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Flying along the Milky Way
In Ukrainian, the Milky Way is Chumatsky Shlyakh which literally means, The Road of Chumaks. Chumaks were traders in the fifteenth-nineteenth centuries who delivered salt, dried fish and other goods from the Crimea and other places to other parts of Ukraine. Volodymyr Trylisky, a travel enthusiast, an amateur pilot and a journalist, flew over the areas through which the chumaks once used to pass.
There were six of us, pilots and navigators who flew from Kyiv to the Crimea and back to Kyiv — a round trip of 2,200 kilometers — in three light one-engine planes following the imaginary track on the ground along which the chumaks of old used to travel.
I love to fly and pilot planes. It is so exciting to make the plane get off the ground and soar into the sky. Nothing compares to it.
Some time ago an idea came to my head to combine the joy of flying with an imaginary trip into the past. I was interested in the story of chumaks, Ukrainian legendary traders. My friends shared my interest. We read all we could about chumaks and discovered a lot of interesting things. We learnt, for example, that in addition to being versatile and proficient, traders were “topographers” and founders of villages — they drew maps, they blazed the trails, they created songs, they gave names to the villages they had founded. Some of the names have survived to our days. I realized that the Milky Way was called Chumatsky Shlyakh for a very good reason.
Before we started on our flight, we had to do a lot of preparatory work, studying the maps, choosing the flight routes, checking with the flight authorities, and doing other things one is expected to do in such cases.
I was to be the navigator and Tetyana, my friend, was to pilot the plane. Once in a while we switched places, alternating between piloting and navigating. I used the most basic instruments such a slide-rule, an alidade and a pencil. It felt very romantic.
Once we were in the air, I kept checking the route along which we were flying, with the maps and the actual landmarks on the ground — lakes, rivers, roads, highways, villages and cities. We cruised at an altitude of 500 to 800 meters. The visibility was excellent and we never lost our way. The first stop was at the town of Kirovohrad. It stands on the border with the great steppe. It was founded as a fort and thanks to chumaks it grew into a town.
After we landed, we began a technical check of the planes. Everything was in excellent shape but as we prepared to take off — we had to get to our destination in the Crimea before dark because our planes were not equipped with instruments for landing in the dark — it started to rain. Luckily, the rain stopped as abruptly as it started and we could take off.
I find that women are more romantic than men, at least Tetyana, my pilot is. She, an aviation engineer by education, seems to be fond of flying more than I am. She was very sure of what she was doing, keeping us on course even when we got into active turbulences caused by the passage of atmospheric fronts.
Once in a while, I would check whether the two other planes were following us, and they always were. I’m sure they did the same. It gave me a feeling of safety to have my friends flying their planes some short distances away from us, though in case of trouble all they could do would be to inform those on the ground who monitored our flight about an emergency in the air. But everything went without a hitch.
When we approached the Crimea, I was excited to see the Crimean isthmus and the familiar shape of the peninsula. On the ground I saw the salt lakes and salt-packed firths which were the places where chumaks got their salt to transport it elsewhere. It was good salt too — it had iodine in it which, it was discovered not too long time ago, was vital in certain quantities for the human organism. And salt was also indispensable for preserving perishable foods like fish which, in the absence of refrigerators, would be impossible to keep good for consumption for any length of time.
We landed at a formerly military airfield near Jankoy, once a center of salt trade. It looked like a green oasis in the otherwise yellow plains. Jankoy translates from Tartar as “a new village.’ It used to sit on the trade crossroads of the Crimea, and was often referred to as “a gateway to the crime.” At present, it is hardly more than a provincial town. It was in Jankoy that I thought that it could be turned into a major airport to handle local air traffic. Crimean plains stretch for long distances, the population is sparse, the roads are few — and it is small planes that could help solve the local transportation problems…
The Crimea itself, with its 300 sunny days a year, could be turned into a major tourist center with all the proper facilities provided. “I surely would if I only could…” The Crimea does receive a lot of tourists but there is still so much to be done so that its tourist infrastructure and tourist facilities would meet the world standards.
Our destination on the Crimean coast was Koktebel, also known as Planerskoye. Planerskoye literally means “a place of gliders.” It was indeed a center of the “gliding” sport, and it was there that Antonov and Illyushin, the two men who were the leading aviation designers in the soviet times, had their first flying experiences.
Koktebel was a place where many remarkable Russian and Ukrainian poets, writers and painters came to spend some time at in the early twentieth century, a lot of them staying at the house of the poet Maksimilian Voloshin. Among the visitors were Chekhov, Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetayeva, Paustovsky, Honchar, Rylsky, Tychyna, to name a few. But none of them saw Koktebel from the air the way we did! When we flew over the beach, I waved to the people below and they waved back. We also flew over a nudist beach which is situated at a secluded place on the shore, and we greeted the nudists by tipping the wings. I quite understand why some people would want to be in the nude on a beach, but I am not sure I would be prepared to do it myself.
We stayed in Koktebel overnight and early the next morning we flew off. The route we took was different from the one we had taken to get to the Crimea. On our return trip we flew along the left bank of the Dnipro River. We flew over Zaporizhzhya in the vicinity of which the free Cossacks established Zaporizhska Sich — a Cossack republic in the sixteenth century; we flew over the Land of Poltavshchyna. If only Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol) could see the land he described so poetically and romantically in his stories, he would have been inspired to pen even more romantic and mysterious stories!
We landed in Poltava for refueling. The airport was dead — no flights, no passengers. And it is not clear whether it will ever come back to life — such are harsh economic realities.
An hour later we safely landed in Kyiv. As the pilots say, “The take off is difficult, the flight is pleasant, and the landing is dangerous,” but for us it was not dangerous at all.
Photos by the author
Our company in the air.
The plane is over Mount Karadag in the Crimea.
The glider has landed in Gliderville
(the actual name of the place is Planerske
which can be loosely rendered as Glider-ville).
Oleksiy Kinzersky, head of the expedition.