To prepare fighter pilots for combat, you require a convincing stand-in for the enemy. That"s the aggressor squadron.


In every the dogfights of world War I, one pilot earned the respect and also fear that his adversaries: Manfred von Richthofen. The Red Baron.

A war hero in Germany, Richthofen eventually declared upwards the 80 confirmed victories, making him the war’s most dangerous pilot. But it to be his personal mantra that long survived after ~ his death in activity in 1918. It"s a basic dictum that helped overview fighter pilot maintain for years beyond: “The quality of the box matters little. Success relies upon the man who sits in it.”

Richthofen’s wisdom echoed v the ages, and also on one specific day in the mid-1990s, it gone into the mental of retired U.S. Navy captain Jim “Guido” DiMatteo. An aggressor pilot and also instructor at the U.S. Navy Fighter weapons School, popularly recognized as Topgun, DiMatteo was in a morning briefing through a pair the Topgun students that were around to fly your F-14 against DiMatteo. The cocky Tomcat pilot asked him which aircraft he’d it is in flying. As soon as he replied he’d it is in in an A-4 Skyhawk, the student cheekily said he’d “shut down one of his engines to do it a fair fight.”

“I take it that together extra motivation,” DiMatteo says.


The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk to be a diminutive, subsonic single-engine attack aircraft designed in the 1950s, but DiMatteo knew what it could do. The planned to sucker the overconfident Tomcat pilot into trying to revolve his 22-ton F-14 through the nimble five-ton Skyhawk.

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“Given the Tomcat pilot’s comments, I decided to show ide to him,” DiMatteo says. “I baited him right into a near one-circle fight, which was to my advantage... He fell for it and also I gunned that quickly and also mercilessly... I beg your pardon is the many embarrassing method to lose a fight for any fighter pilot. Let’s simply say the lesson was learned.”

Modern day adversary or “aggressor” pilots simulate the capabilities and also behavior the potential enemies, from the aircraft they fly to the weapons systems and tactics they employ. Whether active military pilots or exclusive contractors, the simulation they carry out fuses people, hardware, and also software to teach U.S. Pilots exactly how to loss all possible threats the an enemy will likely throw in ~ them.

Inside the foe Cockpit

The real Topgun was formed during the Vietnam war out the concern around the relative lack of success that U.S. Pilots had versus North Vietnamese MiGs. The core of what would come to be Topgun to be a group of eight pilots and radar intercept police officers led through young Lt. Cmdr. Dan Pedersen.


In 1968, the Pentagon provided Pedersen the formidable task of developing a type of graduate college for fighter pilots. The setup was to teach them not only just how to gain the best out of their jets but likewise how come demonstrate progressed dogfight techniques to their very own squadrons.

Pedersen required to produce a course and begin a course at marine Air station Miramar (now a naval Corps facility), north of san Diego, California, in 60 days. But he had no resources—no money, classroom, no mechanics, and also no airplanes.

“It was really much a pickup video game at first,” retired navy captain RC “Dawg” Thompson said Popular Mechanics. Thompson went through Topgun as a college student in the late 1980s, reverted as an instructor in the at an early stage 1990s, and also served together commanding officer in ~ the school in 1996 and also 1997. “They had to scratch and also claw come put every little thing together.”

Pedersen begged and borrowed A-4 and also TA-4 Skyhawks native a surrounding Miramar squadron. Brad Elward, the author of a forthcoming book on Topgun’s history, says the Skyhawk was a great trainer aircraft due to the fact that it required little maintenance and was reasonably cheap come operate. Together the an initial classes obtained underway, the instructors provided F-4s to teach students how to push the Phantoms past their limits.

They invited various other fleet pilots in F-8 Crusaders, A-7 Corsairs, and A-6 Intruders to fly versus their classes. Occasionally they invite Air pressure pilots from nearby units flying F-106 Delta Darts and F-86 Sabres to tangle through their students.


