On July 4, 1989, NATO radar operators spotted a slow-flying Russian fighter plane approaching the border between East and West Germany. Two American fighters based in the Netherlands were launched to see what was up with the intruder and soon reported that it wasn’t an intruder at all. It was just a Russian MiG-23, cruising the skies without a pilot.
This was a disastrous situation, not because it meant that poltergeists had finally learned how to use advanced weapons, but because it meant that this speeding hunk of metal full of explosive materials was inevitably going to crash land somewhere. And, it was already flying over a populated part of Belgium.
During takeoff, the afterburner failed and the engine began losing power. At an altitude of 150 meters and descending, the pilot assumed he had a complete engine failure and ejected without incident. The engine had not failed completely, and the aircraft remained airborne, flying on autopilot in a westerly direction.
Plans were made to shoot the aircraft down as soon as it reached the English Channel. Shooting it down sooner was out of the question as, the plane was flying over Belgium.
Unfortunately, the MiG didn’t have enough gas to make it that far and ran out of fuel over Belgium. The resulting crash killed one person on the ground below, though all things considered, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
The Belgian government made a formal protest to the Soviet Union regarding the lack of notification as to the danger the aircraft posed to the civilian population. Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens expressed concern that “from the time the MiG-23 was first picked up on NATO radar to the time it crashed more than an hour later, no word of warning came from the Soviet side,” and that “there was also a ‘notable slowness’ on the part of the Soviets in disclosing whether the jet was carrying nuclear or toxic weapons.”
The USSR paid $685,000 in compensation to Belgium.