Sunday, June 14, 2009

“Bear” Hunts the “Carl”

TU-95 RTs and F-4 “Phantom” of Squadron VF-74 aboard the "USS Carl Vinson." Photograph taken on January 26th, 1982. This particular mission is retold in detail by Lt. Col. Pavel Burmistrov below.

Writer: Andrey POCHTARYOV, “Red Star”
(Translated from the Russian by Miguel Vargas-Caba)
July 26th, 2001 - 04:59:21

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the passing into history of the famous 392nd Independent Long-Range Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment (better known by its Russian name as the 392nd ODRAP) of the Naval Aviation of the Northern Fleet. In 1992 it was
disbanded, and its legendary aircraft and Tu-95 RTs airplanes(1) were cut up into metal scrap. In the course of almost thirty years, the naval pilots of this leading unit carried out difficult long-hour flights in military service to different corners of the terrestrial globe in the interests of the High Command of the Navy and the Supreme High Command of our country. The intelligence officers ploughed the expansions of the Fifth Ocean on the regions of the Persian and the Biscayan Gulfs, the Azores and the Falkland Islands, the cape of Good Hope and the islands of Cabo Verde, accomplished transatlantic flights to Cuba, Guinea, and Angola. One of those unique aerial reconnaissance operations of the regiment was described to “Red Star” by the military navigator-sniper Lieutenant-Colonel of the reserve Pavel Burmistrov. An innate aviator, son of a front-line soldier, he flew for 15 years in combat service, 3,500 hours spent in the air! He began as second navigator of an aircraft, and ended as senior navigator-inspector of flight safety for the Aviation Division of the Northern Fleet.

Interceptions of the enemy (among ourselves in the fleet they were called “the adversary”) – the ships of the United States Navy – in my twenty three years of service in the Armed Forces were quite a few, but one particular reconnaissance flight, which happened in 1982, became especially ingrained in my memory.

On the twenty something of January our tactical group, composed by the crews of Majors R. Mannanov (leading) and K. Zakharov (led)(2), flew to the Cuban airbase at San Antonio(3). At that time I was squadron navigator and in the course of the mission also took up the duties of instructor. The group was commanded by Colonel M. D’yachenko – Senior Inspector and pilot from the Northern Fleet’s Naval Aviation staff.

After a supposedly two-day rest, they unexpectedly raised the alarm. Right there our combat mission was assigned – the composition of our tactical group was secret, so in a regime of absolute radio silence we had to take off at night and approach the region where it was suspected were taking place the sea trials of the new American atomic multitasking aircraft carrier “Carl Vinson”, find her and overfly her. According to our reconnaissance data, she had sailed out of the Navy base at Norfolk and headed to the Bermuda Islands. As an aside, I declare that the chance of flying in the region of the famous and treacherous “Bermuda Triangle” drove me for 15 years. I’ll say it straight: No supernatural events were ever witnessed by mine or by any other crew.

On the ground we got thoroughly prepared, working out (beforehand) all the elements of interaction of the secret flight to the suspected region patrolled by the “Carl Vinson”. By means of signal flares, the take off went on in nighttime conditions, at 2 am local time, with an interval of two minutes between aircraft, as usual. We had no radio communication, and all the technical transmitting equipment was off. The altitude echelons were changed according to the flight plan. Soon the easternmost islands were left behind. At the calculated distance from the main target, we turned on the Uspyekh radar, the operators of the RTR (Radio Technical Reconnaissance) and the radio intelligence equipment tensely stood still searching for transmissions from the aircraft carrier.

