Russian Air Forces,
The Present Day
It was the easy camaraderie inside the cockpit of the giant IL-76 transport that struck the American. Two aviators who, till a little over a decade ago, wouldn’t be caught dead in a ditch together, now sitting inside an aircraft, one escorting the other to a ceremony. Time changes everything.
The emotion rushed at Tuz Strassner, ex-Colonel, US Strategic Air Command, ex-Commander-B2 (Spirit) Stealth Strategic Bomber. Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Force Distinguished Service Medal. Active service in Kosovo, Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
And currently off-duty Lufthansa Captain. Commander – A380.
The Ilushin had climbed steadily up to 39000ft and leveled off. Brigadier Arkady Prokopiev, in command, sitting ahead to Tuz’s left, cleared his throat and flicked the talk button,”Migalovo Center, India Lima Seven Six Tango, approaching Luhansk center. Request permission to descend to flight level one nine zero.”
“India Lulu Seven Six Tango, descend to flight level one nine zero, report and hold. You will have Luhansk center from here in a minute, at five seven two point one, repeat, five seven two point one. Have a nice flight. Over.”
“Khorosho”. The huge transport imperceptibly dipped it’s nose till it leveled off at 19000ft.
Clear of static, the short communication was a practiced and casual drawl, while remaining at the same time, clear and very specific. Between two highly trained, alert men in uniform, one on the ground at the 6955th Aviation Base at Migalovo, 50kms north of Moscow and the other, 8 miles above Ukraine hurtling south at Mach .80. To Strassner listening in, such ebb and flow of radio traffic was familiar, barring the accents of course.
The whistle of the four massive PS-90 turbofans was muffled and Tuz had tuned them out of his hearing pretty soon. The air was turbulence-free. Early mornings, the surface of the earth is cool and so are the layers of the atmosphere touching it. Cooler air has less turbulence. This is something a regular flier experiences. Take an early morning flight and you can be sure it will be a calm ride. Do the same thing in the afternoon and it’ll be bumpier.
Tuz gazed out the window. Here and there a few lily white wisps of cloud floated by, further above. Far to the east, the land was a barren white expanse, as far as the eye could see. Otherwise the sky was clear blue, visibility unlimited. All seemed right with the world.
Prokopiev pushed his seat back and accepted the mug of coffee that was passed to him by the young payload specialist, Gorky. The Commander gave Strassner a sideways glance, watching him bring his own mug up to his lips.
“So, what’s it like being a commercial pilot, Capt. Strassner?” The Brigadier wanted a conversation going.
“Call me Tuz, please. Flying an airliner? Well, here’s the truth. You don’t have as much time off as your neighbors think you have. You don’t make as much money as your relatives think you make and you don’t have as many girlfriends as your wife thinks you have. Still, I can’t believe they pay me to do this,” Strassner smiled.
Prokopiev let out a short bark of a laugh,” Pretty much the same with us. Except for the girlfriends.” The Russian winked and his slavic features spread in a wide grin. Start a Russian on women and he’ll go on and on, getting more vulgar by the second, even if he happens to be a Brigadier in the Air Force.
“But seriously,” Strassner picked up once again,” I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line and you burn fuel while carrying fuel. You hit a storm front and have to detour and suddenly you’re running out of gas and you have to divert to an alternate destination.” Prokopiev had turned in his seat and was listening intently.
Tuz Strassner continued, “The truth is, we’re exhausted. Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next truck stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.”
Prokopiev smiled at that and said, “Please, I am Arkady to you”. Then his expression turning grave, the Russian went on,” It is an honor to be here, to be a part of what is about to happen in the next two days”. The Russian was referring to the re-interment of Tuz Strassner’s mother from the Krasnyi Luch cemetery to the Kremlin Necropolis, followed by the awarding of the Hero of the Russian Federation medal to her, fifty two years after she was killed trying to land her crippled Tu-16 Badger in a desolate airfield in Siberia.
“Thank you and I have to admit that these are my proudest days. I wish Dad was here to see this.”
The Brigadier had of course been briefed by the FSB about Strassner’s father. After the war, Luftwaffe Oberst Kurt Strassner had been captured by the Soviet forces but had managed to escape to the west before they’d had a chance to start pulling out his nails. He crossed the Baltic Sea in a freighter, disguised as a deckhand. Returning home to Konigsberg was not an option. The city had by then been depopulated in a brutal and swift ethnic cleansing drive by Stalin, the German citizenry either slaughtered or shipped off to Siberia, while Russians settled in and renamed the city ‘Kaliningrad’.
Once in West Germany, Strassner Senior wasted no time joining the nascent West German Air Force, the Luftwaffe Bundeswehr. In 1958, by then a decorated Brigadegeneral, Kurt Strassner was absorbed into the higher echelons of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND in short, the West German external intelligence agency that had been formed three years earlier. Then, in the spring of 1959, fate took Strassner to Moscow, to be posted in the West German High Commission as the senior military attaché.
It was at the 1959 May Day celebrations and the gala that evening at the Kremlin grounds that fate stepped in once again. Usually military attachés of foreign embassies were nearly always residents of their intelligence agencies and had KGB minders sticking real close and discreetly following their every move.
Brigadegeneral Kurt Strassner too had a KGB tag, Yuri Dudayev, who was his chauffeur and constant companion. KGB through and through, Yuri was still very likeable, a huge bear of a man with twinkling blue eyes, always ready with amusingly disparaging anecdotes about life inside communist Soviet Union. Strassner returned the easy amicability but knew enough to maintain a safe distance from the KGB staffer.
That evening Strassner had looked smashing in his full dress uniform. Pity he couldn’t put on his Second World War medals and gold sash, though he did not miss them at all. Jojo Strassner had never hankered after recognition.
And then fate stepped in, sweeping aside the Soviet paranoia. Even KGB agents gotta go when they gotta go. At the very moment that Yuri excused himself to go do a mocha (Russian for taking a pee), Strassner turned and bumped accidentally into a Soviet Air Force Colonel, a petite woman, immensely pretty even at 39, her uniform tunic bristling with decorations. Many of them, he immediately recognized as medals won during the Second World War, like the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Patriotic War, the Order of the Red Star and some others that he did not fully recognize.
There was something else about her, a defiance, from the way her nose turned up just a wee bit.
She was not one of the guests. She had been summoned to a meeting just prior and had been asked to remain for the gala. Her commanding officer, General Alexei Petrovich, must have decided in the last minute that she was entitled to some fun, given that she had just received transfer orders to the Strategic Long Range Bomber base at Bobrovka, Siberia. She would be leaving to take up her new assignment, flight testing the new Tu-16A (Badger), in a week.
Fate dealt another hand when Yuri, drunk, excused himself and went home and before the evening was over, Strassner would come to know Colonel Raisa Komarova more intimately than he had ever known another woman. Calling it a one-night stand would not be appropriate but it had to be that way, given that she was about to go off on her new posting, in an area which was out-of-bounds to all foreign nationals.
Kurt Strassner did not know it yet but it had taken seventeen years for him to finally come face to face with the pilot of the Yak-1 that had so terrorized the Luftwaffe over the Eastern Front.
The pilot who at the time went by the call sign…Belyye Rozy.