Article I wrote in Russia in 2001 for Landings.com
Several weeks ago Landings.com offered me a unique opportunity: to investigate general aviation during my world trip and write articles on what I see. As a pilot, this is a great chance to write for a great web site and for a large audience, as well as include aviation during my world trip. From Europe to Asia, from Iran and Pakistan to Northern Africa, I will write and report on the state of general aviation from many different regions of the world. Being in Russia at this time, the first article will be on this country.
Four years ago general aviation hardly existed in Russia. Soviet rule permitted only military and airlines use of the skies. Although this was the case during Communism, this country enjoys a famous and well deserved contribution to aviation history. Russians have been pioneers in the field and their knowledge extends way beyond our atmosphere and into space. Aerospace is big here. And walking on a Russian aerodrome brings that notion alive. Fortunately the fall of communism brought major and important changes to Russia. It has been a very difficult transition to democracy and a free market economy, but in the long term it will be worth it. The new freedom has brought many problems. The economy is in shambles, corruption is out of control, and quality of life is very low. Life is difficult. So what about general aviation? We know the military is still there, it has some of the best aircraft in the world. The airlines are there. But what about GA?
General aviation did exist during the Soviet Union but it had a very restricted role. During this period there were only four sectors of the aviation community: Military, Civil (professionals only), sport aviation, and the Ministry of Aviation/Industry. Almost every aircraft was built for the military, after which some would serve in the public sector. The only civil aviation company was Aeroflot and it was involved in many areas, from aerial photography, to agriculture work, to passenger travel. Two design bureaus, Sukhoy and Yakovlev, made sport aircraft, with models such as the Yak-54 and SU-31. Yakovlev also made an aircraft for flight schools, the Yak-18T. Unfortunately, due to all the restrictions, few Russian civil aircraft can be found today. After the fall of communism the conditions didn't improve quickly. It took until 1997 for the government to approve private aviation in the country. Today the conditions are slowly improving but there is still a long road ahead. One of the biggest problems is the airspace: 100 per cent of Russia's airspace is controlled, (the military controllers being primarily responsible.) The many ATC clearances and tedious co-ordination procedures between civil and military controllers before each flight is viewed as the greatest impediment to GA development in this country. The state of the economy and many other factors add to the problems. Mak, or Interstate Aviation, was created in 1993, and is the government body that overseas civil aviation. This all said, I went to an airport outside of Moscow to learn more about aviation in this country and to meet with the people and companies that fly here.
Myachkovo is the general aviation center in Russia. It is located 20 kilometers southeast of Moscow. My girlfriend Nina and I went there one day on the bike (I am traveling the world on my motorcycle) to start researching for this article. It is still winter conditions here, nevertheless I wanted to go there on my motorcycle. Riding through Moscow is a story by itself. Heavy traffic, crazy drivers, poor road conditions, even some light flooding on some roads: it was an interesting ride. Due to heavy traffic and getting lost trying to find the airport we finally reached it after riding for an hour and a half. By this time it was late in the afternoon and we had missed our appointment, the clubs would most likely be closed by now. The bigger problem was entering the airport. To enter the field you must go through military style security, we needed special permission. We had it before through one of the clubs but now it was closed. When I saw this entrance I was surprised, I felt like I was about to enter a Soviet airfield. The closed gates, the guard in his combat fatigues..... Nina told me not to say a word of English and she took care of it, talking to the guard in Russian. He let us in. I will always remember the first time I rode onto the field----it was an amazing sight: all different kinds of Russian aircraft were scattered throughout the aerodrome, even the look and setup of the field and buildings seemed very different to what I was used to seeing. It is difficult to put into words. Some of these airplanes were huge. We had no idea where to go and I was surprised to find this place was big, a lot bigger than I had imagined. Fortunately we noticed this woman walking along the road and she gave us directions on how to reach the clubs. It was great when I got on the taxi-ways with the bike, which was ok there. I was riding my Ninja on a Russian airport, years ago I never would have imagined this.
