USMLM USMLM Bill Burhans served as a tour officer with the USMLM Air Team from July 1971 to June 1975. He returned in 1979 to command Detachment 16, 7113th Special Activities Squadron (the Air Team), departing in early spring 1980 following a December 1979 Soviet-originated nasty incident. He relates for us the 1972 conscripts troop rotation aboard (what was thought to be at the time) "Aeroflot" airliners.

Wagons Un train de conscrits dans les environs de Berlin-Est en 1984. © H.Black.

A boxcar loaded with conscripts near East-Berlin in 1984. © H.Black.
Course The GSFG rotated approximately one-quarter to one-third of its personnel twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. Until the early-1970s, these troops were transported via train into and out of the Soviet Zone of Occupation. Such trains usually comprised about 40 cars: an engine, a coal car, 32-34 boxcars for personnel and the remainder for baggage and supplies. The boxcars were the old German M-wagens (Menschwagen - people cars) equipped with two wide wooden shelves serving as bunks, a charcoal space heater and a potty chair. These were rudimentary transportation assets to say the least. Twice a year the allied liaison missions mounted a special operation to monitor the main GDR rail lines. Reconnaissance tours would spend several days in a well-chosen OP watching for troop rotation trains. These tours would be replaced on a scheduled basis to provide 24-hour-a-day saturation coverage. This was not exciting work, but there was a continuing requirement from higher headquarters for such reporting so an estimate could be made of what percentage of the force was rotating. In the early-1970s, the troop rotation mode of transportation changed. Civilian airliners with Aeroflot markings began to be used. Highly sensitive collection programs provided information on this change of procedures, but the level of distribution of this information necessarily was limited.

Su-7 Tu-154 Des soldats heureux à l'issue de leur seconde année de service au sein du 787.IAP. Ils attendent d'embarquer à bord d'un Tu-154 à destination de la Mère patrie (Finow, 1989). © V.Glouchkov.

These happy soldiers have completed their two years service duty within the 787.IAP. They are waiting to embark aboard a Tu-154 bound for the Motherland (Finow, 1989). © V.Glushkov.
The USMLM Air Team could prove this to be true and report this fact at the CONFIDENTIAL level, this would allow much wider dissemination of this information. One of the troop rotation airfields was Grossenhain Soviet Airfield, home of the 497th Fighter-Bomber Aviation Regiment (497.IBAP) equipped with Su-7 (FITTER A) ground-attack aircraft. Nick Netter and I were assigned to monitor this airfield on November 7, 1972, a cold foggy late fall day. Visibility was not very good, but we used this lousy weather to our advantage. We succeeded in getting to our OP unobserved and were confident no one knew where we were. It was quite early in the morning, around 7 a.m. as I recall, and there was little or no traffic, nor was there any other activity. In addition, this was a Soviet holiday, the 55th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, after all! We had worked our way to an OP to the northeast of the airfield. We were in a copse of woods very close to the airfield perimeter fence, which provided an unimpeded view of the airfield parking ramp.

Il-18 Painting Nick positioned the vehicle perfectly at the fence, which allowed me to get pictures of a long line of troops, in uniform, climbing the steps to board a civilian IL-18 aircraft with Aeroflot markings. This was the confirmation we needed, but only if the photography was usable. The conditions were very poor: low level of light and some ground fog. Our photo lab technicians had their work cut out for them because I had exposed my Kodak Tri-X film (rated at ASA 400) at 6400 ASA. Fortunately, we had just the right person to cope with this task. Technical Sergeant Ken Rocheleau was a key member of the USMLM Photo Lab. He had recently completed a tour of duty at the US Embassy in Moscow. Ken had developed certain special techniques for handling critical film and his results always were spectacular. In this instance, he pre-soaked the film prior to processing, and then processed the film carefully using special time and temperature procedures he had devised and perfected. Even though the conditions under which I had exposed the Grossenhain film were very bad, Ken produced prints that clearly verified what Nick Netter and I had observed visually. We had our confirmation. As the 1972 USMLM Unit History puts it: "This sighting served to remove almost all doubt about the involvement of Aeroflot aircraft in the GSFG troop rotation program."
Bill Burhans

USMLM Unit History, 1972

Conscripts in CSFG are rotated on a semi-annual basis in the Spring and Fall. It has been estimated that approxinately 50% of GSFG's conscripted strength is rotated annually. In 1972 the most significant development associated with troop rotation was the airlift of conscripts to and from Soviet Airfields in East Germany. Aeroflot aircraft accounted for approximately 47,000 troops or from 20 to 30% of the total number estimated to have been involved in the two 1972 rotation phases. There was, however, no evidence that the 1972 GSFG troop rotation program significantly changed the total strength in East Germany.

The Soviet Defense Minister's conscription directive took effect on 11 April. The Spring rotation was estimated to have involved approximately 25,000 men. The first Pendel train loaded with recruits was observed on 19 April and the last one on 24 May. Aeroflot TU-104 CAMEL, TU-114 CLEAT, AN-12 CUB, and II-18 COOT aircraft which probably participated in the airlift of GSFG conscripts were observed landing at Gross Doelln Airfield on 7, 9, and 30 May. Airlift aircraft also utilized Grossenhain, Allstedt, and Mahlwinkel airfields; however, no USMLM observations were made at these airfields during Spring rotation.

