Russian aircraft designer Rostislav Belyakov, who died last week at the age of 94, was not a household name. But the aircraft he helped to design were. Few words define the Cold War as much as the one syllable acronym for the design bureau Belyakov ran for two decades - MiG.
The MiG planes Belyakov helped fly off the drawing board were amongst the Soviet Union’s most impressive: the swing-wing MiG-23 fighter bomber; the enormous MiG-25 that could fly three times the speed of sound; and the MiG-29, a twin-engine jet built to counter the US F-16.
Belyakov took over as MiG’s director-general after the death of its founder, Artem Mikoyan, in 1970, having joined the company in 1941 to help upgrade its troubled MiG-3 fighter. MiG’s name became famous with the MiG-15, a fighter which caused the West consternation when it appeared in the skies over Korea in 1950.
“Here was a compact, fast, manoeuvrable and highly effective swept wing jet fighter that all but defined aerial combat in the Korean War,” says aviation and design writer Jonathan Glancey. “Seeing a MiG-15 today whether in a museum, on a pedestal or in flight evokes the Cold War era in a single blink of the eye.” To the average person in the 1950s and 60s; every Russian jet was a MiG – the company name became a catchall for any Russian bomber or fighter seen taxiing on runways from Moscow to Maputo.
Belyakov became one of MiG’s senior designers, helping design the delta-winged MiG-21, a design which racked up nearly 50 years in production. But his most challenging work would come in the following decades – taking the bureau’s designs into cutting-edge areas like swing-wings and edge-of-space flight.
Glancey believes the enormous MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ – as big as a World War II Lancaster bomber and faster than a bullet – was one of Belyakov’s most impressive designs. “The MiG-25 was astonishingly fast. A Mach-3 machine, it was designed to intercept a new generation of US long-range strategic nuclear bombers, especially the North American B-70 Valkyrie. This military Concorde lookalike was to have flown at Mach-3 at 70,000ft (21km): the stunning looking, twin-boom MiG-25 was to have been the American bomber’s nemesis. The complex US bomber never made it into service, but no fewer than 1,186 ‘Foxbats’ did. Belyakov’s design – glimpsed from spy satellite photos – scared the Pentagon, and it helped spur the development of the F-15 Eagle, one of the backbones of the US Air Force in the latter stages of the Cold War. When a Soviet pilot defected to Japan in a MiG-25 in 1976, CIA agents stripped it to pieces and reassembled it before sending back to the USSR.
Douglas Barrie, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), first met Belyakov on a tour of Russia shortly after the break-up of the USSR.
Even though he was in his early 70s Belayakov remained enthusiastically involved at MiG, even during what must have been a very difficult time for the company, says Barrie. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed shortly by the collapse of defence expenditure, and throughout the 1990s the once famous and feted design bureaux such as MiG faced a struggle to eke out an existence,” he says. “Even after he stepped down from taking an active role at MiG he was a habitual attendee the Moscow air show, and would participate in some MiG press conferences.”
In terms of Belyakov’s greatest success, Barrie says it was arguably him keeping MiG as the Soviet Union's premiere fighter design bureau ahead of [its rival] Sukhoi. “This was reflected in it being selected to meet the air force's requirement for a “fifth-generation fighter, he says. “A prototype of the design, known as the Article 1.44, was built and eventually test flown, but Russia in the 1990s was unable to fund defence developments and the programme was eventually cancelled.”
MiGs still serve in dozens of air forces – TV footage of the recent unrest in Ukraine showed MiGs on the tarmac in Crimea’s disputed Belbek airfield. And while MiG’s fortunes have failed to match its Russian rival Sukhoi since the end of the USSR, its name will not be disappearing anytime soon. An updated version of the MiG-29 – the MiG-35 – is currently in development. And while MiG’s Article 1.44 may never make it into service, a trainer called the AT may help carry the MiG name far further into the 21st Century.