Bob Archer travels across Ukraine on a Mail search. All pictures by the author
Enthusiasts, spotters, aviation photographers - call us what you will, most of us have a long-held ambition to see one or more specific types of aircraft. My own personal interests shifted some years ago from all things NATO to the once-elusive Soviet stables. This change came about around the time the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989 - the removal of partition of the Iron Curtain across Europe offered the likelihood of access to previously forbidden fruit, and therefore a golden opportunity too good to ignore. Over the subsequent years, dozens of trips east from my home in Bury St Edmunds have been rewarded with sights and imagery unimaginable twenty years ago. However, while many Soviet designs have almost become commonplace, others types have remained elusive. In July 2007, I set about a long journey to cross off one item from my lengthy list.
With tickets booked and arrangements in place, my journey began during the early hours of Sunday, 22 July with a twenty-five minute drive to Mildenhall bus station. The National Express bus fare to Gatwick Airport was less than £19 - a quarter the cost of driving and leaving the car in an airport car park. At 03:20, and with rain in the air, the 727 service left for Stansted, Heathrow, and Gatwick, disgorging me with ample time for breakfast and checking in to catch the Ukraine International flight to Kiev. Three hours later the Boeing 737 settled onto the runway at Borispol Airport, and decelerated close to the military complex. Eight Mil Mi-8 'Hip' helicopters, a pair of Tupolev Tu-134 'Crustys', and a handful of Antonov An-24/26 'Curl' transports were parked alongside an assortment of civilian Ilyushin IL-76, Tupolev Tu-154 and an Antonov An-12 'Cubs', which always seem to congregate on the largely ghost-like apron.
In record time, I had processed immigration, been reunited with my baggage, and been met by my Ukrainian family - the fifteen degrees at Gatwick having been replaced with a temperature of thirty-two degrees in Kiev. Next day I was back in Borispol Airport to collect the hire car, involving several telephone calls back to the UK to confirm to American Express that I was possibly the first ever UK customer to utilise their financial process in that country! Some hours later the arrangements were complete, and the Nissan Almera was parked outside the family apartment in the northern suburbs of the city.
Beyla Terskova and all points south…
Next day we set off early, despite protests from wife/navigatrix, and step-daughter/rear-seat ballast. The Kiev western ring road is normally busy, so instead we routed on the large central highway beside the Dnipro River. The first part of the main road from Kiev southward is worn and fairly uneven, but even so it is still possible to maintain a good speed, and after 120 kilometres from home, we exited at a sign for Beyla Terskova. On the north-west side of the city is a former Tupolev Tu-16 'Badger' air base. The facility closed to regular flight activity some time ago, and has been used subsequently for aircraft storage and disposal. On my first visit there five years ago, some seventy to eighty Sukhoi Su-24 'Fencers' were in store, but subsequently the axeman has whittled this number down to a mere two dozen or so. These remaining airframes have been grouped together in a small area, along with a single Mikoyan MiG-29 'Fulcrum', three elderly MiG-23 'Floggers', a half-dozen Let L-39s, and a pair of Ilyushin IL-76 'Candids'. On another part of the airfield was a small private facility overhauling IL-76s, but time constraints prevented further examination of this area.
It would have been impossible to have gained access to the operational part of the base during the period when bombers were in residence. Since closure, the infrastructure has been sold onto the private market, with most of the former military accommodation now occupied by civilians, enabling easy access to the air base itself. Adjacent to the stored airframes was some part-completed excavation work, with a pile of earth where the compound fence had once been. This seemed too good an opportunity not to investigate - however, a few paces inside and I espied a guard, and elected to make a hasty exit before he saw me - but not before a few pictures had been taken. After a quick family picnic, we were back on the highway south, but not before stumbling upon an elderly MiG-21 'Fishbed' displayed on a plinth beside the road on the outskirts of the city.
The older section of the highway gave way to a brand new segment, until a few miles north of Odessa, where it petered out into a conventional two-lane road. New sections were in the process of construction, with these unopened parts being utilised by lots of motorists as an effective method of beating the traffic jams!! The road east from Odessa was a nightmare, with elderly Kamaz trucks (the Soviet Union's most notoriously inefficient HGV) trundling slowly along, belching out clouds of cheap diesel fumes, while drivers of expensive limousines in the oncoming lane did their level best to defy all overtaking logic, and underline their complete lack of road patience.
