Viktor Belenko: The Pilot Who Stole a Secret Soviet Aircraft

Sep 22, 2021 1 comments

Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko woke up early in the morning as he had done everyday for the past four weeks, to watch the approaching dawn and look out for signs that might reveal how the day would progress. The weather was magnificent, and from the very moment he saw the fiery disk of the rising sun, Belenko was certain that this would be the day.

As a pilot with the 513th Fighter Regiment, 11th Air Army, of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, Belenko had flown countless missions and lived on the edge of death for far too long to be afraid of flying. But today was different. Belenko felt the muscles of his arms, legs, and stomach tightened in anticipation of the mission that lay ahead. In six hours, Belenko calculated, the twenty-nine-year-old pilot would know whether he would be dead or be reborn in a new world.

Russian Air Force MiG-25PU. Photo: Leonid Faerberg/Wikimedia Commons

After a brief exercise in the yard outside the apartment houses for officers at Chuguyevka Airbase, in Primorsky Krai, Belenko listened to briefing officers meticulously review that day’s flight plans. Planes from the squadron were to fly eastward over the sea, where Navy ships would launch target drones at which the planes would fire missiles. Belenko's squadron would then proceed to other exercise areas, practice intercept approaches, and then, relying solely on instruments, return to the base, and land. Belenko sat motionless feigning attention while his mind raced contemplating his personal flight plan. He computed times, distance, speed, fuel consumption, courses, points of probable intercept, evasive maneuvers, deceptions, and all emergencies he could imagine.

After the briefing, Belenko went through a routine physical exam, where a physician took the pilot’s temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Belenko worried whether his body would betray him. HIs blood pressure was high, but Belenko had readied an explanation: “This morning, when I saw the sun, I went out and ran like a deer, more than six kilometers. I'm probably still a little winded.”

The doctor nodded, and Belenko joined the other pilots waiting to jump aboard one of the most powerful fighter jets in the world.

Viktor Belenko’s Military Identity Document. Photo: CIA/Wikimedia Commons

The MiG-25 was the Soviet’s newest aircraft and a closely guarded secret. It was built in response to a series of airplanes the US brought into service, from the F-108 fighter plane to the SR-71 “Blackbird” and the massive B-70 bomber. Weighing at twenty-nine tons, the twin tailed, swept-back wings aircraft with a long rocketlike nose was powered by two thunderous engines, each capable of pushing out 11 tons of thrust, enough to break the sound barrier three times over. Its radars were so powerful that they could kill a rabbit at a thousand meters. In 1967, the MiG-25 set a world record by achieving a speed of 2,981 kilometers an hour, and in 1973, it eclipsed altitude records by soaring to 118,900 feet. The air high up was so thin that the engine flame died out.

The MiG-25 was constructed from an alloy containing eighty percent nickel and steel, as opposed to titanium that the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was made of, because titanium was expensive and steel was both cheap and plenty. Steel was also easier to work with and could be welded by hand. The downside of using so much steel was an increase in weight, which had to be compensated with enormous wings. The long wingspan of the MiG-25 was misinterpreted by US intelligence as an indication of super maneuverability, in other words, a formidable dogfighter. In reality they were simply meant to keep its heavy airframe in the air. In fact, much of the MiG-25’s capabilities were unknown and this made it one of the most feared plane in the West. The Soviets were so secretive that each MiG-25 was equipped with a self-destruct button. Pilots were instructed that should they be forced down or have to eject themselves from the aircraft outside the Soviet Union, they must press the button before leaving the cockpit.

This was the plane Viktor Belenko planned to steal on September 6, 1976, to defect to the West.

Viktor Belenko’s knee-pad notebook with flight data and a military identity document. Photo: CIA/Wikimedia Commons

Belenko climbed a fourteen-foot metal ladder and settled into the green cockpit. At exactly 12:50 PM, he released the brakes holding back the plane, and within seconds soared into the air. To conserve fuel, needed for the 400-mile-trip to Japan, Belenko switched off the afterburners prematurely. He also ascended more slowly than usual, taking five minutes to reach 24,000 feet instead of the normal four. After flying for a while in formation, Belenko broke away and let the plane glide downward, hoping the descent would be so gradual the radar controllers would not at once notice. At 19,000 feet, Belenko suddenly jammed the stick forward and plunged the MiG into a power dive towards the floor of the valley, before levelling off at 100 feet. Belenko thundered through the valley and in two minutes shot out over the Sea of Japan. He pushed a button which started broadcasting a continuous beacon only used in emergencies, and forty seconds later turned off the signal. Anyone listening to the distress frequency would have assumed that Belenko had crashed. Simultaneously he shut down his radar and all other equipment, including his radio, whose electronic emissions might be tracked.

