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Russian Aerobatic Instructors

If I craned my head back I could see the sunset flecking the clouds below me. Beyond them lay the neat fields of the Staffordshire countryside. I was sitting in the back seat of a Russian YAK-52. We were upside down.

The pilot was Genady Elfimov, an aerobatic instructor with the Russian based flying school Skytrace. He and business partner Viktor Ostapenko are in Britain for a month train British pilots in the aeronautical equivalent of ballet - advanced aerobatics.

On the ground the YAK has a ungainly appearance, its twin bladed propeller and podgy radial engine echoes a wartime design. But once airborne in skilled hands it behaves like a thoroughbred. It would be impolite to mention the words "stunt flying" in this company. Instead they train for a highly competitive arena where points are only awarded when absolute precision is displayed.

Genady graduated from the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute as a flight and test engineer in 1986. By that time he had already started to fly aerobatics at the Moscow central aero club. He and Viktor became members of the Moscow aerobatic team and trained with the Russian national squad. Under the Soviet system their qualifications gave them special privileges so the flying was free. "Some people even took helicopters mushroom picking" recalls Genady.

But aerobatics was just a hobby. Their real jobs were at the foremost flight research institute in Russia just outside Moscow. They worked together on the Buran space shuttle, then the pinnacle of Soviet technology. But the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a crisis in the space industry. The Buran made a single, though successful, flight before being scrapped. The engineers who had designed it were cast in to a Diaspora. "It is a terrible tragedy, we have lost our potential, our best brains" says Genady. "One year ago I saw the Buran sitting in an amusement park in Moscow - it is so humiliating that we have lost so much with these global changes in our society." But surely he can not really hanker after the old system? "I would not like to go back to live like we did six or seven years ago but life today is so very difficult." says Genady.

Economic collapse also meant the loss of their privileges. Genady and Viktor, together with fellow Moscow aerobatic team member, Galina Kotchourova, decided to take on the daunting task of starting their own business in modern Russia. Despite their lack of business knowledge they formed Skytrace to pass on their aerobatic skills. As well as the usual problems for an embryo business in Russia such as vague laws, arbitrary taxes and fragile banking system there were other difficulties. "Our main problem is that we still have no proper KODEKS (Russian rules of the air) as it was written for the period of twenty years ago." says Genady. Every flight, even a quick circuit round the airfield, has to be cleared with three separate agencies at least 24 hours in advance. Due to the hazy property laws in Russia they have to lease their aircraft direct from the manufacturer as no one is quite sure who actually owns them.

But they were lucky too, "We had very good partners in the Great Britain to help us setup" says Viktor. The British end of Skytrace is run from Halfpenny Green airfield by Arthur Tyler who is an experienced aerobatic pilot and now a Russian qualified instructor. "I met Genady and Viktor flying in the Crimea in 1991" says Arthur "I thought that they were simply the most talented and professional aerobatic pilots I had flown with. I was determined to help them."

Another admirer is Air Marshall (Ret.) Sir Kenneth Hayr, "Viktor is the most demanding instructor I have known and his attention to precision in aerobatics was beyond anything I have met."

Skytrace flourished and now teaches about 25 pilots a year, mostly from the UK, who pay around £850 for the complete package of travel, accommodation and two weeks of advanced aerobatic training. Their base is near Smolensk, about 350 km (220 miles) from Moscow. Here they can instruct from an secluded airfield in the middle of the forest and their students can be accommodated in cabins beside the runway.

One of their most successful pupils is Brian McMillian who came to Skytrace in 1993 with no aerobatic experience at all. After three months of intensive training he returned to Britain in the Autumn to win the UK aerobatic championships at the advanced level. It was his first competition. After another training stint in Smolensk in 1994 Brian was placed third in the unlimited category of the UK championships last year despite the handicap of flying a low performance aircraft. He has now been selected for the British national aerobatic team.

Genady and Viktor are not just here to promote their aerobatic school. Since the collapse of the Soviet economy Russian aircraft have become an attractive buy for western pilots. At around £40,000 a new Yak-52 is cheap compared with more sedate western models. It has proved to be such a popular aircraft that the production has restarted in Russia. "There are now around 50 YAK-52 in private hands in the UK" says Genady, "and what worries us that your licensing system is so much more free than ours. In the UK once you have a basic licence you can fly almost any single engined aircraft."

Indeed private foreign aircraft do seem to fly through a legal loophole. The Civil Aviation Authority is only responsible for British registered aircraft and only 9 of the YAK-52s based here carry British registrations. The majority retain their Eastern European markings. A popular choice is Lithuania due to a reciprocal arrangement whereby British licence holders can fly Lithuanian aircraft.

The Department of Transport is formally responsible for monitoring foreign registered aircraft operating in the UK but they don't usually get involved with aircraft in private hands unless there is an accident. "Only if foreign registered aircraft are operating commercially do they need to get a permit to fly from us" said a department spokesman.

Genady points out that the YAK is fast, powerful and manoeuvrable. With a top speed of 220mph and wings strong enough to carry seven times its own weight it is a potent machine. Sir Kenneth Ayr has flown every RAF fighter from the Spitfire to the Tornado and he agrees with Genady "The Yak-52 takes off like a Lightning and in aerobatics it is just like a fighter. It has taken me back 35 years."

This performance can easily go to the head of a pilot trained on the more docile aircraft. Genady is scathing of what he calls "Aviation hooliganism" - irresponsible low level aerobatics. There has already been one fatal accident in Britain last year due to this. "Fundamentally the YAK is a very good aeroplane and we have great experience of this aircraft in Russia", Genady emphasised, "but the pilot must be trained about dangers and difficulties that they may encounter. It would be so unfair if the aircraft develops a bad reputation because of someone flying it improperly." Skytrace want to pass on their training technique to British owners and pilots.

Aerobatics demand a higher level of professionalism than normal flight and safety is paramount. Before I could fly as a passenger I had to empty all my pockets to avoid loose objects falling into the aircraft's controls. Every flight is preceded by an extensive briefing describing the exact intention of the exercise. But watching Genady and Viktor inch ever closer in tight formation there can be no doubt about their expertise in which they take such pride.

Economic collapse may have denied Genady and Viktor fulfilment in their original profession but it has given them the opportunity to run a successful business. Even so it must be hard for them to reconcile the loss of one with the other. It is a small, but significant, tale of life in present day Russia.

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Photographed for the European Newspaper.

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