Top 10 Defector’s Aircraft

Throughout the Cold War there were people deciding they’d had enough of their side of the Iron Curtain and trying to go and look at the other side. Inevitably on occasion this saw aircraft being borrowed to make the trip. Sometimes this was actively encouraged: for instance when the USA offered financial incentives to anyone who’d bring them a MiG-15, going as far as leaflet dropping to advertise the deal. Or indeed any flight between China and Taiwan where both sides were handing over gold in exchange for aircraft, like a We Buy Any Car set-up but for warplanes.

This list was compiled based on a variety of factors, including number of times a type was used for a defection, practicality, style, chutzpah, and if the author burst out laughing when reading about it. Before the Tomcat fans complain about this article it only gets a runners up spot because the F-14 which was used to defect from Iran to Iraq got shot down, as the pilot went a day earlier than planned.

Bing Chandler & Hush-Kit’s book ‘Flying Traitors: A History of Aerial Defection’ will be published in 2022

10. Ilyushin Il-28

First flying in 1949 the Il-28 Beagle was a twin-engined bomber, powered by the ubiquitous Klimov VK-1 an unlicensed Rolls-Royce Nene knock off. With a crew of three the Beagle had the advantage for the would-be defector that each member sat in their own pressurised compartment, making the cooperation of the bombardier and rear gunner a nice to have rather than a pre-requisite. Sucks if you’re not the pilot though.

On the 11th of November 1965 Lee Xianban took advantage of this design feature during a routine sortie from Hangzhou on the coast of the East China Sea. Turning south towards Taiwan his navigator Li Caiwang and gunner Lian Baosheng tried to stop him, presumably with harsh language, but to no avail. [1] Flying at low level over the sea the aircraft avoided radar detection and made its landfall on the north of the island near the ROCAF base at Taoyuan. At this point Lee’s luck ran out and due to the weather and a lack of familiarity with the area the nose gear collapsed during the landing.

At this point accounts differ as to what actually happened. The official report claims Lian died in the crash and along with the other crew members was declared an Anti-Communist Martyr by the KMT government of Taiwan. Meanwhile Li decided to join Lee in defecting, and both were given substantial cash rewards and served in the ROCAF for many years. In non-flying roles, because there was a lot of paranoia going around and the KMT weren’t totally convinced the people they’d given ~$4 million to weren’t about to take a load of secrets back across the straits to China.
The award of Anti-Communist Martyr status was enough for the PRC authorities to persecute Lian’s family and send them to labour camps, because nothing says benign dictatorship like punishing people for crimes they weren’t involved with. However, both Lee and Li subsequently claimed Lian had committed suicide rather than defect to Taiwan, the PRC only becoming aware of this when Li emigrated to the USA in the late ‘70s and gave a press conference.

To add to the confusion, Li claimed he had also been forced to defect by Lee which led to the PRC revoking his treason charge and the Taiwanese deciding he was maybe less of a martyr than they’d thought. In 1983 Li finally returned to China re-declaring his loyalty to the CCP, although apparently keeping the money.
Lee meanwhile emigrated to Canada in 1990 and in December of the following year he and his wife visited his sick mother in China. Having been assured there was a 20-year statute of limitations for his crime by the Chinese embassy it must have been something of a disappointment when he was arrested on his way to the airport for his return flight. The embassy apparently having ‘forgotten’ about the clause allowing any crime punishable by death or life imprisonment to be prosecuted beyond the statute of limitations with the permission of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Lee was released on parole in 2002 due to poor health and tragically died of stomach cancer six months later in Shanghai.

A second Il-28 defected in August 1985 flown by Xiao Tianrun. In this case the navigator was killed in the emergency landing in South Korea, as well as a civilian on the ground. Xiao himself is reported as having suffered spinal injuries during the crash while the gunner refused to defect and was returned to China.

As an aircraft to defect in the Il-28 has the advantage you don’t need the whole crew to be in on the plot with you. On the downside it seems to have created a lot of collateral damage.

