A preliminary report on the 13 August crash of a privately operated Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23UB fighter jet during a Michigan air show indicates the aircraft’s two onboard crew were not in agreement about the decision to eject shortly after take off.
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says the jet’s pilot was in the process of troubleshooting following a loss of engine power, when the rear seat observer stated the pair needed to eject.
“The pilot reported that he was not ready to eject and was still troubleshooting the problem and manoeuvring the airplane toward runway… when his ejection seat fired, and he was out of the airplane,” the NTSB says.
“They declared an emergency,” investigator in charge John Brannen said on 14 August. “They had some loss of power issues and were not able to correct that and elected to eject from the airplane.”
The preliminary report adds new details concerning both the mechanical issue and the crew’s response to the problem.
After launching from runway 23 of Willow Run airport (YIP) in Ypsilanti, Michigan as part of the Thunder Over Michigan air show, the MiG-23 pilot executed a right turn into a so-called “banana pass” – a low-level knife-edge pass along the runway.
As pilot and aircraft owner Dan Filer banked out of the pass, he noticed the Soviet-made jet’s afterburner did not ignite, after which the MiG began to lose airspeed, the NTSB says of Filer’s recounting to investigators.
In response, Filer adjusted the MiG-23’s variable geometry wings into the fully forward position of 16° sweep to maximise lift. The former US Navy aviator was in the process of troubleshooting the problem, according to safety investigators, when the rear seat observer argued for and executed ejection procedures.
According to Filer, if either crew member initiates an ejection, both seats are ejected.
When asked for his recollection of the incident, the unnamed second seat observer told the NTSB that he and Filer agreed the MiG was experiencing an engine problem, and determined they did not have sufficient altitude to safely reach a runway at YIP.
“He said they were compressed for time and needed to get out,” the NTSB report says of the back seat crew member.
When asked if he pulled the ejection handles, the rear seat observer said, “he could not specifically remember, but thinks he would have pulled them”, the NTSB says.
Multiple videos and photographs of the incident emerged on social media, showing the single-engined jet flying low over several pleasure boats in a shallow left turn, with the MiG-23’s variable wings in the forward position.
The pilot and back seat crew member suddenly eject in quick succession from the tandem cockpit, marked by the flash and smoke of two small explosions.
The derelict airframe continues banking to left as two orange and white parachutes deploy amid a shower of debris. Several seconds later a plume of thick black smoke is seen rising above the tree line where the doomed jet impacted the ground.
Both flight crew were recovered, with unspecified non-life-threatening injuries. No serious injuries occurred on the ground, although the MiG narrowly missed an apartment complex near the impact site.
Known to NATO air forces as the “Flogger,” the Soviet Union designed the MiG-23 to replace the widely fielded MiG-21, according to the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
The MiG-23MS variant was “designed for foreign export and was less capable than domestic Soviet versions”, according to the museum. The jet that crashed in Michigan was a two-seat MiG-23UB training variant.
The type was first delivered in 1973, with more than 5,000 being produced in total.
The variable geometry design is described by the US Air Force (USAF) as being similar to the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. The pilot-adjustable wings could be set for low-speed take-off or supersonic flight.
Throughout several decades of the Cold War, the USAF covertly acquired Soviet MiG-17, MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters to conduct secret flight testing and adversary air training under a secret programme designated Constant Peg.
The service acquired a MiG-23 in 1980, according to the USAF, which is now on display at the air force museum.
According to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), at whose 2023 air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin Filer’s MiG-23 had appeared just before the Michigan crash, the now destroyed fighter was imported from the Czech Republic.
The former Grumman A-6 Intruder pilot also purchased as many as 17 single-seat Floggers, according to the EAA, including aircraft from Poland and Bulgaria. Filer told the EAA he later donated those to various air museums.