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Red Fighters: MiGs

The MiGs that Put Heat in the Cold War Can Now be Flown by Westerners
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

There was nothing like it. Not on this side of the Yalu River during the Korean War. Our boys--still flying the hot piston-engine equipment that brought the likes of Tojo and Hitler to their knees in The Big One--they could only sit in their cockpits and whisper "What the hell was that?" when they encountered their first MiG. It was just a jet-powered flash of silver in the sky, the fastest thing on wings. Our early jets were no match: the MiG was lighter, quicker and climbed higher than anything we could throw against it, even the remarkable F-86 Sabre. Hell, a MiG could turn circles inside a Sabre jet.

There was the time that famed ace Col. Francis "Gabby" Gabreski and his old wingman, Bud Mahurin, were just stooging along in Sabres when suddenly the sky lit up with high-explosive cannon shells. "We looked back and saw him. He had us set up like I would like to find a couple of them set up," the colonel recalls. "Fortunately for me he fired out of range. Before we knew what was going on, the MiG hit max Mach and disappeared over the Yalu River."

Back then it seemed that if...just if...our guys could wrestle one of those screaming banshees from behind the Iron Curtain, get behind the controls and wring the secrets from its Russian-made hide, we could have that war sewed up in no time. It seemed that way every time there was a different war, and a newer generation of MiGs flying in it.

Now Americans--and other Westerners--finally can get as many MiGs as they want, through the simple capitalistic method of buying them. Ever since the Soviet Union crashed, the sleek, snub-nosed little MiG 15 fighter has become available to, and popular with, aircraft collectors. So have a number of its more youthful brethren--MiGs 17, 21 and 23--which fly faster and grow more complex and sophisticated as the number ratchets upward. Even the latest and most advanced of the lineage, the MiG 29, can be quietly obtained for the right price: around $32 million. The rest, though, can be had still in the packing crate, fresh off the container vessel, for between $30,000 and $40,000 each. Compared with your average piston-powered warbird--compared with just about any airplane on the market today, vintage or not--that's quite a bargain.

But as one MiG pilot described it, the price tag is only the down payment on the entry fee for a very exclusive club. To put it another way: you just can't walk up to one at the used-aircraft lot, strap your butt to its 7,000 pounds of thrust, kick in the after-burners and go. The reasons tend to be numerous and complex. For starters, there's the Federal Aviation Administration, America's governmental watchdog for all things aeronautical. Though part of the FAA's official mission is to support and encourage airborne activities, unofficially it tends to take a dim view of hyper-swift warbirds in civilian hands, especially hyper-swift foreign warbirds--no matter if they're 30 or 40 years old. According to Robert O'Haver, an aviation safety inspector for the FAA, "From the point of view of the FAA, such aircraft are not certificated in accordance to U.S. standards, and the manufacturing country doesn't have a bilateral agreement with us. We don't know what went into its design and manufacture."

Further, and perhaps foremost in the minds of FAA officials, not only are such machines overwhelmingly fast, they also tend to carry nothing practical except a pilot or two and several hundred gallons of highly volatile fuel, and they are unforgiving to the slightest mistake of the pilot. Says George McNeil, another FAA safety inspector, "These things are so high profile that if they crash, the next thing we know we're hearing from the district's congressman."

"A MiG is meant to be a mean and nasty airplane to the guy chasing it, and it can be mean and nasty to the guy who's flying it," says Bill Reesman, a former U.S. fighter jock who spent his two decades in uniform studying every which way to kill a MiG in combat. After 320 missions over Vietnam--without ever tangling with one--Reesman now owns and flies a MiG 17 in the air show circuit. He knows all too well that it doesn't take much to turn a 700-mile-an-hour jet into a smoking crater, since it almost happened to him.

In February 1994, Reesman's mechanic had just changed the engine on the pilot's first MiG 17, and Reesman took off for a shakedown flight. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion; the controls started shaking and Reesman looked back and saw his tail engulfed in flames. Then his thousands of hours of military training kicked in, and without even thinking he hauled the fighter around and put it down on the runway, then set a land-speed record scampering away from the burning wreck. "I donated what's left to the Eugene, Oregon, Air and Space Museum to show how much the MiG could take and fly," he says with a measured, unflappable tone that tells you sleep wasn't disturbed none that night.

Though exact numbers are hard to come by, soon there will be more MiGs in America than classic U.S. fighter jets. The U.S. government's dim view of warbirds in private hands is partly responsible. Since the dawn of the jet age, standard operating procedurefor dealing with obsolete American-built aircraft has consisted of hacking them to pieces in the desert, then melting the chunks into ingots. A select few jets, donated as ready-made sculpture for parks and military bases or as cadavers for trade school students, got away with having holes chopped in their wing spars to render them unflyable. An American citizen who wants to get a flyable, U.S.-made ex-interceptor must usually buy it from a country that received fighter jets from the United States.

Communist countries, however, never bothered much with their old machines. The air forces of Russia, China, Poland and all the rest tended to cart their spent, weary MiGs out to the nearest pasture and leave them. Who could afford to rebuild, fly and maintain one, anyway?

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