Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on September 6, 2012
Skimming low over the water north of Hokkaido, Lt. Viktor Belenko had managed to elude his flight and turn south toward Japan. The other aircraft realized — too late — that he had turned out and dove away. For sometime they had likely tried to give chase, but the distances were too great and their fuel wouldn’t be enough. By careful bookkeeping and overstating his fuel usage on the previous mission, Belenko reasoned that he had enough fuel to make it to freedom at Chitose Air Base in Japan — at least he hoped so. It would be close. He also expected some reaction from his Soviet superiors, perhaps some trick to get him to turn around, some promise, some message…. And then, as he was racing along just meters above waves, he heard a female voice call him softly through the headsets, “Comrade, you are dangerously low on fuel….”
Prelude to Defection
Lt. Viktor Belenko was one of the selected few, in the high status role of being a MiG fighter pilot. He received extra pay, access to special stores, housing for the elites, a car and much more — yet he found the promises to be lacking and the benefits to be hollow. Loyalty was tempered with cynicism. And the daily ideological lessons were repetitive and obvious propaganda. Where the propaganda films of how bad things were for blacks in America were shown, Belenko instead noticed that there were big cars in every driveway. How bad can it really be there if even the blacks have Cadillacs, he asked himself. He considered the multi-year waiting list he was on for a much smaller car. He found himself questioning — and he later put it succinctly:
“I questioned the Soviet system by using my technological knowledge. I said okay U.S. is so bad how come they send man on the moon and bring him back? (Russians could send men on the moon in only one way.) If U.S. is so bad how come they’re building best fighters in the world? If U.S. is fallen apart how come they have more Nobel Prize winners than progressive communist society? At same time I could not ask anyone those questions. If I had, at that time (in late 1960s), I would have ended up in mental institution. So I made my conclusion that U. S. is not that bad.”
Yet where others lived in quiet cynicism, Viktor Belenko instead played the game very well. He was promoted and advanced to jet fighters, then trained in the top Soviet interceptor — the MiG-25, codenamed in the West as the “Foxbat”. It was the most secret, most advanced Soviet jet interceptor ever built. And with it, Lt. Belenko would make his dash to freedom.
The Escape Plan
Lt. Belenko was assigned to the 513th Fighter Regiment, a part of the 11th Air Army within the Soviet Air Defense Force. His fighter regiment was based at an airfield at Chuguyevka Air Base, Primorsky Krai, in the far eastern edge of Siberia. One of the regiment’s missions was to attempt to intercept the SR-71 Blackbirds that would sometimes overfly Vladivostok. Only the MiG-25 could conceivably make a run at a higher flying SR-71 and, if they managed to get into position, possibly even shoot one down. It was a cat-and-mouse game played out large, in which the Americans guessed the essential capabilities of the MiG-25 and planned flight profiles accordingly, while the Soviets tried various types of intercepts and deployments to be lucky enough to wind up in the right position — even once — to take a shot.
For America, getting a MiG-25 in hand was a key intelligence goal — until the USAF could analyze the MiG-25 Foxbat’s capabilities, they would never know exactly what the plane was capable of. For Lt. Belenko, the MiG-25 was therefore the key to his future — he planned on delivering one to the Americans, along with the flight manual, and then assist in training the USAF on how to fly the plane. In return, he hoped for political asylum and a new identity in the West.
The Flight to Freedom
On September 6, 1976 — today in aviation history — Lt. Belenko took off with his flight of MiG-25 for a regular training mission. On such missions, to ensure that no Soviet pilot could defect and make it to Japan (the nearest airport in the Free World), the fuel levels were always carefully recorded and limited. Unbeknownst to the others, however, Lt. Belenko’s aircraft had a bit of extra fuel on board — he had over-reported a fuel burn from the day before and managed to ensure that he would fly the same plane twice. Thus, the fuel levels were topped off to a level that would allow him to make it.
He memorized the headings to fly and the distances. He memorized the runway configurations. He worked out exactly when and how he would suddenly break and dive away to the south, leaving the rest of his flight quickly, unaware of his departure — even a few seconds at top speed would put him out of range of the pursuing fighters, which, being the same type, could never close the gap. It had all worked out according to plan.
