Belarus experience !
Text & Pictures : Eddy Devroey - SBAP
At the end of the month May 2010 my wife and I took a trip to the Republic of Belarus. More commonly known as White Russia. This republic was part of the Soviet Union and became independent in 1991 after the breakdown of the USSR. My wife is Belarussian so every year we try to visit her homeland twice to visit family and friends. I’ve visited this country many times before but I decided to write this article since for the first time I had a chance to meet with East aviation and enjoy some nice moments in an aircraft with a long history and let’s hope a plane that will stay airborn for many years to come.
Since there is no direct flight from Brussels airport to Minsk - the capital city of Belarus - we had to fly first to Warsaw. The biggest airport in Poland, the Frederic Chopin Airport ( Port Lotniczy im. Fryderyka Chopina) covers about 834 hectares of land, and is situated about 10 km from Warsaw itself. The former name, lotnisko Okecie (Okecie airport) is more often used and almost no one in Poland refers to it as Frederic Chopin Airport.
Of course the Warsaw Airport is the home base of LOT Polish Airlines ( Polskie Linie Lotnicze). In Polish language LOT means ‘the flight’ while Polskie Linie Lotnicze means simply Polish air company.
LOT airlines was founded in 1929 and is also a member of the Star Alliance network that currently has 25 members.
They have a big fleet consisting of:
Boeing 737-500 6 planes
Boeing 737-400 8 planes
Boeing 737-300 6 planes
Embraer ERJ145 5 planes
Embraer 170 10 planes
Embraer 175 10 planes
ATR 72 8 planes
ATR 42-500 2 planes
In future times LOT will be the first European airliner to introduce the new Boeing 787 dreamliner. It gave opportunity to shoot som pics of iron birds that we normally never see at Brussels airport.
|Warsaw International Airport (Google Earth)|
|The national company : Polskie Linie Lotnicze||LOT is member of the Star Alliance Group|
|The charter company linked to LOT||The neighbourghs : Aeroflot|
|Norwegian charter company||My plane with destination Minsk|
From Warsaw the trip continued to Minsk aboard Belavia Boeing 737-300.
Belavia is the Belarussian national air carrier with home base Minsk. It’s still a very young company that was founded in 1993. Prior to this date in the Soviet era Aeroflot was the national company throughout the complete union of Soviet states.
The fleet of Belavia consists of:
Boeing 737-500 6 planes
Boeing 737-300 3 planes
Bombardier CRJ 100/200 LR
TU Tupolev 154m 4 planes
|Minsk International Airport (Minsk Airport authorities)|
The airport is about 40 km to the east of the capital Minsk and has only one runway. Once arrived at Minsk we still have to go by car 350 km to the North East to Vitebck (витебск) the hometown of my wife.
This year I planned to visit the local aero club of Vitebck. Our driver Oleg who has become a friend over the years told me this is a very interesting place and being an aviation enthousiast I would certainly see interesting things over there. So on Sunday the 30th of may, as it was a sunny hot day, we went over there to have a look.
The Vitebck aero club is situated at a place called Kukovjatsina (куковячино ) about 10 km from Vitebck itself.. The airfield has no concrete runway. The history of the airbase starts in 1931 when at the proposal of the former Belarussian Soviet authorities the base was constructed. In this very first year of its existence 15 pilots were trained for civil aviation purposes. By 1933 the aeroclub also formed glider pilots and parachutists. In 1938 after some reorganisation of the aero club a school was started for training of aviation mechanics.
|The entrance of aero club of Vitebck with a Mil-Mi 1 as guate guardian|
In 1941 with the beginning of WWII for the Soviet Union all civil activities of the Kukovjatsina aero club were stopped and the airfield was turned into a military airbase for the Red Army. 14 pilots who operated from this base against the Germans were honored with the title ’ Hero of the Soviet Union‘. It was one of the highest decorations possible and an honor for the pilots as well as for their families.
