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"Natasha" is First Civilian-Owned MiG-29 to Fly

MiG-29
Natasha the first civilian-owned MiG-29 to take flight breaks ground in full afterburner at Quincy, Illinois, on December 10, 2010.

MiG-29
Mig-29 during its first flight

MiG-29
An Air USA Alpha Jet with live ordinance while participating in training for Forward Air Controllers

December 16, 2010 — A privately owned MiG-29 Fulcrum made its first flight earlier this month (December 10) in Quincy, Illinois, capping a multi-year odyssey for owner Don Kirlin, who traveled deep into central Asia to purchase the aircraft 15 years ago. Kirlin, a former Navy and airline pilot, has made his business selling surplus Soviet-era military trainers to private owners as well as providing an adversarial fleet of planes and pilots to help train the U.S. military and foreign governments. The MiG project provided a unique set of challenges that was only overcome by a bit of diplomacy, briefcases full of cash, and an escape across the border in the trunk of a car.

Don Kirlin likes fast machines and figured out that he could make money selling Czech L-39 and L-59 jet trainers to well-heeled individuals who fancied a flying sports car. In 1994, he founded Air USA in Quincy, Illinois, to that end and specializes in importing, certifying, and providing foreign military tactical jet aircraft for customers throughout the United States.

Natasha, as the mechanics have dubbed the MiG-29, flew two flights on Friday and another on Monday with ex-Air Force pilot and instructor Fred "Spanky" Clifton, EAA 721767, at the controls. This first MiG-29, which is capable of 2.5 Mach, has passed all of its FAA checks and is now being modified for service in Air USA's military division Red Air, which provides planes and pilots to train against U.S. and Canadian air forces.

Red Air is the only civilian company allowed to drop live ordinance (bombs and laser-guided rounds) from aircraft, which is used in its exclusive contracts to train military Forward Air Controllers (FACS) and Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTAC) for the U.S. Marine Corps and the Air Force Special Forces Command. While the U.S. no longer has the Soviets as an adversary, the aircraft from that era are still active in air forces around the world. The U.S. used to maintain its own fleets of foreign aircraft but have now turned to civilian contractors like Red Air and North American Pride in nearby Rockford, Illinois, which has certified two Su-27 Flankers.

When asked if he will bring Natasha or one of three other MiG-29s the company has acquired to AirVenture 2011, Don Kirlin was hopeful that the schedule will allow it. “EAA is the organization that has made it possible for all of us to do what we enjoy doing in the air,” Kirlin said. “We’re hopeful we can be there next summer.” Air USA now has two single-seat and two tandem-seat (MiG-29UB) aircraft.

The story of the Natasha began in 1994 when Kirlin, who is also heir to the largest chain of Hallmark greeting card stores, moved to Kyrgyzstan on a six-month aircraft shopping trip. Kyrgyzstan was swimming in former Soviet aircraft since it was the site of a major USSR training base. The fledgling country couldn’t afford to fly the aircraft but were a little suspect of Kirlin’s motives when he showed up looking to buy.

"Their first answer was always 'No, it's not possible,'" he said. "When I said I wanted to buy former Soviet military hardware so people in America could fly them around as toys, they couldn't believe that I wasn't a spy for the U.S. government!” Kirlin told Wired magazine. “But it just takes infinite patience and money. You have to immerse yourself in their lives and get them to trust you."

Kirlin soon learned that Kyrgyzstan also had two low-time MiG-29s (40 and 110 hours) and negotiations began. The process took years, gobs of cash, and many trips in and out of the country to reach an agreement. When the sale was approved, the aircraft were disassembled and put into crates and sent on their way over land disguised as farm equipment. As the crates started their journey, the payment Kirlin handed over did not make it to the right people and he was suddenly persona non grata and had to make an escape to Kazakhstan in the trunk of a car.

The MiGs made it by train to Georgia, where they were to be loaded on a ship but were seized by Georgian officials. More cash was applied to the problem and the MiGs returned to Kyrgyzstan, and Kirlin hired an AN-124 to fly them to a port in Estonia, where the rest of the shipping journey to Quincy was uneventful.

You can read more about the MiGs’ journey in Wired magazine.

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