The story went that on the afternoon of September 6, 1976, Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko of the 513th Fighter Regiment of the Soviet Air Defense Command took off in his MiG-25P from his base at Sakharovka in Primorsky Krai, and stole east across the Sea of Japan for Hokkaido.
He broke through the clouds over the island in the giant fighter, narrowly avoiding a collision with an airliner and dove down to Hakodate Airport where he landed screeching, skidding, blew out a tire and ran eight hundred feet off the end of the runway before finally stopping.
American and Japanese military personnel quickly arrived on the scene and promptly removed the MiG to the U.S. Air Force’s Foreign Technology Division over at Wright-Patterson.
Arthur Jorgenson hitched a ride on a C-130 transport to go meet it. When he stepped off the plane he looked up at the sky. He knew the latest Salyut space station was probably passing overhead, the cosmonauts aboard peering down at this base to which the Americans had shipped their stolen plane.
Jorgenson favored them with a one-finger salute. Their cameras didn’t have the resolution to register the gesture, but it made him feel better all the same.
Jorgenson turned his attention back to Earth and saw a man who introduced himself as Jared Kelso looking at him with an expression of confusion on his face. He didn’t ask for an explanation of the gesture, however, simply conducting him to the big hangar where they were keeping the MiG, outside which Kelso introduced Jorgenson to a man named Felix Candito. The three of them proceeded inside, and at once Jorgenson was struck by the sheer physical presence of the big twin-tailed fighter that dominated the space as puny-seeming technicians crawled over it, probing into its nooks and crannies.
“It’s huge,” were the first words to come out of his mouth. Jorgenson started walking around the plane, the two other men following him. “The wings are really big.” He knew something of the plane’s dimensions from reports and photographs, but the presence of the real thing made an impression nonetheless.
“The plane measures just a half inch short of forty-six feet, wingtip to wingtip,” Kelso said, “with the wing area coming to six hundred and sixty square feet. But what really stands out about it is its weight. Fully loaded, it weighs over eighty thousand pounds, almost twice as much as an F-4, a third more than one of the new F-14s, and actually comparable to an F-111 strike aircraft with a normal operational loading.
“It’s even more surprising compared with older MiGs, like the MiG-21, which weighed less than a fifth as much as this one. Even the new MiG-23 weighs less than half as much, with a smaller wingspan, even when its variable-geometry wings are fully spread.”
Of course, that still left the Foxbat a lot smaller than their own Blackbird, in every dimension, which would probably have been a fairer comparison. The same went for the YF-12 interceptors they developed out of the same design – bigger, heavier aircraft that only managed their combination of high speed and useful range with an addiction to tanker support.
The MiG’s speed and climb rate being what got everyone’s attention, the big power plants seemed a logical place to begin.
“What can you tell me about the engines?” he asked.
Kelso nodded. “These match old Tumansky designs for high-altitude drones, from way back in the ’50s. My guess? The Soviets heard about that Mach three bomber we were planning – you remember, the old B-70 Valkyrie – and figured hey, why not build an interceptor around two of them instead of designing all new engines from scratch?”
“Path of least resistance?”
“Exactly, and that’s not where they stopped,” Candito told him. “You hear about a Mach three plane, and you figure, well, it’s got to be a titanium airframe, right? Like our SR-71 Blackbirds. But this thing actually thunked when we took out a magnet.”
“Wait, but that would mean . . .”
“Yes, the body’s a steel alloy. Only titanium we’ve seen on the thing so far is a few strips on sections subject to heat. They use aluminum on the ones that aren’t.”
“Aluminum,” he repeated. That was a surprise.
“Anyway, it makes the thing so damn heavy that even with those two monster engines pushing it, even with the huge fuel capacity – we’re talking almost eighteen thousand liters, here – this plane can’t fly very far. It came from just across the Sea of Japan, but its tanks were practically empty when it touched the ground, maybe thirty seconds of fuel left to hear Belenko tell it. Apparently the reason for the lousy landing.”
That was less of a surprise, the steel airframe that pushed fuel consumption way up.
“As you might also guess from the weight, the plane also can’t maneuver for shit,” Candito told him. “In Vietnam the agility of the older MiGs was really something, but this plane can’t turn inside one of our old Phantoms, let alone an F-15.”
“What about the electronics?” Jorgenson asked.
“They’re a surprise too,” Kelso told him. “That radar’s a big brute, so big it could burn through just about any jamming. They’ve got a really good auto-pilot in here, too, and a pretty good onboard computer, but get this – it’s all done without transistors.”
“Then what the hell do they use? Vacuum tubes?”
“Actually, yes,” Kelso continued, “though I have to say they do things with that technology like I’ve never seen before, and believe it or not, this solves a lot of problems. Maintenance for one. Operating after exposure to an electromagnetic pulse for another.
