Viktor Belenko, Who Defected to the West in a Jet Fighter, Dies at 76

On a clear late summer day in 1976, a plane popped up on the radar just off the coast of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It had been flying a mere 100 feet off the water, low enough to avoid detection. Now, suddenly, it climbed up to 20,000 feet. Clearly, the pilot wanted to be seen.

The aircraft flew toward the southwestern port city of Hakodate. It circled the airport twice, then prepared to land. The plane, identifiable now as a Soviet fighter jet, nearly collided with a 727 airliner as it touched down. It plowed past the end of the tarmac, blew out its front wheel and came to a stop not far from a busy highway.

As ground crews rushed toward it, the plane’s canopy opened. A sturdy blond man emerged with a gun and fired two shots in the air to warn onlookers away. When the authorities arrived, he climbed down to meet them.

His name was Lt. Viktor Belenko. He was there to defect, he said, along with his jet, a supersonic interceptor called a MiG-25. The plane had stoked fear among Western militaries for years. Now, thanks to Lieutenant Belenko, they had a pristine specimen to examine. George Bush, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called the incident an “intelligence bonanza.”

Lieutenant Belenko, who went on to settle in the United States, died on Sept. 24 at a senior living center near Rosebud, a small town in Southern Illinois. He was 76. His son Paul Schmidt said his death, which was not widely reported at the time, came after a brief illness.

Viktor Belenko was the flower of Communist youth. Born into proletarian poverty, he had worked himself up through the career and party ranks to become a member of the country’s elite Air Defense Forces, a separate branch from the Soviet Air Force that was charged with defending the motherland from attack.

But along the way he became disillusioned with the Soviet system. He had been promised material rewards for his hard work; instead, despite his elite status, he felt he was being treated like an expendable cog in a creaking war machine.

He kept his doubts to himself — so much so that in the early 1970s he received the choicest of assignments: to train on the MiG-25, one of the Soviets’ newest weapons.

Through the 1950s and ’60s, the United States and the Soviet Union had fought a high-altitude arms race, building bigger, faster bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. The United States had the upper hand, given the expanse of territory the Soviets had to defend.

Then, in the early 1970s, American intelligence agencies and their allies detected a new aircraft in the Soviet arsenal: an enormous fighter, capable of flying miles above the earth, several times faster than sound.

The plane, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization called the MiG-25 “Foxbat,” had something else: wide wings, suggesting that it was also highly maneuverable. This was the weapon the West had long feared, believing it was capable of taking down supersonic bombers and reconnaissance jets that had, until then, flown through Soviet airspace with impunity.

Now Lieutenant Belenko was going to give them one as a gift.

He had plotted his escape for months, waiting until he and his squadron went on an unarmed training mission over the Sea of Japan, putting him close to freedom and rendering his colleagues unable to stop him.

After he landed, Japanese officials handed Lieutenant Belenko and his plane to the Americans. The plane was dissected and analyzed before being returned, in pieces, to the Soviets, a few weeks later. Lieutenant Belenko received asylum, then flew to the United States to be interviewed.

The MiG-25 turned out to be a paper eagle. Its giant wingspan was not for maneuverability but simply to lift the plane and its 15 tons of fuel off the ground. It couldn’t even do its job: Though it flew fast, it was no match for the American aircraft it was meant to take down.

Of great value, though, was what Lieutenant Belenko told the Americans about conditions and morale within the Soviet armed forces.

American officials had long believed that Soviet military personnel were chiseled supermen. Lieutenant Belenko revealed that they were often half-starved and beaten down, forced into cramped living spaces and subject to sadistic punishment at the tiniest infraction.

During a visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier, he was astonished that sailors were allowed unlimited amounts of food, at no cost. He once bought a can of cat food at a grocery store, not knowing it was for pets; when someone pointed out his error, he shrugged and said it still tasted better than the food sold for human consumption in the Soviet Union.

And he was astounded to learn about the inadequacies of his aircraft’s inner workings, which, despite his elite status, he had never been allowed to see.

“If my regiment could see five minutes of what I saw today,” he told a companion, “there would be a revolution.”

Viktor Ivanovich Belenko was born on Feb. 15, 1947, in Nalchik, a Russian city in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.

His father worked in a factory, his mother on a farm. Even by Soviet standards, they had very little money. But Viktor applied himself to his studies and to his Communist Party activities, becoming a member of the Young Pioneers, a youth group that trained future party members.

He had little idea about life in America, except that it had to be better than what he encountered in the Soviet Union.

“I have been longing for freedom in the United States,” the Japanese police quoted him saying. “Life in the Soviet Union has not changed from that existing in the days of Czarist Russia, where there had been no freedom.”

Congress passed an act in 1980 to give Mr. Belenko citizenship. Eager to escape attention, he took the surname Schmidt and moved around often, mostly living in small towns across the Midwest. He worked as a consultant to aerospace companies and government agencies.

His marriage to Coral Garaas ended in divorce. Along with his son Paul Schmidt, Mr. Belenko is survived by another son, Tom Schmidt, and four grandchildren. Though some reports said he had left a wife and child behind in the Soviet Union, Mr. Belenko told his son that this was untrue and the result of Soviet propaganda.

After the Cold War ended, he began to make occasional appearances at air shows and returned to calling himself Viktor Belenko. But he never sought to capitalize on his moment of international fame.

“He lived the most private life,” his son Paul said. “He flew under the radar, literally and figuratively.”

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