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A Memoir of the Missile Age
One Man's Journey
By Vitaly Leonidovich Katayev
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Omsk Civil Aviation Plant
After finishing at the Kazan Aviation Institute (KAI) in 1956, I wanted to get assigned to a job in Dnepropetrovsk. But that year the placing commission did not get any requests from the Dnepropetrovsk Design Bureau for graduates of KAI. Besides, my ranking based on the sum of all my marks, as specified in the diploma index, was thirty-third out of one hundred graduates. So to be sure, a place in sunny Ukraine was not likely to be mine anyway. Gerold Petrov, fellow Kazan graduate and an old friend from the aviation modeling club in Perm, where I had spent my childhood and youth, would get employment first, as the top student.
When Gerold cheerfully emerged from the doors of the commission, everybody surrounded him. "What were they offering? Which cities? Where will they send you?" We peppered him with questions. We were anxious: practically our entire futures would be decided in the next few minutes.
"They asked me where I would like to go," Gerold reported. "I replied Gorky. They said, 'Good, you'll go to Gorky.' That's all. I don't know what other places are available."
At last Gerold's eyes found me and he came over.
"Are you still aiming at Ukraine?" he asked. "Listen, let's go to Gorky together."
"All right. If there's no place in Ukraine, I'll ask for Gorky," I replied.
My turn came. I was nervous like never before. Will my dream of Ukraine come true? Why Ukraine? What made it attractive to a Russian guy from the Urals? My life's goal had been to go there ever since my early years in Perm. I had read technical journals there and had contemplated my future while chopping whole piles of firewood for the fireplace in our tiny log house with ice-glazed windows.
My father had carefully pushed me towards making a plan for what would happen after the institute.
"Where have you decided to go after the institute, to our place here, or elsewhere?" he inquired.
"As they decide."
"And what have you decided?"
I didn't have a ready answer. I hadn't decided. I was comfortable floating along. And when I did think about it? Number one: interesting work, a designer's job would be best of all. I had been a designer since early childhood. I had made models of ships. Then I had become an aviation model maker, a champion of the Perm region. The Perm newspaper had twice mentioned me with a flattering forecast for my future. The father of my comrade Vovka Medvedev had told me many times, as he checked my handmade models built out of left over aviation scrap, "Vitaly, you will make an excellent technologist. Go work at the factory; they need guys like you there." Mr. Medvedev was a factory worker, yacht sailor, and biker who did everything with his own hands. Hence, I thought to myself, "I ought to work in a factory, an aviation one, of course. I ought to choose a city that has moderate seasons, not too northern yet not too southern, and not too far from the seashore." I had a girlfriend in Perm in student days: Allochka Sklyarevskaya. I made my plans known to her first. She liked them. This inspired me, too.
At the institute in Kazan, an aviation industry journal had come my way. The journal was considered secret. One article described some fantastic technology: a specialist from the Dnepropetrovsk factory was suggesting manufacturing the shell of a small air-to-surface rocket out of cement reinforced with metal net. But there was a little bit more information in the article than just a description of the technology. "Good, they deal with rockets at that plant. This is a serious business, I must pay attention," I had decided. I had started looking for any information about the Dnepropetrovsk plant in technical journals. Very occasionally, articles had slipped in: about the automatic welding of pipelines, or about pressing, or about composite materials. Seeing my interest, my friends had helped me find some of these articles. Later, I learnt that there were job assignments to this factory and its design bureau from our institute. By the end of my studies, I had a clear image of my goal: Dnepropetrovsk.
And so, on "judgment day," I stood in front of the institute committee for job assignments. I was so nervous I didn't even notice who the committee members were.
"So, what are you going to say? Any desires?" they demanded.
"Hmm. We have no requests from Dnepropetrovsk this year."
"All vacancies for Gorky are already distributed. We wanted to offer you the opportunity to stay in Kazan. What's your opinion?"
I was prepared for this offer. I had written a rather interesting thesis at the institute and had given an original presentation. Many people had come to hear me defend it. While I talked, I saw the secretary of the thesis committee show some pages to its members, and they smiled their approval. When announcing the marks, the chairman of the thesis committee modulated his voice in some particularly approving way regarding my five mark and said that the research for the thesis should be reported one more time at a special conference. I had thought at that point: they are going to offer me a position in Kazan. And so they did.
"My opinion is negative," I replied. "I'd rather go to Omsk."
"Oh. Very good!"
The Omsk Civil Aviation Plant had requested twenty-five graduates that year. The plant was planning to join the race for getting a sought-after state order — building the first passenger jet plane, the Tu-104. But until then, none of the graduates who passed through the committee had wished to go there. For some reason, this site was considered a place of banishment for graduates with low grades. And here was a volunteer! I had been in Omsk for research before the thesis was finished. Later, when I tried to think through how my ideas could be realized, it appeared that the Omsk plant would suit me.
