Valentin Padalka, pilot

Russia is never short of people with paradoxical family names. Previously in this series, we have seen that the world’s greatest spelunker is named “Provalov” (from “to fall through”). And now we meet a pilot whose last name comes from the verb “to fall.” Yet, 41-year-old Valentin Padalka has never “fallen.”

Hero of Russia, Emeritus Pilot, Colonel Valentin Padalka lives with his wife and two daughters in Rostov-on-the-Don. But the road to earning these distinguished titles was not an easy one: there is hardly a hot-point in the ex-USSR where he wasn’t sent during his military career (which continues still).

If he missed Chernobyl in 1986, it was only because his superiors opted to send him to Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s decade-long war there. “As soon as I arrived [at my unit in 1985], my commander’s first question was: ‘Have you been to Afghanistan? No? Ok, then you are the first candidate on the short list.’ They decided to send me to Afghanistan because all our regiment has been there, everyone but for me.”

Helicopter pilot duty in Afghanistan was considered one of the most dangerous missions—the mujehadin often shot them out of the sky with US-made Stinger missiles. But Padalka survived and returned home, in part at least because he said he never lets fear gain the upper hand. “When I face a critical situation,” he said, “I feel scared in my soul, but somewhere really deep inside, I believe in my decision. If you succumb to fear, it will devour you. When, prior to going to Afghanistan, I visited my folks, my mom told me: ‘I don’t feel scared. So fly and don’t be afraid of anything.’” It is easy to see where Padalka’s brave streak came from.

Padalka served in Bagram for one year and two months and flew over 600 hrs—more than anyone in his squadron. It added up to 650 sorties.

Valentin Padalka was born in the village of Zadonsky, Azov district. He began dreaming of flying at age 12. “It so happened that a small plane–an L29– was performing complex maneuvers right in front of our courtyard from dawn to dusk. We lived near the flight zone. And ever since then I have carried this little plane in my heart ...”

He began flying helicopters in 1977, first serving in a Special Combat Helicopter Regiment of the South Group of Forces in Hungary, then in 1985 was transferred to Tskhinvali as a senior helicopter commander.

The Afghan mission followed, then the 1988 mission in Leninakan, where he rescued victims of the Armenian earthquake. In December 1989, he became a squadron commander in East Germany, where he received the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and where his regiment was one of the first to withdraw in 1991. After a year in Kazakhstan (near the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site), Padalka finally got a less risky posting in Rostov, in the local cargo aviation regiment.

But fate did not loosen its grip. In December 1993, terrorists took a group of middle school students hostage. At first the terrorists demanded a plane to fly to Iran. Then they changed their mind: it was a helicopter they wanted. “I was the squadron commander,” Padalka said, “so they told me to prepare a helicopter.”

Why did Padalka fly himself?

“That’s just how it turned out,” he blithely replied. “As a commander, I needed to assign the crew a clear-cut mission: ‘Fly there, at such a time, do this and that.’ ... But here we were in the dark … there was no way to formulate the mission to the crew. Under such circumstances, I thought the commander must take the decision himself. In aviation there is no room for mistakes.” Held at gunpoint, Padalka flew the terrorists and their young hostages to Krasnodar, then to Mineralniye Vody.

In Mineralniye Vody, the terrorists demanded money: $10 million. “They brought the money, and my navigator, Stepanov, and I loaded it up: five sacks with two million in each ... Then the terrorist boss Almamedov asked me, ‘Can I trust you?’ I said, ‘Of course you can.’ ‘I’ll pay you $500,000 if you take me where I need to go.’ And he told me that the Iran story was just a fake. In fact, he needed to go to some place in the mountains some 21 km away from Zelenokumsk. I said, ‘Well, that’s tough, it will cost you an extra $200,000.’ He said, ‘OK,’ and brought the money.”

Padalka also got the terrorists to give up the children, putting himself and Stepanov in their place as their hostages. Almamedov finally ordered them to fly to his hometown of Khasavyurt. “But we took him for a ride,” Padalka smiled. “Instead of Khasavyurt, we flew to Makhachkala—they have a military airport there. In short, there is not much to tell. We were lucky that Almamedov mixed up the huge city of Makhachkala with the small Khasavyurt. Plus our helicopter’s heater caught fire, so the scared bandits just jumped off and ran away.”

“Frankly,” Padalka said, “we remained alive only because I refused to land the helicopter, pretending the surface below was too uneven for landing ... If only those terrorists knew on what kind of rough surfaces we used to land in Afghanistan ... “

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