Fly­ing ad­ven­ture: Au­t­o­gy­ros in Rus­sia

A close en­counter with an au­t­o­gyro in the frozen Rus­sian coun­try­side rekin­dles a pas­sion for all things avi­a­tion

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words & pho­tos: Ce­leste Goschen

Swad­dled in many lay­ers of cloth­ing, a Rus­sian win­ter au­t­o­gyro trip rekin­dles a love af­fair with all things avi­a­tion

Hav­ing been a firm fan of fixed-wing air­craft− from the Steady Ed­dies to the Fast and Fu­ri­ous− i had al­ways looked at an au­t­o­gyro as you would a rather risqué date. The sort you’d clamp your eyes on and think, “Mmm, looks like fun but not re­ally the type I’d take home to meet the par­ents”.

Say­ing that, no­body could fail to be im­pressed by its rugged looks in the Bond film You Only

Live Twice. De­signed in the early six­ties by Nor­folk hero and the ‘Q’ of au­t­o­gy­ros, the late, great Ken Wal­lis, this bright yel­low, flame-throw­ing, ag­ile model WA-116, nick­named Lit­tle Nel­lie, rose to fame af­ter shoot­ing down Blofeld’s hench­men in an epic Cold War bat­tle of the sky.

But even with its sexy Sean Con­nery con­nec­tions and ag­ile moves, this aerial mo­tor­bike still never re­ally at­tracted me. How­ever, af­ter a re­cent trip to my part­ner Sergei’s Moscow birth­place, my mind was changed when the of­fer of a flight in an au­t­o­gyro over wild Rus­sian coun­try­side seemed just too good to pass up. It was ironic that, over the pre­vi­ous two years, all the ef­forts we had put into build­ing an aviators’ re­treat had robbed me of my pas­sion for fly­ing. If I was lucky, maybe this date might be just what I needed.

Friend and driver, Vi­taly, picks us up from the city cen­tre in his tiny Peu­geot which we cram with lug­gage for the re­turn trip home. Thanks to the ef­fi­ciency of an ar­se­nal of snow fight­ers, a heavy snow­fall the night be­fore has not slowed the long snake of traf­fic head­ing out of the city.

We are aim­ing for Shevlino, a pri­vate air­field 63km north-west of Moscow, fa­mous for its glid­ing com­mu­nity and the mag­nif­i­cent Istra Reser­voir, a place of unique beauty and crystal-clear waters. An hour into our jour­ney, tower blocks dis­solve into the smog and are re­placed by na­ture’s own high-rise reg­i­ments of sil­ver birch forests which flicker past the car win­dow like rapidly shuf­fled cards. Broad tracks of high­way give way to thin, semi­paved roads. The car slows its pace. Snow grinds and crack­les un­der the tyres. The out­side tem­per­a­ture has dropped from -12 de­grees to a brac­ing -14.

“Wel­come to Moscow’s out­back,” Vi­taly an­nounces, as we pass twisted road signs point­ing sky­ward. Dense pine forests are cut out against a vast sky, fram­ing onion-domed churches and bro­ken crosses. We drive past long rows of dachas, Rus­sia’s iconic wooden-framed sum­mer houses hud­dling into one an­other, their gables draped around pale pas­tel fa­cias crazed by ice. Rooftops bow with the weight of the snow. Win­dow shut­ters are crudely carved into win­ter an­i­mals, corn sheaves and for­est scenes. Fi­nally, we reach the vil­lage of Shevlino.

Ahead of us trudges a soli­tary fig­ure drag­ging a suit­case and clutch­ing a Dave Clark head­set. He is fol­lowed by a mot­ley crew of street dogs and casts us a hope­ful glance as we pass. I point at our lug­gage squashed against the steamed-up glass. He shrugs and con­tin­ues past Café Shash­lik, no more than a cor­ru­gated shed which re­leases the per­fume of smoky meat stew. The dogs peel away from

We are aim­ing for Shevlino, 63km north-west of Moscow

the trav­eller and dive into the café’s dump­ster, scav­eng­ing food. Fi­nally we see a sign for the air­field. Turn­ing in, we are greeted by a guard who ac­knowl­edges us with the briefest of nods. We pass a line of air­craft, half shrouded in can­vas, snow up to their bel­lies. Open­ing the car door, I am met by a sharp blast of freeze-dried air. Be­ing a fair-weather pi­lot, I ques­tion how the three pairs of trousers I have on sud­denly don’t feel enough. I have never ex­pe­ri­enced cold quite like this. We walk past a few mil­i­tary-style sil­ver-domed hangars and find Kirill, one of Rus­sia’s lead­ing au­t­o­gyro pi­lots, stand­ing out­side wait­ing for us.

Kirill Vech­to­mov, in his other life, has a psy­chi­atric prac­tice in Moscow. A kind-eyed, swarthy man, the sort of de­vout pi­lot whose heart truly be­longs to the sky you meet on any air­field through­out the world.

