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

MiG-25 Belenko
MiG-25 (Image credit: Leonid Faerberg/transport-photo.com)

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…

About Jacek Siminski
Standing contributor for TheAviationist. Aviation photojournalist. Co-Founder of DefensePhoto.com. Expert in linguistics, Cold War discourse, Cold War history and policy and media communications.


  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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?

    • 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.

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