Borispol, Ukraine - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Borispol, Ukraine

Until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, The Ukraine had a definite article in English, so it was always referred to as The Ukraine Republic. After 1991, when Ukraine became a country in its own right, the definite article was dropped in the official English translation. Ukraine (Україна in the Ukraine language) had been one of the four original republics that formed the USSR in 1922 (the others were the Russian, Transcaucasian and Byelorussian republics).

Above: The press conference on our arrival at Borispol, Kiev. Since this was a military facility the only media present, as far as I could discover, was the British Aerospace film unit (top left of the image) - they had their own company transport aircraft and had joined the tour in Leningrad.
Ukraine had, in 1990, more than 50 million people and stretched over 1,300 km from east to west and over 800 km from north to south. We were told by our hosts (who were mainly Ukrainian) that everyone could speak Russian, but Ukrainian was given equal prominence in all public places, in newspapers, and on radio and television. The Ukrainian language has a mixture of Cyrillic and English letters and it sounded to me familiar yet almost totally incomprehensible.

Kiev (Київ), the capital of Ukraine, sits astride the River Dneiper. Kiev had been the third largest city in the Soviet Union, after Moscow and Leningrad, and Ukraine had been the third largest republic in the union, after Russia and Kazakhstan. But times 'they were a-changing' when I was there in 1990 with the Red Arrows. (At the time of writing this in 2018, there are now even bigger troubles between Ukraine and Russia.)

There was a general reorganisation of aircraft seating before leaving Leningrad for Kiev. The British Ambassador and his wife, Sir Rodric and Lady Braithwaite, hitched a lift in the BAe 125 with the Air Attaché, while the Doctor and I transferred to the support Hercules. In addition we had collected a couple of Soviet interpreters who flew with us in the Hercules. They could have been KGB, I suppose, but at least they were friendly and helpful. The weather was excellent, the flights uneventful, and the entire detachment arrived at Borispol in mid-afternoon.
Above: I never thought I would see inside a Soviet Air Force Operations Centre - but I did at Borispol.
Borispol, situated about 50 kms east of Kiev was both the civil international airport for Kiev and a Soviet Air Force base. It was made quite clear to us as soon as we arrived, that the locals preferred us to refer to the Ukraine Air Force rather than the Soviet Air Force; they even provided their own interpreters - who seemed to spend as much time with the Russian interpreters as they did with us. We were met at Borispol by another 3-star officer, Lieutenant General Nikolai Petrovich Kryukov, deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Forces Kiev District. Also in the line-up were a large number of military personnel and a delegation from the Antonov Aircraft Design Bureau based at another airfield close to Kiev.

Above: The Red Arrows ground crew at a presentation just for them at the engineering college.
The Red Arrows ground crew were taken off for a visit to the engineering college where they were presented with gifts and handed over lots of Red Arrows gizzits in return. In the meantime the Antonov design team whisked the Hercules crew off almost immediately for a trip in the Soviet equivalent of the Hercules, an A12 transport aircraft which had been specially flown in for the occasion. Wing Commander David Guest, the Captain of the Hercules, spent much of the hour-long trip at the controls of the AN12 and he reported later that he found it unsophisticated compared with the Hercules. They flew 180 kms to the north of Kiev to take a close look at the still very hot nuclear power station at Chernobyl before returning to Borispol. Had they known in advance where they would be going, the Hercules crew might have been less enthusiastic about that trip.

Above: This was the Hercules crew returning from their flight over Chernobyl
Below: I was persuaded to pose in front of the AN12 and, without thinking, grabbed hold of one of the two pitot heads.

I was there taking photographs and it was clear that the Antonov crew were most impressed with the line-up of Red Arrows Hawks. When the AN12 had returned, one of the Russians invited me to pose at the front of their aircraft while he took several photographs of me on my camera. “Just one more,” he said, disarmingly. “Why not pose holding the pitot head.” Normally, pitot heads are still hot for several minutes after a flight so I checked first, thinking that he might be trying to catch me out. However, had I known then where the aircraft had just been, I certainly would not have grasped that pitot head. Although it was cool to the touch, it had just flown through the residual radiation resulting from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. (Even now, in 2018, it is well-known that the Chernobyl site is still highly radioactive. That AN12 pitot head had probably gathered a significant dose but, as far as I can tell, I did not suffer any long-term medical problem and no significant bits of me have withered or dropped off!). Shortly after landing, the Hercules crew entertained the Antonov group with a familiarisation flight around the local area which ended with the Hercules' speciality, a tactical short landing.
We were then all taken to an air force briefing room so the Red Arrows could do some pre-flight planning for the air displays. The walls of the room were covered with charts and diagrams comparing the performance of Soviet fighters with NATO fighters (image above). Whilst the diagrams had obviously not been put up for our benefit, no attempt had been made to hide them. One of our pilots was caught surreptitiously trying to take a photograph of one of the posters while others clustered around him trying to hide what he was doing - so I took a photograph of him! A Soviet pilot saw what was happening and smiled, saying that there was no problem photographing anything we wanted. The data on the charts was accurate as far as it went and clearly showed the superiority of many of the NATO aircraft over their Soviet equivalents.

Eventually, just as everyone was beginning to feel rather tired and grubby, we boarded a fleet of luxury coaches for the long drive into Kiev city centre, with yet another police car with flashing lights leading the procession. Our hotel, the Libyed, was located right in the centre of Kiev, one of three major Intourist Hotels in the city. It was a fine hotel by any standards and would probably rate four stars from the AA or RAC.

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