He leads us into his two-tiered bunker stuffed full of au­t­o­gy­ros. Ev­ery­thing on dis­play shouts gleam­ing body­work, brightly pol­ished me­tal, from the slick to the ex­per­i­men­tal. French, Ger­man, old, new... In the cen­tre sits an ec­cen­tric-look­ing sin­gle­seater pro­to­type home­built which had flown for less then five me­tres be­fore land­ing “with a bit of a bang”, Kirill ex­plains, laugh­ingly.

Our friend, Vi­taly, a self­con­fessed ‘pen­guin and earth hug­ger’ is in­cred­u­lous at the lack of wings and asks, “But how do they get off the ground?” Kirill ex­plains pa­tiently how the un­pow­ered ro­tor at the top de­vel­ops lift as it auto-ro­tates, while the en­gine-pow­ered prop on the back pro­vides thrust. He can see the ex­pla­na­tion is do­ing a slow pass straight over our friend’s head and smiles mis­chie­vously, “Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, it’s magic air.”

We are shown up­stairs, fol­lowed by the ubiq­ui­tous smell of en­gine oil. There is a cosy win­dow­less bed­room made from chip­board where late ar­rivals can sleep. A pair of Valenki, tra­di­tional Rus­sian felt boots, are neatly stacked next to the bed; a ra­dio, map, and a lighter placed on a small night­stand. Noth­ing more.

We are treated to a panoramic bal­cony view. From here you get a real im­pres­sion of the vast wa­ter re­serve that curves around the air­field and into the dis­tance. It was built un­der Stalin’s rule to pro­vide drink­ing wa­ter for Moscow. In 1935, in ex­tremely harsh con­di­tions, a work­force from two labour

camps, known as gu­lags, were used to con­struct a nearby canal which would stretch from the Volga to the Moskva rivers. The project was even­tu­ally aban­doned but my part­ner later dis­cov­ers that it was on this very canal that his grand­fa­ther, an artist des­tined to be­come a set de­signer for the Bol­shoi Theatre, was cru­elly sent to labour. A chill­ing re­minder of the per­sonal his­tory that al­most ev­ery Rus­sian fam­ily car­ries and which is in­grained into ev­ery fold of this vast and in­cred­i­ble coun­try.

I look at some pho­to­graphs on the wall. There’s a pic­ture of Kirill fly­ing low along a road, hold­ing hands with a motorcycli­st. Kir­ril is some­thing of a leg­end, hugely re­spected in Rus­sia’s GA cir­cles and, like all the best pi­lots, as mod­est as they come. He’s taught nu­mer­ous peo­ple to fly over the years which couldn’t have been easy, I say, given so

“Get ev­ery warm piece of cloth­ing out and put it on. You're go­ing to need it”

many reg­u­la­tions. “There are re­stric­tions, of course,” he says as we walk back down to the hangar. “It’s eas­ier than it once was.” he adds. ”Far eas­ier.”

Ap­prais­ing my at­tire, he shakes his head. “I don’t have a spare suit. Go into your lug­gage and get ev­ery warm piece of cloth­ing out and put it on. You’re go­ing to need it.” I grate­fully oblige and re­turn with a space­man’s swag­ger, barely able to walk, swad­dled in lay­ers of cloth­ing. He nods ap­prov­ingly and be­gins his me­thod­i­cal checks on the ma­chine of choice, a Ger­man-de­signed Mt0 sport 2010, pow­ered by a Ro­tax 912 is. Fi­nally pro­nounced ready, he drags the gleam­ing yel­low ma­chine out of its hangar, knocks thick clumps of snow off his boots on the side and climbs in. I go to fol­low him. “No. First I go alone,” he smiles. “Just to make sure noth­ing’s go­ing to drop off.”

Kirill starts the en­gine, blow­ing up a huge cloud of ice and be­gins to taxi. We march be­hind his three-wheeled shad­owy trail in the snow to the run­way− an im­pres­sive 800 me­tres of snow-cov­ered grass. Af­ter a cou­ple of run-ups we are joined by the same mot­ley crew of jolly street dogs who seem to be en­joy­ing the show.

Know­ing lit­tle about the per­for­mance of a gyro I was soon to learn that no sooner is it mov­ing along the ground than, in a brisk wind, it’s up and away. We are treated to an el­e­gant, bal­letic dis­play wor­thy of the Bol­shoi as the craft climbs rapidly sky­wards. The pro­pel­ler makes a beau­ti­ful res­o­nant thud as it meets air and for a mo­ment the craft hangs sus­pended be­fore fall­ing side­ways, bow­ing, sharp turns, crab­bing in a per­fect hor­i­zon­tal line in front of us be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing be­hind a group of pine trees. We wait for a cur­tain call but in­stead are greeted by a sud­den si­lence. Even­tu­ally, the en­gine restarts and the ma­chine ap­pears again be­fore promptly land­ing.

