It’s 5 a.m. on a Sunday and John Sessions is up before the alarm clock goes off. He slips out of bed, pulls on his running clothes in the dark and patters to the kitchen to fix his morning espresso. In a few minutes, he’s out the door of his Seattle home, striding through the still neighborhoods of Capitol Hill.
The police have done their job for the night. The bars are dark. The streets are empty. In the quiet, Sessions, 57, thinks about something incredible that’s set to happen later that day.
In a few hours, he will join a tiny cadre of American pilots who have flown Russia’s iconic war bird: the MiG-29. Even more incredibly, Sessions will do it as a civilian. He’ll fly a jet capable of surpassing Mach 2, a jet so powerful it can climb 45,000 feet per minute.
He plans to steer the former Evil Empire’s most lethal fighter jet straight over the skies of Snohomish County. It’s cost him millions of dollars and the better part of a decade to get to this day.
In those hours before the first flight, he feels only calm, confident energy. He’s ready.
The MiG-29 is one sexy beast.
The jet is long, lean and light, with swept, mid-mounted wings and two vertical fins. The front nose ends in a needle-like protrusion like a wasp’s stinger. Russian engineers began designing what would become the MiG in the early 1970s to counter America’s top-notch fighters, such as the F-15 Eagle.
The Russians nicknamed the jet the “Fulcrum” — the agent through which great power is exercised. The name stuck.
The MiG-29, the fourth generation of the aircraft, is tough enough to land on a rugged, remote airstrip, yet agile enough to hold its own in a dogfight.
The Fulcrum also is lightweight and wicked fast, reaching speeds above 1,500 miles per hour. It turns on a dime and can handle angles of attack that make other aircraft stall. It moves almost as if it can break the rules of inertia.
Nothing demonstrates that better than a famous aerial maneuver the Fulcrum performs called the Cobra. The nose of the aircraft pitches upward to 90 degrees, and the jet briefly scoots through the air like a snake about to strike.
It’s the fighter jet of choice for the militaries of 30 countries. That makes the MiG-29 the aircraft U.S. pilots are most likely to encounter in threatening situations.
The Fulcrum remains a popular export for Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries that continued to fly the jets after the fall of the Soviet Union. Surplus MiG-29s are available for sale to the general public, but it’s not easy to buy them. Private buyers must compete with the air forces of entire countries.
Buyers also must pony up the cash, get the jets out of the country and pass muster with the countries doing the selling.
And that’s exactly how Sessions, a Seattle entrepreneur, became one of only a handful of Americans to own a Fulcrum, through his nonprofit foundation.
Nothing but the moment
John Sessions doesn’t remember whether it was his birthday or Christmas. He does remember pulling off the wrapping paper and finding something he’ll never forget: a gas-powered model of a German fighter plane.
It was 1962 and John was 8 years old, living with two little brothers, a sister and his parents in Spokane. The airplane was an expensive gift for a family with four children. Maybe his parents knew something about their son that John himself didn’t.
He quickly pieced together the model, because the joy for him was getting it into the air. He could hardly wait to make noise with the engine, to bring flight to his craft.
In a nearby park, he twirled in a circle, fishing line grasped in his hand. The plane was tied to the string and stretched out above him, growling through the air. He turned round and round, the miniature warbird straining at the string. John hoped it would run out of gas before he got too dizzy and fell to the ground.
Sessions didn’t discover the joy of sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft until he was 29. A friend took him along on a flying lesson in a Cessna at Boeing Field. It was 1983. Sessions liked it so much he asked the instructor for a lesson of his own.
Before long, Sessions had progressed to flying float planes, bush planes in Alaska, and later an Alpha Jet fighter. He’s one of a select group of pilots licensed to fly solo on his own corporate jet. Several thousand hours in the air later, the world of classic war birds caught his attention.
Sessions, a focused man who exudes calm, finds the three-dimensional nature of flying liberating. The noise, the speed — it all gets his blood flowing.
To him, flight is almost a spiritual experience. In the sky, he finds freedom from the limits of the Earth, as well as separation from the worries of everyday life. Flight requires so much attention there’s no room for anything but the moment.
As an international corporate attorney, and later a self-made entrepreneur with designer apparel companies, Sessions had the income to pursue his passion. And did he ever.