A U.S. Air force pilot access time a MIG-17 with 20mm shells indigenous his F-105D Thunderchief pilot during a dogfight end North Vietnam, June 3, 1968.
But in Vietnam, American pilots faced the MiG-17 and MiG-21. Pedersen and his new Topgun instructors were eager to gain any type of insights or endure with these planes for this reason they might teach fleet pilots exactly how to defeat them.

Soon, Pedersen gained his wish. Around the same time Topgun was established as the U.S. Marine Fighter tools School, the U.S. Had secretly been flying a MiG-17 and a MiG-21 derived from Syrian and Iraqi pilots who’d defected year earlier. The Defense Intelligence firm kept them at the wait Force’s top-secret air base at Groom Lake, Nevada, well-known as Area 51. Pedersen recalls flying the fearsome Russian fighter:

“When I first saw the 17 increase close, my immediate feeling to be trepidation... Sitting on its stubby nose and leaning over the windscreen come look right into the cockpit, ns was impressed for far better and worse. It was old, rough, simple, heavy, and also beautiful in that is way... I gained six or 7 flights in the adversary plane. It to be agile to it is in sure, but I quiet felt like I to be flying a really fast anvil... The airplane was so quick to run out the gas, even without using its afterburner, the you had to make her moves and score your points fast. You had to learn the rhythm of just how to struggle it. If friend did, you might be dangerous.”

But with only a couple of MiGs in U.S. Hands, Topgun aviators knew they required convincing stand-ins for the Soviet fighters. The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and also its TA-4 trainer sibling, through their tiny size and also impressive agility, could pass for the MiG-17. The similarly-sized Northrop F-5 Tiger II, through its supersonic performance, make a fairly good replacement for the MiG-21.

Airmen Trent Smith and Karla Lallo business an F-5E Tiger II assigned come the navy Fighter Weapons college at NAS Miramar.
Throughout the 1970s and also 1980s, one expanding variety of Navy and also Air Force evil one squadrons verified that such light, inexpensive airplanes, taken on by talented aggressor pilots, were great teaching tools. It was “the guy in the box” that really mattered, and faithful foe simulation to be the only means to boost that valuable asset.

U.S. Air pressure F-5Es flying through a Soviet Mig-17 (far left) and Mig-21 (far right) that the 4477th Tactical evaluation Squadron.

High Fidelity

As military aggressor squadrons became more established, the desire for more realistic threat aircraft brought about a secret project well-known as consistent Peg, and also the establishment of the USAF 4477th Test and also Evaluation Squadron in 1977. The new aggressor unit, referred to as Red Eagles, would fly a squadron of MiGs.

With MiG-17s, 19s, 21s, and MiG-23s acquired through miscellaneous clandestine method throughout the world, the Red Eagles came to be the many realistic modern-day aggressor pressure in the world. In the 1980s, lock would add MiG-27s, 29s, and Chinese Shenyang F-7Bs come the lineup.

Thousands of Navy, waiting Force, and also Marine Corps pilots were exposed to these Soviet-designed plane in share exercises end the restricted areas of the USAF’s Nevada test ranges. Navy and also Marine Corps squadrons also operated one exotic Israeli aircraft, the IAI Kfir C.1. Designated F-21A when flown by United says pilots, it to be fast and made a good MiG-23 surrogate.

A 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron MiG-21 “Fishbed” paris over the Nevada desert. Red Eagles plane flew v U.S. Markings till 1983 once Soviet-style colors and markings were applied.
In the summer the 1976, around 30 mile northwest of Nellis Air force Base in Nevada, now-retired U.S. Marine F-14 Tomcat pilot and also later two-star admiral Jim “Rookie” Robb and also his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to be aloft in their Tomcat straining to watch an adversary fighter.

“At around eight miles, I can see a single speck the black with the windscreen,” Robb told writer Steve Davies in his book Red Eagles: America’s mystery MiGs. “I was struggling to recognize the period from the outline. It was still too small.”

