Russia lacks new sport pilots - world champion

By failing to support sport aviation, Russia risks losing its leading positions in international competitions, the women’s world stunt air games champion Svetlana Kapanina, told RT.

RT: Hello, Svetlana, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. You're the most titled female aerobatics pilot in the world. What is your secret, and how did you decide to become a pilot in the first place?

Svetlana Kapanina: It is a ludicrous coincidence that I'm in aviation. I wanted to try parachute jumping and I signed up for air sports classes. I also took gymnastics classes at the time which played a major role as well. I had a good vestibular system.

RT: These days female pilots are a rarity. During World War II, many women dreamt of becoming pilots. In 1941 three female Air Force regiments were formed. What's changed in your view? Do women not want to fly these days?

SK: At that time it was a government task. In the Soviet Union the government didn't try to save on free education, planes, or gasoline. I don't think fewer women have the desire to fly now. But it's become very expensive. When I joined the Voluntary Society for Co-operation with the Army, I was wondering whether to become a paratrooper or a pilot. Right now, before you can even begin to choose what you want to do, you have to see if you can afford it.

Of course women come, but fewer and fewer every year. Most simply can't afford it. But I'm not a full-time instructor just yet, because I'm still a sportswoman. Plus I have two small kids, so I really don't have the time to do everything.

RT: Your husband is also a sportsman. But your profession is much more extreme. What does your family think about it?

SK: I'm very thankful to my family for all their support. Right now my son is in the second grade and my daughter is in the first. So I'm constantly torn between their school and my training. But my family is very understanding.

First of all a woman pilot is a woman. She has to be feminine, soft, and charming. But at the same time she must be able to stop a running horse, and enter a burning house, as we say in Russia. She's gotta be tough basically.

RT: You said that women do want to become pilots but very few can afford it. How many professional female pilots are there in Russia right now?

SK: Unfortunately at this point we don't even have a female sports team. In the national team there are only two women and I'm one of them. Maybe two or three more professionals but that's it. We don't have any young pilots that could replace us in the sport. Today the only young pilots we have are those who can afford it.

Many of them are okay, but it's a hobby for them, they are not aiming to become pros. And to become a pro it shouldn't be a hobby, it should be your life, if you want to win medals for your country.

RT: Nonetheless Russian women – the few that do fly – have been showing good results recently. How is that possible then?

SK: You can't forget how to ride a bike. The same applies to flying planes. It is very expensive to fly right now like I said before, so of course if you don't fly enough hours per year, your level goes down and it takes more effort to perform aerobatics during the championships.

But your skills can't go away. So it's thanks to the old experience that we still show good results.

RT: What needs to be done in Russia for sport aviation to get back its international status like in the USSR?

SK: Our government should pay more attention to aviation. For now it's still just talk, nothing has been done yet. When I met President Dmitry Medvedev, I suggested a number of ways to improve sports aviation in Russia.

First of all I think a center for aerobatics should be created. But so far I think the country's officials don't really understand what it should be like. Or maybe they don't really need it. We've been talking about it for the past two years. But still no center, no planes, no financing and no young pilots. I don't know how we will keep winning championships.

RT: Russia is lacking all kinds of professional pilots at the moment. Is that for the same reason or are there other obstacles?

SK: The problem is the same. There are no centers for educating pilots. A lot of airfields have become villages or private airfields that are too expensive once again. Air clubs go bankrupt, they have no equipment. In the USSR, the best pilots from all across Russia would gather for national competitions. Right now there's simply no variety: the same pilots compete against each other every time.

The instructors who learned to fly in the Soviet Union are the only ones who can compete right now.

RT: Can you draw any parallels between the performance of Russian pilots in the international airborne championship in Turin and at the recent Olympic Games?

SK: There are some parallels and some perpendiculars as well. The main one is the division between Olympic sports and non-Olympic sports, the two are so separate right now that all of the non-Olympic forms are dying out.

Olympic sports are better financed. Young sportsmen receive a lot of support from the government. But for us it's different. The average age in our aerobatics team is 45-50 years old!

RT: You talked a lot about the lack of financing from the government. How much does it cost to train a professional aerobatics pilot?

SK: I'm not sure about the exact figures, but what I do know is that training one aerobatics pilot is definitely less expensive than training any Olympic sportsman. Just to give you an idea – to be in good shape one has to fly at least 100 hours [a year]. One hour of flying is 120 liters of kerosene. One liter costs about US$ 3. So it's pretty easy maths. But you also have to include other costs of course.

And when it comes to preparing military pilots it is even more expensive of course. And it is much better to train them on sports planes first before putting them on fighter jets. Often it's too late when it turns out a pilot has a weak vestibular system. If he were put on a sports plane first it would all come out immediately. Another important thing about training on sports planes, regardless of what kind of a pilot you want to become – a military or civil pilot, everyone has to go through at least minimum aerobatics. Many say for example that Tupolev planes do not come out of spins. I'm not a pro in this, but I'm sure if you put one of our best sports pilots in the plane, they will do it. It's just that civil pilots are not taught properly. It all comes down to saving money.

RT: President Medvedev recently spoke about a need to modernize the Air Force industry in the country. Do you see any progress?

SK: Of course our officials have their own vision of how it should be. But from the insider's point of view it is going very slowly.

We need to have open air space like in the U.S. or Europe. People should be able to fly freely.

It should be easier to register planes. Cause it is easy to buy a plane in Russia but almost impossible to register it. It is very expensive and takes an enormous amount of paper work! There are plenty of problems, and we don't see them being solved.

RT: Do you think the performance of our pilots in international competitions reflects the state of the airborne forces in the country? Or do we perform well despite a lack of financing for the sport?

SK: Not really, no. Because as I said before we show good results because we were taught back in the USSR. All of our best pilots are over 45 years old. If we used to fly 60-80 hours a year, right now we barely fly 10 hours a year. Last time it took less than 12 hours to prepare for the European cup. First of all it affects out health. We used to have 3 month breaks after championships, then we would start training again. Slowly getting used to the G-forces. Starting from minor G-forces, small spins. Now we have to perfect the hardest aerobatics in just ten hours. And no one cares about our health. I have to say I'm lucky to work for Sukhoi. The company provides us with proper healthcare and payment.

RT: What kind of planes do you prefer to fly? Russian or foreign?

SK: I love flying Russian planes. I want to fly them forever. It's very sad though that plane production has stopped at the moment, and with no government support the process will not be restarted. The only planes the Russian aerobatics team might switch to in the nearest future are German planes.

But of course even for psychological reasons we don't want to do that! I hope we will be able to fly Russian planes after President Medvedev's project of modernization of the Russian Air Force industry is implemented. I hope there'll be a clause about sports aviation as well.

RT: Many say air sports are the most intellectual ones. Why is that?

SK: Well of course apart from being physically strong and having a good vestibular system, one has to be able to react very quickly. And be able to make difficult decisions without panicking. In an extreme situation sometimes you have to evaluate the weather conditions.