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The MiG-29 Fulcrum alfresco the Civic Air and Space Intelligence Centermost at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Abject has a hornet’s backup growing in its nose. Its tires, aerial off the arena by stands, are breach and shredded. Bird debris dribble off its radome. The aircraft gives the consequence of a war award-winning displayed like a arch on a stake. In a way, it is a war prize, taken in the acceptable of the algid war. It’s one of 17 MiG-29s the U.S. government purchased from the above Soviet accompaniment of Moldova in 1997, a accord that kept the jets from actuality awash to Iran. The apart amalgamation that replaced the Soviet Union was not in a position to stop the buy, and it became one added discredit in the Soviet collapse. “Any aggressive enactment of any country would be agitated if its antagonist would accept an befalling to appraise and assay its best avant-garde weapons,” says Moscow-based aerodynamics historian Sergey Isaev. “I admiration how blessed would the White House be and Pentagon if Mexico, for example, would alike try to advertise its UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters to the Russian Federation?”

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The accretion additionally gave Western analysts, some of them alive central the austere building of this civic intelligence center, a adventitious to abstraction the fighter that they had been examination from abroad for 20 years. Back it aboriginal showed up, in 1977, the MiG-29, like its actual abroad ancestor, the MiG-15, was a amazing revelation: The Soviets were communicable up with U.S. aeriform technology.

The U.S. intelligence association aboriginal abstruse of the new Soviet aircraft from accessory photos in November 1977, about the time of the jet’s aboriginal flight. “Simply by attractive at the admeasurement and the appearance of it, it was bright that the Soviets were developing a analogue to our F-16 and F/A-18,” says Benjamin Lambeth, columnist of the 1999 book Russia’s Air Adeptness in Crisis and, in the backward 1970s, a aegis analyst at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. “From all the assorted intelligence sources and methods that we had for acquisition cyberbanking and added information, the U.S. government abstruse a fair bulk about the aeroplane aboriginal on, and it was bright we had to do something.” What the Air Force did was to activate development of stealth technology and cyberbanking systems that could coursing and ambition assorted aircraft at once; in 1981, it issued its aboriginal academic claim for the abutting bearing of fighter technology, an Advanced Appropriate Fighter, which eventually became the F-22 Raptor.

In the years since, the $.25 and bytes aboriginal accumulated about the MiG-29 accept bound into a abundant clearer picture, in allotment because of the befalling to appraise the 21 Moldovan MiGs. Amid October 20 and 27, 1997, the Fulcrums—14 frontline C models, six beforehand A’s, and a distinct B two-seater—were disassembled in Moldova and the genitalia aureate by C-17s to the civic intelligence centermost in Dayton, breadth they were analyzed by the organization’s adopted armament corruption facility. What happened afterwards that, NASIC isn’t saying. NASIC communications administrator James Lunsford says, “We don’t appetite our adversaries to apperceive what we know.” A few Fulcrums that could be fabricated flyable apparently went to Edwards Air Force Abject in California for testing. At atomic one archetype begin its way to Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Abject Blackmail Training Facility, accepted aural the account as the Petting Zoo. It displays a host of foreign-made accouterments for beginning intelligence professionals to examine. As for the blow of the airframes and associated parts: classified, except for one aboriginal A archetypal that took the 10-minute cruise from NASIC to the Civic Building of the U.S. Air Force.

Inside the museum, babysitter Jeff Duford and I admission the 40,000-square-foot Algid War gallery, and he credibility out the “Checkpoint Charlie” exhibit. The actual afresh acquired (and-now-where-do-we-put-it?) NASA Space Shuttle Crew Compartment Trainer dominates the larboard of the aerodrome and has pushed the added aircraft into a theme-be-damned collection to the right. Here, Ohio’s additional MiG-29 sits in an casuistic 45-degree nose-to-nose bond with an deformed Fairchild-Republic A-10 “Warthog.”

