Rostislav Belyakov – obituary
Rostislav Belyakov designed Russia’s MiG fighter jets and sold his aircraft on the open market when the Cold War ended
Rostislav Apollosovich Belyakov, who has died aged 94, was the chief designer of the MiG fighter jets, responsible, among other things, for the design of the MiG-29 “Fulcrum” front line fighter and the MiG-31 “Foxhound” interceptor; the MiG-29 has been described as the most influential and important aircraft ever to roll off Soviet production lines.
The Fulcrum (a Nato codename), was developed in secret in the 1970s to counter new American fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. When it entered service with the Soviet Air Force in 1983 it represented a major breathrough for Soviet aerospace. According to The Encyclopedia of Russian Aircraft 1875-1995, it incorporated “integral aerodynamics with lifting fuselage disappearing into a large wing, two underslung engines with variable inlets, structure for a sustained 9Gs, multimode Pulse-Doppler radar, comprehensive fire-control and electronic warfare systems and gun plus not fewer than six air-to-air missiles”.
Western agencies had seen satellite images of the aircraft in 1977, but the first opportunity to get a more detailed look came in 1986 when the Russians took six Fulcrums over to Finland for a demonstration show. The following year the aircraft caused a sensation when it became the first high performance Russian fighter ever to appear at the Farnborough Air Show, where it performed aerobatics unmatched by rivals.
But by this time the Soviet Union was in dire need of hard cash, its economy having been driven to near ruin by the Reagan arms race of the early 1980s. As communism started to crumble, and old Soviet military design bureaus lost their “unlimited funding” status, excess Soviet military hardware became widely available for sale — in particular Soviet aircraft which (apart from oil) represented virtually the only exportable commodity the Russians had.
Belyakov, whose name had been virtually unknown in the West until the collapse of the Soviet Union, emerged to spearhead the MiG sales drive. In 1991 he popped up at the Paris Air Show to announce that there were no longer any political barriers to Russian arms sales: “If you have $40 million, we will sell you a MiG-31,” he declared.
To begin with progress was slow and Belyakov expressed frustration with western rivals, whom he accused of hidden pricing tactics, lies about Russian quality, and in at least one case, unauthorised use of MiG technology to compete against Russian products. In fact western pilots, who got to fly the MiGs after German reunification brought former East German forces into Nato recognised that they were good aircraft but felt that they had a somewhat rough-and-ready “agricultural” quality.
Belyakov also had problems with Russian bureaucrats: “I’m just sick and tired,” he told a reporter from Moscow News in 1992. “If we do sell them [MiGs] at all, they grab all the money.”
MiGs eventually achieved significant sales worldwide, including a large order from India. However the Russian drive to develop new overseas markets for its military hardware had implications for western strategists, who, instead of worrying about how the Soviet Union and its allies might deploy fighter aircraft in any future conflict, had to shift the main focus of their attention to undesirables among Russia’s military clientele. MiG-29s very briefly saw combat in the 1991 Gulf War with the Iraqi Air Force, but five of the aircraft were quickly shot down by USAF F-15s after which the MiGs did not reappear. Syrian Arab Air Force MiG-29s have been involved in encounters with Israeli fighter and reconnaissance aircraft, while last October Syrian MiG-29s performed ground attack missions with unguided rockets and bombs against Free Syrian Army insurgents in the Damascus area.
By the mid 1990s, however, Belyakov, who had supported the attempted military coup against Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin, had become persona non grata in the Kremlin and in 1995 he retired due to “bad health”.
Rostislav Apollosovich Belyakov was born in the Russian city of Murom on March 4 1919. After graduation from the Moscow Aviation Institute in 1941 he started his work in the Aviation Design Bureau of Artem Mikoyan, the aircraft designer brother of Stalin’s foreign minister, who had been appointed to lead a new aircraft design bureau two years earlier.
Belyakov rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming deputy chief designer in 1957, responsible for the development of new fighter aircraft, among them the MiG -21 and MiG-23. The MiG-21 famously hit the headlines in August 1966 when Israeli Intelligence managed to persuade an Iraqi defector called Munir Redfa to land an Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 at an air base in Israel. Redfa felt his Christianity had prevented his promotion in the military and was angry at being ordered to attack Iraqi Kurds. In negotiations with Mossad agents he agreed to fly his MiG-21 to Israel in exchange for $1 million, Israeli citizenship, and the smuggling of his family out of Iraq. The opportunity to defect came on August 16 1966 and involved a large element of luck. While Redfa was flying over northern Jordan, his plane was tracked by radar. The Jordanians contacted Syria but were reassured that the plane belonged to the Syrian Air Force and was on a training mission. After landing the plane at the Hatzor air base Redfa claimed he had been down to “the last drop of fuel”. Israel and the United States were able to study the plane and the following year Israel had made good use of this knowledge during the “Six-Day War” when its Air Force brought down 6 Syrian MiG-21s in battles over the Golan Heights — without losing any of its Dassault Mirage IIIs.
Following Mikoyan’s death in 1969, Belyakov became chief designer of the MiG design bureau.
Belyakov won numerous honours and awards, including the Order of Lenin, and was an Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1994 he published a history of the MiG empire, MiG: 50 Years of Secret Aircraft Design and in 2005 was awarded the title of “Laureate Legend” by the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Rostislav Belyakov, born March 4 1919, died February 28 2014
A MiG 29 ‘Fulcrum’ in action