[1] Some sources translate the pilot’s name as Li Xianban, to avoid confusing him with the navigator Li Caiwang the alternative spelling of Lee has been used. Given the size of China’s population that’s probably only a few million people insulted…

9. An Air Force

At the time 1991 seemed like a hectic year: the Soviet Union was dissolved, Freddie Mercury died, and Operation Desert Storm liberated Kuwait. Obviously looking back from 2020 that looks like a quiet weekend’s news cycle but it’s important to remember people back then didn’t know any better. Famously despite warning the liberating armies to prepare for the Mother of all Battles Saddam Hussein’s forces provided relatively little opposition, indeed it’s likely more US personnel became pregnant than were killed during the operation.

It didn’t help Saddam that after only a week of being bombed a large part of the Iraqi Air Force decided it would be better to be somewhere else. Much to everyone’s surprise the somewhere else wasn’t Jordan, a country with generally cordial relations with Iraq, but Iran, the country Iraq had been at war with for most of the ‘80s. Consequently, when the first aircraft started fleeing there on the 25th of January coalition fighters were patrolling in the wrong place.

Presumably wanting to avoid any problems Iran immediately declared its neutrality which regrettably required it to impound the aircraft and their pilots. Think ‘Battle of the River Plate’ but with fewer ships. Over the following few weeks this led to them collecting a veritable smorgasbord of Cold War classics including Su-20, 22s, and 24s, MiG-23s, 25s, and 29s, Mirage F.1s, along with some Il-76 transports, airliners, and a couple of Adnan 1 AEW aircraft. In all some 115 aircraft are believed to have escaped to Iran, approximately the same as the number of serviceable aircraft left in the country after the hostilities were over.

Shockingly, when conflict had ceased Iran decided it would be keeping the aircraft until it had received reparations for damages suffered during the 8 years of the Iran-Iraq War, a Dr Evil-esque $1 trillion. [2] Presumably cash strapped after not winning its second war in under a decade Iraq refused to pay up. Rather than letting the aircraft rot the Iranians made use of them forming new squadrons and, to rub salt into the wound, using them to bomb Iraq. In fact, it was only in 2014 during the fight against ISIS that they started to return some of the aircraft to their original owner, probably with a note apologising for the dents and saying how they really must get together sometime soon.

This wasn’t the only time a large chunk of an air force has defected either, in fact it wasn’t even the only time it happened in 1991. In May of that year seven Hips, six Hinds, three Floggers, two Cubs, and an L-39 of the Ethiopian Air Force fled to Dijibouti after the fall of the short-lived communist government.

If you’re going to defect, strength in numbers is an obvious bonus, they can’t shoot all of you down, and they’ll probably be too confused figuring out who’s on which side to do anything before it’s too late.
[2] ~$2 trillion in 2020 dollars, or 2 copies of The Hush Kit Book of Warplanes in the post-COVID barter economy.

8 . Antonov An-2

Planning on defecting? You’re probably thinking of taking the fastest aircraft you can get your hands on to minimise the chance of being intercepted before stepping onto foreign soil. Shunning anything so obvious PLAAF pilots Shao Hsi-yen and Kao Yu-tsung instead opted for an An-2 biplane for their September 1961 escape from the People’s Republic of China.
First flying in 1947 the An-2 was designed as a utility and agricultural aircraft and conducts revenue earning flights to this day. Even in 1961 though its performance was sedate rather than sparkling. With a top speed of 139 knots its more usual cruise speed is only 100 while the rate of climb is around 700’/minute taking half an hour to get to its service ceiling of 14,000’. On the plus side the take-off run can be as short as 560’ thanks to a stall speed of only 35 knots with a similarly short landing distance. Something that’s likely to come in handy if you’re not totally sure where you’re going to land.

