What's the Mig Deal?
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.
And not just the old stuff, either.
As a case in point, Adams points to the MiG-29 Fulcrum, Russia's newest fighter jet. Some Western analysts put the MiG-29 on a par with U.S.-built F-16s and F-18s. But while an F-16 can set you back $25 million to $30 million, Adams says, a MiG-29 can cost half that, perhaps even less.
The ramp--the area where planes are parked--at Scottsdale Air Park lies just around the corner from Bob Wheeler's domain, Hangar No. 5.
He hops in his Ford four-door, drives through an electronic security gate and maneuvers past rows of glistening Cessnas and Beech Bonanzas that line the ramp.
Beyond the recreational planes crouch two MiG-15s in all their ugly, weather-beaten glory. They look like a couple of pit bulls tossed into a pen full of poodles and Chihuahuas.
One of the MiGs has a sizable chunk missing from the leading edge aluminum of its wing--damage from shipping which Wheeler says can be easily repaired. Though faded, the distinctive red checkerboard markings of the Polish air force can still be seen. Both the jets have flattened, balding tires and chipped, lusterless paint that would look at home on a dump truck.
The Poles did not pamper their warplanes.
"They were military aircraft," Wheeler explains. "Nobody was too concerned about what they looked like--just how they flew."
With their distinctive stubby fuselages and gaping air intakes, the MiGs (short for Migoyan-Gurevich, the Soviet bureau that designed them) are relics of a time when the unveiling of a fighter signified a new escalation in the Cold War.
Russian development of the MiG, one of the world's premier first-generation jet fighters, began in earnest after World War II ended. The project was carried out under the watchful eye of Joseph Stalin, who correctly feared that the Soviet Union risked falling far behind the West. The United States already had begun mass production of jet fighters, thanks in large part to the "captive brains" of German scientists whisked from the shattered Third Reich.
With Stalin looking over their shoulders, who can blame those Russian aircraft designers for taking a few shortcuts?
Take the engines, for example--from Britain.
At the time, the British were acknowledged as the world's best jet-engine designers. And Soviet-Western relations were still cordial. So Russian engineers, exploiting their status as allies, bought 50 Derwent and Nene jet engines from the English.
Once back home, the Russians set about studying the engines, eventually settling on an unlicensed Nene knockoff as the power plant for its new fighter. The Russians slapped the engine into a new, swept-wing airframe equipped with a pressurized cockpit and ejection seat, and the MiG-15 was born.
By 1949--a little more than two years after the project's launch--waves of the new fighter were rolling off Russian assembly lines.
The MiG-15 was loosed on an unsuspecting world at the outset of the Korean War. Few outside the Communist bloc knew anything about the sleek little fighter, and even fewer believed the Communists could mount a serious air threat to the West.
American pilots soon learned the hard way that the MiG was faster, could fly higher and was far nimbler than anything the U.S. had. World War II-era B-29 Superfortresses--lumbering, propeller-driven bombers--were easy pickings for the MiGs. So, too, were the prop-driven P-51 Mustang fighter, and the first U.S. jets pressed into service, the sluggish F-80 and F-84 fighters.
The MiG ruled the skies over Korea until the war was a year old and the U.S. had rushed the F-86 Supersabre into production.
In its desperation to learn more about its adversary, the U.S. dropped leaflets offering a $100,000 reward and political asylum to the first pilot to defect to South Korea with a MiG. On September 21, 1953--two months after the war had ended--North Korean pilot Ro Kim Suk collected the reward.
American engineers found the MiG to be sturdy, reliable and simple to maintain--traditional characteristics of all Russian aircraft.
The MiG-15 quickly met with obsolescence, at least when matched against front-line NATO fighters. MiG-15s and MiG-17s saw limited service at the outset of the Vietnam war, but were already largely outclassed by the new generation of American fighters.
Still, for many countries, the early MiG remained an attractive commodity. In addition to Poland, MiG-15s and MiG-17s were sold or licensed for production in Soviet-friendly nations from China to Egypt to Cuba, with many still serving as trainers until the mid-1980s.
