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Russian Fighter Pilots Wax Nostalgic for Days Of Top Gun Status


TWO big Sukhoi-27 jet fighters, noses painted white and tails decorated with the yellow rising-sun emblem of the former Soviet Air Force, roar by at almost tree-top level before lifting their 25-tons each straight up into a screaming vertical climb.

The pride of the Russian Air Force, the "Russian Warriors" show team, is strutting its stuff in front of a small audience of Russian and foreign correspondents, Air Force officers and their families. "This is our best plane," Lt. Gen. Nikolai Antoshkin, the Air Force commander for the Moscow region, says to a Western reporter with a smile.

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Across the field, beyond the runway, potato plants grow in neat rows. At the end of the day, and on weekends, the fighter pilots and their crews spend their time weeding and hoeing.

"All of us are forced to tend our kitchen gardens because we don't have any other source of food," Russian Warriors commander Col. Vladimir Basov tells reporters after the flight display. "It is a shame our pilots get less wages than a plumber or a mechanic," he says with more than a touch of bitterness in his voice.

For decades the Soviet military was first in line for everything the socialist state could churn out from its factories and scientific laboratories. The MIG-29 and SU-27 fighters that were on display at this showcase air base almost 40 miles from Moscow are among the best in the world, outclassing in some respects the finest American or European planes.

But the Soviet military machine's heyday is over. The Soviet Union is no more, and Russia, Ukraine, and a dozen other states now claim pieces of that vast empire. With the state-run economy in free fall and the magic of the market still a distant promise, the funds are no longer there to support the huge military apparatus that grew up in the previous era.

In these hard times, the once-secretive military even seems eager to tell its tale to the public. Especially when the Russian press carries reports of collapsing discipline in the ranks and stories of units selling their equipment to anyone with hard cash to offer.

"The life of the military is controversially shown in the media," Lt. Gen. Antoshkin says. "But not many journalists have visited our detachments. So they don't know what life in the Air Force, in the military, is really like."

Huge, specially prepared charts list the "economic activity" of the unit, how many eggs laid, vegetables grown. Another displays the salary levels for each duty and each rank. A fighter pilot with a rank of major gets about 5,000 rubles a month (around $50), little more than the current monthly average income.

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With supplies hard to come by, "we have to deal with many things ourselves," from food supplies to finding construction materials. Officers and men clean up after themselves "because we have no cleaning ladies," he adds.

Then there is the division of the Soviet military into national armies, a process that began with Ukraine and has lead to creation of a Russian military into which this base is incorporated. Some officers here, mostly Ukrainians, went home, base commander Gen. Vladislav Davydov admits.

"They thought they would be embraced by the Ukrainian Army and given a high post," he says. "But they were cold-shouldered." He blames unnamed "politicians" for deceiving them.

As more armies are formed, more will leave, General Davydov predicts. "But some who left are coming back because the national armies are not formed yet.... They can't provide facilities for pilots to maintain their high level of training."

Out on the flight line, Senior Lt. Igor Tulchinski runs a crew of technical personnel keeping the MIG-29s in flying order. He is a Ukrainian married to a Russian.

"My comrades are here," he answers when asked if he would return home. "I like my work. If I didn't like the job, I would have gone home." Anyway, he says, "I am for the union," referring to the defunct Soviet Union.

SUCH pride is more than evident in the performance of teams of aircraft putting on the airshow. The Russian Warriors, flying the SU-27s, and the Swifts, flying MIG-29s, are the Russian counterpart to exhibition teams such as the United States Navy's Blue Angels.

As the groups of six aircraft move in union through a series of complex maneuvers, including high-powered turns and twisting dives at up to 900 kilometers (560 miles) an hour, General Antoshkin calls out names of the formations: "pyramid, envelope, cross, arrow." The general is quick to point out that pilots paint their own aircraft and that, unlike Western counterparts, they are combat pilots who must also perform regular duties.

"The other show teams use special light aircraft weighing five tons," the Moscow air force chief says. "There is no way to compare that to a 25-ton SU-27 which is very difficult to manage."

Indeed, the SU-27 and MIG-29 are considered aerodynamically superior to the most advanced Western fighters currently flying, although even General Antoshkin freely admits their electronic innards are inferior. The Russians are eagerly marketing these aircraft in the world's arms bazaars, displaying them at international arms exhibitions.

When asked how their aircraft rank, the reply is quick. "No doubt about it," says Maj. Valeri Yevdokimov, a pilot. "The MIG-29 is the best plane in the world."

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