Launching from what is now part of Jiaozhou City in Shandong Province, on the west coast of the Yellow Sea, the Colt faced a 360 nautical mile journey to the island of Jeju off the southern tip of South Korea. Succeeding in this Shao and Kao were in Taipei by early October where they were rewarded with 25kg of gold each, both Chinas rewarding defectors from the other with generous payments until the 80s. The 25kg was worth around $30,000 in 1961, equivalent to a quarter of a million in 2020 dollars. More than enough to buy several An-2s. As with most defectors from the PLAAF they then served with the Republic of China Air Force for several years.
An An-2 was also used in a 1985 defection when a Nicaraguan Army pilot sought asylum in Honduras after completing a mission to deliver supplies to Sandinista troops fighting US backed Contra rebels. Because the Cold War was more complicated in Central America. Meanwhile Cubans taking advantage of the spacious cabin have made numerous defections to the USA, packing 13 passengers into the Antonov that lumbered into Homestead Airport on 15 August 1968 having managed to completely evade any radar surveillance.

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It may not be the most glamorous aircraft to defect in but the An-2 has the twin advantages of flying slow enough it’s hard to get lost and being able to land on a football pitch. To be honest it’s surprising there aren’t more accounts of them being used.

7. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, 17, 19/J-5, J-6
Due to the general flow of defection traffic being from Communist countries to literally anywhere else, MiGs and their derivatives feature highly. The MiG-15 and its developments the MiG-17 and twin engined MiG-19 were responsible for a lot of this traffic.

One of the first defections of the Cold War took place in March of 1953 when Franciszek Jarecki a pilot in the Polish Air Force took off from Słupsk on the Baltic coast in a MiG-15 and flew the 80 or so miles to the Danish island of Bornholm. The aircraft was inspected by specialists from the USA and Jarecki would later be awarded $50,000 as a prize for being the first person to present a MiG-15 to the Americans although the aircraft itself was returned to the Polish authorities.

Only a few months later Lt Zdzisław Jaźwiński repeated the feat with an aircraft from the same regiment, this time making his landing in a field on Bornholm island breaking the MiG but leaving him free. Jaźwiński had been in Warsaw during the uprising when the Soviet army stayed behind the Vistula allowing the Germans to crush the Polish resistance, making it easier for them to subsequently install their own puppet regime.

This had instilled in him a deep dislike and mistrust of the Russians. What would happen next could only have confirmed these feelings. The regiment effectively ceased to exist, the other pilots were arrested and put on trial for betraying the homeland two being sentenced to 12 years in prison, while many of those who weren’t tried never flew again. Jaźwiński’s parents meanwhile were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. Ultimately, he would never see them again, not re-visiting Poland until 1997.

It doesn’t say a lot for the Communist authorities measures that in September of 1956 a Lim-2 (Polish built MiG-15) defected to the West from Poland, via Bornholm island. In this case Lieutenant Zygmunt Gościniak after years of planning took advantage of an air combat training sortie in northern Poland against his Russian commander. Rather than making the expected attacking run he dropped to low level and fled north over the Baltic. Arriving at Bornholm he was about to land when he discovered the runway was undergoing maintenance and instead made a wheels up landing in a nearby field. The aircraft remaining remarkably intact. Gościniak ultimately settled in England and is believed to have married in 1957.
Although Bornholm saw no further MiG-15s a further Polish example made it to Sweden, having missed the island, meanwhile in the Far East they were used to defect from North Korea to the South and from China across the straits to Taiwan.

The MiG-17 was an aerodynamic improvement on the MiG-15 and featured in defections from the USSR (while the pilot was stationed in East Germany), Mozambique, Somalia, and Cuba. In the latter case in 1969 pilot Lt Eduardo Jimenez managed to enter US air space undetected and land at Homestead Air Force Base. Which must have come as a bit of surprise to President Nixon whose Air Force One was waiting there to take him back to Washington. As is traditional with Communist regimes a purge was made of the Cuban Air Force leadership and those considered to be Jimenez’s friends. Who were presumably delighted when he decided to defect back to Cuba by hijacking Delta flight 1061 in June 1979. He inexplicably remains on the CIA’s most wanted list.

