A Reporter's Online Notebook
by Chris Dixon
The Airventure 2000 Airshow, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. July 24-30, 2000.
On September 6, 1976, Russian fighter pilot Victor Belenko decided he had had enough. On a routine mission, he veered off course and kicked in the afterburners. Flying mach speed at sea-level to avoid surface-to-air missiles and other Russian fighters, Victor headed for Japan. With only 30 seconds of fuel remaining, he blazed into Hakodate's airport in a MIG-25 Foxbat. In one of Russia's most prized secret weapons, Victor narrowly missed a departing jetliner, skidded and screeched across the runway, blew a tire and nearly nailed a large antenna. Belenko had arrived in the west.
As we walked into a smoky, pilot-filled bar outside of Oshkosh, Yakov told me that I was about to meet his friend. "My father was a general," explained Yakov. "When Victor defected, he loses many stars because of that."
Soon I was shaking hands with a living legend. While his rosy cheeks suggested numerous vodka shots, Belenko was quite lucid and positively hilarious. He handed me his business card. It read: "Victor Belenko. Mig-25 Pilot. World's Greatest Anti-Communist Fighter Pilot. Unconventional Emigrant. Landed in Japan on 9/6/76 with 30 seconds of fuel remaining. No passport. No visa. had a gun and used it. Spent time in Japanese jail. U.S. Citizen by unanimous vote of US Congress."
I hoped that a conversation would shed even more light on his life.
CD: Victor, I remember when you defected. I was young, but it was still a huge story.
V: Yes, (laughing) almost as huge a story as your president and Monica.
CD: When did you meet Yakov?
V: I met him five or six years ago. He was with a cosmonaut named Igor Volk. And when I was introduced to Igor, he almost fell on his ass! He says, "you supposed to be dead!" I said, 'not so fast', because the KGB spread rumor that I was killed -- so they could prevent other incidents and scare people. Today, most Russians think I am dead.
Those f---ing Soviet public servants, they were manipulating our lives. And I refused to be a part of that! I squeezed their balls so hard that the KGB was in a coma for 14 months! You can ask Yakov! He was a young pilot -- he read it in a newspaper and almost wet his pants!!
(Yakov laughed and nodded in agreement)
CD: But you don't regret it.
V: I do not. If I did, I wouldn't be here.
CD: What was the very last straw?
V: The hypocrisy and abuse of the system. My decision had nothing to do with my profession. It was an opportunity because I was a pilot. If I hadn't been a pilot, I still would have found a way to defect. For me, it was the ultimate revenge against a corrupt, abusive system. If you want to know more, call the Kremlin, call Putin, he wasn't head of KGB then, but he knows Victor. They learned, don't f--- with me. Today, I'm a peaceful US citizen.
CD: They made you a citizen on the spot.
V: Yes, the US Congress passed a private bill to make me a US Citizen. To do that, the vote had to be unanimous. And you know, those guys never agree on anything. But in this case, even Ted Kennedy said yes.
People should have freedom to express their points of view. The most enjoyable thing in life to me is being able to express my feelings without having to look back over my shoulder. Americans take this freedom for granted. Here we can even say that we think the Commander in Chief is a bad ass! You go to Iran, and you say that their religious leaders are screwed up and they'll cut your balls right off!!
Americans are very unique people though. They have tolerance regarding other people's opinion. In certain cultures, if you do not accept the mainstream, you would be booted out or might disappear. Here we have people, you know, who hug trees, and people who want to cut them down -- and they live side by side!
I love this country.
By the time we left the bar, it was getting quite late and Yakov was fading fast. But we had one final conversation on the way home.
"When I first met Victor," Yakov explained, "he said, 'Yakov, you're coming to kill Victor! I say, Victor, I no kill you. It's no big deal. My father's dead now.' My father had to go on social security when Victor defected and he died two years later. Many generals had big problem when Victor defect.
Yakov asked me what Victor said when I asked why he defected, and I replied that he said it was because he didn't want to be repressed anymore and was sick of not being able to express his point-of-view. I asked Yakov's opinion.
"My opinion was the same," he said. "It was a very, very stupid system. I would have defected, but I had too much problem with the KGB."
"They suspected you would defect?"
"So when you made your trip with Wally Post, it was your first trip outside of Russia?"
"Beside going into space, yes."
"Why did the KGB give you such a hard time?"
Yakov paused, and pondered for a moment. "I knew many secrets. Mucho, mucho secrets. I knew the countries the Russians sold Atomic bomb secrets to. Pakistan, Iraq, Iran. Stupid Russian government. They sell technology to make the bomb to these unstable countries."
"I got to America and told the Pentagon about it because I couldn't live with that knowledge. You do the right thing, you live the good life."
With that, he began snoring softly in the back seat.
"But later, when I discovered supermarket was real one, I had real fun exploring new products. I would buy, everyday, a new thing and try to figure out its function. In Russia at that time (and even today) it's hard to find canned food, good one. But everyday I would buy new cans with different food. Once I bought a can which said "dinner." I cooked it with potatoes, onions, and garlic-it was delicious. Next morning my friends ask me, "Viktor, did you buy a cat?" It was a can of chicken-based cat food. But it was delicious! It was better than canned food for people in Russia today."