“That’s really how this whole thing is, a lot of old, low-cost technologies ingeniously used to get a Mach 3 interceptor in the air, absolutely no more sophisticated than it absolutely has to be. Crude you might even say, like that welding. See how those rivets stick out? Looks like a shoddy job, but it’s all deliberate. They only leave them out where they won’t add to the drag on the airframe, so as ugly as they look, they don’t affect performance – and they actually make the plane stronger.”
“So, bottom line – what can we expect from this thing if our pilots go up against it?” Jorgenson asked.
“Utterly useless as a dog-fighter,” Candito said. “We would never have built a plane like this, and I guess they only did it because they’re not so advanced as we all worried they were.”
Jorgenson remembered how some of the folks back in Langley got hysterical when they clocked a Foxbat going Mach 3.2 over Israel back in ’73, the country’s vaunted air force helpless to stop it.
But with the mystery of the MiG-25′s performance largely solved, not only did it appear to be a wholly human piece of technology, but it also didn’t seem to be anything about which to get worked up. Still, Jorgenson suspected Candito’s smugness was misplaced. Even before the Foxbat entered into service the Soviets had started work on other, more advanced planes, some of which would probably fly before the end of the decade.
And new, advanced fighters or not, it was a dangerous thing to poke the bear.
“The Soviets will want their jet back,” Jorgenson observed.
“There’s no way the Soviets will start World War Three over a damn plane, but we’ll give it back to them,” Candito said with a savage grin on his face. “In a bunch of little crates, after we’ve finished going through every nut and bolt.”
Jorgenson was used to situations like this, checking up on new data about the state of Soviet R & D, making sure the Soviets weren’t doing any better than the West at cracking alien technical secrets. So far, the Reds had come up snake eyes, and he’d hardly been needed to tell them that this time. All the same, he stuck around to do the job right, checking things out himself rather than just taking the word of Kelso and Candito, even when he didn’t see any sign of their being wrong.
When he tired of kicking around the base Jorgenson got a Dodge Aspen out of the motor pool and headed into Dayton. He’d seen plenty of the city before during prior trips to the base, but it had been a while since his last visit, and anyway, he needed a break.
While driving about he twice thought he was being followed. A check told him that his imagination was working overtime. He decided that he just needed to relax, and he stopped at a coffee shop.
The place was nearly empty, which meant he didn’t wait longer than he would have liked before the waitress came to his booth.
“Cup of coffee, black, and a slice of that cherry pie,” he said, referring to the one under the glass on the counter.
“Just one second,” she said.
Jorgenson liked her. She was petite, cute, with hair that very particular shade of red – just his type. And he’d always had a thing for waitresses (there was just something about a woman bringing him food), one reason his last marriage ended as it did. He wasn’t in a mood to flirt now, but he noticed all the same, and needed to notice after spending so much time looking at jet innards.
Another customer walked in. To his surprise, the man who entered – middle-aged, wearing a brown suit – headed straight for his booth and slipped behind the opposite end of the table.
Jorgenson searched his memory for the face, decided it was new to him.
“Sorry about tailing you earlier Mr. Jorgenson,” the stranger said, “but it really seemed best that I make my introduction in person.”
Jorgenson’s career began back when he saw a foo fighter over Germany from the cockpit of his Mustang. Naturally, it wasn’t the first time that someone from the other side of the Iron Curtain had tried to approach him.
But it had never happened before when he was in the States, and he’d certainly never anticipated its happening here in Ohio of all places.
“I’m not here on behalf of the KGB, or GRU, or anything else of the kind,” the man said, as if he knew what he was thinking. “In fact, you might say that the people I represent are among the few who really appreciate the danger coming from those directions.”
Cranks then, though he didn’t know just what type of crank they were. The reappearance of the waitress with Jorgenson’s coffee and pie – and a smile – interrupted the conversation.
“My friend here will be picking up the bill,” Jorgenson said. She acknowledged his statement with a nod and went on her way while Jorgenson took a sip of his coffee and watched while the stranger waited politely.
The caffeine in his system, and his snack paid for, he decided to humor the man, at least for a while. “What can I call you?”
“Let’s try Mr. Stillson.”
That was a funny way of putting it, but a good many of these cranks were addicted to bad television spycraft.
“All right, Mr. Stillson, what is it you think I can do for you?”
Mr. Stillson told him, and what he said rather disarmed Jorgenson. Not right away. Quite a few of the things he said needed a good bit of explaining. But when Stillson was all done Jorgenson actually found himself considering what the man said, to his very great surprise.
To his even greater surprise, he told Mr. Stillson that he was taking him up on his offer.