In December of 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Guess what country suddenly found itself with a whole poopload of Mig 29’s? Yup, Ukraine.
Then, in 1994, Ukraine, Russia, US and Britain signed the Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing that none of the other signatories would mess with the sovereignty of Ukraine. Hmmmm, so much for that!
The Ukraine has been in the news lately. Many of us have been following that country’s divisive struggle to become free of the yoke of dictatorship. It’s especially close to my heart because I have friends there. They are friends with whom I’ve lost track and I really hope they are doing okay. Most are Mig pilots. One is a young woman who displayed a talent for flying before she left Oregon and returned to Ukraine.
How did an airshow comedy pilot become pals with a bunch of Mig pilots?
Back in 1992, I did an airshow in the little town of Goodland, Kansas. It was just a typical little country airshow except for one little detail. Thanks mainly to the efforts of a determined Air Show Producer, Larry Dickey, The Ukrainian Air Force was making it’s first appearance at a U.S. air show with the legendary Mig 29.
I was standing on the ramp when the Migs arrived. It was, in so many ways, such an historic , yet strangely unheralded event. They’d come through Canada. One was a two-place and was equipped with the first Garmin GPS I’d ever seen, along with a Canadian translator from the Ukrainian Flying Club in Canada, who occupied that spare seat (that lucky sunavacheesemaker). The Migs had been hurriedly painted with Ukrainian colors and the trident-looking symbol of Ukraine. It may have looked like it was painted with a broom but, by gawd, it wasn’t Soviet anymore!
The Ukrainians had no cash. Even “The Ducks” (my airshow act) would take them to dinner, in spite of my always-broke status. At Goodland I decided that I would try to give every Ukrainian, crew and pilots alike, a flight in my Cub. Maybe in the back of my little clown-brain, I was hoping that I’d get a ride in the Mig. I never got it.
I’ll never forget Col. Volodymyr Kandaurov, who reminded me of Boris from the “Boris and Natasha” spy team featured in the “Bullwinkle” cartoons. Volodymyr was one of the demonstration pilots. In his broken English he explained to me that I would check him out in my Cub and then he would solo it. In my even more broken Russian/Ukrainian, I managed both to splutter “Nyet” and “tree peradrushka!” (which I was told meant “three G’s”. It probably meant, “Go nuts”). The latter was the hard part. Ol’ Volodymyr always wanted to pull about nine “G”s in my little Cub. Later, when in flight, I kept a light hold on the rear stick after saying “you’ve got it” to the Ukrainian. Visions of the Cub’s wings folding up over our heads did enter my little mind.
Col. Aleksander Holovan (“Sasha”) was one of the demo pilots. With his movie star good looks, he was extremely popular. We took Sasha to dinner in St Louis. We had lobster. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone so totally slurp every bit of meat off a lobster!
It was in Oklahoma City where I became woozily (I just made up that word… it seemed appropriate) familiar with the Ukrainians’ propensity for the consumption of alcohol. We sat in a bar at the hotel and when the bartender told the boys that it was closing time, they managed to communicate to him that he was to go ahead and lock the doors, then join us. He did and we proceeded to consume more vodka and whiskey. It may have been that same night that the Mig pilots dragged my intoxicated carcass to a spot under the balcony of my hotel room. As my then-wife witnessed the “Cyrano-esque” debacle, I spouted poetry from Pushkin up to her. The giggling Ukrainians fed me the lines from the bushes out of site and I had absolutely no idea what I was saying (They told me it was Pushkin; it was probably obscene). After that, they dragged me off to the sauna where an attempt was made to sweat out all the alcohol.
The difference in cultures was a bit of a shock. Where a U.S. demo pilot might get a nod of approval or, at the most, a handshake at the completion of a routine, the Ukrainians greeted the just-landed demo pilot with embraces and kisses at the end of each flight. I’d never had so much whisker burn in my sheltered, mono-cultural life.
At the risk of uttering a common thought, it occurred to me that if U.S. and Russian pilots were to embrace more often, there might be less of a chance of armed conflict.
There was another difference I witnessed at an air show party at Oklahoma City. It was the difference between fighter pilots. A young F15 pilot was delighted to meet the Ukrainians. It was obvious that he was thinking about the fact that this was a chance to actually yak with someone with whom he could be locked in mortal combat. He was young and inexperienced. His equipment and training were probably far better than that of the average Russian air force pilots. The Migs were held together with baling wire and electrical tape. But the difference that most impressed me was the toughness of the pilots. “Boris Badenov” had the toughness edge over the young American pilot. With Volodymyr in the cockpit of the Mig 29, I’m afraid my money would be on him.
The Ukrainians helped with one of my long-term projects. I’d been collecting pictures of “Ace, the Wonder Dog”, my partner in the airshow comedy act, in various aircraft. Sasha brought the Border Collie into the cockpit of his Mig for a photo.
When I had a chance to wander around the Mig and examine it closely, one thing stood out. Evidently, the Russians hadn’t adopted the use of the Philips screw head. All the visible screws on the Mig were straight slot. This may seem like a small thing, but it makes a difference when you have to drive a lot of the pesky little things and that straight blade of the screwdriver continues to slide out of the slot.
But regardless of those screws, the plane was a thing of beauty. I was taken once more with how so often these flying machines which are designed to wreak mayhem and death are so flippin’ beautiful! Yet they are the products of militarism. Militarism is generally horrible and kills millions of people, not to mention all the suffering. Yet it brings us these absolutely lovely flying machines like the F-16 and the Mig 29. As much as I am fascinated by them and love their look, their sound, their performance… I would junk them all in favor of permanent peace.
As I recall the events of that “Ukrainian Summer”, I realize that the dust has not cleared. This little article will be posted on the Tailwheeler’s Journal well before the present conflict involving Ukraine, Crimea, the Russian Federation and the U.S. and its allies is over.
When that dust does finally clear, we’ll have to ask ourselves: Was this about people? How did all this nonsense affect the people of the Ukraine, the Crimea and, to a lesser extent, the people of the Russian Republic and the United States? Did the Ukrainians get their freedom? Did Russia succeed in gobbling up Crimea? Are the politicians on both sides satisfied that they all got their fifteen minutes of fame during their stupid speeches and press conferences? Will common sense and respect for the freedom of individuals ever become the norm in this world which we continue to try to destroy? Was German Chancellor Angela Merkel right; was Putin nuts? What has happened to Sasha, Nikki, Volodymyr, Juli and all my other Ukrainian friends? Maybe someday I’ll find out. In the meantime, I’ll have fond memories of my Ukrainian summer. And this story with its pictures will last a few years on the internet.