Yet now, far to the south and running on fumes, he could see the coastline of Japan in the distance. The voice that came over his headsets was a woman’s. It was a trick, he thought, they are using a woman on the radio to convince me to return. She began again, “Comrade…” What was this? Then he realized it sounded like a recording, the exact same intonation and words a second time. The voice was the equivalent of a low fuel warning light, but more sophisticated — he realized that the designers at the Mikoyan-Gurevich Bureau had elected to use a woman’s voice to ensure that the pilot took notice. It was the last joke of the Soviet system, a final, if inadvertent trick of circumstance.
Minutes later he flew his approach right into the departure end of the runway not at his intended destination, the military airbase at Chitose, but rather at Hakodate, Japan, a civilian airport. He had missed — but it did not matter, except that the runway at Hakodate was too short to handle a high speed landing of a military jet. As he came in, he narrowly missed a collision with a departing commercial airliner before he touched down. Without sufficient runway to stop, he stood on the brakes before he overran the end, blew a tire and finally came to a stop just short of hitting an antenna system. With a sigh of relief, he unbuckled and hit the switch to open the canopy. On board, there were just 30 seconds of fuel left in the tanks. The mission was perfect — and it would be his last in a Soviet MiG-25.
When a small group of Japanese officials approached, carrying a white flag in an attempt to peaceably establish the first contact, he handed them a note he had pre-written in English, “Quickly call representative American intelligence service. Airplane camoflauge. Nobody not allowed to approach.” It didn’t do much good — the Japanese officials took the note and retreated; they didn’t speak English. Soon, a translator made an attempt at the language and botched the job. The Japanese version incorrectly read that the plane was wired to explode with a bomb. Needless to say, it took a little while for things to get sorted out.
Though he would never get to help train the USAF’s pilots in how to fly the aircraft (the Japanese were afraid of reprisals from Moscow and so disallowed the Pentagon from taking out or flying the aircraft), he would be extensively debriefed. The USAF would learn that the MiG-25 Foxbat was not as capable or well-engineered as they had earlier believed — they also uncovered its limitations, flaws and true capabilities. It was an impressive airplane, no doubt, but it was still no match for American equipment.
In the end, President Ford, in his final year in office, granted Belenko political asylum. When the Carter Administration took office five months later, the new President hoped to improve relations with the Soviets and ordered the Pentagon to return the plane. Others tried to secure the plane for more testing and then display at the National Museum of the USAF at WPAFB in Ohio — they were overruled. The military complied fully with the President’s wishes, but also did so in its own way. The plane was disassembled, every nut and bolt analyzed, and left apart in minute pieces. It was then packed into 30 separate crates and shipped back. The unwritten message was clear — Dear Russian Bear, the US has everything we need anyway so here are the pieces to prove it. With best wishes, the Secretary of the Air Force. PS: Nice plane, but nothing we need to keep.
Four years later, through a special bill in the US Congress, Viktor Belenko was granted US Citizenship. For a time, he was given a new identity, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, he used his real name once again. When asked about his motivation to defect in an interview on the twentieth anniversary of his flight to Freedom (in 1996), Viktor Belenko was philosophical, relating to a book he had read while in the Soviet Union, Howard Fast’s Spartacus — “You can’t keep a free soul in a cage. You can’t keep eagle in a cage.” To this day, he lives and works in the USA, consulting on the Russian military and the thinking of the Russian leadership.
Defections of pilots from behind the Iron Curtain were rare events and each one was celebrated in the West, not only for the front line Soviet hardware that it brought to the USA for analysis but for the freedom it allowed the defecting pilots. From a philosophical perspective, each defector was a signpost on the highway that confirmed the West’s understanding and the popular assumption of the true conditions within the Soviet Union. From the first defector to the last before the flag went down on the Soviet Union, the stories of death-defying escapes from behind the Iron Curtain to freedom remain some of the most inspiring in history.
Who was the first pilot defector to escape from behind the Curtain, in what airplane and on what date?