I was recently asked about my experiences flying, and if I had any horror stories.  I’ve been on a lot of planes over the years, and all of them have been great. All of them, that is, except for one.  I had the honor/horror of flying on Aeroflot, the Russian National Airline nine months after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  [How I got to the U.S.S.R. can be found here.] At that time, Aeroflot didn’t have the strongest of reputations. It was an airline known for utility, not service, and I think the operating motto was “Hey, you made it alive, so it was a successful journey.”

Russian security at that time was a mixed bag.  Before I crossed over the boarder by bus from Finland, I learned that the water in St. Petersburg was not safe to drink, so I loaded up on bottled water before getting to the boarder.  At the boarder each person in my group claimed their luggage and walked it through customs, which were still very “Soviet.” Each person carried their papers through, were given a stern looking over, asked questions, and then waved on.  When I crossed over, I realized that I had not picked up my bag full of water bottles.  Being a complete cheapskate, I looked over and saw the bus parked at the gate, and my bag was sitting next to it.  Without thinking I absent-mindedly walked toward the bus, intending to pick up my bag and then come back.  As I approached the boarder guards came running out at me, with machineguns in hand, barking in Russian.  I smiled and explained that it was alright because I was just going to run back into Finland and get my water and I’ll be right back.  No harm done.  I said all of this in English.  They were not impressed.  They barked again, and pointed their guns.  I decided that I wasn’t that thirsty after all, and eventually the group moved on towards St. Petersburg.

After traveling around the city for several days, and realizing that the Cold War had not been kind, leaving it looking like a slummy Paris, we moved on, by train, into Murmansk, a city known for its nuclear submarine base.  Murmansk is quite proud of this, even going so far to incorporate the three triangle “nuclear” symbol into everything.  It showed up in the lace curtains in the hotel room, on the stems of the silverware, and even on our bed sheets.  I still periodically wonder about my health in the future due to my handful of days there.  We eventually left Murmansk, and this is where Aeroflot came into play.

We flew from Murmansk to Archangelsk and were told that because of the military importance of the area we could not take pictures.  I was saddened to hear this because, about the same time we were told I realized that the airport wasn’t so much an airport, as it was a landing strip with a few building scattered around.  We would be walking out on the tarmac and climbing up the steps to the plane.   I had never done this before and in my overly rich imagination I was immediately struck by the image of me in sunglasses waving goodbye to all the “little people,” like so many movie stars had done in black and white news reels.  Then, when we landed, I would come off of the plane, so very Presidental (more Reagan than Ford, of course.)  Alas, there would be no evidence of these, and neither of them ever happened.

When the plane landed it was not a jet, but a propeller plane.  It was stainless steel with the “Aeroflot” logo fading on the back half.  It was smaller than I expected with only three steps needed to get inside.  Had I turned dramatically to tell the nonexistent “little people” goodbye, I could have done so with a high-five, and not a dramatic “Evita” wave.  The inside of the plane was a stainless steel tube.  There were no overhead compartments, no carpeting, no galley, no restrooms.  Instead the plane was filled with rows of chairs.  These were not the normal plane seats, though.  When you sat down, the first sensation you had was that it wasn’t solid.  The seats, were made from long tubes that had been built into the frames of seats and then welded to the plane.  Then pieces of green material had been sewn together and slid down over the frames.  There were no cushions under you or against your back.  It was though you were sitting in a strange cross between patio furniture and hammock.  The seatbelts had been taken from cars, and most did not work.  We were the only people on the flight, and each person was responsible for loading their own luggage onto the plane – not under it, mind you.  We stacked it all up in the back of the plane behind the seats.

The time came for our departure, and the flight attendant in her smart 1960s red uniform complete with matching military style hat, didn’t bother with any safety announcements.  She just closed the door, sat down, buckled herself in, and lit a cigarette.  She wouldn’t get up again until we landed, and she had to open the door in Archangelsk.  I don’t know if that was the standard service or if she just didn’t care since she spoke no English, but it was a bit worrying.

With several loud BANGS the propellers slowly began to spin to life around us, and thick plumes of black exhaust floated up from behind each one.  The plane began to lurch forward.  I was relieved to know we were underway.  In the back of my mind, I half expected goats and chickens to be loaded onto the plane with us, the way things had gone so far.