Compared to what the U.S. went through to get its hands on a MiG, modern aviation buffs have it relatively easy.
A MiG-15 from Phoenix Warbirds can be had for around $35,000. Disassembled MiG-17s, which aren't considered as rare as the MiG-15s, cost between $20,000 and $25,000.
What kind of person would be interested in buying a MiG?
Dubaj says almost all of the MiG-15s sold by Phoenix Warbirds have already been restored to flyable condition. Several were snatched up by pilots who fly at air shows, while one California collector is asking $125,000 for a fully restored and airworthy MiG.
Still others, purchased as investments, take up space in hangars and warehouses around the country.
Wheeler notes P-51 Mustangs sold for just a few thousand dollars 20 years ago. Today, the classic airplanes can fetch $750,000 and up.
"Not bad, eh?" he asks.
Unlike Scottsdale Air Park, which has a distinctly elitist feel, Mesa's Falcon Field embraces all kinds.
It is home to the Champlin Fighter Museum, which houses one of the most complete collections of flyable World War I- and World War II-vintage fighters anywhere. Down the road from Champlin sits the headquarters of the Confederate Air Force, a flying menagerie of restored World War II fighters and bombers.
Falcon also is home to Royal Aviation and its president, Bob Reid, who bought a Polish MiG-15 from a dealer in California two years ago. Reid, a boyish 59, runs an air-ambulance service that operates four--soon to be five--twin-engine turboprop airplanes.
"Really, it [Royal Aviation] just sort of unexpectedly took off, if you'll pardon the pun," he says.
In addition to his air-ambulance service, Reid keeps a staff of 15 aircraft mechanics on hand not only to keep his birds in the air, but to work on other people's planes. All of which puts Reid, a former military pilot, in the enviable position of being able to indulge his passion for collecting and restoring warplanes.
Royal Aviation's massive blue hangar is home to aviation ephemera of all sorts. Off in the back, Reid's Beech Ventura--an early World War II-era, two-engined bomber--is undergoing a full restoration. The rest of the hangar houses planes in various stages of repair.
But even for someone with Reid's considerable resources, the costs of owning and operating a MiG are reason for pause.
"I can barely afford to taxi the thing down the ramp," he jokes.
Then again, maybe he's not entirely joking. Though the MiG's engine earns high marks for toughness and reliability, it's also about as efficient as a '65 Cadillac's. A MiG will guzzle about 200 gallons of pricey jet fuel during a typical hour of operation. That adds up to a staggering $20,000 annual fuel bill for the pilot who merely stays proficient by flying three or four hours a month.
There's also the matter of developing a Federal Aviation Administration-approved inspection and maintenance program for the craft's airframe, engine and avionics. And because MiGs are jets, they require expensive "hot section" maintenance (on the fuel-burning parts of the engine) at specific intervals.
Finally, there's the question of where a MiG can be flown. The FAA only allows the jets to be flown within a 600-mile radius of their home bases, and to and from air shows for exhibition and training purposes. A schedule of where the plane will be shown and flown must be filed yearly with the airworthiness certification application.
"They [the FAA] are just making sure that no one tries to use a MiG to blow up the Federal Building," Reid says. "But the fact is, the MiG really isn't an implement of war anymore. If you wanted, you could do a lot more damage with a corporate jet."
On the ramp out front of the Royal Aviation hangar, a team of Reid's mechanics swarms over two MiG-15s scheduled to undergo air-worthiness evaluations during the next several days.
One of the MiGs, bought from Phoenix Warbirds by a pair of South American aviators who hired Royal Aviation to restore it, dons a plain-Jane white paint scheme. The other, which belongs to Reid, looks downright jaunty with its glossy, three-color camouflage pattern.
Word has spread through the local aviation grapevine that this is the place to be. A formation of aviation buffs--mostly pilots, mechanics and sightseeing retirees--wanders over to take a look at the shiny MiGs.
Reid has the air of an expectant father as he works alongside his mechanics. It has taken almost two years, thousands of hours and more than $140,000 to get the MiG to this point. All systems had to be taken apart and inspected, and all of the old Polish flight instruments and 1950s-vintage vacuum-tube electronics had to be yanked out and replaced.
