Making a graphic novel 14:

Yuri Gagarin, Mig 15What was Yuri’s number? That was the question that was keeping me awake at night. Yuri was a fighter pilot, and Soviet fighter planes all have an individual number painted on each side of the nose in big black numerals. I was going to have to show Yuri’s jet, so what was Yuri’s number? Easy, I thought, there are enthusiastic plane spotters who love that sort of thing, somebody will have lists. Wrong. Nobody has lists. In fact, both military and civilian experts have despairingly concluded that there is neither rhyme nor reason to Soviet aircraft numbering. Some have even suggested they were made up randomly just to confuse the CIA.

Even so, I had a paranoid feeling that if I just guessed, somebody, somewhere out there would spot my ruse and complain. I freely admit I made up a number for the trainer jet on page 20, after all, if the Soviets just allocated random numbers, why shouldn’t I? But to do the same for Yuri’s own plane didn’t seem right.

As the relevant page drew nearer in the work schedule, it began to keep me awake at night. In a bid to get to sleep I reached down the side of the bed to the very random collection of books I keep for bedtime reading. My hand connected with a slim hardback volume. I hauled it up. It was the Aeromodeller Annual for 1961-2.

As a kid I had several years’ run of these, each containing a collection of articles about both real and model planes, together with pages and pages of plans to pore over. I had lost them all somewhere along the way, but I had recently spotted this one in a second hand bookshop and bought it for old times’ sake. I idly began to leaf through it, already beginning to get drowsy.

There was an editorial, entitled ‘The Struggle Ahead’, about the legal threat from British busybodies annoyed by noisy model planes. And then there was the photo on the facing page. A Soviet Mig15 climbing away from a snowy landscape. A lone figure standing in the background watching it. If you peered carefully at the black and white photo, you could just faintly see the control lines running from the wingtip of the model to his hand. Back then, affordable radio control was still some years away for most model fliers, even in the west.

A model Mig15. Well, so what? The old Aeromodeller magazine used to run quite a lot of stories about modellers on the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ during the 60’s, it was one of the few areas of cultural exchange between East and West that the Cold War hadn’t killed off. My eye drifted back to the second paragraph of the editorial, which introduced a breezy change of tone and subject:

“A pleasanter sight in the sky, for those few able to see it, was the magnificent first ever orbit in space by Russian aeromodeller Juri Gagarin.”

Of course, 1961, – it had been the biggest news of the year. I glanced back at the photo, and then to the caption below. The model it seemed, was the work of two Czechoslovakians, and although it didn’t have radio control, it did have a (very noisy!) real jet engine, of the simple type known as a ‘pulse-jet’. It was the last sentence however, that made me sit bolt upright and wide awake in bed:

“It is interesting to record that the designers have dedicated their model to Russian cosmonaut Juri Gagarin”

I looked again at the model jet roaring up off the snow. If two communists had built a model Mig in honour of ‘Juri’ Gagarin, they surely wouldn’t have guessed the number. It was good enough for me.
All those weeks of worry and hours of fruitless research. And all the time, Yuri’s jet had been hiding under my bed. The big black numbers stencilled on the model’s nose were easy to read: 1225.

Aeromodeller Czech Mig

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