Former World War II allies, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR) had turned their warm ties into cold shoulders following the end’s war, mainly due to conflicted beliefs in ideology and politics. Thus, the rivalry between the two began—among which was the race on who would build the fastest, most superior military power might, subsequently igniting the era of espionage.

While the notion of secret operatives lurking in hostile territory and spies hidden in plain sight among civilians is not new, Cold War espionage has evolved into its own genre, inspiring fictional works such as the renowned James Bond series of novels and movies.

But the case below is a true case straight from the intelligence agency files, dating back to the early 1970s. This may seem anti-climactic without the adrenaline of a pursuit like Agent 007, but it depicts how cunning these USSR agents were in obtaining top secrets off US territory.

Here’s how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) caught one Russian spy who tried to leech off intelligence from an American engineer working on the then-ongoing F-14 aircraft project.

A ‘Chance’ Encounter

The year was 1970. A year that brought the swinging sixties to a close and poured freezing cold water into the nation, waking everyone up to the harsh reality of increasing geopolitical unrest, gas shortages, natural disasters, serial killers, terrorism, and more that was previously buried behind blind optimism.

An American engineer working for the Grumman Aerospace Corporation was unwinding at a social gathering somewhere within The Big Apple when a man, alias Sergey Viktorovich Petrov, struck up a casual conversation with him.

Petrov introduced himself as a United Nations (UN) Russian translator, processing papers relating to various scientific affairs for the organization. The Russian gentleman appears to have posed himself as an equal counterpart to the Grumman engineer after casually sharing his family life and career, particularly his previous professional experience as an aeronautical engineer.

When he heard this, the American engineer also opened up more about himself, noting somewhere amid the conversation his involvement in the design phase of the F-14 fighter jet being developed by Grumman for the US Navy.

Under the Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) program, the F-14 “Tomcat” supersonic, twin-engine, variable sweep-wing, two-place strike fighter was the Navy’s answer against USSR’s long-range patrol and bomber aircraft that had been pestering American jets in the battlefield in Vietnam.

Grumman F-14
A prototype F-14B test aircraft with F401 engines installed (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Initially unwary of the hidden intentions of Petrov, the American engineer went on to discuss his attempt to adjust his extravagant lifestyle as the latter feared that he might be losing his job one of these days as, at that time, Grumman had been dismissing an ample of employees here and there. This “uncertain future” somehow intrigued Petrov, who ended their conversation by buying the engineer a drink, and he subsequently invited him for a steak dinner some other time.

Without thinking much of it, the American engineer agreed to see his new-found friend again. The dinner was scheduled for a week later in a restaurant in Amityville, Long Island.

Steak Dinners and Red Flags

Both gentlemen exchanged interesting conversations over the two-hour-long steak dinner. At one time, Petrov stated that he was thinking of starting a business in New York and would gladly recruit the engineer should the latter lose his job at Grumman.

In the meantime, the Russian translator said he was working on his doctoral thesis, where he would drop his first blatant red flag—asking the American engineer if he could help him obtain some engineering data about the F-14 aircraft.

Apparently, his thesis was related to the upcoming jet, and he would pay a hefty amount for any information the engineer could provide. Quickly emphasizing that it doesn’t have to be classified, nonetheless hinted that information on the F-14’s wing sweep mechanism would be something he’d like as the concept specifically intrigued him. But, again, if the American engineer could not provide this, he would appreciate any other data he could offer and be willing to pay around $300 per month.

Yet to sense suspicion, the Grumman engineer said he would consider the Russian gentleman’s request. Wanting to be helpful to his doctoral thesis, he told Petrov about an upcoming engineering conference, thinking that this might interest him. But to his surprise, the Russian translator declined, saying “he did not think it would be wise for him to attend.” Petrov subsequently dropped his second and third red flags through this warning, in addition to a head’s up to the American engineer that the latter “should give no sign of recognition if ever their paths cross at any future scientific meeting.”

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But what became a nail to the coffin for the rising suspicion of the engineer was when they exchanged home telephone numbers at the end of their meeting. While he had no problem giving his number, Petrov seemed elusive about his contact details. The latter was also very particular about their meeting place and time should they decide to see each other again.

Which they did. Without vocalizing any concern, the American engineer agreed to meet the Russian gentleman again about three weeks later at the same time and place.

Nonetheless, the suspicions were high, and alarm bells were blaring, and given that it was the Cold War era, the engineer proceeded to report his strange meeting with Petrov to the Grumman security office, who quickly alerted the FBI’s New York Field Office.

The Slow-burn Chase

Without second thoughts, the FBI sent its special agents to interview the Grumman engineer, who, in turn, agreed to cooperate.

The intelligence agency instructed him to continue meeting Petrov to ascertain his intentions, emphasizing that the engineer should emphasize his desperate financial situation as that hooked the suspected Russian spy to the Grumman employee in the first place.

Thus, the long mind game of deception began between the two gentlemen.

