Chernobyl - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
Go to content


Written on 08 June 2019

I learned too late that Sky Atlantic TV channel has just transmitted a series of films about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. I would certainly have watched it if I could, because I came very close to Chernobyl when I went with the Red Arrows to the Soviet Union, as it still was, in 1990. It would have been interesting to compare the Sky Atlantic programme with the following clips from my main website. (Virgin Media, my provider, does not have the Sky Atlantic channel in their line-up.)

I had accompanied the Red Arrows, as their PRO, on their visit to the Soviet Union in 1990. As soon as we landed at Borispol, about 50kms east of Kiev, the Red Arrows ground crew were taken off for a visit to a nearby engineering college. In the meantime, the Antonov design team whisked the RAF Hercules aircrew off almost immediately for a trip in the Soviet equivalent of the Hercules, an A12 transport aircraft which had been specially flown in for the occasion. They flew 180 kms (110m miles) to the north of Kiev to take a close down at the deserted but still very hot nuclear power station at Chernobyl before returning to Borispol. Had they known in advance where they would be going, the Hercules crew might have been less enthusiastic about that trip.

I had remained on the airfield taking photographs and it was clear that the Antonov ground crew were most impressed with the line-up of Red Arrows Hawks. When the AN12 returned, one of the Russians invited me to pose at the front of their aircraft while he took several photographs of me - on my camera. “Just one more,” he said, disarmingly. “Why not pose holding one of the pitot heads.”

Pitot heads are usually still hot to touch for several minutes after any flight so I checked first, thinking that the Russian photographer might be trying to catch me out. However, had I known then where the aircraft had just been, I certainly would not have grasped that pitot head. Although it was cool to the touch, it had just flown through the residual radiation resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. That AN12 pitot head had probably gathered a significant dose of radiation but, as far as I can tell, I did not suffer any long-term medical problem and no significant bits of me have withered or dropped off - yet!

Above: This is the pic of me, unwisely, holding the pitot head as soon as the aircraft had landed following a close look at what remained of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

One of the staff officers accompanying the Russian Knights when they made their return visit to the Red Arrows at Scampton in September 1991 remembered me from 1989 and knew I could speak Russian. He handed me a recent article from Krasnaya zvezda - literally Red Star, the official newspaper of the Soviet Ministry of Defence. From that article I learned that in the late-1980s, Nikolai Timofeyevich Antoshkin had been a two-star general commanding what was then the Kiev Military District. The Chairman of the Kiev Military Division State Commission had summoned General Antoshkin on 26 April 1986, the day of the Chernobyl accident.

"Everything depends on you, the military," said the Chairman to Antoshkin. "The crater in the damaged reactor must be immediately sealed with sand." What was not clear was the answer to several important questions. What was the level of radiation above the reactor? Could men work there safely? How could they be protected?

The Red Star article further reported that Antoshkin himself had several times flown around the reactor in his helicopter. He convinced himself there was only one way to deliver the sand: that was to hover over the crater at a height of 200 metres, open the helicopter doors, glance into the throat of the crater, and aim the sand into it. Radiation meters in the area had gone off the end of the scale. Antoshkin and his crews dropped 50 tonnes of sand on the first day alone and soon he had 60 of his helicopters operating continuously over Chernobyl. On the morning of 1 May 1989, just four days after receiving his orders, General Antoshkin had reported back to the Chairman of the State Commission that the reactor had been sealed.

The General had then gone home to see his wife, but it is reported that she barely recognised him. In five days he had, apparently, shed tens of kilograms of weight. It took six months for his blood count to return to normal. Some months later he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union and promoted to Lieutenant General. It was only then that General Antoshkin and his wife and two children were able to move out of the cramped, single-roomed apartment that was deemed adequate for a two-star general in the Soviet Air Force, and move into a rather larger apartment.

To the great surprise of everyone in the Reception Party for the Russian Knights at Scampton, three-star Lieutenant General Nikolai Timofeyevich Antoshkin, now the Commander of what was by then the Russian Air Force, climbed nimbly down from the single seat of the leading SU-27 and mounted the saluting base before anyone else.

"Russian fighter pilots do not fly in transport aircraft", were the first words General Antoshkin said to the assembled VIPs and media over the PA system. This was undoubtedly a dig at our two-star Air Marshal who had accompanied the Red Arrows in the Soviet Union as a passenger in a rather elderly transport aircraft. "We were not sure we would be welcome," continued General Antoshkin, in what must have been the understatement of the year. There was spontaneous applause from all sides and the General beamed appreciatively. "You will also note that we have replaced all the Soviet symbols on our uniforms and on our aircraft with Russian symbols."

That was not so much an observation as an order! I don’t think anyone in the reception party, or media, had noticed.

The full story, with many images, of the Red Arrows and Russian Knights visits to each other are on my other website starting here  and the return visit to Scampton here (both open in new windows).

Back to content