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Defection by Aircraft

Defection by Aircraft

by William H. Benson

October 5, 2017

     No matter how powerful a dictatorial regime, certain people will want to escape, and they may try to escape by aircraft. Once a rogue government entrusts an airplane, a jet, or a helicopter to a pilot, he or she can steer that aircraft to wherever he or she wants. During the Cold War dozens of pilots flew their Soviet Union-built MiG’s to the West and begged for asylum. They defected.

     In March and May of 1953, two Polish Air Force pilots flew their MiG-15’s to Denmark. That same year, during the Korean War, a North Korean pilot, No Kom Sok, flew his MiG-15 to an American air base in South Korea. It is housed now at the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio.

     On October 15, 1969, a Cuban pilot, Lieutenant Edwardo Guerra Jimenez, entered U.S. airspace undetected and landed his MiG-17 at Homestead Air Force Base, south of Miami. His defection embarrassed American military officials. On that day, Air Force One was at Homestead, waiting to fly President Richard Nixon back to Washington D. C.

     The United States government returned the aircraft to the Cubans, but then ten years later, on June 12, 1979, Jimenez high-jacked Delta Airlines Flight 1061, and directed the pilot to fly to Havana. Jimenez missed his homeland, his family, and friends.

     On September 6, 1976, Viktor Belenko, a pilot based at Chuguyevka Air Base in Siberia, flew his MiG-25 to Hakodate, Japan. The Japanese allowed the Americans to examine the aircraft, and even dismantle it, but the Soviets insisted that the Japanese must return the MiG to them. They did, in thirty crates that arrived on a ship at Vladivostok’s port on November 18.

     President Gerald Ford granted Belenko asylum in the United States, and in 1980, he received United States citizenship. Even though still married to his wife back in Russia, he married a music teacher from North Dakota. They had two sons, but later divorced. Belenko found work as a consultant.

     Why did he defect? He said he was fed up with the lies. The Soviets said that “the U.S.S.R. was a wondrous paradise,” but he knew that “its citizens were poor, that the economy was depressed, and that hopelessness stalked the land.” The first time he walked into a U.S. grocery store, he suspected that officials had staged it for him, but then he learned the truth.

     Another Soviet Union pilot, Aleksandr Zuyev, a Soviet Union pilot, baked a cake laced with sleeping pills on May 20, 1989, and served a slice to all of his support staff. When all were asleep, he walked out to his MiG-29, overpowered a single mechanic there, but was shot in the arm during the scuffle. Still, he managed to fly the MiG to Trabzon, Turkey.

     On March 20, 1991, another Cuban, Orestes Lorenzo Pérez, defected when he flew his MiG-23 to the Naval Air Station at Key West. He then begged Cuban officials to allow his wife and children to migrate to Florida to join him there, but the Cuban government refused.

     On December 19, 1992, near sunset, Pérez flew a twin-engine Cessna 310 from Marathon, Florida back to Cuba, and landed on a small coastal highway near El Mamey beach, where his wife and children waited for him. They jumped in. He took off and flew the Cessna back to Marathon that night.

     The strangest flight though during the Cold War was a reverse flight, from West to East. Mathias Rust lived in West Germany, was eighteen years old in 1987, and was an inexperienced pilot.

     On May 13, 1987, he flew his Cessna 172 from Hamburg, West Germany, northwest to Iceland in the North Atlantic. From there, he flew due east, to Bergen in Norway, then to Helsinki in Finland, and then he crossed into Soviet Union airspace. Surface-to-Air Missiles were poised, ready to shoot him out of the sky, but no military official ever ordered an attack.

     On May 28, 1987, he flew over Moscow, buzzed low over Red Square and the Kremlin, but then landed on a bridge near St. Basil’s Cathedral. The authorities showed up an hour later and arrested him. He received four years in prison, but served fourteen months before officials released him.

     Why had he flown to Moscow? He said that he wanted to create an “imaginary bridge” and “reduce tensions between the two Cold War sides.” He indicated that the breakdown at the Reykjavík summit in Iceland the previous October had disturbed him. There, Reagan had met Gorbachev to discuss banning nuclear missiles, but Gorbachev refused to agree to Reagan’s proposals.

     Gorbachev called Rust’s unhindered flight to Moscow an issue of “national shame,” and he purged from the military those officials who opposed his reform policies. In December of 1987, at the Washington Summit, he and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

     The Cold War ended without a hot war, without massive casualties. Rust’s flight, and a series of defections played a small part in the Cold War’s demise.