“My wife will give me my marching orders soon”, naval pilot Stanislav Avdin says jokingly when asked about his service. “I leave home at 7 a.m. and I am not back until 10 p.m. Then my body is heaved into the bath, showered and put to bed… That’s it, I fall asleep instantly. This is almost the daily routine.”
Captain Avdin is one of thousands of career officers who serve in Severomorsk, the capital of the Northern Fleet. In August, he landed his Su-33 fighter, unaided for the first time, on the deck of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. No big deal, on the face of it, but in fact, at 28, he is the youngest pilot who can do this. The captain has a slight scar on his lip, the result of over-enthusiastic congratulations he got upon landing: “As soon as I was out of the cockpit, by tradition they tossed me in the air and then threw me three times against the braking steel ropes on the aircraft carrier. They plopped my ass on the ropes so ferociously the whole deck shook”.
This was, in a way, the climax of Captain Avdin’s life to date: “As a boy, the very first plane model I made happened to be an Su-33. That settled my fate once and for all and explains why I am now flying an Su-33 on an aircraft carrier”, he says.
There are fewer than a score of fighter pilots in Russia who have the skill to land their planes on a carrier deck, far fewer than the number who have gone on space missions. Part of the reason is that the Admiral Kuznetsov is Russia’s only aircraft carrier, commissioned just 20 years ago, precisely in the year when the USSR collapsed. Its curved outlines contrast sharply with the traditional Russian cruisers and destroyers moored at Severomorsk.
The same can be said of the deck pilots who form a select caste among the military: they are few, they have higher pay, more responsibility and they are exposed to less routine drilling.
A rare reinforcement
It takes at least 7 years to train a pilot, five years at flight school and two years training at the air regiment. “No captains (junior officers) have landed on an aircraft carrier over the past 17 years. One landed yesterday. Before that I had been the last”, says Colonel Yevgeny Kuznetsov, Commander of the 279th carrier air regiment where Avdin serves. The average age of the aircraft carrier’s pilots who fly Su-33 and Su-25 planes is 42, and they retire at 45–50. “We cannot last forever. It is vital to train young people to replace us”, says Kuznetsov, who has been with the regiment since 1994.
I discovered that selection of members of the elite of fighter pilots is a creative quest. Stanislav Avdin says that, when he was in the final year at flight school, he himself came to the regiment and applied for admission. Months of training followed, culminating in training flights on a two-seat fighter alongside the instructor. “They put you together with an experienced pilot, the experienced pilot in the front cockpit does the landing while you watch. At first glance it seems easy: step on the rudder pedal, pull the control stick, step on the gas, take off, land – get your pay. Nothing extraordinary. But when you have to do it yourself, you realise that it is not all that easy”, the captain says.
This was his rare day off but, flushed with the success of his landing – “I still can’t believe I did it”, he agrees to talk some more. He yields to the blandishments of the journalists and allows them on to the secret military airfield: “There, uncover the planes. The technicians must be ready, must not loaf about or smoke or scratch their bellies. OK?” The tone in which he says this makes it clear that there is a special rapport among pilots, something similar to family relations, which might baffle an outsider. On the Day of the Northern Fleet Aviation, which was celebrated while we were there, pilots from Central Russia flocked to join the celebrations. There was even a blind priest, his chest bedecked with orders and medals, being led along by his colleagues.
“In reality, everything is a lot more complicated…”
It is warm and sunny on the airfield, which belies the fact that we are in the Far North. Standing next to his Su-33, Avdin explains the challenges of landing on the Kuznetsov: the 25-tonne machine has to land on a 36-metre landing strip; you have to touch the strip at a certain angle and at a certain speed. “You can take only 60% of the landing conditions into account”, he says. The trickiest part is to keep within the width of the landing path, which is 1.5 degrees, when you approach the ship, i.e., no more than the size of the pilot’s head: “you have to keep your eyes within that strip.” Airmen say that not everyone who is good at taking off the strip, i.e. from land, manages to land on the deck. “We had an acquaintance visiting us recently. He is a computer wizard, a true professional on a simulator. He bragged that he would have no problems making a simulated landing. I put him in the seat, switched on real flight parameters, the simplest possible, and he couldn’t even reach the aircraft carrier. In reality it is a lot more complicated.”
The Admiral Kuznetsov is smaller than the typical American aircraft carrier: two football pitches long, about 1500 personnel, including conscripts, and 65 aircraft (the Americans have 95). The combat missions also differ: for the US, an aircraft carrier is a strike force, according to Colonel Kuznetsov. It “comes and whacks somebody along way off the shore”, while for Russia it is to “provide air cover for the naval forces”. All American aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered; the Russian one burns fuel oil, which means it is more costly to operate. The military say that the aircraft carrier is in need of modernisation and the Russian military command is thinking about it. Given proper handling, they say, the Admiral Kuznetsov could be in service for another 20 years. Yet it looks as if deck pilots will long remain a rarity in Russia, as no new aircraft carriers are scheduled to be built in the long term, as the Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in July.