Aviation History

Viktor Belenko, Who Defected to the West in a MiG-25 Foxbat Jet Fighter, has passed away

Viktor Belenko

Viktor Belenko, the former Soviet Air Defence Forces pilot who defected to the West in 1976 in a MiG-25 high-speed interceptor, has passed away on Sep. 24, 2023 Alert 5 first noted.

He died in a nursing home in a small town in Southern Illinois on Sep. 24. However, journalists learned about his death only now. The New York Times quoted Belenko’s son, Paul Schmidt, on Nov. 20 as saying that his father had died after a brief, unspecified illness in a nursing home in Rosebud, Illinois.

Viktor Belenko was born into a simple family of Soviet workers on Feb. 15, 1947, in Nalchik. But he managed to build a military career, making his way into the elite USSR Air Defense Forces, which defended the country from a possible attack from the outside.

Stealing a MiG-25 Foxbat

On Sep. 6, 1976, then Lt. Belenko flew his MiG-25P fighter to Hakodate Airport in Hokkaido Prefecture of Japan, as the photos in this post show. After circling Hakodate airport three times, Belenko landed at the airport with around 30 seconds of fuel remaining.

As explained by Yefim Gordon in his book Mig-25 ‘Foxbat’ Mig-31 ‘Foxhound’: Russia’s Defensive Front Line, it will probably never be known if Belenko contacted the US military intelligence on his own or was hired by them (there is even a theory that ‘V Belenko’ was just a cover name for a trained agent tasked with stealing the latest Soviet military hardware, shades of Clint Eastwood in Firefox). Investigators found out that the defection was not an impulsive action of a dissatisfied officer – Belenko was expected in Japan and made preparations for the flight. He high-tailed it to Japan the very first time he had a full fuel load, taking the classified technical manuals with him. (Taking the manuals on a sortie was expressly forbidden.)

Viktor Belenko

Defection underway

Nobody at the base suspected that a defection was afoot. The mission profile included low level flight during which the aircraft would be undetectable by ground radar. Only when Belenko failed to return at the planned time did the АТС start calling him on the radio and fighters were sent up to try and locate the crash site. The message from the border guards that an aircraft had crossed the state border and was making for Japan came too late: Belenko was already approaching Japanese airspace, with Air Self-Defence Force fighters waiting to escort him.

Viktor Belenko requests political asylum in the US

The MiG-25P’s navigation equipment could not guide the aircraft accurately during prolonged low level flight unless RSBN SHORAN beacons were available (and of course they were not). The radio compass could be helpful but again the pilot had to know the marker beacon frequency at Hakodate, which the personnel at Chuguyevka did not know. As it was, Belenko was so nervous that he misjudged his landing and over-ran, damaging the landing gear and making the aircraft unairworthy. Belenko made a statement for the press and requested political asylum in the US. A large group of experts arrived from the US to examine the aircraft but Japanese engineers also took part in some stages of the work.

Dismantled MiG-25

The Soviet government put pressure on Japan, demanding the delivery of the purloined ‘Foxbat’ pronto. Since there were no legal reasons not to, the MiG-25 was returned, in dismantled and crated condition. The Japanese did it on purpose to cover up the ‘surgery’ they and the US intelligence experts had undertaken on the MiG.

When the Soviet delegation led by General Dvornikov arrived in Japan the Japanese officials resorted to procrastination and bureaucratic snags. When the crates with the aircraft parts were trucked to the pier to be loaded aboard a Soviet freighter the Soviet representatives demanded that the crates be opened for inspection to make sure nothing was missing. The Japanese deliberately gave them only a few hours, hoping that the ‘Russians’ would not manage to check everything and repack the crates in time – but they were in for a disappointment.

What West knew about the MiG-25

The Soviet experts were quick to find out just how much the West actually knew. When the MiG-25 was returned to the USSR it was determined that the Americans had run the engines and measured the aircraft’s infra-red signature and also made a detailed analysis of the systems and avionics, including the radar, and the structural materials. Not knowing how to operate the equipment, the Americans had damaged some of it and had to make hasty repairs (foreign fuses and resistors were discovered in the radar set).

The only aircraft scaring all the world

The incident got the world press going wild with stories about the MiG-25. Aviation journalists derided the design as ‘crude’ and ‘engineering archaeology’ but conceded that the steel airframe worked well at high temperatures and could be built and repaired easily without requiring any great skill from the repair personnel. The radar’s elements were deemed outdated; yet the radar impressed the West by having two wavebands which made it virtually jamproof – something no US radar featured at the time. In fact, the US said that ‘the MiG-25 is the only aircraft scaring all the world’. US Defence Secretary Schlesinger stated that the new Soviet interceptor was a sufficiently potent weapon to bring about drastic changes to the Western weapons systems and strategies.

Soviets’ shock

The shock which the Soviet leaders, the Ministry of Defence and some other ministries experienced defies description. The West had got hold of the USSR’s most secret aircraft! Worse, Belenko’s statements published by the world press made it clear that Western intelligence agencies had preliminary information on the latest two-seater, the MiG-25MP (Izdelye83). The potential adversary now had the potential to develop counter weapons and largely neutralise the MiG-25 in a short while.

This forced the Soviet government, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Aircraft Industry to take resolute action which was later proven correct. The rigid and clear lines of command under the Soviet system got the design bureaux and defence industry working hard, and a much-improved MiG-25PD entered production in just two and a half years after the scandalous defection.

Was the MiG-25 capable of intercepting the SR-71 Blackbird?

The MiG-25 was of special importance to the Soviet air defence, since (until the MiG-31 entered service) it was the only aircraft capable of intercepting the Lockheed SR-71A strategic reconnaissance aircraft prowling over the Barents Sea and especially the Baltic (although in his autobiography Belenko claims that SR-71s flew off the coast of Russia, “taunting and toying with MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach, and circling leisurely above them, or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match”). When Poland experienced unrest in the early 1980s the West feared a possible Soviet invasion. The data provided by surveillance satellites on Soviet forces stationed at the western borders apparently proved insufficient for the Americans, and the SR-71s began their sorties over the Baltic Sea. MiG-25PDs and ‘PDSs stationed in the area bore the brunt of dealing with these snoopers.

Viktor Belenko US citizenship

The US Congress passed an act in 1980 to give Mr. Belenko citizenship. Eager to escape attention, he took the surname Schmidt and moved around often, mostly living in small towns across the Midwest. He worked as a consultant to aerospace companies and government agencies.

His marriage to Coral Garaas ended in divorce. Along with his son Paul Schmidt, Mr. Belenko is survived by another son, Tom Schmidt, and four grandchildren. Though some reports said he had left a wife and child behind in the Soviet Union, Mr. Belenko told his son that this was untrue and the result of Soviet propaganda.

After the Cold War ended, he began to make occasional appearances at air shows and returned to calling himself Viktor Belenko. But he never sought to capitalize on his moment of international fame.

“He lived the most private life,” his son Paul said. “He flew under the radar, literally and figuratively.”

Photo credit: CIA and unknown

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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