He began collecting and restoring aircraft built from 1927 to 1957, an era of tremendous aviation innovation. He founded a nonprofit foundation called Historic Flight in 2005. The foundation opened a museum last year on the west side of Paine Field in Mukilteo that showcases the collection, including a Grumman F7F Tigercat known as Bad Kitty, one of only six left in the world.
Sessions spent an average of $2.5 million having each of the vintage planes meticulously restored. When a friend told him that the general public could purchase a MiG in 2003, it got him thinking. He could restore a World War II biplane. Why not try the same thing with a modern fighter jet?
Two years in Hong Kong
When John Sessions decided he wanted to buy a MiG-29 from Ukraine, he knew it wouldn’t be as easy as handing over his MasterCard.
He expected to file U.S. government paperwork. He expected to travel overseas. And he expected some waiting. What he didn’t anticipate was an expensive fiasco in Hong Kong.
In 2006, Sessions and his partner in this venture, Tim Morgan, owner of Morgan Aircraft Restorations in Arlington, were eager to get the MiG to the U.S. A third-party Ukrainian military exporter brokered the sale. The MiG-29UB that Sessions purchased, a rare two-seater used to train pilots, was manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1989.
It racked up a total of 510 flight hours as part of the Ukrainian Air Force during the 1990s. Before its sale, the government had stripped its firing mechanisms, ordnance and proprietary systems.
Sessions isn’t the only civilian to buy high-performance jets. Don Kirlin, another aviation buff, owns a hangar full of Cold War-era jets, including at least two MiG-29 Fulcrums, in Quincy, Ill.
Once Sessions’ sale was complete, a shipping company made plans to bring the jet to the Northwest. Worried that hijackers might try to steal a world-class fighter jet, the company split the MiG-29 into two shipments. The wing and engine crates were shipped across the Atlantic, while the fuselage was loaded aboard a ship bound for the Pacific.
Sessions got a phone call from his partner, Morgan, in April 2006.
“I think something bad has happened to our airplane,” Morgan told him.
In Hong Kong, the shipping company off-loaded the fuselage to change ships, but the shipper didn’t obtain a local import license. A Chinese official seized the fuselage as military contraband. Sessions, in his calm get-down-to-business way, didn’t get mad — he got busy. He hired Hong Kong lawyers and other experts to fight his case in court. A Hong Kong judge eventually ruled in the foundation’s favor.
By the time the fuselage joined the rest of the airplane in an Arlington Municipal Airport hangar in 2008, it was in sorry shape. It had sat in the back of that Hong Kong warehouse near corrosive seawater for two years.
It would need extensive work to fly. That presented an entirely new problem. The men had the flight manuals, all 29 volumes — thankfully, in English — that they procured from the Indian Air Force. They had some crack American aircraft mechanics. What they didn’t have is all the tools and parts, or experience with a completely foreign aircraft.
The team pulled the aircraft apart. Any components showing unusual wear or corrosion were replaced. Others were missing. Some parts had to be fabricated here, and others, including the two huge afterburner turbofan engines, had to be procured from a Russian factory and shipped to Arlington.
At different points in the restoration, Sessions had half a dozen experienced MiG-29 mechanics from Slovakia flown to Arlington to work on the jet. The team had to make at least one important modification to the Fulcrum for safety. While the plane was being restored, two Russian Air Force MiG-29s crashed — just a month apart — in late 2008.
Investigations showed a flaw in how the vertical tails were attached to the fuselage. The Russians used different metals for the tail and fuselage that were prone to corrosion at the connection. That, along with age, caused the tails to shear off in mid-air. To correct the problem, the team in Arlington refabricated all the attachment components from aluminum.
Otherwise, the finished MiG-29 looks just as it did when it left the factory in Mother Russia, down to the gray camouflage paint job and the black panther with red gleaming eyes stalking across the jet’s nose.
Sessions declined to say how much he paid Ukraine for the MiG-29. The relevant number, he says, is how much he’s spent on the entire project. That number is more than $6 million.
It was Jan. 23, the day of the first test flight.
John Sessions was up late the night before, memorizing the Russian Cyrillic words that appear above the warning lights in the cockpit of his Fulcrum. Even so, he rose early that morning for his run, then to review his preflight list, make a few calls and check the weather.
