USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


Our departure from Moscow (and therefore the USSR) last night was an interesting exercise in Soviet officialdom and secrecy.

We left the Cosmos Hotel at 8:00pm last night, right on schedule, to go to Sheremetyevo Airport to catch our Aeroflot flight (SU555) to Bangkok.  However, shortly after leaving the hotel, as we drove to the north-west, we drove into thick fog, just like the one the night before that had closed Moscow’s airport and diverted us to Vnukovo.  Given that we only had four hours sleep due to the fog the previous night, the prospect of a night sleeping in the airport did not appeal very much.

Our flight was scheduled to leave at 11:05pm, and in spite of the thick fog all the indications were that our flight would depart on time.  So we cleared customs and immigration – where I finally managed to do the impossible, get a USSR passport stamp from the hesitant, very frightened, but smiling young boy-man who processed us.

We boarded our plane (an Ilyushin Il-62) and taxied out at 11:20pm, only 15 minutes late.  But then some strange things began to happen.  As we taxied along, the plane accelerated and then decelerated in a somewhat jerky manner, and then when we reached the end of the runway, instead of beginning our take-off run, we taxied at a fast rate along the full length of the runway, again accelerating and decelerating.  Then we turned around, spooled up the four Soloviev jet engines to produce their distinctive harmonic high whistling sound, and then the engines just died down, then spooled up again, then down, and so on it continued.  For almost an hour this continued with no explanation or announcement.

Finally, at 12:30am, an apology came through the overhead speakers that we were waiting for the fog to clear.  Another hour passed, still at the end of the runway with the engines running, and then at 1:30am the engines were cut off and it was announced that the flight was to be delayed “due to bad weather and technical problems”.

Buses came out to the runway at 2:00am and took us back to the airport terminal.  As we disembarked down onto the tarmac, there were ambulances, fire engines, police and other cars all driving around with headlights piercing the fog, orange and blue lights flashing.  Although it was never announced as such, apparently the brakes on the plane were locking up and major repairs were needed.

From 2:15 to 3:00am we sat around, back in the semi-dark, almost deserted airport building, with no announcements about what was happening.  Then at 3:00am, someone (a passenger) shouted out something that I didn’t understand (in Swedish, I think) and I heard the words “transit hotel” rise above the cacophony of noise.  So I gathered up the others in my group (lots of others were staying behind) and followed the crowd without really knowing where we were going.

My theory and hopes were confirmed when we reached Gate 21, as I had noticed a sign on the way through mentioning that Gate 21 was the transit hotel gate.  Passports had to be surrendered again, and particulars were taken – and my anxiety rose in case the exit stamp in my passport, which should not be there, was discovered.  Eventually we were taken downstairs and put through security x-rays for the fifth time that evening (1st entering customs, 2nd entering the departure hall, 3rd entering the departure gate, 4th returning to the terminal and 5th going to the bus).  Then we boarded the bus with only our hand luggage and made our way across to the dingy, dimly-lit transit hotel.

That’s where the next experience began.  We entered the hotel under guard and we were locked in, the reason being that we had cleared immigration.  However, the lady in charge would not let us go to our rooms because the piece of paper listing our names and destinations (which were Bangkok for everyone) had been left over at the airport.  The other passengers, most of whom were Swedes (and several of whom were quite drunk) then began arguing with the lady, and then arguing and fighting among themselves.  At a little after 4:00am, I was eventually given the card to a room to share with a quite delightful Swedish pensioner who spoke very good English.

The room was quite run-down and very basic, but it had a bathroom with hot water and a good clean bed.  I was able to get four hours of fairly sound sleep from 4:15am to 8:15am – about the same as the previous night.

We were woken with a knock on the door by a woman who spoke no English, but did speak a little French (as well as Russian, I presume), and she explained that the bus would leave for the airport terminal at 9:00am.  It eventually arrived at 9:40am, and we drove back to the nearby airport, went through x-ray security again, and waited.

There was quite a backlog of flights due to the thick fog, and our flight appeared nowhere on the departure boards or screens.  My enquiries determined the gate for departure and the estimated time for departure, which was 11:00am.  Our flight never made it to the boards, but announcements directed us, and after going through one last x-ray security check for the departure lounge, we eventually boarded a replacement Ilyushin Il-62 (registration CCCP-86520) and took off at 1:10pm, 14 hours behind schedule.

Our Aeroflot flight provided one last experience of the Soviet life we had left behind us. There was one particularly loud, drunk man who spent much of the flight making obscene gestures to the women on the plane, blowing smoke from his cigarette into the faces of other passengers in the non-smoking section – and the cabin staff – who were telling him to put out his cigarette, and who stood up periodically in the aisle, singing loudly.  Flying the world’s largest airline (Aeroflot) is so innately entertaining that I can understand why no electronic in-flight entertainment needs to be provided.

Our scheduled turn around in Bangkok was 17 hours.  Fortunately, there were no delays during our transit and refuelling stop in Dubai (which replaced Bombay as our transit stopover, as we learned only after boarding the plane), so we did manage to connect with our scheduled flight from Bangkok to Sydney. 

Obviously, we missed out on our planned comfortable overnight stop in Bangkok, but there was nothing I could do about it.  It could be argued that what we had sacrificed in comfort was more than compensated for by our interesting experience – but by then we had learned that even everyday experiences in the USSR were usually “interesting”.

Rather than leaving the terminal in Bangkok, we stayed at the airport before catching our flight (a Qantas Boeing 747-400, flight QF2, registration VH-OJC).  As an aviation enthusiast, I was surprised and pleased to see an unexpected aircraft parked at one of the gates of the terminal, a British Airways Concorde.  Bangkok is not a regular destination for Concorde flights, so I presume it must have been a charter flight, as British Airways conducted these from time to time.

The presence of the Concorde reminded me of the glory days of Soviet aviation, as the USSR has a supersonic airliner too, the Tupolev Tu-144, which had first flown in December 1968, a little over two months before the first Concorde.  The Tu-144 was larger than the Concorde, and as I’ve heard Soviet people say about all Soviet airliners: “they are like Russian women – they look beautiful, but they smoke too much and are far too loud”.  The Tu-144 also had an unfortunate characteristic of crashing in flames and so they were all withdrawn from service.

Perhaps the Tu-144 is a fitting metaphor for the Soviet Union itself.

Day 16

Leaving Moscow, Russia, USSR


13 October 1991