Mig-25 defection: How a Soviet Pilot Brought a Secret Warplane To The West

Jul 19 2013 - 26 Comments
By Jacek Siminski

The story of Viktor Belenko, a Mig-25 pilot who defected to the United States via Japan on Sept. 6, 1976.

The then Lieutenant Belenko was a pilot with the 513th Fighter Regiment, 11th Air Army, based in Chuguyevka, Primorsky Krai, in the east of the country.  When he brought his Mig-25 “Foxbat” to Hakodate he gave the Western intelligence officers the opportunity to give a first close look at one of the most secret airplanes of those years: a supersonic interceptor featuring a powerful radar, four air-to-air missiles and a top speed above Mach 3.

In order to assist the American experts in evaluating the aircraft, Belenko brought with him the pilot’s manual for the MiG-25 “Foxbat”, expecting to assist American pilots in evaluating and testing the aircraft.

Even if the Japanese government didn’t originally give full access to the plane, the Americans were later invited to examine the aircraft extensively: the Mig was dismantled for such purpose and later returned to the Soviet Union.

In his “Mig pilot” book (1983) John Barron claims that Viktor Belenko’s defection was completely voluntary and was the result of Belenko’s distrust on communist regime.

The MiG was delivered to Japan without the missiles, which were to be introduced in the Belenko’s training later on.

The mission was launched earlier than initially planned, because the KGB was about to stop Viktor Ivanovich Belenko from defection.

Although pilot defections during the Cold War were not a rarity, what made Belenko’s defection unique was the fact that the MiG-25 was completely unknown in the West.

This is the main point to bear in mind when thinking about Belenko and, unfortunately, this fact is often forgotten.

The ideological background for the events which took place in 1976 is deeply rooted in the beginnings of the post-war period.

As the Cold War was in progress there were many incidents and crises which closely led to a confrontation of the two superpowers.

One of these events was Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy flight on of May 1, 1960.

Power’s U-2 took off from USAF Peshawar Air Base in Pakistan for a GRAND SLAM mission, to investigate the Soviet missile and plutonium production plants.

Targets were Sverdlovsk, Plesetsk (ICBM sites) and Mayak – a plutonium plant.

The U-2 was a plane designed to fly well above the Soviet air defense Surface to Air Missile systems.

Its operational ceiling was out of the range of the Soviet interceptors and missiles but Powers’ flight was expected, all of the units and surface-to-air defenses were put on alert.

The MiGs pilots were ordered to ram the aircraft if necessary. The U-2 was eventually shot down by an S-75 Dvina missile near Degtayrsk in the Ural region.  Because of high g-force Powers had no chance of reaching the airplane’s self-destruction button and had to eject.

What is interesting is the fact that SAM crews did not know that the plane had already been shot down because MiG’s’ IFF transponders were not updated (May 1st is a national holiday), therefore several MiG’s were also shot down by S-75 rockets.

The political consequences of the spyflight were severe.

Shortly after the incident the Americans created a cover up story for Powers’ failure. NASA had announced in a very specific press release that the pilot, having lost consciousness due to the problems with the oxygen equipment, had strayed into the Soviet territory with his autopilot engaged while doing a weather flight.

On May 7, Khrushchev announced that Powers has survived the crash and, nine days later, on May 16, 1960, during a Four Powers Paris Summit meeting with Harald MacMillan, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower  he called the U-2 incident an act of a “deliberate aggression.”

Eisenhower refused to apologize for the incident, claiming that the U-2 flight was not of aggressive nature, having only a purpose of ensuring US safety. The meeting collapsed.

At the time, Eisenhower was a proponent of so-called Open-Sky Policy, according to which both sides would allow for reciprocal reconnaissance flights over their territories. Khrushchev did not agree. Powers was sentenced to 7 years of hard labor in a Gulag, but he was exchanged for a Russian spy Rudolf Abel on the famous Glinecke Bridge in Potsdam, connecting West and East Germany.

Gary Powers incident sparked the development of the American Oxcart programme, with the goal to design the SR-71 spy plane, which in addition to flying high, also flew very fast, out of the range of the Soviet missiles’ operational envelope.

What is more, a D-21 drone reconnaissance system was created, to be carried by SR-71 as a parasite. The drone would be dropped, fly over the Soviet Union, return over the Pacific and drop the reconnaissance materials on a parachute.

Both these designs led to the development of a Soviet countermeasure – the MiG-25, known in NATO code as the Foxbat.

