Flying heads of state is a tough job – Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s pilot

Vladimir Potemkin, the chief pilot of Russia’s former leaders Gorbachev and Yeltsin says carrying such high-profile passengers may be a great responsibility, but it is also a tough challenge.

RT: Did you always want to be a pilot? Is it something of a childhood dream of yours?

Vladimir Potemkin: I had dreamt of becoming a pilot from when I was a kid and I made my dream come true. My father kept telling me: “You won’t pass the medical commission, the requirements are very strict, and you are not a top student at school. You can only go to a technical college,” but I said no, I’m only going to the air force college. And I did it.

First I flied along the coastline. Then, as we got more experienced, we participated in the ice reconnaissance missions along the Northern Sea Route. Then there were flights with landing on the drift ice, on the North Pole Drifting Station. So I had served in Arctic Aviation for 12 years. I got enormous experience, and was promoted to the position of squadron commander.

The Arctic Aviation commander was Mark Shevelev, a distinguished pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union. I filed an application to go to Antarctica as a plane’s chief pilot, and he called me in and told me he won’t let me go as the chief pilot, he told me to go as a squad commander.

I said: “Mark Ivanovich, why?” I was just thirty-three years old. What does squad commander mean? It was a miscellaneous squad which included mission commanders, tractor drivers, technicians, pilots, etc. There were 78 people altogether. But he said he wouldn’t let me go otherwise. So I had to agree.

Sometimes, they would ask me: “You’ve flown over the Arctic and the Antarctic. How would you compare the two continents?” I can describe my impressions about the Arctic in words and share the experience with explanations, but that’s not the case with the Antarctic. You have to go there yourself and see everything with your own eyes.

RT: As someone who has flown not just one but two heads of state, would you say that the pressure is sometimes difficult to emotionally and physically fly a head of state?

VP: It was extremely difficult. It felt like walking a tightrope. I want to share a little secret with you. I was warned to be more careful not so much with Gorbachev, but with his wife – the deceased Raisa Maksimovna. During her first flight with me, I reported that the crew was ready to start, and she looked at me so closely that I couldn’t even tell whether she liked me or not! When we landed, the head administrator Colonel Plekhanov was waiting for us. Minister Panyukov, the Colonel and I went in for a drink. They always had food ready there. Nobody was able to get in without a special permission. I was even afraid to go in! But I had permission from Plekhanov himself. So the minister and I had a drink, and he said: “Volodya, my congratulations: you did alright. They liked you. Keep up the good job!” That’s how I started that.

I want to tell you about another occasion. My last flight with Gorbachev was to Paris, or rather to a small airfield near Paris. I think it was his farewell meeting with the French president or something like that. As we landed I realized that the field was very small, and two planes had to be parked there: the main and the reserve. I realized that there was a drain grate at the bottom of the main plane’s ladder. I addressed the local senior officer concerned that Madam Raisa could get stuck in it with her heels. And this guy just checked his cap and tunic and told me to mind my own business: “I’m in charge here! Can’t you see there is no room here for planes?” I asked if we could cover it, and he told me to stay out of it. As I predicted, Madam Raisa got stuck in that thing with her heels. And she gave me such an angry look! But what could I do about it, since I wasn’t in charge there… And you’re asking me whether it was difficult. Lots of things could happen when you are flying – the consequences of something going wrong of course would have been very serious.


Russia's Air Force One

RT: After you flew the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin – what was he like? Was flying with him any different than flying with Gorbachev?

VP: Flying with Boris Yeltsin was rather difficult. He had a tough character. You may have read my story in newspapers about landing in Heathrow, London, in fog. The visibility was 175 meters, no more nor less.

