period of the Cold War more than 300 military pilots decided to make
an instant change in the course of their lives by defecting with their
aircraft to another country.
In minutes they became heroes and traitors alike. Many pilots came with
MiGs and other Soviet-built planes. The general direction of the escape
flights was predominately, but not exclusively, from East to West, politically
at least: Poland to Denmark, Taiwan to China, North Korea to South Korea,
Soviet-Union to Japan, Cuba to America, Bulgaria to Italy - to name
Many received political asylum and the funds to start a new life, often
in a third country. No one said it aloud, but the future of an escaped
pilot more often than not depended on the type of aircraft he brought
with him. The newer the MiG, the better the possibilities for asylum,
money, military promotion and resettlement. For pilots with older, less
interesting aircraft and no other incentives like Top Secret documents
or intelligence information the bureaucratic hurdles for a new life
were less easy.
many aspects of a defection
The history of aerial defections not only deals with the personal experiences
of the pilots and crews involved, but also - and with more emphasis
- with many other aspects of a defection:
general reasons for the often dangerous escapes,
military situation between the countries involved,
intelligence value of the aircraft,
psychological operations to induce pilots to defect,
political repercussions of a defection,
instructions to air forces for accepting a defecting aircraft,
Taceval training for surprise landings on NATO bases,
secret evaluations of MiG fighters and other Soviet military aircraft,
proven gaps in air defenses,
for intercepting and escorting defectors,
whereabouts of defected aircraft
not the best incentive
During the Cold War money has been offered to bribe Communist pilots
to defect with their newest MiG fighters. Countries like China and Taiwan
tried to lure pilots with piles of gold bars. Some countries simply
paid millions to steal aircraft.
But in most cases the main reason to defect was not money. The greed
was for freedom - seeking a better life. Politics down to the family
level. Sometimes the given reason for a defection stretched the imagination:
a military promotion that did not came, a wanting divorce, a forbidden
reunion with family members, a cruel treatment as a airforce pilot or
a simple love affair.
It all happened. And more often than anyone can imagine.
As a journalist and author, former air and defense correspondent and
member of the Netherlands Intelligence Studies Association NISA I am
researching the history of these aerial defections in the Cold War years
1945 - 1989.
It is for various reasons not an easy undertaking. There are few official
sources and not every escape is documented in the open press. Political
propaganda, psychological warfare, face saving lies often formed the
basis of many speculative newspaper stories. In many cases the intelligence
community played a decisive role in the aftermath of a defection. It
is the wish of every military commander to analyse the strength and
weaknesses of an enemy aircraft by testing the type in flight. Examinations
by intelligence experts on the ground come second. In either case: the
real results were kept from the public. The Cold War is already almost
a generation away but much information is still classified and historians
and researchers are given a hard time to find primary sources.
Declassified Secret Documents
Happily, there is enough open source information to be found that, with
careful scrutiny and analysis and supported by at least a number of
declassified Top Secret documents, makes it possible to compile a comprehensive
study of pilot defectors in the Cold War years.