How A Canadian Pilot Became The First Westerner To Fly The Feared MiG-29 Fulcrum
With only minutes to prepare, CF-18 Hornet pilot Bob Wade was let loose in the cockpit of one of the Soviet Union’s latest fighter jets.
- The War Zone
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Readers might be forgiven for not knowing that the first Western pilot to get a chance to fly the then-Soviet Union’s much-vaunted MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet was a Canadian. But the story of how now-retired Royal Canadian Air Force Major Bob Wade got his hands on the warplane only months before the fall of the Iron Curtain is an extraordinary one. It’s relayed by Wade himself in a fascinating podcast hosted by the Cold War Conversations website, and some of the details are well worth examining. The entire interview, which you can find here, is also worth listening to in full.
Having a chance to take the controls of one of your principal enemy’s top-end fighters is a pretty unusual event in itself. Wade had no idea what awaited him at the 1989 Abbotsford International Airshow, where he would find himself in the front seat of a MiG-29UB combat trainer with only a rudimentary 10-minute briefing, no understanding of Russian, and a back-seater with only the most basic grasp of English.
Today, the Mikoyan MiG-29 is a familiar sight in air forces around the world, and it’s perhaps hard to recall just how alarmed Western observers were when this potent fighter entered service with the Soviet Air Force in the early 1980s. At this time, the United States was so eager to evaluate Soviet-built warplanes that it went to extreme lengths to obtain them, flying them in secrecy to better understand their capabilities and giving its pilots a chance to fly against them. The most dramatic example of this was the Cold War-era Red Eagles MiG aggressor squadron, which you can learn more about here.
It wasn’t until the era of “glasnost” that the general public — and foreign military top brass alike — got to see the jet at closer quarters. There was a spectacular appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom in 1988, which kicked off a series of presentations by Soviet (and soon-to-be Russian) military aircraft around the globe. You can watch that display here:
The 1988 Farnborough appearance introduced the world to Anatoly Kvochur, who would go on to be one of the best-known test and demonstration pilots of his era, later working for the Sukhoi design bureau. By the time of the Abbotsford Airshow in August 1989, Kvochur had made headlines for all the wrong reasons, with a dramatic low-level ejection from his MiG-29 at the Paris Air Show in France in June of the same year.
By the late summer of 1989, the Soviets’ latest-generation warplanes had made a serious impression on Western observers and it seems someone in Moscow thought it was time for them to get some exclusive access to rival hardware. Before coming to North America for the Abbotsford Airshow, Wade recalls, Soviet officials had made efforts to secure their own familiarization flights in an F-15 Eagle or F/A-18 Hornet jet fighter. Should one of the North American air arms accept, there would be a seat waiting for one of their fighter pilots in a Soviet MiG-29. The American military point-blank refused this offer.
When the two Fulcrums came to visit, arriving in North American airspace over the Bering Strait, they were intercepted by USAF F-15 fighter jets on alert at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The Soviet fighters touched down at the Alaskan base for a night stop, still with no agreement in place for any reciprocal flights.
Wade was alert force commander at Canadian Forces Base Comox, British Columbia, home of the closest fighter alert facility, when the MiGs were due to arrive at the commercial airport of Abbotsford. He describes how he was alerted by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that the Soviet jets were expected to arrive via the Alaska panhandle, before touching down at Abbotsford in southern British Columbia. However, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was expected only to shepherd them through the country’s airspace, since the Soviet pilots would be under civilian air traffic control from Vancouver.
At this time, there were normally four RCAF CF-18 Hornets on alert at Comox, two of them active, and two on standby. Wade recalls that with three of his Hornets available, it was decided to send all of them up for this most unusual of intercepts. NORAD told him and his crews to “proceed no closer than 1,000 feet and make no attempt to communicate with the MiG-29 pilots.”
Wade and his wingmen picked up the MiGs as planned at the bottom of the Alaskan panhandle, where they also met the Elmendorf F-15s that had escorted the Soviet jets through U.S. airspace. On the NORAD side, this whole process was controlled by an E-3 AWACS radar plane, Wade remembers.
“We had never seen a MiG-29 before,” he said. “Of course, we’d had lots of intelligence briefings on it, but everyone was pretty excited to see one in person.”
Approaching the Soviet jets — one single-seat Fulcrum-A and one two-seat Fulcrum-B — from the stern, Wade and the other RCAF pilots trailed them at a height of approximately 37,000 feet and a speed of around Mach 0.9. After the NORAD Eagles and Hornets had made use of the unique formation to take some photos of all the jets, the CF-18s and MiGs continued south, while the Eagles waved off.
