(sometimes spelled Belyenko)
Viktor Belenko was a Russian interceptor pilot, who in 1976 flew
his MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor to Japan and defected to the United
States. The delivery of the plane was an intelligence windfall for
the West, and Belenko's choice to flee the USSR despite the privileges
theoretically accorded to Soviet pilots was a propaganda coup for the
Viktor Belenko was born on February 15, 1947. As a youth, Belenko was clearly intelligent and motivated to learn
and experience as much as he could. His father, a soldier in World War II, and later a miner and factory worker, encouraged Viktor's education, in the hopes that his son would have a better life.
He was a voracious reader, and his interest in flying was largely kindled by a sympathetic librarian introducing him to the books of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who, while best known as the author of The Little Prince, was also a pioneering aircraft pilot and engineer. In addition, Viktor also read adventure stories such as
Huckleberry Finn and 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Following his basic education, Belenko joined the DOSAAF (Voluntary Society for Assistance to the Army, Air Force, and Navy), which he thought would be the best route to the Soviet air force. He was assigned to factory work, taking flight training classes at night.
His first flight instructor was one of very few female pilots in the DOSAAF. While Belenko was initially resentful at the prospect of having to learn from a woman, she immediately demonstrated enough aerobatic ability (read: scared him half to death) for him to accept her authority. While he enjoyed the flight training, he was frustrated by the requirement to spend about a third of his class time in political indoctrination classes, and by the annual suspension of classes to help with the harvest at nearby kolkhozes (collective farms).
When he got into the Air Force in 1970, Belenko was quickly assigned as an instructor,
training new pilots in the MiG-17.
This was a frustrating position for him; he was politically pressured to graduate pilots who he felt were unready, and to meet quotas of trainee flight time, he was forced to fabricate flight logs when, for example, weather made it impossible to fly, dumping precious jet fuel on the ground to account for the fuel that would have been used on those flights. As an instructor, Belenko was also expected to spend a lot of time exposing his students to political propaganda, which he (privately) considered a waste of time. And while the obsolete MiG-17 was considered fun to fly, he was much more interested in the newer, more exciting planes flown by front-line units, such as the MiG-25.
His home life wasn't making matters any better:
The apartment Belenko was ostensibly entitled to
as a pilot was in a building that was constructed with inadequate
materials (the rest being sold to line the pockets of the responsible
official) and passed its inspections only through massive bribery
of the inspectors; his wife, Ludmilla, was from a well-off, big-city family, and was very unhappy with the situation, threatening divorce before the birth of their son, Dmitri, in 1973.
After four years of this, he pushed hard for a transfer
to a unit flying the MiG-25, and got it -- a reassignment to Chuguyevka, a site at the
remote Eastern edge of the USSR, where three squadrons of Foxbat interceptors were based.
Conditions at the air base were terrible. Denied access to beer or
wine, the most readily available intoxicant for everyone on the base was the pure alcohol coolant used by the planes -- a fully-loaded Foxbat needed half a ton of the stuff, so there always seemed to be enough available to get drunk on. Essentially all forms of entertainment were prohibited to enlisted men, leaving them with nothing to do but drink. The manpower at the base had increased dramatically with the introduction of the Foxbat, which was a very maintenance-intensive plane, yet nothing had been done to expand housing or other necessary facilities. When Belenko spoke up at a political meeting to offer his opinion that discipline would not improve until these basic problems were addressed, he was accused of being selfish, a bad communist, even though he had phrased his appeal in good Marxist-Leninist terms, recommending that officers contribute money out of their salaries and that all the men at the base work together on the new construction.
Ludmilla again announced that she would divorce him and take Dmitri, now three years old, back to her family. This was one of
the last straws that made him decide to defect: Having failed to change any part of the system despite his best efforts, and now having no particular ties to the USSR, he felt that all he could do was to try and hurt the Soviet system as badly as he could, by stealing Russia's most advanced interceptor and taking it to the west.
Belenko watched for an opportunity to make his move: a day with
fair weather between Chuguyevka and Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, a day when he would
be scheduled to fly a practice mission with a full load of fuel.
