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May-27-2010 02:22printcommentsVideo

The Day I Flew Wing to Wing with a Soviet MiG-17

"I spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force learning to fight these things, and now I own one" -MiG Pilot Bill Reesman
Video and photos by Tim King KYMA TV

(SALEM, Ore.) - From time to time I unearth old archival material and this one, an aerial show from a historic Russian jet fighter, I think, is a gem.

It was the mid-1990's and I was working as a photojournalist/reporter for KYMA Channel-11 in Yuma, Arizona, the region's NBC station.

We had a good crew and there were many memorable occasions, as there are for anyone who works in daily news.

On this particular day, I was able to shoot a story on Bill Reesman's blood red MiG-17; it is a day that stands out for a number of reasons.

First, the history is outrageous, Bill's classic quote was, "I spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force learning to fight these things, and now I own one, and it is the best plane in the world to fly."

He compared it to a really souped up WWII fighter, which were almost all piston engine propeller planes.

Snapshots from the video

The only World War Two jet that was operational, was the German Messerschmidt ME-262. This design undoubtedly went on to influence others, including the Soviet MiG's.

As much as I liked Bill, I have him to blame for a lifetime addiction to MiGs which I didn't see coming as of this day.

Within three years of this flight, after befriending a pair of intelligence officers, I found myself in a hangar at Nellis Air Force Base with a MiG-25 and a (then very elusive) MiG-29 which is one of the sleekest most awesome planes ever manufactured.

Then I covered the first squadron level arrival of MiG-29's to the USA. They were German Luftwaffe and they took part in Fighter Weapons School at Nellis.

The next thing I know it's 2006 and I'm having convoys of Army HUMVEE's stop in Afghanistan so I can get pictures of old MiG's leftover from their previous wars.

Then in Iraq it was the Marines who showed me MiG's just left in the desert in Anbar province, more than you would even believe in some cases.

But never have I been able to fly next to one for a period of time, except for the day Bill Reesman came to Yuma. He was there for the annual air show which I highly recommend.

You can't lose when the events are held at Marine bases, and Yuma is the home of a Marine Corps Air Station, and it is a Harrier base.

Anyway, I find the MiG-17 fascinating and while it sadly is a warbird meant to kill people, it is still a piece of history, and this is one no longer in the killer role.

Pride of the USSR: The MiG-17 'Fresco'

MiG-17 jet fighters over the years, from various sources.

It's easy to fault things made by the Russians; they make crappy automobiles like the Lada, motorcycles like the Ural, (my friend owns a 2005 model with a sidecar) is an almost exact, slightly modernized copy of a German WWII BMW, and they are still making them! and they certainly aren't known for luxury.

But the Russians know how to make jet fighters that will survive the cold, in this case, take off and land from dirt runways, and generally outperform and in many ways outmaneuver their western counterparts.

In fact look at the AK-47 rifle, it is used everywhere still; more widely manufactured than any other weapon in history, and while simple and sometimes crude, it is like the MiG-17: resilient, reliable and highly effective in the right hands.

The Russians have lived hard lives, out of necessity, political oppression, and really bitter cold weather. My friend Jim Lewis once returned from Russia full of stories. He asked, "Why do Russians like cars with V8 engines?" I answered like a typical American, "power and prestige?" He replied, "No they like V8's because if one cylinder breaks, they still have seven more."

It's enough to make you stop and think.

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 (Russian: Микоян и Гуревич МиГ-17) was the first eastern bloc jet that broke the speed of sound.

It was nimble and trim and somewhat crude in many ways, but with Reesman and my video as indisputable witnesses, this is one hot plane. There are few limits to the aerobatic capability, none of which are obvious.

U.S. aviation during the Korean War, from various sources.

The aircraft was a further development of the famous MiG-15 which was a formidable fighter in the Korean War. Unfortunately for the communists, those years saw seriously experienced American WWII pilots at the controls of the F-86 Sabre absolutely blow them out of the sky.

Putting those victorious Americans in jets must have been a little like giving a top athlete steroids.

The MiG-17 has an open nose like the MiG-15, giving it a slightly unfinished appearance in some ways, but don't be deceived.

This is the plane that Americans tangled with during the Vietnam War, and some of the time it didn't go well for the Americans, as detailed below in the Wikipedia quote about 4 April 1965 in Vietnam.

The MiG-17 has been manufactured in different countries over the years, and at the time this video was shot, which I believe was early 1996, there were according to Reesman, still some being used as front line jet fighters, in third world countries.

From Wikipedia:

Although US jet fighter-bombers (the F-100 Super Sabre and F-101 Voodoo) had been engaged in combat since 1961, the North Vietnamese Air Force MiGs had not. On 4 April 1965, the USAF conducted a "re-strike" on the Hàm Rồng/Thanh Hoa bridge with 48 F-105 Thunderchiefs loaded with 384 x 750 lb bombs. The Thunderchiefs were escorted by a MiGCAP flight of F-100 Super Sabres from the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS). Coming from above, four MiG-17s from the 921st Fighter Regiment (FR) tore through the escorts and dove onto the Thunderchiefs, shooting two of them down. The Super Sabres engaged with one firing a "Sidewinder" air-to-air missile which apparently missed (or malfunctioned), and another F-100 fired 20mm cannons, which also apparently missed. The North Vietnamese MiG-17s had scored their first confirmed aerial victories in jet-to-jet combat (North Vietnamese MiG-17s and US jets had fought their first jet air battle on 3 April 1965 which involved US Navy F-8 Crusaders, with only probable kills)

Tim King's Photo Essay on 'MiG Magic'

For me, it was all about being able to climb into Bill Reesman's other toy, a beautiful Lear Jet, and see this MiG in action, what a show!

Bill Reesman wasn't there to go halfway either, he put on a fantastic performance and the plane just looked like the most natural thing in the world, flying along wing to wing with our plane at several hundred miles an hour. We went through some maneuvers ourselves getting into position and more or less keeping up with the hard to miss red Russian fighter.

While the other journalists aboard the Lear hurled into paper bags, I recorded incredible images of Bill and his steed, in full glory under a sparking Arizona sun.

It was hard to beat.

But I did, about three years later, when I somehow talked my way into an "incentive flight" in an F-16 Falcon.

Yes, the U.S. military let this left-leaning former Marine fly around Death Valley for an hour and fifteen minutes, and I was able to take the controls four times, and it is all on tape.

That will be fun for another day, I'll keep poring through the archives; there is more to come.

Learn more: Wikipedia page on the MiG-17

Dispatches from Afghanistan - Tim King's photos of Afghan MiG's at Baghram

Reports from Iraq - Tim King's photos of old Russian fighters at Ballad

Mar-02-2009: Russian Jet Fighters: Formidable Opponents of Western Technology - Tim King

Oct-06-2008: Unusual Observations From the War in Iraq - Tim King


Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.

Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. You can send Tim an email at this address:

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