Lost over Russia in an aerobatic airplane

Winter 1993, Russia (57 degrees North). It is minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit in this foreign land north of Moscow. I am sitting in a single-seat, Russian Sukhoi 26 at the end of an ice-covered runway waiting to be cleared for takeoff. There is a lot going through my mind. First of all, I have never flown a single-seat Sukhoi 26. Also, my luggage did not show up at Sheremetyevo International Airport and I do not have my winter flying gear that I had planned to use.

I was already very cold; there is no heater in a Sukhoi. I also know the Russian team pilots will be watching and judging my every move. I didnt want to embarrass myself; it was quite possible I would be competing against some of them in the future.

We had arrived the night before; driven here over snow-packed, ice-covered, dark and desolate roads to this former MiG 17 air base along the Volga River. Borky Air Base is located near the forbidden city of Dubna, home of a nuclear scientific research facility.

The morning was spent in an unheated shed near the flightline having our pre-flight briefing. Inside, the benches and tables were covered in frost. There was a large wood-burning heater in the briefing room, but for some reason it was not being used. The nearest bathroom was a wooden outhouse nearby. A little further away, the four-story barracks were used for housing the Russian aerobatic team pilots, technicians, Kassum Nashmudinov, my father and me. This was their first training camp of the year and we were invited to participate.

Sukhoi 26
The Sukhoi Su-26 has one seat, which means checkouts are an independent exercise.

There were no hangars for the aircraft at Borky. It was so beautiful the way the Sukhois sat outside in the frigid conditions with engine covers secured over the cowlings. I could look out the window of my room and see them lined up on the ice with snow blowing across them.

In the morning I would wake up to the sound of four Sukhois, a Yak-52 and a Yak 55, engines running and warming up on the flightline. The wheel chocks are specifically made for these icy conditions, with deep spikes holding the aircraft in place. When I got to Borky, I was told I could fly the Yaks as much as I wanted. During my three weeks at camp, I only flew each Yak once.

That morning, we were briefed on the weather, runway conditions and order of flight. There were four aerobatic zones in use. The primary aerobatic box was located over the only runway (mostly used for their top competition pilots) and used for one-on-one critiquing by Kassum, the team coach/manager. Kassum is a former MiG-17 fighter pilot and a peer of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

There were also zones 1 through 3, all nearby the airbase. Many times several zones would be in use. The sound of multiple 360hp, nine-cylinder, supercharged radial engines could be heard at full power piercing the dense, frigid air. Sukhois were taxiing in and out and others warming up preparing for a flight. It was constant motion of noise and activity on the flightline.

Each flight was scheduled to last 15 minutes from takeoff to touchdown. Warming up the engine took time. When the cylinder and oil temperatures were achieved and preflight completed, I would radio to Kassum in the mobile control tower, a converted two-decker bus with a 360 degree viewing area on top. Kassum didnt speak fluent English so I had to be very clear and direct. I would transmit, Matt, takeoff.” On this day Kassum said, Matt, takeoff, zone three.

Thats when I knew where I was to practice. Pilots were rotating in and out of the Sukhois as fast as the ground crews could turn them. There were usually two guys to prep each plane between fights. One would help me into the cockpit, assist in buckling the parachute, putting on the five-point harness and plugging in my flight helmet. The other technician would check the oil, look over the aircraft and clean the engine oil off the canopy; they worked hard in these brutal conditions.

A fuel truck would drive up and add fuel. Everyone had their jobs. In the snow, ice and wind the turnaround times varied. One day the conditions were so bad the ground crews had to hold onto our wing tips to keep the plane from running into the snow banks as we taxied out to the runway. A few times a pilot would have to suddenly shut down the engine just prior to running into one, avoiding damage to the propeller and engine. On the ice-covered taxiway, the bakes and rudder were no match against the strong, gusty crosswind.

I lined up the Sukhoi on the runway, locked the tail wheel in place, opened the gills that control the cylinder temperature and immediately applied full power before the engine had time to cool. I stayed low to keep under the box. Once clear, I turned for zone three just on the other side of the Volga River.

