A Soviet-era pilot, Viktor Belenko, who flew a dangerous mission of defection from the USSR to Japan in order to cross over to the United States camp fifty years ago, breathed his last this September.
Belenko’s son was cited by the New York Times on November 20 as saying that his father passed away on September 24 in a Rosebud, Illinois, nursing facility following a brief and unexplained illness. Belenko had acquired US citizenship in 1980.
Although Belenko’s name is registered in the annals of history, it started doing rounds once again in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, which has seen several Russian troops, including pilots, defecting to the Ukrainian side after being lured by the latter’s intelligence agencies.
While these incidents do not augur well for Russia’s reputation and have given rise to concern that it may lure others to follow suit, the state already has a history of defections that goes back decades.
Some Soviet pilots are notoriously remembered for jumping to the enemy camp during the Cold War days.
There is one that warrants mention — Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko.
Russian pilot Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko served in the 513th Fighter Regiment, 11th Air Army, Soviet Air Defense Forces, stationed in Chuguyevka, Primorsky Krai. On September 6, 1976, he flew his MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet to Hakodate Airport in Hokkaido, Japan, and successfully defected to the West.
When it came to Soviet fighter jets, the Mig-25 was the most sophisticated aircraft in the world, which is why the defection at the height of the Cold War stunned the entire globe. Once he safely landed in Japan, Belenko said he defected to taste freedom.
How Did Belenko Flew His Solo Defection Mission?
The Soviet Air Defense Forces were an aerial branch somewhat separate from the Soviet Air Force. Since this group of pilots was exceptional and well-respected, the defecting pilot likewise enjoyed a high degree of trust from his peers and commanders. Because of his high confidence level, the flight surgeon took Belenko’s word that he was not nervous when his blood pressure soared the morning he planned to take off.
Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko was being trained on the brand new Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 supersonic interceptor aircraft at the time. Although Western analysts had not had a chance to inspect a real “Foxbat,” they thought that it posed a serious threat to NATO aircraft. The Air Force Secretary, Robert Seamans, had described the MiG-25 as “possibly the best interceptor in production worldwide.”
Belenko, 29, took a chance when he said that the US would try to obtain a Foxbat. He was going to deliver one in return for US asylum.
Unfortunately, the plane’s alarming fuel consumption prevented it from traveling from Chuguyevka to an American or Canadian air base. That’s how Japan became the intended destination, and the Foxbat took its last flight out with Belenko piloting the jet.
Belenko and his squadron crept into position on September 6, 1976. He ran through a typical circuit. However, at the far end of the excursion, he did not make the turn as instructed by the flight plan. Rather, he continued. He abruptly launched the Foxbat into a steep dive.
At that altitude, he traveled at such speed that his radar signature was obscured. Belenko led his squadron, but the other pilots were not far behind. Belenko began introducing himself to Japanese radar just as he was about to enter their airspace, making a series of pop-ups and descents before dipping back to avoid being shot down.
Of course, the Foxbat guzzled fuel at an incredible pace. The jet’s fuel supply was critically low. Miraculously, Belenko spotted an airfield — with a civilian 727 jetliner heading directly toward him.
“He jerked the MiG into the tightest turn of which it was capable, allowed the 727 to clear, dived at a dangerously sharp angle, and touched the runway at 220 knots. As he deployed the drag chute and repeatedly slammed down the brake pedal, the MiG bucked, bridled, and vibrated as if it were going to come apart. Tires burning, it screeched and skidded down the runway, slowing but not stopping.”
“It ran off the north end of the field, knocked down a pole, plowed over a second, and finally stopped a few feet from a large antenna 800 feet off the runway. The front tire had blown, but that was all,” according to an excerpt from a biography of the pilot written by John Barron MiG Pilot, The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko, published in 1980.
Fearing about its ties with the Soviet Union, the Japanese government limited US access to the MiG before it was dismantled and sent to the USSR in thirty crates. However, Belenko stayed in the West and, following months of CIA-organized debriefing, was eventually granted refuge.
Belenko was hardly the only pilot to escape the Soviet Union, much alone the first to do so from a country part of the Soviet bloc. It is thought, therefore, that he may have known about the US government’s policy of providing substantial financial rewards to communist pilots who defect.
With Belenko’s defection, many secrets and surprises were disclosed to the West because this was the first opportunity for Western military intelligence to examine the aircraft and its specifications closely.
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