By: Scott RossPublished: September 6, 2022

Viktor Belenko

The story goes that one October night in 1974, Lieutenant Viktor Belenko was approached in a Moscow bar by a member of the British intelligence who presented the young Russian pilot with an interesting offer. The Brit, speaking on behalf of friends at the Central Intelligence Agency, was ready to offer political asylum in return for the delivery of a MIG-25 Russian fighter jet. It seemed like a good deal for all parties.

Nearly two years later, on Monday, September 6, Belenko had requested and received a transfer to the eastern end of the Soviet Empire (north of Vladivostok for you Risk fans out there), where he trained flying MIG-25s. The first time he was sent up with a full tank of gas, he headed east, out across the Sea of Japan, flying at an altitude of about 100 feet so as to stay off Russian radar, navigating from memory a flight plan toward Chitose airbase on the island of Hokkaido. Not surprisingly, he went a little off course, finding himself headed about 100 miles southwest of Chitose, toward Hakodate.

As he approached the island he went up to ~20,000 feet to draw the attention of the Japanese military, who quickly reached out to him via radio, but his was turned to the wrong frequency, so they scrambled their jets, by which time Belenko had dropped down below the cloud line and heading for Hakodate, but the runway wasn't nearly long enough to accommodate a plane that big moving that fast, and Belenko plowed through roughly 800 hundred feet of earth before coming to a stop. Belenko then climbed from the cockpit of his plane and promptly fired two shots into the air to keep the approaching airport workers at bay, before announcing his desire to defect.

The Japanese quickly squirreled him away to a secret location, while the Russkies expressed their hope "that the Japanese Government would cope with the matter without following any suggestion or influence from an external power." Who could the external power possibly have been?

Belenko was granted refuge on Tuesday and was in Los Angeles by Thursday, September 9. Soon thereafter, the Japanese invited the US Military to help take the MIG apart and study it, and on two weeks later, on September 19, CIA Director George Bush was on American TV crowing about how it was a “major intelligence bonanza.”

The "bonanza," such as it was more the sense of relief the CIA felt at just how not awesome the MIG-25 was. It could go crazy fast--up to Mach 3.2, with a cruising speed of Mach 2.7, but it was also hella heavy, which limited its range and it didn't maneuver terrible well. After weeks of combing over the plane, the Japanese put the disassembled parts into a bunch of crates and handed the Russians a bill for $40,000 for shipping costs and the damage to their airfield.

Belenko, meanwhile, underwent extensive interrogation by several of the US government--“I didn't realize I knew so much" he once remarked. He was blown away by the level of cooperation among US soldiers, the amount of freedom and autonomy they were granted, and by the trust instilled in them. After observing a flight simulator operated by two sergeants, he said in the USSR such equipment would require the attentions of “two colonels and a civilian with a Ph.D.”

But what seemed to really knock Belenko's socks off was the food. As the New York Times reported it, "He repeatedly asked how much a portion of food cost. He sometimes took two heaping platters and consumed them as if to see whether he was being duped." And when he and three others went for dinner at a seafood restaurant, the owner picked up the check as a show of appreciation for his sacrifice, to which he responded, “This is impossible. In Russia nobody gives anybody anything for nothing.”

Belenko was subsequently granted citizenship personally by President Carter, given a fat stipend for living expenses and went to work as an aeronautics engineer, while the Soviet Empire continued to inch its way toward the dustbin of history.


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