Staff Writer (Updated: 7/18/2016):
Mikoyan-Gurevich was formed in the relatively early stages of World War 2 by the Soviet government. The firm's initial production offerings became the modestly-successful MiG-1 and MiG-3 piston-engined fighters that helped to stave off the German advance into Russia. While not an overly spectacular aircraft - utilizing a basic conventional light airframe with a very powerful engine - it gave Mikoyan-Gurevich some level of successful to build a foundation on for developments to come. By the end of World War 2, the firm had produced their first production jet-powered aircraft in the MiG-9 "Fargo". While unspectacular in itself and very prone to accident, the Fargo was still produced in nearly 600 examples and set the stage for the firm's next success in the smallish MiG-15 "Fagot".
The jet-powered, swept-wing MiG-15 appeared as something of a surprise to UN pilots in their straight-wing Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars and Republic F-84 Thunderjets. It was not uncommon for UN piston-powered aircraft to square off against these silver-colored nimble machines as well. The MiG-15 proved more than a handful to her adversaries - especially when in control by Soviet airmen - to the point that a counteragent - the North American F-86 Sabre - was brought in to force a political and military "tie" to the conflict, an "uneasy peace" more or less. Over 12,000 MiG-15's were ultimately produced with a further few thousand more coming under license outside of the Soviet Union.
The MiG-15 was bettered in the development MiG-17 which was already in the works during the Korean War and made operational in the Soviet inventory in 1952. Though not utilized in the Korean conflict, it went on to see notable action in the Vietnam War and elsewhere. While an improvement over the MiG-15 in most regards, the MiG-17 was still a subsonic performer - that is, operating under the mach 1 speed ceiling. Production still topped over 10,000 examples.
Everything changed with the arrival of the much-improved MiG-19 "Famer" appearing in 1955. The aircraft was a second-generation, twin-engined jet fighter with similar wing sweep and gave Soviet airmen their first taste of sustained Mach 1 flight. Over 2,000 of the type were manufactured with license production occurring in China. Like the MiG-17 before it, the MiG-19 also later fought in the skies over Vietnam.
The Call Comes In
In the fall of 1953, the Soviet government issued a requirement for a lightweight Mach 2-capable interceptor fighter for its Frontal Aviation branch of the Soviet Air Force. The interceptor would have to make use of a radar-ranging sight for gun accuracy and have the capability to retrofit missile armament once the technology was made available while sustain an impressive rate-of-climb (this was to be an interceptor after all). Mikoyan-Gurevich jumped at the challenge and held something of an advantage in that the firm had already been experimenting with varied wing forms, airframes and available engines by this time.
A complex system such as the MiG-21 was born from a variety of prototypes and developmental flight models. This began with the Ye-1, a design study fitting the Mikulin (Tumansky) AM-11 turbojet engine. This spawned another "one-off" model in the Ye-50, essentially a Ye-1 mounting the AM-9Ye turbojet engine with a liquid-propellant rocket booster for added thrust. The Ye-2 became another design left waiting for an AM-11 engine to become available and was therefore fitted with the AM-9B as found on the MiG-19 "Farmer" instead. The Ye-2 also introduced large ventral strakes towards the rear of the fuselage. Another Ye-2 design was given the now-available AM-11 turbojet and became the Ye-2A. Two delta-winged designs became the Ye-4 (fitting the AM-9B turbojet) and the Ye-5 (fitting the AM-11 turbojet). All five of these prototypes were ordered built (Ye-1, Ye-50, Ye-2a, Ye-4 and Ye-5) and would feature the identifiable conical assembly in its nose intake, a single vertical tail fin, integrated ejection seat system, tricycle undercarriage and similar internal components.
The Ye-2 was ahead of the group in terms of development and went airborne on February 14th, 1955 with good results, albeit a little slow than expected. The similar Ye-4 followed suit on June 16th, 1955, though this prototype fitted a near-triangular, small-area pointed pair of delta wings along with conventional tailplanes along the empennage sides. These thin wings forced the design to take on "blisters" above and below the wing roots to fit the upright main landing gear wheels. Performance of the Ye-4 was only marginally improved over that of the preceding Ye-2. The Ye-5 and Ye-50-1 both went airborne on January 9th, 1956. Confident that production would soon follow on either design, Mikoyan-Gurevich had two company designations reserved for the two models - "MiG-21" went to the tailed-delta wing version while "MiG-23" was reserved for the swept-wing version (this MIG-23 not to be confused with the later development of the MiG-23 "Flogger").
It should be noted here that true delta-wing forms generally did not make use of tailplanes as their main wing systems of large surface area replaced the need for such. Delta wings offered excellent lift but poor maneuverability. Additional inherent benefits could include in-wing fuel storage and multiple underwing hardpoints when compared to a conventional swept-wing aircraft. Of particular note here is that MiG had little to no experience in dealing with delta-winged products to this point - hence the interesting approach in their design of the Ye-4 prototype. While the Ye-4 did use a delta-wing approach, these implements were smaller-area assemblies and the design still made use of tailplanes - these all-moving surfaces by the way.
Versions of each aircraft (the swept- and delta-wing prototypes) later appeared over the Moscow Tushino airfield during the annual Aviation Day celebration on June 24th, 1956. Western observers were quick to note the types and NATO immediately assigned the swept-wing version the codename of "Faceplate" while the tailed-delta design received the codename of "Fishbed".
