- The MiG-31 in its hangar prior to being stolen | Photo: KGB/GRU

Flightline: Flights Of Fantasy #3

Developed in the late 1970s, the MiG-31 (NATO reporting name “Firefox”) was an evolutionary (some would say revolutionary) follow-on to the MiG-25.

Though an impressive plane, the MiG-25 fell short of matching the US’ SR-71 Blackbird, and so the Mikoyan OKB went back to the drawing board, this time aiming to exceed the capabilities of the Americans. The new interceptor would be capable of hypersonic flight, allowing it to easily intercept aggressive aircraft.

Orthograph of the MiG-31 . | Graphic: CIA

Orthograph of the MiG-31 . | Graphic: CIA

The airframe of the MiG-31 was constructed from titanium and SS-118, the same stainless steel/nickel alloy used on the MiG-25. The Firefox marked the first wide-scale use of titanium by an aircraft in the USSR, though it had previous experience using the metal on the Project 705 (NATO reporting name Alfa-class) nuclear submarine. The fuselage was partially faceted to reflect radar away from transmitters, and was made as aerodynamically smooth as possible both to lessen aerodynamic heating and to reduce radar cross-section. The wing was a large double-delta planform to allow both high speed and high altitude flight, and the aircraft was fitted with canards. The MiG-31 was painted with radar absorbing paint, similar to the ‘Iron Ball’ coatings used on the SR-71.

The Firefox was equipped with the latest avionics, including advanced ESM/ECM gear to jam US and NATO radar. The MiG also featured the first fly-by-wire system for a Soviet aircraft. The most revolutionary system however was the thought-controlled weapons array, which utilized sensors within a dedicated helmet to measure the pilot’s brainwaves, allowing him to target and fire weapons simply by thinking (in Russian). The Firefox also sported a synthetic aperture radar, which allowed it to perform reconnaissance as well as detect and track airborne targets.

Infographic: CIA

Infographic: CIA

Soviet engineers started with the MiG-25's Tumansky RJ-15BD-300 engines and incorporated lessons learned from the Foxbat as well as manufacturing techniques stolen from Western manufacturers, creating high-bypass afterburning turbojets that produced 50,000lbs of thrust each, allowing the MiG-31 to reach speeds of Mach 6 for short periods. The Firefox had six Soyuz/Komarov throttleable solid rocket boosters, which provided an additional 16,000lbs of thrust. This capacity was used for takeoffs and high-speed dashes, though it could also be used at extreme altitudes (130,000+ feet) in case of an engine flameout. As with the SR-71 and XB-70, fuel was used to cool the airframe and engines prior to combustion.

Despite extraordinarily tight security, even for the USSR, Western spies learned about the MiG-31, and the CIA managed to infiltrate a pilot into the test base with the purpose of stealing the prototype and flying it to the US. The first part of the plan is successful, and the Firefox met with an American nuclear submarine in the Arctic Circle to refuel.

The Firefox on the ice during its refueling stop . | Photo: CIA/USN

The Firefox on the ice during its refueling stop . | Photo: CIA/USN

The MiG-31 meeting with an American submarine to refuel . | Photo: CIA/USN

The MiG-31 meeting with an American submarine to refuel . | Photo: CIA/USN

The Soviet Air Force dispatched the second MiG-31 prototype to destroy the first, though the second was shot down instead. The American pilot then flew the plane to the US, were it was quickly dispatched to an undisclosed base (likely same facility at Groom Lake where the A-12 and SR-71 were tested) for inspection and testing.

A shot of the Firefox soon after landing in the US . | Photo: Unknown

A shot of the Firefox soon after landing in the US . | Photo: Unknown

After being examined by US intelligence and defense agencies, the MiG-31 was borrowed to NASA for further flight testing . | Photo: NASA

After being examined by US intelligence and defense agencies, the MiG-31 was borrowed to NASA for further flight testing . | Photo: NASA

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Comments (4)

  • True story: Craig Thomas was my English teacher for most of my years at high school.

      19 days ago
  • There are conflicting accounts, likely due to information concerning both the aircraft and its theft being classified by both sides. The MiG-31 may have lost fuel after damage during combat with the second prototype and made a forced landing on a frozen lake, leading to another operation to recover it.

    ("Firefox" was a book before it was a movie. The book got a sequel, partly tied in to the movie's adaptation of the story. The second book was never made in to a movie.)

      19 days ago
    • Yeah, I have copies of both on my bookshelf. More people know the movie though, and it's got pictures of the plane. 😉

        19 days ago
    • >>> "Firefox" was a book before it was a movie.

      In fact, Craig Thomas sold the film rights to an anonymous company and it was several years before he knew who had really bought the rights.

        19 days ago
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