simple terms, the MiG had blown past the Eagle and was running away from it at a rate of one mile every ten seconds. This was something that conventional intelligence wisdom held was impossible for it to do.
With the operational exploitation completed by August 1978, Drabant spoke to the Foreign Technology Division to see whether they had developed the EM diagrams as part of the earlier AFSC exploitation. He shocked to hear that they had not, but was aghast to learn that they wanted more than a year to do so. “This was a joke”, he said, “so I asked Iverson to send me on temporary duty assignment back to Eglin AFB, Florida, where all my computer programmes were for creating the EM diagrams. He agreed, and so I took all the ACMI data and we put the new diagrams in the 3-1 tactics manual within weeks”. It was only at this point and in the months that followed that Fees’ accomplishment really came to benefit America’s tactical fighter crews en masse.
The SOVMAT Legacy
For Fees, HAVE PAD “was the first step in our creating in Cairo Station a major SOVMAT program, which continued with much success after I departed in June 1978”. He certainly was not exaggerating.
Bombs, missiles, radars, surface-to-air missile (SAM) system all followed. But the jewel in the crown was the Flogger. In short order, seventeen more (11 MiG-23MS and 6 MiG-23BN) would follow in due course, the first twelve of which were shipped to the US in two C-5s, each carrying six airframes.
There was evidently a substantial return on all this cooperation: in 1979, Egypt received a comprehensive Foreign Military Sales package – valued at $594m and known as “Peace Pharaoh” – that included F-4E Phantom II jet fighters and, later, the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
In the end, Fees’ accomplishments would go unknown and unrecognised – that was, after all, the nature of his work. But in the decades that followed, it stands to reason that thousands of Air Force fighter aircrew would, as they read the classified tactics manuals about the FLOGGER or even flew against the Egyptian examples, make a mental note that they owed a debt of gratitude to the unknown warrior who had made the impossible a reality.