Fascinating Video: Russian Pilots Of The Congo

Filed Under: Videos

While browsing YouTube early this morning (because I couldn’t sleep due to jetlag) I stumbled upon a fascinating video from VICE. As I’m sure you can imagine, I had to click when I saw the headline “Russian Pilots of the Congo.” The video is several years old, so I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it before.

Growing up I always wanted to be an airline pilot, and had dreamed of working for a foreign airline. To this day, I’m fascinated by the nationality of pilots on various airlines. There’s something cool about boarding a flight on Hainan Airlines or Fiji Airways and hearing a familiar American accent, for example.

In general the aviation industry is hot right now, and there are lots of opportunities for ex-pat pilots to work abroad. However, I don’t think I’ve seen a story on ex-pat pilots who are quite like these guys. Specifically, this story is about some Russian pilots flying ancient cargo planes around the Congo. They all fly every day, they all live together, and they seem to have very unusual lives.

As I often find to be the case with VICE, the story doesn’t get too deep into the question of why they chose these lives. The captain talks about how he has 26,000 flight hours. With the global demand for pilots, presumably they could get jobs in other parts of the world where they’d be making a lot of money and flying larger and (presumably) more well maintained planes. That makes me wonder why they’d choose this sort of arrangement.

It also makes me question if there’s maybe a reason for this. If these guys have so many hours, did they get in trouble somewhere at some point and maybe even lost their licenses, or how did they end up there?

Anyway, if you have ~18 minutes, this is an utterly fascinating look at their lives. Of course I wish there were more airport and airplane footage, though I’m impressed they even got as much as they did. I could barely get through my TAAG Angola first class flight without having the cops called on me. šŸ˜‰

What do you make of this video/these pilots?

  1. This reminds me of a at least 10-years old French documentary about safety of Congolese aviation. Looks like things havenā€™t changed much since then…

    Hereā€™s the full documentary:

  2. I think it was explained well in the beginning by the Congo officer. They came right after the USSR collapsed ( when pilots were not in shortage ) and they were military pilots know how to man the russian military planes ( probably only). They are not someone ready to be hired by any commercial airlines.

  3. You need to come out to Uganda sometime and take a jumpseat ride with our 727 freighter on a trip into Somalia or Yemen. You’ll get a new appreciation for what “real” old school aviation is like.

  4. It’s easy, Lucky. It’s the side deals which bring them there, ferrying gold, weapons, other stuff, adventurous stuff which can bring them lots of money, possibly too a few violent or final encounters. If you are a movie person, think Air America, Blood Diamonds or The Wages of Fear. Probably rough trade, jail birds or undesirables in the “Polished World” too.

    Some 15 years ago, or so, the late Peruvian airline TUA, had a fleet almost exclusively 50 passengers turboprops Antonov 26s with ex-Aeroflot pilots which plowed the back country Andean routes of Peru from Lima and 1 or 2 big cities. The planes still “smelled” the old soviet panes plastics. Always full, it was 1or 2 hours this or 24 hrs very dangerous roads.
    Those pilots all looked like the dirty dozen and were all known to ferry illicit cargoes. I was a regular passenger (only coffee trade, less lucrative..).

    These guys could all be played by Humphrey Bogart or Yves Montand.

  5. One of my friend’s dad was a commercial pilot in the USSR, but when it fell and they came to the US, his qualifications didn’t really transfer over. He said he was too old to start over, so I would imagine these pilots have a similar story. He ended up driving buses in the US and made a pretty good living.

  6. @Mitch Cumstein

    The Chinese are in Congo, and all of Sub-Saharan Africa – doing huge infrastructure buildout in exchange for rare earth minerals, copper, coltan, and oil. There is a reason there are so many Chinese restaurants in Luanda, and Ethiopian Airlines flies 34 weekly nonstops from Addis to China.

  7. You should check out ‘worst place to be a pilot’ about newly qualified pilots flying Suzi air in Indonesia and Papua.

  8. I believe this is quite old, probably 15 years . Only for the money and lots of alcohol . But fascinating.

  9. @Ken, it’s not 15 years old. Two clues, Obama is speaking from the Presidential podium so at least 2009. More subtle clue is that they visit Dallas supermarket in Goma, which opened in 2012.

  10. Living in our sanitized first world it is fascinating to have a glimps into alternative lifestyle. This is like Air America for old Russian pilots. No glass cockpit and Garmin hand held by the wind shield. Pretty cool flying.

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