The Federal Aviation Administration is keeping an eye on an elite group of aviation enthusiasts who are buying and flying authentic MIG fighters in the United States.
Perhaps a dozen private citizens in this country now own one of the Soviet- and Chinese-built combat jets. But even though FAA officials say that the planes have been "demilitarized" and that most pilots claim to have solid jet training, the MIGs won't be allowed to roam free over American skies.
"We're going to be very, very, very careful," said FAA spokesman Fred Farrar, who expressed surprise that there are civilians who claim to be certified to fly the communist-built fighters in this country.
"We haven't certified anybody," Farrar said. "If we did do it, we're going to say you can't fly it over populated areas and can't carry passengers."
Five From China
Bruce Guessling of Unlimited Aviation in Chino, Calif., says he already has sold four of five MIGs he acquired from the Chinese government.
"In some respects (the FAA concerns) are kind of an overkill, but I can understand the caution the FAA is using here," Guessling said.
One of the buyers was Paul Entrekin of Pensacola, Fla. He planned to put his MIG in the air for its first American test flight this weekend.
"It is completely licensed and has an (FAA) 'N' number assigned," said Entrekin, 32, who bought a Chinese MIG that is as old as he is.
The FAA concerns are "silly," said a Santa Barbara, real estate investor who recently purchased a Polish air force MIG-15.
Less Complicated to Fly
"They're easier to fly than most modern jets because they are less complicated," he said.
The MIG-15 owner in Santa Barbara, who didn't want his name published because "I'm a sort of low-profile guy," says buying a MIG is "part of my growing up."
"It's like if you have a Jaguar car, then you want a Ferrari," he said.
The new MIG owner says he bought the jet to complement his F-86, which took on the MIG in combat over Korea.
"It's very reliable and very rugged," said Bob Fay, president of Information Management Inc., a Las Vegas-based consultant to the Defense Department on Soviet aircraft.
The MIG owners, some of whom faced the fighters as American combat pilots, say the FAA should certify them as they would any other experimental high-powered aircraft.
Korean War Models
Most MIG enthusiasts are strapping themselves into the cockpits of MIG-15s--the first jet that Americans faced in combat in 1953 in the Korean War.
The MIG name comes from the last names of its designers, Arten Mikovan and Mikhail Gurevich. (The "I" is Russian for "and.")
The 15 model is the most readily available MIG and the cheapest. A restored MIG-15 equipped with radio gear and a transponder tuned to U.S. frequencies can be purchased for $175,000, said Al Redick Sr., president of Classic in American Aviation of Reno, known by its acronym, CIA.
Redick runs what is indisputably the world's largest used MIG lot on the Tarmac of the old Stead Air Force Base north of Reno. A dozen of the jets liberated from behind the Iron Curtain glisten in the hot desert sun.
Few Can Afford Them
"There's probably only a handful of people in the United States who can afford this kind of fighter," Redick said.
A later model, the sophisticated MIG-23, is harder to come by and much more expensive, with prices being quoted between $900,000 and $8 million.
"They're more closely held by countries that have them," said Fay, who estimated that a MIG-23 with a good engine would fetch $4 million.
"The MIG-23 has a bad engine problem in terms of reliability," Fay said.
But the mystery of the MIG and the prestige of owning one is luring buyers who can pay dearly to alleviate their curiosity and impress their peers.
"When you say MIG, it's like a book where you've never gotten past the cover," Redick said.
'Looks Sexy and Feels Good'
"It's reaching out and touching the enemy," Fay said. "It's an enemy aircraft that looks sexy and feels good."
Entrekin, a former Marine helicopter pilot, agrees. "Everybody wants to see a bad-guy airplane."
"It's also the prestige of showing it to somebody," Redick said. "It's like a guy collecting old cars or old paintings."
But Redick acknowledges that his customers were an elite group of people who have both the bucks and the cockpit experience to open the throttle on their very own MIG fighter.
He says he won't sell one of the jets off his lot to someone who isn't obviously qualified to fly one. He equates it to "putting a gun at a guy's head."
"I don't want to have him smoke a hole in the ground and then have the wife and kids standing here saying I never should have sold him one," he said.
Flight Time Required
Redick adds that most pilots would need hundreds of hours of jet time just to qualify for insurance for their plane.
He and many other MIG buyers are mum when asked where and how they get their planes.
"It's a Warsaw Pact country," Redick says, but he won't be specific. He does say, though, that Egypt is prime shopping territory because of the Cairo government's military-political shift from Moscow to Washington in recent decades.
"I know the Russians know (their MIGs) are leaving," Redick said.
The Santa Barbara MIG owner says he purchased his through a dealer in England.
"I was told three months earlier it was in service in the Polish air force," he said.
The Chinese, according to aviation experts, are even eager to sell some of their MIGs.
"They need hard greenbacks and they're taking advantage of the market,' Fay said.
The MIGs must be demilitarized before being flown in this country--the gun mounts are replaced with replica aluminum black anodized barrels.
Experts say it wouldn't be difficult to re-arm the MIGs.
"I'm sure it would be easy--but you would get a lot of attention," Fay said.