We start our every day with plans in our heads and think that those plans will happen unless, of course, something unexpected comes along the way. Maybe a minor hassle, probably a delay, or your boss suddenly asking you to render overtime, in turn making you miss your anniversary dinner. Those kinds of things. Would you ever expect a pilotless fighter jet to take off about a thousand kilometers and then come crashing on your roof in the middle of a farm? Pretty wild, if you’re going to think about it, but that’s exactly what happened on July 4, 1989.
Started as an Ordinary Day
Colonel Nikolai Skuridin started his day early. He was an experienced pilot of the Soviet Air Force and had just returned from a vacation. That day, he was to perform a test flight over Poland, which was their ally at that time. He started his MiG-23 fighter aircraft from the Bagicz Airbase near Kolobrzeg, ready for the test flight.
Some 1,000 kilometers away in Western Belgium, 19-year-old Wim Delaere was also looking forward to an ordinary day on their farm. Unbeknownst to him, it was going to be his last day.
Meanwhile, in Soesterberg, Netherlands, American pilots JD Martin and Bill Murphy of the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, also called the “Wolfhounds,” were celebrating Independence Day for the Americans. Little did they know about what was to come their way.
Flying on Its Own
Skuridin took off, and everything seemed okay and normal until he realized that the engine’s afterburner of his MiG broke and a quick check of his rearview mirrors showed smoking trailing from his aircraft, an early sign of engine failure. Skuridin was at 500 ft altitude and only going about 170 mph and figured he was not in a good situation to get the aircraft turned around and landed on the field so he informed the tower about the situation and that he would eject, probably what any other pilot in the same situation would do. Upon receiving confirmation, he acted as instructed and was safely ejected from his aircraft.
He looked at the now pilotless MiG, expecting it to dip and descend slowly. Instead, no lighter by one pilot, one canopy and one ejection seat, the center of gravity of the plane shifted rearward and brought the nose up. Now the Mig was climbing skyward in its take-off configuration with flaps partially extended and it went its merry way west, right into NATO airspace crossing both Poland and the German Democratic Republic and into West Germany.
One Man’s Demise
NATO detected a Russian plane invading their airspace, so JD and Murphy were sent to intercept the invader. Not only having to deal with it but also with the major communication issues they were having that day with Ground Control Intercept. At least four very excited NATO air defense command elements were all trying to control the F-15 flight and talking over each other on the radio.
The Eagle Drivers were pretty excited too. This was an Alpha Scramble to go after Soviet fight plane and they were fully armed and expecting to get the chance to shoot it down in a dogfight. When F-15s flying at supersonic speeds intercepted the intruder aircraft, they were a bit disappointed. The Mig was still only moving at about 170 knots, it was unarmed and there was no pilot at the controls. Now the intruding aircraft was more of a mystery than it was it was a threat. What the Hell was it even doing there?
The US Air Force pilots escorted the Soviet MiG in their F-15s into Dutch airspace and then into Belgium on a grand tour of NATO countries. At 39,000 feet or so, it shuddered and the engine let out a puff of white smoke.
It was out of gas. and now it began to descend in a slow left turn that could bring it over France, prompting her to scramble fighters as well.
The prediction was that the plane would crash somewhere in the French city of Lille, so the two US pilots prepared to shoot it down. They had the authority to judge when and where to bring it down based on the danger it posed to those on the ground when it crashed. They realized that the rate of descent and distance it was traveling would result in it coming down short of the city and decided against shooting it down with guns or missiles. They were right, the Mig would miss Lille and come down in Belgium in the village of Kortrijk, to be exact. And to be more exact, it crushed the farmhouse of Wim Delaere, who probably did not even have time to process what happened and what ended his life. The plane landed mostly intact and there was no explosion or extensive fire as it was out of fuel.
When USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev heard about what happened, he said in a statement, “I am sorry about what happened. The Belgians have been made aware of the reasons, and we expressed our regret.”
Colonel Skurigin, on the other hand, publicly showed regret that he ejected out of the aircraft. The USSR also paid $685,000 to Belgium for compensation.