In order to properly learn about Russian aviation I had to meet the locals themselves. This is why we picked one of the flight schools on the field and went in to meet them, asking if it would ok to interview them. Nina being Russian made this all possible since I don't speak the language. Fortunately this club was very friendly and we spent hours talking about aviation in their country. They didn't speak English so she had to translate the whole time. They were interested as well to know about our system in the west. One of their biggest subject that they asked was our uncontrolled airspace in Canada.
The first questions were obvious, in what state is Russia's general aviation today? I expected to hear that times were very difficult and that the economy made it all worse, but I was very surprised to hear that aviation is booming. The economy is in bad shape and it isn't easy, but in the last three years flying time has increased three times and the number of aircraft has increased five times. This was impressive, I thought. A few years ago there were only a few clubs on the field, now there are 17. They told me they make enough money to cover their costs. What was surprising as well was when I asked them which aircraft they used for flight training. I was expecting to hear Cessna, Piper, or Eastern European models, but no, they have three Czech L-29 jets, (see on the side for pictures.) These used to be military trainers, the club saved these three from the junkyard. They also have a Cessna 174. When I asked them what kind of training programs they had I was stunned when I learned someone could start from scratch and solo in one of these jets after 15 hours. The price? The aircraft runs at $430 per hour. Similar to North America, people can become pilots around the 40 hour mark. If students want to go the cheaper way and not fly jets than the Cessna 174 costs from $124 to $150 per hour. These prices are high compared to North America, but they allow these clubs to survive. Very few people in this country can afford the luxury of flying, however, there are those fortunate enough, and every year their numbers increase. One of the posters in their club shows a client riding his Porsche with an old Classic bi-plane flying a few feet above. I asked them which piston single students preferred, western or eastern European models? They said western. A local Russian company makes an aircraft called the Elitar, which is similar to a single Cessna. Although very good aircraft, the students prefer western-built planes. It was interesting to interview this company. They were very friendly and although there was a language barrier we had been able to understand each other and had had a good discussion, thanks to Nina. After the interview they took us on a tour of the club and showed us air show footage in a small theater like room. It was a nice place. This company performs at air shows with their L-29s. After some big thanks we left the building and stepped back on the apron.
The interview finished we now took this opportunity to see the aerodrome and the many different aircraft there. It was a strange feeling to ride my bike on the taxi-ways next to all these planes. Myachkovo is controlled and it has one runway. However, it has several large ramps that gives it a big look. The condition of the aerodrome seemed normal, the taxi-ways were in fair shape, although it was difficult to notice due to all the water on the ramp from the melting snow. Aircraft ranged from single engine pistons, ex-military jet planes, commuter aircraft, classic birds, to large cargo planes. It was an interesting mix. Many of these had CCCP and the red star on them. By far the most numerous planes on this field was the Antonov 30, which are used for aerial photography, it is the largest concentration of this aircraft type in the country. It was great to walk on the ramp and see these airplanes, most of which I had never seen before. Most were in good or fair shape, however many seemed to be run down. (I took this to be a sign of the economic difficulties in this country.) However this country's strong involvement and famous contribution to aviation was clearly visible through the aerodrome and all its aircraft. Time went by and it soon became time to ride back to Moscow. We walked back to the bike, put on our gear, and headed home. It had been a very interesting day.
Russia is struggling in its transition to democracy and a free market economy. Having spent months living and working here I see that life is difficult and there is a long way ahead. I expected to find general aviation would be in bad shape. Although the conditions are difficult, I was very surprised at what I found. I cannot testify about the state of aviation for the whole of Russia, and I am sure the conditions vary greatly. It seems that Moscow and the surrounding areas general aviation is quickly growing. The minority of people that can afford such a luxurious hobby keep it alive, and we hope with time more and more people will be able to enjoy flying. Hopefully in the near future the government will improve civil aviation regulations, which would be a major factor in GA development. Time will tell. For a pilot currently circling the globe on a sportbike this was a great experience. And I'm looking forward to my next article.
I would like to thank Vasili Pleshakov and Aero Jet club for their help.