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‘Aviation is my life’ How pilots whose licenses were cancelled by the Russian government are fighting to pursue their passion

Source: Meduza
Alexander Fayruzov / Shutterstock.com

In 2017, hundreds of Russian civilian pilots lost their licenses. That year, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, better known as Rosaviatsiya, closed down the country’s private aviation schools and annulled their graduates’ certificates, leaving them unable to pursue employment in their field. Many of the pilots affected had spent months of their lives and millions of rubles to get their licenses. In 2018, the pilots challenged Rosaviatsiya’s decision in court, but they lost their case. Meduza spoke with pilots who found themselves grounded two years ago about how they get by now. Some found jobs as taxi drivers or construction workers, and others found a way to return to their chosen profession.

Pavel Semchenko

31, Be’er Sheva, Israel

Pavel Semchenko’s private archive

It was an IL-86. I was flying with my mom from Khabarovsk to Yekaterinburg to see my grandmother. During the flight, I was walking around the plane with the other kids, and at some point, we saw that the door to the cockpit was open. In the 1990s, that was normal. The pilots noticed that we were interested, and they invited us in to see what was going on. That’s probably when something happened inside me.

In February of 2016, I graduated from ChelAvia and tried to find work. But everyone told me they didn’t have any openings, and I only got an interview at the Pobeda airline, which I passed on my first try. In the end, though, I didn’t manage to find work. People openly told me that Rosaviatsiya had recommended against hiring us because our licenses were about to be annulled. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that such a thing could happen under the rule of law.

But in July of 2017, they actually took away my license. I got a group of pilots together so that it could be a collective lawsuit, and we sued Rosaviatsiya. We lost. We appealed and lost again. I had always believed in the law; it was a measure of fairness for me. Now, I think of Russian jurisdiction as a show. To me, it doesn’t exist.

Even before the hearings started, my second wife and I decided that we would leave Russia if we lost. What are we doing here if there’s no truth? Just hanging our heads? That’s not how I was raised. Our own motherland doesn’t need us, it throws us out like industrial waste, takes away our right to work. Maybe we’d come in handy for another country. I do have two in-demand professions, after all. We got our documents together and moved to Israel in 2018 [through the country’s formal repatriation program].

I couldn’t wait for the plane to land. I’m not saying Israel is an ideal country. They have problems, there’s a military conflict on the border and rockets flying into Israel. But it’s a lawful state where the rule of law actually works. I feel comfortable there, and I can do what I want to do.

After we became citizens, the government began paying us up to 7,000 shekels (almost $2,000) monthly for half a year. My wife and I took free Hebrew courses. Our kids are set up in good schools, and they go to youth groups after class. On top of all that, I graduated from a free professional course in cybersecurity. That gives me the right to work in Israel in a high-demand field.

After that, I flew to the U.S. to study in a private flight school in Florida. I’ll graduate here, get an American pilot’s license, and let Rosaviatsiya take its funny money wherever it wants. Studying to be a commercial pilot in my school costs $20,000 – $25,000 for Russian pilots. Starting from scratch costs around $60,000.

There are a lot of our guys here. People don’t trust their future to the Russian Federation. They’re afraid of the risks. They come here while they have money and get licenses that will be recognized internationally, so Rosaviatsiya won’t be able to take them away. More and more pilots are going to leave Russia, and no one can stop that process. When a pipe breaks, it starts out dripping, but then it floods the room before long.

I’ve been studying in an American flight school for about three months. There are five private schools here for one small airport with two runways. We don’t have that many in all of Russia. My instructor said something like Americans were the first to reach the moon because they’re awesome. Of course, I reminded him about Gagarin, but I thought to myself, “What else can I be proud of, what has contemporary Russian aviation accomplished?” There’s nothing for me to say. I’m ashamed.

After I graduate in the U.S., I’ll go back to Israel and try to find work either as a pilot or in high tech. I don’t plan to go back to Russia. We emigrated, and that’s our final word. We tried to fight, but if the government doesn’t come to terms with its own laws, I won’t negotiate with it.

Anton Smirnov

42, Moscow Oblast (name changed and city unspecified at source’s request)

I was born in a fighter pilot’s family, so I knew what aviation was from the time I was a kid. I started studying in an aeroclub when I was 15 and finished my first flight at 16.

I graduated from a state-run flight institute and then moved to Surgut on assignment as a flight engineer. In 2004, prep courses for amateur pilots opened in the local aviation training center, and then they opened higher certification courses. So I became a commercial pilot.

I mostly worked on international flights. Everything was going well, and my bosses didn’t have any problems with me. But in 2016, Rosaviatsiya annulled the licenses of some of our pilots who hadn’t studied at state institutions. That included me. The wording was “for using unreliable documentation.” I didn’t understand what they meant.

