Five Things One Learns Traveling to Russia to Fly a Fighter Jet to the “Edge of Space”

Edge of space flight

Five Things One Learns Traveling to Russia to Fly a Fighter Jet to the “Edge of Space”

Somewhere around 2008, I learned that it was possible to fly a MiG fighter jet to the edge of space.

Having saved up cash from my depressing job for some time and without any particular direction otherwise, I decided to pull the trigger. I mean, who can pass up the opportunity to tell their future child, “I know you want to go to college, honey, but Daddy wanted to go to SPACE!”

The journey involved various cities in Russia in what must have been the “Golden Few Years Before Russia and the USA Hated Each Other Again”. With Russia now in the news daily, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on what I learned. Not from headlines, but from walking through it. Usually sober, but not always.

1. Culture shock can be almost immediate

After Rocky IV, I figured all outstanding cultural differences with Russia had been resolved amicably and that as an American, I’d be welcomed with open arms.

Thus, I was more than a bit surprised when I arrived at my nice hotel right near Red Square to find a fully-armed…army in the parking lot. Automatic rifles and everything. The good news? They weren’t there for me. The bad news (unless you’re a bigot)? They were gathering there before goin’ on an ol’ gay bashing tour around Moscow. Apparently Moscow’s mayor believed gays were satanic, and the army was on board.

That awfulness aside, I found Moscow to be a beautiful, amazing, and unique city. But even as someone who has taken a fair amount of trips abroad, I was (somewhat pleasantly) surprised by by how little they hold your hand.

For example, I found out that in one of Moscow’s subway lines, each station is thoroughly decorated in a different artistic style. One station might be decorated all white marble and Greek statues, whereas the next might be styled like a French palace with gold-framed original paintings. This, I had to see. This, however, I apparently had to see on my last day in Moscow, after imbibing several beers with the drunk oil businessmen at the hotel bar.

Long story short, I got lost in the subway, and ended up somewhere in the outer suburbs of Moscow. I figured it’d be easy enough to find my way back, but NOBODY spoke English. There were no signs, and there wasn’t really anyone there to help or assist other than security, who didn’t speak English. There just wasn’t a lot of structure there to help you out, which I totally understand. And again, totally all my fault. I ended up playing a two-hour long game of high-stakes Charades to get a taxi back to my hotel, which luckily was near major landmarks. I pointed at my map like Koko the gorilla.

Other fun facts: You will also definitely see old Communists around Moscow who yearn for the good ol’ days of the Cold War and bread lines.

Also, it seems to be totally fine to grab some booze from a kiosk any time of day and walk around drunk in public — even, no, especially if you’re a pre-teen!

2. Luxury and Not-Luxury Live Side By Side

The hotel was absolutely stunning in an old-fancy kind of way. For example, the entire ceiling of the eating area was beautiful stained glass.

That said, it became readily apparent that Moscow was a financial and cultural Vitamix — with every opulence, there was another slightly seedier counterpart. For example, while the hotel was beautiful, it also reeked of cigarettes. That didn’t really bother me though, nor did it bother the pretty ladies who sat on the couch near the hotel bar in short skirts, re-applying makeup for hours on end…until suddenly disappearing for an hour or so and coming back. I bet they just had to rush off to catch the latest episode of “Lost”!

Similarly, I was picked up from the airport with someone holding a sign for me, which made me feel like a movie star. On the other hand, the person with the sign led me to a rusty old van for the ride to the city, which made me feel a bit more like that movie star was Pauly Shore.

In all honesty, none of this bothered me, as I’m a simple guy. I didn’t “splurge” on a bed frame for 15 years and still eat Hot Pockets. But the duality was everywhere. The location for the pre-flight briefing and medical check for a five-figure flight to space? A very official-looking…mobile home trailer. The view from the train out of the city later in the week chugged past skyscrapers and symphony halls to miles of sheet-metal shanty towns alongside the tracks.

3. Fighter Jets Are More Fun When Not Fighting Fights

The main course of this travel buffet was the “Edge of Space” flight, which was every bit as incredible as it sounds.

After meeting my grizzled Russian pilot, we took off and began our journey to the “Edge of Space”, which for my flight was around 80,000 feet — enough to see the blackness of space, the blue ring of atmosphere, and the curvature of the Earth. Now, some people will point out that technically the “edge of space” is actually more like 60 miles above Earth’s surface, but those people are assholes. Or Astronauts. Or some combination of the two (Asstronauts?).

That alone would have been enough, but the edge of space was followed by about 45 minutes of intense aerobatic maneuvers, a.k.a. “high-speed dicking around” . We looped, we dove, we flipped, my eyes grayed out from the G forces — my favorite move was what is called a Hammerhead, where the pilot flew straight up vertically, stalled the engine until the plane tipped over itself backwards, and then fell directly down before gunning the engine.

Sometime during this, the pilot radioed back to me, “Now you take controls.” “Awesome!”, I thought, and immediately yanked the stick so we were flying on our side. The pilot radioed back, “No! No! Horizontal flight!” and immediately righted the plane. Oh well. What did he expect? We had clearly established that sane, level flying was stupid and lame.

The final aerobatic move I had some knowledge of, as someone mentioned this pilot likes to do a “close pass”, which is code for buzzing the tower at about 20 feet from the ground.

If you’re curious for more, here’s the edited video of the flight, set to crappy Russian techno music:

4. “Please Appreciate These Weapons Designed to Kill You”

The flight itself took place in a city called Nizhny Novgorod which, for a long period of the Soviet Era, was completely closed to foreigners (especially Americans). Similarly, the airbase out of which you fly is the Sokol plant, which produced many of the MiGs during the Cold War. In that context, it’s relatively strange walking around military weaponry and secrets which to some extent, were designed to hurt you.

Nevertheless, everybody was kind and patient, especially after we took part in the fine Russian tradition of vodka at a roadside bar. There didn’t seem to be much animosity, even among the military and military-associated I was walking around with. Which makes sense, because I’m sure the Cold War kind of sucked for them, too.

The vodka was followed by more booze, which was followed by a tour in which I was (unfairly I believe) asked to recall points of Russian history after the post-flight vodka binge.

All of that was followed by me taking a nap and almost missing my flight out of the city.

5. It Changes Your Perspective

I want to begin here with an apology, as “it changes your perspective” is the most overused and cliche´ summation of every travel experience ever undertaken by humans on Earth. But it kind of fits here. And I’ll keep it short.

There’s the obvious “change in perspective” in being able to see the edge of space and the earth below — you see how massive yet alone it is, you see how beautiful the landscapes are, you learn you can paint with all the colors of the wind, all that nice stuff.

It’s also nice to confirm in person that most people around the world are generally normal, polite and friendly, despite literally decades of propaganda attempting to convince you otherwise.

And finally, doing the trip in the first place changed my perspective on time and money. I’m not going to say YOLO, because YOLO is stupid and I’m old. But sometimes, it is worth taking the risk to spend too much on something that sounds fun or outrageous to you. You’ll never know where it might lead.

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