Interview with V.N.Zabelin

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1. Military School

Military student V.Zabelin. Bataysk, 1940

Zabelin, Vladimir Nikolaevich: I was born in 1921 at Gostino settlement, Dubovskiy rayon, Stalingrad oblast. My parents were poor peasants. In 1934 our family had moved to Stalingrad, and my dad started to work at the railway as a machinist’s assistant, while my mom became a housewife. There were three kids in our family: Vladimir, Viktor, and Nikolay.
I completed 10th grade in Stalingrad. While I was studying in 10th grade (this was in 1940), I passed medical and mandatory boards and applied for Stalingrad regional aeroclub. I kept going to the school and at the same time studied at the aeroclub. In the morning I would run to school, and after dinner I would run to aeroclub. It took me a year to master the U-2. In the autumn I was sent by the aeroclub, komsomol, and the voenkomat [draft board] to Bataysk aviation school. It was located near Rostov. This school trained only fighter pilots. I didn’t go before any selection board; I was told that I had been accepted by mail. I remember that I was in doubt that I would be accepted. For me fighter pilots were something beyond reach. There was a fighter pilot school in Stalingrad, and on a daily basis I saw how they flew their I-16s above our heads.

— You are pretty tall; didn’t it cause any problems?

I’m 178 centimeters tall. I know that cosmonauts have a height limitation due to problems with living compartment size. Gagarin was rather short, Titov… On the other hand, most of the pilots are also rather short… But no, it did not cause me any problems.

— What was school structure?

Each squadron had its own airfield, which was located near some noticeable village of Rostov oblast. Squadrons were large; in my 7th Squadron, for example, were almost 250 cadets. The educational process began as we arrived at the school in December 1940. First of all, theoretical courses—all the sciences needed for pilots: navigation and flight theory. The main fighter of our air force was the I-16, and we studied it hard.

— Tell us, what do you think of this airplane? There are different opinions about it. Some recall excellent aerobatic characteristics, while others tell us about difficulties on takeoffs and landings.

Both opinions have a base under them, and serious ones. Have you seen this aircraft? The fuselage is a small barrel. Small wings. The view from the cockpit was somewhat obscured. It was very tricky on takeoffs and landings. Like all planes at that time, it had a strong tendency to yaw to both sides on a runway.

— What other planes did the school have?

Apart from I-16, there were Chaikas and the I-15Bis. They also were in the inventory of our armed forces. But they were only as exhibits in our school. During the winter of 1940, we completed the full theoretical course of education at Bataysk. All required disciplines. We studied airplane construction, its engine up to the last screw.

— In your opinion: was this training really necessary for a pilot?

Not to the extent we studied it: we had to remember every rivet and plug. Most commonly the pilot has to know only where to press, so that a required mechanism would work. Life has shown that our educational system was overloaded, and it changed with time.

— How many flying hours were you required to have during training in those days?

In aeroclub it wasn’t large. And in flight school we had thirty, maybe forty flights. Just as we started to get used to the I-16, war broke out. We were sent to Kavkaz, to the area of the town Evlakh, which is not far from Kirovobad. We traveled for about a month, and in July we were there. I finished training on the I-16 at the airfield which was 20 kilometers from Evlah.

— By the way, how did you find out about the war?

I was on guard duty. I heard aircraft engines from the planes that were flying toward Bataysk. And then, I heard the whistling of the bombs falling on the hangers. And explosions.

— Almost all veterans with whom we have talked say that they greeted the war on guard or kitchen service.

Speaking of friends: I was in a very good relationship with Nikolay Mikhaylovich Skomorokhov. (Twice HSU, had 46 + 8 enemy airplanes on his account. M. Bykov) We were cadets together and learned to fly the I-16.
The Germans got closer and closer. Soon our instructors were ordered to start flying intercept missions. They tried to catch reconnaissance planes in I-16s. I saw the first engagements of our instructors with Junkers. It always looked the same: Our pilot tried for a long time to catch up to the reconnaissance plane, and then shot at him. At that time the ShKAS was the only weapon we had. It was very rapid firing, but it also jammed very often. The plane would return, and our instructor would swear – his weapon had jammed.

— Didn’t you have UB heavy machine guns?

No. Not from the start.

— Which types of I-16 did you have in the school?

The ones with the M-25 engine. Those which I saw had two ShKAS machine guns, one in each wing root. Those are the ones we flew and trained on, and I fired my first burst at the target from its ShKASes.

— Did you have dual-control airplanes?

Yes, the UTI-4. It had the same flight characteristics as a combat plane.

— Did you have UTIs with M-22 engines?

I saw such planes, there were some at our airfield, but in our squadron were only UTI-4 with the M-25. This airplane was extremely demanding on taxi, takeoff, and landing. We had to train in taxiing and taking off in a plane that had been stripped of fabrique from the wing to be sure that no one would take off.
There is one more thing about the M-22 – there were moments when you couldn’t switch it off. When it overheated, it kept working by itself, on detonation. I remember that I made several training taxiing runs. A cloud appeared, rain started, but I couldn’t turn it off. I switched the magneto off, but it kept working. So I had to sit under the rain in the cabin. I was lucky that rain was brief.

