Saunas and Wartoys:
A Modern Kalevala,
FINNISH SCHOOL OF NBC DEFENSE:
We arrived at Regimental Headquarters just outside of the town of Keuruu in central Finland a bit later, having linked up at the air base with another colleague of X’s--a young Finnish doctoral candidate and author/historian who recently wrote a definitive history of the Finnish’s Defense Forces’ chemical warfare service. I rode with him in his pleasantly dilapidated old Saab model 96 sedan. He was writing his thesis on a theory centered on the idea that war threats dictates social response, thereby profoundly affecting changes experienced by civilisation, and I welcomed the opportunity to discuss these things with him as we rolled through the beautiful countryside is his cranky old red Saab. 'J' is quite a sharp fellow and in addition to having some fun sharing jokes about his old car, we got down to some serious interchanges on his thesis. Necessarily complicated and too long to set down briefly, he theorises that a specific set of social changes were motivated by three specifically monumental threat posed to civilisation in the past century: two of these threats were chemical and nuclear war, and the third eludes me. At any rate, we spent the better part of our trip in frequently animated conversation and before long we were entering Keuruu, a delightfully pastoral, semi-rural community whose name in Finnish means 'Caribou.' I had earlier received a copy of J’s book; detailing 50 years of Finnish chemical warfare service history, from 1944 through 1994, it is about 240 pages in length and illustrated with some interesting photo plates.
Pulling up to the Central Finland Regiment’s training facilities, we were met by Colonel T., the Commandant of the NBC School. I had met him in Stockholm and periodically throughout the conference there, but this was the first time I had had a chance to get to know him a bit more. We joined his adjutant, a young First Lieutenant who had also been in Stockholm (and a friend of X’s), and started a tour of the NBC School after dropping our things off at the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. Finland has a conscript program, wherein all young Finnish males spend a certain number of months in mandatory national service. X had formerly been a chemical warfare service sergeant in his conscript days and accordingly, he knew everyone there at the Regimental Headquarters quite well. Formerly a central figure in developing the historical concerns and museum maintained there at the NBC School, X had maintained his associations and contacts. It would possibly be of interest, here, to explain a bit about just how the Finnish military conscription service works.
In Finland there is a mandatory 11 month conscription for all young men reaching their 18th or 19th birthday. After initial induction, they are given both basic and specialised training courses. When their 11 month mandatory service is completed they go on active reserve status for a further period of time and are subject to immediate call-up in the event of a national emergency. Most young Finns hate the national service requirement, understandably, but comply with it. It is during this 11 month period of initial required service that selections are made for officer candidates and from this common start some are sent off to military academy, while others are assigned to different assignments leading to permanent military careers. Finland has a proud and long history of military traditions, but given contemporary social enlightenment and the world-wide rebelliousness of youth, it is perhaps understandable that most young conscripts find national service distasteful nonetheless. The officer Corps are more profession oriented and have a far higher esprit de corps; conscript attitudes vary towards their military duties, obviously, but disinterest predominates: “Let’s just get it over with.”
I was a bit surprised how informally the nominal military courtesies are rendered (in my short period of observation at Keuruu) by the conscripts. Salutes are still given and returned but there is an evident and studies casualness in the exchange. The basic conscriptee attitude changes quickly enough, I was told, after exposure to the drill sergeants in basic training. Not that much different from our own American system after all, apparently.
Colonel T. quickly demonstrated his genuine friendliness and hospitality, and of course I had already had some introduction to Lt. J. (who had been in charge of the new Finnish M-95 chemical respirator Army field trials) in Stockholm. Quite quickly we all became seemingly good friends and after some briefings in the NBC School pertaining to mission, scope of activity, etc., we ended our tour of the school with a visit to the chemical warfare museum displays that X had originally been responsible for setting up. Gathering outside for a few photographs in the hazy afternoon sun, we then got into a staff car and took a short ride to the nearby lake, where a program of aircrew water-survival was in progress.
