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The forgotten guardian Sergey Sotnikov maintained an abandoned runway for free in northern Russia. Then, a malfunctioning passenger jet appeared overhead.

Source: Meduza
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

Sergey Sotnikov was, until his retirement this October, the manager of a helicopter landing pad in Izhma, a small town in the north of Russia’s Komi Republic. For 12 years after the airport where the helipad was located shut down, Sotnikov maintained its only runway nonetheless — all on his own initiative and without pay. In 2010, a malfunctioning Tupolev Tu-154 jet was forced to make a crash landing near Izhma, and the runway Sotnikov had kept intact and clear of debris saved the lives of the passengers and crew. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev traveled to Izhma to ask Sotnikov about his life and his regrets since then.

“You need 50 or 40 million for the asphalt, the concrete,” Izhma airport manager Sergey Sotnikov enthusiastically explained in March 2016. He was speaking to Sergey Gaplikov, who was then the acting governor of the Komi Republic. Immediately after naming the sum, which is now worth about $800,000, Sotnikov humbly added, “Perhaps too expensive, I think…” The governor answered, with mild encouragement, “We’ll see.”

On September 7, 2010, a Tu-154 passenger plane made an emergency landing here. The Alrosa Airlines flight was on its way from the Yakutian city of Udachny (whose name means “lucky” in Russian) across the country to Moscow. A few hours after takeoff, all of the plane’s onboard electronic devices shut down, and its pilots decided to land the vehicle. They decreased its altitude in search of a place where they could crash-land with minimal fatalities. Ideally, they needed two things: a nearby town or village (the pilots knew medical help would be needed immediately) and a flat surface (most likely a body of water). The runway of Izhma’s airport came into view unexpectedly; not even small planes had landed on it since 2003. However, the airport’s only remaining employee, Sergey Sotnikov, had continued not only to maintain the helicopter pad assigned to him but also to clean the runway on his own initiative. He regularly removed debris, branches, and fallen logs from its surface and even cut back the surrounding bushes and trees.

When Governor Sergey Gaplikov arrived in Izhma in the spring of 2016, he was about to face the election that would remove the word “acting” from his title. A photo op with Sergey Sotnikov was therefore very much to his advantage: It had only been a few years since the latter’s unpaid work enabled that Tu-154 to land with relative ease.

After the two men’s ambiguous but somewhat optimistic conversation about how many million rubles would be needed to resurrect Izhma’s airport, Gaplikov asked Sotnikov whether the airport had electricity and waste treatment mechanisms. Upon receiving the manager’s affirmative response, the acting governor solemnly pronounced, “If the plane landed here, that means it is God’s will! The airport must be made functional.”

More than nine years have passed since that landing, and more than three since the meeting between the airport manager and the acting governor. The Izhma airport still doesn’t accept incoming flights; the only difference in the building is that its windows are now boarded up. In October 2019, Sergey Sotnikov retired. “We’ve been waiting for what we were promised for three years,” Sotnikov joked bitterly to Meduza. He said he regrets not having left his post sooner: “In this, just like in sports, you have to leave at the right time. I’ve run out of steam, and I don’t see any future potential, any forward movement. They’re not going to bring back the airport here anymore — that much is clear.”

* * *

It’s hardly the first time Sotnikov has told the story of how the Tu-154 landed in Izhma, so his tone is frank and casual: “I was home at the time getting ready to bring my granddaughter to work, and then Volodya [Vladimir] Filippov, a former maintenance tech, calls me: ‘Seryoga, you’ve got a plane flying around up here — either an Il-62 or a tushka [Tupolev].’ I tell him, ‘Volodya, are you out of your mind? Our runway isn’t even on the registers anymore.’ Then some meteorologists called who live near the airport, and they said, ‘Mikhalych, a plane’s landed for you here.’”

Officially, Sergey Sotnikov was the decades-long manager of the local helipad. It was the only component of the former Izhma airport worth maintaining, and that made Sotnikov the facility’s only employee. The airport first opened in 1978, the same year a 20-year-old Sotnikov was assigned to work there. In the Soviet era, the roads to Izhma were poor, but small aircrafts enabled local residents to move quickly and relatively cheaply both to the Komi Republic’s capital of Syktyvkar and to neighboring regions.

