A Top Soviet-Era Test Pilot

Georgy Mosolov talks about his favorite MiGs and his friend Yuri Gagarin

George Mosolov toured the National Air and Space Museum in 2007. Courtesy Rodney O. Rogers

A colonel in the Soviet Air Force, Georgy Mosolov worked as a test pilot at the Mikhoyan Experimental Design Bureau from 1953 to 1962, when a supersonic ejection from a prototype E-8 fighter effectively ended his career. In 1960, he was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union, and in 2007 he was named an honorary member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. Rodney Rogers and Vitaly Guzhva, faculty members at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, interviewed Mosolov in September 2008.

Air & Space: From 1953 to 1962 you flew the first flight in 16 Russian airplanes, including the MiG-19 Farmer and MiG-21 Fishbed. Was one of these airplanes your favorite?

Mosolov: I would have to say that the MiG-21 is the airplane that sticks in my mind above all the others. First, the MiG-21 was my “child.” By that I mean I didn’t just pilot the airplane. I also helped engineers perfect the design of the MiG-21. Second, the MiG-21 was a great performer. The plane set world speed and altitude records. I was lucky enough to be at the controls during these record flights. Finally, I felt greatly rewarded by all the hard work we at Mikoyan and Gurevich put into bringing the MiG-21 to an operational status.

Air & Space: In its time, the MiG-21 was the world’s fastest, most maneuverable fighter. Did you know how good it was at the time you were flight-testing it?

Mosolov: We knew we had a great airplane. However, we also knew the American F-104 was very fast. We learned only later exactly how good the MiG-21 really was.

Air & Space: In 1954 you were flying the MiG-19, the first Soviet supersonic fighter, on just its 7th flight. When you reduced throttle at Mach 1.06 to reduce speed, the MiG’s nose began to pitch violently up and down. The pitching was caused by a transonic control design problem that was later corrected. The airplane entered a steep dive. You lost over 15,000 feet of altitude in 21 second, and recovered the airplane just before it dived into the ground.

Mosolov: The violent forces on the airplane threw me around the cockpit. Negative G forces pushed my head against periscope bolts on the top of the canopy. In those days we didn’t wear crash helmets. The impact with the bolts opened large wounds in my scalp. The violent pitching forces smashed my face into the control stick again and again. These injuries resulted in a lot of blood in the cockpit.

Air & Space: When you regained control of your MiG-19 only 1000 feet above the ground, you narrowly escaped death. But then there was another problem you had to solve very quickly.  

Mosolov: During the pitching dive, both engines quit. Before I could recover from the dive and get an engine restarted, the airplane was barely 300 feet above the trees. I was literally one second from death. I started the second engine during climb out.

Air & Space: After you got the engines restarted, you had yet a third pretty serious problem to overcome.

Mosolov: Miraculously, the airplane held together in the pitching dive. But an aileron bell crank had failed. I had very limited roll control. Moreover, blood on the windscreen and canopy obscured my vision. Finally, I wasn’t feeing very chipper. The airplane had given my head a pretty good beating. But I was still able to land the aircraft successfully. Skill will prevail when luck is with you.

Air & Space: In 1959 you flew the MiG-21 to a world speed record of almost 1500 miles per hour.

Mosolov: I reached about Mach 2.3, significantly more than twice the speed of sound. That was very fast for 1959. It’s interesting that the engine was capable of pushing the MiG-21 above Mach 2.3. However, aircraft stability was a problem at a faster airspeed, so we had to limit the top Mach number.

After I completed the required course for the record, I realized the airplane was just about out of fuel. I was at 44,000 feet about 125 miles from my landing field. I decided to shut the engine down and glide toward my destination. I hoped there would be enough fuel left to start the engine for landing. I tried to restart it twice while descending from 6,000 to 3,000 feet. But it wouldn’t start. I realized I would have either have to eject from the airplane or make a power-off landing.

Air & Space: Mikhoyan Design Bureau and military rules call for an ejection if the engine quits?

Mosolov: Yes, an ejection is what the rules call for. But I decided to make a power off landing anyway.

Air & Space: Did the Soviet authorities call you on the carpet for what you did?

Mosolov: Well, there are some things pilots agree not to talk about. We at MiG didn’t publicize the situation, and the authorities apparently agreed to turn the blind eye. After all, we had just set a world speed record, and the rules for world records don’t specify that you have to have fuel to land. You just have to land where you took off. I did that.

Air & Space: Was there in fact any fuel left in the MiG-21 when you landed?

Mosolov: We drained the fuel tanks after I landed. The result was 8 liters of fuel—a little over two gallons.

Air & Space: Weren’t you a little afraid of risking a power-off landing in a swept-wing jet, especially when the rules provide for an ejection?

