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