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Monday, September 05, 2005

Belenko Defects, September 6, 1976

Today in 1976, Soviet Air Force Lieutenant Viktor Belenko flew his MIG-25 Foxbat from the Soviet Union to Japan. He then asked for asylum in the United States. This flight marked the end of one man’s struggle with the ideology and practices of Communism.

Viktor Belenko was the very model of the New Soviet Man. He was young, good-looking and well-educated. He was trained to fly the MIG-25, an aircraft whose purpose was to defend the Motherland against American bombers carrying nuclear weapons. But for most of his adult life, Belenko had held a burning hatred of Communism. His hatred was not ideological, but, rather, stemmed from his personal experience with failures of the Soviet system. As a young man, he worked in a factory where alcoholism was the norm and no one dared to work harder lest that exertion become the minimum expected output. After he joined the Air Force, he was shown American films like “The Grapes of Wrath” which portrayed the United States as a nation of aimless drifters. Belenko later said that he wondered how the poor people in the film could all own cars, since a car was a rare luxury in the Soviet Union.

Belenko’s defection gave the West its first good look at the MIG-25. It had been in production since the late 60's, but the plane’s capabilities were a closely held secret. Israeli radar had once tracked one flying over Jordan at more than three times the speed of sound, a speed faster than Western fighters were capable of. In the US Air Force, there was widespread panic and concern over what would happen to a fleet of B-52s faced with such an awesome weapon. It was believed that this one model of aircraft could possibly render the entire Strategic Air Command obsolete.

The Americans who inspected the aircraft were in for a shock. The cutting-edge fighter they expected to find was nothing of the sort. It was extremely heavy, which translated into a very short range. She did not handle well and was essentially useless in a close dogfight. Her avionics suite was crude compared to Western aircraft from the same period. One Air Force official was quoted as saying, “I guess it could be worse; it might have been made out of wood.”

After five months of questioning by Japanese and US officials, Viktor Belenko was granted asylum in the United States by President Gerald Ford. He was given a generous income for the rest of his life in exchange for the information he provided. Today, Belenko still lives and works in the US as an aerospace consultant and lecturer.

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