60 Years in the Air – The MiG-21 in 27 PHOTOS

A Romanian MiG-21 Lancer C firing S-5 rockets during a training exercise.Photo Mihai Zamfirescu CC BY-SA 3.0

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 was a Soviet supersonic jet fighter and interceptor.

In many ways, the MiG-21 was a symbol of the effective and simple Soviet system of designing combat aircraft. Due to its high efficiency, about 11,496 MiG-21s were built, making it not only the most-produced combat aircraft since the Korean War, but also the most widely produced supersonic jet of all time.

It has been used by approximately 60 countries, and is still being used today by more than 20 countries, 62 years after its first flight in 1956.

Soviet-built MiG-21 in U.S. national markings. This is a left underside view of one of twelve Soviet-made Mig-21 Fishbed-C aircraft flown by the US Air Force for air-to-air combat training.

The creation of the MiG-21 was nothing radical–it began along the lines of existing MiGs such as the subsonic MiG-15 and 17, and the supersonic MiG-19.

Its development began in 1954 under Mikoyan OKB, based on the design of a prototype which was named the Ye-1. The Ye-1 prototype was reworked into the Ye-2 after indications that it had an inadequately powered engine.

Both of these and other earlier prototypes were swept-winged, but the successful prototype of what would become the MiG-21 was a delta-winged aircraft, with the designation Ye-4. It made its maiden flight on 14 February 1956.

Croatian Air Force MiG-21.Photo Tomislav Haraminčić CC BY-SA 4.0

The MiG-21 had the characteristics of both a fighter and an interceptor, and was the first Soviet aircraft that successfully combined the two. It was a very simple and cheap, yet effective design, typical in the Soviet-era military.

A MiG-21M of Taktische Aufklärungsfliegerstaffel 47 (Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron 47) at Preschen. 23 August 1990. 611 became 22+89, but never flew in the Luftwaffe and was scrapped.Photo Rob Schleiffert CC BY-SA 2.0

Its light weight allowed it to achieve Mach 2 speeds with a relatively low-powered afterburning turbojet, making it comparable to the American Northrop F5 Freedom Fighter, Lockheed F-4 Starfighter, and the French Dassault Mirage III.

A Bulgarian MiG-21 taxis at Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria during a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Bulgarian Air Force.

Like many interceptors, the MiG-21 had a short range. This was worsened by the placement of its internal fuel tanks ahead of the center of gravity, making it statically unstable. The Chinese variants improved this aspect.

A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PF “Fishbed” in Vietnamese colours at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Its delta wings were excellent for fast climbing, but their drawback was usually a rapid loss of speed during any form of turning in combat.

Cockpit of a MiG-21 of the Czech Air Force. Photo Petr Kadlec CC BY-SA 2.0

The MiG-21 used a tail with the delta wings that would enhance the safety of lesser-skilled pilots at the extremes of the flight envelope.  The technology of the MiG-21 was inferior to that of contemporary designs, but in the hands of a skilled and experienced pilot, the MiG-21 was a tough opponent.

Back of a MiG-21 at the Aviation Museum in Bucharest.Photo Daniel Pandelea CC BY-SA 3.0

The MiG-21 could carry a fair amount of weaponry. Its armament comprised of a twin-barreled GSh-23 23mm cannon, which was standard, with 420 rounds. It could also carry a variety of air-to-air missiles such as the R-3, R-13M, and R-60 for later models. Additionally, it could be armed with unguided bombs or rockets.

Indonesian Air Force MiG-21 in the Air Force Museum

The MiG-21 has been utilized in several locations by numerous countries’ militaries. Its primary operators include the Soviet Air Force, Indian Air Force, Croatian Air Force, and Bulgarian Air Force. In fact, behind Russia and China, India was the third largest operator of the MiG-21. It is still being used by several countries, particularly in the Third World.

Bulgarian Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21bis SAU.Photo Chris Lofting GFDL 1.2

Over the years the MiG-21 has had many variants, each of which came with additional features. The MiG-21F was the earliest version, armed with two 30mm cannons and unguided rockets, and powered by an R-11F-300 turbojet engine. It was followed by the MiG-21F-13, which was improved by an armament of one cannon and two K-13 air-to-air missiles.

