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MAN & A MIG
AT AGE 69, A FORMER NAVY PILOT
AND LIFELONG ADVENTURER FULFILLS A DREAM IN RUSSIAN WARPLANE
Published: Wednesday, July, 22, 1998 Virginian Pilot
Source: BY DAVE MAYFIELD, STAFF WRITER
© 1998 Landmark Communications Inc.
Blasting along at 600 mph and 150 feet above the Moscow River,
Bill Span took control of the Russian MiG-29 and started a series of
turns. Left. Right. Hard left. Hard right.
Then from the back seat came an order that startled Span, a devoted
daredevil - startled him so much that, momentarily, he thought that
maybe, just this once, he'd be better off playing it safe.
``Beel,'' his Russian co-pilot flatly intoned, ``do a couple of rolls.''
Whereupon Span, 69 years old, a certified Navy air hero with
nothing to prove, said to himself: This is what I came 7,000 miles for.
This is what I spent $12,000 for. What the hell?
So began another incredible adventure in the death-defying life of
William Francis Span, a Virginia Beach man who has reached over
the horizon for one chance after another to assault ordinariness.
His drive to go ``out on the edge,'' as one of Span's former
commanders describes it, propelled him through 289 combat
missions in Vietnam and won him two Silver Stars. It has almost
killed him, too: From crashing on a carrier deck to nearly skiing off
a fogbound cliff, Span has racked up plenty of close calls.
And two months ago he was back for more, this time in Russia's
mainstay fighter jet - a twin-tail, twin-engine brute that climbs 65,000
feet a minute and easily hits Mach 2.3. The MiG-29 is considered a
tough match for current U.S. fighters.
On a clear, cool day in May, Span was skimming the treetops in this
nimble beast 20 miles outside Moscow. He'd convinced a Russian
Top Gun, Alexandre ``Sasha'' Garnaev, that he was fit to fly from the
front seat of Garnaev's prized machine. Nobody Span's age had ever
done so. And the last time Span had piloted an aircraft had been six
years before - a Cessna 180.
A Cessna, for Pete's sake!
I said, ``Well, OK, I've done it before.'' So I pulled the nose up a
little bit and did a roll to the left, a roll to the right, followed by three
rolls to the left and three rolls to the right. . . You just lay the stick
over. They're really pretty easy.
The journey that led Bill Span to Zhukovsky Air Base started with a movie.
``Dive Bomber,'' starring Errol Flynn, glorified Navy pilots. Span
was maybe 14 at the time, the second of three sons of a steelworker
in Ambridge, Pa., near Pittsburgh. As he watched images of carrier
landings in the darkened theater, he knew he wanted to be a Navy
Bill Span and Irene Span at home in Virginia
He'd had a fearless streak from early on. It first manifested itself one
night at age 5, when the boy announced that he was going to walk
five blocks to his grandmother's house - alone. ``My mother said,
`Well you can't do that. It's dark,' '' he recalls. ``So I got a butcher
knife and stuck it in my belt, and I said, `Well, I don't have a
His older brother, Andy, remembers Bill as a popular free spirit in
high school and ``an absolute daredevil'' on the football team. His
gritty play won him a scholarship to western Pennsylvania's
Washington and Jefferson College. There, as a freshman, the brawny
6-footer literally knocked himself out for a starting role.
After W&J's star running back bowled over a slew of defenders
during one scrimmage, the coach called Span onto the field. On the
big back's first dash through the middle, Span says, ``I nailed him, I
mean dead on. . . . They tried the play again. And I did the same
thing.'' The third time they collided, Span woke up to smelling salts
and the coach declaring, ``You are my first-string center.''
The Korean War loomed, and heading into his senior year, Span got
a draft notice. He couldn't talk draft board officials into letting him
graduate first, so he and his girlfriend, Irene Funk, started what has
now been 49 years of matrimony. Their marriage won Span a draft
exemption. He volunteered for the Navy after graduating from
college in 1950.
