The Story of a Real Man

This interview initially appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda on December 7, 2022. It was entitled, “A Pilot of the Russian Aerospace Forces: ‘We decided not to give up. The navigator took the grenade, and I pulled the ring out of it.'”

Editor’s Note:

The Story of a Real Man by Boris Polevoy (1946) referenced below is about Soviet fighter ace Alexey Maresyev (1916-2001). During World War II, Maresyev’s plane was shot down but he managed to return to the Soviet side. He was injured so severely that both of his legs had to be amputated above the knee due to gangrene. Not only was Maresyev able to recover but he returned to flying a year later, in 1943, despite his disability. In total, he is credited with 80 combat sorties. Maresyev earned Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1947-48, renowned composer Sergei Prokofiev turned Marasyev’s experience into an opera.

In the original Russian title, “man” refers to a “person” (chelovek), but the standard English translation is “man.”

2016 Russian stamp featuring WWII hero Marsyev. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Pilot Pyotr Kashtanov, awarded Hero of Russia, defeated the enemy and escaped being captured. Kashtanov successfully carried out his combat mission and destroyed enemy equipment. However, the crew was hit and catapulted into enemy territory. The “nationalists” were close by, while his comrade was unconscious…

Source: Pyotr Kashtanov’s personal photo archive.

On the eve of Heroes of the Fatherland Day [December 9], Komsomolskaya Pravda journalists met with an officer whose airplane was shot down over enemy territory. Yet he completed his combat mission and, despite being wounded, led the crew to rejoin the Russian troops.

Not very tall, humble, and seemingly very young, the senior lieutenant tries to be sociable and relaxed.

– Pyotr, he extends his right hand.

Based on his weak handshake, as if it were unnaturally constrained, we understand that the pilot has not yet fully recovered. In September, his Su-34 fighter bomber was shot down over enemy territory, while on a combat mission in the Special Operation zone [during the international conflict taking place in Ukraine]. The situation was hopeless. He had a broken arm, while the navigator had a compression fracture of the spine. There were enemies all around. Yet by some miracle, both managed to get out and reached their own comrades.

And now, sitting in front of us, as if descended from the pages of Boris Polevoy’s The Story of a Real Man, is Pyotr Kashtanov, a Russian officer. The star of the Hero of Russia sparkles on the chest of this 31-year-old…

A POWERFUL STRIKE

– Do you remember how that day began?

– From getting up as usual. I got up at 6 in the morning, washed my face, and had breakfast. Then I went to get my combat mission for the day. The latter was nothing unusual: a sortie to destroy enemy equipment. This has already turned into a routine: we take off, carry out the mission, return, prepare for the next mission, take off, carry out the mission, and return.

– How many such sorties per day can there be?

– The numbers differ – the officer professionally evades disclosing classified information. – We approached the plane with the navigator, inspected it, checked the weapons, sat down, fastened ourselves, launched the plane, and took off …

The pilot casually tells how at a great speed they flew at ultra-low altitudes—below 25 meters [82 feet]. So that you understand, this is when you “hop over” the power lines. As a result, there is less of a chance of being shot down. He told us how they focused on the target—a column of enemy equipment, and how they “finished working on the enemy” and began moving away from the target in the direction of their troops. Turned around by 70 degrees and then …

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– A powerful strike.

– Like a car accident? – we used a stupid analogy.

– Almost, Pyotr responds diplomatically. – The plane began to shake immediately starting the rotation along the axis. There was very little time to make a decision—a maximum of 3-4 seconds. Thank God, that was enough for us.

– You were struck at what altitude?

– At about 50 meters [164 feet].

– Do you give the ejection order?

– We were in it together. The navigator said, “We got hit.” I immediately checked the controls, but the plane was uncontrollable. I only had the time to say, “Let’s leave” and activated the ejection system.

Pyotr Kashtanov in Komsomolskaya Pravda‘s studio: Source: KP.ru

UNBEARABLE PAIN

– What happened next?

– The strike was powerful. Everything happened so fast, and I was already in a parachute. It probably took us 10-15 seconds to descend to the ground. As I landed, I realized that my right hand stopped functioning. I used my left hand to free myself from the parachute suspension system and started looking for the navigator. He landed about 15 meters [49 feet] away.

– And for those 10-15 seconds, when you were still in the air, what were you thinking about?

– How could we get out now? Which way should we go?

– You crawled up to the navigator …

– I ran up to him. He was motionless. I began to take off his helmet and his parachute suspension. He already started to come to. And the first thing he said was, “Leave me here, save yourself.”

– Can you tell us the navigator’s name?

– Dmitry Koptilov.

– What did you say to him?

– I said: “Nikolaich, I won’t leave without you. We’ll get out together.” I didn’t even think about leaving him there. I just grabbed him and started dragging him. [Nikolayevich (colloquially “Nikolaich”) is the navigator’s patronymic name based on his father’s name – Ed.]

– With one hand?

– Well, yes. We had to at least inject ourselves with painkillers. We made it through the first 30 meters [98 feet], and the navigator said, “Unbearable pain.” It was then that I knew that I had to inject ourselves with it.

– Did you have unbearable pain?