|Vitebck national heroes (Belarus archives)|
In 1947 the aero club restarted it’s education and training of aviation specialists in different fields. During the following years more and more the airfield became the home base for glider pilots, propeller plane pilots, parachutists and even the meeting point for model scale plane enthousiasts. In 1958 the helicopter Mi-1 was introduced at the airfield and education of helicopter pilots began. The Mi-1 was manufactured in the Soviet Union and in Poland. They were also delivered to the DOSAAF. (ДОСААФ) This was ( and still is) a paramilitary organisation founded in 1927, the DOSAAF is responsible for the training and education of people to defend the ‘motherland’ in case of a war. After the breakup of the Soviet Union the name and organisation are still preserved in Belarus . In the case of the Vitebsk aeroclub this means the training of helicopter pilots with the Mi-2. The DOSAAF can be regarded as the counterpart of the National Guard in the United States. In 1964 the Vitebsk aero club was officially responsible for the training of specialists and helicopter pilots for the Red Army.
One of the Mi-1 helicopters now functions as gatekeeper of the base.
Over the years the helicopter pilots and parachutists of DOSAAF and aero club of Vitebsk won many awards and prices in competitions held throughout the Soviet Union. This in a wide variety of disciplines like precision landing of parachutists, acrobatic figures, helicopter slalom, navigation and so on.
Next to the military school and sport activities the base is also taking part in tasks like forest fire protection and aerial checks of gas and oil pipelines.
|Vitebck Airfield buildings : the aeroclub and the control tower|
|Military baraquement used by the Belarus special forces during their training at Vitebck|
After leaving the car at the entrance we went further on foot and soon encountered at the edge of the airbase a place where old Antonov AN-2 biplanes were waiting to be saved from decay or to serve for spare parts of the still active AN-2 used at the airfield. Next to the Antonov’s a double row of mothballed Mil Mi-2 helicopters. More about this choppers later.
First the Antonov AN-2, the biggest biplane and still operational for different purposes all around the world.
|A Mil-Mi2 with the special docking for the maintenace||07 white, still wearing the red star of Russian Air Force|
|Many helicopter wrecks|
|The guardian...after testing, I can tell that he did his work perfectly||Tasting the AN-2 solidity|
|All the wrecks awaiting a possible new life|
The Antonov AN-2 ( Nato codename: Colt ) was designed on demand of the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture. The task was given to Antonov OKB the then recently formed aviation construction company. The company was founded by Oleg Antonov (Оле́г Константи́нович Анто́нов) Oleg Antonow was born in February 1906 and was fascinated from childhood about aviation. All his free time was spent at the local airfield and at the age of merely 17 he founded his own flight club and started designing glider planes. His first model already won a competition of glider planes held in Moscow. In 1930 he graduated from Polytechnical Institute at Leningrad and was appointed to be the chief designer of the Moscow Glider Factory. The company had to close though after an incident with a glider that was used by a person to defect to the West. Oleg continued working as chief designer with Yakovlev Two years later in 1940 authorities founded a new factory in his name and during the war Oleg occupied himself with improving the then nr one Russian fighter plane Yak. After the war he became the head of Antonov factory and produced a wide range of aircraft. Then in 1947 on demand of the government he designed the SH1 agricultural aircraft that was renamed Antonov AN2. After testing the prototype, production of the plane started in 1949. It was in the post war period and while the military air forces in the west were successfully introducing the first jet propulsion fighters and bombers the Soviet Union came out with a fabric wing and fuselage biplane. They thought this plane could not be taken seriously and nobody at that time believed or could have foreseen what great future the AN-2 was awaiting. Oleg kept on being busy in aviation industry upon his death in a car accident in 1984.
