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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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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at today’s Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nation’s premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the city’s elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s latest film “Mommy” at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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