I drove a taxi for a while. I stepped on my own throat, sat myself down, and drove. Ladies might see pilots as demigods in pretty uniforms, but those are just appearances. A pilot has to live through so much nastiness, so much humiliation. Any pilot who has not encountered these problems should consider himself lucky. We have no protection from the state. No one has protection.

In 2016, I went to Belarus to retrain. I passed all the exams and got a Belarusian pilot’s certification for commercial aviation that was valid in Russia too. A lot of pilots did the same.

In May 2017, I started flying with a Belarusian license. At the same time, I was suing Rosaviatsiya. [During one hearing], the judge asked me why I’m fighting for a Russian license if I can fly anyway. Because I’m a citizen of the Russian Federation, and I want to work in my own country! I have a right to transport my passengers with my own pilot’s license.

I lost the first case. Rosaviatsiya sent a telegram to the airline where I worked requesting that they bar me from flying. In short, I haven’t flown since February of 2018. I haven’t started doing anything yet. I could probably move to work in Belarus or maybe in Asia with my Belarusian license, but you’ve got to live at home. What will happen if everybody leaves? They say Russians have two dreams: kick all the foreigners out and then move out themselves. But I think that if your house is falling down, you have to rebuild it, not leave. But if they don’t let you do that, if they’re constantly beating you up instead, then you have to start thinking about how you can keep going. You really do only live once. But I still don’t want another future. Aviation is my life, so I’m going to keep suing, fighting, and proving myself.

Alexey Stepantsov

55, Siberia (name changed and city unspecified at source’s request)

In 1968, my father took me to an airplane exhibition. You could go into every plane and every helicopter, sit in the pilot’s seat, and ask a pilot questions. I was four years old, and every plane seemed infinitely large to me. All the people in blue uniforms looked like friendly giants. When the exhibition ended, there was an aerial technology demonstration: the plans and helicopters flew low over the aerodrome and then dispersed and shot upwards. It made a huge impression on me — I was just fascinated. That’s when my dream of becoming a pilot was born. And I stayed loyal to it to the end even though my path to aviation was a wandering one.

I started studying to be a pilot when I was 48. By then, I already had a career — more than one, in fact. I left a high-paying job as the sales manager of one of the Russian branches of a well-known Japanese heavy machinery company. I managed a team of around 20 people, and there were specific opportunities for advancement and career growth open to me. It seemed like I could just live and be happy. But the better I did at work, the more I realized that I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. I was just going through the motions and making money. A lot of money. But it can’t buy you happiness.

I never once regretted leaving my comfortable, settled life to make my childhood dreams come true. It was worth it. God made my most cherished wish come into being — I became a pilot. How can you put a price tag on that?

After I graduated from the ChelAvia aviation training school, I got a job at a small airline that ran ambulance flights, among other things. We picked up patients in remote villages on single-motor planes and transported them to regional centers. On my first day, we transported a newborn girl who was born 20 hours beforehand. The little babe didn’t even have a name yet. Our accompaniment statement said “Ivanov’s newborn.” We made it [to the hospital] in time, and the doctors saved the baby.

In my entire time in that job, the dispatcher only asked us to come back to the base after liftoff once. The patient died while we were taking off. We turned around and landed. Then, we smoked with the doctors on the ground in total silence. It was a painful feeling. It seemed like we did everything we were supposed to, we hadn’t done anything wrong. But you could still feel the weight on your chest.

I had 200 – 250 flights every year, and my total flight time was 1,296 hours. I skipped to work every day, and I wasn’t ashamed of it. I’m sure it looked absurd — a white-haired man dancing around like a young guy.

Unfortunately, though, my career as a pilot ended ingloriously. In bureaucratic lawlessness, as one would say in criminal circles. On April 6, 2018, some pilot acquaintances of mine in Moscow called me and warned me that the order to annul our licenses was already on [Rosaviatsiya director Alexander] Neradko’s desk. On April 9, the order appeared on Rosaviatsiya’s official site — there was a list of 65 people right away. Rosaviatsiya’s argument was the same for everyone—unreliable documentation presented during the certification process for aviation personnel. That said, Rosaviatsiya’s legal team couldn’t explain what exactly was “unreliable” in any of my court hearings.

I sued Rosaviatsiya for illegal annulment. The court turned down my lawsuit in the initial case. The appeals court upheld the first court’s decision. I don’t have proof, but I’m certain that Rosaviatsiya used powerful administrative resources [in these cases]. I lost faith in the justice and impartiality of the Russian legal system.

In 2019, I quit the airline for good. My colleagues were frustrated; they were cursing under their breath. For the bosses, every pilot is worth their weight in gold right now. Young people aren’t joining the field. In my entire time working in air ambulance services, only one young pilot joined up. I think the situation is only going to get worse. It’s a ticking time bomb.

