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How did the Soviet Union keep airline pilots from leaving the country?

It seems like it would have been pretty easy to do since the pilots are already in the air. And I would guess at least some flew close to the borders.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you be more specific about what these pilots would be leaving for? Seems like Aeroflot has had flights to much of Europe throughout the Soviet era, and certainly does now. $\endgroup$ – NathanG Jun 28 '14 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ We need @flyingfisch to elaborate on his question, but the way I interpret it, he's asking why, in the days of the cold war, did the aeroflot pilots not just fly to a western country and defect. Or not even fly to western European countries, but say to Poland, and then just keep going to, say, France. I think this is as much for History.SE than Aviation.SE. $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Jun 29 '14 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is an example of begging the question. You're assuming they would have wanted to defect. Besides, Aeroflot did fly international routes (including many in Western Europe), so the pilots could have defected if they wanted to. Being in a prestigious job, a member of a privileged social class and leaving their families behind would have been factors to consider, and in all likelihood it would have meant the end of their aviation careers. The lesson here is: do not just accept Western propaganda. $\endgroup$ – Mark Micallef Nov 12 '14 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ Why on earth would a pilot want to defect? How many serving pilots were sufficiently at odds with the regime to feel that uncomfortable in their lives and positions? Poets and playwrights with troublesome opinions, sure. Political figures on the losing side of internal struggles, of course. Pilots?! $\endgroup$ – Daniele Procida Jun 5 '18 at 16:44
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For commercial flights, the USSR had a "Political Officer" (KGB agent) on the plane in much the same role as Air Marshals today, just the other direction - they kept the pilots from hijacking the aircraft. The system would have also insured that the flight crew's family were safely at home in Mother Russia when the pilot was abroad.

Military aircraft were kept at home by the simple method of small fuel tanks. The MIG-19 was once described as a plane that "goes nowhere, and does nothing, very quickly". Sure, they had decent range with external tanks, but a good number of Soviet-era fighters could realistically declare a fuel emergency right after takeoff.

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    $\begingroup$ Russian planes had smaller tanks because they were designed for defense. Bigger tanks are needed if you have a desire to attack far away countries. Please forget most cold war propaganda and look at the facts, and it will be clear that Russian planes served a different purpose than those of that other peace-loving nation which you use for comparison. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jun 29 '14 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf preventing defection was a factor, even if not an overriding one. A lot of their designs could have been a lot more flexible with larger tanks. As is, they often designed explicit short and long range aircraft to do essentially the same task, with the long range aircraft being assigned only to regions far from the borders. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jun 30 '14 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ In the Eighties, a Soviet MiG-23 had engine trouble and the pilot ejected. Somehow the engine recovered, and the plane flew westward, unmanned, until it crashed in Belgium (theaviationist.com/2012/10/03/mig23-belgium). Seems their tanks were not so small, after all. There had been plenty of opportunity to defect. Please, again, forget the propaganda and accept the facts. There were very few pilots who defected. Viktor Belenko was an exceptional case. And consider how much bounty the Taiwanese had to offer for Chinese pilots to defect. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jun 30 '14 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ In what context would you consider loiter as part of a defense mission??? MiGs were interceptors, directed by ground control to airborne targets picked up by long-range radar. Making them any bigger would have cost more. The design was really well adapted for the intended mission, and the tanks were big enough. Loiter is what you do if you attack targets of opportunity - now that's NOT a defensive task. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jun 30 '14 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ This is not really a very satisfactory answer; it reads like something from a rather unsophisticated western propaganda handout ca. 1986. Some of it simply false (e.g. the inference drawn re "Political Officers"). The rest just isn't borne out by the evidence, and is at odds with actual facts. $\endgroup$ – Daniele Procida Jun 5 '18 at 16:39
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Civilian pilots had a quite comfortable life. Flying high-tech gear has an attraction in itself, and the propaganda did what it could to strengthen patriotic spirits. There were not many reasons to defect if you did not mind the nonsense in the papers but appreciated to be part of a privileged class. And everybody knew that defection would have dire consequences for all relatives left behind.

The same is true for military pilots, and on top the Russian air defense was organized quite differently from NATO's, thus military pilots flew almost by remote control. This went as far as using radios which had only a dozen of pre-set frequencies. The pilots did not know the frequency, they just pushed the button with the number they were told by ground control.

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    $\begingroup$ And after the defection, how they would make a living? Driving a cab? $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Jun 30 '14 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ My comment was explanation what kept pilots from defecting. That after defection, they would not be able to fly. So (IMHO) your answer is more correct. What kept them "inside" wan not fear of KBG officer's gun, but fear of how to make living after the defection, losing the ability to fly, and reprisal against their families if they had any. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Jun 30 '14 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar Eh, if conditions were bad enough, the ability to fly may not have been a good enough incentive. It wasn't for some pilots, at least. Example, Another example $\endgroup$ – flyingfisch Jul 1 '14 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ @flyingfisch Wikipedia has plenty more examples. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 7 '14 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Ah, nice, all lined up by country. So the point stands: Some pilots did want to get out of the USSR. $\endgroup$ – flyingfisch Jul 9 '14 at 20:39
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The premise of the question, that pilots in the Soviet Union needed somehow to be "kept in" as if they wanted to leave, is simply false.

Also simply false is the inference in drawn in the the answer (currently accepted as correct!) about the role of "Political Officers".

Life in the USSR was frankly horrendous for many people: certain ethnic minorities, those who belonged to national or political groups that had fought and lost battles with the ruling classes, dissidents - but funnily enough, these people didn't often get to become airline pilots (or airline staff, or diplomats, or functionaries who got to travel across international borders as part of their work).

People who got to travel in those ways were already part of a trusted, privileged elite.

In a few words: what kept pilots from defecting from the USSR was that, on the whole, they didn't have a reason to want to.

Specious explanations don't need to be invented.

The people who wanted to leave because they were suffering dreadful privations and restrictions at the hands of the Soviet state weren't allowed to leave their towns, have telephones in their apartments or own typewriters - they idea that they might be allowed to pilot airliners is just a joke.

The notion of that airline pilots might be seeking to defect as a matter of course is honestly risible, however nicely it might harmonise with a certain Cold War narrative.

You can see how bogus the reasoning is: if the "Political Officers" were there to prevent defection, do you imagine they had one assigned 24 hours a day to each member of an international flight's crew on their overnight stays outside the USSR? It's nonsense.

The system would have also insured that the flight crew's family were safely at home in Mother Russia when the pilot was abroad

Sure, the families of dissidents and refuseniks were effectively deployed as leverage. But people like pilots?! It's just not the case. For the most part, Russians posted abroad were posted with their families when appropriate, just like everyone else.

As I said, life in the Soviet Union could be quite ghastly if you were on the wrong side of things, but there's really no need to recapitulate stale old Cold War propaganda to try to paint a picture that is worse than the reality was.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Russians posted abroad were posted with their families" - this doesn't exactly apply to the pilots since they were not "posted abroad", but came back in a few days. So their families became natural hostages, whether this was intended or not. $\endgroup$ – IMil Jul 2 '18 at 3:45

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