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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Private Pilots Take Wing

When Sasha Merkalov saw the plane he built with his brother and father take off for the first time, he felt like a proud father. It had taken eight years, from 1979 to 1987, to construct the aircraft. At the time, it was easier to build a plane than to buy one.

"We poured our entire souls into Aist" Merkalov says. Aist means stork. "When it left the ground, it was like a baby was born".

Aist's first flight was a landmark event for the Merkalovs, but it also marked the beginning of a revolution in private aviation in Russia. Within a year, the Merkalovs - Sasha, Slava and their father Anatoly - started an air club, also called Aist. Over the past five years, more than 150 other flying clubs have been formed throughout the former Soviet Union.

In the West, the tradition of private aviation goes back to the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes. Russia does not have such a heritage; pilots flew for Aeroflot or the Air Force. As a result, the current private flying boom has grown with no guidelines. Regulations about safety and aircraft design do not exist, and private nights are still, technically, illegal.

But this has not stopped the Merkalovs and other aviation fans from spending Sunday afternoons airborne. The family, along with other pilots - including former astronaut Igor Volk - founded the Federation of Aviation Enthusiasts in 1989, the umbrella organization to which all the private clubs belong. The federation helps the clubs get planes and a place to put them. Right now, its officials are drawing up Russia's first civil aviation code which they hope to have ready by August.

"We want to push our cause", Slava Merkalov says, "to force Russia into the world flying community".

Nevertheless, the federation's vice president, Nikolai Gromtsev, has some reservations about the future of aviation and Russia in general. He says that everything depends on the nation's politics and economics.

"If we get out of this crisis, everything will be fine", Gromtsev says. "If not, people will be more concerned with survival than aviation".

Regardless, the federation has already had many successes. In 1990 it helped the Merkalovs go to the U. S. and Australia for international air shows. Perhaps more important for private aviation in general, the federation has been able to acquire used planes for restoration, and since the Yak factory in Smolensk has reopened, there is an abundance of the four-seat prop planes.

For the members of the Merkalov's club, which is located southeast of Moscow, the more airplanes, the better. It is a diverse bunch of about 25 or 30 pilots and flying students, ranging in age from 16 to 85. Everyone calls the 85-year-old "Flyin' Grandpa". There is an air traffic controller from Vnukovo Airport, the director of a peat factory and several aeronautics engineers.

"We live for flying", says Slava Merkalov, who dresses the part of a fighter Jockey. He wears camouflage fatigues, sunglasses and fingerless gloves. "We are fanatics".

While the federation does all it can to supply clubs with planes, the Merkalovs stay busy restoring and upgrading the aircraft they already have. For now the club has three Yak-18s and two Antonovs, the largest biplanes produced in the world. The Antonovs are used to supply arctic expeditions; skis or pontoons can be attached so that the plane can land on snow or water.

Now that the club has expanded to include these planes, the Merkalovs don't fly Aist much anymore; they have gotten used to the agility and quickness of the Yaks. But even though Slava Merkalov enjoys flying other models more, he always comes home to Aist.

"For my pride, my favorite plane to fly is an IL-62", he says, referring to a more powerful Ilyushin aircraft. "But for my soul, I love to fly Aist".