Maintaining A Vintage Russian MiG-17 Is Ridiculously Complicated

The MiG-17F made it's mark over the skies of Vietnam doing battle against U.S. aircraft like the F-4 Phantom II. Now, its great heritage and extraordinary maneuverability has made it a favorite airshow performer. Here's the uncanny amount of work involved to keep a 40 year old soviet fighter flying all summer.

FighterJets Inc operates two MiG-17s at airshows across North America, dazzling spectators with 8-g turns, vertical climbs, and high speed passes at nearly 700 mph. At the controls is premier jet fighter pilot, Randy Ball, who is the only pilot in all of North America, civilian or military, to hold an FAA Unlimited Aerobatic rating for both Day and Night in jet fighters. Randy also has performed in a fighter jet at more airshows than anyone else and is the highest time MiG pilot in North America. With over 1,000 hours, he has more experience in Russian jet fighters than any other pilot in the United States.

While Randy's resume is impressive and his flight demo is more impressive still, he wouldn't get off the ground if not for hours of offseason man hours spent by a team of friends and volunteers to keep these historic jet-aged aircraft flying. Randy relies heavily on his Plane Captain, Erin Kelley who does all the leg work keeping the plane ready and Randy safe when he's behind the controls.

Here's a look at some of the work it takes to keep just one of the 2 MiGs operational and in optimum flying condition.

Here are the nine fuel nozzles being clean and checked for proper flow and spray pattern.

Once the tail is is separated, all heat shields are removed to inspect structure, fuel and hydraulics lines and the conforming fuel cell gets a new mount.

The accessory gearbox on to the engine drives the hydraulic pumps which must be replaced along with the fluid reservoirs.

Old gearbox and hydraulic pumps are removed and a new set is prepared for installation.

All drain and hydraulic lines are re-installed as well as the generator. Everything gets leak tested in the hangar, then leak tested again with the engine running before the tail gets put back on.

A few volunteers from the Civil Air Patrol squadron in Anchorage, Alaska spend the day polishing the afterburner jet nozzle.

Every year the ejection seat is removed to check its operation and then re-installed. It has never been used and hopefully all this work during offseason should keep it that way.

Custom designed windshields are built and installed.

After one last engine run-up and leak test, the after burners are tested with a high speed taxi down the runway.

This behind-the-scenes look is only a fraction of the work involved, but now that its finally completed the FighterJets team can't just sit back and relax, they have to start all over again on the second MiG-17 and make haste in order to be ready for the first show of the season. Not only do they complete all the required maintenance work, but they pick one restoration project above the mandated items and many parts must be sent off to be rebuilt. Since sourcing replacement parts isn't as simple as calling up the local big box supplier, many man hours of manual labor are spent keeping these aircraft is tip-top shape. Randy wanted to specifically commend Greg, Kim, John as well as his Capt. Erin for their outstanding commitment to safety and their tons of hard work.


The FighterJets team had a highly successful 2014 season with 22 shows in 10 states and Canada. They look forward to another great year and are kicking off 2015 with their first performance in Laredo, Texas just a few weeks away on February 15th. Be sure to check the schedule for a performance near you.

Photo Credit: Randy Ball

Chris is a pilot who loves airplanes and cars and his writing has been seen on Jalopnik. Contact him with questions or comments via twitter or email.