I arrived in Omsk in April 1956. They put me up in a group residence. Eight people were in my room, all workers except for me. One of the guys — a welder — had his mother living with him there, too; they made a makeshift bed out of chairs for her at night. They received me at the room in the group house with caution: one engineer among the workers. How is he going to act? I noticed their reticence at once. I had to think over both my behavior and topics of conversation. I tried to fit in with the life of both the room and the whole house as an equal. The other residents quickly approved: he is our kind of guy.
To me, "our kind of guy" is high praise. I got this kind of endorsement another time, years later, when I took part in preparations for my daughter's graduation party at her Moscow school. I spent a lot of time driving around Moscow with the boys: we bought food and flowers; I carried boxes and furniture with them, and I drove people places without saying "no." The kids knew: this fellow behind the wheel works at the Central Committee; he is a super-important boss.
After the graduation party, my daughter asked, "Do you know what our boys said about you?"
"What? Cursed me for poor help?"
"Quite the contrary, they gave you a high grade, they said, 'This is our kind of guy!'"
I had asked for a job at the factory's design bureau. There, they had documentation for an Ilyushin Il-18 aircraft prototype, for which production had been terminated. They gave me blueprints of the landing gear and said, "Study!" At this point, I developed an obsessive complex. I was embarrassed by my overly simple job. I scraped old blueprints on tracing paper with a razor, made some primitive changes, got my nearest bosses to sign them, and that was it! People passed by and stared. A huge fellow sits and scrapes. This fellow should be doing a real job, yet he scrapes with a blunt razor here. This is a job to give to an uneducated schoolgirl, not to a real man. This is what went through my mind, as I bent over old tracing paper, ashamed to look people in the eye.
But at the same time I discovered the Znaniye society in Omsk. Earlier, I had been asked, through KAI, to give several lectures on the subject of modern aviation. Somebody had liked it, so I had given this lecture in Kazan over twenty times. I had collected many illustrations for the lectures, personally copied from magazines, and I had brought all this to Omsk with me. Through the Znaniye society, I had opportunities to deliver the lecture again in Omsk. After lecturing at the Omsk Civil Aviation Plant and other sites around Omsk, the head of the plant's information department came to me with a proposition.
"I heard you speak," he said. "You are not bad at it. Would you like to try teaching aviation disciplines at the aviation technical school, say, aerodynamics, aeromechanics, design, assembly and testing of aircraft? All this will be in the evening after working hours."
I gave this a try and ended up teaching a number of subjects until my departure from Omsk. Work at the design bureau finished at 5:30 p.m.; lectures started next door at 5:40 p.m. and ran till late at night. After lecturing, I prepared the next day's class at home till 2:00 a.m. After that came work on students' research papers and theses. This was my routine almost every day.
In my first year of work at the plant, a Council of Young Specialists — among the first in the country — was formed, and I acted as its chairman until the end of my job there. Apart from upgrading the qualifications of young specialists and protecting their rights, the council was authorized to distribute housing to them. During the period of my chairmanship, we distributed eighty-six flats. Receiving housing was a strong incentive for young specialists to improve their work, but only my colleagues knew what it cost me, the chairman. "Vitaly, you have a strong nervous system," they would tell me as I sat in a big audience hall after yet another young woman specialist would have left, having failed to speed up the process of getting a flat with her loud hysterics.
The second half of the 1950s was a difficult time for the plant. The production of the front bomber Il-28 — the main bomber of the Soviet air force — was discontinued. There was quiet. The plant's director, Boris Yelenevich, spent time in Moscow trying to obtain an important contract to manufacture the Tu-104, the first passenger jet plane in regular service in the world. The contract was also interesting for the fact that the first passenger jet plane was being created on the basis of a jet bomber, the Tu-16. A large share of the testing for passenger characteristics of the plane was to be allocated to a serial-production plant. Among numerous other contenders for getting the contract was the Voronezh Aviation Plant.
Yelenevich was a jolly, lordly boss, full of importance. He liked a weighty conversation, smoked an aromatic pipe, and dressed in soft, fluffy sweaters. Usually, I would show up to see him in the evening, about the matters of the Council of Young Specialists.
"What are you going to tell me, Chairman?" Yelenevich might inquire.
"You see, this is not working too well, ..." I might respond.
And I would start a detailed accounting of what else could be done to raise the qualification of young specialists. There were business trips here, trips to exhibitions, "know-how" competitions, requests for housing, requests for funds for youth parties, and lots of other issues about which there were disagreements with the director for personnel. Yelenevich rarely argued; on the contrary, he added his suggestions. He made lots of promises, but he didn't always fulfill them. I once reproached him about this before a plant conference of young specialists.
"Give me the list of what I'm guilty of. I'll apologize to the young people," he quickly responded.
He did apologize and thus removed a big source of tension at the conference.
All in all, Yelenevich was rather a risk taker. In Moscow, fighting for the new contract to build Tu-104, he bluffed. During the discussion on the optimal location for the production site of this plane, Yelenevich announced at the board meeting of the Ministry of Aviation Industry that the contract must be given to the Omsk plant. He said the plant could start the assembly of the new aircraft as soon as the next day because preparation for the construction of the new plane was already underway at the plant on its own initiative; even the assembly jigs were already in place, he claimed.
