An Island High n Dry

Yefim Gordon visits Russia’s Ostrov Naval Aviation Training Centre

THE DIVISION OF the Russian Air Force into branches — tactical aviation, long-range aviation (the strategic bomber force), army aviation, air defence (PVO) fighter units etc — calls for the establishment of a single tactical training centre for pilots and navigators within each branch. These training centres are responsible not only for mastering new types of hardware but for developing combat tactics against any potential adversary. (Like the USAF, the Soviet Air Force had its own ‘aggressor’ units.)

Such centres are staffed with the best military tacticians and flying instructors and equipped with state-of-the-art flight simulators and other teaching aids in order to train highly-skilled pilots for the Air Force and Naval Air Arm (AV-MF). Usually they are the first to receive new types of military aircraft and helicopters included in the air force inventory; this allows conversion training to be done quickly and cheaply, using only a handful of aircraft. Finally, these centres gather and analyse information about the air forces of ‘unfriendly’ nations and their tactics. Western sources have already published a story about the Russian Air Force’s tactical aviation training centre in Lipetsk. The conversion training centre for strategic bombing at the ancient town of Ryazan. Army aviation pilots undertake their training in a similar establishment at Torzhok, a small air base near Tver. We will now take a look at the Russian naval air arm’s training centre.

The unit is located at Ostrov air base some 25 miles (40km) from Pskov, another ancient Russian city west of St Petersburg. Ostrov means ‘island’ in Russian but ironically, the base is landlocked — the nearest coastline is 280 miles (450km) away. In fact, the base is named after a nearby small town, part of which is located on an island in the middle of the River Velikaya.

Ostrov air base has been there for quite a while. Originally it was home to naval Tu-16 Badgers, both missile carriers and ELINT versions. However, about two years ago it switched from active duty status to a conversion training centre for young AV-MF pilots.

The main training work at Ostrov is undertaken by the 240th GvSAP (gvardeyskiy smeshannyy aviapolk — Guards Mixed Air Regiment) decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Combat for its wartime feats. The unit was formed in April 1938 and saw action for the first time on June 26, 1939 during the Finnish war. The first sortie against German troops was flown exactly two years later on June 26, 1941. On September 18, 1943 the unit was awarded the honorary Guards title for gallantry in combat. By the end of World War Two its crews had flown a total of 1,067 sorties. On May 25, 1944, the 240th received the honorary appellation Sevastopol’skiy for its role in the liberation of Sevastopol and another appellation, Berlinskiy, on June 16, 1945, for taking part in the seizure of Berlin. Finally in April 1945, it was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Combat — one of the highest decorations for gallantry In the Soviet armed forces. Twelve of the unit’s pilots and navigators became Heroes of the Soviet Union, including twice-HSU Col Stepan Kretov.

In the postwar years the 240th GvSAP’s personnel mastered 12 types of naval aircraft. The unit was one of the first to receive the Tu-22M2 Backfire-B bomber.

The 240th GvSAP was forced to relocate to Ostrov and transformed into a conversion training establishment only recently because of funding shortages and reductions in the Russian Armed Forces, which of course affected the naval air arm as well. The ‘mixed’ part of the unit’s name refers to the fact that the 240th operates a mixed bag of aircraft with very different roles. Trainees coming to Ostrov from pilot schools mostly fly Su-24M Fencer-D tactical bombers, Tu-142M Bear-F and 11-38 May land-based ASW aircraft, Be-12 Mail ASW amphibians and Tu-22M3 Backfire-C missile carriers. Until recently, Su-17M3 Fitter-H fighter bombers were also in service (surprisingly perhaps, the AV-MF was a major operator of the type). However, these and the Tu-16s have now been withdrawn from use and are gradually being scrapped.

Speaking of scrapping, Ostrov is also home to a separate unit tasked with disposing of obsolete Navy aircraft. In common with the storage and disposal centre at Engels (the Russian equivalent of AMARC), this unit uses both locally-made and Western equipment to carry out its unsavoury job. The process is not openly available to aviation journalists, since the destruction of obsolete naval hardware is not covered by international arms reduction treaties and therefore does not have to be monitored.

The AV-MF training centre is slightly better off than other Russian Air Force units since fuel is always readily available — unlike elsewhere. The base is certainly very active, flight training being performed three or four days a week, which is something of a pipe dream for many Russian air bases. Pilots are mostly trained to fly the Il-38, Tu-142M and Tu-142MZ Bear-F Mod transferred to Ostrov from various AV-MF bases after their previous units were disbanded; the centre only operates about a dozen of them. These heavy ASW aircraft currently form the backbone of Russia’s naval aviation fleet, even though operations are hampered by a shortage of fuel. A few years ago the Tu-142 and Il-38 were a common sight in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean, the Baltic and Norwegian Seas, monitoring the activities of Western warships and submarines. Now maritime patrol sorties have been reduced to a minimum due to Russia’s general economic problems and limited defence budget.

