September 2, 2009 7:52:00 AM
It was as surreal a scene as I would ever experience. In the final days of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1991, my American air crew and I stood on the tarmac at Shermecheko airport outside Moscow intermingled with a cadre of a hundred Soviet soldiers, dressed in their full length Peter the Great coats, as they manually downloaded our C-5 cargo aircraft.
Each group feigned total disinterest in the other, yet none could have failed to grasp the incredible irony of the moment. We had been each other''s evil empire, the dreaded enemy we had spent our careers preparing to fight and defeat, and now we were working together at the same task on a frigid Russian winter night.
After several minutes of haughty posturing and faux disinterest, I eye-locked with one of the Russians and could not let go, nor could he. What were our stares telling the other? As I thought about it afterward, his eyes seemed to say: So you are an American? You are what I prepared for? My reflex is to warily prepare to contest you, but now we need only ponder each other, and what was, and what is no longer. Our struggle could have ended civilization, but now we are fellow soldiers who will probably never fight, or perhaps may on the same side. I had prepared to meet you my entire career, but with the intent to kill you. And now, here you are, and I find you so curious a creature I cannot release my gaze.
As the download continued, two behemoth refueling trucks arrived. The USAF has large refueling trucks, even though it still takes three or four to fully refuel a C-5, but these Russian trucks dwarfed anything I had seen before. They were enormous dinosaurs belching diesel exhaust and lumbering around hugely and menacingly, monstrous creatures from a mechanized nightmare, terrible machines searching for humans to crush. They presented one more bizarre feature to the surreal airport experience.
Our pilot group set off for the terminal with our Russian navigator to speak with someone in authority to arrange for support equipment and for security for the airplane. We circled the terminal in these very early morning hours only to discover the Soviet Union had shut down and gone home. There was no one in the terminal and every door was locked. Not only had the Russian Aeroflot flight crews parked their airplanes haphazardly in any available plowed spot and left, but the airport authority apparently had left also. Someone had sent the refueling trucks and soldiers, but we had no idea whom.
We returned to the plane as our flight engineers were closing it up and shutting it down. Our Russian navigator asked around and found our transportation to the hotel. We piled into large, clunky, Russian buses and left for the heretofore forbidden city of Moscow.
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.
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