“Let me tell you how uncomfortable it was. I have to wear a lot of clothes to keep warm so it’s hard to move. I have to wear an oxygen mask and the moisture I exhale freezes so I’ve got icicles on my neck. I have to wear a steel hat that crushes my ears—there were no pilot’s helmets in those days so they gave me a doughboy’s steel helmet to wear. I’ve got a flak suit on that has all the metal and canvas in the front but nothing in the back, so all the weight is on the front and it’s cutting my neck. And it’s freezing cold. And people are shooting at me.”
Alexander Poddoubnyi never aspired to fly the world’s largest airplane. Over the clamor of conversation and clinking coffee cups, he explains in a thick Russian accent: “When I was young, I want the fighter. Every young guy like me wants the fighter.” Poddoubnyi was in fact the youngest in his test pilot class in Moscow. But his mother was ill, so he was drawn back to Kiev, and a position at the Antonov Design Bureau—a career move considered less prestigious than the cockpit of a MiG. “Everybody thought I was stupid to switch to transport aircraft,” he says. A 20-year career as a test pilot for Antonov ensued with “certain successes.” Poddoubnyi was part of the cockpit crew on the first flight of the Antonov An-124 in December 1982. Weighing nearly 900,000 pounds and having a wing area of 6,700 square feet, the massive An-124 has set more than 30 world records, mostly weight- or distance-related, becoming the world weightlifting champion with a 377,000-pound payload.
How do you learn to fly the world’s largest airplane? By flying the world’s largest airplane, Poddoubnyi says. Due to lack of sophisticated simulators in the Soviet Union, “one hundred percent of our flight training had to be done in real conditions.” Still, the An-124 only looks intimidating; “it’s really very easy to fly,” he maintains. The fly-by-wire controls make it more pilot-friendly than many smaller “big” airplanes with conventional hydraulics, like the C-130 Hercules. In 10 years, Poddoubnyi accumulated about 10,000 hours in its five-person cockpit. With the thawing of the cold war, the mammoth began blotting out the sun in U.S. airspace too. “In 1988, we came in the -124 to New York to pick up aid for children of Chernobyl,” Poddoubnyi recalls. Soon, the pride of Soviet aviation was part of the ground display for enthusiastic capitalists at Oshkosh.
In the end, it was love that pulled Poddoubnyi from the cockpits of goliaths. “I flew the world’s largest airplane to the United States and met my future wife,” he explains. It was the new An-225 that he landed in Chicago. On a later flight, after frustrating passport delays caused by KGB meddling that separated him from his bride, Poddoubnyi executed Plan B: fly an An-124 to San Diego, park it, and defect to the United States in 1991.
“You mean, why am I here?” 90-year-old Rear Admiral Richard Lyon (Ret.) replies when I ask—with some hesitation—if he has any aviation experience. Lyon is the first Navy SEAL to attain the rank of admiral, not to mention a former two-term mayor of Oceanside, so no one’s going to question his credentials. Anyway, his résumé reads like a character sketch in an adventure novel. His World War II service with a Scouts and Raiders recon unit of Navy Special Forces led to intelligence missions traveling incognito through post-war China, shadowing the movements of Mao Tse Tung’s revolutionary forces for the commander of the Seventh Fleet. Accompanied only by an English-speaking Chinese national, “I didn’t look very Chinese,” he says today, “so I kept my head down a lot.”
After discharge Lyon began work on an MBA at Stanford, but was recalled during the Korean War to form the elite underwater demolition team UDT 5 at Coronado Naval Base in southern California. “I personally wound up well north of the 38th parallel inside Wonsan harbor doing mine discovery and disarming, plus recovering new mines we hadn’t seen before. My uniform was a drysuit and my armament was a pair of 24-inch bolt cutters.” In that pre-SCUBA era, Lyon free-dived in 36-degree North Korean waters to retrieve mines eight feet below the surface. Compared to the diving equipment available to later SEALs, “I was skinning it,” he says.
When Lyon retired in 1983, he was deputy chief of the Naval Reserve. As for that cockpit experience I asked about, he admits most of it was, you might say, unlogged. “My last tour of active duty as a rear admiral, I had a beautiful North American Sabreliner at my disposal,” he explains, “plus a pilot, copilot, and crew chief. Now, guess where I learned to fly?”