— How did you get to Evlakh?

We cadets and personnel were loaded into cargo cars; for our commanders there were a few passenger cars in the train. Airplanes and trucks were loaded onto flat bed trucks. The school was evacuated in parts, not simultaneously. Our squadron had its own train.

— Did you transfer all airplanes capable of fighting to the front?

Yes, all flyable I-16s were sent to the front. Some of our instructors also stayed behind to fight the Germans. Many were killed.

— Did you see UTIs converted into combat airplanes?


— That is, you had only UTI left for training?

There were no Po-2s and UT-2s at all, while the UT-1 was flown only by instructors and senior commanders. There were too few of them, and cadets were not allowed to fly them.

— You must have traveled for more then a week?

Our journey lasted for about a month. Not less then twenty days. Our train was bombed by Germans, but God saved us – they were lousy bombers, and there were almost no losses.

— When you arrived to Evlakh, was there an airfield and barracks?

Before our arrival there was no infrastructure at all. There was a small civilian airfield, and that was it. All squadrons were sent to different locations. Our squadron was sent to a small station about 20 kilometers away from Evlakh. I don’t remember its name… Sarvan, or something like that. We were unloaded on an empty field, and then we began to build houses. We helped a little bit, but there were some real military construction units, and we were relieved for flying duty. We had to learn to fly and do it fast.

— Which planes did you fly?

The UTI-4 and the I-16.

— You told us that you left the I-16s behind.

We left behind all planes that were airworthy and could shoot. But damaged and crashed planes remained. With time they were repaired. Our squadron had only two I-16s, and that’s why we usually flew the UTI-4.

— What kinds of aerobatics did you fly?

We began with “box” flights, then route flights. Then we started aerobatics: sharp turns, Immelmanns, loops, barrel rolls, spins. Every figure there is.

— Some pilots recall, that there was an order that forbade aerobatics training due to a high accident rate.

I haven’t heard of this situation. There were certain airplanes that were not allowed to be used for aerobatics. Almost all of the I-16s were off limits, and we used them for shooting practice. We shot at ground targets only. On the I-16 I made 10 “box” flights, five “zone” flights, and two times I shot at ground targets. And it was considered that I completed the training course on the I-16.

— How you were fed?

Food for pilots is a very important moment. We were fed rather poorly; we were always hungry. In those days cadets wanted to eat all the time, but we could see good food only in our night dreams. Usually there was some porridge or soup on the menu. If we flew, then on this day there was something more decent, even with meat. But only on the days when we flew.

— Was it different before war?

Of course it was better. We were fed three times a day. If there was no meat, we got fish. What I remember well was wheat porridge with oil, as we used to say – aviation porridge. In the morning we had cocoa with donuts.

— How did you spend your free time?

Neither before, nor during war did we have any free time. For example, I never saw a movie while I was studying or teaching.

— When did you graduate from flight school?

I finished flight training on the I-16, and in June 1942 my fate was about to be decided. The Germans were approaching Stalingrad, and they were nearing the Caucasus range [in the south]. At this moment, less then 100 remained out of 250 cadets.
A portion of the cadets, those who were only studying theory of flight or had just begun flying, were sent to the infantry. They received a rifle, and went to the Caucasus Mountains to patch up the frontline. Later I talked to some of them; they were wounded, but alive. They told me that others had perished. The German “Edelweiss” [1st Mountain] Division managed to bring even artillery up there, while our cadets had only Mosin Model-1891/30 rifles with almost no ammunition.
Another group of cadets was sent to Baku PVO [antiaircraft defense] flight training. There they were trained to PVO specifications. Among them was my friend Skomorokhov, who later became twice HSU and a Marshal. He was there for a very brief period of time; he flew the La-5 several times and was sent to the front. I was sent to train on the LaGG-3, where I was supposed to undergo complete training. The LaGG was a new airplane, and because of this new theoretical disciplines were added to the training course. We flew only from Evlakh civilian airfield.

— Did the LaGG have nicknames like “Laquered aviation guaranteed coffin”? Or when they appeared?

It was not so common as it is said now. The LaGG was heavy on the controls; to fly it correctly you had to be very well physically trained. It was usually called “an oak,” or “wood.” It came from captured German pilots.

— All LaGGs were the same? Other veterans have told us that a lot depended on the factory that produced the plane.

And they are correct. Airplane quality drastically depended on the factory it was produced in. But even best LaGGs were still unsuccessful.

— There is an opinion, that the LaGG-3 had very weak landing gear, and it tended to collapse on the slightest mistake.

