• Mon. Jun 27th, 2022

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An American who owns a MiG-29 isn’t sure the fighter jets would help Ukraine much

WASHINGTON — Jared Isaacman, a billionaire and astronaut, may be the only American individual to own a MiG-29 — the Russian-built fighter jet line that has become the center of an international diplomatic conundrum in the global effort to aid Ukraine.

And as one of only a tiny handful of Americans to have ever flown the high-performance Soviet-era jet, he doesn’t think they’d be very useful to Ukraine.

Isaacman, who made his fortune with a payment processing company he founded as a teen, owns what may be the only flyable MiG-29 in the United States, giving him a unique perspective on proposals to send Poland’s old MiGs to Ukraine.

“On a purely technical level, I don’t know how the good could outweigh the bad of bringing in those MiG-29s,” Isaacman said. “Are people thinking through the implications?”

He said the Russians could eliminate the jets from the battlefield “in a single shot.”

“What a momentum swing that would be for Russia,” he added. “What a morale boost it would be for them. And it’s been so publicized by now that the Russians could just be waiting for the moment those jets come across the border.”

Kyiv has been pleading with the West to “close the sky over Ukraine,” as a video accompanying President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to Congress stated Wednesday.

Poland offered to send its entire fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29s — which, unlike American aircraft, Ukrainian pilots know how to fly — but said it would only do so by first transferring them to a U.S. air base in Germany. The plan was quickly rejected by both Washington and Berlin as too likely to provoke Russian escalation.

March 10, 202206:54

Isaacman said 30- and 40-year-old Polish MiG-29s would be little match for modern Russia fighters with more advanced sensors and longer-range weapons systems, echoing a similar conclusion reached by the Pentagon last week.

“There are Russian fighters that could see those MiG-29s from three times farther away,” Isaacman said.

Isaacman, who has not spoken publicly about his MiG-29 since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, told NBC News he’s gotten plenty of inquiries about it — but not from the Ukrainian government.

His MiG would be about as much use to Kyiv as a Lamborghini anyway, since its military capabilities were removed long ago. 

Like many wealthy men, Isaacman, 39, developed an interest in airplanes, but he took his much further than most.

Every billionaire can have a private jet. Isaacman built a whole private air force.

A company he founded helps train U.S. Air Force and other pilots by role-playing the bad guys. Isaacman became an “aggressor” pilot himself. He’s also performed aerobatics at air shows and holds the world record for fastest round-the-world flight in a small jet, which he set at age 26.

And while any billionaire can go to space these days, Isaacman bought out the entire first all-civilian flight via Elon Musk’s SpaceX and went to space in September, raising $240 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the process.

He’s already funded three more SpaceX missions that will take him and other crew members even deeper into space, including one scheduled for this fall that is planned to include the first spacewalk by private astronauts. 

The MiG, though, stands out.

“The MiG-29 is the most high-performance aircraft I’ve ever operated,” he said. “It can go very fast. It’s an incredible airplane.”

But in terms of actual combat, he said he thinks ground-based air defense systems like Patriot missile batteries would be more effective in Ukraine. Western governments seem to agree and have begun offering to deploy more.

Modern air combat, he said, is more about electronics than speed and maneuverability, which helps explain why Ukraine has had so much success with its technically advanced Turkish drones despite their clunky handling and slow speed.

Isaacman bought the MiG for himself not long after he sold his private air force company, Draken International, in 2019. He picked up the unusually well-maintained fighter jet from the estate of Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, who spent millions acquiring and painstakingly refurbishing old warplanes.

Federal Aviation Administration records show only two MiG-29 owners in the U.S. The other is Air USA, another company that provides aggressor squads to train U.S. military pilots, but Isaacman said he doubted their planes are still airworthy.

Eric Doyle, Air USA’s chief operating officer, said the company has four MiG-29s, one of which is operational. “It just hasn’t flown in a few years,” he said.

Still, Isaacman, who has been sending medical kits and Starlink internet satellite dishes to Ukraine, said that if sending the MiGs would be important for symbolic or political reasons to bolster Zelenskyy or to keep the West united, then he supports the idea — even if it might not do much on the battlefield.

“I’m all for whatever it takes,” he said.