American pilots in the Vietnam War found the nimble Russian MiG-17 fighters a challenging foe because the aircraft was easily maneuverable and capable of hitting speeds averaging 700 miles per hour.
In combat, even a flicker of hesitation could prove deadly, aviation experts said.
There only are about a dozen Russian MiG-17s vintage fighters still flying these days, and three of the old war birds are quietly sitting in a private Tyler hangar.
Bringing the trio together is a rare opportunity, Jet aerobatics pilot and MiG owner Randy Ball said Tuesday.
“Off the charts,” he said.
Adding to this unlikely reunion, the pilot said, is the fact that two of the three aircraft — which feature serial numbers only a digit apart — were made in the same factory and flew together for 18 years in the same enemy squadron.
“It’s truly hard to imagine that two aircraft built in the Cold War and flew together would be here,” Smith said. “It’s just highly unlikely.”
Smith also owns the third MiG-17, a fiery red craft purchased from a decorated war pilot from Virginia.
The three MiG-17s were reunited this week in a private hangar managed by the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum, 150 Airport Drive.
The public can see the trio July 7 at the museum as the aircraft and more than a dozen other old planes stage during the Thunder Over Cedar Creek Air Show, a benefit for military veterans.
People can view takeoffs and returns about 6 p.m. from the museum courtyard and lobby, possibly meeting the pilots, museum board president Carolyn Verver said.
The MiG-17 was produced in the USSR in the 1950s and largely was used by enemy combatants during the Vietnam War.
“Sixty MiGs were imported into the U.S. after the Cold War ended,” Ball said, noting only about 18 have been restored.
Finding multiple examples of the craft and then reuniting them was an extremely rare feat that has been years in the making, the men said.
It started several years ago when Ball, original founder of the Cedar Creek show, decided to secure hangar space for his MiG-17 at the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum.
Back in Frisco, Smith was mulling the idea of acquiring a MiG-17 to fill out his collection of vintage aircraft.
He later located a suitable candidate, MiG number 1613, in Florida. A few repairs and a new paint job later — the old one was painted blue — Ball ferried it back to Texas for his friend.
On Monday, they moved it to the museum to rejoin its former squadron mate.
All three MiGs are expected to stay together in the museum’s private hangar.
The men said they never tire of learning about their aircraft, pointing to old photographs and describing meticulous log books maintained during the war.
Smith said they recently conducted an annual inspection of MiG 1611 and 1613 and discovered the factory inspection stickers on the airplanes were inadvertently swapped when compared to the paperwork.
“It was strange,” Smith said.
Ball has performed in air shows for more than 25 years. His “Check Six” MiG has been featured in movies, the Discovery Channel, video games and countless periodicals. He’s noted as the U.S. pilot with the most flight time in a Soviet aircraft.
Smith, a technology entrepreneur and 24-year pilot, flies a PT-17 Stearman, T-37 Tweet (one of two currently flying), an L-39 and Super Cub.
But it’s the MiGs that seem to have stolen their hearts.
“I’m going to plagiarize. … It’s like having an aluminum mistress,” Ball teased. “I didn’t start out to buy a MiG-17. Once I started flying it, it was ‘Holy Cow.’”
Ball said he especially enjoys giving war veterans an opportunity to see the craft as something other than an enemy flyer.
Compared to Ball’s affection for the craft’s speed, Smith said he loves the history of the old planes.
“We’re here, for a short period of time, to take care of a significant piece of history,” he said. “I’m just a caretaker for a piece of history.”