The Sukhoi 26 has 17 gallons of usable fuel. At full power, you are burning nearly 40 gallons per hour. There is a seven-liter light on the instrument panel. When that light comes on, you have seven minutes of fuel remaining until the engine quit. The Sukhoi was designed for one purpose: to win World Aerobatic Championship competitions.

Svetlana Kapanina
The competition was fierce in Russia, including from Svetlana Kapanina – a future 8-time champion.

After takeoff, I realized there was a total winter whiteout. The Volga was frozen and snow covered. The surrounding area was thick, deep forest. It was difficult to see the airport in all the snow and ice.

Once established in zone three, I started with my roll exercises to warm up. Ninety degree roll left to knife edge, 34 roll right to inverted, 34 left to knife edge then 90 degrees right to level flight. I did this several times, keeping the airport in sight the entire time.

Next were rolls on the vertical line, up and down. There was a low, gray overcast that only intensified the whiteout conditions. There was really no discernable horizon. The Sukhoi has an incredible roll rate, with huge, effective, full span ailerons. I pulled about six Gs to the vertical and performed a full roll to the right.

At the top of the line, I hammerhead pivoted the plane back to the vertical down line and did several rolls and pulled out to a level flight. My blood was pumping through my veins with all the G’s and excitement from the Sukhoi performance. This was what I came all this way to do.

I looked around to find the airbase to keep my bearings before I started another series of maneuvers. I began a tight 360 turn to stay over my current location and to stay within my zone. I did not recognize anything and couldnt tell north from south. As I circled, I pulled the power back to save fuel. All I wanted to do now was find the base and land. The Sukhoi does have a compass (its only nav aid); however, it really doesnt work well. It spins on its axis and the engine RPM determines how fast it spins. It was no help at all. 

I decided not to wander off and look for Borky. I just stayed where I was orbiting, hoping to find something that looked familiar. If I wasnt back in 15 minutes, I thought Kassum might send someone up to look for me and lead me back. But after a few minutes, I started to pick out the banks of the Volga so I headed in that direction and once I was there I was able to see the air base.

Kassum cleared me to land. I landed long and fast on the ice-covered runway, not my best performance in front of these world-class pilots. As I pulled in line to park, a few of the Russian pilots asked me if there was a problem with the plane because I was only airborne nine minutes. It’s interesting what can go through your mind in just nine minutes.

From that point on, when it was time to take off, I heard Kassum’s voice, “Matt, box!” 

Postscript supplied by author:

In February, 1993 Matt spent three weeks at Borky Airbase, Russia with his father John. They flew three time a day in the Sukhoi 26 when the weather allowed. They always flew in the box.

In attendance:

  • (Then 17 year old student) Svetlana Kapanina (now an eight-time Female World Champion); Natalja Sergeeva (Female World Champion 1990); Elena Klimovich; Alexander (Sasha) Ljubarets; Nikolay Nikitjuk (three-time European Champion).
  • Best Sukhoi pilot I ever saw: Nikolay Timofeev
  • Viktor Smolin (overall World Champion)
  • Viktor Chmal (overall World Champion)
  • Alla Tchekalova

On the final day, after all the other pilots had left, John and Matt spent the day flying three low level formation aerobatic flights in the box. We sat in our individual SU-26 cockpits between flights to get enough fuel and oil to take off again.” The ice was melting and the sun was coming out. I will always remember being inverted on top of a loop, just six feet from my father’s wing with the Volga framed in the background.” That night Nikolay Nikitjuk made dinner for me, my father and Kassum. It was our last night at Borky.

In 1995, Matt and John competed in the first Advanced Aerobatic Championship in Cape Town, South Africa. Several of the Russian pilots at that camp were in attendance.

2 Comments

  • Matt,

    Thanks for sharing a cool story and a great memory with your dad. I always enjoy catching up with your dad at Blakesburg and when he stops by Pella, Iowa. You and I met once at Pella some time ago and he always updates me on your and your career when I ask.

    Hope to read more from you soon,

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