Duford lifts the band on a barrier so we can booty a afterpiece look. Unlike the Fulcrum moldering alfresco NASIC, this archetype has been beautifully adequate and rests in climate-controlled comfort, basking beneath klieg lights, beaming in a afresh activated acrylic job that feels agleam to the touch.

Let’s face it: Soviet jets are ugly, and MiGs are some of the affliction offenders. The Vietnam-era MiG-17 and MiG-19 represented a commonsensical tube-with-wings-on-it trend; they were followed by the baleful MiG‑21, a rational carve of angles and cone. This one is different. The fluidly admirable MiG-29 looks like its above twin-tail contemporary, the angular F-15 Eagle, to the amount that a Bolshoi ballerina resembles a roller derby star. Once the arcade is complete, the two air ahead icons will be apparent together, Duford says, or the Fulcrum may affectation with a added alive rival, the F-16. Abaft the scenes, he and his adolescent curators are penciling the attic plan that will advertise the Fulcrum as the aces antagonist it is.

“We’re absolutely advantageous to accept this airframe,” Duford says, alive his duke over the MiG-29’s appropriate intake. “When we got it, it had Moldovan air force acrylic on it. It was done actual crudely. Back the apology agents sanded in this area, they accepted to acquisition bort numbers [the agnate of an Air Force consecutive number]. As they sanded, the outline of ‘08’ came through.”

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What the numbers revealed, Duford realized, was that this MiG was not alone one of the aboriginal operational Fulcrums, allotment of the fighter’s aboriginal announcement to Moscow’s Kubinka Air Base, but additionally one of the aboriginal displayed alfresco the Soviet Union. “Some added clues helped acknowledge [its] provenance,” Duford says. “The gun bang plates…. There are alone six openings, which is an indicator it is an aboriginal aircraft.” Added affirmation came from how the numbers were painted. Unlike on a U.S. Air Force aircraft, breadth corrective numbers are absolute by down-to-the-millimeter specs, “on Russian aircraft, the agreement amid the numbers can vary,” says Duford. He pored over the photos of a MiG-29 taken at the 1986 airshow at Kuoppio-Rissala, Finland. “It’s like a fingerprint. Attractive at the agreement of the numbers and their location, there was no question” that the MiG had been on affectation in Kuoppio-Rissala.

In 1986, Jukka Hoffren was a Finnish air force columnist assigned to the air abject at Tikkakoski, home of the Finnish Air Force Academy. Fascinated by the new MiG, he catholic to Kuoppio-Rissala for the Fulcrum’s all-embracing debut. Afore 1986, non-Soviets had apparent the fighter alone in chapped accessory shots arise in Aerodynamics Week & Space Technology. “The accomplished airshow was erected about the MiG-29,” Hoffren told me via email. The Soviets were absorbed in business their new jet to the Finnish air force, which operated a assorted fleet, created by the complex, treaty-driven backroom of post-war Finland: the Soviet MiG-21bis, the Swedish Saab Draken, and the British Aerospace Hawk. Compared to the able MiG-21, which was congenital in Tblisi, Georgia, in a approach of architecture that could best be declared as “finalized by hammer,” Hoffren says, the new MiG was startling. “As one can call the MiG-21 as a ‘rocket that has wings,’ the MiG-29 was absolutely an alive dogfighter, and it seemed calmly a match, or could alike outfly, the F-16.”

Seeing the absolute thing, as Hoffren had in Finland, is added advisory than seeing pictures, but you can’t absolutely apperceive an aeroplane until you fly it, and in December 1989, Ben Lambeth got his chance. At Kubinka Air Abject on December 15, in black skies, Lambeth became the aboriginal Western analyst to fly a MiG-29 and the aboriginal Westerner arrive to fly a action aircraft central Soviet airspace back the end of World War II. (A Canadian air force fighter pilot flew the MiG at the August 1989 Abbotsford Air Show.)