Croatian Air Force MiG-21UMD in unique promotional paint scheme.Photo Chris Lofting

Later versions were improved with radar technology, Rocket Assisted Takeoff (RATO), upgraded avionics, more fuel capacity, and Heads-Up Display (HUD).

The MIG-21 N. 4324 of the Vietnam People’s Air Force. This fighter aircraft (driven by varios pilots) alone was credited for 14 kills during the Vietnam War.

The MiG-21 served the Indian Air Force during the Indian-Pakistani War of 1965, establishing aerial superiority over vital areas in the western region of the conflict.

Czechoslovak MiG-21F-13 “Fishbed C”.Photo Deep silence CC BY 2.5

During an aerial faceoff in 1971, the Indian Air Force MiG-21s gunned down four F-104s, two Shenyang F-6s, one North American F-86 Sabre, and one Lockheed C-130 Hercules, all operated by the Pakistani Air Force. Its intimidating performance drew many nations to India for pilot training. By the early 1970s, about 100 Iraqi pilots were trained by the Indian Air Force.

A right side view of aircraft in flight over the desert during exercise Bright Star ’82. The aircraft is Egyptian MiG-21PFM.

During the Vietnam War, the MiG-21 was renowned for its Ground Control Interceptions (GCIs) capabilities. With its RP-21 Sapfir radar, it was a tough adversary against its multi-mission, heavily armed, and more sophisticated U.S. contemporaries, especially during high-speed hit-and-run attacks under GCI control.

MiG-21 at Aleksotas Airport (S. Dariaus S. Gireno), Kaunas (EYKS) Dmitry A. Mmottl CC BY-SA 3.0

During the Vietnam War, MiG-21s were successful in intercepting Republic F-105 Thunderchief strike groups, either gunning them down or forcing them to drop their bomb loads prematurely.

MiG-21s also featured extensively in the Egyptian-Syrian-Israeli battles, where Egyptian MiG-21s met with Israeli Mirage IIIs and F-4s. The MiG-21s suffered heavy losses, as the Egyptian pilots were no match for the highly skilled Israeli pilots.

MiG-21bis Bulgarian Air Force.Photo Chris Lofting GFDL 1.2

The Syrian conflicts, the Iraq-Iran war, and other Middle East conflicts also saw the use of MiG-21s.

The MiG-21 has produced several aces, with Nguyễn Văn Cố of the Vietnam People’s Air Force being known as the most successful, having scored nine kills in MiG-21s.

Romanian Air Force MiG-21 LanceR B

Despite the emergence of the far more advanced MiG-23 and MiG-29, the MiG-21 is still going strong in some countries, with China retaining upgraded versions of the aircraft.

A pole mounted MIG-21.Photo parfaits CC BY-SA 3.0


A Vietnamese People’s Air Force Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21PF deploying its braking chute while landing after a mission. The aircraft is armed with AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles.


Bulgarian Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21UM.Photo Chris Lofting


Croatian MiG-21BisD after being refurbished in 2014.Photo Gojanovic123456789 CC BY-SA 4.0


Hungarian Air Force MiG-21bis on takeoff.Photo Anthony Noble


Indian Air Force MiG-21 (modernized – MiG-21-93?) during Aeroindia 2005, Bangalore, India


MiG-21F-13 cockpit at the Aviation Museum in Bucharest, Romania.Photo Daniel Pandelea CC BY-SA 3.0


MiG-21MA of Slovak Air Forces on display in Liptovský Mikuláš, 2011.Photo Ing.Mgr.Jozef Kotulič CC BY-SA 3.0


Romanian Air Force MiG-21 Lancer C.Photo Mircea87 CC BY 2.0


Two seater MiG-21UM, Polish Air Force, markings of 3rd Tactical Sqn.Photo Radomil CC BY-SA 3.0

Read another story from us: Remember That Time Israel Stole a MiG 21?

Yugoslavian Air Force MiG-21F-13.Photo Belgade Aviation Museum Photo Archive CC BY3.0
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