Granted his wish for Flight School, Span established himself as a hot
shot from the get-go. He was selected as the outstanding student in
his class in pre-flight and finished in the top 10 percent to get jet
training. But while his fellow graduates were shipped off to Korea, he
stayed back, detailed to an experimental squadron at Chincoteague.
``One of the most disappointing days of my life,'' Span recalls. ``I
just couldn't talk my way out of it.''
Instead of flying combat, he spent the waning days of the war piloting
15 different planes, everything from early Grumman fighters to
Douglas transports. The object was to test new weapons and
``You'd get the manual the night before and they'd get you on the
flight schedule the next day - and away you'd go,'' he recalled.
One day while flying F-8F Bearcats out over the Atlantic, he and
another pilot noticed some debris on the water. They decided to dive
down and strafe it with their 20mm guns, but Span became fixated
on the target and lost sight of everything else.
The other pilot screamed over the radio, ``Bill, Bill, pull off,'' until the
words brought Span back to his senses. ``I pulled back on the stick
and I actually skimmed the tops of the waves,'' he remembers. ``That
was a close call, a very close call.''
A decade later, he wasn't as fortunate. Landing on the carrier
Lexington as it pitched in stormy seas northeast of the Philippines,
Span brought his FJ Fury in too hard. He caught the third wire but
slammed the landing gear. The impact so badly injured his back that
he spent three months in Bethesda Naval Hospital.
The doctors told him he'd never fly again. However, Span talked his
way out of a discharge from the Navy until he had a chance to take a
flight physical. The hardest part was learning to touch his toes. With
his vertebrae severely compressed, he couldn't bend his back. So,
with a cane to support him, he spent hours in his hospital room each
day straining to bend at the waist.
On exam day, he breezed through, winning a limited-duty
assignment. After three months' flying with another pilot, he was back
on his own. But he has walked ever since with a hunch.
Most jets wallow when you roll. The MiG just rolled completely
smooth. When I finished my rolls, Sasha said, ``Beel, I have control.''
We lit the afterburners and he pulled the airplane straight up from
150 feet to 53,000 in 48 seconds. Forty-eight seconds! I said, ``I
don't believe this thing!''
Vietnam was where Bill Span really learned to fly. It was his war, his
chance to shine.
He was a believer in the cause. Another country simply couldn't be
allowed to fall under the Soviet communist empire.
Span's log book tells the story. He has held on to it through the
years, the record of his missions. The first was July 14, 1967. Span
was the new executive officer of VA-164, the Ghost Riders. They
flew A-4 Skyhawks, single-seat attack jets catapulted from the
The Ghost Riders made bombing runs against heavily defended
airfields, power plants and munitions depots in North Vietnam.
Casualties were high: In six months, Span's squadron lost four pilots
in combat and another died in captivity. A sister Skyhawk squadron
saw four killed and four taken prisoner.
Span recalls one day his skipper, then-Cmdr. Doug Mow, uttering,
``My God, I don't know how the women back home can handle it.''
It was a particularly tough time for Irene, alone raising the Spans'
three sons. Whenever there was a death in the squadron, the base
commander drove to Irene's house. From there, they'd go together
to inform and console the widow. But as the officer's car pulled into
Irene's drive, ``she didn't know whether it was another pilot or
whether it was me,'' Span says.
It easily could have been him. Mow, now a retired rear admiral,
recalls that Span ``was always anxious to lead the big strikes. . . . In
combat, he pushed right on the edge all the time.''
Span flew much the same way during a second six-month cruise
aboard the carrier Hancock, when he took over as VA-164's
The most rewarding of Span's Vietnam missions came Oct. 25,
1967. He was leading a strike north of Hanoi against the Phuc Yen
airfield, North Vietnam's primary jet base.
The jets plowed through a sky blackened by anti-aircraft fire - and
evaded seven surface-to-air missiles, including two that exploded
close enough to ``violently buffet'' Span's aircraft.
Then, ``penetrating a wall of exploding projectiles,'' Span's citation
read, he led his division in an attack that destroyed three enemy
aircraft on the ground.
