MIG Pilot Defector

Written by Michael Ariano


mig-25 Fighter Plane

Remember that scene from the movie “The Hunt for Red October” when the National Security Advisor Jeffery Pelt played by Richard Jordan tells Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) that if the gigantic Soviet Typhoon submarine defects to the United States that the Russians will “want it back…this isn’t some stray pilot with a MiG…” It’s a safe assumption that pilot he was referring to was Lieutenant Viktor Belenko, whom on September 6, 1976, defected from Soviet Russian when he flew his MiG-25 to Japan. The information received from the MiG-25 was what then CIA director and later President George H.W. Bush said was an “intelligence bonanza,” and proved the West, especially the United States, had nothing to fear from Soviet technology but everything to fear from Soviet efforts to achieve global military superiority. It also proved a political system that deliberately calculated lies not just to its citizens, but even its military school, seeking answers to all kinds of questions.


Soviet Pilot Lieutenant Viktor Belenko,

But also from a young age he questioned his Marxist-Leninist teaching. When he was a child, he saw zeks (prisoners sent to work in factories) and was told they were a product of an inherently defective capitalistic environment before the Russian Revolution, but he thought, the zeks were born into communism, so how could these be criminals? A few years later, the new Soviet Premier Nikita Krewschev became convinced corn would solve the country’s agriculture problems. Instead, it did the opposite, and lead to a shortage of grain which in turn lead to a shortage of cows, which lead to a shortage of milk, bread, butter, and meat. But the radio continued to blare forth statistics insisting agriculture was producing ever-larger quantities of meat, milk, butter, and bread. Belenko though, “If we have so much bread why am I standing in line at 4am, hoping I can buy some before it runs out? There has been no milk for five days and no meat for two weeks.” As he searched and tried to understand, his reasoning exposed troublesome contradictions between what he saw and what he was told. Viktor graduated high school, with honors, in 1965. He wanted to fly and looked toward a Soviet program called the Voluntary Society for Assistance to the Army, Air Force, and Navy (DOSAAF in Russian acronym). DOSAAF had a branch in the city of Omsk and Vikor traveled there in June 1965. He worked in a factory by day and took classes by night. In the spring of 1967, a colonel came to solicit applications for the Soviet Air Defense Command flight training program. Viktor applied and the DOSAAF chief forwarded his application. Two weeks later he was accepted.

Classes ran 12 hours a day 6 days a week. Even in training political officers stated the inherent injustice and totalitarian nature of American society, a political officer declared that the Communist Party was terribly persecuted in the United States. But this plunged Blenko into ever deepening doubts. “Wait a minute. You mean they have a Communist Party in the United States; they allow it? Then why don’t we allow a capitalist party in the Soviet Union? Eventually he found himself in the city of Grozny near the Caspian Sea flying the L-29 jet trainer and then moved to Armir to study and instruct in the MiG-17 in Salsk, 100 miles north. But the living conditions in Salsk were abysmal, another reason which slowly disenchanted his thought of Soviet Russia. There was nothing but flat lands as far as the eye could see, and dust got into everything except when it rained and turn the whole place into mud. “This is outrageous, the Party must correct this.”

Belennko graduated flight training in July 1971. That same year he married his wife, Ludmilla and two years later had a son Demitri. But the living conditions took a toll on his family. He requested a transfer, which was a huge fight in and of itself but by 1975 he arrived at a new base, Chuguyeyka in the Far East to fly the MiG-25.

The MiG-25, known in Russia as project 84, was born in 1958 out of a need by the Soviet Air Defense Forces to reach altitude fast to intercept and destroy American bombers like the B-47, B-52, supersonic B-58 Hustler, the projected B-70 Valkyrie, and eventually the SR-71 Blackbird.* The MiG-25 was never intended to be a traditional fighter due to its lack of maneuverable, extremely high speed, poor cockpit visibility, and rapid used fuel. However, it was not lost on the Soviets that it could also be a fast reconnaissance platform.


Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat

*Though the Valkyrie project was canceled in 1961, the MiG-25 was too far into its design to be canceled but the next year the SR-71 (A-12) was designed, thus a different plane for the MiG to intercept. Russia began designing the MiG-25 in mid-1959 but it was not easy to build. Due to the high altitude and speed requirement, different types of metals were used like titanium (selected for its strength and high-heat resistance), aluminum alloy, and tempered nickel which made up 80 percent of the plane. Its first flight was on September 9, 1964, and quickly broke altitude records.