To be continued…

Image credit: Leonid Faerberg (transport-photo.com)

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  • kakmidah

    Clint Eastwood’s movie “FireFox” was based on this story, if I’m not mistaken… ;)

    • Jacek Siminski

      Totaly unrelated :)

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Ah, “memory lane!” Back in 1989 I was part of the debriefing team for another SAF defector, Alexander Zuyev, who flew a Mig-29 to Turkey. The intelligence community really wanted to ensure that there was no contact between Zuyev and Belenko, as the latter had presumably learned a lot from his dealings with the US government and might have been able to “corrupt” our debriefing process. However, one afternoon at the “undisclosed location” while taking a break, I answered the telephone & someone speaking good English with a slight accent asked for “Alex.” I asked who was calling & was told “this is Viktor.” I said we had no one named Alex here & please do not call again. Obviously Zuyev, a very savvy guy, had somehow escaped the reservation long enough to covertly contact Belenko & give him the phone number at the “safe house” we were using.

    • Jacek Siminski

      Wow, this is interesting!

  • FoilHatWearer

    I just recently read Viktor Belenko’s book on his 1976 defection. He did some pretty clever planning to ensure to maximize the amount of time before he would be missed.
    He was also very surprised that the MiG 25 had a calm friendly female voice warning that him that his fuel was down to emergency levels.

    When he landed at the airport in Japan, he was coming straight on with an airliner that was taking off. He had to do some maneuvering to miss him, then he overran the short runway with only 30 seconds of fuel left. When bystanders began to gather, he fired his pistol into the air to keep them back.

  • DDAY

    “the MiG-25 was completely unknown in the West.”

    Not true. The U.S. knew about the plane. They had flown over Israel and were tracked by radar, photographed, and spotted in spy satellite photos. The US intelligence community did not understand the plane’s capabilities and apparently over-estimated them. But it was not unknown.

    • Jacek Siminski

      It was unknown, the Israeli conflict came in later. I will write about that.

      • John

        What about the reconnaissance versions that were sent to Egypt in 1971? They were flying over Israel by that year.

        Also what about the claims that by 1967 the US knew at least about the general layout of the aircraft and this fed into the development of the F-15?

        • Jacek Siminski

          I think you are nit-picking. They had no idea of the true nature of the MiG-25.

          I said that I am going to elaborate on these issues in the latter parts.

        • Jacek Siminski

          I will refer to all the problems yoou pointed out in the latter parts.

      • DDAY

        You wrote “completely unknown.” That is not true. The U.S. had spy satellite photos of the plane and had conducted analysis of it. That was not complete information, but it is crazy to claim that the U.S. intelligence community had no intelligence information and knew nothing until Belenko’s flight.

        • Jacek Siminski

          nit picking

      • William Benjamin Abbott IV

        I remember taking a 3-view of what was then called the “MiG-23” Foxbat to show-and-tell at school in the late 1960s. The Soviets put a lot of effort into keeping true capabilities unknown, and Western perceptions colored every analysis. “MIsunderstanding” was both sides’ uniform of the day during the Cold War. The shape of the MiG-25 is highly reminiscent of the North American A-5 Vigilante, developed for similar very high speed just a bit ahead of the MiG. The MiG’s plan form and radar dish diameter reveal a lot. Add engine size, range and the shape of the intakes and its not hard to figure out the rest. A lot of Western Cold War era military-industrial analysis is clearly delusional. Particularly with regard to radar guided missiles. Even with alternatives, ‘nit picking’ is a proven, powerful and effective solution, if it fits the problem you have!

        • Jacek Siminski

          I just used ‘completely unknown’ in order to mark the fact that the true nature of the airplane was not known to the West. I guess some guys are just remaining on the linguistic side not getting into details. Actually the true role and characteristics of the were in fact completely unknown until the defection. Therefore it is linguistic nit picking.

          • William Benjamin Abbott IV

            Then you meant to say, “The true nature of the MiG-25 was not known to the West”, That’s still a bit strong for me, but it stops far short of “the MiG 25 was completely unknown to the West”. Absolute negatives are very difficult to prove. Proverbially. I’d say it was “Poorly understood” or “Incompletely assessed”. or “Imperfectly perceived” or some similar phrase. Precise language is something a lot of us strive for. Unless you’re like, you know, *completely* like a 1990s “Valley Girl”, like, you know? Argh!

            “Completely” is complete. Absolute. Covers all cases. No exceptions. “Completely unknown” describes the volcano-like eruptions on the moons of the outer Gas Giant planets. Until that woman doing navigation in the middle of the night looked at the photos coming back from Voyager 1 and/or 2. Until she told someone, it was only her, but it was no longer “Completely Unknown”.


  • Eli

    My grandpa worked on the S-75 missile system!

