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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

(continued from page 1)

The answer is simple: Westerners--especially Americans.

Buying a MiG often has an air of foreign intrigue. The sellers tend to be a reticent bunch--a few who were contacted for this article refused to return phone calls or honor requests for interviews. Perhaps it's something they've picked up from their suppliers behind the tattered Iron Curtain. "People are going over to the former Soviet Union," says the FAA's O'Haver, "and for a dollar and a Coke bottle cap, someone will sell them an aircraft that maybe they own, and maybe they don't."

According to Reesman, some dealers aren't so honorable in the United States, either. "There are people in this country selling MiGs who will tell you anything," he says. "Many of these MiGs have been sitting out in a field for six to eight years without being flown."

The place to start MiG shopping is usually Trade-A-Plane, a thick, tabloid-sized publication distributed three times a month that lists virtually all aircraft great and small that are for sale. In the warbirds section there might be an ad from Poland offering Russian aircraft parts, an Ontario post office box number for a firm selling late-model MiGs and an ad from the aptly named Phoenix Warbirds Inc. "Now easier to buy one with good credit," the latter ad reads. One partner in the Arizona-based company, Chester Dubaj, says he buys MiGs directly from the Polish air force. The Poles, he says, take flyable craft, disassemble and crate them, then ship them to him. Dubaj, a former Polish national, says his company deals in spare parts, too. "Whatever you need, I get. Parts, brake systems, those kind of things getting used a lot," he says.

Perhaps some of the dealers are laconic because they don't want to bring down the further scrutiny of the U.S. government. Before a jet can enter the United States, the Customs Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are all over it, making sure that all its warmongering accessories, such as electronic radar-jamming equipment, machine guns, cannons and rockets, have been removed. Once the jet's inside the country, the FAA regulatory authority begins. After it has been bought and outfitted with modern radios, and otherwise more or less refurbished from the ground up, the MiG gets a thorough government inspection and is declared airworthy--or not. Many MiG importers sell the fighters as is; the buyer turns his jet over to other companies that bring it up to airworthiness standards and paint it in the buyer's dream color scheme.

But even after all that is done, the new owner can't toss his white scarf behind him and fly off into the wild blue yonder. The FAA bestows upon each warbird a designated "proficiency area" within a 600-nautical-mile radius of its home airport. The fighter can take off and land only at that airport (which, for safety's sake, can't have passenger airline service). Want to take a longer trip? Plan ahead, advises the FAA's O'Haver. For cross-country trips, pilots have to notify the FAA in writing, telling where and when they'll be flying the untamed little beast. Says McNeil, "You want to use a jet for travel? Fine, buy a Learjet."

These rules tend to ruffle the feathers of some jet pilots. Kay Eckart, president of the Classic Jet Aircraft Association, finds them prohibitively restrictive. "It's asinine," he says. "No, it's worse than that. How are you supposed to get proficient flying cross-country at high altitude [with all the restrictions]?" So what about filing the letter? "Nobody in the FAA likes it because it creates more paperwork," Eckart says. "Somebody in Washington's a control freak, and that's what we've fought wars against."

Not everyone feels so strongly. "The regulations are fine," says Larry Salganek, who runs Fantasy Fighters, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, firm that trains civilian pilots to fly old military jets. "Anybody buying one of these is not buying it for transportation. MiGs are for going up and flying some heavy g's. They're not for going to grandma's house."

The FAA's not quite through yet, however. To get behind the controls of a jet fighter, a pilot needs 1,000 hours of stick time, including at least 500 hours in turbine-powered aircraft, and then a course of instruction in the fighter from someone who is certified by the FAA. "It's not something you want to hop into, or that we want you to hop into," says O'Haver.

If all this sounds ponderous and time-consuming, it is. But companies like Salganek's have sprung up to make buying and flying MiGs a smoother proposition. There's also MiG Masters, an informal alliance of former U.S. fighter jocks led by John Penny in Denver. To help an owner certify his fighter for the FAA, MiG Masters will run a flight-test program on it, and, like Fantasy Fighters, will teach would-be fighter jocks to fly their MiGs. Penny puts novice pilots through a military-style proficiency program in a two-seat training version of the MiG 15, though when he became one of the first Americans to fly one in 1987 he had to teach himself in a single-seater. "I had to take captured Soviet documents and learn the aircraft from them," he says. "I ended up writing my own procedures."

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