PARACHUTES AND RUBBER DUCKIES:
Satakunta Air Wing aircrew water survival training takes place at a site along the shore of the lake about a km from the main base itself. This consists of fitting up about 12 Finnish Draken & Mig-21F bis pilots in full survival gear--personal equipment required for flights over water included--and then using a specially adapted paragliding chute system and power boat to tow them up to an altitude of about 1000 feet over the lake. This is not unlike the paragliding that tourists to Mexico’s beaches can experience for a price except for one large difference: when the pilot reaches 1000 feet of altitude the chute is released from the tow-cable and the descent to the lake below begins, laden with a considerable load of heavy equipment. The idea is to teach aircrew to quickly be able to deploy water-survival kits, pulling the lanyard that releases the life raft and landing successfully in the water without becoming ensnarled in the parachute or its risers. Once in the water, the chute harness’s Capewells (chute attachment connectors) are released and you heave yourself up and over the side of a smallish (6 feet long) personal life raft, setting off a smoke signal to help air-rescue spot you. A Finnish Air Force MI-8 Hind (Russian made) chopper then sweeps over the lake to make a winch-rescue pick-up of the downed pilot, and the exercise is completed.
X and I were taken out to the anchored pontoon craft, with Lt. J and Colonel T., where the survival training was taking place in one of the regimental motor boats. There we met Major R. of the Finnish Air Force, who was in charge of the exercise. After observing the training for a while, Major R. offered to let X and I go up. This promised to be quite an interesting undertaking, and an opportunity to prove that we could come down into the cold drink and emerge successfully without swallowing half the lake or turning blue in the process. X and I accepted the offer and were suited up in brightly colored water exposure suits worn by Finnish pilots on over-water missions (in Finland that is pretty much most of the time, as in addition to its Bothnian Gulf shoreline, there are thousands of lakes scattered all over the country). Then full flight gear followed--helmets, oxygen masks, life vest, survival equipment, harness, and finally, the yellow colored training survival kit itself. On the Draken, Hawk and Hornet aircraft these are carried under the seat cushion of the ejection seats; a similar arrangement is configured for kits used with the Mig-21F bis aircraft (Russian system).
X and I watched the aircrew going up before us with interest and then it was finally our turn. When it was my shot, the bright yellow and orange paragliding canopy was attached to the harness Capewells and I stood poised on the edge of the pontoon. Behind me, several others held the chute’s nylon in a semi-open display so as to catch the wind quickly when the tow-boat began the tow.
The tow cable was attached to a special quick-release on my harness, and then on the given signal the powerboat throttled forward, much like a water-skiing ride begins. The lines snapped taut, although there was a minor moment of slack in the tow just before it took my full weight and I got a quick dunking up to my knees in the lake before the chute started to carry me aloft. After getting my feet wet, we were on our way up to 1000 feet and I was soon contemplating how cold and deep blue the lake looked from this height.
Moments later came the release, and with a sharp metallic snap I was on my way down to reacquaint myself with that frigid mass of water. The chute was still wet from its previous use and was therefore a bit heavier that it would normally be; this combined with the heavy weight of the survival kit meant the trip down was somewhat faster than I had expected. I remembered to drop the survival kit’s lanyard about half way down, allowing it to snake out to the end of a 20 foot nylon line below me, and braced for the plunge. The water contact switch on the life raft would cause it to self-inflate, and all I had to do was swim sputtering up from beneath the lake’s surface, release my chute harness Capewells and disconnect one of the oxygen mask’s bayonets so that I could breathe. Easy enough to say; a bit harder to do in sequence, but amazingly, the push of adrenal expediency facilitates the drill. The life vest inflated quickly enough, but the cold of the lake’s water could be felt, despite the anti-exposure suit’s insulation. I wondered what the Gulf of Bothnia would feel like after an hour in the drink there, remembering how it had felt in the relatively warm shallows along its shoreline in Vaasa--without an exposure suit!
The next moment was easy, if you disallow the somewhat less than perfect immersion suit quality. I grabbed the life raft line and started to try to roll over the edge of it in the demonstrated manner, finding it a bit harder to accomplish than it had appeared. Finally, after two or three attempts, I managed to settle into the snug raft and grabbed a smoke signal from my survival vest, setting off the bright orange plume to drift lazily skyward. As the nearby paragliding chute canopy was gathered up by the powerboat crew to be taken back for use by the next trainee, I scanned the sky for the big black Hind chopper that would come pick me up.
It was there quickly enough, having been hovering just above the shore line, and a winch cable was lowered which I snapped onto my harness for a dizzying lift up to the gaping hatch of the big machine. After stumbling on board, and strapping in to a web seat, I glanced around at the crew. All were grinning under their helmets--I suppose thinking how unusual a break from the ordinary it was to be ferrying a visiting foreigner instead of the usual squadron aircrew. I grinned back and got a thumbs-up from the crew chief as we flew back to the pontoon’s staging area where X, Lt. J., and Colonel T. waited. The massively built Russian MI-8 Hind is something else to experience from the inside. Noisy, bulky and huge are the only adequate words to describe it. I understand they are, however, relatively reliable when maintained by experienced mechanics, and the Finnish Defense Forces have used them for some time with success. They are a lot cheaper, naturally, than North American or European counterparts are to fly and maintain.
