When pilot Viktor Belenko defected 40 years ago, he did so in a mysterious Soviet plane – the MiG-25. BBC Future investigates the far-reaching effects of one of the Cold War’s most intriguing events.
On 6 September 1976, an aircraft appears out of the clouds near the Japanese city of Hakodate, on the northern island of Hokkaido. It’s a twin-engined jet, but not the kind of short-haul airliner Hakodate is used to seeing. This huge, grey hulk sports the red stars of the Soviet Union. No-one in the West has ever seen one before.
The jet lands on Hakodate’s concrete-and-asphalt runway. The runway, it turns out, is not long enough. The jet ploughs through hundreds of feet of earth before it finally comes to rest at the far end of the airport.
The pilot climbs out of the plane’s cockpit and fires two warning shots from his pistol – motorists on the road next to the airport have been taking pictures of this strange sight. It is some minutes before airport officials, driving from the terminal, reach him. It is then that the 29-year-old pilot, Flight Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, announces that he wishes to defect.
It is no normal defection. Belenko has not wandered into an embassy, or jumped ship while visiting a foreign port. The plane that he has flown 400-odd miles, and which now sits stranded at the end of a provincial Japanese runway, is the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25. It is the most secretive aircraft the Soviet Union has ever built.
Until Belenko’s landing, that is.
The West first became aware of what would become known as the MiG-25 around 1970. Spy satellites stalking Soviet airfields picked up a new kind of aircraft being tested in secret. They looked like enormous fighter planes, and the West’s militaries were concerned by one particular feature; they sported very large wings.
A large wing area is very useful in a fighter plane – it helps generate lift and it also decreases the amount of weight distributed across the wing, which helps make it more nimble and easier to turn. This Soviet jet seemed to combine this ability with a pair of enormous engines. How fast could it go? Could anything in the US Air Force or other militaries keep up with it?
There had also been glimpses in the Middle East. In March 1971, Israel picked up a strange new aircraft that accelerated to Mach 3.2 – more than three times the speed of sound – and climbed to 63,000ft (nearly 20 kilometres). The Israelis, and US intelligence advisors, had never seen anything like it. Following a second sighting a few days later, Israeli fighters scrambled to intercept the aircraft but couldn’t even come close.
In November, the Israelis ambushed one of these mysterious intruders, firing missiles head on from 30,000ft below. It was a useless gesture. Their unidentified target streaked past at nearly three times the speed of sound – so fast the jet was already out of the danger zone by the time the missiles exploded.
The Pentagon put two and two together, and came up with a Cold War crisis. They believed this jet was the same one that had been glimpsed from the satellite photos. They were suddenly presented with the prospect of a Soviet fighter that could outrun and out-turn anything in the US Air Force.