As you approach the striking red and black Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17F Fresco C with Soviet markings known as “MiG Magic” in the Oregon Air & Space Museum (at the Eugene Airport), you soon realise there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Firstly it is actually a Shenyang J-5 Fresco fighter, which was a Chinese built version of the MiG-17F and secondly the port side of the tail and rear fuselage has been heavily damaged and scarred by fire!
This aircraft manufactured in 1958 was 1 of the 767 single-seat Shenyang J-5/J-5A aircraft built in China between 1956 and 1969 (plus 1,061 JJ-5 two-seat trainer variants between 1968 and 1986) and was owned and flown by the famous pilot Bill Reesman, a 20 year USAF fighter pilot veteran who flew 320 missions flying a North American F-100 Super Sabre during the Vietnam War. During that conflict he had studied the performance and tactics of the MiG-17 used by North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) and knew thus potential opponent very well. He acquired the aircraft in 1992 for $150,000 USD from China whilst living in Aurora, Oregon and probably never imagined at that time, that he would go on to clock up over 1,100 hours flying the J-5/MiG-17!
On March 1st, 1994 this particular “MiG Magic” was being flown over the Aurora Airport in Oregon to test a newly installed engine when a fuel line broke during a full afterburner corkscrew climb. This was not good as the fuel tanks in the MiG-17/J-5 are located immediately behind the pilot and on both sides of the engine/afterburner assembly!
Fire quickly erupted within the aircraft but luckily the fuel tanks didn’t explode! Bill refused to bail out and he later stated to the Associated Press that he had a full load of fuel and did not want to crash into someones house or endanger anyones life. He descended 2,000 feet engulfed in flames and landed the burning aircraft safely but understandably quickly back on the airport runway and got the hell away from it!
“I jumped out and set the world’s record in the 100-yard dash for a 53-year-old man. People along the runway told me that flames were shooting out the tail for about 50 feet.”
The flames were extinguished by local firefighters using fire-suppressant foam in about 10 minutes (they luckily just happened to be out practicing at the airport that day!) but despite Bill’s and their efforts, as you can see the aircraft was unfortunately damaged beyond economical repair. The damaged J-5 minus its burnt out engine and afterburner (which were scrapped) was given to the Oregon Air & Space Museum and Bill acquired a replacement MiG-17F aircraft from Poland shortly afterwards. As they say the show must go on!
It was later determined that the fuel line which erupted had been made from aluminium. It should have been made of steel! Amazingly the starboard side of the rear fuselage and tail were virtually untouched by the fire.
The 1 x 37mm and 2 x 23mm cannons under the air intake of the J-5 aircraft were also removed when it was presented to the museum. Inside the second museum hangar they have on display newspaper articles and photos from the fiery incident and how the J-5 looked when it was trucked over to the Museum in 1994, plus a spare Wopen WP-5 turbojet engine and afterburner used in the J-5. The WP-5 engine was a licence built version of the Soviet Klimov VK-1 used in the MiG-17F that itself was developed from the British Rolls-Royce Nene engine.
The Bill Reesman “MiG Magic” Airshow was a popular one at air shows in the 1990’s as he would make use of the MiG’s tight turning capability and use it’s afterburner and wing mounted Sanders Smoke Generators to deliver a visually exciting flying display and at night he would light up the sky during is “MiG Meteor” show with the afterburner blazing and pyrotechnics streaming from the fighter (the inefficient afterburner created a 20 foot long flame)! He would later fly his new MiG-17F “MiG Magic” in the Red Bull MiG team providing an equally scintillating show pulling 8+ G’s! I wish I could have seen this show in person! Bill sadly passed away in 2011 but his legend lives on.
Keith Breazeal Photography – Bill Reesman’s MiG-17F “MiG Magic” Airshow
Legends Over Madera – Bill Reesman
The Journal Record – “MiG Magic”