I would be flying with August Reinbach, the national L-39 aerobatic champion. We discussed the maneuvers that would be flown and how we would transfer control. “I fly” and “you fly” were the commands.
Bob, Michael and I met once again for an elegant breakfast in the hotel dining room. As before, the harp music was nice, but I was itching to hear the scream of a turbojet! Out front we met up with our entourage and for the first time met Nicholas. He would be our cameraman and capture our adventure on videotape. Nicholas was a very personable guy who loved learning about the American culture. Bob took on the task of teaching Nicholas some American slang. By the end of our trip, Nicholas was able to skillfully incorporate such phrases as “whassssuuuuuup??!!!!” “copasetic” and “you da man!” into his conversation.
I was ready to get my hands on a Russian jet. I was ready for some speed. I was ready for some Gs. What I was not ready for was the car ride to the airbase. It was nothing less than thrilling. Zhukovsky, the once super-secret Soviet airbase, is located about twenty miles southeast of Moscow in a town of the same name. However, it took over an hour to get there. Most of that time was spent just getting out of Moscow. I will never again complain about Bay Area traffic after seeing rush hour in Moscow.
There are several million people who live in the outskirts of town, but they all come into downtown to work! Why then did we have so much trouble getting OUT of town, you may ask? Lanes have no meaning during rush hour. There were a few police officers whose sole job was to try and keep people on their side of the road! Two lanes quickly become four and no one gives much regard to the few people coming out of town. We threaded our way, salmon-style, through the molasses-thick traffic. I peeked out of my backseat window and there was scant room to slide an edgewise Moscow Times between us and the other cars.
Most of the traffic was comprised of European makes with Volvo, Mercedes, Audi, and BMW topping the list. There was also a surprising amount of Fords. On our way we passed the Russian automobile factory. It manufactures only one type of car called the Muskovite. It makes a Geo Metro look like a full-size sedan. Once clear of the city limits, the ride was no less exciting as our driver skillfully weaved around potholes (in the U.S. we call them ditches) that dotted the country roads.
The countryside was very much what one would expect Russia to look like. We passed many villages that appeared racked by poverty. I pointed to an expanse of small shanties lined up in rows and asked if those were stables. I was embarrassed by Galina’s response that they were houses. Bob, Michael, and I sat in silence, but our gazes conveyed the message that we never knew just how good we have it in America.
The town of Zhukovsky was built around aviation. At the town limits was a sleek, albeit rusted, MiG-21 mounted on a pedestal with its needle-like nosecone aimed skyward. But this was not just any MiG-21, it was an early variant called an F-13! The MiG-21 is one of my favorite airplanes and this was a rare model. I became very giddy, and Bob and Michael soon realized just how much of a jet junkie I am. Bob remarked, “We’re in Darrin’s world now!”
Our minivan rattled and squealed to a stop in the muddy parking lot outside the main gate of the airbase. For security reasons, we could not drive our vehicle onto the base (but we could fly in their fighter jets?). We waited in the light drizzle for our escort. Galina warned us, in all seriousness, that the military van would probably not be as nice as the one we had been riding in. Ours was hardly a prize. The government-owned minivan pulled up sounding like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The interior reeked of cigarette smoke, the curtains were barely hanging on the windows, and there was a metal rod poking me in the back when I sat down. But I didn’t care. I was going to be flying a jet!
Our first stop was the medical exam, be that as it may. We filled out a questionnaire and had our blood pressure checked. The medical examiner thought she heard an irregular heartbeat in Michael but since he had no history of anything like that, he was given the stamp of approval. I thought to myself, “Could it be the hundred-year-old stethoscope that she’s using?” When it was my turn, she asked to see my pilot’s license and medical certificate. She copied some information off of those, handed them back to me and checked my blood pressure. She thought it was a little high. Let’s see, I’m in a foreign country, 5000 miles from home, just had a white-knuckle car ride, and I’m about to do something that has been a life-long dream of mine! Of course my blood pressure is going to be high!