Near to the city of Kherson, I stumbled upon an airfield quite by chance, as its position was in a different location on my map. Mil Mi-8 'Hips' and Mi-24 'Hinds' in various different colour schemes were dotted about on dispersals, with some parked quite close to the perimeter fence - a mental note being made for the journey home, when the sun would be in a better position. After Kherson, the road turned south into Krim (Crimea), and according to the map, should be little more than a quite country lane - all three hundred kilometres of it! In reality it was a very busy road, with many potholes, and a large number of Kamaz, thereby sharply reducing my mileage per hour. After some hours of fast, slow, fast motoring (involving my driving standards being lowered to that of the maniac Ukrainian limousine owners), three tired travellers arrived in Sevastopol on the Black sea coast, our final destination. More than 1,100 kilometres had been covered in fifteen hours of gruelling motoring.
Wednesday was spent recovering, soaking up the heat of the Black Sea beaches (thirty-eight degrees in the city), and briefly exploring Belbek air base, perched on a cliff top above our beach - how convenient! Belbek is one of five Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 bases, with local responsibility for defence of the southern part of the country. However, there was obviously little immediate threat, as there was no activity whatsoever throughout the best part of the week spent there. Belbek is famous for being the facility where Soviet, and now Ukrainian senior government ministers and VIPs land when vacationing to their summer Black Sea Dachas. Indeed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had transited the base ahead of the coup-d'etat at nearby Foros in 1991.
Thursday was also spent on the beach at Belbek, as was Friday. However, the afternoon of Friday became very hot, and there was a pressing need to explore Krim a little more thoroughly. Whereas the western end of Belbek Air Base is high on a cliff, the MiG-29 shelter area was visible from the perimeter road, although each complex faced into the base, offering little or no view of the fighters. The road past the base curves to the left, roughly following the perimeter fence, but then descends to leave the base on another hill at its eastern end!
A few kilometres north was the small town of Kacha, which was not unlike thousands of other similar places. However, the road through the town ended abruptly, seemingly in the centre, with a series of road blocks, and a gate house, manned by Russian Navy guards. This was the main entrance to Kacha Naval Air Base, which houses all the Russian Navy rotary winged elements stationed in the Ukraine along with a dozen Beriev Be12 Chayka (NATO name 'Mail'). There was no way to gain access, so a U-turn was made to retrace the journey back to a road junction. But instead of heading back to Belbek, we took the left fork to the north. A short distance further, and Kacha air base was clearly visible with several Be12s and helos shimmering in heat haze several kilometres away on the other side of the facility. Kacha appeared as inactive as Belbek.
Forty kilometres further north the road split to the left after a sizeable lake. Around a bend there was Soviet-designed ground equipment clearly visible - tell-tale signs of another military facility, Saki-Fedorivka Naval Air Base. Close to the fence were many grass revetments, and adjacent to these was a small apron. There, to my delight, was the object of my lengthy journey - a trio of Ukrainian Navy Beriev Be12s, basking in the afternoon sunlight. Two were parked with their rears facing the road, but the third was fully side-on, offering a spectacular view of this highly charismatic anti-submarine seaplane. The objective I had travelled so far to see was perfectly positioned for some candid photography, as well as the opportunity to view. Somehow the moment was lost on the remainder of the family, but they could clearly tell by the inane grin on my face that this was indeed something rather special to me. The perimeter fence was made of wire strands spaced some distance apart, easily allowing a camera lens to be poked through. Unfortunately there was a small inner fence, with a little sign proclaiming it to encompass a secure area, although this did not seriously detract from an enjoyable image.
Ukraine has a dozen 'Mails' undergoing an extensive overhaul in Russia, with three completed to date. They no longer carry Mors'ka Aviatsiya Grupa (Naval Aviation Group) on the nose in yellow, and the Ukrainian Navy emblem is now presented larger and in rectangular format, rather than wavy version, which was previously applied.
The Black Sea Fleet
While enjoying the warmth and sights of beach life on the Thursday, I could not help noticing there were two-dozen Russian warships anchored a short way out to sea - the fabled Black Sea Fleet. These had earlier carried out a practice for the 'Chorne More Flota' day (Black Sea Fleet day) event due to be staged on the coming Sunday. The Russian Navy has a sizeable presence in the Ukraine, with headquarters at Sevastopol, which will remain until 2017 under the present agreement between the two governments. On the last Sunday of July each year, examples of the Fleet sail through Sevastopol harbour, demonstrating its capabilities, with guns firing blanks to liven up activities. Unlike western and central Ukraine, which has a distinct pro-western stance, Krim and the east of the country is decidedly supportive of an alliance with Russia. Indeed, more than fifty percent of the population of Krim are Russians, therefore the Russian Navy presence is extremely popular with the residents.
