I fly a weather check in a Soviet An-2 with a Soviet colonel who was not very familiar with the aircraft - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I fly a weather check in a Soviet An-2 with a Soviet colonel who was not very familiar with the aircraft

On Sunday the weather was even worse. This time I went along in the helicopter to Chaika (below) and at times we were forced down to 100 feet above the ground by low cloud, rain and mist. The Airport Director at Chaika, an Air Force full Colonel, decided that since I was a pilot he and I should get airborne and do a weather check. The colonel could not speak a word of English but he smiled a lot.

He ordered an ancient Antonov AN-2 biplane, rather reminiscent of an overgrown Tiger Moth, to be prepared for an immediate take-off. The Colonel borrowed a huge cape from another Russian officer standing in the pouring rain and draped it around my shoulders - it almost reached my ankles. We then barged our way through large crowds to the aircraft.

Above: This is the Mother Kiev statue which towers over the city and its environs. I snatched this pic from the helicopter on the way back from Chaika to Borispol when the weather was much improved.

A civilian mechanic, not a pilot, had taxied the aircraft from the flight line to the front of the ATC tower. As we boarded, the Colonel occupied the left hand pilot’s seat and I was invited to take the right hand seat. The civilian stood behind us on a step looking distinctively apprehensive, as well he might. It quickly became obvious that the Colonel was not very familiar with flying this type of aircraft, or possibly any type, and he had to be repeatedly prompted by the civilian. Once airborne the Colonel handed control over to me just as we went into thick, turbulent, rain-bearing cloud. The civilian mechanic looked rather less worried when I took over but it was just as well he couldn't see the anxious look on my face!

It was some time before I identified all the instruments I needed for maintaining a safe climb and even longer before I realised that all the instruments were calibrated in metres for height and kilometres per hour for vertical and horizontal speed. I found conversation difficult, partly because of the Colonel’s strange Ukrainian dialect but mainly because I was having to devote most of my attention to flying that lumbering monster of an aircraft. In that fashion we flew around for a full hour, in and out of thunderstorms and torrential rain, seeking the hoped-for clearance from the west and not once catching sight of the ground. A great deal of rain came in through the windscreen seals and liberally covered the instrument panels and me. Eventually, the Colonel, who had been fiddling with a radio compass, indicated by hand signals that I should start a descending left hand turn; to make quite sure I understood his wishes, he closed the throttle. We descended in a continuous wide spiral from a height of 2,000 metres right down to 400 metres above the ground before we came out of cloud over the forest. I can only assume that either the colonel or the mechanic knew where we were because I certainly didn't.

We landed, to my not inconsiderable relief, and the Colonel complimented me on my flying ability! We walked back to the terminal building to prolonged applause from the drenched onlookers who must have thought this was part of the entertainment. The rain had stopped by this time but the cloud base and visibility were clearly unsuitable for a Red Arrows display. When the colonel and I were back in Local Control on the top floor of the Tower, we found that Air Marshal Pilkington had arrived with his Soviet three-star general host. The colonel debriefed the general and an official interpreter debriefed the air marshal. A couple of dozen bystanders in the Tower watched silently. I made a discreet exit and went out to do a bit of PR in the crowd, which I estimated had grown to several thousand.

The General and Air Marshal were naturally keen for the display to go ahead but it was obvious a new time would have to be negotiated with the Civil Airport authorities. The airport had its own general who was, understandably, more concerned with airline schedules than with the Red Arrows display - which he was not going to see anyway.

Mike Pilkington later wrote in his official report: "I reflect now on the unlikely spectacle of a Soviet 3-star general and myself in the Control Tower at Chaika studying meteorological charts and re-planning together as fellow airmen the re-staging of, as he termed it, the 'operation of the Squadron'. I believe the significance was not lost on him, or the 50 or so ordinary people breathing down our necks either. He certainly pulled out all the stops - even to the extent of arranging for the civil airport to be closed for movements for the second time that day."

Once outside, I was waylaid by some Ukrainian teenage lads who surrounded me. We chatted amiably: they in a mixture of Ukrainian, Russian, and broken English, and me in English and rusty Russian. They told me that they were 'pilot cadets' and hoped eventually to join the Ukrainian Air Force, which is why they were learning English, and they had just cycled 80 kms in the rain to see the British Red Arrows perform. We exchanged gifts: I gave them some Red Arrows brochures and other gizzits which I had to autograph for them; they gave me a number of rather nice lapel badges of Soviet military and civilian aircraft, which I still have. People in the crowd kept asking me if the weather was going to be suitable for the display and I told them that a Russian general and a British general were upstairs discussing the matter! They seemed impressed and I signed more autographs.

Above: I caught this shot of Chaika from the helicopter as we were departing for Borispol after the display. Most of the crowd had already gone.

At last the weather started clearing from the west and a new display time of 6pm was set. Most of the crowd wandered off for a couple of hours to do whatever they do on a Sunday afternoon in Kiev but they returned in time to see an excellent flat display. The crowd were extremely enthusiastic and we off-loaded another large batch of brochures, souvenirs and stickers and we each were given many souvenirs from the Ukrainians in the crowd. The Team Leader’s debriefing of this display took place in the lobby on the 15th floor of the hotel using Team's own portable video playback equipment. Bemused tourists and hotel staff watched in astonishment, but at least it was quieter than the musical performance of the night before!

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