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Viktor Belenko, Soviet pilot who defected with ‘the world’s most advanced fighter plane’ in 1976 – obituary

Viktor Belenko's military identity document
Viktor Belenko's military identity document - Universal Images Group Editorial

Viktor Belenko, who has died aged 76, was a senior lieutenant in the Soviet air force who made headlines in September 1976 when he landed an advanced supersonic MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor at a civilian airfield on the Japanese island of Hokkaido and was granted political asylum by the United States.

Said to be the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, the MiG-25 Foxbat had caused concern at the highest levels in Nato for years. So Belenko’s arrival was greeted by western intelligence agencies as a golden opportunity to uncover the plane’s secrets. The Foxbat was dissected before being returned, in pieces, to the Soviets, a few weeks later.

Experts’ initial impression was that the plane was far less advanced than had been supposed, one Washington intelligence source describing it as “no more than a rocket with wings”. Within a few days they revised their opinion somewhat, noting that the radar and electronics were of a high standard.

Belenko's MiG-25 Foxbat at Hakodate, Japan, September 6 1976
Belenko's MiG-25 Foxbat at Hakodate, Japan, September 6 1976 - The Asahi Shimbun

This was hardly surprising as they discovered, to their shock, that the plane’s weapons guidance system was controlled by an IBM computer.

Viktor Ivanovich Belenko was born into a poor family on February 15 1947, in Nalchik, in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and worked himself up military and party ranks to become a member of the USSR’s Air Defence Forces, an elite corps whose principal role was to shoot down enemy aircraft if they penetrated Soviet airspace.

By his own account Belenko became disenchanted with the Soviet system and, according to the New York Times, fed up with the “brutal discipline, distrust, extraordinary concern with safety, and spartan living conditions,” he and colleagues had to endure.

Viktor Belenko as a political asylum seeker, being transported to the airport from a Tokyo police station
Viktor Belenko as a political asylum seeker, being transported to the airport from a Tokyo police station - AP

He had been planning his escape for two years, Belenko told his interrogators, and had applied for a posting to a base near Vladivostok to be within flying distance of Japan. Before he escaped he had persuaded his ground crew to give him enough fuel to get to Japan, thus evading a standard precaution against defection. He  managed to escape two other MiG-25s flying with him by peeling off without warning. The other pilots chased him, but turned back when they reached Japanese airspace.

Belenko had devised an elaborate cover story to protect himself if he were refused asylum. He planned to tell the Soviet authorities that he had flown into Japanese air space by mistake and had been forced to land due to faulty navigational equipment. When he landed and slid back his cockpit canopy, he was reported to have fired his pistol into the air, ostensibly to keep Japanese airfield workers at bay.

There followed a classic Cold War war of words. The Soviets accused the US of using drugs to force Belenko to defect, before wheeling out his tearful wife and mother at a press conference at which they begged him to return, promising he would face “absolutely no punishment even if he had made a mistake”, and accusing the Americans of breaking up the family.

Belenko's wife and mother displaying their grief at a Moscow press conference
Belenko's wife and mother displaying their grief at a Moscow press conference - AP

But according to debriefing reports Belenko was having none of it, claiming that his mother had last seen him when he was one year old, that he “detested” his wife and that his three-year-old son had been “weaned away from him”.

Settled in the US, where he was granted citizenship in 1980, Belenko took the surname Schmidt and moved around between small towns in the Midwest. He worked as a consultant to aerospace companies and government agencies. After the end of the Cold War he became Viktor Belenko again.

He married an American woman with whom he had two sons, but the marriage ended in divorce. According to an obituary in the New York Times, Belenko dismissed claims that he had left a wife and son behind in Russia as Soviet propaganda.

Viktor Belenko, born February 15 1947, died September 24 2023