updated 11/17/2006 6:43:01 AM ET 2006-11-17T11:43:01

A once-secret program that enabled thousands of U.S. military pilots to practice dogfighting against Soviet-designed MiG fighter jets was detailed Thursday by the Air Force as part of the first public acknowledgment of the program's existence.

The classified air combat training program ran from 1977 to 1988 at the Tonopah Test Range in remote desert scrubland near Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base.

"I guess the mouse is out of the pocket," said Gail Peck, who helped start the program and was its first commander. "After 20-some odd years, you have a little bit of a tingling feeling talking about things that were so closely held for so long."

Officials decided to declassify the program after determining that releasing the information would not harm anyone, and the Air Force announced the move Monday. A news conference was held Thursday at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which has a MiG fighter on display.

MiGs are among the Soviet Union's most famous high-speed jet fighters, known for their speed and agility. Several other countries have produced their own versions.

John Manclark, the Air Force's director of test and evaluation, said as many as 25 MiGs were used in the U.S. training program — MiG-17s, MiG-21s and MiG-23s. The MiGs were flown by Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots.

Manclark would not say where or how the military obtained the MiGs. However, he did say accidents involving the MiGs claimed the lives of two pilots. He said there were about 100 accidents for every 100,000 flight hours, far higher than the average of four accidents per 100,000 hours for Air Force fighter jets.

Trainees would first observe the MiGs in operation and then practice dogfighting with them to hone their skills against MiGs they might encounter in combat situations.

Peck said young pilots were especially impressed when they went up against MiGs for the first time.

"They would pull up beside you in formation, and you could almost see their eyeballs popping out of their heads," he said. "It was that exciting for them."

About 6,800 pilots went through the program, which was code-named Constant Peg after a general's call sign and a commander's wife.

"If you talk to any general officer in the Air Force that is still on active duty and he flew fighters, he flew against the MiGs," Manclark said. "It was that big of a program."

The scale of the program created challenges in keeping it secret.

The MiGs were kept in their hangars or put in the air to avoid detection when Soviet satellites were overhead. When U.S. military pilots in other operations made emergency landings at the airfield, they would have to sign secrecy oaths about what they had seen. And the crews that maintained the MiGs dressed in civilian clothing to avoid drawing attention.

An end to the Cold War, coupled with the expense of the program, contributed to its end in 1988, Manclark said.

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