Runway to the future
[b]Former military aerodrome transforming into major logistical centre[/b]Many military bases ceased operation in Belarus after the USSR’s collapse, with regiments disbanded and barracks and ammunition stores emptied. Planes no longer took off and those who once worked with the military faced unemployment. The town of Bolbasovo (not far from the Vitebsk Region’s Orsha) experienced such difficulties, having accommodated an aviation regiment until 1994. Afterwards, Orsha Aircraft Overhaul Plant, located in Bolbasovo, took over the aerodrome. Now, the town’s future is firmly connected with the site, which hopes to become one of Europe’s largest logistical centres.
Many military bases ceased operation in Belarus after the USSR’s collapse, with regiments disbanded and barracks and ammunition stores emptied. Planes no longer took off and those who once worked with the military faced unemployment. The town of Bolbasovo (not far from the Vitebsk Region’s Orsha) experienced such difficulties, having accommodated an aviation regiment until 1994. Afterwards, Orsha Aircraft Overhaul Plant, located in Bolbasovo, took over the aerodrome. Now, the town’s future is firmly connected with the site, which hopes to become one of Europe’s largest logistical centres.
Road to the sky
The runway was built in Bolbasovo in the mid-1930s, with the town gaining an aviation regiment in 1939: headed by twice USSR Hero Sergey Gritsevets. During the Spanish civil war, he brought down over 40 enemy aircraft: seven on one particular day. Boris Davydov also served at Bolbasovo, navigating the TU-4 plane which dropped the first Soviet atomic bomb on the ‘Polygon’ nuclear test site near Semipalatinsk in 1951 (now north-east Kazakhstan).
Vasily Chirkunov served with the 402nd aviation bombing regiment: the first in the USSR to use TU-16 remote bombing jets. He recollects, “We mastered the use of rocket rearmament and refuelling in mid-air, which enabled us to fly non-stop to the Far East.” Mr. Chirkunov also piloted the TU-22 super-sound rocket carrier, landing at an aerodrome near the Arctic Ocean, and took part in the Afghanistan campaign. In 1994, his regiment disbanded. He is now Deputy Director at Orsha Aircraft Overhaul Plant.
From bombardiers to helicopters
Orsha plant’s interesting and glorious history began in summer 1941, when it produced an aviation-repair train for the Baltic Fleet Air Force. During the Great Patriotic War, its brigades aided the heroic defence of Leningrad, and helped with the seizure of Konigsberg by repairing Pe-2, I-16, MiG-3, Yak-9, Douglas, Hurricane and Airacobra planes, among others.
Until the 1950s, Orsha repairers served with the Black Sea Fleet and later moved to the Kuibyshev Region. In December 1956, they arrived at Bolbasovo aerodrome, tasked with repairing TU-16 aircraft. After the USSR’s collapse, the Bolbasovo bombardiers were taken to Russia and the plant received few orders but Belarus’ State Aviation Committee oversaw the facility, which began to repair civil aircraft and helicopters.
Orsha’s plant now focuses on modernising Mi-2, Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters (the latter is the largest in the world). General Director Vladimir Troitsky explains, “Our Ukrainian stock holder — Motor Sich — has created a unique new engine for the Mi-8, much improving its technical characteristics. Of course, buyers need to see it in action and our aerodrome — ‘inherited’ from the 402nd aviation bombing regiment — is the perfect location. We’re now registering our own helicopter company, not only giving demonstrational and training flights but servicing gas pipelines.”
The aerodrome — which the plant has owned for almost two decades — is truly unique, with a runway stretching 3km. Its concrete has a depth of 70cm, making it extremely strong: more so than some modern runways. In Soviet days, it was the reserve landing strip for the Buran shuttle. Now, it can cope with even the largest planes — including heavy transport aircraft such as the Il-76 and An-124. However, the runway can only be used in daylight, lacking any illumination. Mr. Troitsky admits that the aerodrome has prestige but stresses, “To pay for itself, the aerodrome needs at least 2-3 commercial or cargo flights a week. Last year, we had just five. Our task now is to establish an industrial-logistical park at our aerodrome, to attract new custom.”
The establishment of a logistical centre is envisaged by a Presidential decree, with work overseen by the plant’s Belarusian stockholder — a company called Systems of Investment and Innovation. Orsha boasts the country’s largest railway hub, with lines actually passing through the grounds of the plant. Major highways also cross the city: Moscow-Brest and St. Petersburg-Odessa. Air traffic also contributes to the wonderful infrastructure for cargo transit, allowing Belarus to become a convenient centre. Mr. Troitsky notes, “Jointly with our partners — Beltamozhservice and Gazprom — we’re planning to build a large logistical warehouse, covering 10,000 square metres, requiring $10-12m of investment.”
The site will include a business centre, a cafй and a hotel, with a temporary storage warehouse opening this year; construction is in full swing, with the whole project due to be complete by 2015.
By Sergey Golesnik