Over by their MiG, Argentineans Alfonso Bernasconi and Gustavo Caglieris seem anxious to get under way, too. Dubaj hovers nearby.
Next to the hangar, David Strait, a test pilot hired by Reid to put both MiGs through their paces and satisfy FAA requirements, lounges in the shade in his green Nomex flight suit.
Strait, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who now lives in Texas, has logged more than 8,000 hours in more than 170 types of aircraft, MiGs included. Since retiring, the flinty-eyed 56-year-old has busied himself with his own warbird operation, which includes a Vietnam-vintage A-4 Skyhawk fighter/attack jet.
"Fighter jets are worse than cocaine," Strait says. "And a helluva lot more expensive."
Strait says he's only had to pull the ejection handle in a plane once--an option he will not have should anything go wrong with either of the MiGs he's waiting to fly.
Most ejection systems, including the MiG's, use an explosive charge to blast the seat and the pilot out of the cockpit. Once clear of the plane, the seat falls away, allowing the pilot's parachute to deploy.
So far, Wheeler and Dubaj have not imported any of the explosive cartridges, though they say they have obtained permission to do so from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Neither Strait nor Reid seems overly concerned.
"It's pretty simple to pop the canopy and bail out of one of these things," Strait says. Then he adds, "Of course, I'd prefer if the seats were armed . . ."
Reid adds that the MiG's reliability and simplicity make it a safe ride. "Besides, it's not as if we're actually being shot at," he says.
As daylight fades, it becomes clear that not much is going to happen today. One of the white MiG's wings droops lower than the other, a result either of a problem with the landing gear or uneven weight distribution. Over in Reid's MiG, the oxygen system is slowly losing pressure.
"They were supposed to have these things ready to go when I got here," Strait says, a little piqued. "But that's how it goes with airplanes."
A few days later, after many more hours of frenetic work, things look promising. By now, Strait has put both of the MiGs through taxi tests on the Falcon Field runway, checking out the brakes and hydraulic systems.
It is a clear, windless Sunday morning--perfect flying weather--as Strait takes the white MiG to the end of Falcon's 5,200-foot runway. Many of the same hands who turned out during the week have lined up along the edge of the ramp to see what happens.
The MiG just sits there, so far down the ramp that the roar of its engine can't even be heard as Strait runs it up, cycles the controls and tests the brakes. Finally, the MiG rolls onto the main runway and dashes to the east. As it draws abreast of the Royal Aviation hangar, the nose wheel comes up and the jet's stubby wings grab the air. The landing gear pop into their compartments as Strait puts the plane into a slow banking turn toward Williams Gateway Airport to the south.
A small whoop goes up from the crowd. Reid, Bernasconi and Caglieris climb into a Beech Bonanza for the hop over to Williams, where Strait has brought the plane in safely despite the canopy coming unlatched during the flight (he landed while holding it closed with one hand).
Then it's back to Falcon, where Strait gets Reid's MiG into the air shortly after lunch. After watching the takeoff, Reid beams like a new Saturn owner.
On the ramp at Williams, Bernasconi and Caglieris aren't so ebullient. They crouch over the cockpit, trying to fix the canopy. For them, the next few days will be hectic. Each must log several "check rides"--the equivalent of a driver's test for pilots--with Strait before he can certify them to fly their MiG. By the time they touch down in Buenos Aires, they expect to have stopped 21 times to refuel.
With little prodding, Caglieris reels off what he and his partner have sunk into the aircraft over the past year--$30,000 for the jet itself; $8,000 for a new engine; $7,500 for paint; another $40,000 for new avionics. Add to that the $15,000 or so they paid Royal Aviation to make it airworthy. And don't forget the $15,000 or so they will have spent on fuel by the time they arrive home.
So was it worth it, just to be the first kids on their block with their very own MiG?
Caglieris stops to inventory his exasperations.
"It's expensive, for what it is," he says carefully.
And what is it?
"A big piece of shit."
Hey, that's how it goes with planes.
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