Soviet civil aviation support of the Fall phase of the 1972 troop rotation began on 6 November and ended on 22 November after having flown approximately 200 round trip flights between the USSR and the forward area. Grossenhain, Gross Doelln, and Mahlwinkel Airfields were utilized by IL-18, AN-12, and TU-114 aircraft in support of this phase of the semi-annual troop rotation. The most significant observation was made on 7 November at Grossenhain Airfield when a group of 50-60 Soviet troops were seen in the immediate proximity of an Aeroflot IL-18 which had just landed. This sighting served to remove almost all doubt about the involvement of Aeroflot aircraft in the GSFG troop rotation program. Empty Pendel trains were observed as early as 23 October with the first Pendel loaded with recruits being observed entering Wittenberg on 9 November. The last Pendel train sighted was headed north on the Satzkorn-Eiche railline on 10 December.

Never judge by appearances

Tu-154 Tu-154 Pas moins de cinq Tu-154 de l'Aeroflot en escale à Parchim au cours des années quatre-vingt. © A.Vinogradov.

No less than five Tu-154 from the Aeroflot can be counted on this picture taken at Parchim during the 1980s. © A.Vinogradov.
While it seems certain that civilian airliners were called in to assist the troop rotation between airports located in various parts of the USSR and East Germany, it is necessary to get things straigth in order to dispel a myth that dies hard. Those of us who lived the Cold War know the story: "Aeroflot aircraft flew for the military and they were all military anyway..."
This fable that is still alive nowadays was based on misleading factual observation (the above story being a good exemple) or peremptory judgment about the "Soviet way of life." As a matter of fact, except for large-scale operations such as the troop rotation of conscripts, aircraft in "Aeroflot" markings flying missions for the military were military aircraft on strength with military units; they were based on military airfields and they were flown by military personnel! (1)

Tu-114 Tu-114 Many of the airliners observed in the GDR, were stationed at Chkalovskiy military airfield, located ENE of Moscow. One of the units stationed at this airbase was the 10th Separate Red Banner Special-Purpose Aviation Brigade (10-ya Otdelnaya Krasnoznamennaya Aviatsionnaya Brigada Osobogo Naznacheniya - 10.OABON) established on June 1, 1960. Military airliners that were flying to and from the "fraternal countries" were on strength with this unit (2) - the brigade comprised eight squadrons in 1978. The latter was absorbed by the 8th Red Banner Special-Purpose Aviation Division (8-ya Aviatsionnaya Krasnoznamennaya Diviziya Osobogo Naznacheniya - 8.ADON) on December 31, 1981. The subordination of this unit changed after the fall of the USSR. The aircraft concerned in this article were incorporated into the 223rd Flight Detachment (223-iy Letnyy Otryad) and now they are flying for the benefit of both military and civilian entities.
The airliner types were painted in full Aeroflot livery. Some military cargo aircraft like the An-22 were almost exclusively available in "Aeroflot" markings. Also, you will have a hard time finding a VTA Il-76 with a red star on its tail, although a few do exist. Some other types like the An-12 (3) could be camouflaged but still had "Aeroflot" markings and civilian registration. Military aircraft adorned with civilian markings could travel abroad more easily. During the Six-Days War in 1967, an airlift was set up to support the Arab states. The cargo planes that took part did so under civilian liveries with a red flag on the tail instead of a red star. This approach later prevailed in the communist countries, although on a much lower scale.
Airborne command posts also kept their "Aeroflot" markings (see the paragraph entitled "Airborne Command Posts" in Part 3 of the "Transport & Sperenberg" chapter > Link).
The civilian colour scheme or markings of military aircraft could be considered a sort of camouflage or a deception plan. And, it worked quite well indeed in the West! Of course, some cargo aircraft also bore military markings, but often they had previously "Aeroflot" markings. Undoubtedly, this maskirovka (disguise or deception) operation was a big success!

An-12 Des An-12 camouflés mais déguisés avec des marquages civils, attendent des soldats du 899ème Régiment autonome de parachutistes d'assaut basé à Rosenkrug, au début des années 80. © DR.

Camouflaged An-12s diguised in civilian markings awaiting soldiers of the 899th Separate Assault Parachute Regiment from Rosenkrug, during the early 1980s. © DR.

Nowadays, the "Aeroflot" markings have disappeared; however, the basic pattern of white, gray and blue remained. During the traditional Victory Parade that was held in Moscow on May 9, 2014, the An-124 and the three Il-76MD that participated in the flyover above Red Square had a red star instead of the Russian flag hastily painted on their vertical empennage. The rest of the VTA fleet now seems to slowly follow this new trend.
Hugo Mambour


(1) There are no rules without exceptions. For example, some aircraft in service with Aeroflot were transferred to the VVS (read the captions of the two
     Tu-114 pictures at the end of this article). Their civilian career was followed by a military career. That seems to have been the case with older
     aircraft (such as the Tu-114s) and/or those that were assigned in small numbers to the military. However, most of the VVS airliner and transport
     aircraft have been in military service since the very beginning.
(2) These are the same aircraft that carried out liaison flights to former airfields in East Germany, including Sperenberg, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
(3) "At the factory, most military An-12s received a "quasi-civilian" paint scheme simulating their belonging to Aeroflot."
     (From Aviatsiya i Kosmonavtika, July 2010).
     However, pictures and videos taken during the early sixties show An-12s in natural metal finish with full military markings. Also, the first An-22s had
     military markings. Therefore, it appears that the "Aeroflot camouflage" scheme was introduced after the mid-sixties. The decision probably followed
     the Six-Days War in 1967 when an airlift was set up to supply the Arab states, as the aircraft taking part to it were disguised in civilian markings.

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