Galina told us some history of the base as we were herded down the hallways to be fitted with our flight suits. Two women greeted us and we stripped down to our jeans and t-shirts. They spoke little English so most of the outfitting was carried out by pointing and moving our limbs where they needed to be. First came the flight suit. Then the g-suit. This looks somewhat like western-style chaps and has tubes that inflate and constrict the legs under g-loads: the idea being to keep blood from pooling in the legs and therefore help avoid loss of consciousness. Always a good thing. After this we were given spiffy orange skull caps and tried on helmets and oxygen masks to find ones that fit. We practiced putting the masks on and taking them off. The mechanism is slightly different than those used in U.S. helmets, but I got the hang of it quickly. Since it was rather cold out, the final touch was a heavy camouflaged flight jacket with a big fuzzy collar. I felt so comfy cozy!
We were then ushered to the briefing room and met our pilots. I would be flying with August Reinbach, the national L-39 aerobatic champion. We discussed the maneuvers that would be flown and how we would transfer control. “I fly” and “you fly” were the commands. Simple enough.
Next stop, ejection-seat training. On the off chance our jets started puking turbine blades, we needed to know how to make a quick exit. We entered a classroom evidently used for survival training. The walls were adorned with diagrams of nearly every ejection seat in the Russian fleet. Scattered about were various training aids and survival equipment such as life rafts, flares, and tools.
The instructor spoke no English so Galina translated our lesson. We were briefed on the capabilities and operation of the L-39's seat (I can't remember the designation) and the K-36 seat used in the MiGs. This seat is actually far superior to anything we've got over here in the States.
We were then each placed in the ejection seat trainer. This was a contraption with an actual K-36 seat (minus the rocket motor), a simulated partial canopy, and a maze of pneumatic plumbing. Once strapped in, the command was "prepare for ejection," at which point we were to have our back straight, head firmly against the back of the seat, and grab the red handles in between our legs. The magic words were "Eject! Eject! Eject!" A twenty-pound pull on the handles blew the phony canopy away and then blasted the seat six feet up a rail.
When it was my turn, they gave me a simulated emergency (as if an ejection isn't already an emergency!) in which the canopy would not blow away. Upon realizing the canopy would not jettison, I was to reach up to a secondary canopy release lever. I practiced operating it a couple times and then it was Showtime. "Eject! Eject! Eject!" Pull on the red handles...nothing. Reach for the secondary handle and in one motion flip it out and pull down. Away went the canopy. Then back to the red handles. Puuulll...ka-blam! Up the rails I went. Some rudimentary instruction on the parachutes and we were ready to face any emergency.
Our rickety minivan, driven by Russian air force personnel, shuttled us out to the flightline. Zhukovsky was everything I imagined a Russian airbase to be. Cold, dreary, and a lot of old equipment scattered about. My face was pressed against the window as we drove past row upon row of airplanes and helicopters left over from the days of the Soviet air force. A Tupolev Tu-16 sat poised in its parking space. This bomber was originally designed to drop a nuclear weapon on the United States.
So here I was, ecstatic about my L-39 flight, anticipating the MiG-29 ride, and getting ready for my date with Julia. It was one of those times when you think, “Damn, life is good!”
We arrived out on the flightline where the mechanics, smoking cigarettes, readied the L-39 in its revetment. I climbed the ladder and stepped into the cockpit. A mechanic assisted me in strapping into my harness and showed me how to release it. Then August climbed up and showed me where all the instruments were. It was difficult for me to recognize them since the markings were all in metric units and Cyrillic letters. The rear cockpit’s landing gear control handle was held firmly in place with several turns of heavy tape. I surmised this was to keep passengers from raising or lowering the landing gear at an inopportune time. August smiled and said, “No, it’s just broken.”
August took his place in the front cockpit, the canopies were closed and I heard the sweet music of a turbojet engine coming to life. The next thing I noticed was that my glasses were fogging up. Great, now I won’t be able to see! I reached up and pushed my oxygen mask connectors one more click into the helmet to tighten the seal. Problem solved.
