When the San Diego Air & Space Museum put together a trip to Moscow for the 2009 MAKS Air Show I thought the price looked a little steep until I studied the itinerary and determined it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. For an Air Force pilot that stared across the Iron Curtain for a good part of my career I couldn’t miss seeing the displays at the air show and the former Soviet arsenal that we would have access to thanks to the museum’s contacts. In addition to the air show there would be stops at the Russian Air Force Museum at Monino Air Base, the Museum of the Soviet Forces, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), the cosmonaut training center at Star City and the Russian Academy of Civil Aviation in St. Petersburg. Each stop would have a designated host to explain the exhibits and we would have an interpreter to translate what the host said.
For those who know as little Russian as I do, MAKS is the acronym you get from the first letters of the Russian words for International Air and Space Salon. I don’t know why they don’t call it the Moscow Air Show. Just filling out the application for the Russian visit visa told me it was going to be fun and that the four former military pilots in our group of nine would have a “shadow” for the entire trip. The two most interesting questions on the visa application were, “Have you ever participated in an armed conflict,” and “Have you ever been trained in the use of nuclear weapons.” With 323 combat missions in North and South Vietnam and 2½ years of sitting nuke alert in Germany I was a winner!
The first day at the air show saw half a million people show up at the same time so getting through the ticket and security lines even with advanced tickets took an hour and a half. The weather was doggy both Saturday and Sunday and the only opportunity to fly high shows occurred on Saturday afternoon but, they were impressive. Although the USAFE A-10, F-15 and F-16 demo teams had been preparing to attend, President Obama abruptly cancelled any U.S. military participation just two weeks prior to the show. The Russians did not disappoint however, showing off the MiG-29 Fulcrum, the Su-27 Flanker and the Su-34 Fullback. While the Russian Knights suffered a mid-air collision the week prior during practice for the air show, killing the leader and cancelling their participation, the Russian Falcons and Swifts flew formation demonstrations in the MiG-29 and Su-27. Also present were the Italian Frecce Tricolori in their 10 Aermacchi MB-339s and the Patrouille de France in their nine Alpha Jets. The other seven people in our group didn’t want to fight the crowds on Sunday but, my son, who is also a pilot, and I wanted to return presenting a dilemma for our guide. Miraculously, she was able to find a friend who wanted to attend the air show and would be happy to keep us company while our guide showed the rest of our group an art gallery in Moscow. Sunday was low shows all day but it was very amazing watching the Italians fly a 10-ship tight formation show under a 2,000 foot overcast. We spent a lot of Sunday looking at the static displays and the exhibit halls which were every bit as impressive as anything you will see at Oshkosh or the NBAA convention. This was definitely an “I love Russia” air show and display but it was 100% enjoyable. It was very interesting to note that they are now all “Russian” and the word “Soviet” has dropped from the vocabulary even though much of the old mentality persists.
The trip to the Russian Air Force Museum at Monino was every bit as spectacular as all the web posts make it out to be. A vast array of 185 different aircraft, from pre-World War I up to currently operational aircraft, is on display. It is the equivalent of our museum at Wright-Patterson but it is operated on a shoe-string
budget and it’s very disappointing to see all these aircraft in open storage exposed to the environment that Moscow has to offer in the winter.
The visit to Star City gave us the opportunity to see the world’s largest centrifuge and experience their International Space Station mockup and trainer. Our cosmonaut host, Colonel Sergei Viktorovich Zalyotin, had been on two space flights and is preparing for his third.
A nice surprise was the visit to the museum at the Russian Academy of Civil Aviation in St. Petersburg. This is a state run school for people who want to be mechanics, airline pilots or air traffic controllers. The courses offered are similar to Embry-Riddle University in Florida or Prescott but it is a more certain pipeline to employment in the Russian civil aeronautics system. The museum is a small six room facility in the academy and the museum’s director was delighted to host us. She treated us like royalty and invited each of us back to make a presentation at their annual aviation symposium in May.