Soviet pilot Victor Belenko defected with his MiG-25 Foxbat to Japan in September 1976, riding out of the Iron Curtain and into our hearts. His stolen jet became a treasure trove for Western intelligence. The U.S. quickly claimed him, even passing a law in 1980 to make him a citizen. But now, 43 years later, the pilot has passed from an unspecified illness in Rosebud, Illinois.
Viktor Belenko defects
The Soviet Air Defence Forces debuted the Mig-25 Foxbat in 1970 after six years of secret flights. The plane was, and is, insanely fast. It's still the fastest fighter jet in active service after more than 50 years. Originally created to threaten SR-71s and chase down planned XB-70 Valkyrie bombers, it quickly set records for altitude and speed and for scaring American military planners.
America quickly pressed the F-15 into development to deal with the Mig-25 threat. The Soviets claimed insane performance stats for the Foxbat. And American designers worked hard to make a jet that could overcome them. The F-15 entered service in 1976, the same year that Viktor Belenko flew his own fighter east out of the Soviet Union. He flew at nearly wavetop level, so close that he had to dodge fishing boats over a misty Sea of Japan. He nearly ran out of fuel and had to glide the unwieldy Foxbat to the airport, nearly hitting a 727.
Then Belenko landed it in Japan. At 2:30 in the afternoon, Belenko parked at Hakodate Airport in Hokkaido. Once Western intelligence got to crawl through the Foxbat, they learned it was fast, could fly high, and was terrible at air-to-air combat.
Belenko's defection saved America a fortune in unnecessary development costs and in Tums for nervous pilots. And Belenko carried a lot of additional intelligence, telling his debriefers of how Foxbat squadrons were often based without adequate ground crews in places with food so horrible that some of his maintainers refused to eat. Rampant alcoholism and corruption ate the force from the inside.
So he was quite pleased with the accommodations in the West, and he was feted for bringing the jet and information across.
Viktor Belenko as an American
Belenko changed his name to Schmidt and lived a mostly quiet life in the Midwest, working as an aerospace consultant. He had two sons and four grandchildren.
After the Cold War ended, he started going to air shows and using his more famous birth name of Belenko.
But he grew old, like all Cold War warriors. Hopefully, he got the peace and prosperity he hoped for when he defected to America. His name was reportedly cursed for decades in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. But his children grew up in America, with better food, better jobs and better prospects than Russia.
Belenko's family revealed in November that the beloved defector had passed quietly of an unspecified illness on September 24, 2023. Legacy.com lists his obituary as: After a life of legendary service to his adopted country, Viktor passed away on September 24, 2023 after a brief illness with his sons Tom and Paul by his side. Ever courageous, he will be missed by his American comrades. No memorial service planned.