Well, the earlier ones (MiG 21/17/15) cost 40K and up.. but this guy decided he'd go for a certain MiG that was still in service with THE RUSSIAN AIR FORCE.
Not to mention, the Navy pays him to rent the plane for aggressor service. The plane in question?
A MiG 29. The rival to the F-15. He has several. He smuggled them out of the CIS.
Building Your Own Air Force, One Mig at a Time
How a supersonic speed freak snuck Soviet fighters out of Kyrgyzstan and started flying "enemy" jets for the Pentagon.
By Carl Hoffman
In a cavernous airplane hangar in Quincy, Illinois, two hours south of Chicago, Don Kirlin paces beneath the gold hammer and sickle of a large Soviet flag. Around him are the military bulwarks of the once-formidable Evil Empire: four Czech Aero Vodochody L-59 Super Albatross fighter jets, perched in two rows. In another Kirlin hangar next door sits a Soviet MiG-21 Mongol, the bane of US pilots in Vietnam. Outside, on the flight line, are seven Czech L-39s, still bearing red Communist stars. And just beyond them, almost invisible in dusky-gray and sky-blue paint, two MiG-29 Fulcrums. The pride of the hallowed Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau, the Russian equivalent of Lockheed Martin, the Fulcrum has a top speed of Mach 2.4 - hundreds of miles per hour faster than an American F-16 Eagle or F/A-18 Hornet - and remains one of Russia's preeminent fighters.
A decade ago, only sovereign nations could afford to buy and maintain sophisticated, high-performance fighters. But Kirlin's unmarked hangars contain an air force more formidable than that of many countries. He has 30 jets in flying condition, 10 in line for maintenance, and dozens more to be delivered. His MiG-29 Fulcrums, designed in the late 1970s to go head-to-head with the hottest US planes, are the only privately owned Fulcrums in the world. Kirlin breaks into a big smile whenever he looks at them.
"Check this out," Kirlin says, leading me into a back room and opening a steel cabinet. He takes out a white cotton bag. Inside it is a pilot's helmet that connects to the plane's laser-guided tracking system. The result: A MiG-29 pilot can precisely target a missile just by looking in a certain direction. Federal regulations require all military equipment owned by civilians to be disabled, but somehow - "Can't tell you," Kirlin says - the Fulcrum's radar weapons systems are intact. The plane is no match for a US fighter's sophisticated avionics in an encounter beyond visual range. But if it can survive long enough to come within view of that fighter, the MiG-29's ability to fly at high angles of attack becomes a distinct advantage - and where the pilot's eyes aim, so does its weapon.
Kirlin's collection began as a rich man's game to own the baddest toys money can buy. Then he realized there were others who coveted the planes as much as he did. So he started a business, Air USA, to sell L-39s to doctors and executives looking for a nifty flying sports car with twin ejection seats, capable of aerobic loops and rolls and approaching the speed of sound. As Kirlin puts it, why plod about at 120 mph in a $300,000 Cessna when you can fly four times as fast in an L-39 that costs the same and looks a hundred times sexier? "Look at this," he says, whipping open the forward avionics bay in the nose of an L-39. "We strip out the old stuff, put in light American avionics, save 800 pounds, and there's enough room for a set of golf clubs!" Built to fly in and out of dirt airstrips throughout the Soviet empire, the L-39 is so sturdy, Kirlin says, "This is the only tactical jet fighter that you could - if the Federal Aviation Administration would let you - land right on the golf course, play a round, and then head home! How cool is that?"
Cool enough - but Kirlin had even bigger ideas. In the past few years, he has built an entirely new and booming business hiring out his fighter jets and pilots to the US government for training exercises. The Navy deactivated its last full-time adversary squadron in 1996 amid shrinking defense budgets and aging aircraft, even as training demands increased. And there was Kirlin, sitting on all those former Eastern bloc fighters maintained by factory-trained mechanics. So the Navy came calling. "Iraq was flying three kinds of plane when we invaded," he says. "The L-39, the MiG-21, and the MiG-29, which are three of the four airplanes that Air USA owns." Now Navy fighter jocks train against Kirlin pilots flying Kirlin planes. With 16 aircraft available for Navy exercises, Kirlin has more fighters in the air than any of the four other companies currently flying for the Pentagon.
Kirlin owes his operation to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elegant crudeness of its technology. "When the Soviets built an airplane, they intended it to serve for 50 years, maintained in the middle of nowhere by a kid who could barely read, using a tool kit not much bigger than a box of fishing tackle." By comparison, he explains, a US warplane is designed around one parameter - performance. Price and complexity are barely considered. "All Americans want is a thoroughbred, but the Russians, they want quarter horses. And lots of 'em. Their whole design philosophy is based on simplicity and reliability."