A target appeared suddenly at the maximum range of detection – 410 kms. But in this location, could it be another vessel of the enemy? Joy: at this distance only a ship with a large displacement could return a target on the radar screen. Indeed, the displacement of an aircraft carrier of this class, such as the “Carl Vinson”, is in the order of the 89 thousand tons, its length reaches 340 meters, and the width of its angled deck is 70 meters. Knowing our location in the coordinates of longitude and latitude, by the distance flown we determined the location of the detected target. Here then I reported to the commander its coordinates. It was determined that the supposed aircraft carrier was found at less than 300 kms. from the coast, but at more than the 100-kms. zone. We flew closer, at an altitude of 9,000 to 9,300 meters, but the features of the American coast were not observed on the radar. We had the coordinates of the target, but not including an error in accuracy, the flight indeed went beyond the visible radar designators. At about 10 kms. the coastal features appeared, radar corrections for our airplane position were then made, and simultaneously the precise location of the illuminated target was determined. Happened that she was at a distance of 162 kms. from her base at Norfolk. To do something, there was one solution: To get closer and reveal the surface target observed in the radar. However, complete confidence that this was the aircraft carrier was obtained at only 250 kms. from the target. Then the operators reported to the commander, Major R. Mannanov, that they were already hearing the carrier numbers, the ones she uses for navigation purposes. Then a radio dispatch was sent from onboard to the C(ommand) P(ost) of the Naval Aviation, and to the CPs in Havana and Moscow, about the detection of the presumed target – the aircraft carrier “Carl Vinson”. At a distance of 200 kms. from her, the crew commander asked the radio operator if fighters were being guided toward us from the aircraft carrier or from the anti-aircraft defenses of the US. Strangely, there were no fighters guided. We got another 10 kms. closer to the target, reaching the boundary where we descend from the height calculated at take off to an altitude between 400 and 500 meters over the vessel. We started the descent from the flight echelon at 9,000 meters. On the radar screen there was only one large target, there were no others nearby. It was necessary to visually confirm that this was the sought “Carl”.

It had already dawned. The local time was 8 am. But the weather gave us no joy – cloudiness at 10 points, the upper edge of the cloud system was at 8,000 meters. Preserving the battle formation of the tactical group by means of time(keeping) and our technical equipment, we dove into the clouds. The transmission equipment did not work here. The most important thing for us was not to violate the American territorial waters, and not entering the forbidden 100-kms. zone. We continued breaking through the clouds. Altitude, between 4,200 and 4,500 meters, distance to the target, 60 kms. At a distance of 20 kms. we got out of the clouds and descended to 400 meters. However, the lower edge of the cloud system was not much higher, barely 100 meters. Visibility was 3-4 kms., sea waves, 2-3 points. And then, at 10 kms., through breaks in the clouds “lambs”, we suddenly saw the long-awaited silhouette of the surface target. There was no doubt: It was the aircraft carrier! There were neither escort ships nor aircraft around. Beautiful! After 5 more kms. we clearly distinguished the identification number: “70”. This was the “Carl Vinson”! It was obvious that the US Navy High Command did not expect this impertinence from our side. It did not assume that the Russians would decide to fly so close to their coast. And counted on that! I proposed to Commander Mannanov to approach the carrier by the side from a distance of 2 kms., in order to secure clear photographs. Indeed, because of the weather conditions the visibility was constantly changing. But the Senior Commander on board stopped us, since the flight orders requested that we approach her no more than 5 kms. Nothing you could do, he was one man from the higher-ups, although the weather did not correspond to the taking of quality aerial photographs. We passed along the left side of the “Carl”, operating our high-resolution (cameras) AFA-42/100. Without hurrying, we made repeated passes to get duplicate photographs; there was no limit on the fuel nor on the time.

While circling the carrier, we distinctly observed that on its flight deck there were no fighters and only one lonely helicopter sat pretty. Even in bad weather the technical perfection of the atomic giant struck the eye, which was shown to be completely defenseless that day.

Finally, the job was done. To Severomorsk flew the radio communication: “Visually inspected the aircraft carrier “Carl Vinson” – Number 70. Latitude 35о 50' North, longitude 74о 33' West. Speed 5 knots, heading 45о. Weather in the target region...” Major Mannanov and the copilot started the climb; the heading, towards Cuba. When we were at a distance of some 60 kms. from the carrier and the clouds opened up, at an altitude of 6,000 meters, suddenly an F-4 “Phantom” of the US Navy stuck to us. “Too late, little friend, It’s all done. drink borzhomi!(4)” Strangely, they usually went out on interceptions in pairs, and here there was only one? And it also violated the agreement (of the year 1972), when it approached us to some 30-50 meters instead of the agreed 500. As if compensating for the missed opportunity, the Yankee took several photographs of our “Bear” and without further manifestations of aggression, returned to its airbase. After 4 more hours we were very well received at the San Antonio airfield. The valuable film was immediately taken off the airplane, delivered to José Martí(5) and in an Il-62 of Aeroflot sent to the capital.

After some rest we made a flight to Angola, two overflights by the South African coast, then back to Cuba and to the Union. That was in 1982. In Moscow our flight was seen as ordinary. And this actually was everyday combat work in our regiment.

