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Mystery Flight over Nevada

4 minute read

Was an Air Force general piloting a Soviet MiG before he died?

Crew-cut and trim at 54, Air Force Lieut. General Robert M. Bond had drawn the kind of duty that many aging fighter pilots would envy. As vice commander of the Air Force Systems Command, he regularly jetted away from his desk job at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to test-pilot experimental aircraft, some of them secret, adding steadily to the more than 5,000 hours of flight experience he had accumulated over 33 years. Friends expected Bond to announce his retirement this year. But on April 26 tragedy struck: an aircraft Bond was flying over the sprawling desert of Nevada’s Nellis Air Force range went out of control and crashed. The general ejected, but his parachute shredded, possibly because of the extremely high speed, and he died in the fall.

Last week the circumstances surrounding Bond’s last flight grew more and more mysterious. The Air Force refused to identify the plane he was piloting, except to call it “an Air Force specially modified test aircraft.” At first, speculation centered on a group of aircraft under development at Nellis that use the new and highly classified Stealth technology, an array of design innovations supposedly capable of making aircraft virtually invisible to enemy radar. Then came an even more intriguing, though also unconfirmed, report: Bond was actually flying a Soviet-built MiG-23 Flogger, the primary fighter craft of the Soviet air force, with a maximum speed of some 1,700 m.p.h.

That possibility drew attention to a little-known aspect of American military training. The U.S. has managed to assemble a minisquadron of between four and 15 Floggers, as well as at least a dozen of the more easily obtainable MiG-21s. All of the MiG-23s, which the Soviets began producing in 1973, were purchased from Egypt. Cairo had acquired an extensive Soviet-built arsenal, including the Floggers, from 1955 to 1974, when Egypt was one of Moscow’s most valued client-states.

American specialists put the Soviet aircraft through extensive tests to determine their capabilities. The planes are also used in simulated combat exercises, staging air skirmishes with U.S. fighters to give American pilots training in Soviet air-battle techniques. Publicly, the Air Force acknowledges only that four “aggressor squadrons” of U.S.-made F-5Es are used to mimic MiGs. A spokesman at Nellis said no such “red flag” training exercises were in progress on the day Bond crashed.

The advantages of training Air Force pilots with real Soviet hardware have not been lost on the Navy. It is studying a proposal made last year by a subsidiary of Dallas’ LTV Corp, to supply 24 MiG-21s for use by Navy pilots. About 5,000 MiG-21s have been built since their introduction in 1956, including some in countries other than the Soviet Union. The LTV subsidiary did not reveal its source of supply, but MiG-21s are starting to show up on the world used-arms market.

Some aircraft authorities expressed surprise that Bond would have been allowed to take the Flogger up. Even though the general had recently passed a rigorous “Class 2” Air Force physical, which includes aerobic stress tests and other exacting measurements, some Air Force officials frown on pilots over the age of 45 flying solo in high-performance craft. “Why was Bond flying a plane like that, when he was on the verge of retirement?” asks an Air Force source. Bond’s judgment, as well as that of his superiors, will doubtless be one of the points covered in a special investigation promised by the Air Force. Most of the results of the investigation, however, will probably remain classified.

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