Mosolov: Well, test pilots have emotions like anyone else, though they don’t always admit it. I know I had confidence in my ability to get the MiG-21 home safely. Previously I had made 23 engine-out landings in various Russian airplanes. So I figured I could make one more.

Air & Space: On 11 September 2002 you made a supersonic ejection from an E8 prototype MiG fighter.

Mosolov: Well, I had no choice. At Mach 2.15 I experienced a massive engine compressor failure. Parts of the engine tore through the fuselage, and the airplane started coming apart. It didn’t respond to flight controls and entered a steep dive. I knew things weren’t going to get any better, so I stepped out. Instrumentation later showed that the airplane was going Mach 1.78 when I ejected.

Before I ejected, pieces of the fuselage flying in the cockpit broke my left arm in three places. During the parachute descent, the shroud lines were wrapped around my right leg, and I was descending toward the ground head first. I realized my right arm was also broken. In addition, I had a compound fracture on one leg. As I understood later, I also had very serious head injuries.

Air & Space: What happened after you landed?

Mosolov: Since I did not have time to broadcast a mayday message before I ejected, no one knew where I was. I was bleeding quite badly from my leg wound, and after three hours alone I was feeling very dizzy and began to worry about bleeding to death.

Periodically I called out to alert anyone who might be in the area. After three hours, a farmer came to aid me. He had observed the parachute descending and begun a search for the pilot.

I asked him to summon help. But first I told him the details of what had happened and made him memorize them. In case I died before help arrived, I wanted my colleagues at MiG to know what had happened to cause the accident. Quite a few of my fellow Russian test pilots had been killed in the past, and I wasn’t quite sure at this point whether or not I was going to be the next to die.

I recuperated for a year, much of it in a hospital. Holes were been opened in my skull to relieve pressure on my brain. When I returned to MiG, I quickly realized that I was not the same pilot I had been before the crash. I did fly again, but I wasn’t quite up to test-flying high performance jets. Forty-six years later, I still have limited use of my arms, and I limp slightly. But considering the beating I took from the E8, I’m still remarkably fit.

Air & Space: Colonel Mosolov, you were a friend of Yuri Gagarin’s until his death in 1967. How did you meet him?

Mosolov: In March 1961, Gagarin was one of a group of eight cosmonauts who came to Zhukovsky airdrome for zero G training. I met him there along with the other trainees. We liked each other, and ultimately Yuri and I became very close friends. For example, after Gagarin’s flight into space, my wife and I and Gagaran and his wife vacationed together at a Black Sea resort.

Air & Space: What kind of background did Yuri Gagarin come from?

Mosolov: He was from a small rural village. His parents were simple farmers. Originally schooled as a steel worker, he learned to fly in a flying club and ultimately became a pilot in the Russian Air Force. He was largely self-educated. In every way, he was a self-made man.

Air & Space: What was Gagarin like socially?

Mosolov: Gagarin was intellectually curious and had a wide range of interests. He had excellent communication skills and could converse easily with many different kinds of people.

Air & Space: Gagarin became famous after his flight into space. How did this affect him?

Mosolov: Gagarin was an uncomplicated, humble man, a very sincere person. World fame did not change him in the least.

Air & Space: Did Gagarin have a good sense of humor?

Mosolov: Gagarin had a great sense of humor. He was a superb teller of jokes and an accomplished mimic, almost a stand up comedian. He knew how to relax, and he enjoyed having a good time. He was at ease everywhere.

Air & Space: How did Gagarin die?

Mosolov: Gagarin loved to fly jet fighters. Reluctantly the Soviet government granted his request to return to flying duty after he had served as a cosmonaut. He was flying a two-place MiG-15 fighter with his military commander, Colonel Vladimir Seregin. At low altitude the airplane rolled inverted and impacted the ground in a 70 degree dive. The cause of the accident could not be determined.

Air & Space: Colonel Mosolov, please describe Gagarin’s funeral.

Mosolov: Gagarin was a great Soviet hero. He was buried in the wall of Moscow’s Red Square in the Kremlin, near where Vladimir Lenin’s body lies. Colonel Seregin was buried there at the same time. To be buried near the great revolutionary leader Lenin at that time was an unspeakably high honor.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians crowded Red Square for Gagarin’s funeral. It may have been millions, I couldn’t tell for sure. I was completely awed by the size of the crowd I saw there. It was the event of a lifetime.

Air & Space: Colonel Mosolov, please sum up your feelings for Gagarin.

Mosolov: I loved and admired Yuri Gagarin. He was a rare breed. I think of him as a man gifted from God. It is a great tragedy that he died so young. I miss him to this day, to this minute.

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