Two years afterwards its Kuoppio-Rissala debut, the Soviets showcased the Fulcrum at the 1988 Farnborough Airshow in England, and a year afterwards at the 1989 Paris Air Show. At the time, Lambeth was a arch analyst at RAND. He had served as a Soviet aggressive specialist at the Central Intelligence Agency, and he was a noncombatant pilot whose appointment at RAND on appropriate air warfare for the Air Force had provided him the befalling to fly a cardinal of high-performance jets. At Farnborough, he met Mikoyan Architecture Agency arch assay pilot Valery Menitsky, who was accompanying an associates of pilots, technicians, and abutment cadre for the Fulcrum’s aboriginal above Western exhibition. A accord developed.

“I had been autograph about Soviet aircraft for years,” Lambeth says. “When I heard the MiG-29 was advancing to Farnborough, I couldn’t accept it. And I never advancing I would accept the acceptable affluence to fly it. It was a affectionate of algid war drama—a guy who had formed at the CIA accepting to fly a Soviet jet with a red brilliant on it.” Lambeth told Menitsky that he’d like to fly the MiG-29. “Instead of falling out of his armchair with laughter, he said that adeptness possibly happen.” Lambeth’s timing was good: Soviet arch Mikhail Gorbachev had afresh alien glasnost, and, because the Soviets were acquisitive to advertise the new fighter to added governments, they were accessible to new means of showcasing its capabilities.

The acclimate in Kubinka that winter was nasty, so for the flight, in a MiG-29UB, Menitsky took the advanced seat, and Lambeth climbed into the rear. His flight included a alternation of appointment Lambeth had aloof happened to accept aureate in a Hawaii Air Civic Guard F-15 at Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, alone a few weeks earlier. Lambeth’s RAND report, arise in 1990, was the aboriginal characterless appraisal of the aforetime abstruse fighter. Although he was authentic to point out that he had no training as a assay pilot, or as a fighter pilot, Lambeth’s address does call the acquaintance of the MiG-29 from the cockpit.

Soon, the West would apprentice all about the Fulcrum—by operating it. Three months afore Lambeth’s flight, about 7,000 East German refugees catholic to Hungary on day-tripper visas and camped alfresco Budapest. On September 10, 1989, Hungary formally opened its bound with Austria, acceptance the refugees admission to West Germany. By 1990, Germany was reunified—and on the day afterwards Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union would vote itself out of existence.

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The MiG-29 was the alone action aircraft the unified German government retained from the above East German force. “The Germans were invaluable,” says NASIC historian Rob Young. “The Germans accomplished us added about the MiG-29 [than we could accept contrarily derived]. We had majors and abettor colonels in an barter program. It’s agnate to the MiG-15, in that we were attractive at clay and simulations, and developed blackmail assessments continued afore we got our calmly on one.” During the Korean War, NASIC’s predecessor, the Air Abstruse Intelligence Center, recovered genitalia of comatose MiG-15s and advised the accident to apprentice added about that game-changing MiG’s performance. U.S. Air Force assay pilots were able to fly one afterwards a North Korean pilot defected in September 1953 (see “The Jet that Shocked the West,” Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014).

In 1991, the above East Germany had 29 Fulcrums based at Preschen, abreast the Polish border. Back the Iron Curtain fell, West German pilots and technicians began to appraise their above adversaries to actuate if they could be chip into the new German air force—and ultimately began a training affairs with above East German Nationale Volksarmee (NVA) pilots as instructors.

The best of the adolescent West German lieutenants and captains were recruited to catechumen to the MiG. In the years to come, Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 73, which relocated to Laage, abreast the Baltic coast, would be deluged with requests from Western air armament and navies clamoring to fly adjoin the Fulcrum.

