It’s always calm to fly with Dima. Not everyone can claim having such an extensive piloting experience and amount of heli-skiing hours. Total flying time is 15 000 hours. He has a medal for saving lives and an award to the best in aeroflot. He is also allowed to participate in all kinds of rescue operations. Dima is one of two pilots in Kamchatka having access to landings of 4000 meters and higher. He’s been a commander since 1999.
Humble by nature, Dima didn’t want to give an interview. But, having heard many of his fascinating stories, I couldn’t miss a chance and talked him into a conversation. We brought next group of tourists to the Kuril Lake. The sun was shining bright; we had a company of bears walking around.
And while group was having a boat excursion, I had an opportunity to ask Dima a few questions.
Кsu: Where are you from and what influenced your choice of occupation?
Dima: I was born in Sverdlovsk. Being 3 months old, my parents brought me to Kamchatka, so I am a “Kamchadal” since then. Parents are geologists, they were very often flying on helicopters.
I think this was the main reason for me to make this choice. Honestly, after 8th grade I wanted to become a biologist and was thinking to apply to Bauman University; but aviation has taken over.
Кsu: You’ve seen the whole Kamchatka from a bird’s eye view. Which places or phenomena have struck you the most?
Dima: Tolbachinsky volcano eruption, it was breathtakingly cool! I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life. Especially at night, when it started and lava poured down on us.
This is truly the most epic and exiting scene. Volcanic eruption had the most incredible impact on me. So, if there is an opportunity to see an explosion, you have to take a chance no matter the cost and effort.
Ksu: And how many times you took groups to that eruption?
Dima: About 10 times or more.
Кsu: So, you’ve seen all of the stages?
Dima: I was there since the beginning, on the 3rd day.
Кsu: One of the first?
Dima: Not the first, but amongst first ten. When lava cut off the road, we were one of the first to fly there on a helicopter. It was impossible to reach there by car; the road was blocked by lava.
Ksu: How close to lava you were flying?
Dima: 25-30 meters or something like this. Lower would be too hot and unsafe. We were there with AirPano, you can see panoramic views on their website.
Кsu: What other global eruptions do you remember?
Dima: Klyuchevskaya, from afar. Karymsky was great as well. We spent the night nearby and saw it in the nighttime. This was for Travis Rice’s shooting. In the morning helicopter was covered by the ashes for about 7сm.
Кsu: What can you say about Travis? Did you like working with him?
Dima: For sure interesting. The guy is nuts, in a good way. Very professional and demanding, first of all to himself.
Кsu: When was your first experience of heli-skiing? What brings pilots to such things? What skills are required?
Dima: If start counting from the time when I was a co-pilot, I have about 20 years of experience. Vladimir Ivanovich Shevtsov was amongst first ones to bring heli-skiing to Kamchatka. So it all started with him. I was flying with commander Danilov at that time. Sergey Rodoslavovich was a highly experienced pilot; he was my instructor on a commander’s entry and my mentor in heli-skiing. This job requires a straight eye, fast reaction and immediate decision-making. Of course, you need experience of flying in the mountains. Would be good if you are able to ski or snowboard, to understand what is requested, where it’s possible to go from one point to another etc. And be self-confident, then you’re gonna succeed!
Кsu: Though not overconfident!
Dima: Yeah, that’s right! Confident but reasonable. First of all, you need to competently assess yourself, and your equipment.
Кsu: You started to fly in 1993? When was your first heli-skiing in Kamchatka?
Dima: There was a group of Americans in 1991. There were flying with commander Sakaev with Shevtsov as a guide. They flew to the Kronotsky volcano, there were no such strict laws on restricted places at that time.
Кsu: For sure you have funny stories related to your first heli-skiing experience.
Dima: Yeah, well, there was a time when Alexander Sasha Moroz dug out a helicopter. We were ready to fly from Karymsky. After the night, we have to check engines separately, one and then another. Helicopter is kind of jumping while warming-up. Sasha runs into the cabin screaming: “What, we cannot take off?!” I say: “No, we can’t, wheels are covered by the snow..” And he takes a shovel and starts digging. Played a little joke on the guy.
Similar thing was with geologists in Milkovo. There were extra people entering the helicopter. So we said that we cannot take off and somebody has to push the helicopter. 3 persons jumped out to push. They were swearing for a long time afterwards.
There were cases when people forgot their skis in the helicopter, even guides themselves, so we had to take off again to throw the skis off.
Кsu: Do you remember any extreme situations? Fear? Betrayal?
Dima: There were all sorts of cases. But seems like a have an angel to protect and guide me. Once, we flew to pick up French from Kluchevskaya and went into a snowstorm. We had to turn back with zero visibility. Usually in such cases commanders turn to the left, but I turned right for some reason. We jumped out of the cloud. After the storm, we went to check the track and saw a rock on the left. But we try to fly safely.
Кsu: What does your family think about your flights?
Dima: Of course, they are worrying. I call every time I land and when there’s a signal. If I don’t get in touch for a long time, they call to dispatcher to ask where am I.
Кsu: How many children do you have?
Dima: Well, five.
Кsu: How did that happen?
Dima: Had a lot of flights! (laughing) Actually, two of them are mine, and three are from the second wife. We are thinking about the six one. The oldest three are students already.
Кsu: Anyone wants to become a pilot?
Dima: The youngest one. Says he’s gonna be a pilot, loves helicopters. One works as an electrician in Gazprom, the other is a mechanical engineer; daughter is studying to be a linguist. Another younger son wants to be a chef – in love with food.
Кsu: Most of the time you fly on MI-8. What do you think about other flight transports?