August explained the steering system to me. The brakes were typical Russian design, operated by hand with a lever on the control stick. Steering is accomplished by differential braking. Hold in a rudder pedal and pull the brake handle, only the respective brake is applied and the jet turns. It took a little getting used to, but was not hard. I taxied out onto the runway and lined up with the centerline.
We were cleared for takeoff (all communications with ATC were in Russian), August took the controls back, spooled up the engine and released the brakes. The L-39 accelerated down the runway, lifted off smoothly and banked into a shallow right turn. We made one circuit of the pattern and at midfield August rolled the jet right above the rest of the group watching from the ground.
Since it was a blustery day with low ceilings, we were not able to do much aerobatics. It was a blessing in disguise because August turned it into a flying lesson. We did some rolls, steep turns and such to let me get a feel for the plane. But then came the high speed, low-level work. August took back the controls and lined up with a river. The jet went lower…and lower…and lower until I was looking up at the trees along the riverbank. We shot down the river not ten feet off the water, doing close to 400 miles per hour! What a rush! Up ahead was a lone fisherman sitting peacefully in his boat. I can only imagine his reaction as we rocketed overhead, clearing his boat by a few feet!
I heard ATC crackle over the radio in Russian. August said they were asking if we could tell them how high the cloud layer was. Well, let’s find out! August gave me control and said to climb. We entered the clouds and decided to try to find the tops. I was still very unfamiliar with the placement of the instruments so I relied on the huge, centrally located attitude indicator to try and keep the wings of the jet level. After a couple thousand feet, the tops were still nowhere to be found so August took back the controls and dropped us out of the overcast.
Then we headed back to the airfield for some touch and goes. The runway is five kilometers long, more than enough room to let me play around with the jet. We aimed for the outer marker (the field had an ILS, but this aircraft was only equipped with an NDB…for those of you who know what the heck that means). Once lined up, August showed me a landing. We went around the pattern and he walked me through another. The next one was all me. I slowly reduced the power and eased back on the control stick to slow the jet down and bring it to somewhat of a landing attitude. On final he held both his hands up to show that it was really my airplane. I floated about 2000 feet down the runway, but greased it on. We did one more and this one was much better, resulting in a satisfying squeak as the wheels kissed the runway. I rolled out to a turnoff near our parking area and applied the brakes.
After the flights we had lunch with the pilots in the airbase’s dining hall. August signed my logbook and I presented him with some gifts: a patch from the International Council of Airshows, a chart showing my hometown airport, and a copy of Pacific Flyer (a publication on West Coast sport aviation). I sat next to August during lunch and we talked shop for most of the time. Pilots are pilots no matter the culture!
So here I was, ecstatic about my L-39 flight, anticipating the MiG-29 ride, and getting ready for my date with Julia. It was one of those times when you think, “Damn, life is good!” I called Julia on her cell phone to let her know I was back at the hotel.
She got off work at 7:00 p.m. and we decided to meet at the Smolenskaya Metro station near the hotel. I set out early to pick up some flowers. I had learned that it was customary to bring flowers for a woman for nearly any occasion. Besides, it’s just a darn nice thing to do! Normally one couldn’t walk out the door of the hotel without passing three people selling flowers. Tonight I couldn’t find one petal peddler! But as I got close to the Metro station I spied a small flower stand.
I was prepared to smile and point in order to communicate my request. As expected, the woman at the flower stand did not speak English but it was quite obvious that I was a customer. She was trying to sell me these huge bouquets but I used some creative charades to explain that I needed something smaller. I ended up selecting a single long-stem rose. The woman punched some numbers on her calculator and held it up for me to see the price. Ninety rubles. Some quick mental math told me that was about $3. It seemed reasonable and I was in a hurry so I handed her two fifty-ruble bills, gestured for her to keep the change and told her “spa-ceeba,” which means “thank you” (one of the few Russian words I knew). She grinned widely as she wrapped my flower in cellophane. I though nothing of the tip but I would learn more about the practice later.
I made my way over to the Metro station exit and waited for Julia. She emerged from the heavy swinging wooden doors looking absolutely adorable in her green jacket and blue cap. We reentered Smolenskaya station and I gave her some money to purchase the tickets. Five rubles will take you roundtrip to any station on the expansive network. I found it odd that she only got one ticket and asked her about it. She explained that she had a pass that allowed her unlimited use of the Metro. I didn’t question it, figuring it might involve the KGB!