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While the twin engined MiG-19 has been used in less defection attempts than its single engined predecessors, the J-6 Chinese copy has been used on numerous occasions. Twice direct to Taiwan, two times via South Korea, once unfortunately crashing in Vietnam, and once unusually to the USSR in 1990, the pilot being returned to the Chinese authorities who started beating him almost as soon as he was in their hands. The situation got so bad that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force started putting anti-defection systems in their J-6s from late 1987. If the aircraft strayed from its permitted routes a cockpit warning would go off followed by the fuel supply being cut if no attempt was made at returning. [3] This may explain the defection attempt to Russia as the airfield chosen could have been close enough to China that the system wasn’t triggered. This was the case in the 1989 defection to Taiwan that landed on Kinmen island less than ten miles off the coast of the mainland.
The early MiGs have provided a relatively reliable method of defecting for several decades, simple to operate and robust enough to land pretty much anywhere their only downsides are short-range and the vengeful fanaticism of the regime you have to borrow it from.

6. Northrop F-5
People have occasionally decided to defect to a communist dictatorship, rather than away from one. Presumably due to its export success as a low-cost fighter for US allies the Northrop F-5 has featured a lot in these rare events.

At least two Taiwanese pilots have defected to mainland China using Tiger IIs, in one case after letting a student leave the aircraft mid-flight, and in the other after the pilot did. So, room for improvement. On 8th August 1981 Maj Huang Zhicheng was scheduled to conduct an instrument flying check on Lt Hsu Chiu-Ling. Once the student had put his cockpit blinds up, used to prevent them cheating by looking at the outside world, Zhicheng dropped to 400’ and crossed the straits to the People’s Republic. In an unexpected display of competence Chiu-Ling noted from his instruments that they were in fact over the mainland and protested to his instructor that he didn’t want to land in China. Apparently, a Daily Mail reader Maj Huang complained to reporters that ‘People now all talk about human rights’ and that he’d had to fly back to Taiwan, despite being short of fuel. Lt Hsu parachuted down near the coast, presumably after ejecting although reports are unclear. Zhicheng then flew back to the mainland landing at Fuzhou. Chinese authorities showered the defector with praise, $360,000 and a position as deputy commandant of China’s Aviation Academy. Which is a consideration if you’ve been passed over for promotion.

By the end of the decade Lt Col Lin Xianshun decided to follow Maj Huang’s example and used his F-5E to defect to the mainland apparently after studying its history and geography and ‘developing a longing’ for it. Consequently, on 11 Feb 1989 Xianshun landed near Fengshun in Guangdong Province. His aircraft landing nearby after it had run short of fuel and he’d decided it was better to step out rather than attempting a forced landing. Considering Fengshun is less than 220 nautical miles from Taiwan’s West Coast this does raise questions about the good Lt Col’s flight planning skills. For those wondering if the Taiwanese government hold grudges, they said he’d receive the death penalty if he ever showed his face there again. Which is a bit East Enders.
Still if you think that’s holding a grudge Nguyen Thanh Trung of the South Vietnamese Air Force shows them up as amateurs. On 5th April 1975 Trung defected in his F-5E after executing a plan to avenge his father’s execution that was twelve years in the making. Nguyen senior had been shot for being a Viet Cong guerrilla by South Vietnamese forces, rather than extract immediate revenge the Viet Cong leadership encouraged him to join the Air Force and by 1969 he was in Texas for advanced flying training. Returning to Vietnam Trung would spend a further three years flying combat missions and working on his plan. On the fateful day he feigned electrical difficulties delaying his take-off long enough that the rest of his formation assumed he’d aborted. Instead he flew over Saigon and made two bombing runs on the Presidential Palace setting it on fire before making his way to a small strip in the North. Trung and his F-5 would see further action on behalf of the NVA, leading a flight of five aircraft that bombed Saigon airport during the American evacuation three weeks later that presaged the end of the war on April 30th.

Small and relatively simple to operate the F-5 is the ideal aircraft if you feel like moving to the kind of authoritarian regime that has an aesthetic featuring lots of red stars. Or leaving Iran which they’ve been used for on at least two occasions.

5. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23

Like mini-skirts, swing-wing designs were briefly popular in the Sixties before everyone moved on to fly-by-wire and stone-washed denim. Despite, or maybe because of, the added weight of hinges and hydraulics it’s hard to find a variable geometry aircraft that you wouldn’t want to be seen in. Which you can’t say about miniskirts.