After X’s jump was completed, we took our leave of the Major R. and the aircrew survival training sessions, getting into the regimental motor-boat for a trip around the lake before heading back. I was surprised to find us docking, after a bit, at a swank water-front resort with a large sun balcony and lake-front alfresco café. Colonel T. explained to X and I that we would be his guests for some good Finnish beer there, and the next hour was spent sitting about quaffing Quality III KOFF brew enjoying some good discussion on the survival training in the setting of the resort’s scenic locale. In a ground level barbeque the hotel staff were building a big birch-wood fire in the coals of which, J. explained, the restaurant’s traditional entrée was buried and left to bake for several hours--something along the lines of a Hawaiian Luau. A bit later, feeling no pain and considerably relaxed by the good beer--the cold of the lake water forgotten--all of us piled back in the regimental motor-launch for the return trip back to the facility.
Casting off from shore, we poled out a bit and the Finnish conscript operating the launch tried to start the small outboard engine; it was balky and wouldn’t start, the poor conscript nearly exhausting himself trying to coax it to life. Alternating turns on the motor’s rope-pull, each of us gave it our best effort, despite the effects of the beer. This continued for about 15 minutes and accomplished nothing except that each attempt to start the engine had pushed us further and further into the lake. Finally the realisation settled into all of us that the engine was not going to start, but we were several hundred meters from shore, about a half mile away from the survival training pontoon, and none of us relished the thought of having to dive into the lake and attempt to pull the boat to shore.
Fortunately, it was a sunny afternoon, we were all pretty happy to just sit there for a while, what with the beer and all, and eventually another launch from the regiment making courier rounds on the lake noticed us and we were able to get a tow back to the regimental facility. Colonel T. took it all in the best of humor, even though he must have been a bit embarrassed to have his boat become disabled while taking us on our tour. He made a few self-deprecating jokes about how this was not an operational motor but rather just a training one. “Hmmmm, Finnish motor Perkela!,” he said with a grin, ehimsically alluding to the fact that the company that made the outboard motor was soon going to be making the new Finnish-license version of the McDonnell-Douglas FA-18 Hornet for the Finnish Air Force--the official Draken replacement just starting to be manufactured. Better a failed outboard engine than a high performance supersonic jet turbine engine, we all agreed with some humor. Shortly thereafter, the launch docked and we all had some more beer in the Officers’ Club, before being shown to our quarters for the night’s lodging. What a day it had been, and what a great introduction to the Finnish people! I was loving it!
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING:
Later that evening we were treated to yet another sauna, this time in the Officers’ Club with Colonel T., Lt. J.,X and a few others. There was no lake nearby to swim in, since it was a bit removed from the site, but we steamed at 100 degrees anyway and came out periodically for snacks and more beer. Immediately afterwards there was to be a dinner in the mess. X approached me and asked if I would consider giving my Satakunta Air Wing speech on the Convair F106 interceptor to the regimental personnel and a detachment of the pilots and air cadets who were attending the water survival training. This was completely unexpected and I had already had a fair quantity of Quality III KOFF beer by this time, courtesy of Colonel T. However, the beer had worked its 'Irish Courage Effect' and after a quick self-assessment of my coherency, I decided ‘why the hell not?’ We brought out the overhead projector and as the group finished its meal and settled back into some more beer, I launched again into a somewhat sharpened-up version of the talk I have given at the airbase--this time better prepared for the casual nature of the gathering. Amazingly, the beer actually helped me, rather than having the opposite effect, and I was soon into my Chuck Yeager/Tom Cruise fighter pilot synthesis--a transition by the realisation that the Draken and MiG pilots present were all in their 20s while the air cadets were in their teens.
Accordingly, things went far better this time, my confidence visibly supported by the ETOH (shameful to admit), and I brought the whole presentation off with aplomb and almost a certain amount of finesse. The audience gave ready approval of the talk this time--none of that fighter jock posing. Even the Draken pilots were more responsive with the Tom Cruise 'cool' act forgotten as I got into the meat of the historical development of the Convair F106 aircraft and the American Air Defense strategy of the Cold War Era. Once again X and I played the Rule Number One routine--this time with gratifying results. It produced a roar of approval and laughter from everyone present. This response was undoubtedly amplified by the quantities of beer being consumed after a rigorous day in water survival training on the lake, but it highlights the difference between sober pilots contemplating a serious subject given seriously, and happily 'mood-adjusted' pilots enjoying the same thing given by an equally 'mood-adjusted' colleague in a casual setting. The evening was therefore a great personal success, and enjoyed by all of us.