As an example, Kirlin rattles off the L-39's features: efficient turbo fan engines that need little maintenance and can fly for three hours on a single tank of gas; mechanical flight controls; heavy-duty landing gear and tires for takeoff and landing on unimproved dirt airstrips. Nearly 3,000 were built throughout the 1980s and 1990s, making them modern and plentiful, with an abundance of spare parts - the perfect aircraft, as it turned out, to dependably and profitably challenge the US military.
As Kirlin is talking, two men who look like they've been sent over by a Hollywood casting agent walk into the hangar. Tom Leonard and Pete Pettigrew are both in their early sixties, lean and 6 feet tall, with short silver hair. Pettigrew is a retired Navy Reserve rear admiral with 20,000 cockpit hours and a kill on a MiG-21 over Vietnam in 1972. Leonard is a retired lieutenant colonel and Navy Top Gun graduate. Both are just in from San Diego. Tomorrow they'll fly back in two of Kirlin's L-59s for 10 days of offshore operations against the aircraft carrier Vinson and its battle group. Kirlin employs a cadre of 20 similarly experienced former fighter jocks, including himself.
Some of what his air force does can be mundane - towing targets on 10,000 feet of cable for other jets to shoot down, for example - but increasingly his pilots are being called upon to pierce the air defenses of Navy aircraft carrier battle groups. The scenarios vary, but typically Kirlin's birdsdive toward the carriers from 25,000 feet up and 200 miles out, pretending either to be incoming missiles or enemy fighters. "Gone are the days and tactics of the movie Top Gun, where you had to turn and burn and get behind 'em to shoot 'em down," says Eric Petersen, adversary requirements officer at the Naval Air Forces Headquarters in San Diego. "Now we want to ID someone from 10 miles out and shoot them down before they even see us. But there are 50 different kinds of radar out there, and bandits with different radar signatures. It's getting really complex for pilots trying to figure out which plane and radar is what." Kirlin's planes can simulate those signatures. And a carrier has to be able to identify those fighters and scramble its jets off the deck within a few minutes. But at first, Petersen says, "we found our pilots a lot less ready than we thought they were." The realistic scenarios staged by Kirlin and his pilots help. "When it's a foreign aircraft like the L-59," he adds, "it's much more intense, believable, and challenging."
The Navy paid Kirlin $840,000 for 200 hours of flight time in 2004. This year, says Petersen, Kirlin is already "way beyond that." Even at that price it's a bargain, he insists. "Military assets are programmed to last a certain period of time, so why not use theirs for less challenging missions and save ours for the war?" As Air USA pilot Leonard puts it, "We show up, do the job, and go away."
Kirlin imported his first plane in 1994 as the Soviet empire was crumbling, after he spotted a photo of an L-39 in an aviation magazine. At the time, he was working as a US Airways 737 captain, though as heir to the world's largest chain of Hallmark greeting card stores he certainly didn't need the job. Kirlin likes powerful machines - he roars around Quincy in a restored 1967 Corvette convertible - and the notion of obtaining his very own high-performance war machine grabbed him and wouldn't let go. "Here was a sexy-looking, late-model current--production fighter that could go eight-tenths as fast as sound," he says. "I said, 'I'm going on a quest to get one.'"
So Don Kirlin moved to Kyrgyzstan.
Once he sets his mind to a goal, he's relentless. He soloed his first plane at 16, instructed at 18, and began flying corporate jets three years later. He flew in the Navy, got twin bachelor degrees in business and clinical psychology, and then an MBA, all from the University of Northern Colorado, and moved on to US Airways. In 1993, he asked the FAA to let him parachute from the rear stairway of a Boeing 727, like the infamous skyjacker D. B. Cooper, who disappeared over the Cascades with $200,000 in 1971. Kirlin shrugs his shoulders and grins. "I just wanted to do it because the only other person to do it was Cooper," he says. The FAA said no, unless he could prove unequivocally it was safe. A year later, he presented 6,500 pages of documents to the agency. He remains to this day the only person authorized to operate jumps out of the rear door of a 727.
So it wasn't all that surprising when in 1994 Kirlin got on an airplane bound for the poor, mountainous country tucked between China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Kirlin learned Kyrgyzstan was awash in planes that it couldn't afford to fly, many having logged little flight time. "It was a former USSR training base, and I heard they had the most corrosion-free airplanes in all of the republics," he says. He bedded down in Bishkek, hired an interpreter, and got busy. It took six months and plenty of vodka-fueled banquets. "Their first answer was always 'No, it's not possible,'" he says. "When I said I wanted to buy former Soviet military hardware so people in America could fly them around as toys, they couldn't believe that I wasn't a spy for the US government! But it just takes infinite patience and money. You have to immerse yourself in their lives and get them to trust you."
