And Lebedev was an excellent pilot too. They said that he had been awarded a Chinese medal for his excellent training of Chinese pilots in a combined aviation school in Urumchi. What skill must he have attained to train the Chinese pilots, illiterate, not knowing the Russian language, not having seen a plane in their lives?
All of us trainee pilots were eager to be examined by the flying unit commander himself and not by the head of the aeroclub. “Are they really going to let us fly on our own?” the presumptuous and thrilling thought flashed through my mind. However, I was ashamed of it straightaway: “How did that get into my head? No one has flown on his own yet…”
“Something’s up!” I thought and the Flying Service commander climbed into the front cockpit.
“Fly a circle. Altitude’s 300 metres, then land on the landing T on three points inside the boundary”, I hear his voice through the speaking device. I repeat the order and ask for permission to taxi out.
“Taxi out and take off!” — The commander ostentatiously put his hands on the sides of the cockpit, thus showing that now I would have to do everything myself and he was almost an bystander here and was not going to interfere with the controls.
Well, if I have to, I will. I have been flying the plane for a long time, and the presence of an instructor has been somewhat soothing. After all, you know that if something happens he’ll be sure to help. I gradually rev up and take off, doing everything the way we’ve been taught. Here is the last straight line of the ‘box’ — the most crucial one. I glide, set the levelling altitude, pull the lever to me with a barely perceptible movement — and the plane lands on three points near the T-point of the airstrip.
“Taxi in!” I hear the Flying Service commander’s order.
When the plane stopped Lebedev ordered me to stay in the cockpit and headed towards Miroevskiy. The latter said something to him and then the instructor called for a sandbag to be put in the front cockpit. I immediately remembered that this used to be done to keep the plane aligned when a trainee flyer was flying on his own. And so it turned out. The instructor said, looking into my cockpit, “You’ll be flying alone now. Do everything you just did with the Flying Service commander”.
That’s when my mouth went dry and my palms got sweaty! I wanted to thank the instructor for having me taught to fly, for letting me fly the first in my group, wanted to find many kind and good words but not saying anything, just sniffling I began to pull my goggles on. I did it too soon, paying no attention to the plane mechanic setting a sandbag on the seat. How many months I’d been waiting for those little words “fly alone”, that sign of the highest faith in a young flyer. I’d been dreaming of them, saying them in different ways and thinking under what circumstances I would hear them. And now I heard them… Miroevskiy began to help the technician tie up the sand bag inside the front cockpit and was saying “This is for Egorova so that she doesn’t get bored! It’ll replace me! Well, don’t hang back, flyer… Everything will be alright… Be calm.”
“Clear the prop!”
The propeller began to make its revolutions and the plane shuddered again. All my attention was concentrated on the instruments. Grasping the wing cantilever the instructor Miroevskiy walked alongside up till the start point, and confidence was passing from his strong skilful hands to me through the whole body of the plane as if by invisible impulses. Here were the control column, throttle lever, magneto lever… I had touched them hundreds of times, turned them, made the machine go through complicated manoeuvres. But that had all been done with an older comrade watching — and now I was responsible for each movement of mine and of the plane. Myself! Strange thing — whereas only several seconds ago the responsibility was pressing me down, now, at the starting line, there was nothing of the sort.
I turned the U-2 around during the take off. My heart was beating evenly, I was breathing easily, my mind was working sharply, my memory was prompting me to perform the well-programmed actions. The utmost concentration and determination! No, my dual training flights had not been in vain. The machine was gaining speed — one more second and the undercarriage left the ground. I am flying! Everything went well. The main thing now was to carry out all elements of the flight neatly and correctly…
Do many people know what a flight means? You will say: millions. Look how many of them dash from one city to another, from continent to continent. But how can you compare the open cockpit of a training plane with the hermetically sealed salon of a passenger liner? Everything in it is like in a bus: the walls, the windows, the ceiling. You can walk in it, move around paying no attention to any kind of atmospheric conditions. It’s comfortable… But this is only the illusion of a flight: you do not fly, but you “travel by air”. Being in a training plane is completely different, even if it’s a U-2! Everything is open to the air: your head, shoulders, hands. Sink your palms into the rigid air waves and you will feel the strong chilling current. Turn around and you’ll see — there is no one else in the whole world. There is only the sky, you and your plane obedient to your human will. It lifts you higher and higher: up to the stars, up to the sun. If you want to turn it sideward it’ll do it, if you want to take it lower it’ll do it. You’re its master.
I was inundated by happiness. I wanted to sing, to yell into space. To shout that I was a pilot, that I could tell the plane what to do! I, a simple Russian girl, a girl from the Moscow Metrostroy! But the miracle that seemed to me an eternity lasted only a few minutes: just enough to manage to make a circle over the aerodrome. And now the U-2 was running on the grass again. Miroevskiy stood near the T-point. He raised his thumb and made some sign with a white signal flag. Initially I didn’t understand what it was about but then guessed: permission had been given for a second flight. It meant I had done everything alright. And there was no limit to my joy during the second flight. I sang, then yelled something, finally, taking my feet off the pedals I tried to cut some capers, and I didn’t notice I was approaching the fourth turn.
I am trying, trying very hard to land the plane as accurately as possible and I manage to do it: the U-2 touches down on three points at the T-point. Our starshina30 Khatountsev meets the plane. He has grasped a wing with one hand and is holding the other one raised with the thumb stuck up. In revenge for him making me wash the plane’s tail I stick out my tongue and rev up. The plane speeds up and Vanya runs with all his might accompanying me. And I am so cheerful, my soul rejoices so much, that it seems there is no person in the world happier than me! Having taxied to the parking lot I turn off the engine. Mobbing the plane, the guys ask me some questions, congratulate me, but I rush to report the mission accomplished to the club management. “Well done, Egorova. Keep flying like that”, the flying unit commander said and shook my hand firmly.
Translator’s note — Sergeant-Major.