Minister Pyotr Dementyev exploded, "What assembly jigs? What are you telling us here! Nothing of the kind exists! Nobody gave you such orders!"
"I am responsible for my words. If you don't trust me, send a commission, let them check the site," Yelenevich bluffed.
In fact, there were no assembly jigs at the plant. A pile of old jigs and several large test molds for new ones were discarded on the floor by the metal soldering workshop. The next morning the ministry commission would fly to the plant. But the previous night, after Yelenevich's phone call, an emergency shift was announced at the plant. Overnight, the territory of the main assembly workshop was cleared, sills of assembly jigs were brought in and cemented, and some components of assembly jigs were hung. Usually, putting up an assembly jig requires numerous measurements; it takes at least one to two months. This time, a Potemkin village was built in the assembly workshop overnight.
The commission was astonished. The plant got the contract. It then spent about a month dismounting the props and two more months building a proper assembly jig. In the serial design bureau, we received documentation for the systems of the new aircraft, Tu-104. The plant came back to life.
Yelenevich was appointed to be the chairman of the Sovnarkhoz. The former chief engineer, Konstantin Golovko, an energetic man, became the plant's director. The plant quickly reached the point of assembling the first copies of the Tu-104, but the plant's airfield was only suitable for aircraft of the smaller Il-28 class. The runway was rather short and old. Chipped cement was patch-coated with asphalt. This was sufficient for an Il-28, but the runway was officially closed to heavier aircraft. Yelenevich took a rather risky step here, too, in nailing down the Tu-104 contract. Despite the ban, he announced that he was going to pay 100,000 rubles to the crew of a Tu-16 (a prototype for Tu-104) to land on our plant's airfield and thereby prove its viability for the larger plane. To appreciate the magnitude of this sum, know that the most luxurious automobile of those days, a ZIM, cost 40,000 rubles at an Omsk car dealership. My monthly salary as a designer was 880 rubles.
Four brave chaps showed up and landed Tu-16 on the plant's airfield. The money for the crew was brought right to the air-stairs. The crew members stuffed it into their pockets, left the plane in the middle of the field without even closing the hatches behind them, and drove away to paint the town red. They returned a couple of days later, completely green. They were still feeling sick when they reached the base of the air-stairs, first lethargically strolling around the aircraft nose and then, one by one, running behind the wheel trolley and bending down to vomit. Then they struggled to climb the ladder into the cockpit, started the engines, and slowly taxied to the runway.
Catastrophes had already happened at this short runway during the period when the plant was producing the Il-28 aircraft. Once, failing to gain the necessary takeoff speed, an Il-28 came down right on the buildings of the plant's village. Now, we would witness the difficulty of a Tu-16 takeoff on an inadequate runway, compounded by the crew's hangovers. As designers who understood the danger and who had seen the crew return in such a drunken state, we held our breath. Could the crew at least see the dashboard? we wondered. Will the pilot blow up the plane too soon, before gaining speed?
After roaring its engines on parking brakes, the plane accelerated quickly: good lift-up. They took off!
After that, this Tu-16 crew, which was in the Omsk region for flight-testing of the onboard radar equipment, was grounded. But it was not possible to disrupt the program of building the new military radars, so this experienced crew got permission to fly again, after strict reprimands. Also, there was a big scandal regarding the expense of 100,000 rubles, but Yelenevich — winner takes all — had quickly hushed that up, through Moscow.
Ultimately, the first jet plane in the world that would offer regular passenger service, Tu-104, would taxi to the runway of the plant's airfield. A lot of people gathered for the event. Before this decisive moment, the crew had been rehearsing the takeoff for some time, rolling the plane up and down the runway.
Acceleration. The plane lifted its nose up. And at the point when powerful gas shafts from the engine pushed against the runway, the asphalt that covered the chipped cement rose up into the air like a black carpet and flew over the aircraft. What would happen to the plane? Asphalt chunks that were scattered around could damage the tail when it came back down. But all went without incident. The numerous spectators were asked to come out and help clear away the asphalt. The plane remained in the air till the runway was free of detritus. After that, the jet landed successfully.
Excerpted from A Memoir of the Missile Age by Vitaly Leonidovich Katayev. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Ksenia Kostrova ix
Introduction David E. Hoffman 1
Part I Snapshots From A Career in Soviet Rocket Design
1 Omsk Civil Aviation Plant 9
2 Yuzhnoye Design Bureau 29
3 The Nedelin Disaster 39
4 Baikonur Test Range 49
5 The R-16, R-36, and Other Missile Projects 73
6 Two Profiles: Chief Designers Mikhail Yangel and Viktor Petrovich Makeyev 89
Part II An Insider's View of Soviet Arms Development and Limitation
7 Military-Industrial Complex 111
8 Communit Party 121
9 Government Defense Agencies 139
10 Interdepartmental Working Group 159
Appendix A Alternative Names for Soviet Rockets and Missiles 183
Appendix B Scientific, Political, and Military Figures in Vitaly Katayev's Account of the Soviet Missile Age 185
About the Author 195