A Requiem For The Original Soviet Rat Rod

As I write this now, two of the biggest constituent states of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Ukraine and Russia, are preparing to go to war. But as these two former siblings stare each other down, one lightning-fast weapon definitely won't be used – the fearsome MiG-25 "Foxbat."

After protestors overthrew the pro-Russian government of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia has moved to protect what it considers its own interests. Namely, the Crimean peninsula, and furthermore, the rest of Ukraine. While Russia preserves the pretenses of democracy, with the Kremlin giving "permission" for President Vladimir Putin to use troops to invade Ukraine, in reality Putin has done as dictators do, and given permission to himself to invade whoever the hell he wants.

And no, it's not just permission to "protect Russian interests in the Crimea," whatever that means. The actual text of the statement from the Kremlin gives permission for Putin to "for use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine." No geographic qualifiers there.

It also doesn't help that Russia's Chief Shit Disturber and actual Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, is going around accusing Ukrainians of spreading swine flu on Twitter.

Things are not looking good, to use a bit of understatement.

But while the Russian invasion of Ukraine might be undertaken using fleets of attack helicopters and broken-down armored personnel carriers, the old laser-quick holdover from the Soviet Union that served in many of its descendant Air Forces, the MiG-25, won't be there.

The Ukrainian Air Force retired its MiG-25 long ago, but the Russian Air Force just decommissioned their last examples, the reconnaissance MiG-25R model, in December. There are scattered reports of MiG-25s being used in the services of Azerbaijan, Algeria, Armenia, and Syria, but as those countries can barely afford the fuel to get the titanium-and-steel bird off the ground, it might as well be good as dead.

But what a crazy rat rod it was.

A Requiem For The Original Soviet Rat Rod

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Roman Bazalevski

For those unfamiliar with the term, a "rat rod" often looks old, it looks beat up, it looks like it was never designed to be pretty. At the very least, it looks like it's way past its prime.

And yet to be a true rat rod, it's got to have a ridiculously powerful engine under the hood. Because you just got to go fast.

I love rat rods.

Which is why I love the MiG-25. It's not particular pretty, and every example looked unkempt, full of grime and exposed rivet heads. But it had a huge engine.

Two of them.

Work on the MiG-25 began in the early 1960s in the Soviet Union's Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau. Faced with the daunting prospect of American B-70 Valkyrie bombers screeching over the horizon at thousands of miles an hour, the Soviets needed a plane that could intercept them and stop them before they unleashed their nuclear payloads.

And because the prototype for the American bomber, the XB-70, could easily travel at three times the speed of sound, the new interceptor needed to utilize speed above all else.

Fighter planes designed today blend a mix of maneuverability, stealth, and advanced avionics to make a balanced weapon.

The MiG-25 was not that. To say the plane was shaped like a bullet is to do it a disservice. It's shaped like a hypersonic space needle.

A Requiem For The Original Soviet Rat Rod

Photo credit: Alex Beltyukov

Imagine taking the biggest engine you could find, and building a plane around it. Now make that plane have two of those engines. That's basically what I'm talking about. And because the Soviet Union was plagued with constant material shortages and the plane itself presented unique challenges, the result was absolutely incredible.

Mikoyan-Gurevich, the plane's designer and builder, originally wanted to make most of it out of titanium. That was a good idea, as titanium is light, strong, extremely heat-resistant, and the Soviet Union was the world's main source of the metal in 1964, when the plane first flew. The only problem was that titanium was still incredibly expensive, and difficult to work with. Which is a huge problem in a place that doesn't have the greatest manufacturing standards.

So titanium was used only where absolutely necessary, and the rest of the aircraft was made mostly out of a nickel-steel alloy. It was mostly welded together, but if an exposed rivet-head wouldn't adversely affect the top speed, it was left as-is. Your mother's Lexus, this was not.

The radar didn't use any of those fancy-shmancy semiconductors being used in contemporary American planes, either, sticking to good old fashioned, ridiculously overpowered vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes are more likely to survive the pulse from a nuclear explosion.

Oh, and they had a weird unintended side effect, at least if only anecdotally. Rumors tell of the radar throwing off so much energy it would kill rabbits hanging out near the runway.

And that's just the bits that didn't help it go fast.

The whole sled was powered by two massive Tumansky R-15 turbojets, with equally massive intakes up front, for better feeding the engines the ridiculous amounts of oxygen they craved.

A Requiem For The Original Soviet Rat Rod

Photo credit: Alex Beltyukov

The Tumansky R-15 is one of the most ridiculous engines ever made, and the information available about it is barely believable. Each one produced more than 24,000 pound-feet of force at afterburner, and the MiG-25 had two of them. It could propel the plane to over 90,000 feet, and to Mach 3.2.

One small problem with going over Mach 3, though. If the Tumansky was an animal, it would be a voracious mutant. Push it above three times the speed of sound, and it became an unstoppable, rabid force of nature, continuing to consume fuel and spit out fire until it eventually tore itself apart.

Theoretically, the MiG-25 could top Mach 3.2, but the throttles were redlined at Mach 2.8 in what seems like a desperate act of self-preservation by the plane. Above speeds of 2,000 miles per hour, the Tumansky engines began to transform. The sheer power of air rushing into the intakes at such speeds totally overwhelmed the fuel pumps. No longer capable of limiting their own flow, fuel would just be dumped into the combustion chamber at an uncontrollable rate. Air would begin to speed past the turbine compressors, turning the engines into ramjets.

A pilot would almost certainly be killed, sitting at the front of what had effectively become a runaway train, miles above the rest of humanity.

All that is theoretical, of course. In reality, the plane began to eat away at itself before it came close to its own top speed. Before the air could bypass the compressors, the compressors themselves would become so powerful that they would literally start to cannibalize other parts, sucking in bits and pieces until everything would just disintegrate.

The MiG-25 was tracked by Western radars near its top speed, but only once. In March of 1971, an Egyptian Foxbat was tracked by the Israelis going Mach 3.2 over the Sinai desert.

The pilot managed to land the plane, but the engines were destroyed.

Because the original foe of the MiG, the Valkyrie, never made it into production, the MiG-25 never truly found its niche. Owing to its great weight and relatively high wing loading, it couldn't turn very well, so it wasn't much of a dogfighter.

It did alright in a reconnaissance configuration, though, loaded up with cameras and other equipment, and the MiG-25R reconnaissance variant was the final form in which it saw use. It served all over the world, often in the desert. Saddam Hussein loved his so much, that when the Americans invaded in 2003, he buried his under the sand, in the hopes that they wouldn't fall into his enemies' hands.

A Requiem For The Original Soviet Rat Rod

But now, the Foxbat is soon to be no more.

It's a good thing that Russia won't be using the interceptor and spy plane over Ukraine, but it's a bit strange to see this crazy machine sit unused forever. A heavily modified and modernized variant, the MiG-31, lives on, but even that will be retired sooner rather than later.

It has no true replacement.

But while it lasted, the MiG-25 was a crazy Soviet rat rod.

Topshot credit: Alex Beltyukov