Artist’s depiction of the downing of KAL 007. Painting by Andrei Zhirnov.
A much more tragic incident with far-reaching political consequences took place on the night of 1st September 1983. Another Korean Air Lines aircraft, Boeing 747-230B HL7442 (c/n 20559, f/n 186) bound from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage on flight KE007 with, strayed from its designated airway R-20, which passes just 28.2 km (17.5 miles) from the Soviet (Russian) border at the closest point, and entered Soviet airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula. For 2.5 hours the aircraft flew illegally over a piece of Soviet territory packed with sensitive military installations, and of course it was immediately assumed to be a spyplane, and orders were given to intercept the intruder.
First, a MiG-23 scrambled from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy/Yelizovo airport; it caught up with the target but soon had to give up the chase after running low on fuel. The reason was that after Belenko’s defection the top command distrusted the ‘grass roots’, and the fighters were filled up with just so much fuel as to make a defection impossible! No one seemed to realise, or care, that this jeopardised the PVO units’ ability to fulfil their mission and that one bad egg does not automatically mean that the whole box of eggs is bad.
Anyway, the 747 left Soviet airspace for a while. However, as it continued in a straight line over the Sea of Okhotsk its course was bound to take it into Soviet airspace again over Sakhalin Island. By then the Soviet PVO system was in turmoil and orders had been issued to shoot the aircraft down, should it intrude again – which it did at 0616 hrs local time. At 0542 hrs and 0554 hrs two 777th IAP Su-15s scrambled from Sokol AB near Dolinsk in the south of Sakhalin Island; the fighters were armed with a pair of R-98 missiles and a pair of UPK-23-250 cannon pods each. One of the Su-15s, with Maj. Ghennadiy N. Osipovich at the controls, intercepted the airliner, which was cruising at 11,000 m (36,090 ft). Osipovich tried to contact the crew by radio and fired warning shots from his cannons, ordering it to land. However, the cannon shells were not tracers, and the Korean crew failed to notice them.
Neither the officer at the PVO command centre nor the pilot was able to identify the intruder aircraft because the incident took place at night. (However, even in poor lighting conditions the Boeing 747 is easy to identify by its unmistakable humpbacked silhouette.)
Since the intruder ignored all calls and pressed on towards the border, orders were given to destroy it. At 0626 hrs Osipovich fired both missiles, which found their mark, damaging the hydraulics and the control system (contrary to some reports, the 747 did not break up in mid-air). After climbing briefly to 11,600 m (38,060 ft) the aircraft suffered a complete decompression and began a spiral descent; at 0638 hrs the jet vanished from the radarscopes at 5,000 m (16,400 ft). Moments later it plunged into the Sea of Japan off Moneron Island, disintegrating on impact and killing all 246 passengers and 23 crew. The incident provoked a huge public outcry and a hysterical anti-Soviet campaign led by the USA.
Even today it is not clear what the KAL jumbo was doing for 2.5 hours in a place where it should not have been at all. Was it on a premeditated spy mission, as the Soviet government claimed, or was the incursion a result of a navigation error? There are several possible explanations and facts to support both theories; however, this is a major topic which lies outside the scope of this book.
Of course, such incidents involving civil airliners do not speak volumes for the Su-15’s virtues as an interceptor, being only pages in its service career. Still, according to Soviet fighter pilots’ recollections, the reconnaissance aircraft of the ‘potential adversary’ took pains to avoid coming within the Su-15’s reach. A notable exception is the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird spyplane capable of Mach 3 flight; the MiG-25 was the only Soviet aircraft which was a match for the Blackbird. Of course, the presence of these very different interceptors in the PVO inventory (not counting the Tupolev Tu-128 heavy interceptor, the MiG-23P etc.) increased the overall efficiency of the nation’s air defences. The potent MiG-25P was a complicated aircraft to build due to its welded steel airframe and its operations were hampered by the scarcity of its R15B-300 engines which were also used by the many reconnaissance/strike versions of the Foxbat; conversely, the less capable Su-15 was easy to build and well adapted for mass production as far as airframe, powerplant and equipment were concerned.
A major problem which the Soviet PVO had to deal with was the large number of drifting reconnaissance balloons launched from Western Europe. Frequently, despite all efforts to destroy it, such a balloon would pass over the entire country. Quite apart from their reconnaissance mission, the dastardly balloons presented a serious danger of collision for civil and military aircraft alike. Supersonic interceptors had limited success in combating reconnaissance balloons, primarily because the target usually had a very small RCS; the aircraft’s radar could only detect them at close range, which left very little time for an attack.
Su-15 pilots started their score in the autumn of 1974 when the first balloons were shot down. On 17th October PVO radar pickets detected Yet Another Evil Balloon drifting at 13,000 m (42,650 ft) over the Black Sea and about to enter Soviet airspace. Three 62nd IAP Su-15s took off from Bel’bek AB, making consecutive firing passes at the target; the last of the three managed to shoot off the balloon’s reconnaissance systems pod with an R-98T missile. By far the greatest number of such sorties was flown in 1975 – and it was the most successful year as well, 13 out of 16 balloons being destroyed, including five downed by Su-15s.