Twenty minutes later, the RCAF fighter pilots’ excitement had probably only diminished slightly when Wade noticed that the MiG duo was now headed approximately 40 degrees off their intended track. Since the Soviets were under civilian control, Wade recalls that he was unsure where they were being vectored to, so made an appropriate call to AWACS.
“Hey, we have no idea where they’re heading,” came the response from the surveillance plane. Wade then called Vancouver on his second radio, only to find that they hadn’t had contact with the Soviet aviators, either.
At this point, Wade made the decision to approach the Soviet lead (the MiG-29UB), who used hand signals to indicate his radio had failed. With strict instructions not to fly near the alert base at Comox, Wade pointed at the lead pilot then took up a position 40 degrees to the left of their previous course and the Soviet pilot turned immediately in response, before signaling that they had only had 30 minutes’ of fuel remaining. A safe arrival at Abbotsford now looked touch-and-go, so Wade decided to put the Eastern bloc visitors on his wing, two MiGs on the right, two CF-18s on the left, tucked in tight to begin the descent into Abbotsford through 30,000 feet of cloud. After waving the MiGs off to land, Wade was “pretty impressed by what the boys did,” he reflected.
Wade then describes his return to base at Comox, where the crew chief told him that the phone had barely stopped ringing — it was the Soviet Embassy (“How they got the phone number of the QRA, I’ve got no idea”). They wanted to thank Wade for his assistance and invite him as a guest at the upcoming airshow. Wade didn’t have to think about the decision long — he was already headed to the base to take part in a static display of aircraft.
But the welcome awaiting Wade at the Soviets’ pavilion on the first day of the show was Cold War-frosty. After introducing himself, he was told “Nyet, go away.” The following day, the same thing happened, with the Soviet guard again telling Wade’s RCAF contingent to leave.
Finally, on Sunday, the last day of the show, the Soviets seemed to have had an abrupt change of tack. “They really wanted to fly the F-15 or F-18 and get a Western pilot to make an assessment of MiG-29 to help them market it,” Wade speculated. With any chance of one of their test pilots flying in a Western “teen-series” jet having evaporated, it seems Moscow decided instead to go on the public relations offensive, showing a Western pilot exactly what their jet was capable of.
The offer was initially turned down by the Canadian top brass but, luckily for Wade, Deputy Defense Minister Mary Collins was at the event and helped get it signed off. In Wade’s view, the minister put her career on the line to secure his place in the Soviet cockpit. With Anatoly Kvochur still recovering from his bailout in Paris, his colleague Valery Menitsky would fly in the back seat, but he spoke very little English. Wade borrowed an ill-fitting g-suit and helmet and was quickly shown how to start the jet’s twin Klimov RD-33 turbofans. With all instruments in Cyrillic, and measurements in kilometers per hour and meters, Wade would have to rely on the instincts he’d developed as a military aviator.
The preflight brief was limited — no details were given about take-off, landing, or flap speeds. Wade assumed Menitsky would handle that. With 10 minutes to prepare, there was now some concern on the Canadian side that the flight might not be such a good idea after all.
“Don’t screw this up or we’ll both be looking for work,” Collins told Wade. “She might be looking for work but I’d be dead!", he reflected.
Once in the jet, Wade was determined to use his experience as a CF-18 demonstration pilot to evaluate the MiG and aimed to replicate parts of his own 12-minute low-level aerobatic routine for comparison. This video shows Wade at work in his CF-18 during an air display:
Wade was told by Menitsky that he was happy for him to take-off. Wade still had no idea of take-off speed, let alone the fuel load of the jet he was sat in.
Once airborne, Wade decided he wanted to perform a roll at the top of the climb-out. “Pulling through the vertical after take-off, on the F-18 airspeed would stagnate or maybe roll back a few knots; on the MiG-29 when I pulled through the vertical that airplane was still accelerating, so I knew it had better thrust-to-weight at whatever fuel weight it was carrying. I was pretty happy with that”, he recalls.
After another vertical climb, it was time to attempt some hard maneuvering, including maximum stick deflection, rolling in both directions. Wade judged the results “equivalent to the F-18. The F-18 would roll at 720 degrees per second; the MiG-29 was quite comparable.”
