Leonid Tyukhtyaev, the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Sudostroitelny Bank (SB Bank), is not only one of the most successful Russian aeronauts. He also, along with his wife, wrote a cult children’s book, and just finished a book of poetry about airplanes.
In October of this year, you came in second place in the “American Cup” for the long-range gas balloon race. How long were you in the air?
Three whole nights! I and my co-pilot, Wilhelm Emerson from Germany, left from Albuquerque on the 7th of October, and flew 2,503 kilometers in 61 hours and 20 minutes, landing in Washington. The winners of the race, Charlie White and Mark Sullivan, beat us only by a small amount - they flew a total of 2,618 kilometers.
This is not your first award this season, is it?
That’s right! In September, my crew received 5th place in the oldest air balloon race in the world, the “Gordon Bennett Cup”.
Have you always wanted to become a balloonist?
Ever since I was a little boy! Back in those days, I used to read a lot of stories about the “Neznaike” and the romantic adventures of Jules Verne. In the middle of the 1990s, when I had already grown up, a commercial caught my attention – “advertise your company on board an air balloon, and make your dreams come true”. And in fact, the air balloon was a real, flying billboard. It was bright, red, and caught peoples’ attention. At that time, I refused to let anyone else fly but myself, but some creative people gave me a couple of key suggestions to help me. The whole ordeal probably cost me somewhere close to 500 dollars. So I fired it up, flew to them, and started taking lessons.
Do you remember your very first flying lesson?
It was in February of 1996. No one ever forgets their first pilot, regardless of whether they are pilots or passengers. And after some experience, I realized that pilots actually remember all of their flights. We started about 13 kilometers from Pskov on a cold wintery morning - the instructor and I went out on the field, where the balloon was spread out on the ground. For him, it was instinct, but I was amazed by everything. And then we flew. Right away, the instructor gave me the burner to hold, and I did some of the tasks he assigned along the way as well. I really enjoyed the whole experience.
Was your first landing as memorable?
We landed on a patch of river ice right in the center of a town, near a hotel called “Anniversary”. Today, of course, people in Pskov do not pay attention to hot-air balloons - for 16 consecutive years, the city has been witness to national championships and other major events. At that time, though it was one of the first appearances of a balloon in the city. People came running from every direction – somewhere close to two hundred people! And then the ice cracked. Everyone shouted from around us, "What are you going to do?" We answered, "Fly away - but what are you going to do?”
Is it easy to become an air balloon pilot?
In good weather, it’s possible to teach someone how to pilot in about 10 days. This wonderful form of sport is available to almost anyone who isn’t a stranger to romance and a love for the sky. It is not much of a physical burden – and if you are able enough to drive a car, then learning how to drive a balloon will not be difficult. The main thing is to make sure your eyesight is good. As for age – well, I’m 56, and I am planning to fly for a long, long time yet. There are people even older than me flying, close to 70.
And what does a pilot need to know?
The balloon is a device, and like any machinery, knowing when to use and save your gas is crucial. It’s necessary to know several different disciplines as well, such as aero-navigation and meteorology, and it is also important to understand how the balloon works with the gas equipment, how aviation works with radio communication, and so on. Knowing the rules is important, of course: for example, when you’re flying over a town, then you need to fly higher, and other such rules. Once you pass the “theoretical exam”, you then need to go on a successful safety flight, at which point you can get your license. They give them out to people starting from the age of 16. The balloon itself costs around 50,000 Euros, as a minimum.
Tell us some secrets of the trade!
Flying is very simple, because a hot-air balloon has no motor. When the wind blows, the balloon flies. If there’s no wind, it hangs in place. If you want to fly over a church, you look to see which way the wind is blowing, and go from the right side. To make sure you don’t get caught on the dome, you control the height. When you press the burner, the air in the balloon becomes warmer, and the whole device will go higher. An experienced pilot will gently fly to where he/she needed to go and bypass any obstacles in the way. At this point, I am considered an experienced pilot, a master of the sport on an international level, president of the federation of air balloons, and a fanatic for breaking records to boot. I like setting new records – for height, distance, whichever. The highest I’ve ever reached is 9,300 kilometers. I was in an open basket, but with supplemental oxygen, because there is almost nothing to breathe that high up in the stratosphere. That was actually a national record.
What about flying outside of Russia?
Of all the foreign competitions available, the “Gordon Bennett Cup”, which is a race for gas balloons, struck me as the most interesting. The event is a memory for a lifetime! To give you a little more information, all the athletes, not just the winners, are presented awards by the Duke of Edinburgh himself. He gives everyone a diploma and a handshake. This time, the competition was held in Britain, specifically in Bristol. And in the tradition of the state, the ceremony was held at night, under the full moon. The balloons are filled with hydrogen, you take off, and the goal is to fly as far as you can without making any pit stops. It is more of a mental test, because you fly across all of Europe and you don’t know what will happen to you in the next minute, where you will land, what the weather will be like in two days, and so on. And the trip itself reaches speeds of 50 kilometers an hour!
Is that dangerous?
20 crews participate in the Cup, and one American team won. It is no walk in the park, of course – I would say it’s closer to a “gladiator fight”. The people here take it very seriously. Then again, when you come back, it is so good for your soul to walk on the ground and celebrate. You know how the saying goes, “A pilot has lived, so the pilot is right”.
What other plans do you have to set new records?
There are more interesting things than just balloons in the world, such as airships. Those are much more difficult. It has many degrees of direction, and it can move any which way, not just up and down. But if you learn how to fly it poorly, then it can kill you. It’s like downhill skiing – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I love to fly on airships, participate in international championships, and hold multiple world records. The feeling is unforgettable.
You are also famous as an author for a well-known children’s book. How did that happen?
‘The School of Zokol and Bada – a Chance for Children to Educate their Parents’ is a story my wife and I wrote for our own children 30 years ago. We weren’t looking for popularity. But in the year 1990, it just happened to get picked up by a “samizdat” press from the Soviet era. That same year, we printed it in a “Book Review”. Now, it has been published and released several times and translated into different languages. That same year, I published a book called “Poems about Airships”. It is a collection of funny couplets that I wrote about my favorite thing to do.
Text: Sofia Ponomareva