What's the Mig Deal?

A Valley company finds a thriving market for used Soviet-bloc fighter jets

Hangar No. 5 can be found at the end of a stucco building just off the runway at the Scottsdale Air Park.

The interior of the hangar looks like a set from Sanford and Son, only with aircraft parts instead of junked cars. Cigar-shaped aluminum fuselages lie side by side like gutted trout. Wings lean upright in their metal shipping stands. There's a tangle of spare fuel tanks and batteries, cables, tires and brake rotors, Plexiglas canopies and radios.

Bob Wheeler--a rumpled-looking man in a black beret and black, epauleted sweater--mans the phone. Newspapers and aviation magazines compete with gauges and aircraft parts for space on his cluttered desk.

"I wish they'd turn that down," Wheeler, 71, grouses half-jokingly about the rock music blaring from a few doors down. "They're interrupting my nap."

Wheeler shares the building with an auto-racing team and a classic automotive restoration outfit, which seems somehow appropriate when you consider that what he's selling is every bit as exotic--and considerably faster--than anything else you're likely to lay your hands on, for any price.

Bob Wheeler sells MiGs--vintage Russian-designed fighter jets fresh from the Eastern Bloc fire sale that followed communism's collapse. If you're interested in strapping 11,000 pounds of Cold War metal to your backside and zooming into the stratosphere, he'd love to help you out.

Of course, some assembly is required.

Retirement can do strange things to a person.
For almost 25 years, Bob Wheeler worked for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. But he longed to be his own boss, so he bought a gun shop, ran it for 12 years, then sold it. He intended to slow down.

"I figured I'd go shooting at the gun club three, four times a week," he says. "But you know how that goes. You get to the point where all you're doing is watching TV, and you get kind of disgusted with yourself. You know?"

Ohio's winters didn't do much to boost his spirits, either.
Then, in 1993, Chester Dubaj--an old acquaintance, former machine-shop owner and fellow firearms and aviation enthusiast who had relocated to Scottsdale--rescued Wheeler from his rocker.

Dubaj, who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1961, heard in 1989 that the Polish air force planned to scrap many of its obsolescent jets. He pitched Wheeler his plan to save the MiGs, built by the Poles under license from the Soviets, and sell them to collectors in the U.S.

"I thought, 'Who'd be crazy enough to buy a bunch of old jets?'" Wheeler recalls.

But Wheeler, a licensed pilot who had twisted wrenches as an aircraft mechanic during World War II, decided that it might be fun to tinker with planes again. The two men traveled to Poland in August 1992 to scout a deal.

"I'd have never thought in a million years that I'd be going to Poland," Wheeler remembers. "But there I was, and it was nothing--I mean nothing--like here. Nobody smiled, nobody would look you in the eye."

In December 1992, Wheeler and Dubaj formed Phoenix Warbirds Incorporated and bought 10 two-seat MiG-15 trainers and 40 MiG-17 single-seaters. So far, Dubaj says, Warbirds has sold all but two of the MiG-15s. About half of the MiG-17s are still looking for that special someone.

The MiG-15 has a top speed of about 675 mph and a range of 600 to 800 miles. The MiG-17, which packs an afterburner--a device that dumps raw fuel into the back of the engine to increase thrust--will approach Mach 1 and has a range of more than 1,000 miles.

Options include sporty wing tanks for those extra-long trips.
The factory-installed, 37-millimeter cannons and 23-millimeter machine guns, Dubaj explains, stayed in Poland.

"The first three [MiGs] we bought from the Polish air force, and after that from a company that traded computers to the Polish government for airplanes," Wheeler says.

All the planes had been out of service for two or three years before Warbirds acquired them. But all were in working condition when they were disassembled for shipment to the United States. None had ever seen combat.

While in Poland, Wheeler and Dubaj also paid a visit to PZL, a Polish aircraft conglomerate, and bought the company's entire inventory of spare MiG engines and parts--all 40 tons' worth. The parts and disassembled jets were crated and shipped to Arizona, the ideal place to do business because of its dry, aircraft-friendly weather and abundant airfields.

When asked how much Phoenix Warbirds paid for the MiGs, Wheeler the dealer dons his best poker face.

"We got a good price," he offers, "otherwise we wouldn't have bought 'em, would we?"

Wheeler and Dubaj weren't the only ones looking covetously on the Soviet bloc's aviation legacy.

Jarret Adams, an aerospace and defense analyst with Forecast International, a Connecticut-based firm that tracks arms sales on the international market, says glasnost has produced a military garage sale of mammoth proportion.

"Right now, there is a glut of Russian equipment [for sale]," he explains. "The Russians and other Soviet-bloc air forces retired tons of their planes--maybe 25 to 30 percent--but they're still producing, too. They can't give them away."

Air forces in developing countries from the Pacific Rim to South America have found Russian technology an unparalleled bargain, Adams says.

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