For Senior Lieutenant Viktor Belenko’s defecting MiG-25 Foxbat reaching Japan proved to be the easy part, as touching down on Japanese soil turned out to be much more difficult.
On Sep. 6, 1976, the inhabitants of the Japanese city of Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido, turned their eyes to the sky, an airplane flew over the roofs of their houses at a very low altitude. With just two minutes of fuel, Viktor Belenko, desperately looking for a place to land, finally in front of him appeared Hakodate International airport, in the city of the same name.
As the photos in this post show, the low flying of the MiG-25 (NATO reporting name: Foxbat) caught the attention of all the inhabitants of that city, who photographed Belenko’s Foxbat just before landing.
Arguably the best-known case of Cold War defection, Senior Lieutenant Viktor Belenko, serving with the 530 IAP of the PVO’s fighter aviation, flew a MiG-25P fighter-interceptor from Chuguyevka AB, in the Primorskiy Kray of the Soviet Far East, to Hakodate airport, located on the Japanese island Hokkaido.
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991, numerous reasons prompted Senior Lieutenant Belenko to take this step, including problems in his professional, as well as personal life: he was overdue for promotion to the rank of Captain and his marriage was failing. Obviously, various shortcomings of the Soviet systems as well as discrepancies between official propaganda and observable reality, also played their part. The Soviets and nowadays Russians, suspected that he might have been earlier recruited by US intelligence agencies. However, there is little evidence to support this assertion.
As for Belenko, the man supposedly had a certain manipulative streak but was also outspoken and assertive, at least by Soviet standards. He kept an equal distance to most people yet made sure not to make himself suspect: he befriended the KGB overseer assigned to his unit, did not listen to American radio broadcasts, and forbade his wife to do so.
Perhaps a little surprisingly, the defection itself was not particularly difficult. On the day that fundamentally changed his life Senior Lieutenant Belenko and several other pilots were performing training sorties. Initially, he followed the assigned flight plan but then, descended rapidly to low-altitude and headed out to sea in the direction of Japan. However, reaching Japan proved to be the easy part, as touching down on Japanese soil turned out to be much more difficult. Since the JASDF failed to intercept Senior Lieutenant Belenko’s aircraft, its fighters could not escort the MiG to a suitable landing site, such as the Chitose Air Base. As a result, he had to land at the aforementioned Hakodate airport and if the situation was not dramatic enough, a passenger aircraft was just taking off when the MiG flew in to land.
Fortunately, a collision was averted but the landing was still problematic, for despite deploying the aircraft’s drogue chute, the MiG overrun the end of the runway by ca 240m before coming to a halt. Senior Lieutenant Belenko was taken into custody by the Japanese police but soon enough, he found himself in American care and was flown out of Japan to the US. He was well prepared to be a valuable defector: in addition to all the information he had by virtue of being a PVO fighter pilot in active service, Senior Lieutenant Belenko also brought the MiG-25’s flight manual with him. In order to be able to put even more on the table before making good his escape, he also requested permission (which was granted) to access and read various classified materials.
Thus, Senior Lieutenant Belenko was a prized source of intelligence and when extensively questioned, he gave exhaustive answers. Amongst others, he was asked if Soviet pilots would ram enemy aircraft, with his reply being in the affirmative.
Obviously, the MiG-25 fighter-interceptor Senior Lieutenant Belenko defected with, was also of great value. It was first covered with tarpaulins, then disassembled and moved from Hakodate to Hyakuri military airfield (currently the facility serves as the civilian Ibaraki Airport) where it was analysed in detail. The analysis was a technical intelligence bonanza, causing a western re-evaluation of the MiG-25, which up to that time, was somewhat overrated. Once ag the Soviets realised what had happened, they demanded the return from Japan, of both the aircraft, as well as the pilot. They claimed that Senior Lieutenant Belenko had made a navigational error and his refusal to return was the result of him being drugged.
Soviet pressure eventually resulted in the return of the MiG-25 in a dismantled condition. However, Viktor Belenko was first granted political asylum in the US, subsequently received to US citizenship and as far as it is known, adopted well to life in America. To say that the whole affair was very embarrassing for the Soviet Union, is an understatement. Since their most capable fighter-interceptor was now compromised the Soviets modernised the MiG-25 and went to serious work on its eventual replacement which resulted in the development of the MiG-31.
It should be noted that a similar incident took place, over a decade later, when on May 20, 1989, Captain Aleksandr Zuyev flew a MiG-29 to Turkey. That, however, was a defection of a pilot and aircraft from the VVS and not from the PVO.
Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Unknown