Sometimes, they would ask me: “How did you decide to land in such weather?” As we were taking off from Vnukovo airport, the weather was great in Heathrow. However as we were approaching Heathrow, we were told about fog and 175-meter visibility. They asked what I would do, and I replied that I would consult with the boss. I told Yeltsin about the issue and suggested landing at Shannon which was the reserve airport. He got up angrily, wiped his face with a napkin, threw it to the floor and said: “Listen, I’ve been flying for 30 years, and I’ve never landed at reserve airports, what are you talking about! Do whatever you want, but I have to meet Prime Minister John Major.” We were on our way to the US for the G7 meeting. So I replied, “Let’s see what we can do. Let’s circle around, since we have a lot of fuel.” I was shaking all over. How was I supposed to land?

I did some more analyzing. Then I instructed the front plane’s pilot Kacharov to descend to see if the weather forecasters were mistaken. But they couldn’t tell us the cloud height, as it was foggy all the way to the ground. Then I made a decision to land. People always ask me what helped me decide then. First, I was absolutely confident about the operation of my aircraft and all equipment. Our rule was to make special test flights for 45 minutes or longer before each top-level flight. Flights were supervised by a commission on board represented by people from the Soviet Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Aviation Industry and, of course, the Security Services. I performed my test flight with the same crew; therefore I was absolutely confident about my aircraft operation.

Secondly, I was absolutely confident about the professionalism of my crew, as I had flown with them many times before.

Thirdly, I knew Heathrow airport very well. We carried out a test flight before the occasion. Also, I had undertaken many scheduled flights there with the Central Air Transport Department.

Fourthly, they have an extremely accurate technical landing system, and the so-called light strip following a plane’s trajectory. The light strip shows the direction for a plane all the way to the parking area. Say, if they tell you to take park number 57, the light strip shows you the way to it. This system would have made landing easier. Therefore, considering all these facts, I made the decision. That decision wasn’t an easy one. But we had a very soft landing. Everybody was shocked. I asked: “Mr. President, our plane has landed. Any comments?” He said “There you are! And you were talking about Shannon Airport. You landed alright!” I replied: “Yes, I landed, with my back soaking wet.” He said: “Well, go have a break.”

RT: As a first pilot, is it difficult knowing that the final decision about the take-off and landing, everything concerning your flight may not always rest in your hands, did you have any situations where you had to do what you were told, rather than go on by your experience?

VP: While flying with Yeltsin at the time I mentioned before, a paradox occurred. We were landing at a naval base – Andrews it was, as far as I remember. The visibility was excellent, it was clear for a million meters as we say. As we were some 150 meters above the ground, with the landing strip ahead of us, suddenly Aeroflot instructed us to turn right and approach to land from another side. This killed all our calculations. A peculiarity of our crew was that the Minister of Civil Aviation was watching our timing very strictly, which meant that at noon sharp we were supposed to be standing at the red carpet. Our timing was calculated to an accuracy of within seconds. But now, all our plans were ruined. We had to alter the speed, and to make another circle to land from another side. We were in trouble! But we had to follow the instructions of the dispatcher in charge.

I enjoyed flying all aircraft. The Tupolev 154 is a very nice plane, with a good power to weight ratio and a triple backup system.

At present they are writing about the Smolensk catastrophe blaming the plane. But I would say, this plane has a triple backup of the key systems: fuel, fire control, hydraulics and operating systems. This plane has three engines and can fly even with just one engine. The Ilyushin 62 is a nice plane, I like it the most. I started with flying the Ilyushin 14, even with skis in the Antarctic, and it was my favourite plane made by the Ilyushin Aviation Company. But I liked the Ilyushin 62 even more. It is really powerful and it has a good fuel margin and the great steering of a real aircraft. So I enjoyed flying them.

RT: Mr potemkin, what are your most memorable moments? The good memories that bring a smile to your face, rather than the hard and dramatic experiences?

VP: I remember Yeltsin’s birthday on my plane. I prepared a Japanese watch for him as a present. When Yeltsin saw it, he said he couldn’t accept it. I said, “What do you mean you cannot?” He addressed his wife, Naina: “Look what he’s giving me!” She responded: “You don’t have to do this; you’ve given us enough presents already.” I said: “Mr. Yeltsin, you really have to take it. It’s a significant day for you. Our crew doesn’t always get to wish a happy birthday to a president in the air.” Then I put it on the table and left.