In March of 1991 Major Orestes Lorenzo was so taken by the ‘Flogger’ that on his first flight in one he defected from Cuba to the USA. An experienced MiG-21 pilot who had fought in Angola, Orestes dropped to low level and crossed the Straits of Florida at high speed before arriving over Boca Chica Key. Here he slowed the aircraft, dropping the gear and flaps, and then unable to communicate with the tower at NAS Key West made three passes down the runway waggling the wings. At this point the most powerful military in the world did what exactly you’d expect if an unexpected aircraft from a hostile nation arrived over one of its bases. Absolutely nothing. Taking this as a good sign Orestes landed and then taxied clear of the runway where he waited. And waited. Just as he was starting to wonder if he was in the right place a ‘follow me’ van belatedly arrived to escort him to dispersal. Here he was finally able to communicate his desire to defect to a senior officer, via a translator.

So far so standard defection with Orestes moving to Virginia and enjoying life free from the shackles of communism while the head of the Cuban intelligence services went to Florida to get their aircraft back. His wife and children however were still in Cuba, unlike in some communist regimes though they were offered a house, car, and telephone, all considered luxuries in the glorious people’s republic. The only drawback being they’d have to denounce Orestes as a traitor, something his wife refused to do. This was clearly an untenable long-term solution. Taking matters into his own hands once more Major Lorenzo gained his PPL, acquired a Cessna 310 through a supporter and on the afternoon of 19 Dec 1992 flew back to Cuba at low level, landed on a road near El Mamey beach, collected his family and returned to the USA. Which really makes you question if either side were actually keeping a look out for airborne intruders.

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Aside from Orestes the MiG-23 has also been used in defections around the Middle East including one successful attempt from Syria to Israel, which had at least managed to track the aircraft on radar. Supersonic at sea level with decent range, and apparently invisible to the United States air defences, the Flogger is ideal for anyone planning on making a covert getaway.

4. Mil Mi-24

Proportionately there haven’t been that many defections using helicopters. But if you’re going to use one it should probably be the meanest, fastest one you can get your hands on. In mid-80s Afghanistan that meant the Mi-24 Hind. To be honest that probably still holds now.

In June of 1985 two Hinds defected from Afghanistan to Pakistan landing at Miran Shah on the border. The aircraft had flown low over the mountains to avoid being detected by radar, which to be fair to the pro-Soviet forces in Kabul is harder than tracking aircraft over the sea. Looking at you Florida. The defection had been organised by the Yunus Khalis guerrilla group, led by Mohammad Yunus Khalis and part of the wider Mujahideen.

The helicopters’ seven crew and passengers were granted asylum before joining the fight against the Soviets. Part of a spate of wider defections that had already led the Soviet and Afghan authorities to limit the amount of fuel that aircraft could take on missions it led to helicopter deliveries being suspended for two years by the Russians. Honestly, it’s a mystery how they failed to win a war against an insurgent force with those tactics.

Central America also saw a ‘Hind’ used in a defection attempt, this time from Nicaragua to Honduras. In something of a rarity, the Honduran Air Force detected the intruding aircraft and F-5s escorted it to Toncontin airport. Take that pretty much every other air force in this list.

Fast, for a helicopter, well-armed, and able to host eight in the spacious airy cabin the Mi-24 family are the ideal answer for anyone looking to skip the country with friends.

