A former Ukranian MiG-29 fighter has become the second privately owned MiG-29 to fly, taking to the air over Washington six years after it left Eastern Europe. Capable of speeds of Mach 2.2 and altitudes of nearly 60,000ft, the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 “Fulcrum” is a far cry from the vintage airplanes that Historic Flight Foundation specializes in restoring.
However, the opportunity to work on something so different was an irresistible lure to John Sessions, the founder of Historic Flight, who wanted to verify that a complex high-performance aircraft could be restored by following the same rules and guidelines as a vintage airplane.
The two-seat MiG-29UB was manufactured in the Soviet Union sometime between 1985 and 1991, and saw service with the 642nd IAP (fighter air regiment) of the Ukrainian Air Force after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During its service it racked up a total of 510 flight hours. In the year 2000 the Ukraine began retiring some of its MiG-29s, and in 2005 this particular MiG-29UB was demilitarized and offered for sale to the general public. The Historic Flight Foundation heard about the sale through Tim Morgan of Morgan Aircraft Restorations, and a deal was brokered to bring the MiG-29UB to the U.S.
Because it is a front-line military fighter, the shipping company hired to transport the aircraft to the United States split it into two shipments to deter hijackers, according to officials at the Historic Flight Foundation. The wing and engine crates were shipped across the Atlantic while the fuselage was loaded aboard a ship bound for the Pacific. At Hong Kong the fuselage was off-loaded to change ships, but the shipper had neglected to obtain a local import license. On April 4, 2006, it was seized as military contraband. Sessions traveled to Hong Kong in an effort to save the MiG. Two years and many trips later, a Chinese judge ruled that the aircraft had been properly demilitarized before arriving in Hong Kong and should be returned to the Historic Flight Foundation.
The fuselage finally joined the rest of the aircraft in the Morgan Aircraft Restoration hangar at Arlington Municipal Airport in 2008. Now the aircraft needed to be fully disassembled and all parts inspected for damage, both from its previous service life as well as the years spent in transit. Some parts that didn’t make it to the US would need to be fabricated from scratch, or duplicated by making a mirror copy of a part on the other side of the aircraft. Any components showing unusual wear or any sort of corrosion or damage were replaced, including both huge RD-33 afterburning turbofan engines, whose replacements had to be specially manufactured by the Klimov factory in Russia.
While Historic Flight Foundation’s MiG-29 lay in pieces in Arlington there were two crashes of Russian Air Force MiG-29s just a month apart. The investigation showed that the twin vertical tails of the MiG-29 were prone to corrosion where they join the fuselage, and that the two crashes were caused by the vertical tail literally coming off in mid-air. The root cause was found to be a combination of different metals used to attach the vertical tails to the fuselage, which could react with one another and corrode under the right conditions. It was decided that the only way to be sure this wouldn’t happen to Historic Flight’s MiG-29UB would be to redesign all of the attachment components entirely out of aluminum, thus eliminating any other metals that might cause corrosion.
Throughout the restoration process, experienced MiG-29 mechanics were flown over from Slovakia to offer their expertise with an aircraft that practically no western mechanics had ever worked on. Their assistance proved to be invaluable, offering knowledge only gained through decades of front line MiG-29 service, officials said.
The final restoration work to be done was cosmetic. Between being retired and being sold, the MiG had sat outside in the Ukraine for years, suffering through many winters. Then, during shipment to the US, the fuselage was confiscated and spent another two years sitting at a Hong Kong dock. Because of this, some of the sheet metal on the aircraft had to be replaced, and the entire plane also had to be stripped and repainted. The markings on the aircraft were kept as close to original as possible, from the pattern of the camouflage to the black panther on the nose.
The restoration was finally completed in December 2010, but there was still one critical component missing: the explosive charges for the ejection seats. These charges were removed as part of the demilitarization of the aircraft in the Ukraine, but acquiring replacements and importing them into the US proved to be quite a challenge. They were finally installed in January 2011, and the aircraft was ready to fly again.
First flight of the newly christened N29UB occurred on Jan. 23, during which it was ferried from Arlington Municipal to Snohomish County Airport in Everett, Wash. This airport is home to the Boeing factory that produces the 747, 767, 777, and 787, as well as the Historic Flight Foundation’s vintage aircraft museum. The MiG-29UB is scheduled to complete a 5-hour flight test program over the next few days, gradually building up confidence in its systems. It will reach altitudes of 60,000 feet, speeds of Mach 0.97, and perform high-g aerobatic maneuvers.
The Historic Flight Foundation plans to undertake the restoration of two more MiG-29s over the coming years, which will help finance its heritage activities.
Historic Flight Foundation was established in 2003 as “John T. Sessions Historic Aircraft Foundation” with the intention to collect, restore, and share aircraft from the period between the solo Atlantic crossing of Charles Lindbergh and the first test flight of the Boeing 707. Throughout the intervening years, Historic Flight has acquired at least two aircraft annually and engaged the best restoration resources available to return the collection to original splendor.
Morgan Aircraft Restorations was founded over 20 years ago by Tim Morgan. The company specializes in aircraft restoration and modification, sheet metal repair and structural repair, and custom paint and interiors.
For more information: HistoricFlight.org