Russian tour offers flights of fancy

January 23, 1994|By Jeff Rowe | Jeff Rowe,Orange County Register

Are the Russians taking this capitalism thing a little too far?

John Pappas doesn't think so. The Mission Viejo, Calif., businessman has turned 15 years of business contacts in Russia into a venture that must have Vladimir I. Lenin turning in his glass-domed coffin, at least when people aren't looking.

Mr. Pappas just completed his first year of arranging perhaps the most unusual tours in the world -- 10-day trips to Russia that include visits to Red Square, the Kremlin and an hourlong flight in a Soviet military aircraft.

The one-hour flight is the centerpiece of the package.

"I expected it to be really neat, but it was even better," said Richard Wall of Fullerton, Calif., who flew a Russian Su-27 fighter this past summer. "It was much more than a leisurely ride."

In addition to flying inverted, climbing nearly straight up and doing rolls "so fast my eyeballs were slapping back and forth," Mr. Wall said, he and his Russian co-pilot switched on the afterburners and accelerated to nearly twice the speed of sound. "Complete silence," Mr. Wall recalled, as the aircraft sped ahead its own engine noise.

L Such thrills are a tad more expensive than a week in Hawaii.

A 10-day trip that includes a flight in an Su-27 Flanker or MiG-29 Fulcrum costs $14,500; a trip that includes a ride on the older MiG-21 fighter caps a package that costs $9,000. The Su-27 is similar to the U.S. military's F-18s; the MiG-29 is similar to the F-16s flown by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

Mr. Wall used money from the sale of a house for his trip; about 100 other dreamers have flown Soviet fighters in trips arranged through the programs Mr. Pappas initiated. Most are like Mr. Wall, pilots who fly for business or pleasure in relatively sedate propeller-driven aircraft and dream of rocketing unrestricted through the skies.

For Mr. Pappas, the venture represents something of a comeback after a run-in with the law a decade ago. Mr. Pappas received three years' probation after being indicted in a conspiracy to defraud Washington Federal Savings and Loan of $775,000.

Just a few years ago, it would have been easier to hitchhike on the space shuttle than even venture close to a secret Russian military installation. Now, Americans pose with their smiling Russian co-pilots in front of aircraft built specifically to blast U.S. military aircraft out of the skies.

"It's a great act of faith by the Russians," said Mr. Pappas, who reckoned ventures such as his are helping Russia transform its creaking socialist economy into a free-enterprise system.

It's an act of faith in more ways than one.

"Don't pull the ejection handle or I get ejected, too," Mr. Wall recalled his co-pilot, Igor Votintsev, as saying.

Mr. Pappas has been doing business in Russia since 1978, and his daughter Arminda is a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet state of Armenia. Three years ago, Mr. Pappas was working to organize a commercial airline venture in Russia when the subject of promoting Russian-built aircraft came up.

An imperative for doing business in Russia, Mr. Pappas said, is a partner. His affiliate is Svetlana Spektor, who takes care of accommodations, transportation, translations and other details in Russia Mr. Pappas is making arrangements for more Russian tours capped by rides in fighters or even bombers or transports.

Meantime, Mr. Wall has enough flying stories to last a lifetime.

As do the other flights Mr. Pappas arranges, Mr. Wall's took off from the once-secret Sukhoi Design Bureau at the Flight Test Center in Zhukovsky, about 40 miles northeast of Moscow.

To hear Mr. Wall tell it, the Russians are learning the ways of a market economy quickly. "They kept asking me if I wanted to come back and fly another plane the next day," he said. "They said they would make me a good deal."

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