After his first L-39, Kirlin wanted more. More altitude. More performance. More bragging rights. Another eight L-39s followed within a year, and then two MiG-21s (one of which was subsequently destroyed in a crash that killed the pilot). But people like Kirlin who worship at the altar of high g-forces are never satisfied as long as there's something faster out there. And there was: Kyrgyzstan, Kirlin heard, might have a MiG-29 or two hidden away.
"It's a mechanical meat-and-potatoes airplane," he says, leading me onto the flight line where the two Fulcrums sit. But powerful and deadly all the same. "It can take off and head straight up and accelerate through the sound barrier to 48,000 feet in 60 seconds!" he says, nearly jumping out of his ostrich-skin cowboy boots. "Once I heard those numbers I just had to become the only person to own the biggest, baddest, fastest machine in the world. Me, chasing the clouds in the purest power machine out there. I had to have one."
Wanting one and getting one were two very different things. For starters, the Kyrgyzstanis insisted that they didn't have any MiG-29s. "'Well, if they did exist,'" Kirlin recalls asking, "'what do you think they'd be worth?'" In late 1994, after months of negotiations with the ministry of defense, military officers led him to an underground bunker at an airfield in Bishkek, where they showed him two Fulcrums in surprisingly mint condition.
"They were beautiful," he says. One had flown only 40 hours, the other 110. The bargaining continued for another two years, with Kirlin shuttling in and out frequently for sometimes tense negotiations involving large amounts of cash. "You sit with your briefcase between your back and the back of the chair. You're 1,800 miles from Moscow, and they could kill you any second."
It took two more years to complete the deal, for a sum he won't even ballpark (Russia sold MiG-29s to Malaysia and Peru in 1995 for nearly $16 million apiece). "All cash," Kirlin says, pawing through a box of photos in his spartan office overlooking the hangar. He pulls out shots of him eyeing the two warbirds, surrounded by guys in uniform. "It was the beginning of a dream that turned into a nightmare."
Kirlin and his crew dismantled the Fulcrums and packed them in custom-made steel crates with covers of rough-hewn wood labeled as farm implements. They even built a bridge across a river at the back of the base so they could be towed to the train station. Then something went wrong. Kirlin is coy about exactly what - it seems that the money didn't get where it was supposed to. Suddenly he was unwelcome in Kyrgyzstan. With nothing but the clothes on his back, his passport, and his bankroll, Kirlin shelled out $1,000 to be driven in the trunk of a car from Bishkek across the border to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, the airplanes, loaded on a flatbed railway car and escorted by Kirlin's men, were sent to P'ot'i, Georgia, where they were supposed to be transferred to a ship. Instead, the government of Georgia threatened to confiscate them. Kirlin forked over $40,000 and had the Fulcrums brought back into Kyrgyzstan, escorted, as always, by his agents, who then chartered a Soviet-era AN-124 - the largest commercial airplane in the sky - to fly the planes to Tallinn, Estonia, the closest friendly NATO port, where they were quickly seized for another three months. After three years and more cash outlays required to seal the deal, they arrived in Quincy. Despite their low flying time, they need complete overhauls before they can safely take wing in the US. Some doubt Kirlin can get them airborne. He scoffs: "I've got all the manuals," he says, ever confident. "It's just a matter of time and money."
Kirlin has a full-time man in Moscow and another in Prague scouting airplanes and buying parts. He has jets stationed in Hawaii and Japan to be close to the carrier battle groups Air USA is working with. And in his conference room just off the hangar sit the chief engineer and two sales people from Povazske Strojarne Letecke Motory, the Slovak Republic company that overhauls the Albatross' jet engines. Kirlin is about to take delivery on dozens more L-59s, and he wants the Slovaks to rebuild their motors. But they've been in Quincy for three days, they're not budging on their price, and in an hour they're catching a plane home. "We must make a decision soon," says an anxious Czech mechanic who works for Kirlin and is acting as a translator. "It's all show," Kirlin replies. "Go back in there and be very gracious. Tell them thanks for the price and that I'll think about it."
Moments later, the mechanic reenters the hangar and motions Kirlin over. Sure enough, with minutes to spare, the Slovaks have capitulated, slashing their starting price by 50 percent. Don Kirlin is floating. "Outstanding!" he says, slapping the mechanic on the back. "Awesome. I knew it would go our way. It's always the same; you just have to wait 'em out." Then, stealing a glance at the hammer and sickle, he can't help himself. "America won!" he says with a laugh. "We're all they've got now."