Viewpoint from St. Petersburg: Learn from our history!

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Ilia M. Prokhorenko

The debates about closure of Malmi have been held for some time. They especially touch me, because during only the last decade I have become a witness of too many historical airfields destroyed by short-sighted politicians.

I would like to address them. I would like to address politicians, businessmen, and layperson, every honest taxpayer. The talk is simple: if you lose Malmi, you will eventually come to a situation when there will be no pilots to fly for you. This is a question I have really heard, “How I, as an honest taxpayer, can benefit from Malmi existence?” There is benefit for everyone. Although it may not be immediately obvious in short-term, it is necessary to exercise proper foresight and see the long-term benefit. Being an honest taxpayer, you travel around the world, spend your vacation on Cyprus or in Spain, take business trips to Germany or Thailand. You get there by aircraft, be it a commercial airliner or your private business jet.

But please think for a moment, that those who pilot these aircraft are not born in a seat of Boeing, Airbus or a business jet. Yes, everyone starts from a Cessna in a small flight school. It is the way every pilot has to take, be it a 747 captain or a pilot of a border patrol helicopter. While it is possible to give a person the required theoretical knowledge in a relatively short period of time, it is experience that demands months and years to be built, and general aviation is a primary forge for this experience.

In this regard you should meticulously learn from history. This history and its bad examples lie just across the border, in my home country.

The small airport of Kronshtadt. Photo: Nikolay Ivanov
The small airport of Kronshtadt. Photo: Nikolay Ivanov

Some of you know the story of small airfield in Kronshtadt, near Saint-Petersburg. Some of you even took part in fighting for the field. We will never forget your help and concern. The most of our dreams about the field did not come true, but the airfield is there, it is alive and a small flying school could start its small fortune there not long time ago.

But I believe not so many people here are aware of the stories of other general aviation airfields in Russia, like airport of Rzhevka, the airport of my hometown. I have literally grown up by the field’s fence, because it was by a bicycle ride away from my home. After the hard times of 1990’s the field managed to survive. It was as large as Malmi and had as many flight schools and flying clubs based on it. It started to attract business aviation, because it was suitable for medium-size jets and had all the required facilities.

The well-equipped Rzhevka Airport is now a car dealer's parking lot. Photo: Alexander Evdokimov
The well-equipped Rzhevka Airport is now a car dealer’s parking lot. Photo: Alexander Evdokimov

But the city decided that there was no need in airports other than a major hub, like Pulkovo, and some 10+ flying clubs could find another place for their frivolous activities. The airport of Rzhevka was closed in 2007. Only one flying club could manage to move to a different place. Saint-Petersburg University of Civil Aviation has lost a very convenient and well-equipped base for flight training and nowadays our students have to go about a thousand kilometers away from Saint-Petersburg to have their flying practice.

It is not a secret that the level of training and the rate of fatal accidents have gone far from ideal since that time in Russia. Of about 20+ general aviation airports in Saint-Petersburg region we now have three.

Having our general aviation almost destroyed in Russia, we now face a tremendous lack of experienced pilots ready to take the proper responsibility for the safety of the passengers of a commercial airliner. We do not have such a pilot forge anymore, and will hardly build one in foreseeable future.

Malmi Airport is going to celebrate its 76 this year. It is a decent date having in mind the aviation itself is only one hundred plus years old. So Malmi has seen some aviation pioneers still alive and it still retains the spirit and atmosphere of the epoch. For many of us Malmi is a place where we were born as pilots, it is a cradle in which we were fed and raised and got our flying maturity and finally our pass to the life in the sky. So, after all, Malmi is a part of our common history.

I invite you to visit our country and our small general aviation airfields, like Kronshtadt. There, across the border, lies the country, where general aviation is barely alive, and I invite you to see the consequences you can face if you take the same path.

Ilia M. Prokhorenko is the Lead Engineer of the Department of Flight Simulation Training Devices of the Saint-Petersburg State University of Civil Aviation. He is a member of Malmi Aviation Club, and has flown in Finland for several years.