Now, Izhma has a highway, and helicopters connect the small district capital with several other towns in the Komi Republic’s north. That is the service Sergey Sotnikov had provided for 12 years before the Tu-154 paid him a visit. Simultaneously, he kept the runway in working condition simply because he wanted to, without any compensation whatsoever. The path was not designed for large planes like the Tu-154 — a passenger jet requires two kilometers to take off or land, and the Izhma runway only stretches to 1.3. However, even that length was enough to save the lives of all those aboard the Alrosa flight. The airplane landed without rolling over — the key condition for survival — and began to brake on a hard surface, giving it time to decelerate before sliding off the end of the runway and onto a stretch of marshy soil overgrown with shrubbery, where it continued moving for 160 meters. All 81 people on board survived, and not only that: None of them were seriously injured. Both the pilots and the small-town helipad manager made this feat possible.

TASS / Scanpix / LETA
TASS / Scanpix / LETA
TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Following the incident, Sergey Sotnikov became a celebrity. He was a guest on major state TV talk shows (“I talked to Andrey Malakhov, paid Boris Korchevnikov a visit,” he recalled). There were government honors, too: Sotnikov received the Order of Service to the Fatherland, Second Class. In that same year, 2010, Sotnikov was invited to take part in Vladimir Putin’s annual “Direct Line” call-in show, where the then-prime minister thanked Sotnikov for his work. Beyond that, the helipad manager got nothing from Moscow or its inhabitants.

Closer to home, Sotnikov received a regional honor for transport workers and a certificate of merit from former governor Vyacheslav Gaizer. “3,117 rubles [$50] added to my pension means I’m not about to die of hunger. Though in a resource-rich republic [like ours], people could get even more — around 10,000 [$160]. There aren’t that many honored workers, and it takes a lot [to get that title],” Sotnikov told me with a hint of frustration, though he received his honored transport worker designation almost by chance. Sotnikov recalled that a few years ago, then-federal Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov visited Komi and asked to see the local celebrity in his field. “It was no big deal. We just talked. And then the republic’s deputy transport minister asked me, do you have honored worker status? I said no. What was I going to do, beg for it? And then they gave me the certificate.”

Other gifts appeared as well, but not from the government. The largest among them was a Yamaha snowmobile crowdfunded on an online forum. Small amounts of money were occasionally transferred to the airport manager as well. Sotnikov used the funds to install new lighting for the Izhma District’s helipads. “They used to have steel lights on stands — braziers, they’re called — they’d take a rag, dip it in diesel. They switched to benzene later on. Then they’d light it on fire, and the wick would burn in that container. The helicopter would land using the signal to orient itself, but then the wind [from the propellor] would be so strong that all the lights would get blown out. Couldn’t they have made some basic, battery-powered portable projector lights at the Emergency Services Ministry? We have to hustle all on our own,” Sotnikov said sorrowfully. He used the present tense even though he hasn’t been working in aviation for several months already.

* * *

Sotnikov, with his ample local popularity, very quickly became an object of interest among local politicians as well. In 2011, representatives from the United Russia party, which is dominant nationwide, invited him to take the number two spot on their regional parliamentary list in the Irayol group. “Pyotr Dityatev, the head of the [Izhma] district, came over to me and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Sotnikov, would you like to run?’ I said no, said no again, but then I got to thinking — this is the head of the district asking. He’s not a bad fellow; he’s respected here; he’s a former head doctor and everything. All right, to hell with it! I’m a technician — I don’t really get politics,” Sotnikov reminisced in his interview with Meduza.

He added that he understood why he was asked to join United Russia’s list: “For the platform, to get more votes.” He never actually became a deputy even though his list got enough votes for him to be selected: The party decided that the Irayol District should be represented by another pair, Sosnogorsk District head Igor Leonov and a Sosnogorsk-based entrepreneur named Vladislav Gavrilov. Multiple Izhma residents told Meduza that the switch offended Sotnikov to the point that he withdrew from the party. The airport manager himself said he wasn’t offended at all. “Not long ago, my wife said to me, ‘Thank God you didn’t get in [to the regional legislature]!’ A lot of deputies from that time were put in jail.” Leonov was indeed convicted of abusing his authority for personal gain. “But I never registered for the party, never signed any papers, never got a membership card from anybody.” Sergey Sotnikov clearly isn’t fond of talking politics.