The plan was to fly the Fulcrum from Arlington Municipal Airport to Paine Field. The team had already secured permission from the FAA to fly. In order to do that, they had to prove to the federal agency that the Fulcrum was airworthy and that they had the ability to maintain the aircraft.
Sessions had asked Doug Russell to take the front seat and primary role flying the jet. Russell is a former U.S. fighter pilot, one of the rare few who had experience flying MiGs for the United States while stationed in Germany.
Sessions also asked another pilot to fly a chase plane behind the Fulcrum, which is a good way to spot leaks or other problems on a first flight. It turns out things didn’t go exactly as planned.
By noon, a small crowd had gathered near the airport to watch the first flight. Half an hour later, everyone was still waiting because the chase plane wouldn’t start. Sessions made a decision to go ahead with the flight anyway.
The men carefully went through the flight checklist. Sessions tested the intercom that allows the pilots to talk to each other, made a few adjustments to his straps and readied the ejection seats.
He also took a moment to radio surrounding airport control towers. He called Naval Air Station Whidbey, knowing that the U.S. fighter jets have sensitive equipment on board that might detect the exhaust signature of a MiG-29. Sessions didn’t want any U.S. Navy pilots to mistake the Fulcrum for an enemy fighter.
“This is just a heads up,” he told the NAS Whidbey tower controller. “We’re about to launch a MiG-29 out of Arlington and it’s a friendly airplane.”
“What!?” said the startled man on duty.
Sessions explained that this was a first flight of a restored jet.
“Cool,” the tower controller said. “Thanks for letting us know.”
Russell fired up the engines and they began taxiing onto the runway. Then it was time to go. The pilot flipped on the afterburners, flames shot out, and the jet lurched forward down the runway. Sessions was secured so snugly in his seat that he hardly moved.
The hot exhaust behind the afterburners momentarily turned the air behind them into molten glass. The jet sped down the runway and pushed into the sky.
With the afterburners turned on, the plane burned 176 gallons of fuel a minute. Once in the air, the pilot flipped them off. Russell tested the plane’s controls, pushing the stick right, then left. The jet responded perfectly.
“Shall we head north?” Russell asked.
“Let’s fly a pattern for the good people of Arlington,” Sessions answered through the intercom. The pilot obliged, steering the warbird on pattern around the airport.
Another pilot flying a Cessna coming in for a landing joined the pattern. Normally, he’d have the right of way. Instead, taking into account the high-performance jet, he radioed the two pilots in the MiG. “That’s OK. I’ll watch from back here.”
The men headed north, and Russell began to pull the jet upward in a steep climb. Sessions felt the stick shake under his hands, the sign that Russell was offering him control of the jet. He took it, and finished the aggressive climb through the cloudy weather.
Above the cloud deck, the sapphire sky was crisp. Sessions could see Mount Baker’s snow-covered cap in sharp relief against the blue. He looked back over his shoulder at the Fulcrum’s wings. Below the low drone of the engine, he could hear the rush of air outside the plane.
The pilots performed more tests, banking 15 degrees, then 30, and then changing speeds. Sessions began to get a feel for the plane. He could hear the vibration of the wings changing tempo as he slowed the plane.
And Sessions thought: This is how a plane is supposed to work.
The men were happy with the MiG’s performance, but they didn’t want to fly to Paine Field so fast their friends missed the landing. They headed north toward Bellingham and flew a few loops before heading south. At Paine Field, they flew another pattern, so everyone on the ground could get a good look. The plane landed perfectly, the drag-chute deploying after the wheels hit the runway.
Sessions suggests that this plane won’t be part of his collection for long. He plans to sell it and buy two more MiG-29s, which he’ll also restore and sell to raise money for the Historic Flight Foundation. He’ll continue to test the capabilities of the MiG-29 in the coming weeks. If the weather is right, it might be in the air this week.
“The MiG-29 is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful airplanes of the modern era,” he said. “If you are going to restore a Mach 2 fighter, you might as well do a pretty one.”
Pilot John Sessions and his team will continue to take the MiG-29 out for test flights in the coming weeks. If the weather cooperates, they may be in the air Tuesday or Wednesday. You can follow the MiG’s progress at www.historicflight.org28DEA1C8.