The MiG-25 was powered by two Tumansky R-15B-300 afterburning engines with 16,500 lbs of thrust each. For armament it was fitted with four radar guided AA-6 “acrid” missiles (able to engage targets up to 50 miles away) or infrared R-40T missiles, other air-to-air missiles could be carried as well. Max speed was Mach 3.2, though that was unsustainable, so Mach 2.8 was more realistic. Range was limited to 1,075 miles without external fuel stores. Operational status of this new Foxbat type was achieved in 1972 and production would run until 1980.

The US believed the MiG-25 to be an agileedicated, and deadly fighter leap and bounds a head of anything they had in their inventory. Some of this belief may have been due to four Foxbats stationed in Egypt which monitored Israeli activity over the Sinai in the early 1970s including the Yom Kipper War. Israeli McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantoms could not catch the Foxbat, and the MiG-25s operated with impunity. In response the US designed the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, not fully understanding the capabilities of the Foxbat thinking it was a more of a fighter than an interceptor. The United States simply didn’t know, it was a mystery.


MiG-25 with its two enormous Tumansky R-15B-300 engines

So, wouldn’t it be great if the US could get its hands on one? That is where Vikctor Belenko came in. When he arrived at Chuguyevka, the conditions were worse than Salsk. The streets were unlighted, unpaved, and even the houses were unpainted. There was an outhouse and open garbage pits which buzzed with flies and worms. When Viktor attended an introduction meeting the base commandant said drunkenness was widespread and constant, several times soldiers refused to eat their food and wrote to their parents about the horrible conditions. In the previous two months the number of military personnel more than quadrupled but no provisions were made to expand housing, dining, or other facilities. Nearly 200 men were jammed into barracks adequate for 40. There were two water faucets in each barracks and the toilet was outside. The men received a change of underwear once a week and were allowed to go into the village for a bath every ten days because there were no bathhouses on base. There were no recreational facilities except for one television set. Men were forbidden to listen to records or radio, draw pictures, read fiction, or lie and sit on bunks during free time to drink (even though there was no place to sit). But they still drank, alcohol intended for planes was the one limitless commodity available. At one point dysentery disabled 40% of the regiment, 20% deserted, there were two suicides and almost a mutiny. Another horrible fact of Chuguyeyka was the pilots did not fly much through May until August, thus their skills diminished. In August a pilot flew a MiG-25 and got vertigo, he ejected but the MiG was lost. To top it all off Vickotr’s marriage continued to deteriorate; Ludmilla cried every day.

So, on Sunday September 6, 1976 Belenko woke up and looked at his wife and son for what would probably be the last time. When he arrived at his base Sakharovka, underneath a cloudless sky he climbed a 14ft ladder, and knew that within 6 hours, at age 29, he could be dead. After start up and taxi he released the breaks at 12:50 pm and climbed to 24,000ft. He was scheduled to enter training area 2 and began an expected wide 360-degree turn, at the completion of the full circle he’d either have to proceed with the programed training or his defection. He thought if you go its forever. He choose the latter, and gradually descended to 19,000ft then jammed the stick forward and plunged into a power dive toward the valley leveling off at 100 feet where he’d be safe from SAMs and AAA. Within 2 minutes he was over the Sea of Japan and pushed the emergency button which broadcast that his plane was on the verge of crashing. He was so low that twice had to avoid fishing boats. Eventually he climbed to 20,000ft to save fuel and flew toward Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. At 1:11pm he first appeared on Japanese radar.


Chuguyevka Air Base

At 1:20pm the commander of the Chitose air base ordered F-4 Phantoms to intercept an unidentified object. Vicktor counted on an interception so he could be guided to base, but at 1:26pm the MiG disappeared from radarscopes because Belenko began to descend, so no interception took place. At 1,800 ft he found clear sky but no interceptors and no airbase. He flew inland over a mountain range still shrouded in clouds. He calculated 16-18 minutes of fuel. He could bail out but Belenko wanted to preserve the MiG-25. At 1:42pm a red warning light flashed; he had 6 minutes of fuel. Then a voice popped up saying “caution, 068! Your fuel supply has dropped to an emergency level.” He pointed the plane down into the clouds below.