To evade detection by Soviet radar, Belenko had to fly low. Twice he had to swerve to avoid hitting fishing vessels. Only when he perceived that the waves were also getting higher did he climb to 150 feet. But at such low altitude, the engine was consuming fuel at an alarming rate, and Belenko feared that he would never make it to the airbase in Hokkaido, Japan. Risking detection Belenko was forced to climb up into the clouds.

After 30 minutes of flying, Belenko figured he was nearing Japanese airspace and throttled back his engines to indicate lack of hostile intent and facilitate interception. Belenko hoped he would be intercepted by Japanese Phantom fighters and be escorted to a safe landing field. The Japanese had already detected Belenko’s aircraft on their radar screen as a small blip, but Phantoms and MiGs scrambled to intercept him in the sky were unable to locate the intruding aircraft among the clouds. Eventually, Belenko figured that he would have to land himself and began hunting for a possible place to land, such as a stretch of flat land or a highway. With fuel running low, Belenko made a dash for land, and just as the clouds cleared, Belenko saw an airfield ahead. Belenko came in too fast, and despite deploying the drag chutes, the MiG overshot the runway, knocked down a few antennas and came to a stop with a busted landing gear.

When news of Viktor Belenko’s defection reached Soviet Union, the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo announced that the Soviet Union possessed “an inviolable right to protect its military secrets”, and thus the secret military aircraft and Belenko be returned to them. Many Russians tried to get to the plane, but Japanese officials shooed them away.

The MiG-25 Viktor Belenko defected with at the Hakodate airport.

The CIA couldn’t believe their luck. After years of squinting at blurry satellite photos, here was a MiG-25 nearly intact, with a helpful technical manual book that Belenko had smuggled along. The plane was soon dismantled and exhaustively examined. The Americans learned that the Soviets had not built a super fighter the Pentagon had feared, but an inflexible aircraft full of flaws.

Even though the MiG-25 could technically fly at Mach 3, such high speeds put enormous pressure on the engines and the airframe itself. Flying at Mach 3 for more than a few minutes would disintegrate the engines. MiG-25 pilots were warned never to exceed Mach 2.8. The aircraft also had a low maximum acceleration rating of 2.2 g with full fuel tanks, with an absolute limit of 4.5 g. One MiG-25 inadvertently pulled 11.5 g during a low-altitude dogfight training, and the airframe was bent out of shape. Its huge engines consumed so much fuel that the airplane’s combat range was ridiculously low at only 299 kilometers. Even at subsonic speeds, its cruising range was too low to be an effective combat aircraft. The on-board electronics were based on vacuum-tube technology, representing an aging technology.

Once the Americans had learned everything there was to know about the plane, the Japanese packed the dismantled MiG-25 into 30 wooden crates and shipped it back to the Soviet Union. They also charged the Union $40,000 in shipping cost, which the Soviets never paid.

Viktor Belenko’s defection and the compromise of the MiG-25 drove the Soviets to develop a new supersonic interceptor aircraft, the MiG-31, which continues to be operated by the Russian Air Force and the Kazakhstan Air Force. But it was not the end of the story for MiG-25. Despite its shortcomings, the Soviets built more than a thousand MiG-25s. Algeria and Syria are still flying them today, and India had great success with it during Kargil war, before the aircraft was retired in 2006.

Meanwhile Viktor Belenko received a warm welcome in America. Like many visitors from the Soviet Union before him, Belenko was flabbergasted by his first visit to an American supermarket. Belenko, who was familiar with only Soviet meat markets with smell of spoilage, of unwashed bins and counters, of decaying, unswept remnants of food, was surprised at how clean, organized, and plenty everything was. He was convinced the CIA had put up a show for him.

“If this were a real store, a woman in less than an hour could buy enough food in just this one place to feed a whole family for two weeks. But where are the people, the crowds, the lines?” Belenko asked.

“Here were perhaps 300 suits, along with sports jackets, overcoats, raincoats hanging openly on racks, piles of trousers and shirts lying openly on counters, ties within the reach of anybody passing; even the shoes were out in the open — and all this was guarded by only a few clerks,” Belenko observed.

Viktor Belenko eventually became an American citizen in 1980. He married a music teacher from North Dakota, Coral, and fathered two sons. He reportedly works as an aerospace engineer.

# John Barron, MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko
# Stephen Dowling, The pilot who stole a secret Soviet fighter jet, BBC
# Wikipedia


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