Peter “Stoini” Steiniger was a above West German fighter pilot and alum of the celebrated Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. Returning to Germany, he flew the F-4F, an consign adaptation of the allegorical McDonnell Douglas Phantom, which would abide in German account until 2013. As a abettor in 1986, he and his adolescent pilots had been apparent accessory photos of a sobering new Soviet design. A bare bristles years afterwards reunification, he was alive a surreal aberration of history: He was not alone a mission-ready Fulcrum pilot, but additionally JG 73’s operations officer, alive analogous barter visits. “For example,” Steiniger says, “I would brace this young, pumped-up, and all-excited F-16 pilot with an ‘original’ NVA agnate to go out and action one-on-one aloof [basic fighter maneuvers]. We had hundreds of missions like this, with bags of acquaint abstruse in debriefings with our analogue [in Western aircraft] blind on our words and staring at our video tape…most of the time in astonishment.”

Plenty of the Fulcrum’s complacent “show us what you got” adversaries—F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, and U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet jocks amid them—became humbled, and generally bloodied, afterwards their aboriginal Fulcrum tangle. “With some experience, you could ambush any jet, alike Vipers [F-16s]and [high-angle-of-attack] Hornets,” says Steiniger. “The nice airframe in aggregate with one weapon was the killer: The Archer in [sensor lock] mode.” Alien in the mid-1980s, the Archer AA-11 is a actual able heat-seeker with a greater ambit than the U.S. Sidewinder. “A simple monocular lens in advanced of my appropriate eye enabled me to bulk the appellant arch of the missile assimilate my antagonist at aerial bend off [target].” The Fulcrum’s adeptness to lock a missile alike admitting its adenoids was acicular far abroad from its ambition “watered abounding eyes,” says Steiniger.

As acceptable as the Fulcrum was in a knife fight, best Western pilots anon apparent its flaws. Mike Jaensch, a above F-16 pilot and Air Force Weapons School alum with a accomplishments in air defense, alternate to alive appointment in 1994 afterwards actuality furloughed from American Airlines. Fluent in German, he won a atom in a baby accumulation of barter pilots acquaint to Laage in 1998 with a accumulated MiG squadron. Jaensch admired the MiG’s adeptness and maneuverability, but acquainted bedfast by its alarm and associated systems. “The Soviet aesthetics was that basically pilots were stick actuators,” he says. “It was acutely actual altered from what we were acclimated to. The avionics were marginal. That aforementioned aesthetics meant [the Soviets] didn’t see the charge to canyon advice on to the pilot.” Back the MiG’s systems couldn’t back a circuitous battlespace to the pilot, action deployments were vetoed. In 1998, NATO armament had advised auctioning the Laage MiGs to Kosovo but scrapped the idea. The Airborne Warning and Control Arrangement operators would accept had to action the MiGs appropriate handling. “With AWACS calling out [information] to three to six action air patrols, they’d accept to accord us added information,” Jaensch says. “We absitively we’d get added in the way than help.” In addition, the Serbs additionally flew Fulcrums, authoritative identification in the air difficult.

In 1996, Fred “Spanky” Clifton became the aboriginal American MiG-29 barter pilot with JG 73. A Weapons School graudate in the F-16, with bags of hours in F-15s, F-5s, and MiG-29s as well, he turns an analyst’s algid eye on the Fulcrum. “It’s a abundant [basic fighter maneuvers] machine,” he says. “But of the four fighters, it’s calmly the worst-handling of any I flew.” Afore acceptable a Fulcrum driver, Clifton had his aboriginal pilot-scholar appointment as an aggressor, aerial F-5 Tigers in accelerated training aimed at honing the abilities of accomplished pilots adjoin accepted threats, including the MiG-29. Back he abutting JG 73, it was a altered befalling to adjudicator the Stateside syllabus. “I got to see if what I was teaching as an aggressor pilot was correct,” he says. “Much of what we absolute through intelligence was absolutely accurate.” Yes, the Fulcrum was a awful able dogfighter, and its adeptness to blaze a attempt behindhand of breadth the adenoids was acicular was impressive. (The Russians absent the aiming advantage by 2002, according to Fred Clifton, back the U.S. aggressive fielded the AIM-9X missile and the Joint Helmet-mounted Cueing System.) But it had low ammunition capacity, a head-down, knob- and switch-congested cockpit, a so-so radar, and not abundant versatility: It wasn’t advised to do abundant besides ambush and shoot bottomward adversaries who were aerial not far from its airfield. Eastern affiliation pilots were accomplished to slavishly chase arena controllers, so the Fulcrum’s systems, including its head-up display, were not awful developed, and the situational acquaintance the pilots got was actual limited.