The air cadets left the hall with a slight sheen in their eyes, doubtless produced by a combination of the beer and their heady romantic dreams of someday joining the ranks of their older righteous brothers; the Draken & MiG pilots (those who weren’t flying the next day) stayed on for a bit more hanger flying at the table with us, and after another hour of so we all returned to our rooms at the O Club for some well-deserved sleep in the amazingly comfortable beds there (not like US Air Force BOQ, that’s for sure!).
I slept like a baby that night, my last thoughts before bailing out of the conscious world wondering how my wife was doing with X’s wife, taking in the many interesting sights that Finland has to offer.. Just prior to nodding off I mused briefly over the 'typical' Finnish personality. Everyone in Finland I had had the initial appearance of being very serious about even the slightest detail, but I had soon learned that this was really only a façade produced by Finnish society’s proprietary etiquette. Under that masque of polite detachment there was usually a smile and a laugh lurking, just waiting to spring forth. Many times good fellowship and similar interests alone produced the desired icebreaker, but I noticed that frequently enough good Finnish beer, although expensive, was a useful inhibition-reduction agent, and so was the cherished ritual of the sauna. There seems to be an inherent 'shyness' about the Finns--especially among men--and this characteristic is often misread, so it would seem, by non-Finns as being an air of disinterested aloofness. How much farther from the truth one could get, I couldn’t imagine. By the time I was ready to emplane for Riyadh at the end of our trip, I felt I had made many genuinely sincere new friends and acquaintances; the Finland of my acquaintance is truly an amazingly warm-hearted nation, and so very different from Sweden.
AVIATION MUSEUMS & FINNISH GIRLS:
Early the next morning X and I gathered up our things once again--my stock of clean clothes was beginning to run short after almost two weeks living out of suitcases--and again loaded up the car for our departure. A last brief tour of the civil township of Keuruu was given us by Colonel T. and Lt. J. in the regimental staff car, and the highlight of this was a stop to see the oldest wooden Finnish church in the nation. Designed and built by an uneducated, self-taught carpenter in the mid 1700’s, the Keuruu church is a masterpiece of architecture in the rustic Scandinavian style. It was an amazing sight, looming tall and silhouetted in the mid-June sun of Finland’s summer.
Once back at the base, once more, we received a call from Professor K. at the Research Center, suggesting that we stop by the interesting aviation museum in his native home-region near the city of Halle; this museum is close by the Finnish air base where all the secret Finnish flight testing is done, and Professor K. went on to say he would meet us there, since he was taking an early mid-summer holiday.
As we drove to Halle from Keuruu, X pulled out some cassette tapes and asked me if I like American rock & roll. When I replied that I did, I was amazed and a bit tickled to hear a collection of classic R&R from the late 60s and 70s, which X had selected and recorded himself. Garcia, Hendrix, The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, BTO, Lynerd Skynerd--all my favorites. I was having a great time--couldn’t have picked the pieces better myself. What a guy X was turning out to be. He was fascinated when I told him I had listened to many of these groups live in San Francisco during the Haight-Ashbury days, but was visibly disappointed when I told him I had missed out on Woodstock, due to its being so far away (Finland is a smaller country and the difference in sizes is sometimes lost in the comparison). The Finns, of course, have a profound liking for American pop music--especially jazz and R&R. In fact, Professor K. had earlier confessed during our sauna together that he played sax in a Finnish jazz group. I had told him at that time that I used to play trombone and he said it was a shame he hadn’t known that or we could have gotten together in a session. Hah!
The aviation museum at Halle, home of the Finnish airline Carhu and the original, indigenous Finnish Valmet Aircraft Works, is something that has to be seen to be believed. From the road, sitting under a cover of trees, it gives the impression of being a nondescript collection of large and small buildings. That was my feeling when we pulled off the road after driving down from Keuruu. Professor K. was already there, so we got out and were introduced to a Finnish Air Force Major who had agreed to give us a personal tour of the facility. The Major spoke excellent English, as do most Finnish Air Force personnel (English is the international language of flight, after all), and just before we entered the reception area Professor K. asked me, in the course of some small talk, what I thought of Finnish women. When I replied that I hadn’t really had chance to meet any, he told me with a smile that this was probably just as well since once I had met a few I wouldn’t want to leave Finland!
