It's been two years since I last visited the Russian Federation, and quite frankly I miss the place. The blinding red-tape, which contrasts so starkly with the wonderful welcome we often receive at the most unexpected of times, makes travelling inside this country both frustrating and rewarding. I always feel the pluses outshine the minuses however, and this trip, which I will explore in a series of articles, as usual. had liberal doses of both.
My last trip to Siberia was in 2009 and it was a fantastic journey. The main purpose of this visit was to fly on the fast disappearing Tu-154, which the Russian Government has decreed should be grounded by the end of 2012, along with the iconic An-24. Generally, the further east you go, the less Western aircraft you'll see, hence the reason I headed as far east as Siberia!
The trip started with a flight from London Heathrow to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on a BMI A330, appropriately registered G-WWBD. This would be one of my last flights on this stalwart of British Independent Airlines, before British Airways gobbled it up.
With a flight to catch on a Yak-40, due out of Moscow's Vnukovo Airport (VKO) early that same evening, a slog through the notorious Moscow ring-road rush-hour traffic was required, but we made it!
The Yak-40 aircraft is a type that has always fascinated me. It was designed as a replacement for the Li-2 and Il-14 to serve short-field grass airports, and when it first flew in 1966 was the world's first jet powered regional aircraft. The only time I used to see them in the UK, before the Iron Curtain collapsed, was during Farnborough Airshow week, when an example from the Yugoslav Air Force would usually visit RAF Northolt.
With construction work being done on some of the VKO stands, we were bussed to the business jet remote ramp, situated on the opposite side of the airport. Our bus drove around the internal perimeter road right past the government ramps and their resident, exotic aircraft, all of which were back-lit unfortunately! I did manage to get a decent shot of an Atran An-12 was we drove by, however.
We arrived at our aircraft, Yak-40 RA-88231 operated by Vologda Aviation Enterprise (VAE), and still in a basic Volga-Dnepr colour scheme, but with the added Santa Claus logo of VAE on the tail. This airframe first flew in 1976 and looked as good as new.
So, why does VAE have the Santa Claus logo on its aircraft? Well, this is the region in which the Russian equivalent of Father Christmas is said to live in. He is called Ded Moroz, which translates as Grandfather Frost, and legend has it that he lives in the town of Velikiy Ustug, with Vologda being the closest large city.
We boarded up the classic rear internal stairs into the two-plus-two, 24 seat layout. I was in the last row, which is still over the wing. The rest of the fuselage is taken up with the galley, rear stairs and engines. At start-up the engine noise was quite loud, until the cabin attendant closed the galley door, whereupon the cabin, unfortunately, became noticeably quieter.
Our flight to Vologda on VG2349 was very smooth, and in both the climb and descent phases the aircraft seemed to be handing much like a fighter jet! On final approach we slowed down to a more typical airliner speed, but just over the threshold we seemed to almost stop in the air before touching down very gently, at what seemed like no speed at all. A great demonstration of why the aircraft is obviously perfect for short airfield operations.
We disembarked via the rear stairs and were greeted by a security guy in a huge hat, who tried his best to stop us taking photos! He then led the aircraft's passengers to a side gate to exit the airport - no terminal formalities here. As other passengers were waiting to leave, while others gathered pushchairs etc, he walked the passengers away in a long, drawn-out line, allowing us to get our shots in the end.
A guy in a minibus met us in order to get in to the town and to catch our night train back to Moscow. We were obviously the only non-local people on the aircraft and his was the only vehicle outside the airfield, but he still held-up a sign to let us know who we were waiting for. We all laughed about that!
Outside the airport sat a preserved Il-18V CCCP-75518, and we took our life into our hands as we stood in the long grass to photograph it, as huge mosquitoes rose to feed on us.
So, what was the reason for getting the overnight train back to Moscow? This service is only flown twice per week and originates in Vologda, so unless we wanted to stay here another two days, it was our only option. It was an interesting 10-hour journey back all the same.photo/serial list]