When the day came, he began his flight as if nothing were out of the
ordinary, but then dove his plane to treetop level, turned off his radars and
radios, and sped out over the ocean. The flight was harrowing mainly
because he had to carefully judge his altitude against his range; the
MiG-25 was far more fuel-efficient at high altitudes, but he would be
easily spotted on radar unless he stayed low. As things turned out, due to
bad weather and low fuel, he didn't find his intended destination --
the Japanese military base at Chitose -- but instead arrived at Hakodate
civilian airport. Practically flying on fumes by this time, he
dodged an airliner taking off, found a runway, and touched down,
overshooting the end of the runway by a couple of hundred feet.
As soon as he stopped the plane, he opened the cockpit and fired his
service pistol into the air to warn away curious civilians. This
was, in retrospect, a sensible move -- unable to speak English or
Japanese, he had no other way to demonstrate that he wanted to
keep some control over the situation -- but it had the side effect
of making it look like landing in Japan was not his intent, which
affected the political handling of the situation. When Japanese officials waving a white flag
approached the plane, however, Belenko handed over a previously prepared
note in English:
"Quickly call representative American intelligence service. Airplane camoflauge. Nobody not allowed to approach."
(Somehow, when the note was translated into Japanese, the impression arose that the plane was booby-trapped, and so it was treated very carefully; as it happened, there were controls in the cockpit to destroy particular avionics
systems, so this wasn't a Bad Thing
On two separate occasions, Soviet officials requested meetings with
Belenko to try and convince him to return. In both cases, when invited
to claim that he landed in Japan by mistake and was being held against
his will, he stated that he had intentionally taken the plane, and was
requesting asylum in the US of his own free will; after the fact, the
USSR claimed that he had been drugged and barely able to speak at these
meetings. Naturally, a good deal of venom flowed back and forth between the US and the USSR over the incident.
The US knew they would have to return the plane eventually; they took it apart piece by piece,
learning as much as they could from it. Combined with the considerable information Belenko volunteered about the plane, an entirely new picture of the Foxbat emerged. Previously, fragmented intelligence reports on the plane had made it out to be a super-fighter capable of outperforming anything in the US inventory, and while it was in fact a remarkable plane, it turned out to be something of a paper tiger, substantially less impressive than had been previously thought.
After a thorough debriefing, Belenko began a fairly lengthy process of adjusting to the US. He was initially suspicious of nearly everything he observed, even thinking that a shopping center which included a supermarket, electronic appliance store, clothing store, and gas station was somehow a showpiece established to impress him, rather than a fairly typical feature of medium-sized towns in the US.
While the CIA let Belenko know that they would provide for him financially if he desired, he strongly wanted to at least try to make it on his own in the States, as well as seeing the best and the worst his new country had to offer.
Having seen terrible conditions for workers on the kolkhozes, he tried farm work for a short while, and found American farmers to be far happier and more productive than those of the USSR. He traveled around the US for some time, eventually finding a certain amount of squalor in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, though that was certainly not as bad as things he had seen in Russia.
At some point, the KGB managed to spread the story in the USSR that Belenko had been killed in an "accident", with the implication being that the KGB had arranged it, with the hope of discouraging other defectors; this story actually got back to the US, but it appears that Belenko is alive and well today.
Belenko is not the only pilot to have defected from the USSR in this
way, nor was he the first such to defect from a Soviet bloc country.
In March and May of 1953, two Polish pilots flew MiG-15s to Denmark.
In 1985 and 1987, USSR-owned helicopters in the Afghanistan theatre of
operations defected to Pakistan. Captain Alexander Zuyev flew his MiG-29 Fulcrum
to Turkey in 1989.
Source: MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko, by John Barron.
While the presentation of Belenko's story in this book is doubtless
somewhat sugar-coated, I assume the basic biographical information
to be factual. A moderately sized grain of salt has been added to
the book for the above writeup; you may want to bring a salt shaker
of your own.
Information on other aircraft defections of the Cold War was obtained