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Pilots

Vadim Kulikov

Watching Vadim Kulikov unfold himself from the cockpit of a University of North Dakota (UND) Decathlon, one senses immediately that there is something different about this particular flight instructor. He carries himself with a quiet confidence and stature that speak of far more hours and experience than most instructors have. And instead of dreaming of the faster, more complex airplanes that he will operate someday, he speaks with enthusiasm about the airplanes he flies now — the Decathlon, a Piper Cub and Cadet, and even a lowly Cessna 150. This enthusiasm would be admirable in any instructor. But pry a few details of Kulikov's past out of him and his attitude seems downright amazing. Until a few years ago, Kulikov was a MiG-29 squadron commander in the Russian air force.

Kulikov learned to fly at the urging of a close friend who had dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot but could not pass the military flight physical. "He told me, 'It was my dream; now you have to do it for me,'" Kulikov remembers. "I wasn't sure I'd stay with it, but after the first couple of flights, I decided I could stay forever."

Kulikov got his training in an L-29 jet, then worked his way up the MiG ladder from a MiG-21 to a MiG-23 and then, finally, to the MiG-29. By the time he defected to the United States, he had been flying MiGs for 17 years.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kulikov decided to leave his homeland after the Soviet Union started to split up. One big factor in his decision was that he is a native Latvian. When the Soviet Union started to dissolve and Latvia demanded independence, Kulikov realized that as a squadron commander in the Russian air force, he could be ordered to attack his own family. But he was also concerned about the changes he saw taking place in his country. "People call what we have now 'democracy,'" he says, "but they don't know what it means, and everyone interprets it differently. People think freedom means being able to do whatever they like, and that's not freedom. That's anarchy."

By 1991, Kulikov was stationed at an air base in East Germany. On one dark night, he packed up his wife, his two children, and the family dog, and sneaked across the East German border, slipping past guards by hiding between two trucks. The courage for such a daring move came from his flying, Kulikov says. "In flying, a pilot has to make a decision now — and control the airplane. You don't worry too much about risk. You just do what you need to do. That's what I did that night."

The hardest thing about leaving, he says, was that he thought that he would never fly again. But when his sponsor family in the United States learned of his background, they arranged for him to speak to several local aviation groups. In the audience one night was a retired U.S. Air Force general who had ties to the University of North Dakota and arranged a job for Kulikov at the university.

Kulikov worked as a line service technician at UND's flight facility — fueling, towing, and washing airplanes — while he learned English and started the painstaking process of earning his U.S. civilian flight ratings. When he got his flight instructor certificate, he began instructing for the university, specializing in tailwheel and aerobatic training.

"I worked harder learning to fly a small airplane than I had at anything since I left pilot school," he says with a laugh. "People think a MiG-29 is hard to fly, but it's not. In a small airplane, there is so much more to coordinate. I had to learn to control the mixture and prop. And in a MiG-29, you don't have to worry about stalls and spins. You have enough power to avoid that. And rudders? What are they for? We also didn't worry about crosswind landings in the MiGs. If the wind was above what the book said, we just didn't land there."

Some people might think that flying a Cessna 150 after commanding a squadron of MiG-29s would be a terrible comedown, but Kulikov has no complaints. "I never thought I'd have what I have now," he says. "I've never cared about what kind of airplane I was in, as long as I could fly." He shakes his head as he talks about some of his students who seem to take their flying curriculum for granted. "You're so lucky here in the United States," he says, "and you don't even realize it. You can just buy an airplane and go fly it, as long as you follow the rules. Kids in Russia want to fly so badly, but they can't do that."

Kulikov doesn't even complain about the North Dakota winters. "My military pilot school was in a place just like this," he explains. "It was flat, windy, cold in the winter, and hot in the summer. But in Russia, when it's cold outside, it's cold inside, too. So this isn't so bad."

Kulikov misses his family members who still live in Latvia, and starting over in a new country has not been easy. But he has an admirable perspective that perhaps more of us should acquire. "Almost everyone in the United States came from another country originally," he points out. "And at some point, someone in their family made the same decision I did. Sure, it's been hard, but that's just life. I'm very lucky. The place you live is not so important. What matters is family. You can be happy anywhere if you just appreciate what you have."

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