Throw a Nickel on the Grass and Have a Doughnut

Unfortunately, the subject of the film in the title has nothing to do with actual donuts and a whole lot to do with the kind pictured below, the circular aiming sight of a jet fighter, referred to as a “doughnut” in pilot vernacular. Specifically, the film documents the United States Air Force and Navy findings after borrowing a MIG-21 fighter jet for testing. The recently declassified film Throw a Nickel on the Grass and Have a Doughnut (National Archives local identifier: 428-MV-10634) is a fascinating look cold war intelligence gathering as well as the story of how the United States was in a position to test a state-of-the-art Soviet jet.

Gun Camera view of aerial combat
Gun Camera view of aerial combat

To begin, we must understand how the MIG-21 fell into western hands in the first place. On Aug. 16, 1966, Iraqi Air Force Capt. Munir Radfa defected to Israel in a MiG-21 jet fighter. After the revolution of 14 July 1958 that brought Abd al-Karim Qasim to power, Radfa was one of five pilots trusted to fly the MIG-21 for the Iraqi Air Force. In 1964, agents from Israel’s intelligence agency, MOSSAD, were contacted about Radfa, who had become frustrated by his lack of promotion due to his Christian heritage as well as his excitement about life in the west. A MOSSAD agent convinced him to travel to Europe where he met with Israeli agents. Radfa was offered $1 million, Israeli citizenship, and employment in return for defecting. Radfa also insisted that his family be smuggled out of Iraq, which Israel agreed to.

The opportunity to defect came on August 16, 1966. On the morning of his defection flight, Radfa’s MIG was fitted with a 108-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, ensuring that he would have adequate fuel for the 560-mile flight to Israel.  After climbing to 30,000 feet, Radfa departed Iraqi airspace with no problem, but while flying over northern Jordan, his plane was tracked by Jordanian Air Force radar. He was intercepted by two Royal Jordanian Air Force Hawker Hunters which attempted to make radio contact. Although they got no reply from Radfa, they allowed him to continue on, presumably because of the Iraqi insignia on his aircraft. The Jordanians contacted Syria but were reassured that the plane belonged to the Syrian air force and was on a training mission. When Radfa’s plane reached Israel, he was met by two Israeli Air Force fighter jets, which escorted him to a landing at Hatzor Israeli Air Force Base. Later at a press conference, Radfa said that he had landed the plane on “the last drop of fuel.”  The Israelis made good use of their chance to evaluate a frontline fighter jet of their adversaries, conducting numerous test flights evaluating the jet’s strengths and weaknesses. It was also flown against Israeli Air Force pilots and planes, developing tactics to disseminate to IAF pilots about how to best deal with the aircraft during future engagements. 

In May of 1967, CIA director Richard Helms began to argue that since Israel had made such good use of the jet, perhaps the United States could also benefit from its own evaluation of the aircraft. In January 1968, Israel agreed to loan the jet to the United States. In exchange, Israel began to receive new F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft, at the time America’s frontline, state-of-art jet fighter, which the U.S. had been reluctant to sell to the Israeli government. Once the craft was transferred to the United States, it was re-designated the “YF-110” and taken to the military’s Groom Lake Testing Area, better known as Area 51, to be tested against contemporary American aircraft. The following film was put together to summarize what the Defense Intelligence Agency, working with the United States Air Force and Navy, discovered about the MiG’s capabilities and limitations that could be used against it in future engagements. The MiG was flown against contemporary U.S. military aircraft of similar type in tactical combat conditions and simulations to gain as much information as possible from the aircraft.

The film features several of the pilots that test flew the MIG-21 for the project: USAF pilot Lt. Col. Joel B. Jordan and USN Cmdr. Thomas J. Cassidy. Both pilots summarize the purpose of Project Have Donut, mainly the tactical exploitation of the MiG-21. The pilots note that over 100 sorties, or operational flights, were flown to test it against its western peers. Several of the flights were purely evaluational and several more for what was deemed “electronic intelligence gathering.”

The pilots then launch into the characteristics of the MiG-21. Lt. Col. Jordan describes it as a “rugged, small, highly maneuverable, extremely reliable Mach 2 aircraft capable of high-G and low speed flight…the aircraft has an excellent zoom capability at max power and impressive turn capability due to its thrust to weight ratio.” The pilots also point out features using a large and small model that are displayed around them.

They then give a description of the one man crew compartment, called the cockpit in aviation parlance, calling it small and narrow with rather crude flight instruments by western standards. In fact, in order to obtain better data to help pilots, the U.S. added American flight instruments, and over the shoulder cameras to the cockpit to photograph the instruments in flight. They also described the engine as rather slow, taking over a minute to achieve takeoff power. Another notable issue was that the forward visibility through the windscreen was hampered by the bullet proof glass while rearward visibility was hampered by the seating and positioning of the pilot, as illustrated for the film. Another illustration depicts the engine, fuel tanks, and high pressure air bottles that take up over 80 percent of the aircraft. All this being said, they still note that it’s a high performance jet with a Mach 2 top speed at high altitudes.

The test pilots then move on to size comparisons between the MiG and its American contemporaries. First they noted that the small size of the MiG proved to be a problem for pilots in other aircraft, and that it took some time before they were able to successfully locate and track the aircraft. The comparative performance evaluations found that below 25,000 feet with the F-4, the frontline U.S. fighter at the time. It also found that the MiG could outturn the F-4 when the two aircraft were attempting tight turns. The F-4, however, had superior acceleration and power. The same could be said for the MiG and the F-8, one of the U.S. navy’s primary fighter jets of the time. They also run through a list of other Air Force and Navy aircraft that flew opposite the MiG, including the F-100, 104, and 111 aircraft from the USAF and the A-4, 6, and 7 and the findings of those flights. It’s also noted that from intelligence reports gathered from Vietnam as well as observations from various other engagements across the globe, that the capabilities of the MiG aircraft was dependent on who was in control and that the aircraft was often not used to its full potential. The pilots reiterate that U.S. training and procedures were still valid and that American fighter and attack aircraft stood up quite well to the soviet jet. The pilots conclude by summarizing what they have learned living with the MiG for 90 days and 100 test flights. They compliment the engineering achievement of the aircraft and its rugged dependability, noting that in many instances they were able to complete three flights a day with only a thirty minute turnaround time and that during that timeframe they only needed to change the tires, brakes, the oil filter, and correct three minor electrical issues.

Chalkboard with summary of strengths and weaknesses of the MiG-21

They conclude by summarizing what they have learned and provide tips and insights into how to combat and interact with MiG-21s in future engagements.

Sources and further reading