They call themselves "shotgun guys," a dozen Air Force men scattered across the country who are called upon when world events require top-of-the-cloud escorts.
When Soviet statesmen fly to Washington for talks and summits, when Soviet diplomats fly to New York City for United Nations events, when Soviet airmen want to show off their wares at military air shows in Oklahoma or Oshkosh, the State Department calls on pilots such as Capt. William P. Barry to help.
In his normal life, Barry, 32, is a professor of political science at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. When the State Department calls, he becomes an escort pilot for special Soviet charter flights into the United States. Like the Soviet pilots who escort U.S. airmen into Russia, he helps pilots translate the words of air traffic controllers, read maps and find the radio navigational aids on the ground that help pilots stay on course.
"This is a real highlight, to get away from the routine, to share a camaraderie with these guys," said Barry, who speaks Russian and teaches Russian politics. " . . . I was very surprised at how much the same they are to American pilots. They're professional, but they like to have fun."
Since 1960, the Soviet Union and the United States have been sharing escort pilots for chartered flights into one another's air space. Although English is the international aviation language, variations in accents and the speed at which controllers often bark out their orders can confuse foreign pilots.
Like all special flights of this nature, the cockpit of the four-engine Ilyushin-62 M that carried President Mikhail Gorbachev into Andrews Air Force Base last night included an American pilot and navigator to help their Soviet counterparts.
Pilots on regular Aeroflot flights are fluent in English and do not require escorts. The United States also has an agreement with China to provide reciprocal escort pilots for special diplomatic flights, said Barry.
U.S. escort pilots involved in Operation Constant Shotgun, as the informal program is named, usually board a Soviet plane at its last stop before entering U.S. airspace, he said, and debark on the first stop outside U.S. airspace.
The pilots and navigators stay in the cockpit, often standing in the aisle between the pilot and co-pilot while they are in U.S. airspace.
They are allowed to take passenger seats or roam the cargo plane the rest of the flight, although they do not go into the part of the plane carrying the dignitaries. Barry said during the previous summit trip he saw crates marked vodka and caviar, but was asked not to get close to the limousines.
The Boston native said Soviet pilots are curious about what they see on the ground and what they have heard is there. Crews have grilled him about the Boston Bruins hockey team.
There also have been small moments of international detente and good will. Like the time he announced to the crew that his wife was pregnant. "I was really excited and I had to tell everyone," he said.
The Soviets, he said, insisted on repeated soda-pop toasts and one gave him Russian coins to pass on to the new arrival. Holding his glass in the air, Barry recalled the pilot saying, "To a better world for our children."