There isn’t much money in our work, so it’s not prestigious. Flight school students don’t think much of small-time aviation. [They think] this work is for old farts and lazybones who don’t want to learn English and can’t find work in big aviation companies flying huge silver liners with wages that are insane by air ambulance standards.

But then, it’s true that our work wasn’t prestigious before either. But at least air ambulance services were respected. Legally, an aircraft that is performing medical services always takes precedence over passenger planes. If a dispatcher directs us to a landing on the shortest possible route, of course, the larger planes make way for us, but they grumble about it. We’re getting in the way of their efforts to increase the efficiency of their flights.

Now, I’m retired. I haven’t gone back to my old job. Why distract people from serious work? Though I’m sure they would be happy to have me back any time. Of course, I thought my career wouldn’t end like this. I thought I would work as an instructor in some private flight school teaching really young folks. I know how to make it so that they fall in love with this work forever. I know what to do to make them understand how important safety really is. But the way the politics are now with Rosaviatsiya’s leadership where training cadets is concerned, these politics that just strangle anything new, I don’t see any sense or any possibility for training young pilots.

The Central Ulyanovsk Airport in Baratayevka, a common site for training flights. February 27, 2010.
Marina Lystseva / TASS

Denis Botin

38, Khimki (name changed at source’s request)

I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid, but that’s not how my fate played out in the end. I’m from Uzbekistan. In the late 1990s, there was no institution there that trained pilots, so I studied in a different aviation-related major and worked in that field for 12 years. But my dream of becoming a pilot never left me. In 2015, when I was 34, I decided to change everything: I moved to Russia and started studying to be a pilot here. For me, it wasn’t hard: I’m a pretty mobile person by nature. But I had a wife and two kids, and that was pulling me back. My wife was against it. She said, why change a good, settled life, why spend more money [on training and moving costs], when we’re already living pretty well. It was very hard, and it almost pushed us to divorce. In the end, though, she agreed. We sold our apartment in Uzbekistan, took out $35,000 in loans, moved to Russia, changed our citizenship. I bet everything on making my dream come true. There was no turning back.

I enrolled in the Chelyabinsk Flight School for Civil Aviation, where there was a ten-month continuing education program. It cost 1.8 million rubles (about $28,000 today). After graduation, it was hard for me to find work, and I went from company to company asking around. They told me, “We don’t have any open slots, we don’t need pilots right now.” But the airline Azimut wrote me that they couldn’t accept my resume because there were rumors that Rosaviatsiya had a problem with my school. Then, I sent a request to the head of Rosaviatsiya’s flight operations branch, [Maxim] Kostylev, and I asked what was wrong with my diploma. He responded that there was nothing wrong. That was in February or March of 2017, and in July of 2017, they annulled my license. It was such a pity; it was a shame. I even got sick for a while afterward.

My mom was in shock. It was a ton of money, and we still had to pay our loans. My wife saw that I was having a hard time, so she tried not to put too much pressure on me. And what was the point? To just finish me off? I know other guys whose families fell apart [after their licenses were annulled]. Thank God I didn’t hurt myself, but it was a real shock. People were emotional: we felt as though someone might just lose it. We’re not talking about five rubles or even 10,000. I still have $28,000 left to pay back, for example. So you save up [for school] your whole life, get into debt, and then you get hit with this. It’s not just a knife in the back; I don’t even know what it is.

I had to feed my family, and I felt ashamed before my wife, so I found work in construction. I mixed concrete. At the same time, I sued Rosaviatsiya to get my license back, but I lost. Now, I’m going to the Supreme Court, and then to the European Court of Human Rights. I’m going to fight to the end, to the last, until blood starts flowing out of my nose.

Of course, I hope I win my case, but time is working against me. Airlines don’t really look at people in their 40s — they try to hire young people. Some of the folks who are better off find enough money to study again in the U.S. or Europe. We don’t have those kinds of resources anymore. And I won’t go study for three years in a government-funded school at my age either. How am I going to support my family? So I don’t have a second chance.

But there’s no need to pity me too much. We’ll figure it out, and life goes on. We couldn’t have become pilots without stress tolerance. Of course, you beat yourself down internally sometimes, you suffer when you’re left alone. I probably moved to Russia and spent all this money for nothing. But on the other hand, why torture yourself? So you try to forget about it.

After this whole story in Russia, I don’t really want to stay. I’m extremely disappointed even though I believed in Russia a lot when I moved here. From there, from the periphery, we look at Russia differently. We love Russia, we cheer for Russians in all the tournaments, the Olympics. And then we came here and found a totally different reality, one where people knock you off your feet with all this bureaucracy that’s impossible to fight. There is an urge to leave. Who needs you in a country that’s not your own? But if someone invited me somewhere in Europe, I would gladly run away there. Honestly I would.

Katerina Kuznetsova

Translation by Hilah Kohen