Pilots Proud of Flights to Foreign Shores

APA Tu-160, the largest supersonic bomber in the world, landing at Engels Air Base near Saratov, about 700 kilometers southeast of Moscow, on Aug. 7.
ENGELS AIR BASE, Saratov Region — The long-range bombers that have resumed missions into the Western Hemisphere are delivering a clear message: Russia wants to be seen as a global superpower once again.

At the base from which the missions have been taking off during the past year, the pilots were delighted, feeling that they are back in action after a long layoff.

Foreign reporters were afforded a rare look at the Engels base on the wind-swept shores of the Volga River in early August. They were able to speak to the pilots, who described a friendly rapport with the NATO aircraft that are scrambled to escort them when they skirt foreign shores.

The day after the visit, conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia, a U.S. ally. There's no telling whether the rapport has changed, but the pilots have ridden out many storms in U.S.-Russia relations since the flights resumed.

The renewal of the long-range bomber flights in August 2007 has escalated tensions between the West and a Russia eager to reassert itself globally. This was highlighted by the arrival of two Tu-160 supersonic bombers, known here as the White Swans, in Venezuela last Wednesday.

When the reporters visited Engels, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Khabarov had just landed his White Swan after a 12-hour sortie over the North Atlantic and was exhilarated to be back on patrol.

"The feeling when the order came in was unbelievable," he said, shouting over the plane's engine noise.

"We get to do our thing. A real man's job," he said. "This place has more energy now. Before, there was a stagnation about the base."

Fresh-faced, immaculately uniformed with not a blond hair out of place, Khabarov looked the model pilot, showing no sign of fatigue after his long flight.


Misha Japaridze / AP
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Khabarov standing near a Tu-160 at Engels.


Lieutenant Colonel Gennady Stekachyov was similarly energized.

"Pilots are made to fly. When someone needs you, it elevates you. People are configured that way. When no one needs you, all you want to do is sleep," said Stekachyov, who flies an older bomber known as the Bear.

The base is home to both of Russia's strategic bombers: the Tu-95, the Soviet answer to the American B-52 and known universally as the Bear; and the modern Tu-160, with its Concorde-style pointed nose, called the Blackjack in the West. Both bombers have conducted patrols over the Atlantic and Arctic.

Around the runway, six Tu-160s and eight Tu-95s were in view. A low-level camouflaged radar was rotating near by. The base, dormant for so many years, was now a hive of activity.

But despite record defense spending in recent years, none of the buildings open to reporters looked new or refurbished. Flight crews chowed down on canned beef with powder-based mashed potatoes.

"Of course, everyone was happy when the missions restarted. But the only real changes around here are that a few more flights are now planned," said Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Dyagov, a military spokesman.

The pilots, the more senior of whom earn only about $800 per month, appeared genuinely content and particularly excited about the midair camaraderie when U.S., Norwegian and British fighters approach.

Stekachyov said he usually gives them a thumbs-up.

"In the air, we meet like colleagues," he said. "It's really nice to socialize with our foreign counterparts. It's not like some make it out to be. There are always nice gestures and smiles."

Russia said NATO planes escorted the Venezuela-bound sortie.

The long-range bomber flights were suspended in 1992. One pilot likened life on the base during the base's 15 years of stagnation to that of a dog chained to a tree, but Stekachyov said it had not dulled the pilots' skills.

"We tried to maintain our skills during the lull as much as possible," he said. "But the backbone of the crew brought up in the Soviet system, of which I am one, is still around. There are even people with experience from World War II here. We are now improving our skills and passing them on to the new generation of pilots."

Rather than hostile to the West, the pilots seemed keener that Russia be taken seriously as a military superpower once again.

"I respect the opinions of every country," said Colonel Dmitry Kostyunin, a veteran of Cold War sorties. "But I would like our opinion to be respected everywhere."