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Former Chernobyl Pilot Soars Above His Obstacles

Published: May 31, 2005 (Issue # 1074)



  • Vladimir Melnik followed in the footsteps of his father, a test pilot for the early MIGs.
    Photo: VLADIMIR FILONOV / SPT / For The St. Petersburg Times

MOSCOW - If there are men who have gone through fire and water, Nikolai Melnik is certainly one of them.

Once a test pilot, Melnik lives in Spain, where he has received a royal award for his efforts in aerial firefighting. His most dangerous mission, however, came in 1986, when he was sent to help measure radiation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after one of its reactors exploded.

Making about 40 sorties to the area, he was hit by radiation 10 times above the permitted level. Predictably, medical complications ensued.

"In 1994, I had two operations. ... Doctors told me to stay away from drinking and smoking, and lead a normal life," Melnik said as he lit a cigarette. "A month later, I decided I would live the way I like, not limiting myself in anything."

For the past decade, Melnik, 51, has been living comfortably with his wife and son in a house in Alicante, Spain, fighting fires and helping out in emergency situations.

Living what he calls a calm and stable life in Spain, Melnik said he would trade it back for the years when he did "real man's work."

"If I was given what I had back in the Soviet times, I would not have gone to Spain," he said. "What I do in Spain now is a game for kids. I used to do serious risk-related work."

Back in 1986, working as a test pilot with the Kamov helicopter design bureau, Melnik was summoned to Moscow to prepare for the Chernobyl mission.

However, it was only on the way to Borispol Airport in Kiev that he was told what he would be doing.

Melnik's task was to place radiation sensors in the reactor by dropping them with a 200-meter cable from his helicopter.

"I just thought, 'Woe is my youth!' when we were told what we were about to do," Melnik said. "I was 32 years old."

A few days before flying to Kiev, he was practicing the maneuver he would have to perform at Chernobyl at the Kamov facility in southeast Moscow: dropping a heavy weight into a small circle.

"It looked like a preparation for some official show," he said.

Melnik's interest in aviation followed his father, who was among the first pilots to test-fly the MiG-9, the first jet fighter made by the famous design bureau after World War II.

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Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in “Downton Abbey” if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russia’s best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russia’s most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkin’s, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontov’s short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library System’s website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Club’s weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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