The enemy aircraft were Soviet-made MiG-21s.
Sasha pushed the plane over, leveling it off, and he said, ``I will now
do a Cobra, only done in this airplane and one other, but not done
by Americans.'' . . . . He pulls the plane back and adjusts the power
and flies forward in a vertical position - like a cobra. . . . He followed
that with a Tail Slide, where you pull up, shut down the engines and
you slide back on the tail - then you kick in the left engine and then
the right, before you roll over and recover. After he does these, he
says, ``Now, Beel, you will do them.''
From Vietnam, Bill Span came home with two Silver Stars, five
Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star and dozens of other
awards and decorations.
But flying, ``the most beautiful thing I've ever done,'' became a rarity.
Span did a stint at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and
earned a master's degree in foreign affairs from George Washington
University. He became a NATO exercise planner and, later, a senior
officer in the Atlantic Fleet's Airborne Command Post - which would
take to the air in case of a nuclear war.
For a while, he kept proficient flying the T-28 out of Oceana Naval
Air Station in Virginia Beach. But by the mid-'70s, Span gave it up:
His Navy flying days were over.
In 1977, he retired as a captain and concentrated on a new career.
He sold real estate and started his own construction outfit, Kevcor
Contracting Corp. His middle son, Greg, is now a partner in the
In his spare time, Span became a fitness fanatic. He scuba dived,
played handball and racquetball and took up helicopter skiing - riding
in a chopper to the top of a treacherous mountain and jumping out to
ski madly to the bottom.
During one foggy ski run in the late '80s on the California-Nevada
border, he saw a sign that he thought marked a trail. As he whizzed
by, a woman shouted, ``Stop!'' Digging in with his skis and grabbing
a tree, Span found himself on the edge of a 1,500-foot precipice.
``They'd have never found me,'' he says.
Friends tried talking Span into taking up golf. ``I said, `Yeah, I would
love to play golf. Say, for instance, you had to run a hundred yards
and hit the ball, and do an obstacle course, swim for 50 yards, then
have some wrestling on the other end to see who gets to throw the
ball in the hole. Now that would be something I'd be interested in.'
``Just to go there and hit that little thing? No, that's not me.''
A few years ago, en route to a ski vacation in New Zealand, Span
came across a tiny ad in an in-flight magazine. It was from a
Sarasota, Fla.-based company called Incredible Adventures Inc.
``Fly a Russian MiG,'' the ad said.
A couple of months after returning to Virginia Beach, Span called for
information. For roughly $12,000, plus his air fare to and from
Moscow, he'd get 45 minutes in a MiG-29 with one of Russia's top
test pilots. The Russian military, short of money, would get a cut of
the fee. The Russian pilot would get badly needed flight time.
Span was sold. ``To have an opportunity to fly a first-line Russian
aircraft, I said, `Man, I'd jump through hoops to do it.' I got so
excited, I had trouble sleeping at night. I really did.''
Everything came so fast. . . . On one of the Cobra maneuvers, I
didn't pull enough `Gs,' and Sasha said, ``Beel, little bit more `G.' ''
So I pulled a little bit more `G.' That was the only instruction he gave
In the days leading up to his flight, Span visited tourist sites in
Moscow. For kicks, he lugged around a Long & Foster sign, ``Sale
or Rent,'' and planted it in the ground before Russian landmarks. A
couple of Russian agents didn't appreciate the joke when he pulled it
near the Kremlin. Some fast-talking by a Russian guide is all that
kept Span from being arrested.
One day before the MiG flight, he went to Russia's tomb for
unknown soldiers. Span was standing there looking at the tomb when
some unfamiliar feelings started to sweep over him.
He thought about the United States and the Soviet Union and how
they nearly came to blows during the Cold War - back before the
wall crumbled and the Soviet empire came tumbling down. His mind
drifted to the Russian people walking near the tomb. ``They're just
like us,'' he thought as he watched them. ``They dress like us. They
act like us. They're normal people. They're old people. They're
Then he thought about his old job as a Navy Skyhawk pilot. There
were those 289 missions in Vietnam, but his most important mission -
the one that pilots from that era rarely talk about, the one that he
practiced over and over in his mind - was one he never had to carry
That was to catapult off a carrier and head straight toward an airfield
on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and, there, drop a nuclear bomb.
