September 6

This Day in History

Cold War

Sep 6, 1976:

Soviet pilot lands Russian MIG fighter plane in Japan

A Soviet Air Force pilot lands his MIG fighter jet in Japan and asks for asylum in the United States. The incident was a serious embarrassment for the Soviets, and also provided a bit of a surprise for U.S. officials.

When the Soviets first put the MIG-25 (known as the Foxbat) into production in the 1960s, U.S. officials became nearly hysterical. The new plane, they claimed, was the fastest, most advanced, and most destructive interceptor jet ever built. Its debut, they argued, meant that the United States was falling dangerously behind in the race to control the skies. On September 6, 1976, those officials got a close-up look at the aircraft. Soviet Air Force Lt. Viktor Belenko took his MIG-25 out of Soviet airspace and landed it at a Japanese airfield at Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. Japanese police took the pilot into custody, where he immediately asked for asylum in the United States. Experts from the U.S. quickly arrived on the scene to get a firsthand look at the aircraft. After being questioned extensively by both Japanese and U.S. officials, Belenko was flown to the United States and granted political asylum.

For the Soviets, the MIG-25 incident was a major diplomatic and military embarrassment. To have one of their most advanced planes delivered into the hands of their enemy was mortifying and was viewed as a serious setback to the Soviet weapons program.

U.S. officials were in for a surprise. After a thorough check of the MIG-25, the Americans experts came away less than impressed. The plane was quite fast, but also unwieldy and almost completely incapable of close-quarters combat. In addition, the electronic technology of the plane was deemed to be far behind comparable U.S. aircraft. As one U.S. expert joked, "I guess it could be worse; it might have been made out of wood." The MIG-25 incident suggested that U.S. officials may have overestimated the Soviet threat in order to push for even higher American defense spending.

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