* * *

Almost 20 years have passed, but all is still remembered to the smallest detail. Today the Naval Aviation of the Far East intercepts the aircraft carrier “Kitty Hawk” in the area of the Sea of Japan, and that’s considered an almost heroic exploit (see “Red Star” of Nov. 17th, 2000). I think that our children and grandchildren, in fact, all Russians, should know the truth about the flights of the Northern Fleet’s crews. The Naval Aviation survives through bad times, there’s no fuel, no spare parts, there are not enough dwellings for the personnel. But as before, there are people devoted to the issue and to the military service, who elected the difficult profession of Defenders of the Motherland.



1) Tupolev TU-95 RTs is the Russian name for the “D” version of the “Bear”.
2) Leading and led aircraft. A system used by the Soviet Navy whereby airplanes usually flew in pairs.
3) San Antonio de los Baños airbase, in Havana province, about 20 kms. southwest of Havana.
4) Borzhomi. Mineral water from the Republic of Georgia.
5) José Martí. The main civilian airport in Havana.

Major R. Mannanov, Commander of the 1st Squadron, 392nd ODRAP, on parade. Kipelovo/Fedotovo Airbase, USSR.

Group photo of some of the navigators of the 392nd ODRAP. Kipelovo/Fedotovo airbase, USSR. Rear row: Unknown, Burmistrov, Prokopchik, Zhdanov. The rest of the officers in the photo are unknown.

V. Azarenkov, P. Burmistrov, A. Mazyrko, and I. Dudnik

Group photo of some officers of the 392nd ODRAP. Kipelovo/Fedotovo airbase, USSR. Left to Right: Balyukov, Ruban, Tyutyunnik, Burmistrov, Pinchurov, Fedotov. The rest of the officers in the photo are unknown.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Viktor Belenko: Hero or Traitor?

In September 1976 Lt. Viktor Belenko defected from the Soviet airbase at Chuguyevka, Siberia, to a civilian airport in Hakodate, Japan. In his defection he brought to the West the best fighter the Soviets had managed to produce up to that time: the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat. Immediately after landing, he requested –and obtained– political asylum in the United States.

In his book MiG Pilot, the Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko (McGraw-Hill 1980), John Barron, using the manuscript Belenko provided him, exposed in detail the reasons that moved Lt. Belenko to attempt a defection to the ‘adversary’: the absurd life that common Soviet citizens weres forced to live in those days of the so-called “years of Brezhnev’s stagnation.” Constant and daily shortages of everything imaginable, from major food staples such as meat and sausages to the classical toilet paper. When they were available, then the kilometric lines the citizens had to make to purchase them. As an elite fighter pilot, Lt. Belenko had access to many articles that were beyond the reach of the common citizen, such as meat and similar food items (but not even he had access to toilet paper. An old issue of Pravda was used for that matter).

However, it was not so much the scarcity of those articles that pushed him to defect. It was what he considered to be the obvious discrepancy between the promises of the Soviet Communist system and the reality of life under it. All the promises the system made for a better life were accessible only to a select few members of the Nomenklatura in the upper echelons of Soviet life. Another point of contention for him was the apparent contradictions between what Soviet propaganda fed their citizens about the West, and the achievements Western society produced. In Belenko’s own words: “If they were so bad, how come they could send a man to the moon and bring him back? If they are falling apart right now, how come they’re producing better fighters than ours and have more Nobel Prize winners than we do?”

Comparing Belenko’s defection to the plot to kill Adolph Hitler, when Count Claus Stern von Stauffenberg placed the bomb under Hitler’s table in July 1944, he and the other plotters were summarily executed. Today von Stauffenberg and all his co-conspirators are generally considered heroes, since they took action against what they perceived to be an unbearable system headed by a mad man.

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belenko was sometimes hailed as a hero for having escaped the totalitarian oppression of the Soviet regime in a bold and daring way. However, after 2004 he’s once again vilified as a traitor to Rodina, “Mother Russia.” His detractors accuse him of having been ‘recruited’ by the CIA while still in the fighter pilot school, and even of doing it solely for monetary gain, namely, the ‘promise’ of US$100,000 given to all those who defected to the West bringing with them a fighter plane.

I invite you the reader to comment on Belenko's defection. Moreover, I'd like to hear your opinions on the following questions:

1) Is the old adage “once a traitor always a traitor” true?
2) Whoever betrays a repressive totalitarian regime is a traitor or a hero?
3) By defecting with a MiG-25 Belenko betrayed the Soviet Union; is he therefore a traitor to “Mother Russia”?