Flying on fumes and barley maintaining airspeed, Belenko slide the MiG-25 downward. He frantically looked and saw an airfield, it wasn’t Chitose but Hakodate, a commercial airport 90 miles southwest and runway a third shorter (6,000ft), but it didn’t matter, he was going to land and keep his plane and himself enacted. He touched down at 220 knots, slammed on the brakes, and deployed the drag chute. The MiG buckled and vibrated, the tires burned, screeched, and skidded, but despite his best efforts he kept on screeching down the runway and quickly saw the end approaching. There was no doubt what would happen, he careened off the end of the runway, knocked down a pole, and stopped after 800 feet. He had about 30 more seconds of flight time left. When he opened up the cockpit, he fired two warning shots from his pistol and waited only a few minutes before Japanese officials reached his plane. They placed guards around the airplane and took Blenko in for questioning. Belenko told them he wanted political asylum in the US. He was in Tokyo the next day and an American named “Jim” from the CIA spoke to him. It was decided the Japanese would keep the MiG-25 for 30 days then return it to the Russians. This was plenty of time for the US to inspect the Foxbat and determine its strengths and weaknesses, and the US was pleasantly surprised to learn that their technology was still ahead of the Russians. (Nevertheless, US Defense Secretary Schlessinger stated the MiG-25 was a sufficiently potent weapon, and the Russians were quick to find out just how much the West actually knew. It was determined that the Americans ran the engines, measured the aircraft’s infra-red signature, and also made a detailed analysis of the systems and avionics, including the radar, and the structural materials. Not knowing how to operate the equipment, the Americans had damaged some of it and had to make hasty repairs (foreign fuses and resistors were discovered in the radar set). (in an online article a person wrote in saying the MiG-25 was dismantled and flown in a C-5 Galaxy to Area 51 and flight test, before being disassembled and flown back to Japan. )


Hakodate, Japan Airport Runway

As Viktor and “Jim” conversed over the next few weeks the Russians amassed a propaganda and diplomatic resource to recapture him. They accused the Japanese of using narcotics so he would “voluntarily” stay. He met with a Soviet official who told Viktor they knew he did not act voluntarily, that he lost his way, and the Japanese drugged him. The KGB official said his wife, father, mother and aunt all sent letters; but Viktor thought “how could they get them together so quickly from the far reaches of Russia? As the KGB official read the letters Belenko stood up and looked him in the eyes with unflinching contemp. Wait a minute I’m here voluntarily, nobody drugged me, I want political asylum in the United States. The KGB official shouted, “you know what happens to traitors! One way or another we will get you back!


MiG-25 At The End Of The Hakodate Runway

But Vicktor never went back, he flew with Jim to the United States and landed in Dullas. There a Marine named Nick, who was born to Russian parents, would be his guide (really a bodyguard). In the DC area he saw all the lies the Soviets told him about the United States. There were no long lines, people had enough money to buy clothes they wanted, and even crime was not widespread. Viktor was driven to a store to buy clothes, but first stopped at a supermarket and saw the mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables, sausages, cold cuts, cheese, milk butter eggs and a meat counter. He thought, “if this were a real store in less than an hour a woman could buy enough food to feed a whole family for two weeks. But where are all the people, the crowds, the lines? Ah that proves it. This is not a real store, he though this was an elaborate fake. Viktor bolted into a television store and fooled. A color-TV cost a worker 5 months wages because of difficulties with transistors and solid state circuity. He though the clothing store was also fake and, on the ride, back, Viktor said to Nick and Peter, “I congratulate you that was a spectacular show you put on for me.” Peter said, “I give you my word this is common.” “Can the average American worker buy what we saw? “Yes, if he’s’ willing to pay more than a black and white set.


Viktor Belenko's Military Identity Document

The CIA restricted Belenko’s debriefing to four hours a day. He learned English, went on excursion to observe American life, and sometimes flew on the weekends. He observed an Air Force Base and saw the great commodities where the airman lived; he met the base commander and asked him how they can afford to pay all this to take care of the airmen; the base commander replied, “how can we afford not to.” “Exactly” he thought that’s just what Belenko was trying to tell the Party. Everything the Soviet government told him about capitalism was a lie, Vicktor continued to see other parts of the United States and was awestruck at the amount of wealth and freedom enjoyed by its citizens.

The MiG-25 went on to be one of the most advanced and technologically superior airplanes in history. It fought with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War (where it shot down an F-18 Hornet piloted by Lt Cdr Scott Speicher on January 17th, 1991 and in which a base in Iraq was named after the American pilot) and was able to outrun American fighters like the F-15 and F-16. It became the only airplane to shoot down an American drone in 2002 over Iraq and was used Syria in its conflict