It should be noted that most of the intruders the Su-15 had to deal with were anything but the typical targets it had been designed to intercept. As often as not the target was a light aircraft which was no easy target for a supersonic interceptor due to the huge difference in airspeeds. To add offence to injury, the intruding light aircraft usually flew at ultra-low level where the interceptor’s radar could not get a lock-on; this meant the target had to be located visually, and the view from the Su-15’s cockpit left a lot to be desired. This was when accurate guidance by GCI centres proved crucial.
One of the first such incidents occurred on 21st June 1973. At 0836 hrs local time a radar picket of the Baku PVO District detected a target over Iranian territory 300 km (186 miles) south-east of Baku, moving towards the Soviet border at 2,000 m (6,560 ft). Five minutes later a Su-15 took off to ward off the potential intruder; it was soon joined by two more Su-15s of the 976th IAP which was temporarily redeployed to Nasosnaya AB near Baku due to runway resurfacing work at their own base and a quartet of MiG-17PFUs of the 82nd IAP home-based at Nasosnaya AB.
The intruder crossed the Soviet border at 0859 hrs near the so-called Imishli Salient 170 km (105 miles) south-west of Baku, descending to 200 m (660 ft) to avoid detection by radar. This complicated things considerably for the Su-15 pilots; nevertheless, at 0909 hrs the aircraft, a twin-engine Rockwell Aero Commander, was detected and hemmed in, making an involuntary landing at Nasosnaya AB 27 minutes later. It transpired that the pilot and the sole passenger were heading from Tabriz to the small borderside town of Parsaabad but had lost their way in the mountains. Well, well…
It was no success story on 25th July 1976 when a ‘visiting’ Cessna 150 Aerobat got away. At 1913 hrs the low-flying intruder was visually detected by border guards troops on the ground, as the PVO radar pickets had missed it. At 1927 hrs a 431st IAP Su-15TM piloted by Capt. Vdovin took off from Afrikanda AB. Nevertheless, the Cessna insolently landed at the PVO reserve airfield at Alakurtti which was conveniently close at hand, the crew refuelled the aircraft, using a spare can of petrol, and continued on their eastward quest unhindered.
Approximately at 1950 hrs the GCI centre directed the Su-15 towards the intruder (which had not avoided detection altogether). Due to poor weather Vdovin was forced to fly below the clouds; still, he managed to spot the Cessna but then lost it from sight and could not regain contact. Two more Su-15TMs and a UTI-MiG-15 trainer (!) were never even directed towards the target. Thus the Finnish-registered Cessna flew on for another 300 km (186 miles) into the depths of the Karelian ASSR but then came to grief, flipping over on its back during a forced landing in a clearing in the woods. Soon afterwards the local residents found the crew and made a ‘citizen’s arrest’; the Finns claimed they had ‘lost their bearings’.
A huge scandal erupted within the PVO system. The PVO C-in-C issued an order requiring that the pilots’ gunnery training be stepped up; also, to ensure interception of low- and slow-flying targets like this one the QRA flights of Su-15 units was to include an aircraft armed with UPK-23-250 cannon pods by all means. As a result, from 1970 onwards the aircraft in a QRA flight were armed differently (for example, the flight leader carried two missiles (an R-98TM and an R-98RM) and two drop tanks while the wingman had the same complement of AAMs plus two cannon pods.
The mid-1980s saw a dramatic increase in the requirements which modern interceptors had to meet; new long-range AAMs and more capable aircraft to carry them were developed. Thus the Su-15 was relegated to second place in the PVO inventory, making way for such aircraft as the world-famous Su-27. Some of the Su-15s were transferred to the Soviet Air Force’s tactical arm (FA – Frontovaya aviahtsiya), exchanging their natural metal finish for a green/brown tactical camouflage. However, the Su-15 was obviously no good as a strike aircraft, since it lacked the appropriate targeting equipment; actual operations soon confirmed this and the type did not gain wide use with the FA.
Like its precursors, the Su-15 was never exported; however, it did see overseas deployment. The 54th GvIAP deployed to Poland about once in every two years to practice operations from stretches of highway used as tactical strips; nothing of the sort existed in the USSR. For instance, in the summer of 1975 a squadron of the 54th GvIAP (by then equipped with the Su-15TM) was on temporary deployment at Słupsk.
The demise of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Su-15’s service career in Russia. Even aircraft with plenty of airframe life remaining were struck off charge and scrapped in keeping with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) limitation treaty. The Ukraine hung on to its Su- 15s a little longer; the last of the type remained in service with the 636th IAP at Kramatorsk and the 62nd IAP at Bel’bek until 1996.
The Su-15 logically completed the line of Sukhoi’s delta-winged interceptors that started with the Su-9, and its withdrawal was a bit hasty since the aircraft still had development and upgrade potential. It may have benefited from the installation of a new radar with ‘look-down/shoot-down’ capability, for instance. As a result, in 1976 the PVO fighter units started converting en masse to the MiG-23M which had this capability. This aircraft was, in turn, succeeded by the MiG-31M and the Su-27P representing a new generation of interceptor technology.