Rookie Robb and his backseater had no idea that consistent Peg and also the USAF’s 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron was being formed, and also that castle were around to connect a Red Eagles MiG-17 end the Nevada desert. Together the U.S. Air force Museum’s history of the Red Eagles confirms, “the true nature of this devoted training was often kept native prospective students till the critical minute.”

After shrugging turn off his incredulity, Robb do the mistake of gaining into a horizontal turning fight v the MiG. In brief order, the small Russian fighter (piloted by one American) turned inside him and also virtually “gunned” the large Tomcat. Prefer many prior to him, Robb learned that successfully killing MiGs in the real civilization meant acquisition the hit three-dimensional.

By so late 1987, Topgun started receiving F-16 Fighting Falcons, especially the F-16N, an devil version the the USAF F-16C. The Air force itself began bringing F-16As and later Cs into its aggressor squadrons in 1988. The Navy also introduced restricted numbers that F-14s to its evil one squadrons and also F/A-18 Hornets.

But with the Cold War easily fading in the late 1980s, and also defense drawdowns in the 1990s, plenty of aggressor squadrons wouldn’t survive. Cultivate pilots for combat with a well-equipped devil was no longer a high priority. Topgun and also the air Force’s 57th soup remained, however aggressor squadrons and aircraft severely decreased in number.


While the military’s resources for evil one training had actually been cut, the didn’t median the need had actually vanished. Businessman stepped in to to fill the gap.

In 1994, previous USAF F-16 pilot Jeff “JD” Parker created a company called Vortex to provide specialized air services to the military. That bought a pair the ex-Royal Danish Air force Saab 35 Draken fighters with which Vortex sustained Navy research study and advance projects.

By 1997, the navy was using Vortex’s Drakens to paris simulated cruise missile profiles to test its ships’ waiting defenses. Later, together Vortex got Israeli Kfirs, electronic warfare simulation and limited Red wait operations followed. As the agency expanded, it to be renamed Airborne Tactical benefit (ATAC) and also headquartered in Newport News, Virginia.

As ATAC began taking ~ above a variety of Red air missions, it acquired ex-Swiss Air pressure Hawker Hunters, ex-Israeli A-4N Skyhawks, Aero Vodochody L-39ZA Albatros trainers, and more recently, ex-French Air pressure Dassault Mirage F1s.

Today, ATAC and companies favor Draken International, optimal Aces, wait USA, and also Tactical wait Support, in ~ (TacAir) operate adversary training and simulation aircraft. Your fleets encompass Mirage F1s, Atlas Cheetahs, basic Dynamics F-16s, Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, MiG-21s, MiG-29s, Dornier Alpha jets, Aero Vodochody L-159s, BAE Hawks, and Northrop F-5ATs, to surname a few.

Building ~ above his endure at Topgun, RC Thompson launched TacAir in 2005, becoming its CEO and later including Jim DiMatteo as Director of Communications.

TacAir at this time has a $106 million contract to carry out airborne threat simulation because that the Navy. As soon as he began the company, Thompson purchase MiG-17s and also equipped them with sophisticated electronic jammers. Soon, TacAir upped its video game with the acquisition of 25 ex-Jordanian F-5s in 2013.

A Tactical Air support F-5 AT paris over mountain Diego and Coronado, California, during an plane carrier strike team training practice off the southern California coast.
Fitted v TacAir-developed radar, open-architecture software, a fiber optic backbone, and Garmin digital cockpits, the company’s F-5AT jets look old-school. But their future sensor blend capability will give them F-35-like qualities.

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“We’re flying approximately with one old third-generation platform v fourth-generation-plus effects... It will soon have actually fifth-generation capability,” says Thompson. “Today’s evil one aircraft room not necessarily forced to it is in fighters. You require a safe, efficient platform come push innovative sensors through the air.”

As piloted fighter aircraft proceed to advance, adversary pilots proceed to teach Richthofen’s lesson. Even if it is flying and fighting in one F-22 Raptor flush with thrust vectoring and the latest digital capability, or sitting in the cockpit that a rudimentary Fokker triplane, it’s the pilot that matters.

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