Lipetsk Air Base Visit Feature Report
Located approximately 250 miles south of the Russian capital, Lipetsk is home to 4 TsBP i PLS - the 4th Flight Crew Combat Training and Cross-Training Centre. Established in 1953 and named after legendary Soviet pilot Valeri Chkalov, the unit at Lipetsk is unique, operating in an equivalent role to that of the RAF's FJWOEU, at Conningsby, and A&AEE, at Boscombe Down.
recalls the dream trip to Lipetsk Air Base, Russia in August 2005. All photos by the author.
Founded in 1916, Lipetsk's history lies suprisingly with the re-birth of the German Air Force. In April 1925, due to the ban on aircraft manufacturing in Germany dictated by the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans started on an agressive campaign of rearmament away from prying Western eyes. In blatant violation of the treaty, the German and Soviet governments signed an agreement that gave Germany use of the Russian air base at Lipetsk in exchange for technical advice and access to test results. This continued until 1933, when the Nazi party seized power. The depression saw cutbacks in funding and the WIVUPAL, the Wissenschaftliche Versuchs-und Prüfanstalt für Luftfahrzeuge (Scientific Experimental and Test Establishment for Aircraft) at Lipetsk was finally closed after graduating over 200 pilots and aircrew. Two years later, Europe would awake to the might of the reborn Luftwaffe.
So it was in August as part of an aviation tour of Russia, that an official invite to visit this historical base was readily accepted. Nothing prepared the tour party for the welcome and level of hospitality extended by our Russian Air Force hosts - their generosity was exceptional.
Escorted through the rush hour traffic by military police onto the base, we were presented with a static exhibition of all the current types based at Lipetsk - Mig-31, Su-27, Su-25, Su-24 and Mig-29. With the aircrew on hand to answer questions about the differing combat roles of the aircraft, we were so engrossed looking at the operational Foxhound and Flanker that we almost missed our hosts ushering us towards the operational side of the base - we were going to see some flying!
Expecting at most to see a take-off or landing by one of the types, we departed the coach to be greeted by the base brass band! Dumbstruck, we ventured over to the edge of the grass by the taxyway - just nosing out of the flight line was a shark painted Su-27 ! Our cameras were clicking away as the pilot waved at us, we thought that was our lot, when suddenly a two-seater plus two others started moving. Lining up in pairs and applying full military power, the ground shook as the two Flanker pairs departed. We were then treated to an awesome display of precision formation flying by four of the base's instructors in the Su-27's. In between the aerobatics, taxying past were combat trainer examples of the Su-25 and Mig-29 which proceeded to perform airfield approaches demonstrating Lipetsk's training role.
Lunch at last. Numbed by the quality of the two hour flying display we retreated to the base buildings, to find the band playing, a field kitchen selling lunchtime treats and a table selling squadron souvenirs - time to get rid of some roubles!
With lunch over, we thought it was time to head back - wrong! An Mi-8 helicopter took off over our heads and it's occupants parachuted out at altitude, each displaying the flags of Russia, it's airforce and the tree emblem of Lipetsk - the afternoon display had started!
The sound of jet engines spooling up was heard all over the airfield. First out was an Su-25 red 73, adorned with the flag of Russia. The Frogfoot proceeded to give a magically agile performance - a superb display of airmanship - the highlight being the use of flares at every opportunity to enhance visual impact of the manoeuvres.
Next was a very tight formation routine by a pair of big spine Mig-29C's (red 29 & red 32) with fuselage and rudder displaying the Lipetsk chevron. The formation was so close we had flashbacks of RIAT 93! The pure skill of the instructors was evident as the pair spilt at the top of a loop, flares lighting the way - breathtaking stuff.
Things just got better and better. The entire flightline to our left started to move, disgorging no less than seven Su-27's and the highlight for many, four Su-24M Fencers. Sneaking onto the end of the great line of aircraft were two Mig-29UB combat trainers. The noise was deafening as the jets got airborne in a pall of black smoke, the two-seat Fulcrums being the worst polluters.
The Flankers swept back across the airfield. An amazing sight - a seven aircraft formation comprising four of the latest multi-role Su-27SM's, a Su-27UB combat trainer, the shark painted Su-27 and another Su-27 single seater in special marks. These promptly broke up into a stunning six ship formation routine, including a head on mass flare launch - the whole sky just lit up behind them. As the main element cleared, red 01 - the solo Su-27, rejoined and went vertical into a tailslide. With flares pouring out of its spine, the Flanker burnt a line of fire in the sky as the aircraft slid down - unbelievable!
As the singleton landed, the horizon darkened once more with aircraft. We were treated to the most amazing formation - four Su-27's, four Su-24M's and two Mig-29UB's - the ubiquitous flares firing out at set intervals as they flew past.
With the local farmer's fields blazing away with all the fireworks that had been disgorged onto them in the last two hours, there was just enough time for the four Flankers to return head on for a superb break and formation flare launch, with the leader barrelling over our heads to culminate the most breathtaking display of skilled formation flying we had ever seen.
The base commander, Major General Alexander Kharchevsky, then invited us to meet the elite Lipetsk pilots and we headed into the mess for a Russian style 3-course meal.
We looked at each other and were quite simply, speechless.