Still, it is not all doom and gloom. For instance, until a few years ago the AV-MF did not have a common tactical training centre and training had to be carried out at various locations. Now the naval command has assembled the best teaching talent and tacticians at one location, which should improve training efficiency. Of course, no one is intent on reducing the Navy’s airborne ASW force, much less eliminating it. And despite the fact that most of the AV-MF aircraft are sitting on the ground under wraps, every effort is made to keep them serviceable and ready for action when the time comes. The pilots, however, lose more from staying on the ground than the hardware does. Many AV-MF pilots have lost the skills they gained during long-range missions over the briny, and so they are periodically dispatched to Ostrov for proficiency training just so that they do not completely forget how to fly the damn things!

Besides, there is the problem of training young pilots who have yet to master long over-water flights, and this concerns psychological training such as tactics. However, the specialists at Ostrov have developed a training technique that simulates real-life missions as closely as possible.

One of the top priority tasks is training the Navy’s tactical bomber pilots in the Su-24Ms. They actually teach them to fly the type well enough at regular Air Force flying schools, but Ostrov is the only place where over-water tactics are taught. The training period lasts several months and includes numerous take-offs and landings in simulated emergency conditions such as battle damage, poor weather etc. It may be that the characteristic deep-throated roar of the Bears is not heard very often around Ostrov, but you will very likely see low-flying Fencers in the area.

On the other hand, Il-38 training is now on the back burner, to say nothing of the Be-12s. Most of the latter have either been converted to Be-12PS SAR aircraft or withdrawn from use because they are time-expired or obsolete. The last time a Be-12 took off from Ostrov was on August 18, 1996 when one participated in the Aviation Day flypast at Tushino airfield, Moscow.

Ostrov is also home for a number of Il-20 Coot-B ELINT aircraft and Il-18 Coot-A airliners modified for special missions. The latter are used for telemetry gathering (checking the training process) and providing mission inputs to trainees (simulating an ECM environment) far away from the base.

Russia does not really possess a carrier-borne fighter force. The 40 or so production Su-33 (Su-27K) Flanker-Ds built to date sit idle in Severomorsk most of the time. As the Soviet Union disintegrated Russia lost its naval flight test centre in Saki on the Crimean peninsula which is part of the now independent Ukraine. This was the only Soviet air base equipped with a ski-jump and arrester wires for practising carrier operations. Conventional take-offs and landings (CTOL) on an aircraft carrier are one of the most complicated tasks for Russian naval fighter pilots, and constant training is a must if crashes are to be avoided. 1996 saw a number of serious accidents involving some of the best naval fighter pilots. One pilot was killed when his Su-33 crashed. In another case, pilot error caused a mid-air collision between two Su-33s; luckily both aircraft landed safely with no injuries to the pilots. Russia’s only CTOL carrier, RNS Admiral Kuznetsov, has been under repair for a year now and there is no telling when she will put to sea again.

In order to keep Su-33 pilot training going Russia is forced to rent the Saki airbase from the Ukraine for a few weeks each year. Training naval fighter pilots at Ostrov is virtually impossible as the base is not equipped for this. However, the AV-MF also has a number of land-based fighter units operating mostly MiG-29/29UB Fulcrum-A/Bs and Su-27/27UB Flanker-A/Bs. So when the long-promised military reforms finally take effect, naval fighter pilots will probably also undertake their training at Ostrov. Technically this is possible, as the base is large enough and has a good runway.

Currently the centre does not cater for ASW and SAR helicopter pilots, however, they may be included in the training programme later on.

Time will tell if Ostrov will become as important to the Russian Navy as Lipetsk is to the Air Force. After all, the centre is just under two years old, but already the place and the people who run it have earned a good reputation.

Impressed by the flying skills of the centre’s pilots the C-in-C of the AV-MF, Col Gen Vladimir Deyneka, ordered in the spring of 1996 that four crews from Ostrov would participate in the flypast over the Neva River in St Petersburg during the celebration of the Russian Navy’s 300th anniversary. The pilots trained for weeks, as the flight plan not only required strict observance of the timetable but involved low flying over Russia’s second-largest city. Still, the crews were happy to get this ‘mission’, as it was just about the only occasion they had in 1996 to flyover the Baltic!

Russia’s naval aviation branch is of course much younger than its Navy, being about 80 years old. Recently parts of the naval aviation units were disbanded due to the economic problems facing the country. Many aircraft have reached the limits of their useful life and there is no money to have them overhauled and their Certificate of Airworthiness prolonged. Worn-out aircraft are gradually written off and scrapped but no replacements are being delivered to units on active duty.

The future of the Beriev A-40 (Be-42) Albatross (Mermaid) ASW amphibian is still uncertain. The first prototype, 378 Red, has visited Ostrov on a couple of occasions to give demonstrations to leading ASW specialists. The aircraft has received a thumbs-up as regards its handling and equipment but as yet there are no plans for series production.

However, the Russian Government is aware of the catastrophic situation the Navy is in. In July 1996 it was decided to give top priority to finding funds for the Navy (including naval aviation). The response from the long-scorned naval airmen training at Ostrov was unanimous: «Oh boy, would we like to believe that…»

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