The plane sped up and the engines grew louder and louder.  It was clear that the plane hadn’t been insulated for sound and the roar was deafening.  It was difficult to even hear the person sitting next to you speak.  It only got worse when we were in the air.  The wheels lifted off the asphalt and we all felt it at the same time.  A very loud and very clearly felt vibration traveled down through the plane.  A few seconds later the shutter came back.  Then again, and again, it repeated.  I touched the wall and then the floor and each time I could feel it – a strong vibration was traveling down the plane.  It eventually became clear that it was more complicated than I first thought.  The wave was circular.  It traveled down one side of the plane and then back up the other side, and repeated.  Because each of the seats were welded down, the vibrations traveled up your seat through your ass and into your back, causing each of us to react as though we had been shocked, and sit a little more upright with each passing wave.

The flight lasted under two hours.  With every passing minute my anxiety levels grew.  The vibrations were cranking up my nervous system causing me to have flashing thoughts of myself as Bill Shatner in the gremlin episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  The noise was so loud that no one could talk to distract their minds.  Beverage service wouldn’t be happening as our flight crew of one was no doubt lost in thought contemplating Chekov, tobacco, and the series of poor life decisions that lead her into a stainless steel coffin in the air with thirty American teenagers.

As I sat with my eyes closed pretending to be calm, but secretly slowly going insane with panic, the stitching of my seat/hammock slowly began to come apart and with the ripping of each stitch I slipped closer and closer to the floor.  Eventually, it snapped and I fell through the seat, looking like a toddler that has fallen into the toilet.  My knees were in my face and my feet, in the air in front of me.  I was pulled up by my friends. The flight attendant was either deep into contemplations of Tolstoy or reasoning that nuking all of America was acceptable if we were typical Americans –it was so hard to tell- and offered no help.  When I was on my feet I moved to an empty seat in the back surrounded by luggage, and rode out the last thirty minutes of the flight.

When we landed, our ears were ringing, and again we ended up on the runway.  This time, though, there was even less of an airport.  Our bus had not arrived yet, and while we waited, I noticed our flight attendant standing at the door, getting some fresh air, and lighting up another cigarette.  I figured we weren’t in Murmansk anymore, and I wanted my picture of the plane and all of us sitting on our luggage in the middle of an airport runway in northern Russia.  I had learned my lesson at the Finnish boarder, and decided I should ask.  I went up to the flight attendant and pointed to my camera, smiled politely, then waved my hand and pointed at pretty much everything, giving the international symbol for I’m going to take a picture of you and the plane and us and the airport and everything around here and if that isn’t okay, miraculously learn English and tell me to stop.  She made a face like she smelled something horrible and shrugged.  I snapped away.

That was the point at which I learned that it was far scarier to be barked at by a Russian woman who speaks English than machine-gunned soldiers.  Irena, our tour manager saw me taking the picture, and, there is no other way to describe it, she came unhinged. She gave me a dressing down the likes of which I had never experienced.  Adding to it all, one of the adults in the group, came up and every time she paused to get her breath, he would say “Yeah!” and “That’s right!”  This only served to encourage her.  I had no idea that it was illegal to take pictures at any airport and that if the wrong person saw me I could be accused of being a spy.  At first I tried to argue my out of it.  Czarina Emphysema, the flight attendant, had given me permission.  There was literally nothing around us.  No one else is here.  Irena didn’t buy any of it and threatened to take the film out of my camera, and that was when I knew I had to get out of this situation fast.  I put the camera down the front of my pants, apologized, and said I wouldn’t do it again, and turned and walked away.

A couple of weeks later we flew Aeroflot again; this time into Moscow.  The plane couldn’t have been more different.  It was modern, and gave us all the feeling that the thing wasn’t about to rip apart at the seams in mid-air.  We took off and landed on time, and it was like we weren’t in Russia at all.  Still, though, I couldn’t help thinking of our flight attendant, and I wondered how she felt about Dostoyevsky.

Follow me on Twitter @tolandtravels



Categories: Europe, Stories


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