And I’m actually there. I was the kind of 14 year-old who devoured aviation books and knew every Russian helicopter in existence (or known to NATO anyway.) That was deep in Cold War days and if anyone had told me I’d one day be in the heart of Russia at the factory making Mi-8s I’d never have believed them. The day begins, you may recall, with me watching the countryside around Kazan roll by past my train window.
I phone my Kazan contact, Vlada Krotova, to arrange to meet at the station. You may also recall how she was described to me. We’ve never met but she tells me she’ll be the “beautiful girl in the white suit” and I say I’ll be the little guy with the suitcase looking lost. Suffice it say we have no trouble finding each other.
Then it’s off to the plant. Kazan is enjoying its brief summer and it’s hot and sunny. At the plant I take a couple of pix – the one at the start of the post and this one below over the factory entrance. It’s the last photo I will take, as at that point the security department becomes aware of the full extent of my pictorial plans and a firm edict is issued: ‘nyet’. Quite an evocative one though.
You don’t see this sort of thing in Moscow these days, but Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan where they say Asia meets Europe, is a curious mix of old and new Russia. At various points I have coffee in a pretty funky cafe, wander a very spruce Kremlin complex, visit a mosque in this half-Moslem city, and then watch half a dozen police chuck a struggling teenager in the back of a van for reasons that aren’t apparent even to a Tatar with me who without irony comments “sometimes I think we live in a police state”.
I get to see pretty much everything at the plant as far as I can tell and I’ll be writing it all up in detail for Flight soon. That’s the main assembly hall, the flight-test facility, the brand new Japanese multi-axis machine tools (with a mouse-catching kitten asleep in front of it), and inside assorted helicopters. Why I can’t photograph it I have no idea. The security people insist on a Kazan employee taking approved photos for me, with uninspiring results.
The plant is actually working at full capacity but has suffered badly from underinvestment, and really, really looks it. Nevertheless I count 12 Mi-17s on the line, two in the paintshop, probably half a dozen being prepped for flight and then the remarkable site of a field full of them – I can see about 25 – all about to be flight-tested and flown either direct to the customer or else to Kazan airport for transportation by An-124 or sometimes Il-76.
It’s a surreal sight which of course again I can’t photograph and in fairness is almost unphotographable. Below is the view on Google Earth plus a Kazan-supplied pic of a machine for Venezuela I believe with a Russian VIP version in the background.
As well as all that I get to see the company museum curated by a former employee, whose name I am ashamed to say I didn’t note, but who used to make Mi-4 rotor blades in wood. (It’s like a wooden wing, complete with wooden ribs and a fabric skin.) The plant started by making Polikarpov Po-2s (which I’m happy to say I recognised), through combine harvesters and eventually to the Mi-8/17 – one of the most successful helicopter models in the world.
So finally here we are, Vlada (remember her, you know, in white), Janna the translator (sorry, don’t have the right spelling), and me…enjoying our vodka and having a bite to eat courtesy of the curator – well, it was half-past ten in the morning. And Kazan is a pretty Hip place to be (got right to the end but just couldn’t resist. Sorry.)