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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Knights and Swifts Aim to Conquer New Heights

KUBINKA, Moscow region — While government officials, businessmen and aircraft executives look to cut deals, thousands of more ordinary people are expected to turn up at the fifth biannual international Moscow Air Show to ooh and aah at the planes.

And the stunts.

Those stunts will arguably be the highlight for everyone from the seasoned pilots to the company execs to the goggle-eyed children who attend the air show, which opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday.

Performing the stunts will be the cream of the Russian air force, elite pilots from the squadrons Russkiye Vityazi, or Russian Knights and Strizhi, or the Swifts.

"Each team will only perform for 10 minutes at a time," said Colonel Nikolai Dyatel, commander of the Swifts. "Our programs usually last 40 minutes, but the show time has been cut dramatically since there will be other aircraft flying.

"But we will show the best of aerobatics," he added quickly.

The Swifts, flying blue MiG-29 Fulcrums, and Knights in Su-27 Flankers painted in the white, red and blue of the national flag, will zoom through the skies with loops, bells and barrel rolls that show off the fine-tuning of both their skills and of the aircraft.

Both squadrons spent much of the weekend in the air perfecting their stunts, even though their Kubinka air force base was celebrating the Russian air force's 89th anniversary.

Both teams earlier this year celebrated their own 10-year anniversaries.

The teams, which formed in 1991, took on the legacy of fighter pilots in an air regiment that fought in World War II and first flew over Moscow in a parade formation in 1946. In the following years, the regiment participated in hundreds of air shows and even chaperoned the planes of visiting foreign leaders.

Over the past decade, the teams have performed in dozens of countries including Britain, the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands and China.

"We did our first foreign demonstration in 1991 in the U.K. and in a way consider the Red Arrows as our teachers," said Colonel Igor Tkachenko of the Knights, referring to the British stunt squadron. "We learned a few lessons from them on aerobatics and how to prepare for different numbers."

And the United States' Blue Angels stunt team paid a visit to Kubinka, 60 kilometers west of Moscow, in 1992 to practice with the Russians.

The Knights consist of a team of six pilots with the ranks of colonel and lieutenant colonel. Each has about 1,500 flight hours in fighter jets. The Knights also have three pilots in training.

The Swifts, who in 1993 were ranked the best aerobatics team in the world, have 12 pilots.

The jets fly in pairs and troikas, as well as four-aircraft diamond-shaped and six-aircraft formations. The closest they come to each other in a formation is a meter, Tkachenko said, adding, "Then you have to turn your head 360 degrees."

The seeming ease with which the teams handle stunts is even more amazing given the aircraft they operate — state-of-the-art fighters fit for war.

"Neither the Su-27s nor the MiG-29s were specially modified for aerobatics," said Tkachenko. "Just hook missiles on and they can fly out into battle."

"Aerobatics is our main job, but we also get full training for combat," said Dyatel.

But the stunt work may be harder to learn.

"It takes three years to train a pilot for aerobatics," said Colonel Sergei Klimov, commander of the Knights.

Only first and second-class military pilots can qualify to join the squadrons. Only one out of every 10 pilots who train at Kubinka for the teams actually ends up joining, Dyatel said. And then they get to fly three to four times a day for two to three days a week.

Most of the pilots have loved planes since they were children. They all went to flight schools and have served in the air force.

"None of my family dealt with aviation, but I decided I wanted to fly when a kid," said Klimov. "After college, I served in the air force for 5 1/2 years and went through Afghanistan. When cuts began in the armed forces in 1988, I was offered a job at Kubinka and have been flying there ever since."

Klimov — like Tkachenko and Dyatel — has a rich history with his team, having seen many fellow pilots leave for health reasons or for better-paying jobs.

The pilots earn less than $200 a month.

With the teams' triumphs have also come tragedies.

The pilots grudgingly recalled a fateful accident after an air show in Malaysia in December 1995. Descending in poor visibility for a refueling stop at an airfield near Cam Ranh, Vietnam, three Su-27s flown by Knights rammed into a mountain range, killing four pilots. The crashes of the jets on the right side of the formation were blamed on the leading plane, an Il-76 that had acted as a reconnaissance aircraft.

"We were on the left side," said Klimov. "It happened in a split second — nothing could have been done."

Many believed the Knights would be so crushed by the deaths that they would hang up their wings.

But the pilots were determined to fly. "We aspired to save the team even though people were saying it would never come back … and in 1996 we were flying again," Klimov said.

The Swifts also faced a shutdown when in 1999 most of their pilots resigned for various reasons and there were no pilots ready to take their places. The Swifts took a break for a few months while they recruited new pilots.

For the pilots, the problems are a small price to pay to put a smile on a spectator's face.

"People come to thank us and say when they look at us they feel pride as we prove that Russian aviation is alive," said Tkachenko.

The Moscow Air Show is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from Tuesday to Sunday at Zhukovsky. Admission is 75 rubles for aviation professionals and 100 rubles for regular visitors. For more information check out or call 556-5535 or 937-5880. Moscow Air Show Web Site