Chernobyl - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Written on 08 June 2019 - but with an extra late 'afterthought' added on 19 July 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 June 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! But read on . . .

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 my visit to Kiev the previous year 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 mid-1980s, Nikolai Timofeyevich Antoshkin had been a two-star general commanding what was then the Kiev Military District. The Chairman of the Kiev 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 1986, 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 when the Russian Knights landed at Scampton, the now three-star Lieutenant General Nikolai Timofeyevich Antoshkin, 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. (We were unsure whether or not Ukraine had already formally left the Soviet Union.) There was spontaneous applause from all sides and the General beamed appreciatively. "You will also note that we have removed all the Soviet symbols on our uniforms and on our aircraft." That was not so much an observation as an order! I don’t think anyone in the reception party, or media, had noticed.

July 2019. A further, rather worrying, afterthought. One morning in early June 2019, by which time I had been able to watch all the Chernobyl fílms, I noticed an irritating ‘lump’ on my right ear lobe that had not been there earlier. At first, I dismissed it as one of those little inconveniences that develop as you get older. A few days later I woke to find my pillow saturated with blood which had clearly come from that irritating object. I could not see behind my ear lobe so I visited my sister, a former nursing sister, and asked her if she could see anything unusual. She certainly could: she instantly diagnosed it as a Basal Cell Carcinoma and told me to go, as soon as possible, to my GP.

Next morning, I went to my GP’s surgery and asked the receptionist for an urgent appointment. She told me that the earliest available time was two weeks later. I then pulled from my pocket a fistful of blood-soaked tissues and showed her that I didn’t think I could afford to wait that long. I don’t criticise the receptionist who was only doing her job. I think she was shocked to see all the blood. A few minutes later my GP agreed with my sister’s diagnosis and arranged for me to be seen urgently by the first of three specialist dermatologists.

That suddenly reminded me that 14 years earlier, in April 2005, I had had a strange round, painless, object removed, under local anaesthetic, from the corner of my right eye socket. The surgeon at the time had told me later that it had been harmless and so there was no cause for worry. Early in July 2019 I had an operation to remove what had then been confirmed as a cancerous growth from my right ear lobe. There appeared to be no record of that earlier growth in my medical records.

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