Air Intelligence
in the Cold War

  A Research Project  ©  Dick van der Aart


The history of defections

During the 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 a few.

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.

The 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:

  • the general reasons for the often dangerous escapes,
  • the military situation between the countries involved,
  • the asylum procedures,
  • the intelligence value of the aircraft,
  • the psychological operations to induce pilots to defect,
  • the political repercussions of a defection,
  • the instructions to air forces for accepting a defecting aircraft,
  • the Taceval training for surprise landings on NATO bases,
  • the secret evaluations of MiG fighters and other Soviet military aircraft,
  • the proven gaps in air defenses,
  • procedures for intercepting and escorting defectors,
  • the whereabouts of defected aircraft

Bribes 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.

Researching the history

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.


© 2009- 2020 DICK VAN DER AART    -    WWW.AIR-INTEL.NL    -    UPDATE   October 9, 2020