When they met again, the American engineer accepted Petrov’s offer in exchange for any engineering data he could obtain from the F-14 project. The Russian translator also requested news reports and publications about the supersonic aircraft. He said he would pay between $100 to $300 (around $775 to $2,326 in 2023 dollars) depending on the material’s value.

More unmistakable red flags came from Petrov as he continued requesting more in-depth engineering data, which the engineer would say could be tricky to obtain.

One night, the Russian casually asked the engineer if removing stuff from the plant would be difficult for the latter, adding that he’d appreciate it if he could borrow the requested data overnight—promising to return it the next day. Despite initially saying that the information the engineer did not have to be any confidential material, as the meeting progressed, Petrov seemed to be wanting reports that were “worth more.”

The gatherings went on for months, over dinner at various restaurants on Long Island every Monday evening at 1900. Since Petrov did not disclose any contact information, he would plan their next meeting after the previous dinner with an alternate date in case either side could not arrive on the original date. Moreover, the engineer would receive the agreed payment between these months, usually around $250 (roughly $1,938 in 2023 dollars) for each report he submits to Petrov.

Meanwhile, special FBI agents would stealthily monitor the exchange, blending in around the crowd at close proximity.

F-14 Display
Grumman F-14 Tomcat static display is located near Gate 8 on the recruit training side of Naval Station Great Lakes. (Image source: US Navy/DVIDS)

And again, despite his initial reassurance, Petrov increasingly pressured his American friend for more F-14 data, including confidential technical reports.

At this point, the engineer’s suspicion detector was pegged, but as they still needed to gather more concrete evidence to ascertain Petrov’s hidden agenda, the Grumman employee continued cooperating with the operation.

Perhaps trusting his American friend too much, Petrov appeared to be not so subtle with his espionage mission anymore and had even suggested to the engineer that he could transfer to another area in the Grumman plant where he could easily gain access to a much larger variety of engineering reports on the F-14, promising to compensate for any salary decrease that might occur as a result of the engineer’s transfer.

In early March 1971, Petrov requested blueprints relating to the F-14’s wing design, providing the engineer with a portable copying machine. During this month, the Russian also notified his American friend about his scheduled vacation trip back to the Soviet Union in May. However, he stressed that their business would continue, encouraging the engineer to keep obtaining and copying valuable F-14 reports until his return in August of that same year.

By November 1971, Petrov would supply the engineer with other equipment for more efficient information gathering. He gave him a specially altered 35mm camera capable of taking 72 photographs from each 36-exposure film roll, a couple of extra rolls, and high-intensity lamps.

Around two months later, in January 1972, the Russian translator informed his American friend that his contract with the UN would be terminated in October or November of that year. He then promised to introduce the engineer to another colleague with whom the latter could continue doing business should he have to return to Russia.

Sensing that this might be the last time the two gentlemen would meet, the FBI finally arranged their arrest.

The story of the F-14 Tomcat. Video courtesy of YouTube and Frankie HM Channel and Plane Spotting

The Anti-Climactic Arrest

On February 14, 1972, nearly two years of exchange, Petrov and the Grumman engineer meet for the fifteenth and last time at a restaurant near Patchogue, Long Island.

During their previous meeting, the engineer told the translator the good news of having to finally obtain some confidential pages from a recent report on the F-14 report. As expected, the Russian was ecstatic to hear the news.

Instead of their usual exchange, which took place inside the engineer’s car, Petrov gave the latter some new instructions on how they would do their business. He suggested it would be best for them to keep physical contact to a bare minimum via drop-off points and walkie-talkies. However, this would not matter, as FBI agents were already in the know and on standby for the arrest.

Shortly after the exchange, the special agents rushed to capture the unsuspecting Petrov before he could realize what was happening. Sensing his imminent arrest, the Russian spy tried to dispose of the evidence by tossing the documents in the air, which the intelligence agency later recovered.

The FBI agents would take Petrov to the Federal Detention Center in New York before moving to the US magistrate for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, where his bail was set at $500,000 (about $3.9 million in 2023). He was also remanded into the custody of the US marshals until a Russian interpreter could be hired the next day because, despite identifying himself as a UN translator for two years when he met with the Grumman engineer, Petrov claimed he didn’t know and understand English.

More evidence had been recovered from him during a search, including a hand-drawn map of New York, where it was later determined to be the drop-off sites the Russian had in mind for the engineer. Despite this, Petrov was released after his bail was dropped to $100,000 (about $775K in 2023). On February 17, 1972, a federal grand jury indicted Petrov for espionage and violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Five months later, however, Petrov’s charges were dismissed by the White House, subsequently allowing the spy to return to USSR. According to top US officials, the decision to liberate the Russian operative “would best serve the national and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

While the American engineer and FBI agents working on the case successfully prevented the Russian spy from acquiring the F-14 engineering data, this would not be the last effort by Soviet spies to steal top-secret files related to the American fighter jet.

For additional reading, you might want to check out The Counterintelligence Chronology: Spying by and Against the United States from the 1700s through 2014 by Edward Mickolus.