Although David Sutton did not have to dig through 270 feet of snow and ice to acquire his first fighter jet—a Soviet-made, Poland-owned, 711 mph MiG-17—it did take him more than a year to complete the purchase and another 12 months to assemble and certify the jet in the United States. “That was short,” says Sutton, a 45-year-old New Jersey resident who works as a pilot instructor at FlightSafety International, a company that trains business aviation pilots. “These negotiations can take three to five years.”
When the former professional pilot and deep-sea diver began his search for a fighter jet in 1991, he turned to Poland, which, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, owned a surplus of MiG jets. After a round of phone calls, Sutton made a contact at Cenzin, Poland’s official import-export company, who informed him that for the right price (approximately $200,000), he could purchase a MiG-17. Sutton retained an agent in Poland to act on his behalf, and the hunt was on.
“It’s not a grocery store or a car dealership,” Sutton explains. “You don’t walk into someone’s embassy and say, ‘I’d like to buy a MiG.’ ” Instead, prospective owners have to befriend everyone from government officials to mechanics, greasing palms along the way and sometimes looking in the other direction when less-than-reputable deals take place. Fantasy Fighters, a Santa Fe, N.M., company that offers jet training for civilian pilots, purchased its MiG-15 from a man in Poland who has since disappeared. “Nobody knows what happened to him,” says company founder Larry Salganek, who presumes that the man is in jail for dealing arms.Without seeing the jet, Sutton arranged for Cenzin to sell a MiG-17 to his agent, who had established a corporation for the purpose of buying the aircraft. The agent’s corporation exported the jet to Sutton, who later learned that it had been built in Poland in 1957. “I bought it based on a Polish Air Force mechanic who told my agent that this was a good airplane,” says Sutton.
With its wings and tail removed and components loaded into cardboard boxes, the MiG-17 was shipped in a 40-foot container to Burlington, Vt., where Sutton took delivery of his prize. Once the jet was reassembled, he had it certified by the FAA so that he could legally fly it in U.S. airspace. As a successful transaction involving a foreign fighter jet, says Sutton, his was an exception. “I know people who lost everything they invested. It’s the soft underbelly of the arms trade, the bottom-feeders. These are the weapons nobody wants, but they are weapons. Uzbekistan doesn’t view these jets as sports cars painted red and flown around in the U.S. They’re selling a weapons system. What you do with it is your business.”
That includes blowing it up, as Bill Reesman, a former Air Force fighter pilot with 24 years of flying experience, did with his MiG-17 in 1994. Reesman had just taken off from an Oregon airstrip when he heard a loud explosion. He looked over his shoulder, saw that half of the MiG’s tail had been blown off, promptly landed the plane, and sprinted from the burning aircraft.
“These fighters have very adverse aerodynamic characteristics,” says Reesman, who has survived two additional accidents. “I don’t recommend that a civilian fly this type of aircraft.”