The I-16 was prone to this problem, but the LaGG’s landing gear sometimes also collapsed. It never happened to me, but since I worked a lot as an instructor, I had seen such things.
The LaGG’s landing gear was not able to withstand lateral pressure, and if you landed with a slide, it could collapse. But it was longer than the I-16, and thus it was more stable on the runway. On the other hand, it was as treacherous as I-16 on takeoff. Especially on takeoff.

— In what respects was the LaGG an improvement over the I-16?

It was significantly better in several respects. The main improvement was in speed. The I-16 had a top speed of 450 kilometers per hour, while the LaGG theoretically could fly with a speed of 580. In reality, I flew at 510–520.
If you have better speed, you have improved vertical maneuver, but this also meant that horizontal maneuver was worse.

— But this plane would loose more speed after maneuvering due to its heavy weight and a weak engine?

Well, you are also right.

— Did you have LaGGs with four machineguns and one cannon?

We had planes with 20mm cannon and two 12.7mm machine guns.

— When you received LaGGs, did your technicians have to rebuild them? Or were they ready to fly straight away?

Our school did not receive new airplanes; they came from combat regiments after use. Thus, our technicians had to do miracles to keep them ready to fly. Besides, this plane was totally different: water-cooled engine, automatic raising of the landing gear. I’ll remind you: on the I-16 you had to make 43 rotations with the special crank.

—All pilots still remember these 43 rotations.

Can you imagine what it was like? When I did it for the first time I was exhausted. And don’t forget – you have to fly the plane at the same time! But the plane is constantly moving to the left, to the right, up and down. In the LaGG everything was great: you pressed a button, and the landing gear would be raised hydraulically.
But when we started flying LaGGs we began carrying pliers in our pockets. Why? Very often buttons got jammed, and there were a lot of cases when the pilot couldn’t lower the landing gear because they couldn’t press the button in or pull it out. Then you take the pliers and pull the button out. When we met after the war, we kept recalling those pliers.

— In which plane was the pilot better protected?

The pilot was almost completely defenseless in the I-16.

— But it had a “star” air-cooled engine and an armored backrest.

So what if I had a “star.” We were told that it would protect us. But who would attack head-on?

— But what about bomber gunners, for example?

Gunners? Yes, possibly. But it happened so in my life that I had to fight against fighters.

— How did you become an instructor?

It was in 1943, sometime in the spring, when I finished a course of training on the LaGG.

— You trained to fly the LaGG for a year, but you made only a couple of dozen flights?

Yes. We flew rarely – there was no fuel. Food became a lot better than normal on the flight days. When we flew I ate as much as I wanted, up until the next flight day.
Right before I finished training on the LaGG, there was one interesting case. I flew my LaGG to four and a half thousand meters, did some aerobatics there, and dove to the ground level with no throttle applied. The engine cooled too much. I tried to add some throttle, but it did not work, and the engine stalled. The engine ran intermittently, and the propeller was rotated by the air flow over it. My calculations for the landing were not precise enough, and I landed 200 meters beyond the right spot, and started rolling. Then I noticed some bump going across the runway. I pulled the stick a little bit, and plane jumped a bit. It was an irrigation ditch, about one and a half meters wide. I “jumped” across and my LaGG finally came to a stop.
Colonel Kutasin, our school comander, personally arrived at the scene. Airplanes were in short supply, or as we used to say “the price of gold,” and this LaGG-3 was the best in our school. If I would have crashed this plane, it is quite possible that I would have ended up in a penal battalion. At least they would heve sent me some where.
Kutasin walked along the trail, and he looked very surprised. He couldn’t figure out how I managed to jump across the ditch. Eventually he was satisfied: the airplane was ready for action, I landed and didn’t even scratch it. All the technicians had to do was to drag it back to the airfield. He expressed his appreciation to me verbally.

— Did this LaGG have slats?

No, in school we had LaGGs without slats. Later, when I worked in a ZAP as an instructor, we received planes with slats. Those LaGGs were unbelievably easy to fly. They were much better than the ones we had in school.
That’s how my training on the LaGG in Evlakh finished, and I began waiting for a new position. Those who flew LaGGs those days were sent to Kuban. Later Aleksandr Pokryshkin fought there on Cobras.

— Were there losses in your batch of pilots?

Many pilots perished, especially in the Kuban. The Germans knew how to shoot down LaGGs, and they did it well.

— Which planes did the pilots like, and which did they not like?

Everybody was swearing at the LaGG. Yaks were considered to be good planes. There were no La-5s yet. Cobras were also thought to be good, but most likely because it was known that Pokryshkin flew it. He made an advertisment, so to say. It wasn’t such a great airplane after all.

— When the La-5 appeared, did pilots like it, or did they think of it as a LaGG?

Pilots liked it, although it was also tricky on takeoff and landing. They appeared around the time of the battle for Stalingrad.

© Oleg Korytov, Konstantin Chirkin, Igor Zhidov 2007-2009

Дата публикации: 22.08.2010
Авторы: Олег Корытов, Константин Чиркин, Игорь Жидов

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