Flight Lt Victor Belenko was one of the Soviet’s best and most experienced pilots, and in 1972 was assigned to fly the newest fighter in the Communist arsenal: the MIG-25 Foxbat. (Cue ominous music)
In the early 70s the Foxbat was the Boogie Man. It’s radar could see farther than any comparable American or NATO system, and the plane itself could accelerate, cruise, and climb faster, with greater range, than any fighter in the Free World. The CIA, much less the US Air Force, knew precious little about it, and what they did was only picked up from electronic hints by SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance pilots trying to outrun its missiles.
Belenko was the training officer for a MIG-25P fighter squadron outside Vladivostok in eastern Siberia. As such, he was responsible for not only flight instruction but political indoctrination, which he considered a waste of precious time. He was a smart and practical man, and for several years, struggled with the cognitive dissonance inherent in a Communist society. The propaganda simply did not match reality. As a fighter pilot, he intimately knew the consequences of ignoring information that contradicts a perceived situation. But unlike most of his peers whom just became subdued cynics, Belenko turned skeptical of the entire system.
He was constantly bombarded by his commissars about “the greatness of the Soviet state and progressive society”, but he slowly noticed evidence to the contrary. His base conditions were horrible, and was called a “Bad Communist” for suggesting improvements to his men’s quarters. Due to a horribly inefficient and under funded maintenance system, he was routinely forced by his superiors to doctor training records, an act the commissars threatened with imprisonment. He found the entire system rife with corruption, and had to use his wife’s party connections to get anything done.
Belenko began to question everything. “If Communism worked, why did he, an elite fighter pilot, have to help with the harvest?”, “If America was backwards, why were their fighters so much better in Vietnam?” and, “If the West was falling apart why did they have so many more Nobel prize winners in science?” were just a few. Soon after his wife’s divorce due to their bleak existence in Siberia, Belenko reached the tipping point when he was presented with unmistakable proof of the commissars’ lies.
In June 1976, Belenko and his squadron were shown films of homelessness and poverty in American cities as affirmation of the failure of Capitalism. However, a closer analysis of the films’ backgrounds revealed stunning discoveries: he saw stores, but no massive queues. And they were lit with signs, and large windows that showcased huge varieties of goods. One film had a woman with bags of groceries with toilet paper poking out the top. (He “hadn’t used toilet paper in years”. He and his wife “cleaned themselves with old copies of the Pravda.”) Moreover, there were single houses completely at odds with the massive drab poorly maintained tenement block that he was forced to live in. Great swaths of Soviet society lived much worse than what he saw in the background of the propaganda films. The “‘Eureka!’ moment” came as cars drove past in all colors, shapes, and sizes. In a few frames passing by in a split second, he noticed “a Cadillac driven by a black man!”
The propagandists had said that African Americans were the most oppressed minority in the United States, but “how much worse must Communism be if a member of this oppressed minority can own a Cadillac, while I, an elite pilot high in the system, must wait for years on a list for a much smaller car?”
Belenko was convinced the propagandists were lying, and with no more ties to the USSR, decided to defect. Because the Soviets didn’t trust the pilots with a full tank of fuel for that very reason, he overstated his usage on a previous mission, and bribed his maintenance chief not to check. The next mission he received his allotment and with the prior overage, he figured he had enough to make the trip to Japan. Belenko smuggled operators and maintenance manuals into the cockpit, and hoped to buy his life in the West with his knowledge and his plane (the commissars told him the West tortured and killed prisoners).
On the afternoon of 6 September 1976, he broke formation, dove for the wave tops, slammed the plane into afterburner, and sped for Japan. Before his wingman could react, Belenko was gone.
He landed at Hakedate airport on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, with just 30 seconds of fuel left. Opening his cockpit, he fired two rounds in the air, and gave the startled white flag carrying Japanese officials a pre-written note asking for concealment of his plane, contact with American analysts, and asylum in the US (which he was eventually granted).
Belenko and his Foxbat were an intelligence windfall. The Air Force dissected the MIG-25 and found it to be far from the Boogie Man: it was a One Trick Pony. The Foxbat was the second fastest plane on the planet, but it was unmaneuverable, overly heavy, maintenance intensive, and extremely fragile. It was still a generation behind its contemporary the F-15 Eagle in all aspects but raw power.
Unfortunately, the Foxbat’s stay was much shorter than its pilot’s. The plane was ordered returned to the Soviets by President Jimmy Carter who wanted to increase goodwill with the Communists. The Air Force did exactly as the President ordered, but to their credit, with a bit of panache – the plane was completely disassembled down to individual bolts, and returned in thirty crates. Attached was a note that said:
“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.”