Under arms-reduction treaties, nuclear strikes are no longer a
potential mission for the Navy's carrier-based air crews, but back
then they were an all-too-real possibility. ``I was a military man,''
Span says. ``If I had orders to do it, there wouldn't have been any
doubt in my mind. . . . I'd have killed a hell of a lot of people.''
As he stood before the Russian memorial, thinking about death and
destruction, ``the nonsense of it all,'' tears filled his eyes.
Then, Span's positiveness got the best of him. And he rejoiced. That
the world has changed. That Americans and Russians are doing
business together. That, to some degree, they even consider each
other friends. That he was on the verge of getting into the cockpit of
a Russian MiG and going for a ride.
Sasha was so serious when he said it. . . . He said, ``When we have
an emergency situation and we have to eject, the command is, `Beel,
eject, eject, eject.' That is not for discussion.''
Span slides in the videotape and smiles as the images roll by. First
comes the exam by the Russian flight surgeon. Next, the fitting for his
`G' suit. Then the pre-flight meeting with Alexandre Garnaev -
``Sasha.'' His recitation of his Navy flying record to the Russian pilot:
over 5,500 flight hours, 1,000-plus carrier landings, the aircraft he
flew, the 86 Soviet-built missiles he dodged in Vietnam.
Sasha tells him, ``Accept my great respect.''
Then, Span is out on the tarmac.
He's in his U.S. Navy flight suit. Into the picture strides Sasha in his
U.S. Navy suit. Sasha explains that he got it during a visit to the
Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where he flew the F/A-18 Hornet.
Span climbs into the MiG's cockpit. He looks over the instrument
panel and, surprisingly, finds it's laid out much like U.S. combat jets
he's known, except that the airspeed indicator is in kilometers, and
the altimeter is in meters and kilometers. Oh, and the main flight
instrument, the vertical gyro indicator, is reversed. Making a right
turn, it might appear to someone unfamiliar with the instrument that
he's actually turning left.
Sasha asks questions about temperature controls and engine starting.
Satisfied that Span knows the drill, he declares: ``I will formally say,
Beel, you will fly in the front seat.''
It took six seconds and 1,500 feet to get airborne.
``Isn't that a beautiful airplane?'' Span gushes as he watches the
video of the takeoff.
Sasha said, ``Beel, now you make the landing.'' So I brought it
around . . . and touched down. I was surprised that it all came back
As he taxied in from the landing, Span says, ``You could have shot
When the MiG came to a stop, he jumped out of the cockpit, yelling
in Russian: ``Ya Raht! Ya Raht!'' - I'm happy! I'm happy!
Then, the American and the Russian embraced. And Sasha declared,
``It was perfect.''
It's right there on the video.
Span leans back, closes his eyes and savors the sweet memory.
Around him, the house is quiet this steamy afternoon. The backyard
pool glistens in the afternoon sun. Somewhere nearby, doves are
Irene is out shopping. She wasn't thrilled with his MiG adventure, Bill
Span confesses. The cost, for one thing. Much more importantly, the
He never doubted he'd come out OK, Span says. Besides, this was
the chance of a lifetime. ``The ultimate'' adventure.
But, lately, he's not sure.
He's just not sure.
``I've been thinking about it,'' Span says, caressing the model of a
MiG-29 that Sasha gave him.
``Now I'm thinking, maybe, I'll have to do something to top it.''
This article is © 1998 Landmark Communications Inc. and may not be
republished without permission.
back to flying incredible true adventure of flying
the Russian MIG-29
You can go supersonic in the MIG-29 in Moscow like I did!
Call 757 490 0800 to book your flight!
Email me firstname.lastname@example.org or call me
All it takes is
money ! But it's worth every penny !
Learn more about the
fascinating life of Bill Span click