Not un­til Kirill climbs out of the air­craft do we learn that this was no con­trolled en­gine cut-off but rather that the en­gine had ac­tu­ally stopped midair− he’d man­aged to restart it af­ter a

cou­ple of at­tempts. Thanks to the tem­per­a­ture drop, and a mas­sive hu­mid­ity rise from the wa­ter nearby, the choke had com­pletely frozen open and the en­gine wasn’t per­form­ing above 3,000rpm.

Sud­denly the chance of fly­ing seemed slim, es­pe­cially since we had a flight to catch later that af­ter­noon. Our group gath­ers around the Ro­tax and a very Rus­sian de­ci­sion is made: Kirill lo­cates some pliers and cuts the choke ca­ble. “I re­place it later,” he adds non­cha­lantly. With the en­gine now warm from the pre­vi­ous flight we de­clare it safe to go.

Don­ning a bala­clava and a Bri­tish-made Fly­com hel­met, I haul my­self care­fully into the snug bucket seat. Plug­ging in the mic, I await in­struc­tions. The safety ba­sics are ex­plained. The pusher prop buzzes into life, the ra­dio fires up in my ear, and as we taxi to the end of the run­way I un­der­stand, be­fore even tak­ing off, why peo­ple love these ma­chines. Kirill turns and gives a thumbs-up. I lift my swad­dled arm as high as I can, the wind catches it and I feel the power of the Rus­sian weather as I am hit by a bit­ing wind. He throt­tles for­ward and we’re off.

The finest of white dust spins around us, bump­ing along the ground for no more than a few sec­onds be­fore physics pro­pel us up­wards. All ten­sion dis­solves and we are free. We wave at our au­di­ence on the ground; our pen­guin friend, Sergei, the dogs, now all dots against the snow. Head­ing over the broc­coli-headed pine trees, the reser­voir is spread be­neath us. Eas­ing off the throt­tle, we slow to about 15mph and I am given a mo­ment to won­der at this in­cred­i­ble part of the world. Kirill, how­ever, has other ideas. He’s go­ing to show me what this beauty can do. He cuts the en­gine, puts the nose for­ward and we be­gin a con­trolled but rapid de­scent. As we near the ground he pulls up and we are borne up­wards, rush­ing to­wards a long stretch of pine for­est. Last minute, pulling up sharply and climb­ing sky­wards we are leap­ing over the trees as if rid­ing a horse.

Bank­ing rapidly, we head back to­wards the air­field. I am swoon­ing at the ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity of this ma­chine: the lib­er­at­ing feel­ing of be­ing part of the air around you with­out the con­fines of a cock­pit, its abil­ity to fly at walk­ing pace with­out stalling, the com­fort­ing fact that it can­not be forced into a spin and needs lit­tle run­way.

I think of the pi­o­neer of them all, Ken Wal­lis, who, amongst con­tribut­ing to many im­prove­ments, had been re­spon­si­ble for the off­set gim­bal ro­tor head which gives the air­craft such great hand­soff sta­bil­ity. It’s then that I re­mem­ber the rea­son for build­ing our avi­a­tor’s re­treat and I thank this ex­tra­or­di­nary lit­tle ma­chine for restor­ing my love of flight.

Later, while con­gre­gat­ing around a stove in the air­field’s café, en­joy­ing the best Rus­sian dumplings I’ve ever tasted, Kirill re­minds me of Bond’s words when first asked about the au­t­o­gyro: “Oh she’s a won­der­ful girl. Very small. Quite fast. Can do any­thing. Just your type.” I rest my case. She is!

Lit­tle Nel­lie

Ken Wal­lis - ‘the ‘Q’ of au­t­o­gy­ros’ - in WA-116

FAR LEFT: Ce­leste, suit­ably at­tired for the -14˚C tem­per­a­ture LEFT: poster pro­mot­ing air­sports at Shevlino BE­LOW: fa­mil­iar GA types un­der cov­ers at Shevlino

ABOVE: a trio of Au­t­o­gyro Mtosport 2010s – clearly a pop­u­lar type at Shevlino – share hana­gar space with a ro­tor­less sin­gle-seater TOP: man of many tal­ents, leg­endary Rus­sian au­t­o­gyro pi­lot and me­chanic Kirill Vech­to­mov at work on a Ro­tax 912 en­gine

CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP LEFT: the not-so-suc­ces­ful sin­gle-seat home­built; a choice of closed and open mod­els – Aus­trian built Trixy Avi­a­tion Princess (left) and Au­t­o­gyro MTO Sport, made in Ger­many; and, adding some lo­cal colour, Rus­sian ‘retro’ items

ABOVE: wall mu­ral com­mem­o­rates Kirill’s friendly en­counter with a biker TOP: Kirill and Sergei dis­cuss the finer points of au­t­o­gyro tech­nol­ogy

ABOVE: Ce­leste ‘swad­dled in lay­ers of cloth­ing’ BE­LOW: Kirill wheels out the Mtosport for Ce­leste’s flight

‘A mo­ment to won­der at this in­cred­i­ble part of the world’

ABOVE: ‘jolly street dogs’ who seemed to en­joy the showBE­LOW: Bri­tish prod­ucts, in the form of Fly­com hel­mets

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