Left: The front cover of the bi-lingual booklet prepared for the visit.
The SU-27s taxied into their positions facing the Hawks and the pilots disembarked. The Russian pilots stood by their aircraft facing the Red Arrows pilots. Lieutenant General Nikolai Timofeyevich Antoshkin, Commander of the Russian Air Force, climbed nimbly down from the single seat of the leading SU-27. Air Marshal Sir John Thomson escorted General Antoshkin and politely motioned him to mount the dais first. The Bandmaster raised his baton, the musicians moistened their lips ready to play the traditional General Salute. However, General Antoshkin, with his own interpreter close by his shoulder, had other plans. He moved straight up to the microphone and launched off into his speech, while Air Marshal Thomson, his aides and interpreter were still getting themselves into position. I made a surreptitious gesture to the Bandmaster, a hand cut across my throat, that the traditional welcoming General Salute had become unnecessary and the band quietly stood at ease. Talk about one-upmanship.
One page of the bi-lingual brochure included these gems of advice for our Russian visitors. I am happy to report that I had no knowledge of this brochure in advance of the visit so I am not responsible for the English errors.
"Russian fighter pilots do not fly in transport aircraft", were General Antoshkin's first words to the assembled VIPs and media. This was undoubtedly a dig at our Air Marshal who had arrived at Leningrad as a passenger in a rather elderly transport aircraft. "We were not sure we would be welcome," continued the General, in what must have been the understatement of the year. There was spontaneous applause from all sides and the General beamed appreciatively. "You will note that we have replaced all the Soviet symbols on our uniforms and on our aircraft with Russian symbols."
I must admit I had not noticed, and I doubt if many others had. The media photographers obediently pointed their cameras at the line of Russian aircraft and started clicking away. One furtive looking guy dressed in a tatty old anorak, really and truly, sidled up to me and half pulled a small 35mm camera with an attached big telephoto lens out of the bag slung over his shoulder. "I'm from you-know-where. I'm just going to stand close behind you to try and get a few close up shots while everyone is meeting and greeting. OK?" He might as well have had 'Spy' tattooed on his forehead. I shrugged my shoulders. "Be my guest," I said to him in a non-committal way. I pointed towards the nearest of the Sukhois. "One of the aviation magazine snappers has beaten you - he's already climbed up the steps of that SU-27 and has his camera inside the cockpit!"
I was given an article from Krasnaya zvezda - literally Red Star, the official newspaper of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, by one of the staff officers accompanying the Russian Knights who knew I could speak Russian. From that article I learned that in the late-1980s, Antoshkin had been a two-star general commanding the Kiev Military District. He was in Ukraine throughout the Chernobyl affair. The Chairman of the Kiev Military Division State Commission had summoned General Antoshkin on 26 April 1986, the day of the Chernobyl accident. "Everything depends on you, the military," said the Chairman to Antoshkin. "The crater in the damaged reactor must be immediately sealed with sand." What was not clear was the answer to several important questions. What was the level of radiation above the reactor? Could men work there safely? How could they be protected?
The Red Star article reported that Antoshkin flew himself several times around the reactor in his helicopter. He convinced himself there was only one way to deliver the sand: that was to hover over the crater at a height of 200 metres, open the helicopter doors, glance into the throat of the crater, and aim the sand into it. Radiation meters in the area had gone off the end of the scale. Antoshkin and his crews dropped 50 tonnes of sand on the first day alone and soon he had 60 of his helicopters operating over Chernobyl. On the morning of 1 May 1986, just four days after receiving his orders, General Antoshkin had reported back to the Chairman of the State Commission that the reactor had been sealed.
The General had then gone home to see his wife, but it is reported that she barely recognised him. In five days he had, apparently, shed tens of kilograms of weight. It took six months for his blood count to return to normal. Some months later he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union and promoted to Lieutenant General. It was only then that General Antoshkin and his wife and two children were able to move out of the cramped, single-roomed apartment that was deemed adequate for a two-star general in the Soviet Air Force and move into a rather larger apartment.