Development continued at Mikoyan-Gurevich. Several more prototypes were produced with redesigned portions as dictated by testing. In 1957, three Ye-6 prototype appeared sporting the tailed-delta wing of the Ye-5 but with clipped wingtips and a redesigned nose cone (this among other changes throughout). Flight testing began on May 20th, 1958 of the Ye-6. the program hit a delay when prototype Ye-6/1 was lost to engine failure, resulting in the death of the test pilot from injuries received in the crash. The pilot valiantly tried to restart the engine to no avail.
Ye-6/2 did away with wing boundary layer fences in early prototypes (and these as found on the MiG-15, -17 and -19 before it). Instead, smaller wing fences were installed in their place to help with stability. Additionally, cannon armament was now officially installed in the Ye-6/2. The Ye-6/3 was the first prototype to feature a centerline fuel tank to help increase the design's endurance - a product limitation. The prototypes officially bested the required maximum speed goal of Mach 2 by hitting Mach 2.05. Production forms soon followed and a public appearance of the finished aircraft occurred in 1961, greeting many in the West who were convinced all along that the swept-wing MiG-23 "Faceplate" would become the Soviet Union's next frontline fighter.
The MiG-21 began deliveries to the Soviet Air Force in late 1957 and continued into 1958. The type was officially introduced as the MiG-21F in 1959. In the Soviet/Russian inventories alone, the aircraft served for decades until a viable air superiority replacement was finally found in the MiG-29 Fulcrum, to which led to the gradual retirement of the MiG-21 throughout the 1990s.
Production of trainers and fighters ran from 1959 through 1985 and was split between three major plants in Gorkiy, Moscow and Tbilisi. Gorkiy produced no less than 5,278 systems while Moscow accounted for 3,203. Tbilisi delivered some 1,660 aircraft. The official total topped 10,158 aircraft while overall totals ranged up to 11,496.
The Missile Solution
The missile solution for the MiG-21 was solved when an American AIM-9 Sidewinder was passed to the Soviet Union by way of China in their fight with Taiwan. The missile was dissected (reverse engineered) and eventually became a Soviet "rip-off" in the K-13 (NATO codename of AA-2 "Atoll"), an infrared homing short-range air-to-air missile. The missile promptly entered service with Soviet forces in 1960 and became standard use on the MiG-21 and the later swing-wing MiG-23 "Flogger" as well as the Sukhoi Su-17, -20 and -22 fighters.
The MiG-21 production Fishbeds were little different that the preceding prototype designs. Wings were of the tailed-delta configuration with both pairs swept and mid-mounted to the fuselage. The main wings were thin and near-triangular shapes with clipped wingtips. It was expected that later forms of the aircraft should be able to accept missiles as the technology became more entrenched and this was eventually made possible with the arrival of the AA-2 "Atoll". As such, the Fishbed had a set of pylons added to her wings and provision was eventually made for the aircraft to field up to four such missiles. While all other early MiG fighters (the MiG-15, -17, and -19) all made use of heavy boundary layer fencing along the dorsal side of the wings, the MiG-21 did away with these large implements and instead settled on two smaller fences placed just ahead of the ailerons - one to each wing. The fuselage was a near-circle form, capped at the front with a nose-mounted cone placed within the nose intake. Ductwork ran along the sides of the cockpit to feed the single engine. Like other MiG fighters before it, the fuselage was also designed to be detached at the base of the empennage for ease of maintenance and repair.
The cockpit in earlier Fishbeds offered up relatively good visibility thanks to its lower spine. Later models incorporating a raised spine from the rear of the canopy to the base of the vertical fin obscured the rear view but increased endurance. Also in original Fishbeds, the single-piece canopy was hinged to open forward while later models were issued a new two-piece system hinged to the right. The canopy was designed to eject with the ejection seat and pilot, affording the pilot a set time of protection while in the air (the canopy was directly connected to the top of the seat) and ultimately detaching itself from the pilot and seat altogether. Framing was apparent in the front windscreen and reminiscent of earlier MiG fighter designs.
The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement and featured a conventional layout of two main landing gears and a nose wheel system. All systems were single-wheeled with the nose wheel noticeably smaller than the main wheels. While the nose landing gear recessed forwards and up into the fuselage, the main landing gears operated in a distinct way. The struts folded forward and angled while the wheels remained upright during the entire process. Due to her thin wings, the main gears had to retract into the underfuselage sides. As such, slightly noticeable blisters above and below the wing roots became a standard design feature in the Fishbed.
Standard armament most always comprised of cannons mounted in an underfuselage pod rear of the forward fuselage but ahead of amidships. While early Fishbeds were fielded as such, others either deleted one of the cannons or deleted the entire armament station altogether. The addition of wing pylons in later production models expanded the Fishbeds role into both air superiority and ground strike making for one true multi-role performer.
The empennage was dominated by the large vertical tail fin, integrated at the base by the pipe fairing (or the raised spine in later models) running from the rear of the cockpit to the start of the swept-back fin surface. The vertical wing was of relatively large surface area and held the rudder. The horizontal tailplanes were all-moving and situated slightly above and behind the main wings and highly swept with slight anhedral (some models sporting anti-flutter devices at the tips). The large ventral strakes were clearly visible in all later development Fishbeds and ultimate production systems. The large single engine exhaust port completed the rear fuselage details.