3. Douglas DC-3

Tales abound of pilots who having escaped their country mere steps ahead of the invading German Army made a perilous trek across Europe to join the remaining redoubt of resistance and fight in the RAF. It was presumably a bit disappointing five years later to return to your homeland and find anyone who’d had any exposure to the West was viewed with suspicion by the totally legitimate government that was in no way a puppet of the increasingly paranoid Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia this came to a head in February 1948 when the Communist party realising it was never likely to command an absolute majority in free and fair elections staged a coup to seize power. Almost immediately defection attempts started with at least 11 taking place by air in 1948 alone, on occasion by the simple expedient of refusing to fly the return leg of an international flight. [4]

To avoid having aircraft abandoned across Europe with no one to operate the return leg, Československé Státní Aerolinie (Czechoslovak State Airlines (ČSA)), subsequently restricted former RAF pilots to operating within the Communist Bloc and removed their passports. Because obviously defecting without the correct documentation would be unthinkable. At the same time their family members were barred from travelling on the flights they crewed, on the rash assumption these weren’t the people they were trying to get away from in the first place. In what would prove to be a counter-productive move ČSA were also training up new politically trustworthy crews to replace the old guard, at which point they could be cast aside and interrogated by the state intelligence services.

These pressures drove a rather novel solution that would be familiar to anyone watching Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train when it was released the following year. With enough aircrew to hijack three aircraft, and the help of a friendly booking clerk, our protagonists booked their families onto the aircraft operated by the other crews. The flights would leave from Brno at 0635, Ostrava at 0630, and at 0700 from Bratislava, all scheduled to arrive at Prague but secretly aiming for Erding in the American Sector of West Germany. The destination being chosen as one of the pilots, Oldřich Doležal, had previously visited when his Aero C-103 had been hijacked in 1948 by another group of ex-RAF defectors.

The first aircraft departed Brno with four of the six crew in on the plan, the Captain and Flight Engineer not being involved. Once established in the cruise the Air Hostess entered the cockpit and distracted the Captain while her fellow conspirators dealt with the Flight Engineer. The Co-Pilot then informed the Captain of their intention to fly to the West, much to his consternation as he was himself planning a defection with his family, which would be jeopardised if the authorities believed he was in any way involved with this attempt. In case stealing an aircraft full of passengers wasn’t exciting enough an extra frisson was added by the presence of one Leopold Thurner ČSA’s president who was known to routinely carry a gun. As you do. As an airline president Leopold does not appear to have been much of a navigator, failing to notice that his flight was taking much longer than it was supposed to and wasn’t really heading in the right direction. In the cockpit, where there was slightly more awareness of where they actually were, tension was high as the aircraft made its way over the Russian Zone of Germany. Once clear of danger and over the American Zone the Co-Pilot, Vit Angetter, contacted Erding air base requesting asylum. Landing at 0818 Angetter informed them that a further two aircraft were on their way, meanwhile Thurner suddenly aware that one of his aircraft had failed to arrive at its destination on time drew his gun and tried to break in to the now locked cockpit. Which is a more hands on approach to customer service than you get with Ryanair. Fortunately, at the same time a number of American MPs were boarding the rear of the DC-3 and disarmed him before anyone did anything they’d regret.

The second aircraft, departing from Ostrava only five minutes late, had a similarly mixed crew. This time it was the Co-Pilot who asked for it to be made clear he wasn’t in on the attempt due to his family, suggesting someone hit him on the head to make it more convincing. Rather than a gun crazed airline president this DC-3 was carrying a delegation of Communist Party officials, who also appear to have possessed no concept of the passage of time. Flying at around 10,000’ just above the clouds the airliner crossed the Russian Zone, like its predecessor maintaining radio silence, before descending into the American Zone and contacting Erding with the password ‘Way to Freedom’ that had been passed to the US Forces by the first aircraft. This time there was no armed assault on the cockpit, and everyone disembarked peacefully.

The final aircraft had possibly the most eventful journey with problems emerging before the attempt even started. Aware that they were leaving their homeland, potentially for ever, the defecting passengers ignored the instructions to bring minimal luggage. Consequently, the Pilot, Doležal, had to offload as much fuel as possible without drawing the authority’s attention. Even so the DC-3 would be around 300kg overweight on take-off.

Further complications arose when security noticed one of the defectors had the same last name as the figure skating champion Alena Vrzáňová who had fled to the West in 1950. Although to be fair that was because it was her mother and she hadn’t thought to use an alias.