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Doug Russell, an airline pilot who flew barter with JG 73 and today occasionally flies a civilian-registered MiG-29 acquired from Kyrgyzstan and endemic by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (Clifton sometimes flies the added U.S.-registered Fulcrum, which is endemic by Air USA in Illinois), admired his time in the jet, but says it was like a weekend in Vegas—heavy on hedonism, with little redeeming value. “We stood active with alive ordnance, but we weren’t activity anywhere,” he says of his time with the Luftwaffe. “It was adamantine as a Western guy to fly it because you didn’t accept the akin of awareness…. We would never be arrive to the dance.” Russell believes that NATO analysts were actual absorbed in the MiG and pressured the German government to accumulate aerial it.

Shortly afterwards Clifton accustomed at JG 73, he abstruse that abstruse assay in the United States would anon acknowledge the Fulcrum’s actual secrets. On a cruise to Ramstein Air Base, he had abounding a classified conference on the U.S. Air Force acquirement of the Moldovan MiGs. It was broadly affected that the Air Force would barrage an aggressor fleet of MiG‑29s, but alone a few of the purchased airframes were airworthy, and the amount of accepting the blow into the air—not to acknowledgment the embarrassment of accepting to arrangement with the Russian Federation for parts—made an aggressor fleet impractical.

Peter Steiniger runs a website that agilely chronicles the German MiG experience, and is abounding with beauteous photos and ardent tributes to the Fulcrum. And yet Steiniger says: “Would I appetite to go to war with it? No. Except for the [AA-11 Archer system], the cockpit was awfully labor-intensive. Our all-embracing [situational acquaintance in above beheld range] setups was in the map case.” In added words, the pilot had to put his arch down, breach out the paper, and amount out breadth he was.

Although a baby cardinal of Fulcrums abide to be upgraded—Poland’s MiGs are accepting new mission computers, aeronautics technology, and alike a Rockwell Collins UHF/VHF radio—other air forces, except for an disproportionate cardinal of above Soviet-aligned states, never queued up to buy the Fulcrum afterwards the algid war. “The MiG-29 absolutely got apparent with the abatement of the Iron Curtain,” Clifton says. “You don’t see added adopted sales. Who’s bought it? Nobody.” As to the acumen of advance the Fulcrum into a modern, data-linked, multi-role fighter, Clifton says, “Go buy an F-16. It would be added economical, and it’s a bigger airplane.”

Today the Russians are alms for consign a bigger MiG, the -35. “Over the years, the Russians adapted the MiG-29. They tweaked it, bigger it,” says Ben Lambeth. “The MiG-35 looks like a MiG-29, but it has abundant added capability.” So far it has admiring alone one abeyant customer: India. The new jet will reportedly accompany the Russian air force in 2016. But the absorption of Western analysts—and about absolutely the abridgement of the Air Force Weapons School—is now focused on the articles of a altered aerodynamics architecture bureau.

In 2010, the Russians flew a analogue to the F-22 Raptor. Advised by Sukhoi and descended from the Su-27, the Sukhoi T-50 is a multi-role fighter that may accept electronics to battling the F-22’s. According to Lambeth, it will still lag 10 years abaft the Raptor. “One boundless suspicion is that it will not be as stealthy,” he says. “There are too abounding appearance on it that arise radar-significant.” But it’s difficult from this ambit to adjudicator how the T-50 will perform, or alike whether Russia will abide its development. It’s the new mystery, and no Westerner will be arrive any time anon to booty it for a spin.

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