– Somehow I did not feel it. Adrenaline. At first, we passed through a small swamp. It was as if we went swimming off-season. As soon as we took the painkillers, we noted that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) arrived in three or four cars. We decided that we will not surrender. I took out a grenade and screwed a fuse into it. The navigator also had one functioning hand, the left one, while it was my right one that was injured. He took a grenade with his left hand. I said, “Hold onto it, Nikolaich, I’ll get the grenade ring now.” And so, we started waiting, while the AFU combed the area. They were, perhaps, numbered up to a platoon.

– You prepared to blow yourselves up with one grenade. How did you make this decision?

– We made the decision quickly, but it was difficult. Surrendering? Well, I would not have allowed myself to do such a thing. You shouldn’t give up in this life in any shape or form. Had they found us, we would have had 3 seconds to live, while the fuse was lit.

– Did you see them looking for you?

– Literally, 7 meters [23 feet] away we observed one man. He went in one direction, then the other … Then artillery strikes began in that location. I suspect that it was our artillery working on them. It was the latter that saved our lives because it scared them away, and they walked away. We decided to wait until dark.

“ARE THERE RUSSIAN TROOPS HERE?”

Soaking wet for five hours, they lay in the bushes without moving and waiting for dusk. Surprisingly, the men were not shivering from the cold. Apparently, both the adrenaline release and the painkillers had the desired effect. All this time, somewhere not far away, enemy reconnaissance was snooping around, and artillery explosions were being heard sprinkling the wounded with soil and shrapnel.

Toward evening the cannonade subsided. The navigator said, “It’s my spine. I can’t get up.” Pyotr replied, “Nikolaich, we have to walk. It will be hard, but we have to. And so, they walked through unharvested fields, hiding in thickets of sunflowers and corn. 7-10-15 minutes of walking, 2 minutes of rest—Dmitry’s injury constantly made itself known. Remember, this was just like in Polevoy’s novel:

«And he decided to walk, walk east, walk through the forest, without trying to look for convenient roads and settlements, walk, no matter what it cost … It seemed that the weaker and feebler his body became, the more stubborn and stronger was his spirit…»

In 13 hours, they covered about 30 kilometers [19 miles].

– We approached a settlement. “Come on, stay here, and I will go and see who is there in the village,” I said to the navigator. And then we noticed vehicles labeled with the letter Z. “That’s it, Nikolaich, one hundred percent, these are our troops.” They came to the first house and noticed a grandfather, “Father, are there Russian troops here?” He replied, “Yes, guys, I’ll take you to them now.” I said, “Can I have a drink?” He gave us some water. I wanted to drink our entire way there.

– To whom did the grandfather take you?

– To our gunners. We went into one hangar, and the driver mechanic got out. It was he who took us to the battalion commander at headquarters. They had already contacted our unit and reported their whereabouts.

– How did the artillerymen welcome you?

– Very well. They, too, of course, heard about our situation, and no one knew where the crew was. And when we reached them, of course, they were surprised. But they welcomed us well and immediately fed us. And then a helicopter came to get us.

“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO HAVE INTEGRITY”

– Who was the first person you saw when you got out of the helicopter?

– Our commander. I reported to him about successfully completing our mission. The commander hugged us, “Thank you, guys, for being alive.” The hospital came after that, then the treatment and being awarded.

– Did you feel proud about getting your award?

– I was somewhat shy about it instead. I still have not grasped what was so heroic about what I did. But this is how the country perceives my actions. So, I will bear this high title with dignity.

– Not only did you complete the combat mission and returned from it, but you also pulled your comrade out and brought him home.

– I did not bring him back. We walked together. We acted like a well-coordinated mechanism, like a crew. That was the situation that arose, and we did what we were taught.

– I guess they taught you well. Do you remember the good things about your teachers?

– Of course. My first flight instructor and I had already talked on the phone. I am grateful to all the instructors who put young men “on the wing” in the training regiments. This is very valuable. They have a very important job.

Yet Pyotr Kashtanov became a pilot only thanks to his perseverance. He was drawn to the sky from childhood. His mom said that they lived next to an airfield. And four-year-old Petya loved to watch how planes took off above him every day, and how the parachute domes opened in the air. It was then that he said that he would definitely become a pilot, although he himself does not remember this.

After the 9th grade, he was admitted to a boarding school in Tambov that featured preliminary flight training. There, everything resembled the army: a company, a platoon, the barracks, and the responsibilities… And after graduating, he attended flight school. Yet he got in only on the fifth try. One particular subject was just too difficult. During this time, he even served in the army as a tank driver. But he did not give up on his dreams of the sky, “If I start something, then I finish it.” The first flight…

– Delight and awe. I cannot convey the experience because, in principle, it is not natural for a person to fly. And this is for life.

– And who was your role model?

– Maresyev, of course. After all, this is such a well-known story of a man who crawled because his legs were broken, to reach his own troops. And he also had a dream—to fly. And he achieved this dream—he kept flying without legs.

– Do you plan to return to the sky?

Su-34 by Erik Romanenko/TASS.

– Of course! For now, I’m undergoing treatment and recovery. And afterward, I’ll be back at the helm of an aircraft, the best one in the world, the Su-34.

– When boys read this interview, they too may want to become pilots. What qualities should they cultivate in themselves?

– Definitely, perseverance. Patience—everything has its own time, as they say. The most important thing in aviation, though, is to always have integrity. Personal integrity, integrity for your comrades and your commanders.

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