Four large cruisers and frigates were anchored in line astern in the harbour as a backdrop to the vessels that began to sail out and into the Black Sea shortly before ten in the morning - these included mine-hunters, small frigates, fire-fighting vessels, torpedo boats, and even a small submarine. Apart from the huge crowd that lined the promenade, the spectacle was reviewed by the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Vice-Admiral Vladimir Masorin, and his entourage.
When Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, the thorny issue of the Black Sea Fleet remained. This resulted in Sevastopol being a closed city to both foreigners as well as most Ukrainians - however, this was finally resolved in 1996 with an agreement to permit the Russian Navy to remain for the next twenty-one years. Therefore I considered myself to be fortunate to witness an event, which a dozen years earlier was denied to all outsiders.
Departure from Sevastopol next day was at 04:00, to try and evade the throng of Kamaz, which largely succeeded, although in their place were numerous Ladas and Volgas, crawling along at snail's pace, heading to markets, heavily laden with fruit. Kherson was a convenient place to stop for a late breakfast, particularly as the sun was good for photography. Several of the Mi-8 helicopters were painted white overall following United Nations humanitarian work in Monrovia, Liberia. Others were painted in brown camouflage, while a further number were two-tone green. Only one Mi-24 was positioned close to the road, and this appeared to be behind a second fence and some bushes. Nevertheless, lady luck smiled, as there was a section of the fence broken and free of foliage, allowing a clear image. The final visit of the day was to Nikolayev-Kulbakino, a joint civil and military aerodrome, perched on a hill above the Buj'kij River.
On the civilian side were the usual IL-76, An-12 and An-24/26 freighters - some abandoned, others operational. The military side to the north was inactive - yet another military base with no flying activity, possibly indicating that Ukraine military aviation remains largely grounded during the hottest time of the year. Guarding the approach road to the airport was a plinth-mounted MiG-19 'Farmer', with ample space alongside to park and watch aircraft on approach to the facility. The base is now home to the Sukhoi Su-25 'Frogfoot', but somehow my thoughts were of previous residents, including the Ilyushin IL-38 'May', Beriev Be12, Tupolev Tu-16 'Badger' and Tu-22M2 'Blinder B', as well as the VSTOL Yakovlev Yak-38 'Forger'. With such a superb east-west approach, photography would have been unbelievable, although exactly how long a western photographer would have lasted before being apprehended by the authorities is questionable. Still, it would have been fun to try… The remainder of the journey back to Kiev was uneventful. To the south of the city is the MiG-29 base at Vasilkov, but unsurprisingly there was no activity - in fact, only once out of ten visits have I ever seen any of the Fulcrums flying.
Ukraine is a vast country, being twice the land mass of Germany, and three times that of the UK. Its air force has shrunk in size from the fourth largest in Europe, when independence from the Soviet Union was declared, to a shadow of its former self. More than 2,500 aircraft and helicopters were inherited, although the majority have been retired and many scrapped in accordance with various treaties. A dozen bases remain operational for the air force, along with three housing army helicopters, and one for the navy. Others have airframes in store, or house overhaul facilities.
The purpose of the trip was to try to see and photograph a Be12 'Mail'. Both of these ambitions were achieved, and in addition I attended the Black Sea Fleet day, enjoying photographing all the warships involved. This produced some strange looks from nearby spectators, who could clearly understand that the guy standing next to them armed with an assortment of expensive Canon kit was neither Russian nor Ukrainian. An attractive young lady asked me something in Russian, which I did not completely understand, so I simply answered "Nyet". She realised I was a foreigner, and asked in perfect American where I was from. She was Russian, but lived in Florida. Having established I was an English photographer, she then proceeded to tell the nearby spectators of the "Angleski", and I clearly understood the word "spy" used on more than one occasion. I was obviously a novelty! It was a wonderful event, staged in perfect weather conditions, and in a holiday resort yet to be discovered by most Europeans. I cannot wait to go back and see it all again. As for the title of the article? Previet is Russian for 'hello', the Mail is self-explanatory!