Ken Chase is just waiting to go 1,300 mph.
It’s a rainy Thursday evening, and, like most nights, Ken Chase is in his garage, tinkering with one of his vehicles.
Except his garage is a sprawling, 50-foot-by-60-foot hangar in one of the areas of Rochester International Airport—just northwest of the main terminal—that you never see.
And his vehicle is a 50-foot long, MiG-21 F-13 supersonic jet (think Top Gun, more or less).
“People ask me if this is a hobby, but it’s not,” says Chase. “It’s a sickness.”
A sickness that can fly at 1,300 mph.
A sickness that gets 1 mpg. (And that’s if you feather the throttle. With the afterburners blazing, the jet burns nearly four gallons per second.)
A sickness that costs, according to Chase, “more than a small house, not as much as a big house. But I was the first one on my block with one.”
It is, as far as we can figure, the fastest personally owned vehicle in a five-state radius.
Yet Chase talks about the MiG like he’s a shadetree mechanic talking about his car.
“The MiG is almost ready to take it out,” he says. “We have a couple of gremlins we’re working on right now, but if we get a good working crew together we could spend a solid two weeks and it would be good to go.”
Except a “gremlin,” when it comes to a MiG—when it comes to that Tumanski engine generating 13,000 pounds of thrust to send the jet climbing at up to 40,000 feet per minute, or when it comes to applying brakes and deploying a braking parachute to go from 160 mph to full stop on a Rochester runway—can be disastrous.
Ken Chase has been working on the MiG, on and off, since he bought it in 1997 (from a guy in Canada, who had purchased a half dozen refurbished MiGs, four of which made it, barely, into the United States. It’s not easy buying a supersonic fighter jet—even with armaments removed—to bring into the U.S.).
Chase, 60, does most of the work himself. When it first arrived, he had to reattach the wings, basically assemble large section. These days, he swaps out hydraulic lines and replaces wiring. Replaces seals and checks the tires.
“Hopefully,” he says, “you don’t have to do work on the engine. If it gets to the point where you have to do any interior engine work, it’s time for a new engine.”
And, when it’s ready to fly, Chase will be the one in the single-seat cockpit.
“These things are like a refrigerator,” he says. “You plug them in and they just run. Rarely would they fail. The Russians built a very simple, very aggressive, very fast, very efficient airplane designed to sit in Siberia for months on and then be ready to fly.”
Most refrigerators, though, can’t ascend to a max altitude of 60,000 feet—that’s 11 miles—in 90 seconds.
Designed by the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (hence MiG), and built by Aero in Czechoslovakia, the MiG in its various forms is the most-produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history. Nearly 12,000 MiG-21s were built over a quarter century of production (which ended in 1985). Sixty countries have flown the MiG-21, and it has seen action in basically every military conflict since 1960.
It’s a jet that has Cold War all over it, right down to the coloring of the cockpit interior, which was designed in a robin’s egg pastel blue.
“The Russians used that blue because it gives the occupant best color to settle down and do his job,” says Chase. “They wanted a color that gives you a passive-aggressive stance. They did studies to figure out what colors to put inside this aircraft. A lot of the Russian aircraft cockpit interior have this color.”
For Chase, the idea of climbing into a 1972, Russian-designed, Czech-built supersonic fighter jet—one that hasn’t flown in at least 20 years, a model he’s never piloted before—doesn’t seem to scare him.
No, the thing that scares Chase more, right now, are jet fuel prices.
When he bought the jet, in 1997, Jet A Fuel prices were $1.30 per gallon. Today, they are $8 per gallon.
The MiG-21 holds 780 gallons, enough fuel to last one hour. Which means a fill-up would run $6,200.
The flying itself, though, is something Chase lives for.
His dad was a pilot. His mom was a pilot. His grandfather was a pilot.
When he was a kid—just after his parents moved to Rochester from Seattle for mom Alice’s job at Mayo—his dad, Ken Sr., worked at the old Gopher Aviation at RST (and served as a Rochester firefighter from 1962-1990). Sometimes, Ken Jr. would come to the airport for picnics with his dad.
“I loved everything about the airport life,” says Ken. “I wanted that to be my life.”
And it has been.
As a kid, he flew with his parents whenever they’d take him. Hung around the airport whenever he could. Went to Utah State and got a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a minor in Aerospace Studies. Joined the Air Force in 1983. Trained to fly B-52s at 200 to 400 feet off the ground. In the dark. In the mountains.
Spent a lot of air time in the supersonic T-38 jet (as part of an Air Force detachment in North Dakota), which he says is “enough like the MiG that they use it to simulate the MiG in training.”
“We’d take off from our Air Force base and fly across the country in that T-38 on weekends,” he says. “Pack up your underwear and go.”
After leaving the Air Force in 1990, Chase spent the next few decades putting together L-29 and L-39 jets, and then training people to fly them. In 2011, he became a commercial pilot, serving as an instructor in Boeing 747s for Northwest and Delta.
But, a few years ago, when the airlines wanted him to move to Atlanta to be a flight instructor, he passed. Decided to retire, at least for now.
“We just didn’t want to pack up and leave Rochester,” he says.
His wife, Denise (formerly Graham) is from Byron, and works as a transcriptionist at Mayo Clinic. They met at a New Year’s Eve party, got married 12 years ago.
It’s the second time around for both of them. She’s got two kids from a previous marriage. He’s got two as well.
So they have roots here.
Also, though, Ken Chase would have to move a lot of stuff.
Because while his focus is on the MiG—and rightly so, there are only four like it in the U.S.–his hangar is puzzle-fitted with six or so other aircraft in various states of construction and deconstruction, of buying and selling planes and parts.
He’s got two jets (Czech-made L-29s), two single prop P-51 Mustangs, one 1946 Luscombe Taildragger (think barnstorming) and another for parts.
“These aircraft feel like they’re part of something,” he says. “They feel like they’re part of our family tradition.”
Sometimes directly. That 1946 Luscombe is the exact make and model of the plane his grandfather, Harold Funk, was flying when he crashed—and died—in 1947.
“It may seem kind of morbid,” Chase says. “But it’s still part of our legacy.”
He’s got cars, too. A 1970 Barracuda he’s putting together. A Dodge Challenger. He pulls up a cloth cover, half hidden under a jet wing, and reveals a 1996 Viper.
The personalized license plate reads “IMADOT.”
“I was in formation, flying T-38s, with one other guy in the Air Force,” says Ken. “My instructor was flying with him and I was solo on their wing. My instructor looked at me from the other T-38 and said [over the radio] ‘I’m a dot.’ Then he hits the power and about a second and a half later there he is, just a dot on the horizon. It’s slang for when you break formation and take off. You just can’t explain what it feels like to fly like that. I still haven’t found the words to describe it. It’s been a while, but I can’t wait to feel that again.”
It won’t be long, maybe.
The MiG is almost ready to go. A while back, Ken pushed it out of the hangar and tested that engine and fired those afterburners. People reported hearing it from miles around.
So Ken Chase is still tinkering. Testing the cockpit hatch mechanism. Double-checking the installation of the ejection seat.
And waiting for jet fuel prices to drop.
Waiting for that chance to finally climb into that robin’s egg blue cockpit, and fire up that Tumanski engine, and, at some point, to hit the afterburners, until he’s a dot.