A longer version of this story first appeared in Russian on the website Bumaga on Dec. 29, 2016. The translation below was written by the text's original author.
A huge passenger plane stands in the corner of a small military airdrome on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Its engines are hidden under a thick canopy, and you can make out an “Aeroflot” logo on its side.
The logo is just a sticker, however — a reminder of the aircraft's past.
Today, this plane — a rare passenger modification of an Ilyushin Il-14 — has no role in Russia's aviation industry. The aircraft hasn't even left its tiny airfield in years.
As I visit the airdrome, a tall, gray-haired man wearing a dark jacket pushes a step-ladder to the plane, and then makes his way up. This is retired pilot Alexander Poddubny, the owner.
Now 66 years old, Poddubny has spent nearly a quarter of a century fighting to keep his Il-14, refusing to scrap the plane and battling repo men trying to collect the aircraft as collateral on his enormous personal debt. In December, bailiffs even showed up again to seize the plane.
“Everything began with this aircraft. It was produced as a flagship in passenger aviation,” Poddubny tells me, making his way to the cockpit. It’s spacious inside the plane. Almost all the seats have been removed, but the atmosphere is still cozy, somehow. The floor is covered with soft carpet, the cabin’s walls are lined with redwood, and a leopard-skin pattern adorns the pilots’ seats.
“We do everything they’ll let us do. We repair it, repaint it, take care of it — so the plane won’t feel neglected. He’s a picky little guy, after all,” Poddubny tells me without cracking a smile.
In all the world, there are only three remaining Ilyushin Il-14s still capable of flight, and Poddubny’s plane is probably the only one that’s still legally allowed in the air, according to Sergei Fedorov, one of Poddubny’s friends.
“The uniqueness of this plane lies in its documents,” Fedorov says. “Alexander keeps it for the history. It’s like he and the plane are one. Of course, this isn’t about making money. We just need to save it — like a [religious] icon.”
The Il-14 was manufactured in Dresden beginning in 1959, and first used in Romania. In the late 1970s, models started arriving in the USSR, where Il-14s carried cargo across Siberia and the Russian Far East, until it was eventually decommissioned.
In 1993, Poddubny discovered the last remaining Il-14 wasting away in an aircraft factory in Ulan-Ude.
“Of all the planes standing there, this one had survived,” Poddubny tells me, studying the aircraft with love.
At the time, he was a pilot working for Aeroflot. Poddubny decided to rescue the aircraft, buying it for an amateur flying club that taught teenagers the theory and practice of piloting. “We were flying this plane all over Siberia. Any money that we earned we invested right back into teaching new students and buying fuel and spare parts,” he says.
Eventually, however, financial problems brought an end to the school, and the Il-14 remained with Poddubny.
In the early 2000s, he flew to St. Petersburg, where some aircraft enthusiasts planned to launch a museum. Poddubny parked his plane at one of the local airdromes, but the museum project suddenly fizzled out, and the airdrome was handed over to General Motors as a parking zone.
As a result, Poddubny's cherished aircraft was trapped behind rows of cars for several years. Later, in 2011, he managed at last to move the plane to Gorelovo, where it hasn't budged since.
Unfortunately for Poddubny, while his Il-14 gathered dust, Russian tax laws changed. No longer belonging to the amateur flying club, the plane was now individual property, incurring taxes that Poddubny couldn’t afford to pay.
Every year, the dual-engine plane cost Poddubny 475,000 rubles (about $8,000) in taxes — an especially great burden, given the plane’s legal status, which barred Poddubny from using it for commercial purposes to earn extra cash. As a “general aviation aircraft,” the Il-14 was only allowed in the air for recreational purposes.
Poddubny’s tax debt grew over the years, reaching almost 3 million rubles (more than $50,000), until the government formally seized the plane and forbid him from flying it.
Every month, the state subtracts almost half of Poddubny’s pension payments to service his tax debt, though it doesn’t come close to paying off what he owes.
Poddubny still spends what he has left on maintaining the plane, making repairs and scheduling special commissions to prolong the Il-14’s flying certificate.
“I told them I would find a way to earn money on it. I said I’m going to fly and I’m going to pay. But no, they just wanted to seize it,” Poddubny says.
Talking about what he’ll do once he finishes the repairs and gets his plane back, he tells me all the ways he could use it to make money again: dropping parachutists, carrying passengers along tourist routes, performing at airshows. He’s written it all down, calculating the budget, in little digital brochures.
Neither the airlines nor the authorities have showed any interest in financing Poddubny’s projects, however, and he says he’s unable to attract foreign investors while his aircraft is still locked up.
“It’s much easier for them to scrap it for the metal and come away with a few kopecks. No more plane that way, and no more Poddubny,” he mutters angrily.
Back in the plane’s cockpit, he looks down at the old, still fully functional dashboard. Periodically, he brings in inspectors to verify the equipment’s functionality. The safety commission has to send older specialists; the younger inspectors have no idea how to test, let alone how to use, the now ancient equipment.
“It doesn’t matter how old a plane is, whether it’s 5 or 30 years,” Poddubny says proudly. “What actually matters is how it’s treated.”
When he’s done showing me the plane, we walk away and Poddubny jokes that soon he and his friends will fly down to the Black Sea and go for a swim. Behind us, though, the aircraft is still rusting in the rain.