However, he doesn’t hold a grudge against the government either. He assured me that the 2010 airplane landing so directly impacted by his work barely changed his life at all. After the incident, he continued driving around in an old Russian-made Niva, which he only recently traded in for a humble Lada Granta. Sotnikov uses the cars to bring his youngest grandchildren to school. Meanwhile, what frustrates him is the way people have treated his airport, not himself: “Good people promised to bring back the [small plane] flights, but nothing’s happened. This kind of poverty weighs down your soul and wears on your nerves,” he sighed.

Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

* * *

In the year following its crash landing, the remains of the Tu-154 didn’t just become a local attraction; in Izhma, the wreck was seen as a source of pride. Newlyweds held photoshoots next to its skeleton, and an unofficial city emblem began to circulate that included a jet flying through the sky. Now, however, the pride surrounding the airplane has diminished. “The windows of the airport are boarded up, see? I used to have uncovered glass — nobody broke it. Time passed, and people started to forget [the plane landing]. Three times a year, I kept replacing the glass, polishing it, but then it got to be too much, and I started boarding it up instead. See that window? The boys around here unboarded it three times last summer,” Sotnikov lamented. “There’s no security, nothing. How’s Dima going to run around here in the summer? You have to be tied to this place constantly, like a watchdog,” he said, nodding toward the airport.

Dima is Sergey Sotnikov’s successor in the helipad manager post. His full name is Dmitry Kanev, and he’s about 30 years old. Sotnikov took a break in our interview to suggest dropping by his old workplace: He wanted to exchange a few words with Dmitry. The new manager asked his predecessor where to find working lightbulbs for his equipment, calling him simply Mikhalych, like the meteorologists. Sotnikov soon found the necessary box and said, “There are broken ones and working ones in here.” “So I’ll just use the poking method to inspect them?” Dmitry responded with a smile. Mikhalych nodded.

The airport building itself has steadily deteriorated. It’s clear that since the early 1990s, when planes stopped flying in and out of it, nothing here has changed. It may have been even longer than that: The walls are covered in old Aeroflot ads and even a large ad for the Dutch company KLM — a rare trophy. In the monitor’s shed, there’s a poster featuring possible aviation routes through the Komi Republic. The scheme was developed under Vyacheslav Gaizer, the region’s previous government head. Izhma is one of the cities drawn into the network. Small airplanes stand beside it, and they are the point that catches Sotnikov’s eye.

“You can’t send Boeings over here. Elki are pretty touchy, too: They say they can land on soft surfaces, but that’s bullshit. The propellers spin [the air] around and send rocks up all over the fuselage. What are you supposed to do, constantly repaint the plane? In Soviet times, the An-24 used to come here — a nice, hardy little plane, but the noise of it was just [terrible]… And it guzzled loads of fuel. All our planes are like that.” The enthusiasm in Sotnikov’s voice is clear whenever the conversation turns to technology.

The fact that the airport is still out of use is Sergey Sotnikov’s central disappointment in life. After the Tu-154 landed there, he believed that aviation would come back to Izhma. Even so, toward the end of our conversation, Sotnikov acknowledged that he wouldn’t say no to a more significant personal award, either. “I talked [after the crash landing in 2010] to an American correspondent over the phone, and he asked almost right away what recognition I’d been given. I counted them off — a medal, the certificates. The American responded, ‘Over here, we’d have given you about four million dollars. You saved a plane, after all, and the people — that’s all insurance money.’ But in our case, we had Alrosa techs at the airport who worked on the plane, and the airline never even paid back its electricity debts to the airport.” Even when he starts out talking about his own financial prospects, Sergey Sotnikov comes back around to the obstacles facing the local aviation industry.

Our conversation even touched on Damir Yusupov, the airline pilot from the Urals who was behind the wheel of the A321 jet that lost power in both its engines in August 2019. Yusupov and his copilot landed the plane safely in a cornfield near Moscow. The pilot later made the rounds of a number of TV shows and even took part in a pro-government demonstration in Moscow. “They’ll drag him around, drag him around some more, and then they’ll forget about him,” said Sergey Sotnikov, brushing his hand defeatedly through the air.

Report by Andrey Pertsev, Izhma

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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