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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?

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."

Penny says that a military pilot with an extensive fighter background can be up to speed in just a couple of flights. He adds that he can have a 1,000-hour pilot flying a MiG like a hot stick in as little as 12 hours. Pilots who fly their MiGs for air show crowds, however, tend to shake their heads at pilots without military training strapping themselves into a supersonic, swept-wing interceptor.

"The difference between life and death in supersonic aircraft is measured in microseconds," says Vietnam veteran Reesman. "What scares me is a civilian pilot who sees one and gets excited and wants to buy a MiG, when quite frankly it's dangerous--like any swept-wing supersonic fighter. The difference [between civilian and military pilots] is that the military spends a million to a mil-lion and a half teaching someone to fly jet fighters. If they don't have the proper background, they're basically an accident waiting to happen."

Not all American MiG fliers hold the same sentiment. "It's no problem at all if they're trained properly," says Salganek, who himself has no military training. "These jets were first flown by kids from Bulgaria, Nigeria, Cuba, Pakistan without a lot of flying time. Someone [who fulfills the FAA's time requirements] has a lot more training than the pilots who first flew these jets."

So why go to all this trouble to own and fly a MiG? The appeal seems to be threefold. First, you can't get a more prominent symbol of the Evil Empire than one of these beasts with the dreaded red star and hammer-and-sickle stenciled on its substantial tail. Just seeing one makes you feel the rush of danger and excitement--you're in the presence of the sworn enemy of liberty and freedom. "There's a mystique about having the cream of the crop of the Soviet air force," says Salganek. Second, since our guys are flying it, it's like booty from the Cold War: Look! It's ours! We captured it! We won! And third, "they're a simple jet; they have a simple systems philosophy," says Penny.

"But," Penny adds, "it is a jet, and it's not cheap to fly." Then what about that bargain-basement price tag? It's a bit deceptive. After show pilot Reesman lost his MiG 17 in the fire, he found another for sale for $30,000, sure. But it was in pretty bad shape, and it took a crew of mechanics working day and night for two months, plus an additional $40,000, to get the MiG into tip-top condition. That's not too bad, though, considering Reesman paid $150,000 for his now-toasted first MiG. (Even that's a pretty reasonable price tag; you'd be looking in the high six figures for a Second World War piston job.)

There are other expenses as well. The low-end MiG 15 will burn 350 gallons of jet fuel per hour, and jet fuel goes for about $2 a gallon. To stay up to speed, a pilot should fly at least three to four hours a month. Figure in other costs such as insurance and maintenance, and you're looking at a little over $1,000 an hour to operate your own little interceptor. "It's a neat toy for a rich boy," says Penny in the patented good-'ol-boy patois fighter jocks share. "Unless you can find a way to get the aircraft to pay for itself, you simply have to be willing to throw your credit card down and not blink."

Indeed, most MiG men make their fighters work for their keep. Many owners, like Reesman and Pensacola, Florida's Paul Entrekin, fly the air show circuit. Dr. Howard Torman, the medical correspondent for "CBS This Morning," occasionally leases his two-seat MiG 15 to the test pilots school at Edwards Air Force Base in California; the students take it up and evaluate it as homework. And John Penny just flies other peoples' jets. "I wouldn't be so silly as to own a MiG," he says.

Of course, you know that having something that the government's so dead-set against and that will shoot a thousand dollar hole in your wallet with every cruise around the patch can only be the greatest raw thrill under the sun. "It gives you kind of a rush. You get a sense of the power the machinery has," says Penny. "You can be running along the desert floor at 450 miles per hour, see a cloud 10,000 feet high, and you can pop up and shoot through the cloud, like that. And then there's the technology. You have the feeling of mastering the systems in a high-performance, complex aircraft and making the aircraft perform. It's personally satisfying."

"When you fly a MiG, it's a tremendous adrenaline rush--it makes you feel like Superman," says Salganek. "You come back smiling and exhausted. It's like having great sex without having to worry about it afterwards."

But say you only have a hankering to get behind the controls just once--though in high style. A Sarasota, Florida, company called MiGs, etc. allows would-be Red aces the chance to fly a MiG with the Russian air force in Mother Russia. Packages range from a one-hour ride in a MiG 21 for $3,700 to a six-day, five-flight multi-MiG extravaganza for $19,990 --airfare to Moscow not included.

Or, if you want the experience of strapping into a MiG without leaving the safety of your office, a company called the IBD Group offers desk chairs converted from surplus MiG ejection seats. They're $5,000.

The message is clear: Why settle for a golden parachute when you can own a rocket-powered, Russian-built one?

Based in New York City, Phil Scott writes frequently about aviation topics and is the author of The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919 (Addison-Wesley, 1995).

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