  • Bob Delaney

    Very interesting. I had the pleasure of meeting Belenko in 1996 in St. Louis, when he spoke at a dinner meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics chapter. really interesting hearing Belenko tell his story of his defection and his experiences in America. I remember very well hearing of the defection back in 1976 (I was 12 years old then), and became fascinated with the Soviet Air Force and with the MiG-25 as a result. Thanks for this post, and look forward to more here.

  • Jimh.

    I seem to recall the XB-70 program had a little to do with the MiG-25, also…

  • Hans Leugler

    Many of us who knew about the Foxbat were asked to write down any questions for Belenko. I wrote a few.

  • Nutsy

    I recall an interview with a Soviet pilot chasing Powers and he said the U2 wasn’t hit by a missile but by the wreckage of a plane blown up by a missile.

  • Raptor Jesus

    The book about this ‘MIG Pilot’ is a real page-turner, I couldn’t put it down.

  • RBR

    I have read elsewhere that the MiG-25 was designed to intercept the XB-70. When Gary Powers was shot down, U.S. planners realized that the era of the high altitude bomber had come to an end and so the B-70 project was cancelled (along with the XF-108 escort fighter which never progressed beyond the mockup stage).

    As commented earlier, the U.S. was aware of the existence of the MiG-25, but did not understand its mission. The F-15 was, in point of fact, a response to the perceived role of the MiG-25 as an air superiority fighter rather than its true role as an interceptor. The Israeli sightings of MiG-25s was a result of the MiG-25 being repurposed as reconnaissance aircraft once the B-70 project was cancelled.

    All became clear when the U.S. was able to examine and flight test the MiG-25.

    One must also remember that U.S. personnel had been reminded of the enormity of Soviet capability in the film released of the 1967 Soviet war games celebrating the 50th anniversary of the revolution.

  • William Benjamin Abbott IV

    I am, for sure. You ever read any of John McPhee’s books? Nonfiction. He does a riff on “poorly understood”, I think its in “In Suspect Terrain”. Its a very nerdy, very funny, passage. Something to read out loud to your spouse.

    The book is about the geology of the Eastern USA, and the woman who correlated the colors of connodont fossils with the heat history of the rocks they’re in, and the likelihood of finding petroleum in those rocks.

    Nobody else had slowed down to chart the colors and ages and presumed heat profile and presence of petroleum. Very old-school. She was very skeptical of Plate Tectonics as it was coalescing in the 1970s, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes because change is hard. A lot of revolutionary theories deliver less than they promise. But not all of them.

    McPhee wrote 3 more geology books with 3 other geologists, crossing the US on highway 80 from coast to coast. And an extra book or near-book to accompany the 4 when they came out in one big volume. Its catnip for me. All nit picking. :^) Cheers!

    • Jacek Siminski

      I will certainly look for it, thanks!

  • Billy Mullins

    I read the Baron book not terribly long after it came out. Good read, that. There were a lot of very interesting things we learned from Belenko’s defection. To begin with, we alredy knew about the 25, we just didn’t know much. The thing was so heavy it could not have much range. As reported in the article, the 25 was constructed out of materials that would melt at high speeds. The reason was that Soviet metallurgy simply was no match for that of the U.S. Their avionics were at least a couple of generations behind ours as well. At a time when we were moving into all solid-state and even some early integrated circuits, the MiG radar had nothing but vacuum tubes. It was powerful, yes but it was also a maintenance hog. Additionally, tube-based electronics are many times heavier than solid state plus they consume vastly more power. The avionics were similar to but actually much less advanced than that of the F-4 Phantom which first flew over a decade before the MiG.

    Another fact that came out was that the Soviets used pure, un-denatured ethanol in their cooling systems. All ethanol sold in the U.S. other than that in beverages is “de-natured” – i.e. it has a small amount of of poison added to it. De-naturing doesn’t materially affect the ethanol’s chemical properties but if you drink much of it at all you WILL die. And your passing will be neither quick not pleasant. But getting back to the ethanol in cooling systems, at the time Soviet propaganda made much of western problems with alcoholism. According to Soviet media, there was simply no such thing as alcoholism in the USSR. And in a sense that was true. According to Lt. Belenko, there wasn’t even a word in the Russian language for alcoholism. But when the debriefers described what alcoholism was/is, he is supposed to have exclaimed that they were describing half the men in the USSR. Apparently, a lot of that “coolant” some how turned up “missing”. 200 proof Vodka, anyone?

    • Roland Lawrence

      I have read that in remote bases the Mig 25 was a welcome visitor for just that reason. While clunky in some respects it did pioneer for them techniques such as automatic welding for aircraft in the former USSR. A Mig 25 also holds the all time sustained altitude record of 125,000 feet for a jet aircraft.