As if to prove his point, there sitting behind the desk of the reception office for the Halle Aviation Museum was one of the most stunningly beautiful girls I have ever seen. With lovely long brown hair, a healthy tanned skin and the body of a gazelle, she was smiling with what had to be the most genuinely friendly interest I have seen on a woman of such beauty. And she must have been all of 18. This was Annika, who was a volunteer at the museum, and whose father was an officer at the nearby air base. Glancing away from pretty Annika, I looked over at Professor K. who was smiling himself quite broadly, as if to say “What did I tell you?”
The first building, which adjoined the reception office, was something of a disappointment as it contained nothing but copies of aviation manuals, books, and technical & maintenance references of all ages and periods. Thinking this was the whole show, I was a bit let down but kept this feeling to myself. It was, after all, a valuable repository for all sorts of priceless information regarding aircraft, even if almost all of it was in Finnish & Swedish.
We left this building and walked under the trees to the one next door: here was the real gold mine and treasure trove I had been hoping for! Row after row of artifacts awaited inspection, and among them a whole section dedicated to ejection seats from Finnish aircraft. These included two Martin-Baker (English) Mark 3B seats (relatively early productions), a seat from a Russian Ilyushin IL-28 bomber, the seat and canopy from a Russian MiG-21F bis, and one from an early English Folland Gnat jet trainer. What a great find for an old life support specialist like myself!
There were lots of other interesting items nearby, including an extremely rare World War Two German Luftwaffe oxygen mask, made by Dräger, and including the original rubber hose and component parts. This mask was the precursor design inspiration for all US Air Force pressure-demand oxygen masks produced since the war and through the 60s. A great example of the influence not only of German aeronautical design but of the innovative value of German aerospace medical achievements produced before the end of that war. There must be fewer than a handful of these masks left anywhere in the whole world, since they were manufactured from native rubber and it is only a matter of time before those which still survive are left to dry up and rot away from ozone and ultraviolet light effects. I urged the Major showing us around that this mask be specially protected in a sealed container, so that it would remain preserved.; as it was being displayed, it was simply sitting on an open table top without any protection from the air or sunlight whatsoever.
The tour concluded with a visit to still a third, somewhat larger building that gave the appearance of having originally been a hanger. Outside it was parked a MiG-17 two-seat trainer, while within were six more well-preserved Finnish aircraft around which were tucked still more displays. We spent several hours altogether admiring the many interesting things to see in this somewhat casually organised but fascinating museum, Professor K. apparently just as happy seeing all these exhibits as X and I. Finally, however, we were reluctantly able to tear ourselves away from the aeronautical displays and thanked the Major for his assistance in seeing everything. Once in our cars, we drove up the nearby road to the top of a small plateau. This, Professor K. told us, was the edge of the secret air base where Finnish aeronautical flight testing is undertaken. We got out and stood at the cyclone fencing for a while, hoping to see some aircraft come in or take off. Not long after a Draken came swooping in low on base leg, did a very fast, low turn onto the glide slope and came in hot. It was obviously a pilot of exceptional skill in the plane’s cockpit, judging from the way he rode this supersonic dragon in like a motorcycle in a tight turn.
Our appreciation was short-lived, however, since by that time the perimeter guards, armed with automatic weapons and accompanied by guard dogs, had spotted us and arrived by bicycle to tell us to clear the area. Even though we were on the other side of the security fence, they made it clear that we were not even allowed to look through the fence. Professor K. showed them his government identification as director of the national defense research labs but this produced no response from the young, earnest guards who looked a bit nervous, weapons unshouldered. I didn’t realise until Professor K. told me later that they were under orders to keep people away at any cost. Such, apparently, is a decidedly non-casual attitude towards security in otherwise friendly Finland. Those boys were indeed serious! Getting back into the cars, we drove off, back down the road and out to Professor K’s beautiful country home on a nearby lake.
The cottage, if a large, multi-bed roomed wood-log built structure built in the traditional Finnish custom can be called a cottage, was beautifully situated with a view of the lake and its own dock. Professor K. showed us around, pointed out his own smoke sauna said that next time I came through we would be his guests in it. With that, X and I said our good-byes and headed back across the Finnish forests to X’s wife’s parents’ house, just outside the city of Lahti, where we had arranged earlier to meet our wives.