Half an hour late the aircraft managed to commence its taxi to the runway, only to be called back to the terminal by air traffic control. Using a method popular in B movies the radio operator claimed there was interference on the radio and then turned it off. Doležal immediately opened the throttles to take-off and avoid any further attempts at preventing their departure. Wisely, they failed to make a scheduled stop at Brno, radioing to say they had undercarriage problems before proceeding to make the now traditional radio silent flight over the Russian Zone. Despite plenty of cause for suspicion on the part of the Communist and Soviet authorities no attempt seems to have been made to stop the final DC-3 and it landed at Erding at 0930. There was only the final hurdle of waiting for the American MPs to detain the armed member of the Secret Police who tried to storm the cockpit after the penny finally dropped as to why his flight to Prague had taken quite so long.

In all 27 of the 85 passengers and crew defected to the west, one additional defector taking advantage of his unplanned diversion along with the 26 who’d been involved from the start. Of those who returned to the Eastern Bloc at least two subsequently attempted to defect with one, the Pilot of the first aircraft, being successful in April 1951, while the other was unfortunately caught and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. Learning from their mistakes the Secret Police would in future place agents in the cockpit, while the remaining ex-RAF pilots were soon removed from active duty.

Although possibly the most complex, and impressive, defection attempt using the DC-3 the Czechoslovak three-way, unsurprisingly, wasn’t the only time they were used to escape an unfriendly regime. Other attempts include a 1950 flight from Prague that ended in Neubieberg near Munich rather than Bratislava with 20 of the 26 onboard deciding not to make the return journey, 6 making the decision after arriving in the West. The military C-47 variant has also been used, in one case making the unusual move of defecting to the Soviet Union in 1970 when the pilot wanted to escape the right-wing military junta then running Greece.

A rugged design classic the DC-3 is the aircraft to defect in if you’re thinking of taking your, or someone else’s family. Just make sure they don’t exceed their baggage allowance.

2. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25

The MiG-25 was designed as a response to the increasingly rapid strategic bombers being developed by the USAF. The Mach 2 capable B-58 Hustler was due to be followed into service by the B-70 Valkyrie, which could basically carry the same as a B-52 as far, but at three times the speed of sound and with two less engines. Intercepting such aircraft was going to require something special as, as evidenced by the SR-71, Surface to Air Missiles were unlikely to cut it. The MiG-25 was it, and for longer than they would have liked its capabilities were a worrying mystery to the West. Or really anyone who wasn’t the Soviet Union. The best guesses of Western intelligence were that the huge engines and wing area gave it both speed and agility, driving the requirements of what would become the F-15. But without getting their hands on one there was no real way of knowing quite how much of a threat the Foxbat was. Until 6 September 1976 that is.

This was the day Viktor Belenko took off from Chuguyevka Air Base on a training mission and landed in Japan. Which probably got him marked down in the debrief. Increasingly disillusioned with conditions in the military and soon to be divorced from his wife defection had been some time in the planning. Launching unarmed but with copies of the technical manuals and full fuel tanks Belenko briefly took part in the planned mission before breaking formation and heading east. Flying the second fastest aircraft in the world he naturally egressed Soviet airspace sub-sonically at low level. Once close to Japan he climbed to high level hoping to be detected by radar and intercepted by JASDF Phantoms who could guide him to Chitose Air Base. Predictably despite being designed specifically to counter this sort of threat the JASDF didn’t intercept the Foxbat which left Belenko in a bit of a sticky situation as his 20-tonne fighter was running low on fuel. He was also navigating from memory, borrowing a map of Japan being the kind of red flag the squadron’s Political Officer probably would have picked up on.

Luckily, he found Hakodate airport, unfortunately its runway was only a mile long, which is marginal for a MiG-25. More so if you narrowly avoid a 727 on finals. His arrival in the free world was therefore marred by running off the runway and ending up parked amidst the ILS antenna. To regain points for style Belenko fired shots into the air to dissuade curious Japanese taking photos from a nearby road. Which is a more proactive approach to spotters than you get at Heathrow.