Exactly how hard he was maneuvering was hard to judge, though. Wade couldn’t find the G-meter, let alone read it. He reckons he was pulling around 7g and found he had enough power, in afterburner, to sustain the turn. Then “Valeri pilot,” came the command from the back seat, and the Soviet aviator slammed the jet back into the vertical, and at around 3,000 feet idled both throttles for a tailslide.
The CF-18 would need 5,000 feet to recover from such a maneuver, Wade reflected. He was also surprised to note both the MiG’s afterburners kicking in instantaneously when lit — unlike in the Hornet. Menitsky pushed the stick forward and the nose fell — another surprise — and they flew out without a problem.
“Bob pilot,” was the next command from the back seat, and now it was Wade’s chance to perform a tailslide. He was “surprised how easy it was.”
Eager to know what the Fulcrum could do in low-speed dogfighting, on the next recovery from the tailslide, Wade held the nose, selected afterburner and kept the jet steady at around 70 degrees nose-up, checking rudder responsiveness in both directions. “I was amazed, I learned a lot in that particular maneuver”, Wade notes. He judged the MiG equal to the F/A-18 in the low-speed, high-angle-of-attack domain.
Menitsky then pulled a 360-degree turn that Wade estimates was around 8g, leaving the Canadian “buried into the cockpit, working hard just trying to stay conscious.” Watching the airspeed indicator through the maneuver, the speed never increased or decreased by more than around 20 knots — “Pretty credible turn capability,” in Wade’s assessment.
After 15 minutes, the next command came: “Bob pilot landing.” Wade took the jet around, dropped flaps and gear when it felt right, touched down and rolled out. His conclusion: “I was pretty impressed with it.”
The MiG flight had won over Wade, but he was still of the basic opinion that Soviet fighters were built for a war of attrition — “rivets sticking out, tires threadbare, pretty crude,” but that they overcame these shortcomings with their sheer power.
Notably, the Soviets wouldn’t turn on the head-up display, and the MiG-29UB was not fitted with radar. Nonetheless, Wade felt he had a good understanding of the jet’s capabilities in a dogfight. Here, he reckoned, it would be equivalent to a Hornet, although the MiG’s 30mm gun had better range than the Hornet’s 20mm M61A1 Vulcan cannon.
After touchdown, the Soviets made efforts to ensure Wade didn’t speak immediately to the media. Instead, he was ushered back to the pavilion where he was plied with no fewer than three tumblers of vodka, as he and his hosts toasted the jet, Wade, and then the Soviet Union. “Those boys drank it straight down,” remembers Wade — who did the same. “I don’t really know a lot that went on after that in the pavilion… I was pretty drunk,” he remembers.
With the benefit of hindsight, Wade admits he probably talked up the MiG: “I really gave them good press” and he had “no qualms about painting them 10 feet tall” — this, after all, would also be for the benefit of North America’s defense industry, he explains.
In the wake of the events at Abbotsford, Canada’s Chief of Defense Staff called Wade to Ottawa for an urgent debrief, immediately after which a pair of CIA agents wanted to hear his account, too. Wade’s intelligence windfall would see him spending the next 12 months or so delivering 20-minute briefings on the Fulcrum around NATO.
Three months after the Abbotsford show, the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War standoff evaporated overnight. As happened in many countries, Canada saw a major subsequent defense spending drawdown. The RCAF was slashed from six operational CF-18 units to just three, and Wade left the service, finding work as a commercial pilot.
Once the Warsaw Pact collapsed, the NATO powers would have plenty more opportunities to fully evaluate the Soviet jet, including the former East German fleet that was inherited by the air arm of the newly reunified Germany. The United States also began to assemble a collection of its own MiG-29s, for detailed analysis, as part of its foreign materiel exploitation (FME) effort — no fewer than 21 MiG-29s were snapped up from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1997, one of which is now on display at the Threat Training Facility at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. In the meantime, Western pilots flying MiG-29s would become more commonplace, and the Fulcrum itself remains a key element of NATO air arms in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
As for Wade, his relationship with Russian fighters almost had a surprising revival. He remembers getting a call from Langley at some point in the mid-1990s, telling him the Russians had chosen him to fly in a Su-30 (with thrust-vectoring engines), at Farnborough — what’s more, he would be paid to do it. A day before he was due to fly to the United Kingdom, another call from Langley informed him the trip had been canceled by the Russians. It was, Wade admits, “one of my big regrets.”
The author would like to thank Harold Skaarup for sharing photos of the MiGs’ visit to Canada.
Contact the author: email@example.com
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