Flashback Friday


I’m not much of a picture taker, but when I saw a MiG-21 jet on display at a museum I went full shutter-bug and burned though my last roll of film. Do you know they don’t sell that stuff any longer? I’m always the last to get the memo. Anyway, the MiG-21 has been back in the news. It’s still seeing action 63 years after its first flight. Its latest headlines came via last week’s skirmish between India and Pakistan in which an Indian MiG-21 was downed.

Many Cold War veterans will remember the MiG-21, if only by photo or reputation. So let’s go retro today. Let’s make it a Flashback Friday.

The MiG-21 is unmistakable at a glance, even in silhouette. Or, perhaps, especially in silhouette. It’s recognizable by, among other attributes, the pointy intake cone on its nose and the very un-dainty raked slab it uses for a vertical stabilizer. It looks like it’s going fast even when it’s sitting still. Some Soviet weapons had a spooky-looking functionality to them. The MiG-21 was a prime example.

Over 11,000 were built, including some under license in foreign countries such as India. The thing was said to be cheap (by jet standards) and it was fast because it was designed for service as an interceptor.

In this role the North Vietnamese employed the MiG-21 with effect and downed a number of American aircraft in the Vietnam war.

The Chinese built a MiG-21 derivative, the J-7, and an export version, the F-7. Both the J-7 and F-7 are still in service.

There are some things from the Cold War that can cast a shadow over more recent times. Once, for example, when I was on a road trip through an expanse of nothingness in the western U.S., a bright green flash suddenly appeared and streaked through the night sky. It completely startled me.

And I thought: Screaming Mega-Zonker, one o’clock! Battle stations! Fire for effect! Furthermore, screw the speed limit and, come to think of it, there’s no need to save that last bag of beef jerky, either.

After I ripped open the jerky provisions I pulled Red Sovine out of the cassette deck and put in Missing Persons. The latter choice just seemed more appropriate.

It soon occurred to me, however, that the flash must have been a meteor. So, yeah, false alarm. It’s too bad I couldn’t recall my retaliatory salvo of imaginary missiles, which meant that some imaginary enemies were going to get their hair mussed. But nukes were the least of my problems. That’s because I couldn’t find my Red Sovine tape. I rolled the rest of the way to Pocatello nursing a sense of gloom. There’s a certain sentimental momentum that goes with road trips. If you mess things up it’s hard to recapture the mojo.

But where were we? Oh, yeah, retro aircraft. The MiG-21 isn’t the only old warrior still standing watch. As for the U.S. military, it still operates a number of ’50s vintage designs, such as the C-130 and the KC-135. There are other such aircraft so maybe I’ll gin up a list someday.

In the meantime, I will note that the oldest I’m aware of is Boeing’s eight-engine superstar, the B-52 bomber. The B-52 first flew in 1952.

The B-52 rivals the MiG-21 for having memorable and business-like looks. I used to fly regional airline service between Guam and Saipan, and I remember the first time we saw the distinct shape of B-52s on the ramp at Guam’s Andersen AFB.

“Did you see the B-52s down there?” I asked the other pilot.

“Yeah. Cool!”

“I ain’t seen heavy iron like that at Andersen before.”

“I ain’t, neither. Maybe something’s up.”

“Could be. Hey, want some beef jerky?”

“I thought you were saving that for later.”

“I changed my mind.”

Live it up, that’s what I say. Life is short. After all, just because all the other alarms were false doesn’t mean that, well, oh, let’s just forget it.

Anyway, here’s to the old iron, wherever in the world it may be, as it zooms into the headlines, into the future, and even into the past. Kick the tires, light the fires, and, as they might say out west, Giddyup go!

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.
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