1991: Foxy Woxy Wows Paris

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The break-up of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union was a new era in history, but for those of us who had specialized in writing about Soviet aircraft -- an exercise in open-source intelligence rather than reporting -- it was a change in career. Three years after the first crack in the wall -- the appearance of the MiG-29 at Farnborough -- Russia brought more new aircraft to Paris, including the A-40 amphibian (on AW&ST's cover), and Sukhoi's Mikhail Simonov and Gulfstream's Allen Paulson held a press conference to announce a joint supersonic business jet project. The star exhibit, though, was the MiG-31 Foxhound long-range interceptor.

The MiG-31 was not brand-new -- work had started in the 1970s and the aircraft at the show was eight years old -- but that made its technology more impressive, with the first production, airborne electronically scanned array radar, the ability to carry up to six Vympel R-33 missiles and a higher speed and altitude capability than any Western fighter. Remarkably, the D-30F6 engine -- on display in the Russian pavilion -- was actually derived from the D-30 that powered the already elderly Tu-134, with an afterburner and hot end heavily protected by thermal barrier coatings. "A ceramicist's dream," one US engineer called it. 

As AW&ST's editor Don Fink reported, another then-unique feature of the MiG-31 was a datalink system that allowed four fighters to share targeting data, with the leader connected to a specially developed ground network. As a result, the formation could be spread 200 km apart, sweeping a 900 km swath for targets. What the Russians did not say at the time was that this feature was partially based on their supersonic anti-ship missiles: these weapons were designed to operate wolfpack-style against U.S. carrier battle groups, with one weapon popping up to medium altitude on approach to identify the carrier and other high-value targets and designating other missiles to attack. 

The MiG-31 had been primarily designed to stop low-flying B-1s and B-52s armed with cruise missiles, but -- as Fink reported -- it was still intended to intercept high-speed, high-flying targets. Officially, there were no such things by June 1991, the SR-71 having been retired the previous year. But oddly enough, a few years later, MiG pitched an export version of an improved MiG-31, the MiG-31FE, with the claim that it could defeat targets flying at Mach 6 and 140,000 feet -– and named that target Aurora.

The full-scale MiG-31 upgrade, the MiG-31M, was unveiled a few months after the 1991 show, but never passed the prototype stage. A less ambitious version, the MiG-31BM, finally entered service in the last couple of years, and the existing fleet is being modernized, with the airframes (still largely made from welded steel, like its MiG-25 ancestor) being overhauled for another 15 years of life. On September 17, the Russian air force reminded everyone that the Mach 2.83 aircraft is still the world's fastest and highest-flying fighter by sending two MiG-31BMs, supported by tankers, to accompany Tu-95 bombers on a foray towards the Alaska coast. Its performance -- a 450-mile radius of action, on internal fuel, at Mach 2.35 -- is still impressive.

► Read the report in the June 24, 1991 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

Details of Soviet MiG-31 Revealed in First Western Airshow Appearance

Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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Aviation Week & Space Technology marked its centennial in 2016. Here, we highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history.

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