I felt like an Olympic ski jumper as we stepped onto the long, steep escalator that would take us down to the trains. It seemed to descend at a precariously steep angle. About halfway down, the escalator lurched to a stop and I pitched forward. I thought for sure I would tumble all the way to the bottom, knocking over Russian citizens like bowling pins. Fortunately, Julia had been holding onto the handrail and grabbed me. Several seconds went by with everyone standing motionless on the now still escalator before we decided to start walking down. Other people began to do the same. Over the loud speaker came an announcement in Russian. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and grabbed a handrail. I deduced that it must be starting up again. Having learned my lesson, I followed suit and grabbed the railing with both hands. The escalator started with an even more violent jerk, but this time I was prepared.
Russian metro stations are works of art; each one uniquely decorated with ornate architecture. We boarded our train and I had no idea where we were headed. As our train neared a station, Julia told me we needed to get off and transfer to another line. Upon exiting the train, she studied some Cyrillic signs, grabbed me by the hand and said, “this way!” We headed down a corridor, around a corner, up some stairs, through another corridor, down some stairs and boarded another train. I was completely at Julia’s mercy. I didn’t dare let go of her hand. If she ditched me, I would never find my way home and would still be wandering around the streets Moscow.
When we finally surfaced from the subterranean labyrinth, Julia led me to an unassuming door in what amounted to an alley. I almost expected her to knock three times and have a little window slide open with someone asking for the password. Through the door were more stairs that took us back underground. To my surprise we entered a quaint, candlelit restaurant dining room. We were far away from the tourist areas and only locals frequented this establishment. Once seated, the waiter brought a carafe of water, but no glasses. I found this rather odd and asked Julia if it was some Russian custom. She giggled as she placed her rose into the vase, “It’s for my flower!” Julia ordered some red wine for us. This was my first exposure to Russian wine. It was good, but very sweet. The entire dinner, including wine, was the equivalent of fourteen dollars. Not a bad deal.
I was about to have my second experience with tipping in Russia. The bill was about four hundred rubles, so I nonchalantly tossed a fifty-ruble note on the table as a tip. Julia’s blue eyes widened as if to say, “What the hell are you doing?!” I thought, uh-oh, I didn’t leave enough. Quite the contrary. She said that was way too much to leave for a tip! It wasn’t even fifteen percent and I didn’t want the waiter to get upset and chase me down the ulitsa (street). Julia insisted that fifteen or twenty rubles were more than adequate. We strolled back to the metro station, boarded a train, made a transfer and eventually ended up back at the Smolenskaya street station.
The following morning brought clear skies and beautiful weather for the MiG flights. Bob, Michael and I went through our now-familiar breakfast routine, indulging in cereals, juices, fruit, pancakes, bacon, eggs, sausage, muffins and applauding the harpist. I don’t think she was used to such attention and smiled bashfully at our applause. Once again we met up with our entourage and began the treacherous drive to Zhukovsky.
Ten years ago my Dad was performing at the California International Airshow in Salinas. A contingent of Russian MiG-29s was also performing there as part of the 1991 “Friendship Tour.” We met many of the pilots and crew and were allowed to sit in the MiGs. I had a picture taken of me, 15 years old, sitting in the MiG with one of the pilots, Alex Garnaev, showing me the cockpit. After winning this trip, I learned that he was still active in flying the MiGs and often worked with the company that gives these tours. I brought the picture just in case I ran into him somewhere on the base.
Since we had been through the orientation the previous day, we went straight to the briefing room where I met my pilot, Alex Garnaev! He did not specifically remember me, but he remembered the Salinas airshow very well and the photo confirmed our prior meeting. From that point on, I was guaranteed a “good” ride. The electricity in the operations building was going to be shut off soon so we had to quickly suit up and get out to the planes. It’s nice to know that California wasn’t the only place suffering from rotating blackouts. PART IV