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Inside the Red Zone
By William Triplett
"This is Su-15," says Gennady Roshchin, pointing to the long, narrow Sukhoi fighter that was once a staple of the Soviet air force. "It was this type jet that shot down Korean Air Lines 747." In fact, he elaborates, when a Russian movie was made about the 1983 downing of flight 007, this very jet was used in the filming.
Roshchin moves down the line. "This is Su-25," he says, pointing to a ground attack jet with rocket pods and dummy bombs hung from the wings. "This saw very much action in Afghanistan."
He walks on, continuing with the same authoritative dispassion one hears in the voices of museum guides the world over. But it would be impossible to mistake Roshchin for anything other than a Russian. He is a retired Soviet fighter pilot who will say of his past only that he turned in his flightsuit long ago (press him for specifics and he will graciously evade the question). The museum where he serves as deputy director - the National Aviation and Space Museum, a.k.a. the National Aeronautics Museum or the Museum of the Air Forces - eschews the standard early artifacts found in most collections in favor of more contemporary models, particularly tactical combat aircraft. Indeed, the more than 30 aircraft on view represent the bulk of Soviet fighters built over the last 40 years.
The collection is located among Moscow's northern suburbs at the old Central Aerodrome at Khodinka field, which is something like the Wright air field of Soviet aviation. It was there in 1910 that B. Rossinsky became the first Russian to fly an airplane. The field was the site of another flying triumph the following year, when Russian pilot Alexander Vasiliev landed his Bleriot XI there, the only one of 11 pilots to finish a grueling 453-mile race from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Design bureaus for Sukhoi, Mikoyan Gurevich (MiG), Ilyushin, and Yakovlev are all in the neighborhood, as is the main headquarters of Aeroflot and the Russian version of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Roshchin says that the museum got started four years ago, when a group of former Soviet pilots decided to pay homage to their nation's aviation history. They managed to put a collection together out of donations, a tradition they hope to continue. They also hope to keep some of the aircraft in good enough condition to fly occasionally, and they're planning to develop an exchange program with similar museums in the West.
The aircraft are all parked outdoors, flanking the sides of an old taxiway, so you can admire, say, the red-starred twin tails of a MiG-29 or Su-27 against the backdrop of the Moscow skyline. Of course the craft, constantly exposed to the elements, are beginning to show signs of wear and tear, but by and large everything is in good viewing condition. The collection includes some appealing oddities - there's a virtually wingless Yak- 38 vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, as well as an Mi-6 helicopter you can party in: The payload hold, its walls draped with parachute cloth, has been furnished with a table and chairs. "Anybody with bottles is welcome," says Roshchin.
Among the few propeller-driven airplanes in the collection is an Il-14, which served as both a cargo plane for the military and a passenger transport for Aeroflot during the 1950s. Like the payload hold of the Mi-6, the cabin of the twin-engine airplane has been reconfigured for socializing. An oriental rug covers most of the floor, a sofa is set against one wall, a table is pushed up against another, and a well stocked bar with a radio has been built along the cockpit bulkhead. Two small flags - one American, one Russian - protrude from the spent casing of an anti-aircraft shell.
The Il-14 is decorated with photographs of large Soviet bombers and transports, which can't be flown to the aerodrome because its runway is too short.
In some ways, the museum reflects the Russians' struggle to find any means to survive a wrecked economy. Roshchin recently doubled the price of admission, and it'll cost you another buck if you want to take pictures. Just as the Russian aerospace industry is selling other nations everything from missiles to fighters, the museum's souvenir shop - essentially an old closet - is stocked with everything from flight patches and lapel pins to oxygen masks and uniform coats, all Soviet-era, all for sale at a negotiable price. Ironically, war materiel that was once used in the fight against capitalism is now enlisted in the effort to bring in capital.
"I also have shells from when Yeltsin fired tanks at White House," Roshchin says, referring to the 1993 siege of Russia's parliament. "They make very good candle holders."
"Actually, I was interested in a Soviet flight jacket," says an American visitor.
"What size?" He gets it in a day with no problem.
Despite his widening entrepreneurial streak, Gennady Roshchin is hardly about to become the Sam Walton of Soviet aviation. He does no advertising, and he's not interested in tracking the demographics of his visitors (he thinks they are primarily families with young children, but he's never really paid much attention). "I believe boys really have a good time here," he says. Today there are maybe two families roaming the sprawling grounds - not an unusual day, he says.
Roshchin is well versed in the history of each aircraft displayed; you get the feeling he would much rather spend hours talking with one truly curious visitor about the MiG-17 or the Su-7 than give tours to a dozen families just passing through.
"I am retired," he says with a shrug. "This is my playground."
- William Triplett
National Aviation and Space Museum,
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