During the 1950’s around 5000 Antonov AN-2 were produced in the Soviet Union. From 1960 on and later production of the plane was exclusively done in Poland. The manufacturing increased and a huge amount of AN-2 were produced and not less than 11 500 of this famous biplane were constructed in Polish factories. Of course the biggest part went to the Soviet Union but many of the planes were also sold to Albania, Afghanistan, China, the former Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Cuba and other communist countries that were in good terms with the Soviets.
|Antonov Family (Russian Archives)||Oleg Antonov (Russian Achives)||Oleg Antonov's grave (Russian archives)|
The Antonov AN-2 proved to be a mere success. It has remarkable flying capabilities that up to now ensures the plane to be wanted by many. It can operate in difficult weather conditions, STOL ration that is one of the best, can be adapted for use on water, fire-control, transport of goods or people, agricultural plane and so on. On top of this all the plane is low in maintenance costs, can easily be repaired and as the pilot told the plane is just easy and a real joy to fly.
As we were strolling around watching the paratroopers folding their chutes my wife and I were talking to the pilot and just for info I asked if it was possible to take a look inside the plane itself. He was pleased with the interest I showed and proposed me just to take place next to him in the cockpit and take off with the paratroopers that had to be dropped at different altitudes. This was an offer I could of course not refuse and a few moments later we were ready for take-off. In the cargo bay about 15 people eager to jump as the plane started its engines to be airborne very smoothly and just after some 200 meters on the green carpet of grass that serves as runway.
This truly was an experience and the plane doesn’t fly fast but turns, climbs and descends in ways I could hardly believe. Encircling the wider area to reach the right altitude to drop the first wave of 5 parachutists and then climbing higher and higher so the final brave jumpers had enough height for their free fall exercises. The flight gave a nice view of the countryside in the Vitebck area and the weather allowed a sparkling visibility. The roaring engine and still authentic interior of the plane that dates from around 1950 and yet as the pilot told even after all this years it is regarded as one of the safest planes to fly in. 4O minutes later we were back on the ground but I will never forget the feeling and joy of flying in this truly legendary bird. We talked some more with the pilot and he told that I was welcome back a week later to have a flight in the Mil MI2 helicopter.
|My Antonov AN-2 "Colt" EW-032AB (cn 1G236-03)||The cockpit|
|My view as co-pilot||Aerial view around Vitebck|
|A real green country||Datcha's along the river|
|Left turn above Vitebck aifield||Vitebck city|
When we entered the base we already saw a big storage place of this helicopter. The choppers were parked there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The red army retreated its bases in Poland and some of the helicopters were flown to Vitebck Dosaaf airbase. Nowadays the forming of helicopter pilots continues and most of the helicopters that were left can still be used for spare parts or be revived again after thorough revision. The Mil MI2 is a rather small and light armored transport helicopter also capable of carrying light weapons and give ground support in case of battles. They entered active service in 1965 and were all build in Poland. In 1985 after producing more than 7000 pieces manufacturing stopped.
So after my adventure in the Antonov AN2 I came back a week later for my maiden helicopter flight. A bit shorter but still quiet enjoyable. The pilot was very experienced in low level flying and enjoyed scaring me when after reaching 1000 ft diving almost vertically down to the river bench where he showed off with some slalom following the river bench at low altitude. Great!!!! The end of the flight was also the end of my first adventures in Belarus airspace but the basis of future contacts is made and who knows what surprises may lay around the corner.
Still there was another target on the road since I heard about the official civil Vitebck airport not so far away from where we were.
So after thanking the people who were so friendly to invite me on board of their aircraft we jumped into the car to take a look now at this other airfield.
|Mil-Mi 2 Hoplite, my second flying experience above Belarus|
|Wonderfull view||Typical Russian houses|
The Vitebck Vostochny Airport (Аэропорт Восточный) or Eastern airport is located about 12 km to the south east of Vitebck. There is not so much activity these days. In the Soviet era there were regular flights to Moscow and other cities. Now there are only one or two flights to and from Minsk and Moscow and now and then business jets. Before the tragical crash of the plane with the Polish president they were advised to land at this airport or Minsk but sadly enough they tried to land still in poor weather conditions at the Smolensk airfield wich is about 100 kms away.
|Vitebck Vostochny Airport||Ilyushin IL-103 EW-041LL (cn 0306) from Bellesavia|
This visit concludes the flying part of this vacation but without any doubt there will be a next chapter and some more adventures in the blue skies over Belarus.
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