You don’t fly without a dream: Pilot Alexei Didenko on his career

You don’t fly without a dream: Pilot Alexei Didenko on his career
The Deputy Commander of the Moscow Aviation Centre’s helicopter unit comes to the rescue when a fire has to be extinguished from the air. There was a time when he served in Afghanistan but now he flies a Kamov Ka-32 firefighting helicopter.

Alexei Didenko, who has been flying since 1980, is now Deputy Commander of the Moscow Aviation Centre’s helicopter unit. Didenko has served in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Russia’s Far East, the South Caucasus and Rostov-on-Don. He fought in Afghanistan and worked for the Russian Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief. Mos. Ru interviews Mr Didenko on the centre’s operations, the most difficult landing in his life and what qualities are needed to be a pilot.

Question: Mr Didenko, how did you become a pilot? Was it a childhood dream?  

Alexei Didenko: Of course, I dreamed about this because you don’t fly without a dream. At that time, many people were crazy about aviation. When prospective pilots submitted their documents to aviation schools, there were about eight people per vacancy; and only four after the medical exams. I enrolled at Saratov Higher Military Aviation School and studied to be a helicopter pilot. After graduation, I served three years in the German Democratic Republic, plus two years in Russia’s Far East. In 1987, I redeployed to Afghanistan.

Question:  How old were you when they sent you there, and how did you train?

Alexei Didenko: I was 26 years old then. My superiors notified me about the mission three months in advance. During that time, I completed a special training course, learning complicated maneuvers and flying helicopters in super-critical flight modes. I commanded the crew on a Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship for 12 months.

As you know, the Soviet Union placed a lot of emphasis on patriotic education, so many people enlisted for Afghanistan. Pilots completed 12-month tours of duty; then none of them wanted to stay on.

Question:  How did you get into civil aviation?

Alexei Didenko: After Afghanistan, I returned to the Far East, but things changed for the worse in the 1990s, and our unit was disbanded. I redeployed to the South Caucasus and to Rostov-on-Don, my home town, three years later. I served with a helicopter squadron of a transport regiment. In 2011, I decided to resign from the Armed Forces, and later they told me about a vacancy with the Emergencies Ministry’s civil aviation department. After serving there, I joined the Moscow Aviation Centre.

Question:  How long have you been working here?

Alexei Didenko: I joined the centre four years ago in 2015. I am Deputy Commander of the helicopter unit, and I also command a helicopter crew. I fly a Ka-32A helicopter that can put out fires and deliver cargo to remote areas.

Question: Can you describe a routine day at the Moscow Aviation Centre? 

Alexei Didenko: Every day is unusual because the missions are unique in themselves. In terms of the routine, six crews, including those on three firefighting helicopters and three air ambulances, are on duty every day. One firefighting helicopter and one air ambulance are deployed at night.

Pilots have a medical checkup first thing in the morning. After that, they go to the airfield, pass aviation safety checks and are briefed on the weather forecast. They then contact ground control and the dispatcher to ask about any flight restrictions. The pilots then go to the hangar and accept the helicopter. The technicians and engineers prepare the helicopter for the mission. They check all the systems prior to takeoff. The crew commander inspects the helicopter and accepts it if everything is okay. After that, the technicians step aside, and the crew commander assumes full control.

Question:  What are your main missions?

Alexei Didenko: The Ka-32A fights fires, for the most part. It has an external water tank with a five tonne capacity. When the alarm sounds we have to take off in 10 minutes and get to any place in the city. This doesn’t happen often, and helicopters rarely respond to routine fires. In 2017, two Ka-32A helicopters helped extinguish the Sindika warehouse fire dropping 485 tonnes of water on it. That same year, there was another major fire on Polyarnaya Street in Severnoye Medvedkovo, and two helicopters responded again. One crew took off right away, and the second one followed 40 minutes later. The pilots try to live near the airfield to be able to respond quickly.

Last year, the Moscow Aviation Centre’s firefighting helicopters were involved in putting out four major fires in the Moscow Region and dropped over 500 tonnes of water.

Fires are not the only missions. Today, we are bracing for the heavy spring flooding that will be caused by the heavy snowfall, as well as other related emergencies, including damaged power lines that can cause power outages in various communities. So we may have to deliver bulky equipment, including generators, and helicopters seem to be the best way to do that because the roads may be flooded.

Question:  Can your helicopter land anywhere?

Alexei Didenko: Almost anywhere. We use Kamov helicopters because they have no tail beams and because their rotors have a diameter of just 15.9 metres. So our helicopter can land on any site that’s at least 22 x 22 metres.

But we don’t have to land in some cases because we can drop the cargo from the air. The helicopter hovers in midair and places the load wherever necessary. In which case only a very small area is needed.

Question:  What was the most difficult landing in your career?

Alexei Didenko: There have been many difficult situations over the decades, but I experienced the most terrifying incident in Afghanistan. One day, I got hit by a rocket launcher that seriously damaged the load-bearing system and the landing gear. I had to land at a high-altitude airfield. The helicopter didn’t have enough power for an ordinary vertical landing, and I was forced to land the way a plane does, that is, like on a short runway. I had to land the helicopter with the damaged landing gear at minimal speed to avoid crashing.

Question:  What qualities does a pilot need?

Alexei Didenko: He must be calm and reserved; and of course he has to make split-second decisions. His reaction time must be very good because he must act at the last second when the air situation changes or in case of emergency. For example, a pilot must react in two or three seconds if both engines fail; otherwise the rotors will stop and he’ll be unable to land.

Question:  How can pilots prepare for this difficult situation?

Alexei Didenko: First, they analyse difficult situations during theoretical studies. If you get a good mark on the ground you can probably expect a satisfactory mark in the air. After that, pilots practice pinpoint landings in helicopters with self-spinning rotors. First, they climb to 1,000 metres, reduce the rotor’s pitch, and the rotor starts spinning on its own. After the helicopter loses 200-300 metres, the engines go idle and stop spinning the rotor. This simulates an engine failure.

Question:  How long do you plan to keep flying?

Alexei Didenko: I want to continue my career, but it depends on my health. We have full physicals every six months. Two of our pilots aged 62 have successfully passed these exams and want to continue flying.

Question:   Do you have any unrealised dreams related to flying?

Alexei Didenko: I have flown various types of helicopters, including transport, rescue and combat helicopters. I believe I’ve realised my potential as a pilot. But I want to learn to more effectively control a helicopter with external stores. When you carry a load in an external store, you determine your location with a 3D model, rather than the horizon. I have already learned this process, but I want to ensure pinpoint accuracy.

The Moscow Aviation Centre is affiliated with Moscow’s Department for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Fire Safety.