As recounted in a previous episode of Hush Kit the MiG-25 was thoroughly inspected by American technicians before being returned to the Soviet Union in boxes. Who then refused to pay the return postage as it definitely wasn’t in that condition when they’d dispatched it. The damage had anyway been done, the Foxbat’s secrets were laid clear, the huge wing was needed to get the mass of the mostly stainless-steel aircraft off the ground, turning being something of a secondary consideration. Belenko meanwhile moved to the USA, his citizenship being personally approved by President Carter. There he became a consultant to the USAF, and the aerospace industry, and went fishing with Chuck Yeager.

Fast and mysterious the Foxbat is the aircraft for the defector hoping to make an impression.

1. Boeing 747

As seen, most defections involve small and/or fast aircraft able to blunder past air defences (remarkably effectively considering how much the world’s militaries spend on radars and jet interceptors). Wang Xijue however is a man whose vision is to be admired, eschewing the road more travelled he claims the record for largest aircraft used in a defection by borrowing a Boeing 747-200F. A record that’s unlikely to be beaten unless a Korean Air pilot decides to move north with an A380.

On 3 May 1986 while returning to Taiwan from Bangkok via a stopover in Hong Kong, Wang took advantage of a trip to the toilet by the Flight Engineer to handcuff the Co-Pilot Tung Kung-shin after a short struggle. This involved a chain and an axe so was probably more one-sided than it sounds. On his return the engineer Chiu Ming-chih had little choice but to also comply with Wang. The Pilot then diverted the aircraft to Guangzhou, North West of Hong Kong, much to the consternation of Kai Tak ATC. A few days later Wang flew the 747 to Beijing, there apparently not being an easier way to get to the capital.

So far so broadly normal for a defection. The next few weeks would be slightly different, however. In 1986 the two Chinas had had no formal contact in the 37 years since the end of the civil war. But a 747 is a bit larger than your average defector’s aircraft and China Air Lines (CAL) were reticent to lose it. This led to negotiations between CAL and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) both effectively parts of their respective country’s governments. Meeting in Hong Kong between 17th and 20th May, the two sides agreed release of the aircraft and the two non-defecting crew. On the 22nd the aircraft, flown by a five-man crew from the CAAC, arrived in Hong Kong, having collected the two CAL crew from Guangzhou en-route. Reportedly the original cargo was also onboard although as it consisted of fruit and tyres it’s questionable how well at least half of it had kept for three weeks in the sub-tropics.

As the first contact between officials of the two Chinas the aftermath of Wang Xijue’s defection has been marked as the point when relations between the two states started to if not normalise at least be more pragmatic. The following year Taiwanese families could cross the straits to visit relatives on the mainland and the Republic officially ended martial law. The following year postal exchange via Hong Kong was formalised. Wang then has a legitimate claim to altering international relations with his defection.

But what of Wang himself? Well it’s possible this wasn’t his first trip into mainland China’s airspace there being some evidence he’d flown U-2s as part of the ROCAF’s Black Cat squadron which conducted surveillance missions between 1961 and 1974. [5] It was probably the first time he’d landed though. His exact motives for defecting remain a little unclear however, during press conferences at the time he complained of the rampant corruption and traffic jams in Taiwan. Which suggests a misunderstanding of the levels of corruption in Communist single-party states, and why mid-80s China didn’t have any traffic to jam. Nor did he receive any money, which is a shame as a it would be nice to know the comparative value of a 747 vs an Il-28.

His employer meanwhile simultaneously claimed that he had a happy home life with no financial worries and that he was constantly arguing with his “nagging” wife about money. [6] Which doesn’t say a lot for CAL’s Human Resources department. The answer may lie in the somewhat extravagant use of a Jumbo Jet to go to Beijing where Wang’s father lived and who he’d not seen since the end of the civil war in 1949. Which puts not seeing your old man for six months because of lock-down into perspective.

[6] and

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.

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  1. Pingback: Monday NatSec Roundup - Lawyers, Guns & Money
  2. bekaks

    There was actually quite a few defections using AN-2 planes flying from Poland to Sweden in the early 80:s, at least two of them contained multiple defectors. There is even a rumour that one of the planes was used twice.

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