Dima: I don’t like Robinsons, probably will never fly on them. For me it’s the same as bicycle, not serious at all. But I’ve tried many, Eurocopter, Lama etc. Lama is very impressive, great one. B3 is aerobatic machine. From soviet ones I’ve tried Ansat, good one but with ‘soviet’ nuances.
Кsu: Tell me please a little bit more about your educational background.
Dima: Well, it was still the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, Kremenchug. There was a flying school of civil aviation. I was studying there for 3 years and then went to army for another 2 years in 1987. It was the only school in the Soviet Union at that time which trained civil helicopter pilots.
Now we also have only one, but in Omsk. I joined the army in Turkmenistan, in the infantry. Me and my friend did the stupid thing and signed up for Afghanistan war. He wanted a revenge for his brother, and I was just obsessed with childish heroism and patriotism. I didn’t get there because it was exactly the time when our troops began to withdraw. I was at the border in Kushka. I graduated from the school in 1991. Then I went back to Kamchatka and started working in Halaktirsky Airlines. After 3 years, I left for Kamchatka Airlines.
Кsu: So you didn’t fly anywhere but in Kamchatka?
Dima: With Kamchatka Airlines I’ve been in Chukotka and Magadan region.
Ksu: I remember a story you once told me about a rescue mission that had a huge impact on you.
Dima: It was a few years ago, on New Year’s Eve. A hunter disappeared and didn’t get in touch for a few days. On 1st of January we took a flight to search for him with a group of doctors and rescuers. We found an overthrown snowmobile and saw a trail of a crawling man. We found him in Tumroki; he crawled 40km. He couldn’t walk because of an open shin fracture. It wasn’t possible to save the leg, it was amputated below the knee due to severe frostbite. Now he still hunts, we see each other from time to time.
Кsu: You are a true hero for those who fly with you. Do you have someone that inspires you?
Dima: I can name all the old pilots, pioneers of aviation in Kamchatka. Samarsky, Fomin, of the living – Astrotin. I was flying with him as a co-pilot for a short while, but he has taught me a great deal. Even now, I can still learn a lot from him. Again, Danilov, my instructor.
Кsu: If not pilots, but in general heroes of your time that inspired you since childhood?
Dima: As a child if the Soviet Union, I was raised on some national military heroes, like Chapaev. Nobody knew Spider-Man or Captain America. Speaking of book heroes, in my childhood I liked Captain Blad from Rafael Sabatini novel. D’Artagnan! I liked adventures books. We all loved cosmonauts. Gagarin, of course.
Кsu: Ever seriously considered cosmonautics?
Dima: Yes, I did. But I don’t like the army. Unfortunately, all cosmonauts are military men. I also wanted to become a test pilot, but was already too old for school. They also train for 3 years, and only after that allow you to fly. Firstly, you gain experience as a co-pilot, and only then sit on a commander seat. I really want to go to space! Hopefully, I will live to that. Just for a short time. Live there for a year is hard.
Кsu: What is the maximum amount of time you can fly without stopping? When do you start feeling tired?
Dima: For example, if you fly straight, you can get tired of monotony. It’s different if you’re busy. When we were putting out large fires, we were flying for 12 hours. In 2016 there was a fire in Tigil, every day we poured out 400 tons of water. We were flying for 9-10 hours per day during 3 days. That’s when I was really tired, able only to drink tea and go to sleep.
Ksu: How does the process of fire extinguishing go?
Dima: There’s a reservoir hung down the helicopter, you have to scoop water and then pour it out. Pretty hard work. It’s not always possible to scoop from a large water, sometimes there’s just a small ‘puddle’ that is hard to reach.
Кsu: For how long you have been fond of photography? What was your first camera?
Dima: Smena-8M, a soviet camera. I was 10 years old; dad instilled me with love to photography. He did photos himself, and then together we would develop films and print photos. There was something magical in it. You look at an empty sheet of paper and see how the image appears. What hurts me the most is that at some point he just burned all the boxes with photos. I was able to keep only slides from 1971.
Mutnovsky volcano was very different at that time. Landing platform for excursions was the whole field. Now yellow, fumaroles were looking like pyramids. There were not 3 but about 10 cones, from which the smoke was pouring. Everything covered with smoke!
Кsu: What else did you have with you?
Dima: With Smena you had to do everything manually. Then there was Vilia-Auto, half-automated. After that I had Zenit, Olympus, Nikon for a short while, then switched to Canon. Now I’m looking at Maxim (Balakhovskiy) and thinking to try Sony.
Кsu: Do you participate in photography events?
Dima: I’m ok being in shadow.
Кsu: You are too shy, Dima!
Dima: Shy, maybe. But also I don’t have time to show everything. Leave it for retirement, I guess.
Кsu: We were together in Tumroki hunting base a few times. I was stroked by your cooking skills. First you made a ram, then a deer. Where did you get it?
Dima: Hard and hungry childhood! No, of course not, this is just a collective image. My dad is a hunter and he cooks very well. Wildfowl is easy to make! I couldn’t be a chef, too many hard processes and technologies. Here is easy, take a piece of meat, roast it and eat! Products should be fresh, food – simple. Every man has to know how to get a prey and prepare it well, to feed his woman.
Кsu: You travel a lot. What countries you want to visit again?
Dima: Kenya and Morocco are two countries in which I really want to return. Historically and culturally, I liked Armenia a lot, the cradle of Christianity. For now, my huge dream is Antarctica!
In case you have any additional questions for Dima, you can ask them at the end of this article. Follow Dmitry Zadirey on Instagram @dmitryzadirey to see fascinating pictures of Kamchatka and Kuril Islands.